A Life Of Fiction CC

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

A Hiatus: This is my two hundredth post on WordPress, and I have decided that it will be the last one, at least for the moment. I have been running out of ideas recently, as evinced by the fact that the past few posts have me been putting up stories which I wrote ages ago. I have run out of steam. Perhaps I will have a break of a few months, and then come back refreshed. Or perhaps not. I don’t know. I have been suffering from illness recently, which doesn’t exactly help, either.

There was a great hiatus in the fictional life of one of the characters I like to read about. I am talking about Sherlock Holmes, of course, with the hiatus being between the stories The Final Problem and The Empty House. It was the period when the world, and John Watson, thought that Holmes was dead. Conan Doyle had tried to kill off Holmes with the story the Final Problem. He had had enough of on of the greatest literary creations of all time. Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character, had come to overshadow Conan Doyle, and the rest of his literary output. All that people had seemed to want was new Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle (no knighthood yet) had wanted to be known for some of his historical romances, such as the Brigadier Gerard stories. But when people thought of him they only thought of Sherlock Holmes.

I think I need a rest. My posts have not been up to my usual standard, or at least the standard I set for myself. I have found it hard to come up with ideas for this blog.

There is one thing, though, and that I do these posts in advance. So, perhaps, by the time that I get around to putting this on WordPress I will have already thought of other things to say, and my grand hiatus will only be a week and a half…

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A Life Of Fiction CXCIX

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

Here is the last of the stories which were posted on Steampunk Empire which I have decided to post here, as well. There are other short pieces of fiction. But they can remain where they are, at least for the moment.

This one is called the Amber Catacombs. It features Briggs and Prenderghast, my long-time gas-lamp fantasy adventurers. It is a much longer short story than the others. It seemed a good idea to end with this one. There are a few other stories to put on, but I think that they can wait.

The Amber Catacombs

So why are in France?” John Briggs asked, as the steam train rattled through the landscape of the Ardennes.

I thought that, as we have endured some of our most dangerous escapades in recent weeks, that a holiday in France might be in order, my friend.” William Prenderghast said. The wizard sat back in his seat, and got out his silver hip flask, the one which Prenderghast always kept topped up with absinthe. Prenderghast took the top off, took a sip, and then screwed the top tightly back on it. He sighed, and picked up his copy of Le Monde which he had bought at the Gare de l’Est while they had been in Paris.

Briggs looked out of the train window, at the unspoiled woods of the Ardennes. It might be the Steam Age in other parts of France, but in the Ardennes there was not yet any heavy industry. The railway – run by the Chemins de Fer de l’Est – was probably the most technologically advanced thing to be found in the region.

There were supposed to be wild boar and deer in the forests of the Ardennes. According to Prenderghast there were wild cats, as well. Briggs had not seen any such creatures, though, looking out of the train window.

Yes, but why come all of the way out to the Ardennes?” Briggs asked. He was Prenderghast’s best friend. But he was not above gently teasing the wizard. “I know you, Prenderghast. This isn’t just a holiday. You’ve got some ulterior reason for coming here; and I am guessing that it has something to do with Magick.”

As though I am interested in nothing but Magick.” Prenderghast said. “Why, I have many interests.”

Such as what?”

I am knowledgeable on wine and other drinks.”

Such as absinthe.”

I am known to be a smart dresser.”

Yeah, well, the jury is still out on that.” Briggs said. Then he frowned, as he had tried to avoid anachronisms since he had left the early twenty-first century and come to this strange Victorian world where Magick was real. But Prenderghast did not ask what Briggs had meant. The wizard seemed to guess that it was not a compliment.

I spend a great deal of money on my clothes.” Prenderghast sniffed. At that moment in time he was wearing a mustard yellow suit, over a deep crimson shirt and tie. His top hat was also mustard yellow, but had a deep crimson silk sash around its base. “Anyway, I am an inventor of talent, Briggs. I have told you about my Wonderful Autochronometer Adjuster, have I not?”

Yes, you’ve told me all about that – several times. Okay – I mean, alright, I will give you that. You are a pretty good inventor.

You still haven’t told us the real reason why we have come all of the way to the Ardennes, Prenderghast. What is it all about?”

