Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Fog Feeder

This poor blog has been neglected a little while; I've mostly been writing by hand in notebooks or on Drive. Still, I thought I should share a (more or less) complete short story I wrote a little while ago based off a writing prompt. Enjoy!

A figure stood amidst swirling fog, musing to itself. The most fascinating thing about people, it pondered, was how quickly they could adapt to new norms, how swiftly they found justifications. Fewer sheep went missing now, they said. There were fewer accidents, and people were no longer dependent on their old unreliable boilers and generators to provide for the lengthening nights. And what did they owe the Crown, or any strangers?
Ignored by the Throne and their neighbours, it had been simple to feed off their bitterness, and grow. The detractors were few and far between; older townsfolk who complained that the factory blocked their view of the river, or those who awoke in the middle of the night to a low, persistent thrumming that seemed to resonate through the earth. Almost all accepted these things as small prices to pay. That had been enough to capitalise on. And soon...
The lone rider paused briefly at the top of the valley, halting her horse to look down at the town nestled at the bottom. By all accounts she shouldn’t have been able to see it at all. It was late in the afternoon on a clear-skied but crisp mid-autumn day - typically the whole valley would have been blanketed in in a deep fog. She lowered the hood of her cloak, revealing bronzed skin, tight curls and piercing deep brown eyes. She surveyed the landscape briefly before reaching into her inside breast pocket to pull out a small pair of binoculars. The instrument was unornamented but clearly of expert craft, and sunlight glinted off its surface as she used it to look down at the town.
A slight adjustment of the lenses brought things into focus. Should could just about make out some tiny figures attending to various tasks, but her attention was immediately drawn to the monolithic bulk of a factory situated just on the river bank. It stood out even at this distance – up close it would make for an imposing sight, a colossal edifice of stone and steel. Her mind supplied imagined sounds and smells; the hissing, churning, grinding apparatus of heavy machinery and the acrid smell of heat and smoke. Three huge chimneys jutted into the sky, but nothing emanated from them. It seemed that the factory lay dormant, for now.
She frowned. Looks like the flyover reports were right, she thought. The factory was on no existing map or plan of the town, and certainly hadn’t existed the last time an inspection had been conducted in this area. Presumably the inhabitants had hoped that, as a location of little importance, its presence would be overlooked indefinitely. Unfortunately for them, nothing escaped the Crown’s notice for long, and she was here to get to the bottom of things.
‘Well, at least this means this journey won’t have been a waste of time,’ she thought as she put away the binoculars. She had been openly reluctant to take the assignment, the trip had been dull and she'd expected a false alarm. While this meant that there might be danger ahead, that was by far the preferable outcome. With a faint grin playing about her lips, she urged her mount down the steeply sloping hillside path, cloak cloak waving behind her in the gentle breeze.
By the time she arrived in the town the sun had sunk much lower in the evening sky, almost dipping behind the surrounding hills. It had been atypically clear for this time of year, but she was just glad she hadn't had to coax her horse – who had a bad habit of becoming recalcitrant at the worst times – through the dense fog the area was known for. She had passed some shepherds on her way down and had affected an air of affability, waving a greeting. This had been met with silent mistrust and thinly veiled hostility. She let her hand fall back to the reins. As you like it then, she thought, with a shrug. She kept her eyes to the road and did not greet anyone else; suited her just fine.
Her horse slowly cantered towards the centre of town, scanning the surrounding buildings for likely places to spend the next few nights until her business was done. There were more people in the streets now, and even a few other riders. They masked their suspicions better than the shepherds had, and she returned their curt nods with amicable ones of her own. It wasn’t surprising that she was attracting a lot of attention; despite being a stubborn old thing her horse was an attractive bay over 15 hands tall. Most of the other riders were atop creatures that would barely qualify as nags back in the capital, scrawny things struggling under the weight of their saddlebags, or else old workhorses pulling heavy carts.
Proceeding along the main thoroughfare, the rider eventually arrived at what passed for the town square. She was somewhat surprised to see that the town hall had been done up in a fairly passable recreation of the capitol’s style - they’d had to do without the limestone façade, of course, but the building looked suitably stately. She rode right up to the foot of the steps, dismounted and waited patiently, the faint smile returning to her lips. This part was always fun.
She didn't have to wait long. A short, harried looking man with pince-nez spectacles and thinning hair emerged from within and made his way down the steps towards her. An elegant silver sigil pinned to his lapel – a twin to the one she herself wore, and something of a contrast to his shabby suit – marked him as the town’s duly appointed mayor and the capital’s representative out in this area. His eyes widened when he noticed her sigil and he quickened his pace down the large stone steps. She smiled thinly in his direction and held out her hand.
“Welcome to our fair town!” he said in a clear voice, with an expansive manner that seemed very at odds with her initial impression of him. Mentally shifting gears from imperious to genial, she broadened her smile. He grasped her proffered hand in both of his and pumped it up and down effusively. “I do apologise for the lack of a welcome, I had no idea we were to expect a visitor from the capital! Your name, miss…?”
“Madame Gracie Lapin,” she replied, ever so slightly emphasising the honorific. It was one of her favourite aliases; she wore it more comfortably than she did her real name.
“Madame Lapin, a pleasure,” he said with a bow (to his credit, he rallied well). “I am Mayor Archibald Forthwright. Might I ask what has brought you so far from home? I’m afraid you’ve caught us quite unprepared!”
“I serve at her Majesty’s pleasure, of course,” said ‘Gracie’, giving a slight bow of her own. “It’s hardly a matter of great import, certainly not one to warrant a grand welcome! I am a Royal Cartographer - one of the Queen’s scouts happened to mention a discrepancy in our records and I was sent to document it.” She gestured carelessly towards the factory, stealing a glance at Archibald as she did so. He had visibly relaxed when she'd given her role (as if an Enforcer would announce their presence, she scoffed inwardly) but tensed up again at the stated purpose of her visit. It was ludicrous really; the building was a hulking monstrosity, towering well above every other building in the town save the clock tower, its long shadow reaching almost to their feet. One couldn’t help but notice it – indeed, it demanded attention. Still, it wouldn’t do if the mayor took it upon himself to become an obstacle.
Truth be told,” Gracie continued, almost shyly, “I’m something of a meteorologist buff and amateur painter. I was fascinated by the tales I heard of the dense fog in this area and was hoping I’d be able to capture something of its ethereal quality on canvas, however...”
“Hoho, well now! Sorry to say but we’ve been experiencing a spell of uncommonly good weather this past year. Barely more than a morning mist these days.” Archibald was eager to take the opportunity to divert discussion away from the factory, she noted. Interesting.
“I see…such a shame,” she said, injecting a note of dejection into her voice, while looking away lest he catch her trying not to roll her eyes.
“Having said that… I do know a place or two with some stunning views of the town. Quite a sight at sunrise, I daresay it would make for a spectacular painting.”
Was he… flirting with her? That was unexpected. Perhaps he had an agenda of his own? Still, she mused, this might work to my advantage… She raised her gaze and met his eyes.
“That sounds wonderful Mayor Forthwright!” she took a step towards him, then winced. “I’d be grateful if you could take me some other time however, it’s been a hard few days' riding.”
“Goodness me, where are my manners! If you’ll follow me, I’ll see to it that you’re set up in our finest inn and your things are properly taken care of. And please, call me Archie.”
He flashed her what he must have thought was his most winning smile. Lady preserve me.


