CARAPACE – a 900 Club Short Story

Happy First Birthday to The 900 Club

Happy First Birthday to The 900 Club

Please join me wishing The 900 Club a happy first birthday. We have just posted our twelfth monthly batch of five  very different short stories, we would be honoured if you would pay The 900 Club a visit and have a read. Soon we will be publishing the 2013 anthology to mark a year writing together, so keep your eyes peeled for a unique collection of tales in all styles and genres.

Fantasy Sorrow Part 13: The Sack of Hasan

In other news, Sorrow Part 13: The Sack of Hasan, latest in the epic fantasy series was released today in ebook format by Musa Publishing. The story is nearing the end now, as part sixteen is the final part, and the plot thickens.

Below is my latest offering for The 900 Club, I hope you like it.

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Carapace

by Martin Bolton

The weatherman used the phrase “mainly windy”. That made me laugh, not just because it sounds like such a ludicrous phrase when considered out of context, but also because the weatherman was my husband, and that was exactly the sort of thing he came out with all the time. He made me laugh every day then.

I remember that laughter now like a distant dream, another life, a memory shrouded by the mists of time and the madness that comes with it – and time is madness when it is all you have. It seeps into you, it eats away all the tiny barriers in your mind until you are left with stark reality, and with that comes raw madness. I have learned that since I was trapped here, in the darkness, with nothing but the silence, the cold, and this… thing.

I was Professor of Arthropodology, specialising in arachnids, for The Department of Zoology, Oxford University. We were on an expedition to Laos to visit the caves in the Mekong Subregion and follow up on local reports of a species of spider thought to outgrow the biggest known – the giant huntsman.

Had I known what really existed, deep in the heart of these ancient caves, I would have stayed in England, safe in my laboratory, where my scientific mind could cling to its superficial pretensions that man’s innate fear of the dark is purely visceral.

Our intention was to explore beyond the mapped network of passages with the purpose of plotting more of the cave and discovering new species. We were about a mile into virgin tunnels when I came upon a vast crystal chamber about the size of a football pitch. As I shone my halogen lamp across the space, the light was refracted by huge, perfectly transparent crystals like cut diamonds. The effect was breath taking: the vivid display of colours, the dazzling kaleidoscope of alien shapes. The rest of my team were behind me, but I was transfixed, enthralled, as though in a dream, isolated from the real world. Then the floor of the cave opened like a trapdoor. The colours vanished, replaced by blackness.

I ran out of breath screaming long before I hit something. I must have struck a ledge or a protruding rock, because I felt my legs shatter, making a soggy crunching sound. The impact sent me spinning helplessly into empty, black space.

What I landed on was not rock, or I would certainly be dead. How I long for such a blissful end now. We go through life fearing death, all our instincts geared to towards avoiding it. I wonder if our primeval ancestors knew what I know now. Surely if they did, they would fear the end no more, because they would know as I do, there are things on Earth so much worse than dying.

After landing on this strange, springy surface, I lay for sometime. The pain in my legs was intense, and I passed in and out of consciousness. Either that or the dreams I had of daylight, laughter and fresh air were just hallucinations caused by agony and shock. I lifted my head to look down at my body. I could move my arms but my legs were a twisted wreckage. I moved my head from side to side, initially relieved there seemed to be no injuries to my back or neck. That relief turned to dismay, then terror, when I saw what I lay on.

On either side, stretching away into the seemingly infinite darkness, were taut, thin strands of some tough, flexible material. I tried to move my upper body and felt the surface give slightly beneath my elbows. I shook my head vigorously and felt myself, almost imperceptibly, swaying back and forth. There was only one thing I knew of that came close to the description forming in my mind.

A web.

No sooner than the dim light was finally extinguished by the inevitable death of the batteries in my headtorch, I felt vibrations. Something moved in the darkness. The web shook more violently, and soon I felt its touch. The way the web moved, either side of me, gave me the impression that whatever it was, it was behind me. It was on the underside. Then I felt a sharp pain in my neck, a bite, and just before I succumbed to paralysis I felt the web shake as the thing scampered away.

I wish I had been devoured then, but the grisly fate I had imagined for myself was nothing compared to the sickening reality. It is now apparent when that thing bit me, it set into motion a ghastly, insidious process; a metamorphosis more hideous than anything I have seen in my study of arthropods, or ever imagined possible. Nor did my paralysis bring with it the inability to feel sensations, so I have felt the realigning of my very molecules like a permanent, tormenting itch.

To my horror, the first parts of my body to develop their new form were my eyes. I can see again now, even in the total darkness, only this time I can see in all directions at once. I can see myself, or at least the thing that used to be me. My transformation is at an advanced stage: I have a complete cephalothorax, spiny carapace and abdomen, and the beginnings of eight huge legs.

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SPANIEL IN THE WIND – a 900 Club Short Story

The 900 Club have now posted their latest short stories for November. The two word phrase this month was “this time”. Please check it out if you enjoy fresh, original short stories. My offering, below, was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, although it is probably not quite what you’re expecting….