Prenderghast cheered up.

We have come to visit the Amber Catacombs, Briggs.” the wizard said. “That is the reason why I decided that we should holiday in this fair region of France.”

What are the Amber Catacombs?” Briggs asked. “Amber is just fossilised tree resin, isn’t it? And catacombs are just subterranean cemeteries, like the one under Paris. They don’t really seem to go together.”

These catacombs have only just been discovered; or re-discovered, if you prefer. But they relate to a legend told by the early eighteenth century Catholic priest Bertrand Guilladot. This Guilladot was also a wizard…”

Surprise, surprise.”

“…of some talent. But, unfortunately, he was drawn to Black Magick. He was executed in 1742 for engaging in Black Magick and devil worship. Interestingly, he was one of the last wizards to be executed in France for those crimes.”

What has that got to do with these Amber Catacombs?”

I am coming to that, Briggs. While still a free man Guilladot claimed that he had discovered some catacombs deep underground, ones dug through rock the colour of amber – and hence the name the Amber Catacombs. Guilladot did not really describe that underground cemetery, apart from to claim that the catacombs were incredibly ancient, having nothing Christian about them. But there was one other thing which he stated, however, and that was that these mysterious catacombs housed something which he called the Knot of Infinity.”

It sounds like something off Doctor Who.”

I beg your pardon?”

Never mind. Forget that I said that. It was just something from my world. So, what is this Knot of Infinity, anyway?”

I have absolutely no idea, Briggs.” Prenderghast said. “But with a name like the Knot of Infinity it must be something important, must it not?”

Briggs sighed, and shook his head.

The problem is that Guilladot was executed before he explained what the Knot of Infinity was, or even what it looked like.” Prenderghast continued, blithely. “Wizards have had various theories about what it might be. Most people used to think that it did not exist, and that it was nothing more than part of some fantastical tale which Guilladot had invented. It was thought that the Amber Catacombs did not exist, either.”

But you have evidence to the contrary?” Briggs asked.

Have you heard of Edouard-Alfred Martel?”

Is he another wizard?” Briggs sighed.

Not everybody in this world is a wizard, Briggs.” Prenderghast said. “Martel is an explorer of caves and caverns.”

So he’s a potholer.” Briggs said.

I beg your pardon?”

A person who investigates caves and caverns.”

Yes, he is a… potholer.” Prenderghast said. “He is one of only a few individuals who investigate the caverns beneath the surface of our world. Martel only began exploring France’s caves a few years ago.

Last month Martel, while investigating caverns in the Ardennes, rediscovered what may be…”

The Amber Catacombs.” Briggs said, finishing off Prenderghast’s sentence.

Yes, that is correct.”

So how did you come to hear about them?”

Through one of my newspapers dedicated to the wizardly fraternity. There was a brief article in the Sortilegist.”

Hm. I wonder if there is anything left by now.” Briggs sighed.

What do you mean?”

I mean that any wizard worth his salt will come and investigate these caves now, Prenderghast. There will probably not be anything left in those caverns by the time that we get there – if there ever was anything of interest in them in the first place.”

Prenderghast opened his mouth to say something, such as not all wizards would simply drop what they had been doing to rush over to the Ardennes to investigate the caverns which Martel had found. But it was exactly what he had been doing, wasn’t it?

Prenderghast said nothing. But he had another sip of absinthe to cheer himself up, as he tried to tell himself that this would not be a wasted journey and that there would still be something worth finding in the caverns, perhaps, indeed, the legendary knot of infinity.

The train stopped at a small, rural train station. Prenderghast opened the door and got off, leaving Briggs to grab both of their suitcases, and get onto the platform before the train began moving again.

Where are we?” Briggs asked, looking around. The only people to be seen on the platform were himself, Prenderghast, and a rather surly looking porter, who stayed at the far end of the platform, smoking a cigarette.

The name of this town is Creçonne.” Prenderghast said, nodding towards the sign on the platform. “We are in the hills which lie to the south-west of Sedan, although we are quite some distance from there.”

