Halloween Horror Story: “Commute”

•October 31, 2019 • Leave a Comment

[The following is my surreal horror story ‘Commute’. As it is Halloween, I thought I’d give you all a spooky, weird tale to sink your teeth into tonight. Without further adieu, have a gander. Hope you guys like it:]

Commute

By A R Aston

Genna was late.

Perennially.

It was almost a fixture of human life, eking existence through the layer cake of city living. Thousands of stumbling, thunderous feet, charging nowhere at breakneck speed. Watching the flow of people between the skyscrapers, like black blood through burst veins, it was almost hypnotic. There was a work of art in their somewhere. Yes, something simple, in charcoal and chalk. Maybe a dash of ochre just to bring out the baleful devil eyes in the stop lights? Yes, the picture in her head was a thing of beauty. She’d win awards.

But that meant standing still for a second to get her bearings. Art needed time to breathe. There was no time now. You’re late remember?

A faceless shoulder clattered into her as she paused.

“Watch it!” cursed the shoulder, an anonymous face forming out of the crowd. Beanie hat, manicured beard. The facsimile of an independent mind. The marching commuters came to life in brief blossoming flourishes when you bumped into them.

She apologised profusely, stepping back and almost swiping her portfolio folder into a pair of legs with an irate blond woman attached. Genna apologised.

The path was a thoroughfare, not a garden of contemplation. She carried on down the street. This was rush hour, she couldn’t dally.

Rush Hour. Rush Day. Rush Epoch.

She headed south down fourth street, awkwardly hoisting her portfolio under one arm as she brought her free hand to her face. Twenty past eight, the clock face proclaimed.

The time it had proclaimed the moment she had clambered out of her apartment…

Well wasn’t that just dandy; how long had her watch been stopped? It was like it conspired against her. Time was the enemy of art; it wanted rules and structure. Wristwatch, you little worm, always doing your master’s bidding, she cursed to herself.

How long would the gallery wait? She had been late, but now she was dislocated in a purgatory of potentially infinite lateness. Maybe she was five minutes late, maybe an hour? Maybe she’d woken from a coma

She frantically looked for another clock. For all she hated time, he was still her liege lord, and she still danced to his tune. She tried to reach for her phone, but it was in a pocket low on her thigh, and as she tried to reach for it, she kept getting shoved in the back or bustled past by suits with leering faces, coming to life only long enough to sneer.

She gave up, and resolved to simply quicken her pace as she weaved a jagged path through the sombre procession of commuters. Genna was not normally a confrontational person, but something in the crowd always brought it out of her. The timid would drown, cocooned by their own politeness. So yeah, she shoved, she pushed, she mouthed off at dawdling mothers with their giant bloody pushchairs. What of it? She was in a battle with Father Time, the fate of her career the vaunted prize.

She’d have ducked into a taxi, that safe yellow oasis from the melee, if she had the money. But what she did have was a subway pass app on her phone.

Yes!

Using her cumbersome folder like the prow of her own private catamaran, she sailed towards the descending stepped tongue of the subway’s maw, even as it gluttonously swallowed her fellow commuters by the hundreds.

She hated taking her folders on trains. She’d taken her easel on the Crossrail back home. How she hadn’t blinded anyone was a minor miracle. And how the irate passengers hadn’t gathered together to collectively eviscerate her for the nuisance it caused was just further serendipity.

But the rules were different on the subway. They were rolling tombs for the working dead. You could bring anything on there; as long as it fit, and provided you didn’t bloody meet anyone’s eye, you were golden. Decorum was for the punctual. The cabal of the late ones had no time for it. Or anything.

Genna made it down the first flight of stairs well enough, dodging between ear-bud zombies and those absolute madmen who stopped on the stairs to chat to people coming up the other way. But she made it, and with her portfolio remaining relatively un-crumpled. It was already starting to get hot down there. The subway’s yawning, fan-assisted breath did something to mitigate the stifling closeness, but it didn’t alleviate it. Too many people, pressed too close together.

She made another attack on her low thigh pocket as the electronic barriers loomed with clattering plastic jaws. Finally, she snatched the phone free. With an unconscious deftness of touch, she unlocked the phone and conjured the app. Key in hand, the gate yielded, and she found herself in the belly of the beast. The chattering of voices was omnipresent, a dull roar which chased away her voice. On this level, the kiosks were a maddening bazaar of charlatan vendors crying out over the din, hooking in commuters like wily fly fishermen landing salmon. Lure them in with shiny things, things the commuter though they wanted, draw them close, rob them of precious time; a vacuum wrapped sandwich and a flat bottle of coke their only recompense.

Genna’s defence against these hunters was fool proof of course; she was poor as shit. Being a starving artist wasn’t an affectation she had the luxury of abandoning. Especially if she didn’t get her work in the gallery. All that toil and strain, fretting over canvases for months, making contacts through Carl’s agent, then getting accepted for a provisional place in an exhibit. All that, undone through tardiness? It was like a waking nightmare.

No, she wouldn’t be undone by time. Not when she was so close.

Though there was no signal in the subway, her phone had a clock which still functioned. It proclaimed the time as five to eight. Time taunted her once again.

She could still make the opening now. If she kept the faith, kept the pace. She could do it. Portfolio clutched close as a drowning woman’s raft, she made for the escalators.

The escalators were steel fanged conveyors, drawing commuter meat into the underworld, inch by inexorable inch. The tunnel was narrow, a cylinder bored through the earth, clothed in clay scales and whirring advertising placards that winked knowing at the descending travellers.

Come, march to work, faster-faster, they called without words. Behold what neon wonders you can obtain, if only you got to where you were going and earned your coin. Movies, cars, love and status. Faster-faster!

Some stood still on the right of the living stairway, content to let the mechanism draw them on. These people didn’t understand the imperative of speed, apostates to the Commute. Genna charged past these dead-eyed drones, plunging down the left hand side with mechanically augmented speed.

Genna was running now, frantic, delirious. The tunnel’s mocking ads were but a dull, indistinct chorus, voiceless and hollow. The commuters before and behind her had the same energy as her. The same grim anticipation, the hunger.

Deeper and deeper they delved, into the bowels. The steady flickering and cold starkness of electrical lighting flickered down there, casting strobing, misshapen shadows across the walls. Capering, unreal orgies played in mute rapture at her passing. There was such strange beauty to what she saw down here. If only she could stop and capture it in oil and canvas. But the steady heartbeat of the rush-epoch drove her forwards relentlessly.

Faster-faster! So close now! Can’t be late!

Down and down they went. The straight trajectory of the escalators seemed to curve, alongside the tunnel. A spiral, or a helical coiling, faint and ill-defined. Genna switched escalators at several junctions, deftly navigating baby carriages and obese commuters pausing to laboriously ponder the flickering electrical schedules streaming incomprehensibly on boards dangling from the slick tiled ceiling. Genna didn’t pause, but went with the flow of people, a glider following a crowded jet stream. The mass knew where they were going. They knew where the trains would depart.

Eventually, escalators yielded to smooth flagstones, worn by countless shuffling feet. Here was an older part of the station. From here on out, the descent was made on steel stairs, spiralling like questing, burrowing tendrils. Here she could hear the pervasive sound of the trains; a roiling, distant thunder which never abated, but instead infused every part of the station with its alluring din. It was the storm which promised salvation, an arrival, and finally an end to the journey at the other terminus.

She still had time. She was glad she wore her sneakers as she scampered eagerly down the black-painted grid iron of the stairways. She could see her stilettos snagging in the gaps, and spilling her broken down the tunnel. Then where would she be? A mewling, twisted thing, suckled dry by medical debt. No, she’d been wise this morning. A patient hunter who knew her quarry. A dextrous Sherpa, navigating her journey confidently, all the way—

Which terminal was this?

She didn’t recognise this place, with its yellow painted steel pillars. Only a couple of tracks, not the expansive hub she’d expected. Was this a flush terminal off main street? She’d go turned around somewhere, hadn’t she? She whirled about, almost flattening a score of equally baffled commuters. Their frowning eyes shattered their collective delirium, and for a moment, suddenly they were people. Hey barked complains, arguing with one another like a chattering parliament without adjournment.

That was the way I always go.

I was following you.

Well I was following you, numb nuts!

I’ve a meeting!

I can’t be late!

Look, keep the faith.

Screw you man!

Hey buddy, fuck you.

Look, if we just step back a minute, we can—

If we just get on this train when it gets here, we can get off at the next stop and get our bearings.

I’ve a meeting too, you don’t hear me being a jerk about it!

I’m never making it to work now.

Goddamn line improvements. What was wrong with the old lines, that’s what I say.

