SIM Audio Update

19 Nov

Hi, everyone
The good news is that the audio version of Oathkeeper will be going live on 19th January – links for pre-order will be provided when I have them.  By then, barring accidents, the eBooks of Little Witches and Fantastic Schools III (including The Cunning Man’s Tale) should also be live.
The bad news is that Tavia Gilbert’s professional life has taken her to the BBC and she’s had to leave the SIM series, but Podium has lined up a replacement narrator: Saskia Maarleveld, who previously narrated the Zero Enigma books.  Please welcome her to the series and feel free to check her work out elsewhere.

Snippet – Fighting for the Crown (Ark Royal)

10 Nov


From: Admiral Paul Mason, Director of Alpha Black, Special Projects

To: Admiral Susan Onarina, CO Operation Lightning Strike


As per your request, my department has spent the last two weeks conducting an extensive post-battle analysis of Operation Thunderchild.  This has not been an easy task.  The much-touted bioscanners were nowhere near as efficient as we were assured – surprise, surprise – and the urgent need for a retreat from the targeted system ensured a significant lack of late-stage data.  In short, there is a sizable question mark over both the data we collected and our conclusions and I would be remiss in my duties if I did not bring that to your attention.

However, a number of things can be said with a fair degree of certainty.

The BioBombs were less effective than we had hoped.  They certainly lacked the punch of an enhanced radiation weapon.  However, once the biological agent had established itself on the planetary surface it spread rapidly.  We believe it achieved effective continental saturation within two or three days of its deployment, destroying the virus’s chain of communication as it spread.  It took longer for the viral package within the infected hosts to break down, but it is clear that the biobombs took their toll.  The infection was uncontainable without extreme measures.  We assume the virus was as reluctant to cut off a limb to save the body – if I may use a crude metaphor – as ourselves.

It cannot be denied, as some officers pointed out, that the biobombs are weapons of genocide.  The counter-viral package is far more effective, and dangerous, than the tailored viruses released on Earth during the Age of Unrest.  It is also clear that the virus is unable to counter the infection without doing immense damage to its organisation and communication.  In short, unless the virus finds a way to counter the threat, we can expect to eliminate the infection from our worlds in very short order.  This will, however, condemn the virus’s hosts to death.  Our attempts to save hosts under laboratory conditions have had mixed results.  We cannot offer any sort of guarantee the host will survive, even in ideal circumstances.  The infected hosts on occupied worlds are certain to die, if we release the biobombs.  Frankly, if our backs were not already pressed firmly against the wall, I would urge the PM and the other world leaders not to deploy the biobombs.  We will be killing millions so billions might live. 

That said, I am not sanguine about the virus’s inability to devise a response.  Biological weapons do not survive, obviously, in the vacuum of space.  The virus can rearrange its ships along more human lines, relying on communications networks and datanodes to handle matters rather than blending viral matter into the control systems.  We expect some degree of early awkwardness, if the virus tries, but it does have access to experts!  If nothing else, it can simply copy our designs and integrate human systems – and our electronic servants – into its fleet.  I don’t know if there would be some improvement in efficiency – the virus does not appear to have problems handling its fleets, despite relying on biological networks – but it would certainly make it harder to get the biobombs onboard.  The marines might have to storm the entire ship to wipe out the enemy presence.  It would be considerably easier to simply insert nuclear bombs, then detonate them as soon as the marines withdraw.

A more serious possibility is the virus copying the biobombs and deploying biological weapons of its own.  It has, so far, been reluctant to commit population-destroying atrocities – although it has shown a frightening lack of concern for civilian casualties – but that may change if it feels truly threatened.  As strange as it may seem, the virus may well regard its losses so far as effectively immaterial; a real threat to its very survival may provoke a nastier response.  We simply don’t know.  But, as I said, our backs are against the wall.  We have no choice.  We must use every weapon at our command to win before we lose everything.

It is my very strong feeling, Susan, that we should launch Operation Lightning Strike as quickly as possible.



Chapter One

“Do you hear that?”

Richard Tobias Gurnard turned over, momentarily unsure of where he was.  In bed, with Marigold … they were in London, he recalled suddenly, visiting the capital city before they reported back to HMS Lion.  He sat upright, blinking in confusion as the emergency lighting came on.  The hotel room, a grotty singleton that was all they could afford in London, had an air of unreality, as if he was still asleep.  He glanced at his wristcom and frowned.  It was the middle of the night and yet …

He felt a frisson of fear as he heard the scraping sound in the corridor outside.  The hotel was relatively quiet, he’d been assured; the manager had made a point of assuring his guests that the walls were completely soundproofed.  It wasn’t the sort of place that served breakfast in bed, or did anything beyond the bare minimum.  The peeling paint on the walls, and the scent in the toilet, suggested the owner simply didn’t give a damn.  And yet …

“I can hear an alarm,” Marigold said.  She sat up next to him, arms crossed over her breasts.  “Can’t you?”

Tobias listened, carefully.  The alarm was very faint, if indeed it was an alarm.  He wished, suddenly, that he’d paid more attention to the emergency procedures displayed on the wall.  His CO would have a lot of sharp things to say, if he knew; he’d insisted the gunboat pilots had to learn as much as possible, even if – technically- they didn’t have to know anything outside the scope of their duties.  Tobias felt his ears prickle as the scraping sound grew louder, wondering – suddenly – if the manager was trying to sneak into the room.  It was possible.  He’d certainly heard a lot of rumours about cheap hotels in London.  And yet …

The wristcom bleeped an alert.  Tobias glanced at it and froze.  BIOLOGICAL CONTAMINATION DETECTED, LONDON.  Sheer horror held him paralysed for a long chilling moment.  Biological contamination meant that someone had deployed a biological weapon … no, that the virus had gotten loose in London.  He remembered the sensor recordings from the previous mission and shuddered, helplessly.  If the entire city had been infected, they were screwed.  They had no weapons, nothing beyond their masks.  He hadn’t thought to bring an emergency kit.  It had honestly never crossed his mind he’d need it.

Marigold swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, hastily donning her clothes.  Tobias followed suit, eying the wristcom as if it were a poisonous snake.  He wanted to believe it was a false alarm, but … his mind raced, trying to determine what they should do.  The room wasn’t airtight.  It certainly wasn’t isolated from the remainder of the hotel.  A viral outbreak in the right place – or, rather, the wrong place – would spread through the hotel very quickly.  The scraping sound grew louder.  Tobias cursed under his breath, wishing – for the first time – that Colin had accompanied them.  His former bully turned marine would have been very helpful in a tight spot.  But Tobias had never even thought of inviting him.

“Someone is right outside,” Marigold said, so quietly she was almost subvocalising.  “That lock isn’t going to hold up for long.”

Tobias nodded, curtly.  He was brave, as brave as brave could be, behind a computer terminal … or, he admitted to himself, when he put his hands on his gunboat’s controls.  It was easy, somehow, to pretend he was still playing a game even when he flew the gunboat into combat with a fleet of enemy ships.  But in the real world, he knew he was a coward.  He’d put on some muscle since joining the navy – Marigold and his CO had convinced him to spent more time in the gym – but he was all too aware he couldn’t push anyone around.  Sweat trickled down his back as he donned his mask.  No one, absolutely no one, had a legitimate reason to break into their room in the middle of the night.  The manager – or the police – would bang on the door, then wait for the occupants to open it.  Whoever was on the far side, they weren’t friendly. 

The lights went out.  Darkness, warm darkness, enveloped them.  Tobias sucked in a breath as Marigold activated her wristcom, using it as a makeshift torch.  They hadn’t thought to bring flashlights either.  Tobias hesitated, then picked up a chair as he heard the lock starting to give way.  It wasn’t an electronic lock.  The lock and key were something out of a period drama.  Tobias suspected, in hindsight, that it wasn’t as charming as he’d thought.  The lock could be opened by anyone who had the key, a copy of the key or the tools and skill to simply pick the lock.

He took his mask and pressed it against his face, then picked up a chair and waited.  In hindsight, he should have brought his pistol.  Military personnel were required to be armed at all times, in a world that could shift from peaceful harmony to screaming chaos in the brink of an eye.  His CO would probably scold him for not being armed … Tobias prayed, as the lock clicked, that the CO would have the chance.  The door opened, so violently Tobias almost dropped the chair.  A shadowy figure rushed into the room, running towards Marigold.  No, towards the light.  Tobias panicked, bringing the chair down on top of the figure’s head.  It crashed to the ground, then kept crawling forward like a giant crab.  Tobias stared in disbelief – blood was leaking from a nasty wound to the head – and then brought the chair down again.  The figure – the zombie – didn’t seem to notice.

Tobias realised his mistake, a second too late.  The zombie infection was in complete control of the host’s body.  Crushing the zombie’s head wouldn’t kill the host.  The host had died when the infection had taken root, then built control structures within the body.  He felt a stab of pity as the zombie reared up, hands lashing out towards him.  He kicked the zombie as hard as he could – not hard – and then brought the chair down again and again, breaking the zombie’s legs.  It wasn’t enough to do more than slow it down.

“That was the manager,” Marigold said.  The man had once been jovial – and sleazy enough to make Tobias want to take a shower after shaking his hand.  Now, his body was a mangled pulp that was somehow, absurdly, still trying to advance on them.  “We have to get out of here.”