Briggs had heard of Sedan, of course. Back in his world there had been a Battle of Sedan, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In what Briggs still thought of as the ‘real world’ the Prussians had crushed the French forces, leading to the end of the Second Empire, and the Paris Commune, and so on.

But in the world of Prenderghast history had taken a different course. The French had fought the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan, just like in many other alternate dimensions. But, in the realm of Prenderghast, the French had had a secret weapon: Jules Verne. He had designed a series of war machines, whose crushing might was unveiled at that Battle of Sedan. It had been an overwhelming victory for France. The Second Empire had continued, while Prussia had taken refuge in isolationism and military spending.

Where are we staying?” Briggs asked.

According to the account which I read Martel stayed in what he described as a charming in within the town.” Prenderghast said. “We will stay at the same in as he did. Then, tomorrow, when we are fully rested, we will go in search of these Amber Catacombs. Come on, Briggs, let us seek out that hostelry.”

Briggs gazed down the platform at the porter who was studiously avoiding looking in their direction.

I don’t think that he’s going to help us with our luggage.” Briggs said.

Well, we have travelled light, on this adventure.” Prenderghast said. “I am sure that you can manage both suitcases.”

Hang on, hang on, why do I have to carry your case as well as mine?”

If we carry one each then it will be uneven. We will be dragged down by the case on one side. It will be a lot easier if one of us carries both of them. Then you will be evened up, as it were, balanced out by the weight on both of your arms.”

Yes, but why do I..? Oh, never mind, I’ll carry the ruddy suitcases. I just hope that it isn’t too far to this hostelry of yours.”

The village of Creçonne was only five minutes walk down the road from the railway station. The village was so small, though, that a person could almost have missed it, being no more than a few houses gathered together, a church, a hostelry, and a few other buildings, such as a town hall.

Briggs and Prenderghast booked into the hostelry where Martel had stayed when exploring the caves in the area. Prenderghast did the talking, as Briggs’s French was less than perfect. The place was run by an old man by the name of Boudart. He was short, and wizened, and smoked a cigarette which was so odoriferous that it made a Gauloise seem mellow. He wore rough cotton trousers and a black wax jacket.

Prenderghast stayed down stairs to chat with the owner, while Briggs struggled upstairs with the cases.

Tell me, Monsieur Boudart, are we the only people staying here, if you please?” Prenderghast asked.

No, you and your friend are the only guests who I have. It is not the right season for outsiders to come to Creçonne.” the Frenchman said.

That was what Prenderghast wanted to hear. It sounded like there had not been a lot of people who had descended on the caves in search of the Knot of Infinity, whatever it was. That meant that there was a chance he could still beat them to whatever lay inside the Amber Catacombs.

Prenderghast thanked Boudart for the information, and went in search of Briggs. He found Briggs in a rather small bedroom, comprising a narrow bed, a poky little window looking down onto the muddy lane outside, a rickety wooden table, and not much else.

I took the larger room, since I had to carry the cases up.” Briggs said. “Hope you don’t mind.”

Prenderghast went in search of his room. It was about a foot narrower than the one which Briggs had claimed, but the same length.

The wizard unpacked some of the items which he had brought with him. He and Briggs had done a lot of travelling and – since there were no other hunters of mystic rarities around – Prenderghast felt that he could safely leave the Amber Catacombs to the following day. If the weather was nice he and Briggs could descend into the caves and catacombs which Martel had rediscovered.

Prenderghast laid out one of his revolvers on the bed. It was a British Bulldog, and Prenderghast had found it very good at settling arguments, in the past. Magick was all well and good, but a person could pull the trigger of a gun far faster than any wizard could cast a spell.

Prenderghast put his silver hipflask on the table beside the bed. Prenderghast would have to go easy on the absinthe – not put of any concern for his health, but because the wizard doubted whether he would be able to top it back up.

He put his silver-headed cane down on the bed, as well, just for the moment. He would need it in a bit, as he intended to take a walk around the town, once he had settled into the room.

His clothes and a few other minor items came out of his case. Prenderghast hung his clothes up, as best as he could. Then he went in search of Briggs.

Briggs had just finished unpacking, laying a couple of books on the table beside his bed. One was a French-English dictionary. The other was a hardback of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes?” Prenderghast asked.