 

And on and on this went. Genna couldn’t follow it. She just moved. Frenetic energy kept her going. If she stopped, she’d lose hope. Stop swimming, you sink. Sharks are never late. Never early either, but fuck it. There was an announcement over the speakers; a fuzzing, half-heard psalm of mediocre placation. Genna heard about one word in three, but it was enough.

“… apologies… inconvenience… number forty-five… jumper on track… alternate…tform sixteen… follow… yellow arrows…”

Genna took off at a sprint, before the other milling sheep quite deciphered the scripture barked down at them from on high.

Yellow arrows. Follow them. The path to salvation. Genna pushed her way through the press, a knight in a melee, her portfolio her swinging shield, her shining sword. She followed the path of the platform, careful not to transgress and cross the painted line. A train wouldn’t be coming this route, but she still didn’t relish the tumble onto the electrical jaws of a live train track.

The tiling on the walls of the platform were like strange, intricate mosaics, dazzling in their beauty and complexity. The yellow arrows hadn’t been painted on like she’d assumed, but neatly incorporated into the flowing tableau with jaundiced ceramics, swirling darts a passer-by might miss in their eagerness to get to work. But Genna had an artist’s eye, her secret weapon. She was still the Sherpa, the seasoned explorer. This was her realm. It was as if the message had been for her alone.

Psst, Genna, follow the yellow arrows. Let the other dullards totter about with desolate eyes. This is your time. Today is gallery day. Your day. Hurry now, and you won’t be late.

Promises, promises.

She followed the platform, before veering off through the labyrinth of connecting tunnels, ignoring the dead eyed advertisements blindly calling to her without voice or potency. The yellow arrows were all. The lost commuters congregated here, stumbling like beggars. Their clothes were shabby, they reeked of sweat and stale bagels, shoes worn to nubs with their constant shambling march. Genna avoided them. They’d stop her to ask directions. They were parched vampires, digging in their claws, draining her of time and urgency. They chattered at each other, pawing at maps like simple animals. When one band of the lost encountered another, they chattered excited, brandishing their maps and clamouring for direction, for any semblance of guidance. When it became clear none was forthcoming, excitement curdled to affronted pride and indignation. Then to violence. Their confused, angry shouting echoed the halls, a counterpoint to the resonant clatter-boom of the trains. Genna should have called security, but finding a phone or flagging a steward down now would take time.

Time’s knew plan to thwart her wouldn’t work. Not this time. The others might be lost, but she wasn’t. She was Theseus with Ariadne’s golden thread, drawn inexorably to platform sixteen.

It was quiet there, save the omnipresent rumble of the trains moving through the deep. Not many commuters, though the ones that were well-dressed, elite in their bearing. They waited patiently on benches bolted to the platform, parallel to the buzzing train line. Genna looked to the schedule, a chalkboard etched with the estimated time of arrival for the diverted train. Five minutes. Not long.

It was okay to stop then. She’d secured her passage now, and could take stock. She settled into one of the benches, beside one of the well-dressed station dwellers. His suit was pinstriped perfection, his hair and moustache slick and well-maintained. Not just hipster smart, but fine like a razor’s edge. The man spared her a moment’s glance, his grey intelligent eyes flickering intermittently between the track and his Rolex. Well, it might have been a Rolex; it was a ticking brass ornament really. His briefcase was one of those old style leather things, with brass latches.

He had a serious expression etched into sharp features. The sort of guy who’d make for a good portrait. Strong, handsome lines.

“Lotta lost boys out there”’ she began. “Hell of a morning, huh?”

He nodded, distracted. “Sure thing.”

“How long you been waiting?”

“A while.”

Blood from a stone, this one…

Still, time had given her a reprieve from the commute. She’d make the most of it. She persevered.

“I’m Genna.”

“Yup.”

“And you?”

“I’m not Genna, no.”

She smiled. “Funny guy. Where you from?”

“New England.”

“Okay, that narrows it down…” she replied dryly.

“Benjamin.”

“What?”

“My name. I’m guessing that’s where you were going with this.”

“Efficient.”

“Yup.”

Genna sighed.

For a while, they sat in silence. Genna cradled her portfolio between her knees, as she scanned the platform around her. It was a cosy place, compared to most stations. Reminded her more of the underground in London, all enclosed with its quaint little signs and low ceilings. Homely, welcoming, the station almost felt cloying. Everyone on the benches looked as bemused as her, when they weren’t checking their watches. A most pleasant waiting room before the gallows. Tension and comfort in eerie dichotomy. The tunnel mouth yawned wide with stygian jaws, a black so deep it seemed to feed on the steady orange glow of the homely platform.

Suddenly, Benjamin turned her way, his statuesque features scrutinising. “Do you have the time?”

She frowned. “My watch doesn’t work. I’ll check my phone okay?”

He stared at her blankly.

Genna snatched up her phone. A dead black tablet of obsidian. “Shit. Battery’s dead.”

Benjamin just looked even more confused.

He was about to say something else, when the throaty growl of an approaching juggernaut chased away all other thoughts. Salvation came on swift, sparking rails. Twin lights shone in the darkness, as the tunnel mouth vomited forth its silver-skinned tongue. The train came to a rattling halt, doors squealing pen on rusted hinges.

Benjamin bolted from his seat, so fast he forgot his briefcase. Genna leapt after him, thrust his briefcase into his hand. She hadn’t even a chance to let go of the briefcase. Benjamin dragged her forwards forcefully, into the waiting jaws of the train. She let him; he was one of the quick commuters. The chosen few. Still, the urgency in his eyes worried her.

“Cool it, we’re on.”

“Can’t you hear it? They are coming.”

“Who?”

“The lost.”

At first she thought it the thunder of the trains, but the ruckus she heard now was more chaotic; the din of a thousand voices overlapping one another, heedless and deranged. They charged the train as one, a tactile mass of conjoined human bodies. They ploughed into the yawning doors, swiftly filling up the cabin within. They fell over one another to reach the train. They wanted to get on a train, any train at this point.

Some of the platform sixteen elite were dragged from their seats, swamped and screaming under the mass of heaving bodies. Benjamin and Genna fought a fighting retreat to the back of the cabin, swatting down encroaching commuters with frantic swipes of the briefcase. Soon enough, they were too deep into the train carriage to be evicted by the lost. Instead, they were pressed against the window by the helpless commuters pushed forwards by the impulse of the ones behind. Genna felt her lungs compressing under the strain. Lights danced behind her eyes as the press of flesh grew tighter. Benjamin was a bulwark, but he was crumbling fast, eroded by the sea of ragged souls. Any longer and they’d both be crushed.

Mercifully, the doors closed, stemming the flesh tide.

A bloodcurdling wail went up from one of the lost outside. She’d almost made it in, her left arm and breast clamped tight in the jaws of the closed door. The lost inside were too constricted to reach her, the ones outside didn’t care, hammering their fists bloody against the metal sides of the train in mindless frustration.

Slowly, inevitably, the train began to move. Slow at first, but building in momentum. The platinum blonde lost woman began to walk with it at first, then when she stumbled she began to be dragged. Her screams of frustration became shrieks of terror. The train began to plunge into the other tunnel’s waiting mouth, rattling forth on its mechanical pilgrimage. Genna watched on helplessly. The woman clawed and struggled, gnawing at her arm like a rat caught in a trap. Genna had a sick feeling of inevitability crawl up and die in her throat. She saw the future then, with horrid clarity.

The train surged into the tunnel, and her screams cut off, ended by a wet, tearing sound. In the darkness of the carriage, there was a thud as her arm fell to the floor. Once the train door finally closed properly, the internal lights flickered into life, leaving the tunnel outside as cloying, indistinct darkness.

The lost by the doors were speckled red, still yelling and arguing with one another. They hadn’t even looked at the arm. They kicked the limp thing between their legs as they jostled for position.

Genna blinked back tears. She

Oh God oh god oh god! Genna wanted to scream, vomit, shriek her horror into Benjamin’s face till her throat was raw. Time had claimed her, in the most permanent way possible. That couldn’t be Genna. Wiping her stinging eyes, she focussed instead on the route ahead. If she looked back she was Eurydice, whisked into shadow, never to escape this underworld. She had to call the cops. Call someone. But there was another voice, a parallel imperative, which gnawed at her mind.

You can still make it, it whispered. Tentative. Seductive. You are not late. Not yet.

She was trapped, standing beside Benjamin as the train shook her bones. She felt like a capsule, pulsing through the bowels of a titan’s digestive tract. Enclosed and molten, flowing without direction. Always before, it had been her choice to flow with the crowd. Now, the crowd was enslaved to the will of the train, and she was just another piece of flesh pressed into the steel bullet, hurtling to a destination she could only hope led out.