“Got it,” Tobias agreed.  He checked his wallet was still in his pocket – he had a feeling he’d need ID, when they ran into the police or the military – then keyed his wristcom.  There was no update, nothing to indicate the authorities were already moving to contain the threat.  He hoped – prayed – they were.  They should be.  The military had plenty of experience deploying troops to counter everything from riots and terrorism to outright viral infections.   “Where do we go?

“Out of here,” Marigold said.  “Quickly.”

Tobias nodded as he made his way to the door and peered outside.  The corridor was dark and silent.  His imagination insisted it was as dark and silent as the grave.  He told that part of him to shut the fuck up, then forced himself to think.  The hotel wasn’t that big.  If the manager had been infected … it was possible the other guests had also been infected.  If there were other guests … it was that sort of hotel.  Tobias cursed under his breath.  He didn’t have any night-vision gear, no way to see in the dark.  And even if he could, the viral particles were too small to see with the naked eye.  He touched his mask, checking – again and again – that it was firmly in place.  Breathing deeply might be enough to get him infected.  He wouldn’t even know until it was far too late.

And the moment they see our lights, they’ll know we’re there, he thought.  The virus didn’t even need to do that.  If there was a sufficient concentration of viral matter in the air, the virus would be aware of their presence even if it couldn’t infect them.  He wanted to go back to the room, barricade the door and wait for the police, but he knew that might just get them killed – or worse.  The zombie behind them was – somehow – still alive.  We have to move fast.

He glanced at Marigold, her face pale and worried, then told himself to be brave as he inched down the corridor.  The carpet felt soft under his feet, their passage making no sound at all.  He thought, just for a moment, that he could hear men and machines in the distance – helicopter blades clattering against the humid summer air – but the sound didn’t seem to be coming any closer.  Ice washed down his spine as he remembered the reports from the last mission.  The infected world had been hot, very hot.  The virus had been able to survive in the open air, to the point that opening one’s mask was effectively committing suicide.  He found it impossible to believe the virus could last indefinitely in the British weather – it would rain sooner rather than later, if he was any judge – but it could do a lot of damage before it died.  Someone who got infected, without ever knowing they were infected, could do one hell of a lot of damage before they were tracked down.

The air grew warmer as they reached the stairwell and looked up and down.  Tobias tried to think what to do.  In a video game, they would head upwards and find their way to the roof and then jump from rooftop to rooftop until they reached safety.  The real world was much less obliging.  Colin and his comrades might be able to get out of the trap that way, but Tobias had no illusions about his lack of physical prowess.  He’d always been picked last for games … he put the memory out of his mind as he started to make his way down to the ground floor.  The stairwell was cramped, narrow enough to make him feel almost claustrophobic.  The darkness seemed to reach out and touch him, as if monsters were lurking within the shadows.  He shuddered, helplessly, promising himself he’d move to a lunar city or an asteroid settlement as soon as his enlistment was up.  His country hadn’t treated him very kindly.

Lights flared, outside.  Tobias flinched, hefting the chair as if he expected someone to come crashing through the windows.  He’d known the windows were there, but … he stared into the darkness.  The lights just added to the air of unreality.  He forced himself to move faster, reaching the bottom of the stairs as the sound of helicopters grew louder.  The building rattled as the aircraft flew over the hotel.  It felt as if they were only an inch or two above the rooftops. 

Marigold shined the makeshift torch ahead of them, then froze.  A body was lying on the ground, a child … Tobias stumbled backwards, swallowing desperately to keep from throwing up inside the mask.  The body was a shifting mass of … he recoiled, unwilling to look at the figure.  It had to have been a child, but the body was so badly warped that he couldn’t tell if it had been male or female.  The darkness swallowed the body as they picked up speed, hurrying towards the door.  It was closed and locked.  Tobias gritted his teeth, suddenly very sure there was something nasty right behind them, and hit the door as hard as he could.  The lock shattered.  Tobias blinked, then stumbled outsight.  Blinding lights struck them a second later, so bright his eyes hurt even after he squeezed them tightly shut.  Marigold whimpered.

“DO NOT MOVE,” a voice bellowed.  “DO NOT MOVE!”

Tobias froze.  His eyes were still closed, but he could hear men running towards them.  The light dimmed suddenly.  He risked opening his eyes and saw three men in heavy-duty HAZMAT suits.   Their eyes were hidden behind their masks.  He shuddered, suddenly all too aware that the troops could be infected themselves.  And yet … he couldn’t move.  He could see more troops on the other side of the road, guns pointed directly at Tobias and Marigold.  He wanted to scream at them, to insist they were pointing their guns at friends, but he couldn’t say a word.  The troops didn’t know any better.  Tobias himself didn’t know any better.  The virus might have already gotten its hooks in them.

He offered no resistance as they were shackled, then pushed towards a large open-topped lorry.  The troops pressed samplers against their necks, testing their blood for any traces of infection.  They relaxed, slightly, when the tests came back negative.  Tobias wanted to suggest they be unshackled, but the words caught in his mouth.  A handful of other people were already in the lorry, their arms and legs shackled to metal railings.  They looked as shell-shocked as Tobias himself.  The troops half-pushed, half-lifted him into the lorry and shackled him beside the others.  Marigold followed a second later.  Tobias gritted his teeth as the UV lights grew stronger.  In theory, if one of them were infected, the infection wouldn’t spread to the rest.  In theory …

The virus managed to get a foothold in the city, he thought, numbly.  A pair of helicopters flew overhead, spotlights stabbing down at the ground.  What else has it done?

The lorry lurched into life.  Tobias gritted his teeth as the vehicle rumbled down the eerie street.  The sky was still dark, but the spotlights lit up the community with a blinding light that cast out the shadows.  There were hundreds – perhaps thousands – of troops on the streets, all wearing masks if they weren’t wearing HAZMAT gear.  A row of AFVs sat beside a barricade, one clearly thrown up in a hurry.  Tobias shivered.  He’d walked past the barricade only a few short hours ago, back when the world had made sense.  The barricade hadn’t even been there.  London had shifted from an old city, repaired and rebuilt after the Troubles and the Bombardment, into a Lovecraftian nightmare, a horror from the days biological weapons had been deployed by terrorists and rogue states alike.  He’d heard the stories – he’d studied the official version in history class and the unofficial version on the dark web – but he’d never really understood the reality.  It had been nothing more than history to him, until now.  He shuddered, again and again, as they drove past more troops,  They looked ready for anything.  Tobias devoutly hoped that was true.

“STAY IN YOUR HOMES.”  A police car drove past, blue lights flashing as the message was repeated time and time again.  The racket was so loud Tobias was morbidly certainly no one, absolutely no one, was still asleep.  They’d be having nightmares long after the night was over.  “STAY IN YOUR HOMES.  STAY OFF THE STREETS.  IF YOU FEEL UNWELL, CALL US IMMEDIATELY …”

“No one will listen,” an older man predicted.  He looked to be the sort of person Tobias had disliked once upon a time, a schoolyard bully grown up into a manager bully.  His walrus moustache wriggled as he spoke.  “They’ll all be trying to get out before the infection gets them.”

Tobias said nothing, but he feared the older man was right.  The infection had clearly gotten its hooks into the district.  He’d heard rumours about emergency plans, from the careful evacuation and sterilization of the infected area to its complete destruction by nuclear weapons.  Tobias doubted that any British Government would authorise the use of nuclear weapons on British cities, but the government might be desperate.  The Prime Minister was in a precarious position.  Tobias didn’t follow politics and even he knew that.  Decisive action against the virus, at the cost of hundreds of innocent lives, would either boost the man’s career into the stratosphere or utterly destroy it.  In this day and age, it was hard to tell which.

The vehicle rattled to a halt.  Tobias watched, grimly, as the soldiers unhooked the rear of the lorry and started dragging the prisoners out.  He’d been through mil-grade decontamination procedures before, when there hadn’t been any real threat.  The process had been strict, but not that strict.  This time, they could take nothing for granted.  Tobias doubted they’d see their clothes again, after they went through decontamination.  It was rather more likely that everything they wore – and carried – would be incinerated.  The military wouldn’t take chances, not now.

“I’m not infected,” the older man protested, as he was half-carried out of the lorry.  “I’m not infected!”

“Be quiet,” a soldier growled.

“Do you know who I am?”  The older man glared at the soldier, trying to stand upright in shackles.  It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so serious.  “I’m the managing director of Drills Incorporated and …”

“I said, be quiet,” the soldier repeated.  He hefted his shockrod menacingly.  “You’ll be checked as quickly as possible and released as soon as we’re sure you’re uninfected.”

Tobias kept his thoughts to himself as the older man quietened.  He wanted to protest, but he understood.    The soldiers really couldn’t take anything for granted.  For all they knew, the entire lorry-load of prisoners was infected.  They had to be careful, very careful.  And if that meant treating civilians – as well as Tobias and Marigold – like dangerous terrorists …

They don’t have a choice, Tobias thought, glumly.  They don’t have any way to be sure we’re not infected.  And nor do we.

Updates (Little Witches+)

9 Nov

Hi, everyone

It’s been a very mixed week.  On one hand, The Truthful Lie and Debt of War came out in close succession.  (If you liked them, please review.)  On the other, we’ve been having home improvements done, which made it impossible to do much of anything past Monday.

I’ve just completed the first run-through of Little Witches, following the feedback I got from beta-readers.  Lots of little changes … some bigger than others.  I’m hoping to have it published within the month, but there are two more edits to come (and we still need a cover, of course.)  I intend to write the next three books in a fairly tight stream, for reasons that will become apparent in Little Witches.