Yes, I haven’t read it in years.” Briggs said.

But it was only published a couple of… Ah, I see.” Sometimes Prenderghast forgot that Briggs came from another world, one where it was over a hundred years later and there was no Magick, and where Briggs had had a long career in the Metropolitan Police.

I thought that we might take a constitutional around the town of Creçonne before our evening repast.” Prenderghast said. “Would you be interested in accompanying me?”

Well, I don’t think that there’s much to see, but alright.” Briggs said. “I’ve been stuck on trains all day and could do with stretching my legs.”

The two adventurers walked around the little town of Creçonne. The only person who they saw was an old man cycling in the opposite direction. He did not bother to slow down, or give them the time of day, but carried on cycling past.

Apart from where they were staying the only other building of interest to Briggs and Prenderghast was the church near the town. The church was, without doubt, the oldest building in the area, dating back to the thirteenth century. Its old stone walls were crumbling a little, suffering from the passage of all those years. But it would still stand for a little longer, and outlive everybody else in the area.

Briggs and Prenderghast spent some time looking around inside the church. Then they left, and had one last walk around the environs of the town, before deciding that they might as well return to the inn.

It was not long before they were sitting down to their supper, a pair of roasted woodcocks.

After their supper Prenderghast got up from the table and approached Boudart.

Are there any caves around here?” Prenderghast asked.

Caves, sir?” Boudart looked blankly at the English wizard.

Yes. I understand that Edouard-Alfred Martel stayed at this very establishment while he was investigating some caverns. Is that not correct?

Ah, the speleologist.” Boudart said, and laughed, as though he found the idea of going into caves to explore them to be very silly. “Yes, he said that he had found some strange caves in a hill some kilometres to the west of here. I have never heard of the caves myself, and I have lived around here all my life. But he said that the entrance was very hard to find.

Boudart shrugged.

Could you show me where this entrance was supposed to be?” Prenderghast asked. “I have a map here of the area.”

Prenderghast took out a map of the Ardennes and spread it out, on the counter behind which the Frenchman sat. Boudart stabbed his thick, stubby finger down onto one of the hills close to Creçonne.

That is the hill, but I do not know where these caves are supposed to be. Maybe he made the tale up, eh?

Thank you.” Prenderghast said. But he could not help looking disappointed. Prenderghast went and sat down at the table again.

I managed to follow most of that.” Briggs said. “You know, this might be a good thing, if these caves, or catacombs, or whatever they are, are not easy to find. It might mean that anybody else might not be able to find them.”

So that there will not be too many wizards worth their salt in the Amber Catacombs?” Prenderghast asked, raising his eyebrows. “That will be of small consolation if we, too, are unable to discover the entrance.”

Didn’t your article give details of how to find the catacombs?” Briggs asked.

It gave some minor details.” Prenderghast admitted.

Well?”

Unfortunately, I did not think to bring that issue of The Sortilegist with me. It is back in my lodgings in London.”

Briggs sighed. Unless they got lucky it was possible that they might have come out to the Ardennes for nothing.

Well, we’ll look tomorrow morning. You never know – if this Martel character managed to find these catacombs then maybe we will be able to find them, too.”

Briggs and Prenderghast retired to their rooms to have an early night, although Briggs could not resist reading The Boscombe Valley Mystery before turning off the oil lamp beside his bed.

The next morning the sky was grey, with clouds scudding down over the Ardennes from the north. They looked heavy with rain.

Are we still going out to look for these catacombs?” Briggs asked, as he sipped a cup of black coffee at breakfast.

Of course.” Prenderghast replied.

What about the weather?” Briggs asked. “It looks as though it intends to rain.”

It does not matter.” the wizard said. “We will be safely underground, away from the rain.”

Hm.” Briggs said. He wished that he could be so sure that Prenderghast was right. And he had forgotten to pack an umbrella with him, as well. But there was little point in raising objections. They had come to look for these Amber Catacombs, and Briggs knew that Prenderghast would not be denied.

They set out to look for the catacombs.

Two hours later and Briggs and Prenderghast were on the top of the hill which had been indicated by Boudart. And both men were soaked to the skin.