‘Gracie’ allowed herself a brief moment of respite to collect her thoughts – it had been an educational evening. Forthwright had been true to his word and escorted her to pleasant and well-furnished inn just outside the town centre. She had offered to pay – as a formality, of course – but the mayor had been appropriately insistent. The modest luggage she had been able to fit into a few saddlebags had been brought up to a well apportioned room and a hot bath run for her. She had luxuriated in it for a good while, relieving her body of the aches and pains, before changing into a simple yet elegant dress to meet Forthwright for a late meal.
Conversation had been dull, but fortunately the food had been a pleasant distraction – she had patiently listened to him witter on about things of little consequence, smiling often and saying little, for the better part of an hour. After a time she had gradually shifted discussion towards more official matters, finally broaching the subject of the factory. Though he had remained hesitant to discuss it in any great detail, Gracie gleaned that the proprietor was currently ‘away on business’ and that until his return an inspection of the property was ‘simply out of the question’. She had ended supper shortly after that.
“I should mention," Forthwright had added cryptically, after having escorted her back, “that the nights can get rather chilly this time of year. Please do make sure your windows are tightly shut - I’d hate for you to become unwell.”
She rolled her eyes recalling his feigned nonchalance. If her suspicions were correct, ‘unwell’ was a dramatic understatement. She sighed. It felt as though she’d been stuck fulfilling assignments like this one for an age; she longed for something a little more glamorous. At least this one’s a little more interesting than the last time I got sent to the arse end of nowhere. That one had been a false alarm, or near enough - gruntwork for a junior enforcer rather than someone of her experience.
Still, she had a job to do. She slipped off the bed and walked over to her luggage, selected the case that contained her cartography equipment and depressed two seemingly random points. There was a soft click and a hidden compartment opened up to reveal gleaming steel, polished rowan and burnished bronze. With the ease of the long-practiced, she swiftly assembled the component parts of her rifle (which she had named ‘Mythbuster’) and shouldered it before walking over to the window.
Gracie examined it carefully. She had already completed a sweep of the room for bugs and had found nothing, but the mayor’s remark warranted further inspection. She murmured quietly to herself as she ran her hands over the pane, sill and glass, but detected nothing out of the ordinary. She scanned the streets below to check that they was clear, opened the window wide and turned to look up towards the roof. Her third floor room provided easy access - she stepped lightly up onto the sill and swung herself up. It was, in fact, a little chilly, though her cloak shielded her from the worst of it. She unslung her rifle, laid it down beside her, brought out her binoculars and settled down to wait.
It was an eerily still night; all of the town’s inhabitants seemed sequestered in their homes, and the wind from earlier had died down. It wasn’t silent though – a persistent thrumming resonated in the air at a frequency that made her head ache slightly. It was, of course, emanating from the factory. She turned towards it; if something was going to happen tonight, the sinister building was bound to be the source.
Nothing happened for the first hour, or the second. Gracie focused on her breathing and, by degrees, was able to tune out the factory’s hum. In the third hour, a change in the air roused her from her meditative state. Fog suddenly surged forth out of the factory, venting from the chimneys and seeping through the imposing wrought-iron gates and moved swiftly to blanket the town. She watched in fascination – it appeared almost purposeful, with tendrils creeping ahead like ghostly fingers searching for something before the following wave enveloped everything. She felt a chill run down her spine that had nothing to do with the marked drop in temperature. The hunt began here.
A thought occurred to her and she slunk back to the other edge of the roof to glance down at the window she had left open. Sure enough, the tendrils reached for it, and, finding it open, surged in with something akin to glee. Momentarily however, presumably due to finding the room empty, the fog retracted forcefully and continued down its exploratory path, prodding and prying at locked windows and doors.
Well now, that is fascinating. It looked like the Mayor was somehow complicit, but that was beyond her remit. The fog appeared unable to rise to cover the rooftops; her vantage point was safe, at least for now. Icontinued to spread outwards, venturing further out into the valley. Some plaintive bleating and neighing rang out into the night as it passed over stables and sheep pens, suggesting the animals were aware of it. The fog seemed disinterested in them however, continuing without slowing in search of more interesting prey, venturing further out into the valley until the finger-like tendrils were grasping at the lip of the valley.
But not able to pass that boundary, she realised. Whatever thing that was fuelling this fog (and she had had her suspicions), there were limits on how far it could go. If it was drawing power from the sleeping residents however... She turned her attention back to the factory that stood at the epicentre of the fog and pulled out her binoculars. The fog's swirling and churning made it difficult to make anything out, however she waited patiently she waited, breathing slowed and barely moving, as the rime slowly crept across the lens.
Eventually, Gracie became aware of the fog receding as the sky brightened. It didn’t reverse backwards into the factory; instead it dissipated by sinking down into the earth. As it faded and the air cleared, she finally caught sight of something – a tall, humanoid figure stood behind the gates, its arms outstretched, the fog swirling all about it like a shroud. It remained obfuscated however, any distinguishing features masked by a thick cloud that still lingered.
She sighed in frustration. There were only a handful of possibilities she might be up against, but each one would require different countermeasures and preparation and she wasn’t going to spend any more time in this backwater town on reconnaissance than was strictly necessary. Time to take a risk.
She reached over and hefted Mythbuster with one hand, while the other reached behind her back into an ammo pouch around her waist. She withdrew a cartridge from the pouch and chambered it in the rifle, before bracing the stock against her shoulder and sighting down the scope to line up a shot.  The air around her crackled with power as she once again began muttering under her breath. She pulled the trigger.
An electric blue tracer raced through the early morning twilight, coursing a lightning fast - but deathly silent - line from her to her target, dissipating the fog as it surged forwards. It struck the creature centre mass, both eliciting a bloodcurdling howl and blasting away the obscuring mist . The shot hadn’t been intended to wound however, only to illuminate, and  it was more bewildered than injured - she watched in satisfaction as it cast about for its assailant, once again retrieving her binoculars for a better look.
At first she almost thought that her shot hadn’t worked, but then she looked closer - the creature was itself ill-defined; its outline blurred and its every movement left a shimmer in the air, like an afterimage. It was long limbed and angular - fully extended it would likely stand at over twice the height of a person, but it was hunched over almost on all fours. Malevolent intelligence glimmered in the dark pools of its eyes. A wight then. It pawed at its wound with a betaloned hand and sniffed the air, then a snake-like tongue flicked out of its mouth as it stalked back and forth behind the gates. She observed with great interest as drew the fog into its maw. As it sucked in the mist its wound healed, and before long it had reapplied its shroud. Once it was again obscured, it sent forth a few tendrils to seek her out. It was out of time however - the sun would be up soon, and like most of its kind its powers would be greatly diminished by day. It gave one last sniff and taste of the air, then slunk back into the shadows.
Gracie watched it’s retreat intently, confirming it was long gone before giving away her position. She had been sorely tempted to challenge it then and there, but given that it would be her first time going up against one of its kind, it would be dangerous to underestimate it. Now she knew what she was up against, it was time to prepare. She withdrew back to the side of the roof leading to her room and – after confirming that the fog was no longer high enough to pose a threat – swung back down into the room. She walked back over to her cases, selected a fine engraving tool disguised in plain sight as a cartography pen, emptied some unmarked cartridges out in front of her and began to carve.
“Mr Forthwright, good morning!” Gracie waved cheerfully as the red-cheeked mayor hurried towards her, two stocky and unimaginative looking fellows trailing shortly behind him. She stood just off to the side of the huge wrought-iron gates that barred entry to the factory. In her hands she held a pad of paper and a graphite pencil, and behind her trailed her horse, grazing at the tender shoots of grass by the river bank. She let them approach, waited for Forthwright to catch his breath and then, just as he was finished huffing and puffing and was about to speak, cut him off.