Occasionally the darkness outside retreated, platforms emerging from the gloom, islands in the stygian sea. Many were filled with the lost, torn to pieces in their desperate frenzy. Others were filled with beds and tents, refugees of the commute huddled together beneath the ruddy gleam of oil lanterns.

The driver’s voice buzzed from speakers in the roof, but it was even more distorted than before. It was just a noise, syllables falling over themselves to be heard, rendered into anonymous nonsense by the sharp-edged hiss of the radio static. Was he naming stations, elucidating them on recent delays, or was he preaching the secret words that would end the world? Impossible to tell. More impossible still to care.

Just get me there. Gallery day. My day. My day!

She drew Benjamin in close, fumbling for his watch. She needed to know the time. She was still an addict. She needed it, after everything, she needed it.

Ten past eight.

That wasn’t right. It had to have been longer. Much longer.

“What is this Ben? Huh?” she hissed in his ear, close enough for her lips to brush his cheek.

He turned, pressing cheek to cheek. She couldn’t see his eyes.

“I asked you the time. My watch stopped too. I told you, didn’t I?”

Her world was crumbling. “No, I have time. I’m not late yet! I can’t be!”

“It’s quarter to nine, numbnuts!” someone else cursed. “My clock ain’t stopped! Plenty of time!”

“Yeah, I checked too!”

“Me too!”

“Time aplenty! Not far now!”

The chorus went on, taken up by the ragged voices of the commuters entombed with her. It should have reassured her, but it didn’t. Time had something planned. He always did, didn’t he? The blind watchmaker, with everyone dancing to the tick of his clocks.

The next platform was ready for them. The moment they surged past them, the commuters behind the white line launched their attack. The windows shattered, crude bladed hooks latching on. They hauled on ropes of woven hair. The train trumpeted in pain, its wheels screaming as the grapnels were dragged along its flank. Men and women within screamed, desperately clawing at the hooks as they ripped open the flanks of the train. Men and women tumbled out into the darkness, squelching under wheels or colliding with the concrete platform outside.

Heretics from the passing platform disobeyed the sacred lines, jumping into the wounded train, even as it continued to scream towards the sanctuary of the tunnel ahead. Men and women fought like animals, teeth and fingernails rending flesh. They were no longer people, but a crowd, inhuman and callous as any great machine, churning and grinding folk to paste between their jaws. The interlopers wore hoods made form fluorescent orange road worker vests, their skin blackened by soot and grease. They lay about them with bone clubs, frantic and desperate. Through sheer numbers, the train riders forced the interlopers off. Genna heard them crunch, one after another, as they toppled into the inky black.

Yet, the darkness was not complete. It was lit by staccato flashes, sparking electrical surges like distant lightning storms. Then came the orange flickering.

Fire. The train was on fire!

Before she knew it, Genna was out of the train, stumbling through the dark, choking on cloying smoke. She clung onto Ben’s briefcase with both hands, trusting to the last of the elites to lead her out of the underworld.

Don’t look back Ben, she thought. She willed her Orpheus onwards.

Spluttering and soot-blackened, they crawled out of the tunnel at the next platform. Benjamin’s suit was torn and ragged as any of the lost. Genna had lost her jacket, reduced to tank top and jeans, scuffed sneakers stuffed with bloodied, blistered feet.

Bleary-eyed, she scanned the signs of the platform. They were plastered with alternate train routes and timetables, but they’d been defaced and graphitized with years of accumulated vandalism. Genna crawled on her hands and knees, weeping quietly to herself.

Benjamin, bless his heart, hauled her to her feet.

“Look! Look, do you see them?”

She looked around, squinting through the smoke and the dull red of emergency lighting.

“Look Genna, arrows! Yellow ones, and red! Black and white ones too. We follow one, they must go somewhere! We still have time!”

Genna nodded dumbly, and let him drag her forwards. He seemed so animated, finally alive with purpose. He was feverish as she had been once. He kept the faith, and he looked beautiful for it. She resolved to follow his example.

Beyond the tracks, the labyrinth stretched out in countless configurations, a subterranean conurbation of maddening complexity. The lights guttered and died here, spluttering with sparks that cast strobe phantoms across the walls.

One of the commuters had a lighter, and soon torches made from burning rags doused in accelerant were passed around the group. Surrounded by this faltering illumination, they set off following the beckoning arrows.

In the deathly gloom, shadows lengthened, fingers becoming ghoulish claws, legs spindly as wire. The rattling of trains became a relentless boom boom boom. The beating of a heart, the lifeblood of a beast.

There was no up here, and every arrow pointed towards corridors ever spiralling down, deeper still. Some broke and rushed for any upwards stairs. Their breathless panting echoed through the station. Then, all at once, it stopped, and only the heartbeat remained. No one else deviated. The path was all.

Keep the faith, and you’ll not be late. There was a way out, they just had to find the train.

They moved through the station like tomb-breakers, but through a crypt meant for them. Other groups of lost commuters passed them by. They were more dishevelled than them, clutching the walls with desperate earnestness. Their flat caps, string vests and elaborate dresses were faded rags, bleached by centuries in the deep. The last group they met at a crossroads. The arrows pointed in all four directions.

“There was a cancellation!” a man with broken glasses proclaimed, grasping Genna by the arms. “But the stewards are showing us where to go. They have a guy; he knows where we all need to get to. Come, come with us! They can help you too!”

Benjamin dragged him off, out more and more commuters were appearing from the northward pathway, heading south. The platform sixteen elite were eventually pulled along with them, leaves caught in a riptide current. The commuters were herded through passages ever-narrowing, constricting. There was rubble too, making the pathway treacherous underfoot. Soon they were crawling, hands and knees, through the grime and the sulphur. Genna couldn’t find her portfolio folder. When had she last had it? Platform sixteen? She couldn’t go back now, the impetus of the crowd driving her forwards. The gallery wouldn’t mind her not having her new pieces. They already had enough of her old canvases to fill an exhibit. But what would they think of her coming without her new pieces? No confidence in her work they’d say, that’s what.

But she would be there to hear them say it. That much she was certain of.

They reached a platform bathed in demonic emergency lighting. Men in orange hoods were waiting to greet them. Genna was dragged by her arms from the hole, and hauled over the edge into the trench where the train tracks lay. Halfway inside the tunnel, a dead train languished, its running lights faded, its engines silent. It looked like a dining car for a cross country steamer, and indeed what looked like a wedding party was on board, cramming their faces with stale finger food. Before the carriage’s impassive iron face, bare-chested supplicants placed their hands.

Genna tried to climb back out, but hooded overseers lashed her with cables they’d ripped out the walls. They lashed Benjamin ten times worse, till he lay bloodied and weeping at her feet. Others were thrown in behind her. Soon, she had her hands on the men in front of her, and those behind her laid theirs on her shoulder. The overseers whipped them, and the chain gang began to push.

“The forty seventh is leaving the station!” a man bellowed. Somewhere, a whistle blew.

They began to push. The stink of sweating bodies filled her nostrils with a foul perfume, the pressure on her shoulders made her gasp and vomit. The toes of her sneakers were worn out, and she felt the hot flow of blood from her abused feet. The bite of the cable whips were lances of fire, spearing through her spine. Inch by torturous inch, the train began to move. Once it started, the pushing became easier, but the pain never did.

“The train is delayed. Estimated time of arrival, nine thirty. Hurry now, hurry. Time’s a-wasting!”

That voice again. A powerful, masculine voice, but old. It was like an ancient cannon, rusted but still capable of roaring the song of the battlefield.

Deeper into the tunnel, there was almost no light. Even the fluorescent strips on the workmen vests the overseers wore couldn’t shine without a source of light to reflect. She could only tell they were still there by the sporadic sound of whipped commuters screaming for mercy.

“Don’t listen to these men. They are heretics of the line. They disobeyed the conductor, and he left them down here for their transgressions,” someone whispered beside Genna. An older woman with a soft voice, like warm candle wax. “They don’t know where we’re going. They are latecomers. They live here. The commute is not for them.”

More whippings behind. More screams.

“I know a man who works here. He’s a scheduler. He knows where every destination is. He’s got a map, and he knows where everyone needs to be to get to where they’re going,” the old woman panted. “We just need to reach him.”

“What do we do?” Genna hissed.

“Wait until the next scream. It will mask our passing.”

“Passing?”

“These tunnels are dark, but not empty. Wide spaces either side of the tracks. Not many know the routes. But I do. I can smell my way. When the screams come, run left.”

Genna didn’t know who to trust. Everyone promised her more time, more shortcuts and ways to cheat Time. Was this another false prophet?