They had not found any catacombs, or any caves. They had gone back and forth over the hill, and there was no sign of them.

Prenderghast, we are going to drown if we stay up here!” Briggs shouted. “Let’s head back for the inn. We can search again tomorrow.”

Prenderghast looked around before answering. He was hoping for some genius idea to arise by which he would suddenly stumble on what he sought. But all that he could see was the rain and the wet ground on top of the hill.

They were on open ground at the moment. There were bushes here and there, and trees covered part of the top of the hill, as well as the sides. Prenderghast thought about suggesting that they limit their search to beneath the trees. But he was just as wet as Briggs, and he simply wanted to go back to the inn to dry out in front of a fire.

Very well!” he shouted, to make his voice heard over the pouring rain. The two men turned around, and began walking back towards Creçonne.

Water ran around their feet. In every hollow on top of the hill there were now pools, as the rain had come down so fierce and hard. These pools overflowed, creating little streams which sought out the lowest area. The two men squelched their way along the top of the hill.

Suddenly Briggs nudged Prenderghast. He pointed to a hollow, one half covered by thick bushes.

Look, Prenderghast!” Briggs said, excitedly. “There is no water on the bottom of that hollow.”

So?” Prenderghast asked. He was wet, and miserable, and not thinking as clearly as normal.

So pools are forming everywhere else on the hill, but the water is running away in that hollow. Where is it running away to?”

The two men ran over towards the depression in the ground. Briggs looked down from the edge. Water was running down into the hollow, but then running in a little stream into the area covered by the bushes.

Briggs stepped down into the depression, almost slipping over as he stepped down the steep bank. He pushed into the area covered by the bushes, pulling them aside.

There was a hole there, where bare rock was exposed, but normally covered by the foliage by the bushes. The water was trickling down into the hole.

Do you think this is it?” Briggs asked. The hole was so small that the only way anybody could get down into it would be to crawl along on hands and knees.

After you, Briggs.” Prenderghast said. That was the only answer which Briggs got. If anybody got stuck and had to try to back out on all fours then Prenderghast would prefer that it not be him.

Briggs took off his backpack, as he could not have got into the hole with it still on his back. He then crawled into the hole. He had to crawl

It was pretty dark inside, and it went down quite steeply. Briggs almost fell down into the darkness, but he managed to hold onto the rocks and support himself.

I need light!” Briggs shouted out. He was not going to continue down unless he could see what he was doing.

A lit ever-burning taper was passed to Briggs. He waved it around, its ghostly green light illuminating the area that he was in.

He was at the top of some natural rock chimney. It went down for around thirty feet or so to some steep passage, which disappeared into the depths of the earth. The water from outside cascaded down over the rocks, making the most miniature of waterfalls as it went down into the depths. Had it been dry Briggs might have climbed down, as he could see plenty of handholds. But he was not going to try climbing down when the rocks were wet. Not without any assistance, anyway.

They both had rope in their backpacks. Prenderghast had brought plenty with him to the Ardennes, anticipating some climb down to the Amber Catacombs.

I need some rope, Prenderghast. Pass me the rucksack.”

Prenderghast stuffed the backpack through the hole. Briggs got out the rope, and tied it safely around one of the rocks at the top of the climb. The rope was long enough to hang down all of the way to the steep passage below.

Is it safe to come in?” Prenderghast asked, sticking his head through the hole. “You do realise that it is still raining, Briggs?”

Hang on, just let me climb down, there weren’t be enough room otherwise.”

Briggs wedged the ever-burning taper between two rocks. He had a look inside the backpack, but there wasn’t anything breakable in there – just a water skin and a bit of food. He dropped the backpack down the hole. It landed with a thump at the bottom.

Briggs climbed down, very carefully, using the rope.

All right, you can come now!” he shouted up to the top. Prenderghast must have been very close to the hole, as Briggs saw him scurry in to the top almost immediately. Briggs bent down and picked up his backpack, putting it on his back. Then there was a loud thump from just next to him. Prenderghast had dropped his backpack down the hole, as well.

Hey! You nearly hit me!” Briggs shouted.

Sorry.”