“I followed your advice and kept the windows in my room closed, but it was awfully stuffy - I woke up rather earlier than I am used to! I didn’t think it appropriate to bother you at such an early hour, so I decided to explore on my own. It may not be the spot you had in mind, but I was able to capture quite a spectacular sunrise nonetheless! I must say, it was most breathtaking - there were still tendrils of fog swirling about here and there (she saw him blanch), they seemed to have a mind of their own! I don’t think my painting does it justice, but here I have it here....” She broke the constant stream of words and turned her back to him to walk towards her horse. Momentarily stunned, the mayor shook his head as if to clear his head before opening his mouth to speak.
“Madame Lapin, please, you are trespassing! I must insist that you-”
“Insist?” She spun around on the heel of her boot, causing him to take a step back, and arched an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?” Gracie let her tone grow icey and drew herself up haughtily - Forthwright continued to shrink back, retreating behind his two thugs who were themselves caught off guard. “Mayor Forthwright, might I remind you that I am a duly appointed surveyor of the Queen?”
“Ah no, of course… I didn’t mean to imply…”
“On Her authority I may go wherever I please. Out of respect for the arrangement between yourself and the proprietor I have not demanded entry, but be under no illusion - I have a duty here that I will Enforce one way or another. Do I make myself clear?” Forthwright visibly flinched; before he was able to stammer out a response, a clang from behind them made him jump a foot in the air. Gracie calmly turned as the gates slowly opened, the hinges groaning under their burden.
“Crystal clear madame!” A tall figure strode out through the gates, closing the distance between them in a handful of steps. Out of the corner of her eye Gracie saw Forthwright’s bodyguards close rank in front of him. Of course they hadn’t been to protect him from her - he was still under the impression that she was a harmless bureaucrat. She fixed the newcomer with an appraising look, her arms folded across her chest. The… ‘man’ was dressed in an almost dandy-like manner, wearing a pinstriped purple and black suit with tails, white gloves and a matching pocket square, and his jet-black hair was lightly tousled. He would not, she admitted grudgingly to herself, have looked out of place at one of Her Majesty’s more casual soirees.  He bore little resemblance to the creature she had seen the night before, but nevertheless there was something predatory about his movements that gave him away immediately.
They locked eyes - his were, unsurprisingly, a misty grey - and she forced a smile, for all that the same menace she had seen on display the previous night set her teeth on edge. He returned the smile, revealing a great many gleaming white teeth, and bowed in greeting.
“My sincerest apologies for inconveniencing you, ma’am. I am the proprietor of this facility; my name is Clover Drayton.”
She took his proffered hand to shake, and a shock of cold ran through her body even through the glove. She did not let it show. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance sir; I am Madame Gracie Lapin, surveyor to the Queen.”
“Ah, indeed - you are here to confirm that my factory meets regulations?”
“Amongst other things. Tell me; It was my understanding that you were out of town on business, how did you come to return so swiftly?”
“Ah yes, quite so. Truthfully I was already on my way back and fortuitously happened to intercept our mutual acquaintance Archie’s message!” He gestured at the mayor, who recoiled as if he had been struck. “Not wishing to inconvenience Her Majesty any further, I endeavoured to made the journey overnight.”
“A most admirable sentiment sir; would that all were so accommodating.” She did not turn around, but her tone was pointed enough that even the hired thugs snickered quietly. “Is that not dangerous though? I am reminded of a strange noise I heard in the night; it sounded like nothing less than a most terrible beast!” They locked eyes again, and she saw his expression freeze for a second.
“Aha, that may be so. I cannot say that I have encountered anything of that nature however!”
“Then perhaps it was just my imagination. Away from home, the mind does tend to linger on unknown terrors. Let us speak no more of it! To work then; will you permit me access to your most impressive factory? I am eager to complete my assignment.”
“Your enthusiasm does you credit, ma’am. Regrettably however, I fear that things are presently not sufficiently organised to expedite your task. Would you permit me another day to get my faculties in order? I am sure that it would be of benefit to you.”
Gracie frowned and cocked her head to the side, as if to consider his proposal, then sighed. “If you believe that necessary then I suppose it would be unreasonable of me to insist otherwise.”
“Capital! I shall make arrangements to get things in order. Shall we meet here, same time tomorrow?”
She nodded her assent, acknowledged his farewell bow, then turned to face the still cowering mayor.
“Thank you Mayor Forthwright; I will not be needing any further assistance from you,” she said archly. She brushed past the trio, her horse chomping on one last dandelion before moving to follow. Behind her, a great churning began to rise up from the factory, and plumes of steam began to issue forth from the triad of chimneys.
The creature was more excited than it had been at any point since it had devoured its brethren. It drained what little magic it could glean from the dull denizens of the town, and the bargain it had struck with that imbecile of a mayor meant a blind eye was turned whenever visitors were careless enough to leave their windows open, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The female from before had practically radiated energy - once it consumed her it would finally be able to break free of the valley’s confines.
Its fog normally blanketed the town; tonight it enveloped it. The tendrils were its fingertips, and, guided by its will, wasted no time in racing up the side of the hotel to the roof where it could feel her presence. It was faint - she must have done something to mask it, as she had before - but Sure enough. Borne by the fog, it willed itself to that location, materialising to strike the killing blow itself. It prowled close, tongue tasting the air and senses alert for any sign of trickery, then lashed out. It hissed in triumph as its talons connected, but the sound quickly took on a different cadence as it realised it had been duped after all; the claws rent nothing but cloth.
It immediately made to disperse, but before it could do so, searing white-hot pain scorched its back - with a snarl, it turned to the clocktower. As if to confirm, a shrill whistle rang out through the night from atop the tower - she was taunting it! Dissipating instantly, the wight urged its fog towards the tower’s base, drawing in the surrounding fog to heal itself as it did so. She had made a grave miscalculation - if it concentrated all its fog in one area then it would be able to reach her, and she would have nowhere to run.
As the wall of fog rolled towards her she seemed to realise her mistake - she began firing shots at random into the rapidly advancing cloud bank, but did no damage whatsoever as it was spread throughout. Emboldened, the creature surged forward-
Right over her trap. Gracie smiled in satisfaction as the fiend let loose another anguished howl as it came into contact with the hidden magic barrier she had constructed earlier in the day. Its otherwordly essence triggered a superheated reaction upon contact, scorching it and blasting away the creature’s concealment. She expelled the blanks she’d been firing to goad it into approaching, chambered some new cartridges and sighted down her rifle, waiting to see what it would do next.
The fog quickly encircled the tower and the creature sent out feelers, searching for a flaw in the barrier’s construction. Yeah, good luck with that. Eventually, realising that it was hopeless, she saw the creature materialise further back and hiss at her. She rolled her eyes; it was obviously a mirage. Honestly, for all that the creature had managed to acquire enough power to approach human intelligence, it still had a lot to learn about setting traps.
Eventually, it seemed to realise that it wasn’t going to goad her as she had it. The mirage vanished, then suddenly the fog surged back towards the factory. Not a trace of it remained in the rest of the town, but it swirled and churned about the factory and its grounds, the very picture of sinister purpose. As she watched, the gates and doors creaked open: admit one. Gracie smiled grimly. A challenge, was it? Very well. She lowered a rope and slid over the side of her perch to rappel down to the ground. As soon as she was through, the gate clanged shut behind her.
She was within its domain now; it could feel her. Out there its primal nature had taken over, but within the confines of these walls it was absolute ruler. A prison, perhaps, but one of its own creation. And soon, it would have no need of it. It had sought to begin by depriving her of her senses, but she moved purposefully, and it saw that her eyes flashed in the darkness like a cat’s. No matter; she was still its prey. It would wear her down.