* * * *

Spaniel in the Wind

by Martin Bolton

I, Fletcher Stanley Norman, write this now in the hope that I might deter others as foolish and unthinking as myself from perpetrating similarly vile acts. I fear that I have sunk too far into the murky depths of depravity, into realms beyond the light of the sun’s blessed rays, to hold any real hope for my own salvation. I can but warn others that this path I have taken leads only to eternal damnation, and pray that my warning is heeded.

The unwitting catalyst for the change in my previously mild and forgiving disposition was a cocker spaniel named Pete. His arrival in my garden one bright morning in early spring sparked a lamentable transition in my psyche, culminating in the dire events I am about to recount, the consequences of which are poor, innocent Pete’s shallow grave and my enduring slump into despair and darkness. Were it possible to turn back time, I would gladly give my own life in return for little Pete’s, but alas my despicable acts of blind jealousy can never be undone. I can only hope that Pete rests in peace, or perhaps exists in another sphere, beyond the shroud, where he is free from molestation and malice, where he bounds undisturbed through perfumed meadows void of the groping, fungal fingers of sin to which my soul succumbed.

At first, Pete’s boisterous, irrepressible zest for life was a welcome distraction from my permanent pond-side vigil. Each day he would breathe new life into the garden as he bounded back and forth, chasing his tale or following the scent of some long retired nocturnal beast, pausing periodically to slobber noisily over is testicles. There was a contagious energy in him that flowed into his surrounding environment, making every day seem like the first of spring. That energy has now left this derelict place, giving rise to a stagnant greyness that wreathes my pointy hat like a malignant smog and drains the light from my heart.

That first summer after Pete’s arrival seems like a painfully ecstatic dream that serves only to remind me with unrelenting brutality of all that I have destroyed. Pete was the sunshine, and every night as the moon shone upon my pond, I gazed at the water and pictured his manic tale and his thick, spongy ears dangling in the water as he lapped up mouthfuls of green slime. I would patiently wait, knowing he would be back at dawn to a lay steaming mound on the grass and mark me as his own.

But as I watched him, day after day, mindlessly urinating at every opportunity and relentlessly pursuing any hapless creature that ventured within the confines of the garden wall, something dark was nurtured within my soul. I gradually grew to despise Pete.

He became an insufferable annoyance, the constant scent marking seemed unnecessary and, in my head, became a mortal insult directed at me, and his incessant barking at every passer by an ear-splitting cacophony that cut me to the quick. I became irritable and developed a purple temper that flared up and threatened to explode whenever he was present. That indiscriminately affectionate, delirious young cocker spaniel became the secret focus for a deeply destructive, unforgiving hatred.

I was gradually gripped by a malignant, corrosive darkness that dug a fetid pit within my spirit, and it was two years after his arrival that I finally slid so disastrously to its very depths. I remember that morning so vividly that it tears at my heart like the claws of some ravenous raptor to recount it. It was early spring, dew hung heavy on glistening spider-webs, and the chorus of bird song was food for the soul – though mine had long since abandoned such sustenance.

I swear I did not plan what happened next, or perhaps I did in my festering, cursed subconscious. The sun was just rising and steam rose from the hedgerows. I heard the latch on the back door, the noise that signalled my daily torment. True to form, Pete came bounding onto the lawn, barking at the feeding birds, trying vainly to catch one in flight and sending them flapping to the tops of trees. He then squatted for his morning defecation – you could set your watch by his bowel movements. I had witnessed this very scene every day for two years, but this time it would have a different ending. As I watched him through eyes sooty with the blackness of hate, a terrible idea formed in my mind. As Pete squeezed out his final nugget of miasmic waste, I leapt from my rock as if controlled by some powerfully malevolent force, and mounted him roughly. Using my fishing rod as a miniature horse-whip, I gripped one of Pete’s giant ears and I rode him hard around the garden.

God forgive me, I rode him!

We cantered around the perimeter and out the gate. I did not see the range rover. God help me, I did not see it until it was too late! I managed to jump free in the nick of time, but poor, innocent Pete was not so lucky. His skull was crushed like an egg under the front wheel.

Shame and guilt are not my only punishment, for my porcelain heart will live on through the millennia and I shall linger in the knowledge of what I have done.

MISSING: 9 YEAR OLD GINGER TOM – a 900 Club Short Story

Here is my latest short story for the 900 Club. Check it out for four more very different stories, all inspired by October’s two word “phrase”: Stephen Fry.

MISSING: 9 YEAR OLD GINGER TOM

by Martin

Hello.

What are you doing here?

I just thought I would say hello.

Hello. I didn’t think I would see you again.

You’re looking a bit dishevelled. What happened to you?

I’ve had a few beers.

Look at the state of you. You’ve got a rip in your sleeve.

I think I bumped into a wall on my way home.

And fell over.

Maybe.

And passed out.

Possibly.