It didn’t matter. She could march no further, and would suffer no more whippings.

When the next scream came, she did as she was bidden. She bolted from the pack, and rushed headlong into shadow. She reached out, and closed her hand around the bony paw of the other runner.

She saw nothing. She heard nothing, save the rumble of forgotten trains above, and the heavy clattering of her own sprinting footfalls. The air was cool down there, without the cloying press of bodies. Genna was adrift in a great void, and the only other thing in existence was a hand, attached, she presumed, to an old woman.

How long had she been down here? A minute? A day? Had eons passed her by? Could she recall the touch of the sun, or the taste of rain? Had there ever been a surface? The lost believed, so fervently. But were these just fancies, conjured up by an artist’s feverish mind?

No. This was insanity talking. This was just time, distracting her. The flame of her soul felt doused, her head numbed and full of static fuzz. Without a frame of reference, or even a watch with which to observe the passing droplets of eternity, she was dislocated. She was at once late and early, trapped in a limbo of uncertainty. Her only lifetime to the surface lay in the shrivelled metacarpals she clutched in her right hand.

The landscape changed subtly. Walking became harder as she felt the increase of incline. This was a form of ascension, modest though it was.

“The hoods won’t follow us Genna. They fear the rats that bite,” whispered her guide.

Now Genna feared them too. All of a sudden, she was not in a void. There were eyes out there. Hungry, gnawing swarms of them. Skittering footfalls at the edge of perception set her teeth on edge.

In the distance, an island of wan light appeared, an oasis on the horizon of a depthless inky sea. Like moths they were drawn to it. The approaching light sculpted the form of the old woman before Genna, rendering the kindly mystic real and solid, no mere ephemeral whisper in the dark. Her grey hair was tied in a loose ponytail, and her striped beatnik garb was faded and torn. She was like an old photograph left bleached in the sun. But her grip was firm, and her step was sure and unerring, which made following her seem the sanest thing in Genna’s rapidly disintegrating world.

This was a woman who knew how to get to the gallery. She would see Genna there on time.

“Come on Genna, nearly there. We can still make it.”

The island of light came from an oil lamp, embedded in an alcove beside a set of ornate looking wooden doors. The latch was rusted to nothingness, so the doors swung open easily with a touch.

The old woman stepped into the confines of the chamber beyond with the reverence of a supplicant before a sacred sepulchre. The corridor ahead closed around her. There was a tang on the air, a spice. The way ahead was lit by regular lanterns set into the walls. These walls were daubed in symbols, patterns she vaguely recalled, painted in things less wholesome than paint or blood. She wrinkled her nose, biting back the revulsion which threatened to engulf her.

Eventually, the two of them emerged into a wider chamber with a high-vaulted, hexagonal ceiling. Art was pinned to the walls, but she didn’t even look at the canvases at first. The thing at the centre, lit by tallow candles, swallowed her attention entirely.

It was a city, rendered in miniature.

No, not just a city. Her city. She bestrode the edifice as a giantess. Instead of water, the island settlement was surrounded by a bubbling brown mire of fluid. Sniffing it, it was clearly soda; countless thousands of bottles of the mass-produced venom had been emptied to fill this model. Circling the edge of the monument, Genna knelt down to peer at the buildings more closely.

The detail was unimaginable, bordering on the sublime. Each pale white structure was a perfect rendition, a pale and ghostly counterpart to the ones above. The artist in her pondered just what material they could be carved from, to produce such mind-boggling detail. All she could think of were the famous Chinese ivory sculptors. But how could an artist source so much ivory for—

It was not ivory, she realised with a start.

Bones. Countless hundreds of bones. Whittled with exacting care for what must have been decades. Even longer. Dread settled into the pit of her stomach like some bloated, gnawing worm. Hands to her mouth, she looked to the centre of the ossified city, where the artist squatted.

Famine-thin and naked as the day he was spawned, he hummed to himself as he worked, a tiny chisel and hammer clutched in his long, tapering fingers.

“This is Genna. The one I promised,” said the woman.

With aching slowness, the bone sculptor raised his bowed head, turning it Genna’s way. His mouth was too wide, lipless, like a ragged wound carved into bare flesh. When he smiled, it was ear to ear. And when he glared at her, it was without eyes, for the ruddy sockets which beheld her were utterly and terribly empty. Genna flinched away, nearly cracking her skull against the wall behind her.

“Don’t be afraid Genna. He knows where you are going. Don’t you?”

He nodded, his diabolic rictus fixed in place.

“How… how do you know my name…?” Genna wept.

The old beatnik put her hand against her heart. “Oh sweetness. So humble.”

This is gallery day… my day…” croaked the blind sculptor. Languidly, he reached out and plucked one of his scrimshawed creations between his fingers. It was the gallery, perfectly rendered in polished bone.

She fell to her knees, the world whirling about her.

The old woman approached Genna, but she scuttled to the furthest corner of the hexagonal room.

“We know you because you signed them Genna. All of them. We are big fans…”

Genna peered around at the art pinned to the walls. It was hers; everything from the portfolio. Her abstract Spiral into Dissolution, her stylised Pharaoh’s Toll, depicting Egyptian slaves toiling in the shadow of the pyramids. Even some of her portrait work, including one patrician subject who looked so much like Benjamin; it was all there. The canvases were mouldering in the corners, speckled with imperfections and faded with age, but all distinctly hers.

Genna wailed till her lungs were raw, and her eyes stung.

“You don’t have to be afraid anymore,” the woman cooed, kneeling down beside her. Genna didn’t even resist those old, clammy hands as they closed around her shuddering shoulders.

“You should rejoice. This is your day… you’re just in time.”

 

END

Guien Lore – The Cannibal Goddess of Tureq: Kelish the Red

•October 8, 2019 • Leave a Comment

(Here we are again friends, with another piece of lore I wrote for Guien, the world of The Hobgoblin’s Herald. I hope one day to compile these into a series of appendices to add to the end of the completed Guien Sequence of novels.)

 

The Cannibal Goddess of Tureq: Kelish the Red

By Lady Betheny Agredda

 

Some of my readers may be surprised I am covering this topic. I have professed on many occasions that my works on Guien history mostly concern aspects of Guien unknown to the lay Katahian; tales of distant lands and faraway, forgotten cultures. But Kelish the Red? Every child in Katahia knows who the bloodhungry goddess of the Tureqi hordes. Kelish is the goddess of the Kustorik. It is likely many Eastlander Katahians know Kelish by sight; a many-armed demoness on a red flag, her Kelishei priestesses capering alongside grim shield walls of Kustorik raiders as they march up the beach to raid farms and steal our treasures.

However, merely seeing a god is not the same as knowing one, and with regards Kelish the Red, we as a people know very little about her. The sermons of the Selmy Priests are not reliable, their oral retellings of history diluting the truth through the filter of a hundred thousand voices across millennia. I aim to delve deep, and present to you, my dear readers, as close to the true image of the savage war goddess as I can.

But first, let us look at the Selmyra accounts, for comparison if nothing else.

In their histories, Selmyra and Kelish were contemporaries, and were both born mortal. In the forests of Yond was where the Nameless Gods first spoke to humanity, and the first man to do so was Selmyra himself, fashioning a following of likeminded priests and wizards to commune with the Nameless gods and learn the Secret Truths of all existence. In some versions, Kelish was Selmy’s second in command, in others she was his wife and lover. In both cases, it is said that while the Gods* resided in all things, from the trees to the soil to the mountains and the birds, Kelish grew to believe that the most potent concentration of divine power resided within the lifeblood of living things, particularly in humans. She further grew to believe the taking of blood from another passed their power and potency onto you, and that she could bind and summon the gods to do her bidding.

She performed her blasphemous rituals at a dark lake which would one day take her name. She and her cultists slaughtered thousands, and Selmyra and his faithful departed her cursed lands, to seek a chosen land for his people to achieve true enlightenment. This realm was Katahia, apparently.

There is a lot going for this story of course. The fact the Yondsmen look surprisingly similar to Katahians, being pale and with lots of yellow and red-haired folks amongst them. However, there are contradictions. Kelish is described as being the mother of demons, who wished to turn herelf into a goddess. However, in these same legends, she is taught sorcery by ‘strangers from the shadows’ and that she was the high priestess of the Utterdark. She is both the devil and the devil’s consort simultaneously, the author of black magic and had to be taught it.

This seems to be an attempt to explain away why the people of the Yond rejected the Selmy religions in favour of a foreign creed imported by outside invaders; the self-same ‘strangers from the shadows’ perhaps?