It was strange, the lengths the creature had taken to accurately mimic a real factory. Gigantic conveyor belts and brutish looking machines loomed in the darkness, and the air was filled with the smell of oil and grease. Or… perhaps she had it backwards? The townspeople expected a factory, and consequently that was what had been conjured up. Her steps made no sound as she slowly explored the cavernous rooms, deadened as they were by the fog. It was so dense that an ordinary person would have been blinded, and her breath formed crystals in the air whenever she exhaled. It was thick in other ways too, almost cloying as it invaded her mouth…

It watched in satisfaction as she began coughing, panic flaring in her eyes. Realising her error too late, she whirled around as if to retreat to the exit, but only made it a few steps before falling to her knees choking. It closed in on her - warily, having learned its lesson from the previous traps - to decipher her next moves. She was furiously clawing at the ground, seeking to draw strength from the earth as its rivals had done, but this was its domain, and it was a creature of water and sky. In a final act of desperation she pulled out her hateful weapon, and it recoiled despite its safe distance and intangibility. She fired three shots; two at the ground and one at the walls, and it shuddered as the blasts rocked its lair and sapped its strength.
But the walls held, and she slumped to the ground in despair. Her lungs, desperate for air, sucked in the poisonous fumes and she hacked again, though weakly now. It could see that she was fading fast, reduced to crawling pathetically on all fours, trying to escape the very air itself. Moments later she collapsed. It wouldn’t do to let her expire through asphyxiation - too much of her magic would be lost. It materialised triumphantly over her collapsed form, reared back an arm and bared its teeth-