Did you wake up on the floor outside the Broadwalk?

Yes, how did you know?

I recognise the pattern on your face. You’re bleeding.

It’s just a bit of a scrape.

You should really wash the grit out of it.

Later. I’m knackered.

It’s getting late, haven’t you got to work in the morning?

I’m not going in.

Why not?

I don’t feel well.

I’m not surprised, how long have you been drinking?

Since Friday, I think.

No wonder you’re such a mess. Have you been arrested again?

No, the copper gave me a lift home. He seemed to feel sorry for me. I woke up to find him peering down at me, it was the loveliest vision of a policeman I’ve ever seen.

Christ, you don’t even make them angry any more. When even the police feel sympathy, you know you are beyond pathetic. You look like you’ve just been dug up.

I feel like it.

Your knuckles are bruised, have you been fighting?

Well spotted, Columbo. Anyway, so what if I have, you’re always out there fighting.

That’s different and you know it, I am protecting the garden. When was the last time you ate?

I had a kebab last night.

Disgusting.

That’s rich coming from you, I’ve seen what you eat.

You’ve never had the decency to try it though, I always bring something back for you and you screw your face up and throw it out. That’s gratitude for you. I suppose I’m expected to make do with that tinned shit you bring home, well you can stick it up your arse, I require something a bit fresher from time to time.

What am I supposed to do? Cook you a gourmet meal every night?

It wouldn’t hurt, just now and again. You could be a bit more thoughtful.

I’m not Hugh fucking Laurie.

What?

Hugh Laurie, you know, the butler.

What are you talking about?

The butler on that programme. What’s it called? Jeeves and Wooster, that’s it. He’s always one step ahead of the game.

That’s Stephen Fry.

…Stephen Fry then. I’m not your butler.

He’s not a butler.

What? Yes he is. He does the ironing and breakfast and all that. He gets Hugh Laurie out of hilarious scrapes.

Yes, but he’s not a butler. He’s a “Gentleman’s Gentleman”.

What? What the fuck are you talking about?

Give me strength. He’s a valet. A butler works for a household. Jeeves is Wooster’s personal servant.

Shit, I always thought he was a butler.

You fucking moron. Don’t you read books?

Shut up you ginger bastard.

You cretinous stick-man, you stink. Why don’t you have wash?

We don’t all have the luxury of being able to just stop and wash whenever we like.

Once a day would do. You smell like a tramp’s dog. Have some respect for yourself.

I’m not sure I have any left.

Get a fucking grip, man. Do you think you’re the only one who’s had a shit time? There are people out there with fuck all, who struggle every single day of their lives just to survive, people who would give anything to have your life. And look at you, wallowing in self pity. You’re young, you’re intelligent, and you’re alive. What is the problem?

I don’t fucking know.

You can’t carry on like this. Why are you so angry?

I’m sure I had a good reason, but I can’t remember what it was. It was a good reason though.

A good reason? Good enough to destroy yourself and push away everyone you love? A good enough reason to hate yourself? Whatever it is that has made you angry, it is winning. It is winning easily. I suppose crying is a good start, at least it is a genuine emotion that doesn’t break anything.

(SILENCE)

I have to go now, Martin. Will you be ok?

Will you come back and talk to me again?

You know I won’t.

What happened to you?

I don’t know.

Why did you leave me?

I wasn’t given a choice.

I’m so lonely. Look at the state of me. I don’t know what to do any more.

You have your whole life ahead of you. You must live it. Live it for me. And know that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, every time you feel joy, and every time you feel sorrow, I will be there watching, and I will be proud of the man you’ve become. Don’t cry for my death, celebrate my life and all that we shared, and remember I live on in you, so you’ll never truly be alone. Can you do that?

I don’t know.

You have to. There are people who depend upon you. They’ll need you to be strong. Life is beautiful, and you are surrounded by people who love you. Just look around you, don’t shy away from them, be yourself, express yourself. You’ll find that they make you stronger. OK?

OK.

Good bye Martin.

Good bye, Whiskers.

Dream #2: Spiders on the Storm

Sick Mouse

Sick Mouse

Nearly all of my dreams have spiders in them. They rarely take a prominent role, they’re usually just hanging around in the background, whatever the main theme of the dream. The funny thing is spiders make me jump, I’m not comfortable touching them, especially big ones. But in my dreams they don’t bother me at all. They seem to be just a harmless part of the scenery.

Now, what this is all about, I have no idea. The dream begins with me walking into the house where I grew up. My younger broker is sitting in an armchair with a massive spider curled up in his lap like a cat, and he’s stroking it. It is a huge, black tarantula the size of a medium-sized dog and it has a red pattern on its back. The thing has massive fangs and he cuts his finger on one of them as he strokes it, so I go into the kitchen to get him a plaster.