Also in the Selmy faith, Kelish is dead, slain long ago by her own traitorous allies, and buried somewhere in those cursed Yondish woods. Is she a god or a corpse? The Tureqi never mention her dying in any of their texts, and if she was dead, you’d expect the Tureqi themselves to use her bones as relics or loci for their spells. And yet, there is no body, there are no bones.

I spoke of the Tureqi version of Kelish, so now let us look at their mythology.

The Tureqi are often considered cultureless savages, a barbarian horde whose only purpose is to tear down civilisation and devour its corpse. The last few centuries of on and off warfare between the Tureqi Hordes and the rest of the continent of Oellir would seem to bear this out. However, looking closer, we see a complex and multi-facetted culture, with many different tribes and creeds, each with their own cultures. The one unifying aspect of their peoples is the worship of Kelish the red.

Paradoxically, the infamous Goddess of War is a source of harmony amongst the blood-hungry rabble.

Most Tureqi believe Kelish was not born a mortal, but was a Goddess drawn to Guien by the smell of spilled blood. She arose, full-formed and naked from Kelish Lake. That was where her first name came from; ‘The Red Queen of Kelish Lake’. She became enamoured with the courage of men and their mighty feats of arms. She went amongst the mortal tribes, mastering every weapon ever made by man. Those men she found worthy, she married and sired mighty sons and daughters. Those unworthy, she killed, and bathed in their blood.

Each of her partners became the founders of the original tribes of Tureq; Tarn the Wild for the Tarnzaks, Yoruk the Green for the Yondsmen, Vorda the Tall for the Longshanks, Juk Swiftbow for the Naljuks, Gul Blackblood of the Gullards, and Rauk the Cannibal of the Klor.**

Kelish is always looking for new foes to fight, and new husbands with which to sire new peoples. Her followers believe her magical blood flows directly in their veins, especially within their priestesses. To waste Kelish’s blood is a vile sin, but to spill an unbeliever’s blood is divine.***

In this way, the faith of the Red Goddess is a proselytizing cult, expanding its worshippers violently. It is conversion at the tip of the sword in many cases; worship Kelish or have your skull and genitals nailed to the feet of her great altar.

There are interesting regional variations in the depiction of Kelish. The older Naljuk traditions, I am told, have Kelish depicted as some predatory centaur-like creature, Red-One-Running. The Gullards depict Kelish in art having great bat-like pinions, almost gargoyle-like. The Longshanks of Murderpeak have merged her likeness with that of an apocalyptic primordial god they once worshipped. In their stories, she is a giantess, beautiful and tall as the sky, who eats fifty men a day. Murderpeak itself, according to accounts brought back by brave explorers, is said to be an extinct volcano, which retains a caldera shaped like a jagged stone mouth which the Longshanks toss their captured foes into as sacrifice. Perhaps this is the basis for their Cannibal Queen?

It is prophesized by the Kelishei priestesses that one day Kelish will slay all the other gods. So often, the Lord of Travesties in our own histories come from the Tureqi tribes, mainly because their religion already sets Kelish up as the enemy of the rest of the world, and thus the Anax of her people will become her champion.

At first, it seems odd that the very masculine and savage chieftains of the Tureqi would have such a matriarchal religion uniting them.

However, do not be fooled.

Consider the image of Kelish; a many-armed queen, beautiful, eternally young and naked save for her belt of scabbards, forever bathed in blood, with the antlers of a prize stag rising from her crown, long barbed tongue flicking about her predator’s teeth. Kelish the Red is a fetishization of sex, war and hunting; everything that the Tureqi savages cherish. And because she is female, the chieftains are not threatened, and can each vie for the position of Anax, often depicted as Kelish’s betrothed. Kelish the Red is more a prize than a ruler in her own right.****

Unlike many faiths of Guien, the creed of the Cannibal Queen cannot coexist with the civilised races of the world. It must be uprooted wherever it is found, or else Kelish the Red will strangle the culture of all peoples, and plunge Guien into a perpetual, self-fulfilling war.

*(The ‘gods’ in these stories are synonymous with the Sprites, the magical beings said to be the basis for all magic in Guien, according to my Thorn Wizard friends)

**(You will note the Kustorik and the Stork Riders are omitted; this is deliberate. Remember that the river warriors of the Kustor are only recent converts of Kelish, with many tribes still keeping to old gods. Meanwhile, the Stork Riders have never been a true tribe of the Tureqi, more the unfortunate victims and unwilling accomplices of the Mesmer Storks themselves.)

***(The Kelishei are said to have such potent magical blood, that when they perish, their bodies must be burned. If not, the dead blood in their veins loses its divinity, and reanimates the corpse as the most dreadful creature in all Tureqi mythology: a vampyre. These deathless monsters tear apart humans, drinking their blood in the hopes of re gaining their divine power. It is said the only way to kill a vampyre is by fire. Even beheading them will not end their evil. I can scarce imagine a monster so evil even Tarnzak Wildmen fear them. It chills the blood.)

****(A more unambiguously empowered goddess would be The Tyael of the Aelf. The Star-Queen is a little different however, in that she is a living being who actually resides within Aelfhalt. She is worshipped by many on the Starfallen Coast, and (perhaps heretically) might be the inspiration behind Thelwynd the Gold, the Achevin mother goddess of the Alloyed Pantheon.)

[Please note: At the squeamish request of my publishers in Hustroplis, I have removed most of my sketches of Kelish, due to her commonly being depicted without clothes, often whilst in the process of dismembering someone. This tends to make the proper ladies blush, so I’m told. Should any of you visit Old-Hold however, I would be happy to have my staff carve you some woodcuts of said sketches.]

Eater of Names Release day, and thoughts on writing a novel series.

•September 4, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Good evening my lovelies. Today is the day that the long-awaited sequel to The hobgoblin’s Herald finally hits the shelves (the proverbial, virtual shelves of amazon).

Click here to get a copy of the paperback from the Amazon store.

Oddly, I am perhaps more excited for Eater of Names than I was when The Hobgoblin’s Herald, my debut fantasy novel, was first released.Now let me try to articulate why.

I have written several novels and many short stories and novellas, many of which have been published. The majority of my published works have been one off stories and standalone tales, which hint at a wider world. I tend to try and put in hooks and hints at further stories to be told in a setting, for the precise hope that a serial can be sprung from the narrative.

In the Hobgoblin’s Herald, I wrote the book specifically as the first chapter in an ongoing story, which I’d already laid out in Three Volumes.* Fortunatley, the gamble paid off when I managed to sell Fox Spirit Books on the premise, and got Hobgoblin published. I love Hobgoblin, and I think it tells a great twisted coming of age story for the eponymous Herald herself, as a quick-witted poacher’s daughter learning to survive within the ranks of the hobgoblins. The secondary characters and their arcs are not as prominent in Herald as in many ways this is a scene-setting story, where the world-spanning plot is secondary to Mallory’s narrative.

In Eater of Names, Mallory and her hobgoblin ‘friends’ are finally thrust into the wider conflict, and I get a chance to truly begin exploring the rest of Guien in all its twisted, grandiose and perplexing glory.

As any regular reader of this blog will realise, I am a worldbuilder, and in particular I have so much lore and histories already written, which has often spilled over into various snippets of Guien history in this very blog. While Eater certainly expands the world, what excites me most is that I got to expand the characters, cementing this ongoing story as a real ensemble. Some of my favourite new characters debut in Eater of Names, and carry the story into unexpected directions. In particular, I await with excitement and trepidation how the character of Rhana Khurvella will be received. I won’t say anything more for fear of spoilers; read the book to learn more.

Overall, I’m most excited for Eater of Names, because as a book it is a promise of a continuing narrative, that the journey I set my readers on in Hobgoblin has a destination, one which I hope will enthrall and surprise, in all the best ways.

 

PS: Keep an eye on for further blog posts. I have plans afoot; perhaps more Guien Lore snippets, perhaps some reviews of books and TV I’ve been watching recently which are currently thrilling me. Watch this space.

*(though recently, the third volume is likely to be split, as I realised once I wrote the third book, it was over twice as long as the other two, and has a rather natural point in the middle which would be ideal for a split.)

Tenbar the Terror: The Life and Crimes of Turic Bay’s Reaver Lord

•January 26, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Tenbar the Terror: The Life and Crimes of Turic Bay’s Reaver Lord

By Lady Betheny Agredda of Old-Hold

 

 

Turic Tenbar is perhaps the most well-known warrior in all Katahia, behind Earl Thaddeon the Wyvernlance or my own good sister, Lady Hera Agredda. However, he is also one of the most misunderstood. For instance, Turic bay was not named after him as some assume. Nor is he an Earl.