Gracie rolled away as the creature’s claws struck mere inches away at where she had lain, and brought the butt of her rifle up like a club, crashing into the side of its head. It howled in pain as the enchanted wood traced a line of fire across its face - and preventing it from turning back to fog.
“Gotcha,” she said, grinning fiercely, her eyes wild and aflame. She lived for this part. The wight snarled, its eyes brimming with hatred, and lunged towards her, claws outstretched. For all that her attack prevented it from fleeing, it seemed to have done precious little else. The creature was deadly fast, and she barely evaded its talons. She dropped the rifle - it would be of little further use in a melee - and struck out with her bare hands. It spun away, bemused at the change in tack, and she pressed her advantage lashing out and driving it back. It was thoroughly confused now; its poison had failed, it had been deprived of its magic and now even its natural weapons were proving ineffective? It leapt back to create some distance between them so that it could pounce once more, and-
“Whoops.” The moment it had created enough space, Gracie pulled a revolver from a holster hidden under her cloak and shot it square in the chest, blasting it off its feet and drawing a pained screech from the wight. She turned to reclaim Mythbuster before walking unhurriedly to where the creature writhed, no doubt in agony.
“Wait, please!” The plea came out garbled from a mouth half-full of razor sharp teeth, as it struggled to reform itself into the shape of Clover Drayton. Gracie looked the creature directly in its black eyes, and her face held no pity. She raised her rifle one last time, and pointed it at the creature’s head.
“Sorry Drayton; looks like you failed inspection.” She pulled the trigger, and the wight exploded in flame.
Gracie prodded at the scorch marks its expiry had left and snorted. Not much of challenge after all. Oh well. She hadn’t expected it to be taken in so easily duped; if that had been how it had won its previous victories, its other opponents hadn’t been up to much. Still, the degree to which the creature had been able to manifest as human was remarkable; perhaps if she’d been sent to investigate just a little later, giving it some more time to grow into a truly formidable opponent…
The walls around her began to shake; no longer sustained by the creature’s glamour, the entire edifice began to collapse. It would take years for the land to be able to recover the amount of natural energy that would be lost but, well, that wasn’t her problem. Sprinting back the way she had come, she burst out through the rapidly disintegrating doors into a feeble dawn obscured by the thickest fog she had ever seen. She could just about make out some figures approaching - likely Forthwright and his goons - but she had no intention of meeting him, her current stint as Gracie Lapin now at a close. All she had left to do was to write up the report and turn it in at the Agency - sorting out the mess was someone else's problem.
She whistled and her horse, who had once again been enjoying the riverbank grass, trotted over to meet her, already loaded up with her bags. She patted the horse absentmindedly, swung up into the saddle, and took a hold of the reins.
“Time to go,” she said, pulled up her hood, and left the town behind. She didn’t look back.

Friday, 5 June 2015

A recurring dream - Original Writing (excerpt)

2015 - novel excerpt

Still obsessing over how exactly I want the beginning to go, because of course I am, but I'm actually really happy with this one. Rest of the story's coming together too, haha.


She must have had this dream over a hundred times by now. Every time, it always started the same way; with her stepping down from the carriage, patting the horse’s rump and feeding it a crumbled sugar lump she had kept in her pocket all day for that very purpose. She then waved to her coach-mates and the driver before turning to bound down the short path to her house.

She’d been particularly eager, she remembered vaguely, to show off something she’d made at school. What had it been again, a drawing, a figurine? It must have had something to do with the upcoming celebrations, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember what it had been. Memory could be funny like that, losing certain details while bringing other, seemingly more insignificant ones into stark relief.

She braced herself as she looked down at the little figure unlocking the door (how proud she had been when her parents had let her have her own key!); the dream usually went one of two ways at this point. The door swung open easily – no ponderous creaking, a good sign – and the little girl and the young woman both stepped into the sun-filled hallway. What came next?

“I’m home!” yelled the little girl, unceremoniously dumping her kit in a heap by the stairs and kicked off her shoes. She didn’t seem particularly put out when she received no response, and instead continued onwards to the kitchen. She fetched a fresh loaf of bread from the pantry, and with a look of immense concentration (the bread knife was, in fairness, about the size of her forearm) set about cutting herself a thick slice. Leaving her past self behind, the young woman drifted away to walk the paths of memory. She knew she had a little time before things started going wrong; she might as well enjoy it.

Not that the house had changed much in the past ten years, really. It was perhaps somewhat less cluttered than it had been back then, and there were fewer brightly coloured pictures on the walls nowadays. In her memory there were even some pennants hung inside, back when she had been young enough to get excited about the preparations, and before the whole biennial event was permanently marred by tragedy.

As if hastened by her dark thoughts, she heard approaching footsteps on the drive, followed by a key turning in the lock. “Wren, sweetheart? Are you back?” The sound of her father’s voice made the bottom drop out of her stomach and she froze in her tracks, unable to turn around. But of course, she wasn’t the Wren being addressed here.

“DAD!” came the answering yell, followed by the noise of her scrambling down from a chair and the thudding of feet as her younger self dashed to greet him. “Is mum with you? Let me show you what I did at school today!” The diminutive form skidded to a halt in the doorway, and for a split second Wren found herself looking directly at the girl she had been - crumbs around a mouth spread in a wide grin, tight curls, fingers sticky with remnants of the fruit conserve she’d had with the bread - before she felt a strong sensation of vertigo and blinked.

When her eyes opened, she was that vulnerable little girl again. The smile died on her lips as she looked at her father in front of her. Nowadays she was only a couple of inches shorter than him, but in this dream she was seeing him as the towering figure he must have seemed back then. Even still, he was nothing like his usual self. His broad shoulders, usually set straight, sagged, and his eyes, red from tears, were devoid of their usual playfulness. It was the first time she had ever seen him look so vulnerable.