Briggs sighed, and he waited for Prenderghast to join him. watching his friend climb down Briggs saw the light of the ever-burning taper bob about, and the former policeman realised that Prenderghast must have it gripped between his teeth.

Prenderghast, with assistance from Briggs, put his backpack back on. Then Prenderghast transferred his ever-burning taper from his teeth to his right hand.

The light shone down the tunnel, the green glow reflecting off wet and damp rocks.

Yes, this is the place.” Prenderghast said. “The descent was exactly as Martel described it, if my memory serves me right.”

So how far to these catacombs of yours?” Briggs could not see any sign of some underground burial area yet.

No more than ten minutes.” Prenderghast said. “We are almost there.”

Ten minutes later the two sodden adventurers were standing in a sandstone passage. The sandstone was a peculiar shade of orange, due to the presence of iron oxide inside it. It was the colour of the sandstone which had earned these passages the name the Amber Catacombs.

Briggs could see that these really were catacombs, rather than just underground passages. Here and there the passage walls had been cut away, to form small ledges. On those ledges there were the ancient remains of human beings, old and mouldering bones wrapped up in the fragments of raiment which might once have been fair.

Briggs reckoned that the remains must have been down in the passages hundreds of years, and maybe a couple of thousand, which meant that this must be the burial area of some pagan society. Here and there strange symbols were scratched onto the sandstone. Briggs did not recognise them, apart from a star shape and a circle. The rest were a mystery to him, either being occult symbols or the script of some forgotten tongue.

Well, we’ve found the Amber Catacombs.” Briggs said. He kept his voice low, almost whispering, out of respect for the dead. He felt almost as though he was in some church. But these people would not have been Christians. They would have worshipped older gods, perhaps Herne or Cernunnos or Celtic deities, or maybe ones far older than them.

He was a little bit disappointed, though, as the sandstone did not really look like amber. It needed a lot of imagination to compare the sandstone to that fossilised tree resin.

Now we must search for the Knot of Infinity.” Prenderghast said, his eyes gleaming in the green light of the ever-burning taper.

The two men, their clothes still sopping wet, began to search these mysterious catacombs. Prenderghast had no idea as to what the Knot of Infinity looked like. But he supposed that he would know it when he saw it.

The catacomb was large, but it still only took around ten minutes before Briggs and Prenderghast saw light ahead of them. Prenderghast hurried towards the light. It had to be something to do with the Knot of Infinity. Briggs had to hurry to keep up with his friend.

Prenderghast went around a passage corner to see a man standing with his back to them. The light was coming from somewhere in front of the man, from some object which Prenderghast could not see, but which had to be a little above waist level.

As the light fell on the sandstone walls of the catacombs it almost gave them a translucent quality. The walls, where the light fell, really did look like amber. Prenderghast did not have to get his mythometer out to know that the light was mystical in nature.

Who are you?” Prenderghast asked, Briggs standing beside him.

The silhouetted figure spun around. He had clearly been so rapt by whatever was in front of him that he had not heard the approach of Briggs and Prenderghast.

I am he who they call the Magister!” the man said, raising one arm above his head in what he had clearly imagined was a dramatic gesture. He spoke in a slight Birmingham accent.

Have you heard of him?” Briggs asked.

I am afraid that I have not, my friend. It is not a title which is familiar to me. I do not have my copy of Burke’s Wizardage, either, with me. I did not think that we would meet anybody down here, so that book is back in my room in the hostel where we are saying.”

Enough!” the man shouted. “I have found the Knot of Infinity! Approach at your own peril. I do not intend to share this power with anybody. If you take one step forwards I will shrive your soul.”

I think you might have the wrong word there.” Briggs said. “I think that you might mean shrivel.”

Did you not hear what I said? I am the Magister, one of the most feared wizards in the world!”

Sorry, no, I still haven’t heard of you.” Briggs said. “Anyway, I suppose that we should introduce ourselves. I’m Briggs, and this is Prenderghast, and we have dealt with quite a few people who have claimed to be feared. Have you heard of Rex Mundi? We dealt with him. And Dzinshung Tse? He won’t be troubling anybody ever again. We make a habit of dealing with people who think that they can simply become tyrants because they know a few spells.