On a meagre spit of coastal land between Stelhold and Hustroplis Bay lies the county of Turic. It is comprised mainly of the fishing town which bears the same name, and a handful of farms and feudal dependants. But a few short decades ago, the Viscounts of Turic were but a minor vassal of the Stelhold Earldom, and a house of little renown. It was the sort of place which might easily have vanished between the margins of a history book.

This all changed with the coming of Tenbar, perhaps the most infamous pirate to have ever sailed the tumultuous Guien seas. Within these pages I hope to elucidate how such a man became so entwined with the high and mighty of Katahian courtly life.

The story of his ascension began with deprivation. There have been multiple biographies written on Tenbar, many contradicting each other, some even commissioned by the pirate himself. Most agree on his origin at least. He was a pauper from a villein family in Eastern Katahia during the early reign of King Aaren’s father. He absconded from his village without the local knight’s permission, and joined as a boy sailor on a merchant crew. He evidently learned much about sailing and seamanship from these early voyages, and rose quickly in the ranks. Maritime professions are almost always meritocracies by necessity; a commission bought by one’s wealthy uncle won’t help you govern the numerous intricacies of a working sea vessel.

He moved from ship to ship, crew to crew, travelling across Tibari, Vorn and elsewhere around Oellir’s wild coastlands. It seems in his late twenties, his hunger for power and prestige led him to smuggling, and eventually to piracy as he fell in with cut-throat crews operating in the lawless coves of the Grief Peninsula. In this he excelled too, being both a proficient sailor and a terrifying warrior. Some of his more outrageous histories speak of him singing in battle, dancing without a helmet when fighting boarding actions, daring his foes to slay him, but killing them with consummate ease, as if their deaths were but part of the choreography of a waltz only he knew was being danced.

He fought as a mercenary in the endless internecine wars between the penniless kings of Vorn, and served as a bodyguard to Achevin magi. He liberated slaves and burned temples. He stole from the rich, and he killed the poor wretches who sought to stop him. According to some tales I’ve read, a man very much matching his description was abroad in the Drench Lands at one point, hunting naga in the Strangle Swamps, selling their poison blood to mystics to make potions. Other tales have him trying to steal dragon eggs from the isle of sulphur, or rescuing children from the clutches of cannibal witches. There are as many stories about him as leaves on a tree. In some he’s the hero, in others the blackest villain. Who can say what the truth is? Perhaps he is both?

Whilst merciful to those who surrendered quickly, Tenbar brutally destroyed anyone who resisted his seaborne brigands, enacting cruel and extravagant ends for his victims. * He was a rakishly handsome savage, who feared no one. He crossed nearly every sea, and in the course of his many adventures ran afoul of both the Imperial Achevin Navy and the Magnallan Flotilla. It was even claimed he narrowly escaped the clutches of an Aelf cruiser on one occasion, though this seems an extravagant claim, even for Lord Tenbar. **

During this tumultuous time, he had his infamous ship, the Vampyre, constructed.

Based upon a heavily modified Katahian galleon, the Vampyre has been built and rebuilt so many times, it is perhaps more accurate to describe his ship as one of many Vampyres, a sisterhood of ships, bearing their master across the world entire. Years of adventuring and near misses sculpted the Vampyre into perhaps the finest Katahian warship ever put to sea, besides the royal navy’s massive nine-mast flagship, the Comet. The name of the ship comes from the blood-hungry monsters of Tureqi mythology; fallen servants of the war goddess Kelish the Red, whose cursed blood makes them immortal. Apparently, Tenbar learned the story from a captured Kelishei priestess, and enjoyed the tale so much, he not only named his ship after them, he had his men modify the mermaid figurehead on his ship’s prow to have fangs and claws.

Though he travelled the world for many years, gathering together his exotic crew of runaway slaves, freaks and outlaws, Tenbar’s main hunting grounds were always the Tolmesir Ocean, taking prey from either coast on a whim. It was as if he were punishing the land of his birth, and the nobility who had driven him out so many years ago. This earned him the animosity of near enough every faction in the area. The royal fleet tried tirelessly to capture or sink the Vampyre as it terrorized shipping and coastal villages across Katahia, and my own grandfather put a bounty on his head after my great aunt’s barge was run aground whilst travelling south to Hustroplis.

Though Katahia had no love for Tenbar the Terror, the Kustorik hated him most of all. The Kustorik have been raiding Katahia since the very earliest reign of the Aelfriend kings. Tenbar represented a rival to their own longship wolf packs prowling the Tolmesir. With childish glee, Tenbar often waited until the Kustorik raiders had successfully launched a raid, before following their pack and attacking them as they set out to sea and stealing their loot, as a lion might steal the kill of a hyena.

A deadly game of cat and mouse ensued, with each side hunting the other, turning the Tolmesir into a battleground. Kustorik raiders were drawn out of their fjords in ever greater numbers with the prospect of adventure and a chance to kill the legendary pirate. Meanwhile, the Imperial fleet hunted Tenbar and the Kustorik by sea, as Earl Bulwyf scoured the lands of Stelhold, searching for secluded coves which might shelter the Vampyre when not at sea, for on land, Tenbar was not so terrifying, much like a shark loses much of its menace when hauled upon the beach, gills gasping as it suffocates.

It seemed only a matter of time before the pirate was caught, and that his end would be bloody. What happened next thus surprised all.

 

Here we return again to the county of Turic Bay. These lands were poor in those days, with few farms or peasants to work them, and a fishing industry strangled by richer neighbouring counties. This, combined with high taxes levied by the Earl of Stelhold rendered the elderly and sickly Viscount Torred a pauper in his own halls. The Lord of Turic had several squabbling sons who were already carving up the tiny land between them before their father’s death, and a daughter, Flaed. Such a lowly house had few allies at court, and little prospect of attaining advancement. Thus, Torred sought advancement across the seas, amongst the wealthy families of the Tibari. One of the few treasures of Turic was his beautiful daughter, which he hoped would entice a prince or wealthy magnate to marry her, and bring trade and prestige to Turic Bay.

Despite her numerous protests, Flaed was quickly shipped off across the Tolmesir, to a foreign land utterly alien to her. Perhaps fortunately for her, she would never arrive at her designation. Unfortunately for her, the reason was the Kustorik war chief Baradan Red-knife.

Within sight of the Tibari coast, the sleek ships of the river reavers came surging from all sides, taking the Katahian cutter by surprise. Red-knife murdered the crew and put the girl in chains like an animal.

But as Baradan set sail north for the Kustor, familiar red sails soon appeared behind him.

The next part of the story is open to speculation, and there are several very different accounts. Some depict Tenbar as a dashing hero, leaping between ships to rescue the damsel in distress after hearing her plight. Other historians point out that Tenbar likely had no idea Flaed was even on board the Kustorik fleet, and that he attacked Baradan the same as he would any rival pirate.

Either way, the outcome was the same. Tenbar and Baradan fought a running naval battle along the coast. Seventeen ships against one. But the Vampyre was ironclad, wielding stolen Achevin cannons and ballistae, and a savage Katahian naval ram. The three-day battle ended with most of the Kustorik fleet sent to the bottom, and Baradan’s flagship boarded, and the war chief slain in single combat by Tenbar. *** Tenbar took the man’s skull as a trophy, and years after would often be seen speaking to it as if talking to an old friend.

Flaed’s chains were struck off, and she was taken to Tenbar’s quarters. Her captivity with the Terror was far more agreeable than as a brutalised slave under Baradan. Tenbar had her well fed and clothed, and gave her the run of his ship. His wild and exotic crew terrified and fascinated the girl, who had led a sombre and sheltered life before then. At night, Tenbar would drink with her, and regale her with tall tales of his many adventures fighting sea monsters and exploring lost lands of the far southern seas, and the lands beyond the Sprawl.

Many claim Flaed fell for Tenbar on that voyage, but this does not ring true for me. Tenbar was exciting certainly, and even as an older man he retained some of his good looks, but simply being rescued does not a romance make (no matter what lurid courtly songs would have you believe). For her part, I believe Flaed was shrewder than anyone gave her credit for. I have had the pleasure of meeting Lady Flaed in recent years, and she is a cunning politician, with a manic wit to match her husband. She was no waif, to be wooed by the dashing pirate.

Regardless of how it came about, eventually, their relationship became more than captive and captor.

When Lord Torred had heard that Flaed’s ship had been attacked, the news drove him to his sick bed, and within a year he was dead. Tragically, he died believing he’d sent his only daughter to her death. Barely a month after his passing, the watchtowers of Turic bay spied a vessel approaching, with distinctive red sails…

The Vampyre docked, and from her hold came Lady Flaed and her new husband, Tenbar. They’d married on a small island commune of Painted Priests, according to the religion of the Silver God. Now, Flaed had returned to reclaim her birth right as Torred’s firstborn. Tenbar soon took over Turic Bay, through fear and a judicious use of bribes. The Vampyre’s treasure chests were full, and he made sure that he was most generous.