I also intend to start work on Fighting for the Crown (Ark Royal) tomorrow.

I hope you’re all keeping well <grin>.


PS – we’re still looking for stories for Fantastic Schools. Why not write one? <grin>

OUT NOW – Debt of War (The Embers of War III/Angel in the Whirlwind VIII)

8 Nov

The Commonwealth Civil War has stalemated, but both sides—desperate to win at all costs—are looking for ways to end the fighting before everything they’ve built is turned to ash. King Hadrian, on the edge of madness, searches for allies who might help, at a price. His enemies, all too aware the battle is far from won, search for long-forgotten truths that might tear the king’s forces apart and end the war in a single blow. For Admiral Kat Falcone and Commodore William McElney, caught on opposite sides, everything they’ve ever loved is at stake.

William knows a secret, a secret that may end the war if he and his friend Kat can work together long enough to use it. But powerful forces are arrayed against them, intent on fighting the war to the bitter end. One false move and they’ll both fall into fire…

…And hundreds of planets will burn with them.

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The Last Jedi Problem

7 Nov

I was going to write this as part of a bigger essay, but it probably does better as a singleton.  Normal commenting rules apply.

The Last Jedi proved to be a highly controversial movie when it came out and several years (and a pair of underperforming follow-ups) have done nothing to redeem it.  The movie is both objectively and subjectively terrible, with widespread character assassination, shrilling and – bluntly – a complete disregard for the factors that made Star Wars popular in the first place.  However, that alone is not enough to seriously damage a franchise.  The far more dangerous aspect, and the one that did serious damage, was the response to criticism.

There were essentially two groups that criticised The Last Jedi.  One group felt that it was a poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly directed movie that laughed in the face of previous canon (and expanded universe/legends canon).  They had legitimate complaints.  The other group was composed of misogynists and racists.  Their complaints were not legitimate.  The response from the film’s producers and supporters, however, was to smear the first group with the second.  The bad apples in fandom were used to attack the rest of fandom.

This is a cunning tactic, in the short term.  If you regard your critics as misogynists and racists (and homophobes, transphobes, xenophobes (etc, etc)), and insist this is true regardless of all evidence of the contrary, you can delegitimize their complaints.  This absolves you of the responsibility to listen to their complaints, let alone act on them.  Who wants to give even the slightest hint of legitimacy to misogynists and racists (etc, etc)?  No one. 

It’s easy to see why someone would feel that this is a reasonable tactic.  The Last Jedi was not cheap.  Disney invested a hell of a lot of money in the franchise.  Delegitimizing the critics, at least in theory, saved the producers from having to admit they’d made a serious mistake.  In practice, it undermined the franchise by making it clear that the producers simply weren’t interested in listening to criticism, let alone improving upon their work.  It’s possible to argue that The Last Jedi, Solo and The Rise of Skywalker made money and therefore the producers weren’t too far wrong.  However, the franchise significantly underperformed after The Last Jedi.  Given the sheer magnitude of the fanbase, this should worry anyone with an eye to the bottom line.

The producers and their supporters argued that the fans were over-entitled.  There’s some truth to this.  However, it is also true that vast numbers of fans kept the faith from the moment Return of the Jedi rolled the last credits until Disney produced The Last Jedi.  Those fans purchased books, computer games, toys, endured the prequel trilogy … in short, they were emotionally invested in the franchise.  It is not unreasonable to feel that one has a right to expect a reward for such investment, even though – objectively speaking – the fan has no claim on the producers.  Nor is it unreasonable to feel personally insulted if you’ve been called a misogynist, a racist or one of a dozen other things you know you’re not.

This touches on something I’ve mentioned before.  A good-faith attempt to address the complaint, by accepting it is valid or explaining why it is not, would have gone a long way towards solving the problem before it got out of hand.  It might not have satisfied the critics, but it would have convinced outside observers that the producers were taking the complaints seriously enough to write a refutation.   Bad faith responses – calling someone a racist, for example – simply undermine credibility.  It suggests, very strongly, that there is no good answer to the complaints.  And once you start insulting people, any hope of a peaceful solution goes straight out the window (not least because it’s impossible to prove a negative.)

The Last Jedi is just a movie.  Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what happens to Star Wars.  But what happens when this approach is taken to … well, everything?  Over the last few years, we have found out.  It isn’t pretty.

It is not easy to see things from someone else’s point of view.  A very rich and powerful person, with all the trapping of his wealth and rank, simply cannot grasp how carefully a poor person must manage money.  He can very easily push for supermarkets to stock only expensive foodstuffs because, to him, they are not expensive at all.  He cannot understand that he’s just made life harder for the poor person, who now has to somehow find the money to pay for food or starve.  Said rich and powerful person might push for criminal justice reform without thinking through the consequences, because – at base – he does not have to face the consequences.  The man who lives in a gated community, with a private security force, doesn’t have to deal with criminals on the streets.  He cannot understand why the poorer people would sooner lock the criminals up and throw away the key.

And because he doesn’t understand that, he doesn’t understand why the poor hate him.

People are not generally selfish.  But they are motivated by self-interest.  If you fail to take someone’s self-interest into account, and to accept that their feelings are valid, you should not be surprised when they come to hate you.  If you delegitimize their feelings, and effectively delegitimize them, they come in turn to delegitimize you.  And then they don’t pay any attention to you.  Why should they?

Going back to The Last Jedi, the producers were attempting the impossible.  They wanted a movie that would both appeal to the fans and the general public.  To do the former, they would have had to assess what made Star Wars popular in the first place and do more of it (the thinking that led to the Thrawn trilogy).  To do the latter, they would have had to streamline the plot as much as possible.  Instead, they ended up with what was once called – quite aptly – a beautiful disaster.

This could have been avoided.  A clear-sighted assessment of what viewers – both fans and the general public – wanted could have been done.  (As Marvel did when it started creating the MCU.)  It would have required, however, an understanding of their fanbase – and what the fans wanted – and this was verboten.  Instead, they drove away their fanbase without bringing in replacements.  They chose to attack their fans instead of accepting they’d made a mistake and trying to fix it.

But, in this day and age, admitting a mistake can be fatal.

OUT NOW – THE TRUTHFUL LIE (The Unwritten Words III)

3 Nov

Sorry for the delay.

How can humans stand up to the Old Gods?

Reginald, now King, is struggling against the rising tide of the Old God entities. He knows that his army alone cannot defeat them, even with cold iron that can contain them and free enslaved humans. But as cities burn and farmland is devastated, the people have been easily convinced by cultists to turn to the Old Gods.

In a neighbouring kingdom the weak young ruler, fallen prey to an entity that promised him the world, starts his campaign to fulfil that promise, adding to the threats heading towards Andalusia.

Reginald’s best hope is that Isabella, his sorceress Queen, and Princess Silverdale, his talented sister, can learn enough about the entities and their relationship with the human realm to find a magical way to defeat them. But, as time is running out, shattering news arrives from the Golden City…

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SIM: The Magical Community

3 Nov

Another piece of background …

The Magical Community

The magical community does not have, despite the efforts of some political figures, a coherent existence in any real sense of the word.  There is no overall unifying authority and, given the nature of magical society, it is extremely unlikely that any will arise.  The handful of magical aristocrats who remember the days of the empire, when they ruled magic, are heavily outnumbered by the remainder, who prefer to savour what independence they have from the rest of the world.  Magical society, therefore, tends to be touchy, challenging and insistent on respect, even when such respect is undeserved.  It is also, in a curious paradox, an association that stretches right across the Allied Lands and beyond.

Geographically, there is no magical ‘country.’  A map of the magical community would look like flecks on paint, scattered over the rest of the Allied Lands.  The majority of magicians live within estates – often centred on a nexus point – magic-heavy towns and beside their mundane neighbours.  The magical community is more of an collection of bloodlines and schools – and a handful of townships – rather than anything else.

The community rests on four poles.  First, the magical families and their bloodlines, carefully tended to ensure newborn magicians add their diversity to the whole.  Second, the quarrels – associations of magicians linked together in blood-brotherhood.  Third, the guilds, which serve as alliances and unions of magicians in a specific line of magic.  Fourth, and finally, the schools, which impart a degree of shared community and cultural understanding into the ever-growing community. 

The sexism so prevalent in the remainder of the Allied Lands is rare amongst magicians.  Female magicians have full legal rights.  To treat a sorceress as somehow lesser, or to assume her husband speaks for her, is to court death.  The magical society is also quite accepting of homosexuality, although there is an expectation that powerful magicians will have children to ensure their genes are passed down to the next generation. 

As a general rule, magicians are prideful and touchy.  A magician is entitled to demand respect within his domain, even from more powerful magicians (who, in turn, are expected to refrain from deliberately undermining their host).  To enter a magician’s home is to commit oneself to behaving; the magician, in turn, must extend formal guest-right to his visitors.  (A magician is legally within his rights to do whatever he likes to an intruder.)  Magicians may enter employment, apprenticeships and patron-client relationships, but only under very precise contracts that detail precisely the obligations of each party to the other.  The idea of outright servitude is abhorrent to magicians, at least when they’re the ones in servitude; it is rare, to say the least, to encounter a magician willing to become a servant. 