She took a hesitant step forward. “...Dad? ...What is it?” He opened his mouth to say something, stopped, shook his head and looked down at his hands, clenching and unclenching his fists. The colour seemed to seep from their surroundings, and perhaps at the time the sun had in fact dipped behind a cloud - who could say? Her father broke the stillness of the scene by sweeping forward and enveloping her in his arms. They stood like that for a little while, her little figure trembling, his closeness both reassuring and foreboding. Eventually he pulled away and crouched down to look her directly in the eye, his face grave.

“Sweetheart, I’m afraid I’ve got some terrible news about your mother…”


Wren lay unmoving in her bed for a little while after waking, before the characteristic call of the bird she was named for caused her to open her eyes, swing her legs to the side and sit up. ‘Just like clockwork,’ she thought, absentmindedly brushing a hand across both eyes and wiping it on the sheets.

The day had only just broken, and the beginning of the sun’s gradual climb suffused the dawn sky with pink. Despite it being early morning it was already pleasantly warm; if the breeze didn’t pick up there was a chance it might grow too hot. Wren made her way to her washroom and splashed some water on her face, then headed down the stairs.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Sparring - Original Writing (excerpt)

2015 - original writing excerpt

Here's some of what I wrote in January. It's pretty clunky and I'm not really confident I'll keep it at all, let alone as Chapter 1, but I'm just kinda glad to be past it. 2000 words or so.


It was approaching evening, though the midsummer sun still hung high in the sky. It beat down on the almost empty courtyard of the police headquarters, its sole occupant a young woman training against a target. Sounds from the city were faintly audible, carried on the wind, but it was evident that she was completely oblivious to everything but the exercise she was concentrating on. She wore a simple short-sleeved tunic and close-fitted breeches with thick hide boots, and in her left hand she held a lacquered baton of burnished hardwood. It was around two feet in length, with a strap at one end and a side-handle set a little ways up from it. Off to one side lay a studded leather jerkin she had carelessly discarded before starting her workout.

She had been drilling intensely for almost ten minutes, carrying out the movements with the brisk, efficient air of deep familiarity. The courtyard offered little shade; beads of sweat flew from her as she smoothly cycled through a variety of movements against the training dummy, striking heavy blows directed at locations that would disarm or disable a living, breathing target. She finished her set with an attack to the dummy’s head that reverberated through its entire frame, releasing a satisfying grunt of exertion as she did so. Routine finished, she exhaled and relaxed, tucked the baton into its sheath on her belt and wiped away some sweat from her face.

She made her way over to a water pump situated off to her right, primed it and promptly stuck her head under the ensuing stream. The water was closer to lukewarm than cool, coming as it did from an underground reservoir fed directly by the river, but it was nevertheless refreshing against her skin. Sufficiently cooled, she straightened up, dried her face on her tunic and ran a hand through her hair, brushing water out of the tight curls.

She was just making her way back to pick up the jerkin from where she’d left it on the ground when she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. The courtyard was located towards the rear of the building where there was little traffic outside of training times, so it was always easy to hear people coming. Her hand idly lowered to rest on her baton, more through force of habit than anything else.

When the approaching figure rounded the corner and stepped out into the light she snapped to attention, her hand immediately falling away as the chief of police came in to view. He was a broad-chested, middle-aged man; the burdens of his position were evident in the worry lines on his face and the amount of grey in his hair, yet despite that there was a welcoming air about him. Unlike her, he was wearing the full uniform, which constituted a deep navy jacket bearing the insignia of the Memoria Constabulary and epaulettes displaying his rank.

He caught her eye and a smile spread across his face, and he made a gesture that was half salute, half easy dismissal.

‘I thought I might find you here. At ease, sergeant.’ She returned the gesture and grinned back at him.

‘Hey chief, you were looking for me?’

‘Yeah, I thought we might head back together for a change. It’s too damn hot in my office, I’d rather finish my work in the comfort of my study. I checked your office first; when I saw that you hadn’t left yet it made sense to look here next.’

‘It’s always a treat to see the chief of police display the brilliant deductive reasoning that got him to where he is today,’ she said dryly.
Seeing them together, the family connection would have been obvious to anyone. Being in each other’s presence seemed to invigorate them both; the chief was more energetic, and she seemed more relaxed. There was the distinct impression that together they could take on anything.

'You're lucky I'm off duty, brat. What were you up to anyway, just going through the motions?’

‘Yeah; I was only going to take inventory, but one thing led to another...’ She shrugged, and then shot him a sly look and inclined her head towards where the equipment was stored. ‘Actually, seeing as you’re here, do you want to spar? Just a quick best of three!’
Her father laughed and shook his head. ‘Honestly Wren, you’re incorrigible.’

‘Oh, come on! Besides, you missed last week; you owe me.’

‘True enough. I suppose I have been letting work get in the way of training...’ He shrugged and smiled. ‘Fine, we might as well get a couple of rounds in.’

Wren cheered as he strode into the courtyard, shrugging off his coat and draping it neatly across a railing, and followed behind him as he made his way towards the equipment racks. If they were going to spar then she would need a shield, something she’d eschewed against an opponent that couldn’t fight back.

The police in Memoria favoured two different types of shield. One was large and rectangular; it protected most of the body and was adept and stopping crossbow bolts and pushing back against crowds. The other was a small, circular variant of folded metal. It had a convex surface that a gifted combatant could use to turn away blades, making it invaluable in a mêlée. Wren immediately gravitated towards the latter, but her father paused thoughtfully before choosing his. Owing to his greater bulk he found it no great handicap to manoeuvre with a tower shield, and it suited the more defensive approach that he often adopted. Still, he was no slouch with either; after all, he had been the one to instruct her in the use.

‘Ah, what the hell,’ he said, picking up a round shield. ‘Let’s live dangerously.’