Flaed’s brothers sealed the tower against them initially, but after Tenbar offered to double the pay of any man who served him, the fortress was soon overcome without the pirate having to lift a finger. Within a few short weeks, he and Flaed were joint rulers of Turic.

Whilst the locals grew to love and fear their new master, neighbouring Katahian powers saw Tenbar as an invader and interloper. Earl Bulwyf in particular saw this as an affront, as Tenbar had essentially stolen a portion of his Earldom.

Bulwyf went so far as to call his banners, and besiege Turic from the land. Tenbar attempted to placate him by offering to pay his feudal taxes to Bulwyf, but the Earl would have none of it, for he had long despised the Vampyre’s master.

The host from Stelhold was led by Bulwyf’s most experience knight, Sir Aethed of Sealance. If it came to a full land battle, Tenbar would have been finished. He might even have fled back into the sea from whence he came. Though Tenbar claims otherwise, other sources claim Tenbar was planning on doing precisely that, when his salvation came from an unlikely source. Lady Hera rode into Aethed’s camp, bearing a letter from the king.

The royal court had noticed in recent years the numbers of Kustorik raids had gone down drastically, thanks largely to the actions of Tenbar and his brigands. The King offered to ratify Flaed’s marriage and make Tenbar a true Viscount. In exchange, he was to become the King’s Privateer, keeping the Tolmesir clear of pirates and raiders, and making sure the trade routes between Tibari and Katahia remain open.

Tenbar readily accepted, to the relief of all. If he had refused, Tenbar would have certainly perished; if not on land, then by sea. As the siege wore on, the king had secretly sent his navy up from Hustroplis, and was poised to catch the Vampyre should it try to escape.

However, at the stroke of a signature upon parchment, Tenbar became Lord Turic Tenbar.

Turic Bay flourished under his leadership, as money and resources flooded in from across Guien through the expanding port city. Many nobles in private argue Turic Bay has become a den of villains, prosperity bought through moral decay.

After the passing of the old king, and the ascension of King Aaren, Tenbar enhanced his position, being granted permission to build a fleet of his own to better defend the sea lanes.

I myself have always found Turic Tenbar to be disarmingly pleasant in person when I have met him. He has an intensity which unnerves some people, and his irreverence for all social niceties might enrage the more conservative members of court; if he can do something to cause offence, he will. This earns him few friends at court. He is mockingly called ‘Tenbar the Tamed’ behind his back, for those who think he has lost his edge, and that Countess Flaed essentially made him her attack dog, to carve a little empire for herself.

These people do not understand Turic Tenbar at all. I have looked into his eyes, and I do not see a tame man. Flaed’s brothers are still missing, all these years later, likely murdered by his hand. Many of his enemies at court likewise go missing, and according to servants in the tower of Turic, screams can be heard late at night.

Even more worryingly, Tenbar might still be raiding, using his new fleet to disguise his actions.

Alas, such concerns have fallen to the wayside somewhat with the growing power of the Lord of Travesties in the East, and the ever increasing attacks of the Kustorik who have allied themselves with the Tureqi hordes.

Never has the need for a strong navy been higher.

Perhaps, if we mean to survive the terrors from across the sea, we shall require terrors of our own?

 

*(I will spare my more squeamish readers the exact details, but suffice to say the Vampyre’s sails are composed of more than mere linen… many have contributed to their creation… many paying the ultimate price…)

**(At one dinner at the Stelhold court, I heard the man recite in great detail how he once managed to sail his ship out of the belly of a massive ocean leviathan, which had devoured them whole off the endless Eastern Sea. Sufficed to say, the man enjoys a tall tale…)

***(More likely Baradan was shot by crossbowmen in the rigging, whilst Tenbar’s theatrics distracted him. It is a famous tactic of the old pirate, and one which countless arrogant enemies have learnt to their cost.)

Guien History: On the Subject of the Vilest and Most Detestable Hobgoblin Race.

•October 27, 2018 • Leave a Comment

On the Subject of the Vilest and Most Detestable Hobgoblin Race.

By Lady Betheny Agredda of Old-Hold

 

There are few races upon Guien for which revulsion is a near uniform reaction when asked to describe them. It is the received wisdom that the Hobgoblin race is a blight upon the world, a predatory and quintessential menace to civilisation.

A general physical description of a hobgoblin is difficult, for they show more variation than between the human race. Even on the individual level, there is little unifying about them. In general, they are hunchbacked, with scaly skin the colour of week old corpses, claws and fangs, and eyes of piercing, cat-like luminosity. Some have spines, others shaggy pelts, or ghostly pale skin, jutting tusks or needle-sharp teeth. There are some that burrow, and have rodent teeth and blind eyes, others with loping arms for climbing. There are as many forms of the hobgoblin as there are fish in the sea, or birds in the air. Their bloodlines have been inbred and corrupted for thousands of years at this stage, each new generation breeding a new slew of malformed monsters and mutants.

Many of the various monsters of antique bestiaries were, in fact, misidentified hobgoblins. Trolls, long thought a race of malevolent giants, are but elder hobgoblin specimens, grown swollen with evil longevity.

Everything about the hobgoblin seems inimical to life. Their blood is a noxious poison, black and viscous as treacle, their saliva corrosive. Eve their bodies rot but slowly, for even the worms and flies in the ground find their flesh distasteful. Scripture suggests the reason for this is that they are of the Utterdark, and are thus repellent to the world crafted by the gods (be they the gods of Selmyra, the Alloyed Pantheons, or others). I take a more practical, secular approach; their blood is a defence mechanism, as a porcupine’s spines, or a toad’s odious slimes.

On every continent of Guien there were once hobgoblins. Every history of every culture bound within the pages of the library of Old-Hold has mention of some manner of imp or gremlin, a fanged army of nocturnal monsters who oppose civilisation. In modern times, only Magnalla and Katahia have large populations of Hobgoblins; the relentless march of human progress on Oellir has quite comprehensive squashed the Hobgoblins in those lands. Some mythologies claim they are creatures born from the Hellish Utterdark itself, a kind of corporeal version of a Djinn or a demon. In Qortian legend, they were made by the gods to be a common enemy for the four founding races of the Lress, Humans, the Gnome and the Aelf, to unite against, to bring a peace through common hatred. If this was true, clearly the Qortian gods failed, for war remains the eternal lodestone of Guien.

I was very taken with the work of Ektor Kallibosi, Lector of the Akashian chapter of the Halogen Magi of Achevin, who took it upon himself to study hobgoblins, which once haunted the Warden Mountains. * He studied not just the bodies of the hobgoblins he was delivered, but also their animus… their souls (also known as the ‘sprite-spark’ amongst Katahian scholars). He came to the conclusion that Hobgoblins do not have individual souls; rather, hobgoblin-kind were only ever imbued with one soul, and as each new hobgoblin is born, this soul is stretched all the thinner. This might explain why it is only in numbers that the hobgoblins seem to display brilliance, and that their leaders become swift witted trolls, and their very smallest gremlins are hollowed out vessels of resentment and spite, without the will to oppose their masters.

Hobgoblins breed quickly, but mature slowly, which both makes them hard to eradicate, yet consistently underestimated. Because the majority of their race are adolescent beasts, they seem to be a diminutive race of spiteful imps, to be easily dispatched by valiant, upright men.

This would be an error, as proved in the reign of King Aaren’s father, with the rise of the Archbrute, which sparked the hobgoblin wars. Modern histories are filled with the accounts of Crown-Prince Aaren and his chosen brotherhood against the hobgoblin uprisings, of which my father was a part. Only through great sacrifice and pain were the armies of the Archbrute laid low, the Goblin King finally slain by Bulwif of Stelhold in single combat. **

For my part, I cannot claim to be an authority on the subject of hobgoblins. Due to my infirmity, I have seldom strayed beyond high castle walls. The closest I came to a live hobgoblin was on one occasion, when I was ten, and my legs still supported my weight with only the support of a cane. I travelled down to the dungeons, where my father had captured one of their breed. It was a malnourished, shrivelled thing, already dying when I saw it. Nobody was allowed to approach it, for it tore at itself constantly, using the drooling blood as a weapon to keep its captors at bay. Though it understood common trade tongue, it never deigned to speak it. It babbled in guttural tones, cursing us all until its final death rattle. It was only in death that the thing’s terrible yellow eyes stopped shining.