Navigating magical society, therefore, is quite difficult for an outsider.  Magicians are often achingly polite, but also willing to push and jostle people to assert their strength and test the newcomer’s strength.  It is quite easy to give offense and quite hard to apologise.  A magician can issue a challenge to a duel at any time, although the challenged party has the right to determine how the duel is fought.

Magicians rarely admit, openly, that anyone has the right to judge them (unless in very specific circumstances).  There are few magicians, therefore, willing to enforce the rules outside their domains, let alone serve in a magical police force.  (The White Council’s Mediators are the closest they get to an outright law enforcement body.)  Those who openly break the rules, from bad manners to meddling in dark magic, are normally shunned by the remainder of the community, rather than stopped.  A handful of magicians believe dark wizards – as opposed to necromancers – should be stopped, but the remainder of the community fears setting precedents that might eventually be used against them.

Magicians assert, if pressed, that they mature slower than mundanes.  This may or may not be true.  It is also a reflection on their society, an acceptance that a childish mistake need not haunt an adult for the rest of their live.  If a child – or someone legally a child, such as an apprentice – commits an offense, they don’t have to face the full consequences.  Cynics assert it is a way to keep children and apprentices under control for longer than mundane communities, but it serves a valuable purpose.  Newcomers to magical society can learn the rules before it’s too late. 

As a general rule, magicians are highly educated.  They could generally read and write well before the New Learning reshaped the world.  They were also told horror stories about what happened to young magicians who made mistakes, including ‘The Magician Who Made a Foolish Oath’ and ‘The Witch Who Got What She Wanted,’ both warnings of the dangers of entering obligations with other magicians. 

The magician community exists slightly apart from the mundane one, under the terms of the Compact (actually a collection of agreements between magicians and aristocrats).  Magical families enjoy near-complete independence from the mundane governments, as long as they refrain from any kind of political interference.  Magicians who do interfere, directly or indirectly, are regarded as having broken the Compact and can therefore no longer claim its protection.  Just how far this goes has never been truly tested, with both magicians and mundanes careful not to put too much pressure on the relationship.  As a general rule, magicians who are closely involved with mundane affairs – Queen Alassa, for example – are not considered part of the overall community and therefore free to honour their obligations to their people.

Magicians generally look down on mundanes, even the newborns and those dependent on the mundane community.  The belief in magical superiority is not altogether unfounded, given the use of magic to make life easier for magicians and mundanes alike.  The average newborn, moving from a village to a magic school, will move from poverty to what might as well be a wonderland; hot and cold running water, magical lightning, etc.  It is unusual for mundanes to have any legal rights in magical communities and homes, although magicians who prey on mundanes are generally shunned by their fellows.  A magician who kept enslaved mundanes in his home would be looked down upon, which wouldn’t always translate into freeing the slaves.  In general, few magicians within the greater community care enough to bother.

Politically, there are three different factions within the community.  The Isolationists believe that contact between magicials and mundanes is bad for both sides and therefore they should separate themselves as much as possible, for their own good.  Given the power, they would seal off magical areas and encourage the development of a parallel society.  The Integrationists believe that magicians and mundanes should live and work together, on the unspoken assumption there are no real differences – besides magic – between the two.  The Supremacists believe that magicians have the de facto right to rule mundanes, on the grounds of superior power, and magicians should become (more of) an aristocracy.

Given the absence of any real government, and the pressing need to fight the war against the necromancers, the political strife has been largely muted.  Now the necromancers are gone, that may be about to change …

Stuck In Magic CH3

30 Oct

Chapter Three

I would have gone mad, if it hadn’t been for Jasmine.

She understood, to some extent, what I was feeling.  She was always happy to chat, even when she was doing her bit for the clan.  She explained what I was seeing, told me how the clan worked and, often, answered questions I hadn’t thought to ask.  We might not be close friends – we were just too different – but she was, in her way, as isolated from the rest of the caravan as me.  The rest of the clan kept their distance.  It was hard not to feel a little offended, even though I knew I should be grateful.  I’d had enough of that back home.

Jasmine explained it, when I asked.  “They’re not sure if you’re going to be hanging around for much longer,” she said.  “They don’t want to get close to you if there’s still a chance you might leave.”

I frowned.  “Where would I go?”

“You’re not the first person to come stumbling out of the Greenwood,” Jasmine said, as we sat on the edge of the campsite.  “Some try to make their way back home, even though hundreds of years might have passed since they were lost.  Others find new homes and wave goodbye to us.  It happens.  We don’t open our hearts to newcomers unless they’re committed.”

“They don’t seem to like you either,” I said.  “I thought you were one of them.”

Jasmine’s mouth twisted, as if she’d bitten into something sour.  “I went to school,” she said, softly.  “They don’t know if I’ll come back, after I graduate, or make my life elsewhere.  If I don’t … my parents won’t disown me or kick me out, but I won’t be one of them anymore.  A friend, perhaps, yet … an outsider.”

I winced in sympathy.  I understood the feeling.  “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Jasmine said.  She smiled, rather wanly.  “I haven’t decided yet.”

She waved a hand at the caravans.  “There are two circles,” she said.  “The inner circle consists of those who are committed to our lives, who would sooner die rather than surrender the freedom of the open road.  The outer circle consists of those who travel with us for a time and then go on to make their lives elsewhere.  They’re welcome, in a way, but they’re not truly us.”

“I see,” I said.  “What should I do?”

Jasmine looked me in the eye.  “Follow your heart.”

I changed the subject and tossed question after question at her, trying to get the lay of the land.  Or the lie of the land, as my old sergeant had put it.  Jasmine didn’t know that much, although I had a feeling she knew more than the average peasant.  I’d met tribesmen in Central Asia who hadn’t known anything beyond their villages.  They neither knew nor cared who ruled their country, let alone what side they were supposed to be on in the forever war.  I had the feeling the Diddakoi paid as little attention as they could to such details.  It left me feeling more than a little frustrated.  How was I supposed to decide where to go, let alone what to do, when I didn’t know what the options were?

We kept moving, never staying in one place for more than a day or two.  I slowly grew used to the limits of my new home, to the simple absence of everything I’d taken for granted.  We cooked dinner on a fire, not in a microwave; we washed in streams, when we could, rather than fancy showers.  I’d hoped to impress them with my knowledge of ‘little devils’ in water – and the importance of boiling the water before drinking it – but it turned out they already knew it.  Martin Padway had known enough tech to ensure that darkness never fell on the Roman Empire … he’d come from a less advanced world.  I knew a lot, but I didn’t know how to build crap I’d taken for granted a few short weeks ago.  If I’d known …

If I’d known, I would have crammed the car with supplies, I thought.  The toolkit and first aid supplies were useful, but they wouldn’t last for very long.  I had only a limited amount of ammunition and no way of making more.  I could have brought enough arms and supplies to build a whole kingdom for myself.

The thought sobered me.  Jasmine had shown me enough magic – parlour tricks, she’d insisted – for me to be very aware there was an unpredictable element in my new world.  She might imagine herself to be performing tricks, but I … I now knew how primitive tribesmen had felt when they’d come face to face with the wheel, guns and every other piece of technology that was light years ahead of them.  The gulf was so wide I feared I couldn’t begin to cross it.  Even Jasmine’s assurances there would be work for someone like me, if I was willing to work, fell flat.  How could I learn to use magic?

“You can’t,” Jasmine said, when I broke down and asked.  “You don’t have the talent.”

I gave her a sharp look.  “What happens to people who can’t do magic?”

“They don’t go to magic school?”  Jasmine shrugged.  “Seriously, there are places for everyone.”

I sighed and resigned myself to asking more questions as I struggled to learn the language before it was too late.  I’d always been good with languages, but this one … Jasmine’s spell was a hindrance as much as it helped.  She wasn’t that good a teacher either.  I found it hard to believe that everyone spoke the same language, with some slight local variations, but … the more I thought about it, the more it seemed true.  Back home, there was an entire industry built around teaching people to speak foreign languages.  There were people who knew what they were doing.  Here … there didn’t seem to be any need.  I forced myself to learn, trying to come to terms with the underlying grammar.  It didn’t help that there seemed to be a higher and lower language, as well as a written script that made no sense.

They always leave this part out of the books, I thought, grimly.  They wave their hands and overlook the problem so they can get on to the meaty part.

It grew harder, as the days wore on, to remember that I had children.  The boys … I wondered, grimly, if they’d ever guess what had happened to me.  They’d report me missing, right?  I’d certainly be listed as AWOL when I failed to show up for duty.  And then … and then what?  They’d never find my car, let alone my body.  Cleo would probably insist I’d gone underground to avoid paying child support.  And when they realised I hadn’t cleaned out my bank accounts … I made a face.  Cleo would get the money, along with my army pension and everything else.  She’d push to have me declared dead as quickly as possible. 

I felt a pang.  I loved my sons.  I’d even loved her.  And I’d never see any of them again.

“You’re brooding,” Jasmine said, when she found me on the edge of the clearing.  “It doesn’t really make things better.”

I glared at her.  “What do you know about loss?”

“Too much.”  Jasmine didn’t sound angry, merely saddened.  I’d told her I couldn’t stop thinking about my family.  “They’re not dead.  They’re just out of reach.”

I stared into the trees.  We were a long way from the Greenwood, but I’d been warned – time and time again – never to go out of the clearing after dark.  The urge to just walk into the woods and keep walking, in the desperate hope of finding my way home, was almost overpowering.  Jasmine had told me that there was no guarantee of going anywhere – and I believed her – and yet it was hard to stay where I was.  My father had deserted me when I’d been a child.  I’d promised myself I’d always be there for my sons.  And, through no fault of my own, I’d broken the promise.