They made their way back to the centre of the courtyard, and then squared off facing one another ten paces apart. While her father stretched, Wren sucked in a deep breath to steady herself and bounced lightly on the balls of her feet. The ground was hard packed earth, compacted over the years by thousands of recruits carrying out countless tough drills given to them by tougher sergeants. She had been in both of those positions, and yet none of it compared to sparring with her father. He had been training her ever since she had first expressed her desire to join the force, testing her combat skills almost every week since she had turned sixteen.

Across from her, the chief unsheathed his baton and raised it in his typical salute, to which she followed suit. She took him in, curious about his choice of shield; his stance was relaxed, almost aloof, with his weapon arm slightly out in front and the shield covering his centre. Years of experience had taught her to underestimate him at her peril – while she could usually take a round or two, and she’d started winning every so often, it was far from a common occurrence.

He stood motionless, anticipating her approach. She sucked in another breath, took a few steps towards him to close the distance, then lunged forward in attack. Her first move was a feint towards his left side to test what he would do; he stepped out of her range and made no further move that would have allowed an opening. She continued to press him as he avoided her every attack, until a thrust directed at his throat forced him to bring his shield up to block it. The sound that rang out as her weapon connected was like a gong signalling that warm-up was over.

He immediately shifted into high gear to counter-attack, relentlessly sending blow after blow her way and leaving her no room to retaliate. The repeated impacts on her shield sent jarring shocks through her arm, and she realised that she wouldn’t be able to weather it for long without her arm going numb. She gathered her strength, bracing herself, and when the next attack came, put all her weight behind her shield and shoved.

Despite her regular training and athletic build, under normal circumstances Wren would have been hard pressed to shift her father’s stocky frame. She had caught him by surprise however, and thrown him off balance. Capitalising on the opening she’d just created, Wren stepped forward using the momentum from her shove, and twisted around bringing her baton in a backhanded arc aimed at her father’s ribs. He brought down his own baton to meet the blow, parrying it awkwardly, but she had anticipated this and aimed a kick at his knee even as their weapons met. He dropped to one knee to take the hit, and with a deft flourish she switched to her baton’s side grip and swung in the direction of his lowered head in the same movement that she had been practicing just a short time earlier.
She executed it swiftly, but not swiftly enough. Her father hadn’t simply dropped to one knee, but instead had continued forward into a roll, causing her swing to go wide. Realising that she’d left herself open Wren tried to re-centre herself, but her father swept her feet out from under her and within moments had her pinned to the ground, his baton at her throat.

‘Yield?’ he asked, a smile playing about his lips.

‘I yield,’ she agreed with a sigh. He let her go, and she grasped his proffered arm and let him haul her back to her feet.

‘You reacted well there,’ he remarked with a smile. ‘You didn’t pull any punches either, good.’

‘You were one step ahead of me the whole time, weren’t you?’

‘Well yes, that was the point. It’s easy to predict what someone’s going to do when you back them into a corner and limit their options.’

Wren frowned. Whenever they sparred the first point was always the most hotly contested, and she hated losing it because it inevitably led to a sermon along these lines. It also meant that he would do pretty much the same thing the next round to give her a chance at figuring out where she went wrong. It was such a dad move to pull, and she knew that at least part of the reason he did it was because of how much it wound her up.

True to form, the second round went in much the same way as the first. This time round Wren was able to better exploit the gaps in his uncharacteristically aggressive style and was able to take the point. Her heart wasn’t in it however, and he cleaned up the final round. Frustrated with herself, she bowed stiffly, then yanked the shield off her arm and started towards the equipment storage before she could get another talking to. Her father jogged up and fell into step next to her.

‘You know,’ he said, his tone gently chiding, ‘it was your idea for us to spar in the first place.’

He was right, of course. She was 21, and a sergeant at that; she couldn’t keep acting like a child forever. She stopped and turned to face him, apologetic. ‘Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just... if that had been a real fight, there wouldn’t have been a round two or three, would there? You don’t get second chances out in the field.’

He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘You’d be surprised. It’s not always as simple as that, and sometimes you don’t have the luxury of giving up.’ She met his gaze, but didn’t say anything. 

‘There’s more to it, isn’t there? Were you really just letting off steam earlier, or do you have something on your mind?’

‘What? No!’ said Wren, then hesitated. ‘Well, maybe. We can talk at home later, I guess.’

‘Why not now?’

‘I want out of this shirt before it starts to smell, for one,’ she said, getting a laugh out of him.

‘Fair point, I could do with a change myself. You sure you’re okay?’

‘Yeah, don’t worry. I’ll swing by your office once I’m done.’


This was a bit of an agonising hump to get over, followed by... another agonising hump. Writing is hard.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Breathless - Original Writing

2014 - excerpt

As always, he rang the doorbell in their distinct five push pattern before slotting in his key and opening the door. The familiar mess greeted him on the other side, with his sister sat on the sofa in the middle of it all like a queen atop her throne of junk. She grinned up at him.
He sighed. 'Would it kill you to at least try and keep this place tidy while I'm gone?' he asked, picking his way across the minefield of strewn clothes and dirty dishes to deposit the groceries on top of the kitchenette counter.
'I would, you know, but I'm just so busy with all this stuff I have going on...'
'Oh yeah?' he said, unpacking the bags and putting the contents into the fridge and various cupboards. 'Like what, exactly?'
'You know, all that stuff... Learning Braille, keeping up with my studies and whatnot. Takes up a lot of my time!'
'Oh please,' he said, closing the last cupboard to punctuate his point, 'you've got nothing but time.' There was no venom in his words though; they went through this same song and dance at least twice a week. He made his way over to the couch, plopped down beside her with an 'Oof' and closed his eyes.
'Hard day at work?' she inquired.
As per usual. How about you?'
She shrugged. 'Same as ever. Bit more Braille, a few more practice papers. I've got them down so hard I could probably ace the exams with my eyes closed.'
He half-opened one eye and peered at her, grinning. 'Bet you've been waiting all day to use that one, huh?' She stuck out her tongue and punched him on the arm, eliciting a chuckle from him. 'You heard about the plans to scrap the current exam system though?'
'God, yeah, what's that all about? If they change the syllabus before I can-'

She was interrupted by a knock on the door, causing them both to freeze momentarily. They exchanged a glance, then he pushed himself up out of the chair and walked over to the door. He sucked in a deep breath before opening it... to come face to face with his landlord. The breath whooshed out of him.
'Hey Alan, what can I do for you? Rent isn't due for another week or two, is it?'
'Oh no, no, nothing like that. I was just passing by, thought I heard you talking to someone. You've not got anyone in there with you, do you?'