Though I know little of hobgoblins, I know enough to realise they must be fought. They refuse to negotiate, and think nothing of capturing or enslaving humans. They imbue nothing with beauty, but built cunning and cruel things. Though I think it is debatable whether they are born evil, their weak wills allow them to be governed easily by the strong will of evil beings, such as the various Lords of Travesty to have plagued Guien since the Starfall, or even the Fleshless Prince himself, cursed be his creed.

If the world is a fairy tale, the hobgoblin is the monster in the woods.

*(The Warden Mountain Hobgoblin clans were exterminated by the Tarnzak, only a few hundred years after Ektor’s studies concluded.)

**(There are other accounts which suggest it was one of Bulwif’s knights who actually did the deed, putting a lance through the Goblin King’s back whilst he was distracted, but far be it from me to come between an Earl of Katahia and his pride… The Archbrute’s skull can still be viewed in the banquet hall at Stelhold incidentally, if you ever have the inclination to visit.)

The Eater of Names: Cover revealed!

•August 19, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Salutations again my friends!

Today is a great day. For several months I have been waiting eagerly to show the work in progress cover of Eater of Names, produced by the awesome Tabby Stirling (follow her on twitter @VoleQueen). Well, as a late Sunday treat, I’ve been allowed to show y’all a sneak peek what Tabby’s come up with:

Eater of Names cover sneak peek

Isn’t that neat?

This is not quite the final version, but I am delighted with what’s been produced.  In particular I love that there’s a continuity of style between this and Hobgoblin’s Herald; I could see them happily sharing a shelf together on any bookshelf (maybe yours?)

It’s also delightful to see different interpretations of Mallory depicted.

You may also catch my blurb on the back cover, giving a hint at what is to come for our intrepit and morally dubious heroes in the adventures to come.

Eater of Names will be released later this year, and I cannot wait for you all to read it.

If you haven’t had chance to pick up the first book in the Guien Sequence, The Hobgoblin’s Herald yet, it is available on amazon here and here.

For updates on Eater, be sure to keep an eye on the Fox Spirit Books site, as well as following them on twitter @FoxSpiritBooks

Guien Lore Snippet: Of the Isle of Sulphur, and the Drakburnt Isegi peoples that dwell there.

•July 28, 2018 • Leave a Comment
[Hello again dear ones. In celebration of signing the official contract for the forthcoming Hobgoblin sequel, Eater of Names, here’s another snippet of lroe about one of the seldom visited lands on Guien’s beautiful map. Enjoy:]

Of the Isle of Sulphur, and the Drakburnt Isegi peoples that dwell there.

By Lady Betheny Agredda of Old-Hold

 

Far to the South of Oellir, off the eastern shores of the Grief Peninsula, lies the Isle of Sulphur. This is a relatively modern term for the ancient and rather sizeable island. It was given this moniker by Achevin merchants who settled there during the Father of Cities’ expansionist phase. This was on account of the stench of rotten eggs which pervaded the long-isolated island, and the name stuck in the collective consciousness of the civilised world.

What a shame it is that the merchants hadn’t settled in the northern reaches first, but had instead first ventured south to discover the cause of this stench.

How much better would ‘the Isle of Drakes’ been as a name? Alas, history does not bend to the whim of mortals.

The Isle is almost eight hundred miles long from its northern to southern extremities, according to the records of Achevin cartographers. Whilst the north is mostly rainforest, the south is covered in nourishing black soil which allows for strong and diverse agricultural crops to be grown. The south, however, is dominated by Mount Isegmaw, the tallest mountain in the known world.

In the north, the Achevins built a colony town, Vardefound. It is from the histories written by scholars visiting there that we have so much history of this lonely island. However, the Achevins were latecomers to the Island. The Isles were already colonised by the Isegi, a civilisation old before the Starfall, so they say.

The Isegi live in temples cities, carved into the foothills of Isengmaw, or else in primitive farming villages on the island’s interior. There are other minor tribes of people who dwell in fishing villages on the coasts, but they are of such minor importance to the Achevins, the individual names of their tribes are not recorded. They are the fish-people, displaced and subjugated by the Isegi. The Isegi in turn are only known by name due to the one aspect of their culture which the Achevins craved.

The Isegi were dragon-tamers. If there is one thing in all history to fire the imagination of even the most stolid scholar, it is dragons. *

According to the stories I’ve found, they found the first dragon eggs in caves in the steep sides of Isegmaw. They reared the hatching drakes by hand, till they grew large enough to ride. ** Over hudnreds of eyars, they were able to learn how to learn the secrets of wyrm-speak, a secret which remains closely guarded by the Isegi to this very day. This gave the Isegi, a primitive tribe of obsidian wielding savages, the power of flight and fire. All of a sudden, they had the ability to defeat every other tribe on the island within the space of a few months. Their dragon riders were legendarily dangerous, able to vanquish armies outnumbering them by thousands to one. *** The only thing keeping the Isegi from expanding across Oellir was the ocean; even small dragons are heavy beasts, and can only fly for short distances. A lengthy trip over the sea would result in drake and rider plunging into the depths. Since the Isegi knew nothing of ship building, they became isolated on the Isle of Sulphur.

As is the way with many isolated communities (such as the Yud and Ked of frozen Ashebos) their technological development stagnated. They were unassailable by their rivals, and had no need of labour saving innovation, simply using slave labour from the defeated tribes. Instead, they poured their efforts into building bigger and bigger temple cities out of the dense stones abundant on their island. They worshipped Isegmaw as a god, believing that beneath the great mountain slept a giant dragon of divine scale.

Unfortunately for the Isegi, this dragon eventually woke. Not literally of course, but one day the skies darkened, plumes of ash rising like a great column joining Utterlight and land. The mountaintop exploded, and the force of the blow shattered their capital city, and the pyroclastic flows that followed swept almost half their people into oblivion. Lava flowed over what remained, and their crops burned in the field.

Only a handful of dragons and their broods survived. It took the Isegi centuries to recover, and even then they were never as powerful as once they’d been.

It was these sorry specimens that the Achevin merchants came across when they eventually founded their colony. Achevin people are generally dark-skinned, as many in hot climes are, but the Isegi being in land shotter still, their skin was almost coal black, with white ink tattoos etched into curving patterns down their backs, the armour of their warriors woven with discarded dragon scales, hard as iron. The Achevins called the Isegi ‘Drakburnt’, joking their complexion was the result of a failed union between man and drake which left the Isegi overbaked; another hilarious derogatory moniker I’m sure…

Despite their condescension, the people of Vardefound saw great value in the Isegi. Dragon bile is an extremely potent fuel, which burns with a fierce blue flame, hot enough to melt steel like tallow so they say. Also, the leather of their wings in extremely fire resistant and tough. There’s a famous saying, that the only stuff which can cut dragon leather is the claw of a dragon or an Aelf-knife. My father owns a patch of dragon leather from his old campaigning days, but I’m not in the habit of cutting into antiques just to test an old wives’ tale.

In any case, these valuable drake products were highly valued in the metropolis, and the Vardefound colony became very wealthy, as did the Isegi. This wealth bought them a measure of independence. The Kings of the Isegi are one of the few monarchies around Oellir who are not direct vassals of the Achevin Emperor, though they still send representatives to the city on occasion. As for the governors of Vardefound, they have positions almost as high as Vassal Kings themselves.

The dragon riders of the Isegi rarely leave the island for war, even when provided great junks to help ferry their turbulent reptilian passengers overseas. Ships tend to get set ablaze when a dragon gets nervous.

The most famous dragon of all, the Imperial Dragon of Achevi, was in fact stolen from the Isle of Sulphur as an egg. Even hundreds of years later, this theft is still a point of contention between the Isegi and the Imperial throne.

Ever since that day, the Isegi have been particularly vehement in protecting their wyrms. There have even been minor wars fought on the island itself between the Isegi and bands of Achevin and Magnallan poachers, trespassing on the island in order to kill a prize buck, or pillage a nest full of eggs.

Long may they be thwarted. I dread the day dragons take route on the mainland. Imagine if even half of them grow even half as large as their imperial cousin? It would be a world on fire, the Age of Great Beasts come again.

 

*(That and Djinn. Folks love ghosts and devils I’ve found.)

**(This is usually when the juvenile dragon has grown to possess a thirty-foot wingspan. Drakes seldom grow larger than that. Too large, and they become unruly and impossible for even Isegi trainers to control, or else they get hunted down. It is claimed the Isegi cull their dragons before they get too large. I could well believe it. Dragons never stop growing, and the Imperial Dragon at Achevi is said to be so vast that it can no longer fly, and it scales are so thick some say even cannons could not kill it if it ever slipped its bonds.)

***(There’s a theory that the reason the Aelf bred their silver eagles was a direct counter to dragon riders.)