The stars mocked me, every night.  They were so different.  I wasn’t on Earth.  I was … I was somewhere else.  It was good news, in a way; I could tell myself I wasn’t in the past, years before my children had been born, or so far in the future that my great-grandchildren were nothing more than dust.  And yet, they might as well be.  I had no hope of ever seeing them again.  I glared down at my hands, wondering if there was any point in going on.  Who knew what would happen when we finally reached the city?  Would I stay or would I go?

Jasmine touched my shoulder, lightly.  “They’re not dead.”

I rounded on her.  “They might as well be.”

She stood her ground.  “You can remain lost in memories, if you wish, or you can look to the future.”

I shook my head, slowly.  There were times when it was impossible to forget that we came from very different worlds.  Jasmine had grown up in a world where the slightest scratch could mean certain death, if the cut got infected.  There was a fatalism in her attitude I’d seen  in the Third World, but not in America.  Death was her constant companion, despite her magic.  She’d learned to accept death in a manner I found impossible …

She’s never had any children, I thought, sourly.  She doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a child.

I knew I was being unfair, but the thought refused to fade.  Jasmine was young.  It was hard to be sure of her age – Jasmine herself didn’t seem certain – but she couldn’t be any older than nineteen.  She didn’t seem to have any suitors sniffing around either.  That surprised me.  Jasmine was strikingly pretty as well as a gifted magician and singer.  But then, it was also unclear if she’d stay with the clan.  If she left, her partner would either have to let her go or leave the clan himself.  There weren’t many people in tribal communities who’d make that choice.

“I had a wife,” I said.  Cleo and I would probably have gotten divorced – I couldn’t trust her again, not after she’d cheated on me – but … it hurt.  “Don’t you have anyone?”

Jasmine shrugged.  “Everyone here is related to me, in one way or another,” she said.  “If I stay, I’ll meet prospective suitors when the clans assemble for the winter ceremonies.”

I reminded myself, again, that Jasmine was young.  “You don’t have anyone at Hogwarts?”

Jasmine blinked.  “Hogwarts?”

“Whitehall,” I corrected.

“No.”  Jasmine shook her head.  “How many of them would want to live out here?”

She waved a hand at the caravans.  I shrugged.  Her description of Whitehall had made it sound like a boarding school from hell, where you couldn’t walk down a corridor without someone zapping you in the back and turning you into a frog.  The whole idea was utterly terrifying.  Jasmine seemed to take it in stride, but … her attempts to explain magic to me had been incomprehensible.  Nothing she said made sense.  It all boiled down to trying to explain things like the whichness of the why and … it made me think of the song about the dancing centipede.  She’d lost the talent as soon as she’d tried to figure out what she actually did.

“They might see it as a step up,” I pointed out.

“A step down,” Jasmine corrected.  “None of them grew up here.”

We stood together in companionable silence.  It struck me, suddenly, that she was oddly relaxed in my presence.  I liked to think we’d become friends over the last couple of weeks, but … it was odd.  I was a big beefy man and black besides.  I was used to people eying me with concern, even with fear.  Sometimes I understood and sometimes they were just assholes.  And yet, Jasmine didn’t.  She neither learned towards nor away from me.  It was curious …

It clicked, suddenly.  Jasmine wasn’t nervous, around me, because she didn’t need to be.  She had magic.  She could protect herself.  I’d known women in the sandbox who’d been able to rely on their relatives to protect or avenge them – such protection had a price, up to and including complete submission – but Jasmine was different.  She wasn’t a defenceless girl, she was … my head spun as I realised she was strong in her own right.  I’d known some female soldiers who were just as tough as the men, women who’d earned their spurs, but this was different.  The world seemed to turn upside down as I glanced at her.  I was wondering why Jasmine wasn’t nervous around me?  Perhaps I should be nervous around her!

She let out a breath.  My paranoid mind wondered if she could read my thoughts.  The concept made my skin crawl.  What if she could?  What if … I tried not to think of her naked and promptly thought of her naked.  I told myself, sharply, that I was being silly.  She’d told me enough about magic to convince me she couldn’t read minds, although it was possible she was lying.  Or simply accidentally misleading me.

“You can make your own choice, here,” Jasmine said.  “Be what you want to be.”

I laughed as we made our way back to the caravan.  The clan was moving out again, heading down a road that looked as if it had seen better days.  I had the feeling it had been trodden down by thousands of people, over hundreds of years.  The air grew warmer as we picked up speed, inching our way out of the woods.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw, for the first time, hints of real civilisation.  I could see tiny villages in the distance, half-hidden amidst the fields.

My heart sank as I took in the sight.  I was no farmer – I knew very little about farming – but I could tell the peasants were working desperately to scratch a living from the soil.  The land looked almost painfully dry, the plants seeming to droop as they fought to draw nutrients from the soil.  The handful of workers in view looked tired, utterly beaten down.  They were all men.  I couldn’t see any women at all.

The air seemed to grow even hotter.  I felt sweat trickling down my back.  Jasmine seemed unbothered.  I couldn’t tell if she was using magic to shield herself or if she was simply used to it.  I kept my eyes on the countryside, my eyes trailing over row upon row of sickly-looking crops.  A dry ditch marked the edge of the fields.  It looked to have dried up years ago.  The ground looked as hard as stone.  I couldn’t believe the farm would last for much longer, no matter how hard the peasants worked.  They looked permanently on the edge of starvation.

We drove through a town, the locals paying very little attention to us.  They didn’t show any sign of interest, or fear, or anything.  I’d been in places where the locals greeted American troops with sticks and stones – at least partly because they knew the local insurgents would kill anyone who wasn’t insufficiently unwelcoming – but this was different.  The locals didn’t care about us or anyone.  I saw a woman making her way down the road, just as we left the town, and stared.  She looked ancient.  It was hard to believe she was still alive.

I heard a galloping sound and looked back, just in time to see a line of horsemen cantering past.  The hooves kicked up dust, which the wind blew into our faces.  I reached for my pistol, then stopped myself.  Who knew who the riders were?  What would happen if I killed one or more of them?

“Local toffs, out for a ride,” Jasmine explained.  She waved a hand, the dust fading from the air.  “They’ll own the estate for sure.”

I glanced at her.  “Who owns the land?”

“The local lord,” Jasmine said.  “That” – she said a word her spell couldn’t or wouldn’t translate – “is probably his son.”

She sounded indifferent.  I had the feeling it was a matter of great concern to the peasants.  Land ownership was a major issue right across the world.  The people who worked the land could find themselves displaced, or enslaved, if the land was sold to someone else.  And it would be perfectly legal.

“Asshole,” I commented.  I didn’t know the brat, but I disliked him already.  “Why don’t the peasants revolt?”

“It happens,” Jasmine said.  “They all get killed.”

I put my thoughts aside as we drove down towards the city.  The land looked like a chessboard, patches of cultivated land rubbing shoulders with fields that had been left fallow and ditches that looked as if they’d dried up years ago.  An irrigation project would probably have done wonders for crop yield, I thought – I’d seen it work in Afghanistan – but I doubted anyone was interested in trying.  It looked as if no one was even thinking about helping the peasants.  The riders I’d seen cantering past had been doing them harm simply by existing. 

And they keep the peasants so downtrodden they can’t even think of a better life, I mused.  It made sense.  I’d seen it before.  It was just sickening.  They’d sooner keep their power than make life better for everyone, including themselves.

The wind shifted, blowing an unholy stench into my face.  “What the fuck …?”

Jasmine giggled.  “Do you know what we call cityfolk?”

“No.”  I forced myself to breathe though my mouth.  The stench was appalling, the scent of piss and shit and too many humans in too close proximity.  “What?”

“Stinkers,” Jasmine said.  She sobered.  “Believe me, it fits.”

I nodded as the city came into view.  Somehow, I didn’t doubt it.

Snippet – The Cunning Man’s Tale

26 Oct

Hi, everyone

The Cunning Man’s Tale is a short story/novella for Fantastic Schools III, set in Heart’s Eye.  It takes place at roughly the same time as Little Witches (more or less.)  It should be more or less stand-alone.

I’m trying two different things here.  First, this story is written in first person (rather than third person).  I’ve done that before, but this is the first time I’ve done it for SIM.  Second, I planned this novella with the intention of eventually filling it out and turning it into a more serious novel.  If you have any suggestions for expansion and suchlike, please feel free to pass them to me.


PS – If you read, please comment from time to time.  It encourages me.

PPS – If you want to write yourself, check out the link below.

Chapter One

I had barely rested my head on the pillow when I was awakened by a terrific banging.

I jumped awake, half-convinced I’d overslept and my master was furious.  Master Pittwater was decent and easy-going, as masters went, but he had every right to be upset if I’d overslept.  The apothecary didn’t run itself, as I knew all too well.  If Master Pittwater had to work the counter himself, he was going to be mad.  He needed to restock on a dozen potions before the rush began …

My head spun as I sat up.  Where was I?  It wasn’t my garret above the shop.  It wasn’t the bedroom I’d shared with my brothers, back in Beneficence.  It was a small room, bare and barren save for an uncomfortable bed, illuminated by a single glowing crystal.  My bag lay in the corner, where I’d left it … I blinked as memory returned.  I’d been so tired, when I’d finally reached Heart’s Eye, that I had very little awareness of being shown to a room and collapsing into sleep.  Master Pittwater had warned me about portal lag, about the body being convinced it was in one time zone while actually being in another, but I hadn’t believed it.  Not until now.  The clock on the wall insisted it was ten bells, but it felt like the middle of the night.