He stood aside to give Alan a good view of the empty room, making a vague sweeping gesture as he did so.
'As you can see, no one here but me. I was just chatting to my sister over the net though, that might have been it? I tend to crank the volume up a lot, sorry about that.'
The older man took the gesture as an invitation and strode in, peering around suspiciously. He waited patiently at the door until Alan was apparently satisfied.
'Yeah, well... keep the volume down in future, will you? And remember, flat rules stat e you need to keep the place in a good state, not just that you can't have any visitors after seven.' He made a distasteful face as he stepped over some of the detritus.
He rubbed the back of his head, every picture of the apologetic tenant. 'Yeah, sorry about the mess. I let it get a bit out of hand what with trying to balance school and work, I'll spruce the place up over the weekend.'
'See that you do.' Alan paused again as he made to leave, his eye caught on something. He followed his gaze and almost burst out laughing - his sister had somehow managed to leave one of her bras draped over one of the light fixtures - but he managed to turn it into a cough and a sheepish smile.
'Fashion design, you know... very spontaneous at times.'
'...Right. Just...  keep what I said in mind, yeah?'
'Yup, will do.' He ushered his landlord out, and - politely but firmly - shut the door after him. When the footsteps had faded, he let out a sigh of relief and made his way back to the sofa.
'Man, what is his problem?' said his sister, appearing beside him and picking her laptop up from where she'd left it. He shrugged.
'Dude's just trying to protect his investment, I can respect that.'
'Whatever, guy is a total creep anyway. I bet he was just lurking in the hallway with his ear pressed up against the door trying to catch you out.
'Yeah well, it's tough finding places that let you pay in cash. Worth putting up with the occasional eccentricity.'
'The last place was better though. I managed to convince that landlord I was a ghost by staying in his peripheral vision whenever he came round.
Her brother laughed at that, which promptly turned into a yawn.
'Damn, I'm knackered. Think I might turn in, you okay for making dinner?'
'Cooking isn't the problem; it's the cleaning up afterwards.'
'Hah, true,' he said, getting up and stretching. 'Aite, I'm off to bed. Maybe with all this exhaustion I'll actually manage to sleep through the whole night.'
'I wouldn't hold my breath, if I were you.' He raised an eyebrow at that, and she grinned at him. 'Okay, that one I've been waiting all day to use.'
He was by a lake, in a large clearing surrounded by tall, deciduous trees. The grass smelt sweet and fresh, and the sunlight sparkled off the clear blue water. There was a small wooden jetty just off to his right; he walked down it, boards creaking under him. When he got to the end he dipped his feet into the lake, relishing the feeling of the cool water and its contrast with the sun above. he watched the waves ripple out, then closed his eyes and lay back.
After a little while, he realised that there was someone else there with him. He turned and saw a beautiful woman standing at the foot of the jetty. She was dressed in an elaborate kimono, and had a fan not quite covering her coy smile. There was something inexplicably enticing about her, and before he realised what he was doing he'd gotten up and taken several steps towards her.
'Wait,' he thought, struggling to regain control of his thoughts, 'this isn't right...'
The instant that thought formed in his mind, his surroundings immediately changed. The sun disappeared, the clear blue water turned black as night and the temperature dropped precipitously, causing him to shiver. He turned back to the woman and found that she had progressed several paces down the jetty, but he hadn't heard it creak underneath her steps. he took an involuntary step backwards, and her smile grew wider. Too wide.
With every step she took (and he could now see that she floated imperceptibly above the ground, rather than directly on it), he took one back, until there was nowhere left to retreat. There was nothing left for it; he'd have to charge past her. the thought of doing so made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and his stomach turn, and this must have been reflected in his eyes as her smile grew ever wider. She opened her mouth and he caught sight of her teeth - beautifully white and incredibly sharp.
'Why are you running from me? Didn't you promise to join me?' Now she too was changing - the bright colours of her fine garments fading and growing waterlogged, her long straight hair growing tangled and matted, dark marks appearing across her skin and her fingernails - but still her smile kept growing ever wider.
When she extended an arm out towards him, something inside him broke. Deciding he'd be safer in the glassy waters, he turned and dived into the lake. Immediately it felt as if there were hands grasping around him, pulling him down, down down...
He fell with a thud out of the bed, a messy tangle of arms, duvet and pillow. Swearing softly under his breath, he dragged himself off the floor and into the sitting room. his sister waved to him with a lopsided grin, and he returned both the smile and the wave.
'How long did I manage this time?' She checked her watch.
'Wow, three hours, forty three minutes! That might actually be a new record, congrats!'
'Woo. Maybe I'll be able to hit a whole 5 hours by the time the year's over!' He regretted the quip the second it left his lips, and the lack of a response from the sofa pretty much confirmed it. He changed gears a little. 'How about you? You manage to get any sleep?'
His sister shook her head. 'Nah, I don't really sleep at night anymore. Too many... it's just easier during the day, y'know?' He nodded his agreement. 'I don't know why you do it.'
He shrugged, heading over to the kettle and boiling some water. 'I sleep when I can, yeah? Night shifts have their own share of terrors, after all.' He made two mugs of coffee and brought them over to his sister.
'No worries. Hey, you okay?'
He took a good look at her; she'd drawn her knees up to her chest, and it occurred to him just how young she was. 'C'mon, talk to me,.'
'It's just...' she trailed off, then shook her head and continued in a voice barely above a whisper, 'I really miss mum and dad, you know? Do you really think that... that we might really be stuck like this for another year?' She was visibly trembling now, the spoon in her mug clinking against the sides. He pulled her into a tight hug.