So why, instead of the old-fashioned mystical fight, why don’t we all sit down and discuss whatever it is which you’ve found?”

The Magister paused, and, for a moment, Briggs thought that he had got through to the man, and that conflict might be avoided. But…

No!” the Magister suddenly shouted, and began casting a spell.

Briggs dived back behind one of the sandstone walls, just in case. He didn’t know Magick, but he knew how deadly it could be. Prenderghast, meanwhile, had recognised the type of spell, and he began casting a spell to try and disrupt the Magister’s spell before it came into effect.

Suddenly, a shimmering wall sprung up around the Magister, and whatever was producing the light on the other side of his body. The wall formed a sphere entirely protecting the Magister.

Ha! You fools! I am totally protected from you!” the Magister shouted gleefully. “By the time that you have broken through my spell I will have the power of the Knot of Infinity all for myself.”

The Magister turned back to the thing which was producing the light – the Knot of Infinity.

Is it safe?” Briggs asked, from behind a sandstone wall.

Quite safe, my friend.” Prenderghast said. “There is a mystical barrier between us and our foe. We cannot harm him; but while the barrier is in place, he cannot harm us, either.”

Prenderghast, as he talked, edged around the outside of the mystical barrier so that he could see the Knot of Infinity. Briggs, his back aching a little, got up and joined him.

The Knot of Infinity was a glowing thing suspended in midair. It was like nothing which Prenderghast had ever seen before. He could see intertwining bands of mystical energy. The way that they weaved together reminded him of a knot.

There was something odd about the Knot of Infinity, though. For one thing, it hurt Prenderghast’s eyes to look at the Knot of Infinity – and that was not due to the brightness of the knot. But, for a second thing, Prenderghast could not follow the course of any of the bands of interlaced mystical light. It was as though he was looking at something with too many angles.

Although Prenderghast could not know it, the Knot of Infinity was something which might, truly, be said to have had too many angles. For the Knot of Infinity was something where energy of another dimension had come into the world of Prenderghast. The Knot of Infinity had far more dimensions to it than the normal three. But, where the energy came into Prenderghast’s world, those extra dimensions curled back in on themselves, making it seem as though a person looking at this unique trans-dimensional effect was, in fact, looking at some sort of Magick knot.

Prenderghast, though, did not understand what the Knot of Infinity was. Neither, for that matter, did the Magister. But he knew that, within his grasp, lay what he believed to be almost limitless power.

Prenderghast and Briggs stared as the Magister, cut off from them, began casting some sort of a spell.

What’s he doing?” Briggs asked.

He’s casting a spell.” Prenderghast said.

Yes, I know he’s casting a spell, I’m not stupid. But what sort of spell is he casting?”

I would have thought that was obvious, my friend. The Magister is attempting to unravel the Knot of Infinity. When it is undone he hopes that he will have all of its power for himself.”

Wonderful.” Briggs said. “Then we’ll have another would-be world conqueror who we’ll have to stop. Why does this always happen to us, Prenderghast? If we get killed then I intend to blame you for it. It was your idea to come out here.”

As it happened, though, Briggs and Prenderghast were not about to get into some fight. Not this time, anyway.

The Magister began trying to unravel the Knot of Infinity, not realising that he was attempting to steal the mystical power of not just some strange mystical effect but what was, theoretically, the mystical power of an entire universe. He waved his hands about, and but the merest fraction flowed out, just a tiny leakage from that other world.

That little bit of pure Magick, though, latched onto the one bit of Magick extant in the Amber Catacombs. Briggs and Prenderghast saw what looked like a tendril snake out from the Knot of Infinity until it reached the mystical barrier. Then a strange thing began to happen – strange even if you were a wizard, as this was all strange to Briggs.

The Magickal barrier suddenly became stronger. Prenderghast guessed that it was getting thicker, as it went from transparent to translucent, so that the Magister could not be seen quite so clearly.

A strange thing happened to the Magister, though. Cut off from the world, and now affected by dimensions other than his own, the movements of his hands began to slow down. Time was slowing down inside the barrier; and, within a minute, it came effectively to a complete stop, the Magister just standing there, his hands out, not even blinking. Time within the barrier was still moving, but so slowly that the Magister might blink once only every thousand years. The barrier was sustained by the Knot of Infinity, and might continue until the end of time.