There was another hard knock on the door.  I cursed as I stumbled to my feet and staggered towards the sound.  I honestly had no idea who was out there.  Master Pittwater had promised he’d make the arrangements, and advised me to check in with Master Landis as soon as I arrived, but I couldn’t remember if I actually had.  Everything – the portals, the train – was a blur.  I wondered, as I turned the doorknob, if I actually was in Heart’s Eye.  It was quite possible I’d been in such a state that I’d gone to the wrong place.

“Well,” a feminine voice said, as I opened the door.  “It’s about time.”

I blinked in surprise.  A girl – young woman, really – was standing on the far side of the door, eying me as if I was something particularly unpleasant under her foot.  She was striking, in a way that most female magicians are striking, and yet the sneer on her face made it hard to like her.  Her eyes narrowed with contempt as she looked me up and down.  I looked back at her, noting the long red hair and magical robes.  Her skin was unmarked by life, her hands lacking the scars on mine.  She looked like a person from another world.

“I trust you have been getting ready to attend upon us?”  The girl sounded as though she didn’t believe it.  “Or have you been lollygagging around in bed …?”

She looked past me, as if she expected to discover that I wasn’t alone.  I felt my temper flare.  I didn’t know who she was, or who she thought I was, but I didn’t like anyone talking to me like that.  I was a free citizen of Beneficence, not a serf or a slave or a runaway peasant.  I might be an apprentice, but I had rights.  They didn’t include having to take such … disdain … from someone who was clearly as immature as someone half her age.

I cleared my throat.  “Who are you?”

“Lilith,” the girl snapped.  “Don’t you know me?”

“No,” I said, in honest bemusement.  I was supposed to know her?  She wasn’t a customer at the shop – my former shop – and I was fairly sure she didn’t live in Beneficence.  Even the snootier magicians at least tried to be polite.  Mostly.  “Am I supposed to know you?”

Lilith gave me a nasty look.  “I am” – she paused, clearly rethinking what she was about to say – “I am Master Landis’s apprentice.  And I have to take you to the lab.”

She looked me up and down.  “And you’re not even appropriately dressed!”

“I only got in last night,” I said.  The urge to just slam the door in her face was overwhelming.  “You woke me up.”

“That won’t do at all,” Lilith said.  “Get dressed in lab robes and meet me there in ten minutes and …”

“I don’t even know where the lab is,” I said.  “I can’t …”

Lilith scowled.  “Get dressed,” she ordered.  “I’ll wait outside.  Hurry.”

I scowled back as I closed the door, opened my bag and dug through it for the apprenticeship robe.  Master Pittwater had given it to me as his farewell present, along with a handful of printed textbooks and tomes.  I felt grimy as I shucked my trousers and shirt, taking time to change my underwear before pulling the robe over my head.  I had been far too long since I’d had a proper shower, let alone a bath.  Master Pittwater had been insistent I shower every day, if I lived above the shop.  I’d grown used to the luxury.

Gritting my teeth, I dug out the letters of introduction and slipped them into my pocket.  Master Pittwater had assured me that everything had been sorted, that Master Landis would give me a fair shot at an apprenticeship.  He hadn’t mentioned another apprentice, a girl no less.  I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  Female apprentices were rare, outside the magical community.  And Lilith clearly had a massive chip on her shoulder.  If I’d shown that sort of attitude, I would have been in deep trouble.

“You’re not an apprentice,” Lilith said, when I opened the door.  “You shouldn’t be wearing those robes.”

I glared at her, feeling pushed to breaking point.  “I came here for an apprenticeship,” I said, sharply.  “Shouldn’t I be dressed for the part?”

“You’re not a real apprentice,” Lilith countered.  She held up her palm.  A spark of light danced over her skin.  It was a trick magicians often used to identify themselves.  I tried not to wince as I looked at the reminder I would never be a magician.  “All you’re good for is preparing the ingredients.  Menial work.”

She turned and marched down the corridor, then stopped.  “Did you even think to have something to eat?”

“No,” I said.  I was used to hunger – my family had never been wealthy enough to be sure of putting food on the table – and I could have gone on for quite some time without making mistakes, but I wanted to irritate her.  Just a little.  “Is there something to eat?”

Lilith snorted and turned to walk down a staircase.  “Follow me,” she snapped.  “And stay a step or two behind me.”

I ignored the insult as I peered around with interest.  Heart’s Eye was big, easily larger than anything I’d seen in the city.  The corridors seemed like giant mazes, although someone had helpfully hung signs and markers everywhere.  There were no paintings on the walls, save for a handful of strikingly-realistic portraits.  I frowned as I ran my eye over the names below the portraits.  MISTRESS IRENE.   LADY EMILY … the Emily, I assumed.  CALEB.  MASTER LANDIS … I stopped to study his face, wondering just how closely the painting matched reality.  He looked very different to Master Pittwater.  A pale face, neatly-trimmed goatee, green eyes … I couldn’t help thinking he reminded me of someone, although I wasn’t sure who.

“That’s your new boss,” Lilith said.  She seemed in no hurry, all of a sudden.  “We don’t want people forgetting who runs this place.”

I gave her a sharp look.  “Do you even want to be here?”

Lilith looked thoroughly displeased.  “I have no choice,” she said.  “You do.  Why don’t you leave.”

She turned and strode down the corridor before I could think of a reply.  I glared at her back as I started to follow her.  I didn’t have a choice, not if I wanted to be something more than an apothecary’s assistant.  Master Pittwater had made that clear, when he’d told me I could go no further in his employ.  I could either accept being a lowly assistant for the rest of my life or take a chance on Heart’s Eye.  He hadn’t promised me it would be easy.

I heard people talking as we reached the bottom of the corridor and stepped into a large hall.  It was crammed with people, ranging from students to older men and women wearing worker’s overalls and protective outfits.  The tables seemed to be scattered at random, although I could tell there were dozens of groups and subgroups already.  I glanced from table to table, noting youngsters who were clearly magicians and men who looked like proud craftsmen.  I felt a tinge of envy.  I’d thought about becoming a craftsman myself, but I hadn’t been able to get an apprenticeship.

Lilith pointed to the table at the front of the hall, raising her voice so I could hear over the din.  “Take what you want,” she said.  “Don’t worry about paying for it.”

“Really?”  It sounded as if she wanted to get me in hot water.  “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Lilith said.  She walked beside me, the crowd parting in front of her.  I couldn’t help noticing that she – and I – were getting wary looks, even from the magicians.  “Right now, the food is free.”

It was also very basic, I decided, as I filled a bowl with porridge and dried fruit.  Oats were easy to grow, if I recalled correctly; they were probably shipped in by the ton through the portals.  Or something.  Heart’s Eye was in the middle of a desert, but I’d been told the land was slowly becoming fertile again.  I put the matter aside for later consideration as we sat down, Lilith nursing a mug of Kava.  I couldn’t help thinking we were in a bubble.  The others gave us a wide berth.  Even the magicians seemed wary of her.

“Eat quickly,” Lilith said.  She didn’t seem pleased with her seeming unpopularity.  “We don’t have much time.”

I nodded and tucked into the porridge.  It tasted bland, but I knew I should be glad to have it.  My stomach growled warningly, suggesting I should go back for seconds.  There was dried fish too, as well as meats I didn’t recognise.  I wanted to go, but Lilith was clearly impatient.  I drank my Kava – stronger than anything I’d had back home – and stood, carrying the plates and bowls to the collection point.  It looked as if the staff had a full-time job.

“Who does the cooking?”  I asked, as Lilith led me out of the hall.  “And everything else?”

“Depends,” Lilith said.  “The cooks do the cooking” – she wasn’t looking at me, but I could hear the sneer – “assisted by students who are working their way through the university courses.  They do the labour and, in exchange, are allowed to attend courses.  It is quite the arrangement.”

I stared at her back.  “What’s wrong with it?”

“They cannot use it,” Lilith said.  “What’s the point?”

I couldn’t put my feelings into words.  Lilith didn’t seem to notice as she walked down two flights of stairs and along a long corridor.  I felt a tingle passing through me, my hair threatening to stand on end, as we crossed the wards.  Silence fell, noticeably.  I hadn’t really been aware of the background noise until it was gone.  A pair of young girls walked past us, going in the other direction.  They both gave Lilith a wide berth.  I frowned.  Lilith wasn’t that bad, was she?  I’d met people who were worse.

“This is the lab,” Lilith said, as she pushed open a door.  “Master Landis will key you into the wards, once you prove yourself.”

“I proved myself to Master Pittwater,” I protested.  “I know …”

“An apothecary,” Lilith said, in a tone that suggested Master Pittwater was one step above a gutter rat.  “This is an alchemical lab.  The rules are different.”

She muttered a word as she stepped inside.  The air glowed with light.  I felt a thrill, despite myself, as I looked around.  The chamber was massive, a dozen wooden tables – neatly spaced, in line with the rules Master Pitt water had drummed into me – dominating the room.  The walls were lined with shelves upon shelves of potion ingredients, alchemical textbooks and everything an alchemist needed, from cauldrons to glass vials, jars and bottles.  I stepped closer, admiring the collection of ingredients.  A number were so expensive that Master Pittwater had rarely, if ever, used them.  I couldn’t help shuddering as I saw a pickled frog in a jar.