When I get into the kitchen there is a bowl of cat food on the floor and a cat standing there yawning at me. There is also a bloated, green mouse stumbling around. It is distended, bald and shiny, it looks either drunk or really ill, or both. The first thing I think is that the cat will eat the cat food and the spider will eat the mouse, but then the spider wanders in and eats the cat food. The cat looks a bit bemused but then happily devours the mouse.

Then I woke up with Riders on the Storm by The Doors going round in my head but, instead of singing “Riders on the Storm” Jim Morrison is singing “Spiders on the Storm”.

Mental.

A True Story About What Happened in Tehidy Woods – Do You Believe in Ghosts?

Fantasy Fiction The Peace of Elias cover 1 colour

Inspired by a strange experience

As I recently posted my latest 900 Club story, The Woods, on this blog, I thought it would be good to tell the true story that inspired it.

I think we were about 14 at the time. It was me, Justin, Ryan and Aaron. I had a two man dome tent which all four of us were going to sleep in. We were going to get a few beers and camp in the woods.

Tehidy woods is a strange place. There are a lot of ghost stories based there. It is next to the north cliffs, so you have the stories relating to smuggling and shipwrecks on the coast road with the woods on one side and the cliffs on the other. And you have all the stories about the woods themselves. Firstly, there is more then one story about people having hanged themselves there. Secondly, there was a derelict hospital there where I am told old or terminally ill people were sent to die, although I’m not sure what that hospital was actually for. There’s also a small lake with stories about people having drowned in it.

We set the tent up in early evening, in a clearing where my dad used to take me for picnics, and went walking in the woods. While were walking we heard loud noises in the woods. It sounded like people shouting. We thought there must be a bunch of lads up from Portreath or Illogan, pissed up or something, so we ran back to the tent in case they nicked all our stuff. But we couldn’t see anyone and the noise died down so we thought they must have been passing through and we had missed them.

We sat down in the clearing drank a couple of beers and eventually, after it got dark, we crashed out in the tent. I think it must have been about two or three o’clock in the morning, we were woken by the same noise we had heard earlier. It sounded like a lot of people, shouting and talking. We could also hear dogs and what sounded like a hunting horn. When I opened my eyes there were shadows on the tent of what looked like men with axes. Six of them – two on either side and one at the front, one at the back.

We all woke up at the same time and we all saw and heard the same things – all four of us. The noise grew louder and there was also the sound of horses’ hooves and dogs and at one point I heard a carriage go past. Ryan was the hard one out of the four of us, he was never afraid of anything or anyone. He decided there were people outside and he was going to go and kick off. But I knew they were not living people, I could feel it. I think Justin and Aaron could as well because they, like me, were too scared to leave their sleeping bags. Ryan was gone for a few minutes. When he came back he was very pale. He looked terrified and said there was nothing there, just darkness, even though we could still see and hear it all from inside the tent.

We just hid in our sleeping bags. I’m not sure how long it went on for but we must have eventually fallen asleep. The next morning we discussed it and we all had the same memories of the night before. When we told everyone in school, they all wanted to camp there. We went along with them but were too scared to stay the night. As we were walking out past the old hospital in the dark, a night warden/security type bloke was doing his patrol on his bike. He looked frightened. He said, “You’re not staying in the woods, are you? There’s something in those woods and I don’t know what it is. Don’t stay in there at night.” I don’t know if he was winding us up or just saying it to scare us off but I thought he looked genuinely scared.

I’ve always found Tehidy Woods to be a very special place during the daylight hours. Perhaps it is because I have a lot of good memories there from my childhood – running around with my dog and picnics with my parents and my brothers – but it has a tranquil, spiritual feel. This probably sounds silly but at night it seems to take on a more sinister presonality.

You can say what you like about the stories about Tehidy Woods, the North Cliffs and the old hospital. You can say it is all nonsense, places like that breed silly stories. It is true that Cornwall is a place with a lot folklore and many of the stories are clearly ridiculous. It is a tradition I suppose.

But what we saw and heard was real. We weren’t on any hallucinogenics, we weren’t smoking anything, all we had a was couple of beers, and we all saw exactly the same thing. I can’t really explain it, but it happened. The memory is still clear in my mind. I was crapping myself at the time but it has inspired a lot of my writing. There are supernatural elements in The Best Weapon and Sorrow which I’m not sure I would have written if it hadn’t been for that night, and I feel that when I write anything dark and eery, I am writing from first hand experience, not just from horror films or books.

The Woods is my most recent short story, posted on this blog and on the 900 Club. The Peace of Elias is a supernatural fantasy tale also inspired by that strange night in the woods, and is free this Saturday and Sunday on Amazon, so please check it out if you haven’t already.

I would appreciate your thoughts on this post. Do you believe in ghosts? The afterlife? Have you ever experienced anything similar?

The Woods – a 900 Club Short Story

The Twisted Beech - Tehidy Woods

Here is my latest 900 Club short story. This was inspired by something that actually happened to me in Tehidy Woods, where I grew up in Cornwall.