“That was a boy who tried to kiss me,” Lilith said.  I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.  “I turned him into a frog and pickled him.”

I felt sick.  “Do you think that’s funny?”

Lilith shrugged.  “There’s a washroom through there,” she said.  “I take it you know how to wash your hands and put on a proper apron?”

I didn’t bother to dignify that stupid question with a stupid answer.  I hadn’t worked a day in the shop before I’d learnt the dangers of cross-contamination and injury.  It was very easy to get seriously hurt, even if one couldn’t brew the more dangerous potions.  I’d helped Master Pittwater clean the wounds, after one of his previous ancestors had splashed himself with cockatrice blood.  It wasn’t as lethal as basilisk or manticore venom, but it had still done enough damage to terminate the poor man’s career.  I had no idea what had happened to him afterwards.  I hoped he wasn’t starving on the streets somewhere.

Lilith rattled around in the lab as I washed and dried my hands, then donned a apron.  It wouldn’t provide much protection, if a cauldron exploded, but it might give me a few seconds to tear it off before the boiling liquid burned through to my skin.  I tested it lightly, making sure I could pull it free, then headed back into the lab.  Lilith had laid out a set of ingredients, and a small collection of tools.  I felt a thrill when I looked at them.  I knew how to use them all.

“To work,” Lilith ordered.  She jabbed a finger at the pile.  “Ready these for use.”

I frowned as I stared at the pile.  Some were common, so common a child could prepare them properly.  A couple required almost no preparation.  The remainder were tricky.  I couldn’t prepare them unless I knew what we were going to brew.  The Darkle Roots needed to be sliced one way for a sleeping potion and quite another way for a purgative.  The Candy Seeds needed to be left intact for a shape-change potion and crushed for a healing potion.  And the daises … Master Pittwater had joked about a vile old witch who found daises soothing, but – as far as I knew – they had no real magical applications.  They were useless.

“Interesting,” I said, as neutrally as I could.  “What are we going to brew?”

Lilith sniffed.  “A simple painkilling potion,” she said.  She hadn’t said which one.  There were over fifty different recipes, with varying levels of potency.  “Prepare the ingredients.”

I kept my face under tight control as I considered the recipes I’d memorised.  There were only four that involved all, but one of the ingredients.  The daisies were a mystery.  I shrugged, resisting the urge to ask about them as I started to work.  I chopped up the Darkle Roots, being very careful to avoid mixing them with the Hawthorne Thistles.  They didn’t go well together unless they were blended in a cauldron.  The Jigger Stems were of too poor quality for two of the four recipes, so I angled my work towards the remaining two.  Lilith watched, occasionally tossing in a question.  I was almost insulted.  I’d covered most of them within the first two months of my time in the shop.

“I’ve done everything, but the daises,” I said, finally.  “What are we going to brew?”

Lilith snorted.  “We?  I’m going to brew …”

I felt my temper snap.  “I just prepared the ingredients for you,” I said, sharply.  A thought struck me.  “Did I just help you with your work?”

“It’s your job,” Lilith snapped.  “You prepare the ingredients.  I turn them into potions!”

“I came here for an apprenticeship, not to be a servant,” I snapped back.  I didn’t mind preparing ingredients.  It was part of the job.  But I didn’t want to be just a preparer.  “I need to learn to brew and …”

“With what?”  Lilith turned to face me.  “You have no magic.  You can toss this lot into a cauldron and get what?  Sludge!  You cannot do anything with this.  All you’re good for is preparing the ingredients!”

“I can learn,” I said.  “I can …”

Lilith jabbed a finger at me.  My entire body froze.  I could neither move nor speak.

“I learnt that spell before I went to school,” Lilith said.  She tapped me on the head.  It sounded as if she’d rapped her knuckles against solid metal.  “You are powerless against it.  You cannot defend yourself against even the merest touch of magic.  You have no place here, save as a servant to your betters.  And the sooner you learn it, the better.”

I struggled to move, but I couldn’t.  My entire body was locked solid.  I couldn’t even move my eyes.  I watched, helplessly, as Lilith took the ingredients I’d lovingly prepared and started to turn them into a potion.  She was good, I admitted grudgingly; she was far better than the other apprentices I’d met.  Her fingers moved with easy skill, her magic sparking with life as she worked.  And yet she thought of me as a servant …

My heart sank.  How the hell did I get into this mess?

Stuck in Magic CH2

26 Oct

Chapter Two

“Can you understand me?”  Jasmine was eying me, worriedly.  “Can you …?”

“Yes,” I managed.  “What … what was that?”

“Magic,” Jasmine said.  She sounded slightly reassured.  “A simple translation spell.”

A simple … my mind seemed to stagger in utter disbelief.  Magic?  Impossible.  I was dreaming.  I had to be dreaming.  I’d crashed the car and fallen into a coma and any moment now I’d wake up in a hospital bed, facing an enormous bill.  Or I might die.  The road had been empty when night had become day and … it was unlikely anyone would see the crash in time to save my life.  It had been very dark.  A car might drive past, the driver unaware there was anything to see.  I could die at any moment.

Jasmine stepped forward.  “What would you like to be called?”

I blinked.  It was an odd way of asking my name.  “Elliot,” I managed.  “I’m called Elliot.”

“Pleased to meet you.”  Jasmine bobbed what looked like an old-fashioned curtsey.  “You came out of the Greenwood?”

My incomprehension must have shown on my face, because she pointed to the car and the trees beyond.  It did look as though I’d driven through the foliage and straight into the ditch, although it was clearly impossible.  There was no suggestion I’d crashed my way through the trees.  They were practically a solid barrier.  The handful of chinks within the foliage were barely big enough for a grown man.  I felt claustrophobic just looking at them.  I’d delved into enough tight spaces, during the war, to feel uneasy about going back inside. 

I found my voice.  “What happened to me?”

“Some people walk into the Greenwood and come out in a different time and place,” Jasmine said.  She walked past me, her eyes narrowing as she saw the car.  “I’m afraid there’s no way home.”

“I have a family,” I protested.  “I …”

Jasmine turned to look at me.  “I’m very sorry,” she said.  I didn’t doubt her for a moment.  “But there’s no way home.”

“You can walk back into the Greenwood, if you like,” the older man said.  “I just don’t know when and where you’d come out.”

I pinched myself, hard.  It hurt.  It didn’t feel like a dream – or a nightmare.  Cleo and the boys were … where?  When and where?  Was this the past?  Was this a time when magic had actually existed?  Or was I on another world?  Jasmine and her family looked human enough, but … they were such a strange mixture of races I found it hard to believe they lived and worked together.  They looked like gypsies.  Maybe they were travellers, moving from place to place.

“I’m Grandfather Lembu,” the older man said.  “And we are the Diddakoi.”

“He doesn’t know anything about us, Grandfather,” Jasmine said.  “He’s in shock.”

“I don’t know anything,” I said.  It wasn’t the first time I’d been abroad, but … if magic was real, the world would be very different.  Right?  “Where am I?”

“You’re in the Kingdom of Johor,” Grandfather Lembu said, calmly.  “Does that mean anything to you?”

I shook my head, wondering – too late – if they understood the gesture.  It was possible it meant something completely different here, if they had had no contact with my world.  Or … I looked around, feeling hopelessly lost.  What was I going to do?  Where could I go?  I was as ignorant of this new world as a newborn child …

“You are welcome to stay with us, at least until we reach the nearest city,” the old woman said.  “As long as you honour our ways, you will be welcome.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Jasmine said.  She shot me what I thought was meant to be a reassuring look.  “He won’t know how to behave.”

It was hard not to feel a twinge of panic.  I tried not to show it on my face.  I had no idea of the rules, or how to behave … for all I knew, smiling at someone was a grave insult.  Or something.  It was terrifyingly easy to give offense if one didn’t know the rules and the offended rarely bothered to give the offender the benefit of the doubt.  If I’d managed to get in trouble when I’d moved from state to state, just by not knowing what I was doing, it would be far worse here.

“First, we bury that … thing,” Grandfather Lembu said, waving at the car.  “We can’t leave it lying around for the peasants to find.”

Jasmine nodded.  “Take whatever you want from it,” she said to me.  “And then we’ll bury it here.”

I didn’t want to leave the car behind, but there was no choice.  Even if I could get it out of the ditch, the engine was fucked.  There was no hope of driving down the road and out of the nightmare.  I turned and walked back to the car, going through it to recover everything I could.  I’d known operators who crammed their cars with their kit, on the grounds they might be called back to duty at a moment’s notice.  In hindsight, I should have done the same.  I just didn’t have anything like enough supplies to last for more than a few days, if that.

Jasmine sat on the ditch and watched me calmly.  Her eyes seemed to skim over the car, as if she couldn’t quite see it.  I glanced at her in puzzlement, then looked away.  She was stunningly pretty, yet meddling with the local women was a pretty universal to get into trouble.  I’d known a guy who got into deep shit because he’d fallen in love with a girl from the sandbox.  And besides, Jasmine looked to be around nineteen.  She was practically half my age.

“I should have brought more,” I muttered.  Was the remnants of the car any use?  Could I tear out the windows for trade goods?  What about the gas in the tank?  Given time, I was sure I could figure out a way to drain it safely.  “If I’d known …”

“You’re not the first person who walked into the Greenwood and came out somewhere else,” Jasmine said.  She had very sharp hearing.  “All you can do is make the best of it.”

I straightened.  If this was real, a single mistake could get me killed.  If it wasn’t … I pinched myself again, just to be sure.  It still hurt.  The wind shifted, blowing the scent of arid sand into my nostrils.  It felt … wrong.  I picked up the bag and clambered out of the ditch.  I’d go through the bag later, in hopes of determining what I could use for trade goods.  I had no idea what was worth what, not here.  For all I knew, the small toolbox was nothing more than a curiosity.

Jasmine stood beside me.  “Are you sure you have everything?”

“Everything I can carry,” I said.  “Do you want me to help bury the car?”

“No need,” Jasmine said.  “Watch.”

She raised a hand.  My hair stood on end as the dirt and sand started to rise of its own accord and cover the car.  I stumbled backwards in shock, my head spinning in disbelief.  Magic was real?  I’d seen one spell already, but … I thought I understood, now, how the Native Americans had felt when they’d seen European guns and technology.  It was so far beyond their comprehension that they must have felt they could never catch up.  The first contact between the two worlds had been an outside context problem … this was an outside context problem.  Jasmine, a girl so slight I could break her in half with ease, had enough power to shake the world.

I forced myself to watch the tiny whirlwind as it covered the car completely.  The ditch looked ruined.  I couldn’t help wondering if someone was going to be very annoyed about that, one day.  The ditch didn’t look to be in good condition – I could see patches where the sides had caved in – but the hump hiding the car was a great deal bigger. If it rained heavily, it was going to reveal the car …

Jasmine lowered her hand.  The storm faded away.  I felt a sudden sense of loss as I looked at the mound.  The car hadn’t been a good car, but she’d been mine.  I’d bought her, I’d refurbished her, I’d repaired her … I felt as if I’d been completely cut off from my life and world.  I wanted to jump over the ditch and run into the trees, but Grandfather Lembu was right.  There was no guarantee I’d get home if I tried.  The sense of unseen eyes looking at me grew stronger with every passing second.

“Come on,” Jasmine said.  “I’ll show you around.”

I followed her numbly as she led the way back to the caravans.  They seemed to be an entire mobile village.  A cluster of women were lighting fires and boiling water, while the menfolk fed their horses and the children ran and played.  I stayed close to Jasmine, doing my level best to ignore the stares.  They didn’t feel hostile – I’d been in war zones, I knew the difference – but they didn’t seem very friendly either.  It wasn’t uncommon, in isolated communities.  A newcomer couldn’t walk up and demand admittance.  He would have to work long and hard to earn their trust.

And I’m the newcomer here, I thought, sourly.  They don’t know me.

Jasmine motioned for me to sit by the fire.  I sat, watching the travellers watching me.  They were a very diverse group, far more than I’d realised.  And yet, there was something about them that made them look alike.  I studied them, drawing on my years of experience.  The men and women seemed separate, but equal.  There was no sense the men were automatically superior or vice versa.  The children were certainly playing together without any sense of separate worlds.

“Drink this,” Jasmine said.  “It’s safe.”

“Thank you,” I said.  The mug looked like something out of a bygone age.  The liquid inside looked like soup.  I sipped it carefully, tasting hints of chicken and vegetables.  My stomach growled, reminding me that it had been a long time since I’d eaten.  Thousands of years, perhaps.  I couldn’t help smiling at the thought, even though it was a grim reminder I’d never see home again.  “I … I don’t know anything about being here.”

“I understand.”  Jasmine’s eyes darkened, as if she was remembering something unpleasant.  “I had to go away too, for a while.  It’s never easy.”

“No,” I agreed.  “Where did you go?”

“Whitehall School,” Jasmine said.  She held out a hand.  A spark of light danced over her palm.  “It was very different.  Being in a room … ugh.”

I had to smile.  “What did you study there?”

“Magic,” Jasmine said.  She sounded wistful.  “I have to go back at the end of the summer.”

My head spun again.  A school for magicians?  A real-life Hogwarts?  It wasn’t a pleasant thought.  I’d read the books to my kids and I’d been unable to look past the multitude of unfortunate implications.  Jasmine seemed nice enough, but … for all I knew, pureblood supremacism was a very real thing.  If there were people dumb enough to think they were superior, just because their skin was lighter than mine, I was sure there were people who thought magic made them superior.  My skin crawled.  What could magic do?  What could it not do?  The teenage girl sitting next to me might have the powers of a minor god. 

And without her, you couldn’t talk to anyone here, I thought.  You need her.

I forced myself to think.  “The spell you put on me, how long will it last?”

“I’m not sure,” Jasmine confessed.  “I can keep renewing it, you see.  Without renewal” – she frowned – “it’ll last around six months, at best.  It also has its limits.  Focus on learning the language before it wears off.”

“I’m good at learning languages,” I said, although I wasn’t sure it was true here.  There’d been teachers who’d taught me how to speak and write a handful of different languages.  I’d had multilingual friends who’d helped me to develop my skills.  “I’ll do my best to learn.”

Jasmine nodded.  We fell into a companionable silence as we drank our soup.  I couldn’t help noticing that Jasmine seemed as isolated as I, although she was one of them.  I’d wondered if I was treading on someone’s toes, if Jasmine had a partner or admirer amongst the travellers, but … she seemed too isolated for it.  I didn’t understand it.  In my experience, beauty made up for a lot of things.  Maybe she was just too closely related to the rest of the clan.  There’d been tribal societies with strict rules to prevent inbreeding.

“I need to pay my way,” I said, as the travellers started to pack up.  “What can I do to help?”

“You can help us set up the campsite when we reach the crossing point,” Jasmine said, mischievously.  “There’s a lot of fetching and carrying for all of us to do, when we arrive.”

I smiled.  If there was one good way to integrate yourself, it was through being helpful.  And I did want to pay my way, even if I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing.  Jasmine stood and escorted me towards a small caravan, so small it looked like a children’s toy.  I glanced inside, half-expecting it to be bigger on the inside.  It wasn’t.  There was barely enough room for a single person.  I had the feeling I’d break my bones if I tried to sleep inside.  I’d probably be sleeping under the caravan.  The horse – no, donkey – gave me a bored look as Jasmine scrambled up and took the reins.  I sat next to her, put my bag in the rear and watched as the traveller convoy lurched back into life.

“You have magic,” I said.  I tried to keep my voice casual, but it was hard.  “Does everyone have magic?”

“No.”  Jasmine looked pensive.  “A lot of us” – she waved a hand at the caravans – “have a spark of magic and know a few simple spells, but most people don’t.  The really talented magicians go to school and learn how to do far more advanced magics.  They don’t always come back.”

I winced, inwardly, at the pain in her voice.  It was never easy for someone to leave a traditional community, learn something very different and then come home and try to fit in once again.  I’d seen it happen back home, to kids who might have been great if they hadn’t been dragged down by their peers; I’d seen it happen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where religious fanatics had no qualms about murdering educated women and blowing up schools for girls.  Jasmine might not be facing death – I had the feeling she was still part of the clan – but she didn’t quite fit in any longer.

“Magic,” I repeated.  “How does it work?”

Jasmine launched into a long and complicated explanation I couldn’t even begin to understand.  There were too many things that didn’t make sense, too many words I didn’t know … I lacked too many concepts, I guessed, for the translation spell to work properly.  I wasn’t even sure how it worked.  The military had messed around with universal translators, but they’d never been particularly useful.  They’d been too many dialects and too little time.

I shivered, again, as she talked about her schooling.  The students were dangerous … I recalled my earlier thoughts about pureblood supremacism and cursed under my breath.  It was impossible to believe magicians didn’t have a superiority complex.  There was no real difference between whites and blacks, but magicians and muggles?  I didn’t want to know what they called muggles in this universe.  It was probably something just as insulting.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do here,” I said.  “This place is so … different.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Jasmine assured me.  “It’ll take us two weeks to reach the city.  After that, if you want to stay with us, you’ll be welcome.  Or you can strike out on your own.”

I hoped she was right, as the sky started to darken.  The caravans came to a halt in a clearing, Grandfather Lembu snapping out orders to hew wood and fetch water.  I jumped to the ground and helped, carrying water from the stream to the campsite.  The young men said little to me as I worked, although I caught them giving my clothes sidelong glances.  I made a mental note to find new clothes as soon as possible.  I looked like a stranger, someone who didn’t fit in.  And yet … I thought I saw glimmerings of respect as I helped set up the fire and a dozen other tasks.  Perhaps being here wouldn’t be so bad after all.  And yet …

“Don’t go out of the clearing after dark,” Jasmine advised, after dinner.  The food had been surprisingly tasty, following by singing and a dance.  I’d sat and watched.  “You don’t know what might be out there.”

“No,” I agreed.  “I … where do I sleep?”

Jasmine pointed me to the space beside the caravan and tossed me a blanket.  “I’ll see you in the morning.”

I lay back on the ground and stared into the dark sky.  It wasn’t the first time I’d slept out of doors, but … this time, the constellations were different.  I swallowed, hard.  Wherever I was, it wasn’t Earth.  I was a very long way from home.  I was never going to see Cleo and the boys again.  Cleo I could do without, after everything, but the boys … I tried not to sob openly as I realised they were gone forever.  They might be as well be dead.

It was a very long time before I fell asleep.