The Woods

by Martin Bolton

Joseph wandered through the woods, feeling the soft ground give slightly underfoot and breathing in the dank, earthy scent of decay rising from the leaf litter. He squinted as he felt the dappled sunlight flash across his face. On he strode, past patches of bluebells and pungent honeysuckle. Occasionally he would hear some small creature stirring in the undergrowth as he passed. He would turn to catch a glimpse and, if he was lucky, spot a squirrel scampering up a tree trunk or a jay taking flight from a branch and disappearing into the foliage.

Joseph loved the woods. The place had been a source of fascination for him since his birth. He was the only son of Dr. Thomas Edgar Williams and loving wife Rose Carpenter. His father was an avid bird watcher and would take him on long walks in the woods and across the cliffs on their north side. His father’s love of nature extended to art too, and Joseph’s home was filled with watercolours of those picturesque north cliffs. Such was Dr. Williams’ love for art that he named his son after his favourite painter, JMW Turner, and christened him Joseph Mallord Williams.

When Joseph was seven, he was allowed to explore those woods alone. While nowadays many might consider it an unacceptable risk to allow a small child to roam a vast woodland and sheer cliffs alone, those were different times. So Joseph spent years as a child exploring the narrow paths through the undergrowth, the bright meadows with myriad wild flowers, marvelling at the variety of colours and smells. He spent hours each day seeking out the ancient twisted oaks, the dark hidden ponds and streams, the marshy clearings and strange moss-covered carvings on rotten stumps in dank forgotten corners of the wood. He found for himself secret places where he would hide away from the world and wonder what spirits must reside in the murky, concealed corners of Bellevue Woods.

When he was eighteen, Joseph went away to university to study medicine. In the years he was away, he saw Bellevue Woods in his dreams, and he would wander through them and onto the cliffs on the far side each night, and he often longed to be back there.

It was when Joseph returned home from university that he met Lilly. Lilly. That name seemed to give him a stifling sense of sorrow, but he couldn’t quite remember why. There was something there, just beyond the reach of his memory, something briefly unsettling.

He continued along the path, great oak, beech, sycamore and birch rose either side of him. He forced a smile as he caught the scent of wild garlic in his nostrils, and steered his mind away from the malignant darkness that seemed to stir in the depths of his soul.

As he walked, the light seemed to retreat and the humid atmosphere began to cool. He knew that dusk was approaching and decided it was to find the south gate; the gate he had wandered through so many times to be embraced by the dimness beyond. Joseph’s stroll turned into a brisk march as the darkness closed in around him, and he felt relieved when he spotted the heavy iron gates in the gloom ahead.

His heart sank when he found the ancient gates chained shut. He stared through the bars, too close together to squeeze through, at the darkening fields beyond.

The quickest way out was the North Cliffs. It would mean a long walk along the coast road but he knew he had to leave the woods before darkness fell completely. As he ran, the shadows seemed to watch him, the air seemed to thicken and he felt as though he was running though treacle.

Finally he saw the dark grey sky resting on the hard line of the sea. As he emerged from beneath the trees into the dim light of evening, he stopped and caught his breath. A shape loomed to his right. A church.

The sight of that ancient, overgrown churchyard seemed to cause some memory to flash before his eyes. Too fleeting to glimpse, it left a nagging melancholy which gnawed at his nerves, and he was drawn towards its black, broken gate. Something pulled Joseph towards the graveyard.

Feeling the silent torment inside him intensify, Joseph began reading each and every gravestone. It was hard to make out the weather-beaten letters in the wan light, and many he could not read at all. On he went, drawn to the far end of the graveyard, where the oldest headstones sat in darkness beneath the trees of Bellevue Woods.

As he approached those aged graves, the torment in his mind began to slowly form, and his eyes settled on one particular grave. Kneeling down, he pulled away the brambles that embraced the crumbling headstone and read the letters he knew were there.

LILLY MAY WILLIAMS

1880 – 1905

DIED IN CHILDBIRTH

RESTS FOREVER WITH HER DAUGHTER,

ROSE, WHO DIED BEFORE SHE LIVED

Joseph’s tears came in floods as the memory showed itself. He turned to the darkness in Bellevue Woods. He knew what the battered letters on the next headstone said.

JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAMS

1878 – 1905

TOOK HIS OWN LIFE IN GRIEF

FOR HIS LOVING WIFE, LILLY,

AND UNBORN DAUGHTER, ROSE

 Joseph was the darkness, and he knew he would never leave the woods.

HARDWAY – a sneak preview of the new epic fantasy by Bolton and Pilling

Fantasy - Inherent Rage by Martin Bolton

A work in progress

With Sorrow soon to reach its sixteenth and final episode, we take a break from that story (for it does not end there) and journey east to Hardway. I cannot tell you much about Hardway, other than that it is another tale which takes place in the World Apparent, because we haven’t finished it yet and I don’t want to give away any of the plot. However, as we are so excited about it, I thought I would share a very early excerpt with you. I mean “early” because it is early in the book and because it is yet to be properly edited – this is fresh from the murky depths of my mind. That’s right, you are privileged with a peek at a work in progress. I hope you like it.

HARDWAY

by Bolton and Pilling

Maximilian concentrated intently on each brush stroke. No soft skin tones here, no pert, alabaster bosoms, no flowing blonde hair, no innocent blue eyes and no playful expression hinting at, but never showing, the subject’s burning sexuality. No such conformity for the great Maximilian Shackle, oh no, he was a revolutionary, a pioneer! He would show those tyrants at the Masters Temple that painting should be the fullest expression of man’s true vices and virtues, not a rigid oppression of them. He would paint evocative images of all the darkness and the light within, not bland scenes of piety and idealism. If a bard could sing of a bloody battle, could he not paint a demonic vision of the desires which cause such barbarism?

His paintings would show the world that man’s beauty lies in his weaknesses, and that perfection is an ugly myth. Not only that, damn it, but he would show the so called Masters that art, true art, cannot be tethered to their outdated ideals. He just needed the right inspiration, the right subject matter, and they would see he was right. Then they would be begging him to come back to the temple, to take his rightful place amongst the-

“Max, please, can we have a break?” Eva shivered, wrapping her arms around her naked shoulders, “I’m freezing.”

“Keep still!” he replied, “I am almost there, just a few more minutes.”

“Why must I pose at night? It is too cold.” She complained.

“I have explained this, Eva,” Maximilian was losing patience, “I am painting the legend of The Moment of Silence, the blacksmith exists only in the moment of silence following the ring of his hammer. The painting shows that very moment, you are shown in the glow of his forge. I must paint you by candle light to capture the colour of the flames on your skin! Besides, I am paying you well to model for me, so kindly hold your position until I have finished.”

“There is a difference between agreeing a fee and actually paying one, Max.” Eva assumed her pose again, that of a frightened maiden, horrified at some unseen horror. Naked, of course.

“Oh yes,” replied Maximilian sarcastically, “pray tell, what might that be?”

“Well at the moment it is about one hundred and fifty sovereigns.” Eva gave him a triumphant look.

“Ah,” Maximilian tried desperately to think of a clever answer and found none, “is it that much?” Damn it, why did he have to choose such an intelligent and eloquent muse, all his peers had chosen whores who were happy as long as they were kept sufficiently off their tits on murka and given plenty of cheap wine. In every verbal exchange with this woman he seemed to come off second best. But then, that was why he liked her. After all, if something wasn’t a challenge it wasn’t worth doing.

Before he could think of an answer, Eva had wrapped herself in her thick gown, gone over to sit on the window sill with a bottle and started rolling a cigarette.

As he painstakingly put together a stirring speech to justify his debt, there was a knock at the door. Not a polite tap tap, but an obnoxious rapping conjuring the image of a large, hairy fist in Maximilian’s mind and making the door rattle violently in its frame.

Maximilian jumped, his brush and wooden pallet clattered on the floorboards. Eva rolled her eyes at him and went back to gazing elegantly out of the window and smoking. He tried to pull himself together and approached the shuddering door wiping his hands on a cloth.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming!” He called nervously as he attached the safety chain and slid the bolt free. The knocking ceased immediately, leaving a pregnant silence. Slowly, Maximilian eased the door open the hand’s breadth that the safety chain would allow and peered through the gap.

He was confronted with a pair of lumpen hands, their knuckles like the gnarled and twisted roots of an ancient tree, axe-handle thumbs tucked patiently into a thick leather sword belt. Maximilian’s gaze instinctively wandered upwards along one tattooed trunk of a forearm, up further still, past a shoulder the size of a stallion’s rump, on past a thick volcano neck, and finally rested on the implacable visage of Rollo. The vast henchman peered down at him from the dimness above the door frame.

“Tulgan wants to see you,” warbled Rollo.

Rollo was indeed a paradox. By far the biggest man Maximilian had ever seen. He moved with an ungainliness that made him appear wooden, like some otherworldly creature removed from its natural environment. Yet those unfortunate enough to know him long enough knew that his natural environment was any state of extreme violence. When a situation got ugly, and they frequently had when blessed with Rollo’s presence, he moved with a devastating swiftness and grace.

Rollo the Wind, he had been dubbed by the more poetic of Hardway’s criminal fraternity, because he could be eerily still or unstoppably destructive. And he could change in the blink of an eye, without warning. He was more commonly known amongst the blunter, less imaginative scum of Hardway as Grizzly Rollo, Runaway Rollo (either because he was like a runaway wagon or because that’s what most people did when they saw him), Red Rollo and many more.

Maximilian, on the other hand, knew the real reason why Rollo was considered a paradox. The man sang like an angel, though people were forbidden to speak of it as it went against the necessary persona required by his profession. And he was very professional.

“I told him,” replied Maximilian, unhooking the chain and backing away from the door, “I’ll have his money in a few days, I have works to sell at market.”

“He wants to see you,” Rollo repeated as he unfolded into the room. Maximilian was always amazed at how the man squeezed through the gap without making it any bigger. Rollo spread out like a pool of blood and nodded politely at Eva, folding his enormous arms across his belly, as if to present a neater menace.

Maximilian narrowed his eyes and studied Rollo, trying to work out what this visit was really about – an impossible task since Rollo’s expression remained completely impassive. “What is this about?”

“Tulgan will fill you in on the details,” replied Rollo, gesturing towards the door, “best not to keep him waiting.”

“Quite,” said Maximilian helplessly. He turned to Eva and shrugged. She looked at him, as unimpressed as Rollo, and exhaled a lung-full of smoke before taking a swig from her bottle, the vapour swapping its exit from her lips to her nostrils.

“See you in the morning,” she said, moving towards his bed.

He glanced at Rollo and replied, “I hope so.”

* * * *

Maximilian knew Rollo well enough to know that the easiest way to travel to Tulgan’s office was willingly, and the two walked side by side at a leisurely pace. They knew the route well, as they had made this journey many times, from Maximilian’s room through the narrow cobbled streets and past the familiar shops, inns and brothels hacked into the sandstone on either side, and on into the heart of Hardway.

Many of the people they passed knew them, for both characters were well known. Maximilian for owing most of the population money and Rollo for so efficiently collecting the many debts owed to his boss. A few waved and smiled, a few simply ducked out of sight as quickly as possible.

Tulgan’s office lay at the end of a narrow ravine with sheer cliffs on either side. A stairway ran diagonally upwards along one wall until it reached a balcony high in the cliff face. Tulgan’s office looked down the length of the valley and over the city. Maximilian knew that tunnels lead from the rear of Tulgan’s headquarters, emerging in various places on the island where boats were moored, awaiting the day that the old, self-professed Father of Hardway needed an easy escape. In Maximilian’s life time the need had never arisen – Tulgan’s “children” were mostly obedient – but the perceived threat, as was the nature of Hardway, came from without.

As usual, Maximilian found himself seated opposite Tulgan with a mug of good wine and the old man’s customary pretence that this was a social visit.

“You’re like the son I never had, Maximilian,” Tulgan smiled across his desk, fingers steepled before him, his long, white beard immaculately plaited, the end of which nestled somewhere inside his elegant felt smoking Jacket.

“A son?” In fact Hardway was crawling with Tulgan’s bastard children, but Maximilian knew better than to mention them, “last time you hauled me into your office your man Rollo here punched me in the guts until I puked!”

“Is discipline not an important part of a father’s love?” asked Tulgan, looking hurt, “besides, he only punched you once.”

“Once was enough,” said Maximilian, gingerly feeling his stomach, “look at the size of him, I’m still bruised.”

“It hurt Rollo as much as it hurt you. He doesn’t enjoy violence, but he knows a man must sometimes do things he doesn’t want to do. Isn’t that right Rollo?” Tulgan continued to gaze at Maximilian.

“Life is full of unpleasant tasks. Best to get ’em out the way,” replied Rollo from his usual position – standing by the door looking dangerous. The fact that he not only guarded the exit, but obscured it entirely, enhanced his aura of menace no end.

“My heart bleeds for you,” said Maximilian.

“Now, now,” Tulgan leaned over and poured his guest more wine, “you’ll cut your tongue on such prickly words, young Maximilian. We haven’t the time for trivia, I didn’t invite you here for an idle chat.”

“Look,” said Maximilian, pausing to take a sip of his wine, “I will have some money for you in a few days, just give me time to sell my work-”

Tulgan raised a hand for silence. Maximilian cursed himself for a coward as he immediately complied.

“I brought you here,” Tulgan paused, as though he expected a drum roll, “to offer you the opportunity to pay me in kind.”

“You want me to paint your portrait?”

“Good gods, no!” Tulgan laughed and slowly rocked back in his chair.

“What then?”

“Hardway is under siege, Maximilian,” Tulgan’s smile faded, “the bitter stalemate between the Old Kingdom to the west and Calliss to the east is taking its toll on trade. Whoever gets Hardway has the advantage and both sides know it. They also know that the sheer cliffs and treacherous rocks surrounding our island make invasion impossible. The Council refuse to negotiate with outsiders and the only way in for any invading army, Fort Alex, is too heavily fortified to attempt an attack, so they are targeting the merchants Hardway relies upon. The situation makes it risky for any trading vessels to dock, many are frightened they’ll be punished by one side or the other if they’re caught. Needless to say this is putting a squeeze on Hardway’s fragile economy.”

“What has this to do with me?” asked Maximilian, he was wondering why he had been brought to Tulgan’s office. He was starting to wish he’d had his usual roughing up and been sent on his way with a warning. He knew where he stood with beatings and threats, but this little meeting had the distinct feeling that it was leading to something, and that something was unlikely to be good for him.

“The situation is unfortunate,” continued Tulgan, “but like every situation, it can be manipulated to our advantage. While some feel the pinch, others grow richer. That’s where you come in. Have you heard of the House of the Celestial Sphere?”

“Of course,” Maximilian’s anxiety was growing. Tulgan looked very pleased with himself, which was the only thing worse than Tulgan looking angry.

“It is growing. The future of Hardway is under threat, and where do people turn when they are unsure of their future? Religion. The House’s coffers are straining under the weight of their followers’ donations – money they should be spending on wine and murka. My money.” Tulgan’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the table and his face hardened, the gleam in the old man’s eye betraying his anger. He composed himself and continued.

“Not only that but the House itself is bulging with the sheer number of people, and still more are coming. They are the major religion in Hardway, and religion is the new thing!”

“I still don’t understand what this has to do with me,” said Maximilian.

“They’re building a new temple! A huge one, not far from Fort Alex, so that everyone who comes here will see it. First the magnificent fort, then the magnificent Temple of the Celestial Sphere!”

“I’m no builder,” Maximilian held up his soft painter’s hands as evidence.

“No, but they require your particular talents for something else,” Tulgan stood and spread his hands out wide, “a giant mural! Think about it, the painter of the greatest piece of work in Hardway would be famous! Not just here but news of your work would travel. Word would spread of the great Maximilian Shackle!”

Maximilian had been listening with some trepidation, but now his ego had been roused by Tulgan’s talk of fame. He tried his hardest to sound unimpressed, despite his excitement.

“I have heard nothing about plans for a mural. Surely word would have spread that the temple required an artist. My peers would have been tripping over themselves to be first in line. Why is news of this not all over Hardway?”

“My dear Maximilian,” said Tulgan, strolling over to the open fire and scooping up the poker, “I run the streets of Hardway, and I have the power to spread rumours or quell them. Besides, the mural was my idea, and the Abbot thought it a very good one. I have all the arrangements in place, I have paved the way, this is your big break. And it is all thanks to me.”

“You have met with the Abbot?” Maximilian eyed the old gangster suspiciously.

“Of course, I have negotiated terms,” Tulgan slowly stoked the coals, “the job is yours.”

“What if I don’t want it?”

“Do you know how much you owe me, Maximilian?” Tulgan asked.

“Three hundred and twenty sovereigns.” Maximilian replied.

“Five hundred sovereigns, plus interest,” Tulgan corrected him, “and how much do you owe others?”

Maximilian began counting his fingers.

“I’ll tell you how much, sixteen hundred and seventy two sovereigns, to ten different murka dealers, wine merchants, ale houses, even a furious Cillissian paper merchant. Have you not wondered why you still walk?”

“I can take care of myself,” Maximilian didn’t sound convincing even to himself.

“Oh yes?” Tulgan smiled at him, “and what about your little muse friend, what’s her name? Eva? Very pretty girl, that. You can protect her too, can you?”

At the mention of Eva’s name Maximilian felt an unfamiliar twinge, something in his chest, was it shame? Guilt? Love? The thought of her coming to harm had struck a nerve, which was entirely unexpected.

“I, and I alone, am the reason you live,” Tulgan continued, “because you are worth too much to me. Paint the mural, make it your greatest work, and I will settle your debts. You’ll have a clean slate, and fame to boot. Or I can withdraw my protection and see if you make it home alive.”

Tulgan paused for a moment. Then dropped the poker and walked back to his desk, rubbing his hands together, and raised his wine.

“So,” he said, “let us drink to our new partnership.”

Maximilian suddenly realised how stupid he had been, and how lucky he was to be alive. A small part of him thanked the gods for Tulgan’s protection. Another part of him hated the man for manipulating him, and for doing it so easily. He tried to act like he wasn’t surprised, “I’ll need money for materials,” he said.

“You’ll have no money,” Tulgan replied, “everything will be taken care of, however. Drink!”

Maximilian drained his mug and held it up for more.

* * * *

It seems a long time since I was born, and yet it seems like it was yesterday. Perhaps yesterday was longer ago than I realise. It seems as though a lot has changed, and yet everything is the same. Is change a constant, counter-acting the effects of time – cancelling each other out? The World Apparent is circular in more ways than one, and so it has moulded mankind in its own shape, giving him cycles and seasons. Every drama in life repeats itself over and over.

Each town and city is a microcosm, reflecting the nature of the world as it revolves, just as each man is shaped by his environment. Consequently man has his moods, just as the world has elements which dictate its nature. And man, too, has levels of consciousness, just as the world has spiritual levels – one celestial, one physical and one infernal – each as real and tangible as the last.

As I roam the streets I see the world’s cycle reflected in the everyday dramas of their inhabitants. Love and hate, right and wrong, life and death, justice and crime – every action with its opposite, every virtue with an equal vice. Every act of kindness delivering a new god to the celestial sphere and every act of selfishness and hate spawning a new demon in hell.

Such is the life of men, and so I turn with the world. Ever changing, ever constant.