All of this was surmised by Prenderghast, who got out his mythometer to try to find out what was going on. The English wizard did try to save the Magister. But the barrier, moving at a different rate of time, was impenetrable to Prenderghast’s Magick. He was like a flea trying to break through the tough hide of a Stegosaurus. No power on Earth could have freed the Magister.

There was only one thing which Briggs and Prenderghast could do, and that was to make their way back to Creçonne, and plan their journey back to London.

They climbed back up the rope, and crawled back into the open air. Prenderghast was clearly disappointed, having wanted to examine the Knot of Infinity for himself. It did not occur to the wizard that he might well have ended up like the Magister.

You know, the Magister did get all of the power, if what you said is correct.” Briggs said. “He has got all the power in the world. Nobody can harm him, either. And he’s not going to get old. By the time that we’re both six feet under he might only have taken a single breath.”

Hm.” Prenderghast said. He did not sound happy.

Well, at least there’s one good thing.” Briggs said.

What good thing?” Prenderghast said. “I fail to see how anything good has come out of this, Briggs.”

Well, at least it has stopped raining.” Briggs said, pointing to the sky.

The two men walked back to Creçonne in glorious autumn sunshine. By the time they got back to the inn their clothes were almost dry. And, in such fine weather, not even Prenderghast could refuse a smile, in the end.

A Life Of Fiction CXCVIII

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

Here is yet another vignette which originally appeared on the Steampunk Empire website. I did quite a few of these. It would be a shame if people never got to read them again.

Morley’s Best Tinned Pork

Inspector Albright sat at his desk and pondered the fact that people had gone missing on his patch, and at a far greater rate than was normal. You always got some people go missing in the East End of London. Some went abroad, seeking a new life. Some changed their identities, to try to escape debts and other onuses. And some ended up floating face down in the Thames.

The people who had been reported missing, though, were not the usual sort of people who disappeared. One had been a barrister. Another had been butcher. A third had been a clerk at a City firm. A fourth had been a costermonger. Nothing seemed to connect them apart from the fact that they had come into his patch and never been seen again.

Albright got out his tortoiseshell snuff box and put a pinch of snuff in each nostril. He’d had two of his men look into the case. But, although they had produced reams of facts concerning the missing men, the two officers had utterly failed to discover what had happened to them. It was time for him to have a look for himself.

He stroked his thick, reddish-grey beard, and then hauled his heavy frame out of his chair. He got his coat, and stormed off in the direction where the men had last been seen: the area around Spitalfields.

Albright stomped down the street, towards Spitalfields Market. Perhaps somebody there might now what was going on. He walked past street hawkers and match girls, past the sort of people who turned around and walked off in the opposite direction when they saw a policeman coming; past the poor and the needy and the guilty and all of the wonderful individuals who made up this little corner of the world.

He walked past a greengrocer’s and a tobacconist’s; past a haberdashery and a printer’s; past a barber’s and Morley’s Tinned Foods, a small concern which had posters outside declaring their Best Tinned Pork to be the finest in the world. That was a new business, Albright thought. The last tine that he had walked down this street it had been a draper’s; and long before that it had been a pie shop, if his memory served him right. But those did not interest him. It was the market where he was most likely to get his information – especially if he used strong-arm tactics on some of his blowers.

Albright had a locket with the photograph of one of the missing men – the barrister, Jackson – in one side, his wife in the other. The policeman reflected that his wife was probably now a widow. But the picture might bring to justice whoever was responsible for the disappearance.

Ten minutes later Albright was done. He had not even had to use violence to get the information which he had sought. One of his informants had recognised the picture, and recalled seeing Jackson going into the barber’s. When pressed the man had said that maybe he had seen the other missing men going into the barber’s, as well. But he had not recalled seeing them come back out.

Albright stared at the barber’s. Decades ago there had been trouble with a barber’s, when he had just been a little nipper. Everybody knew the legend, even if they were hazy on the details. But surely it could not happen twice?

Sebastian Thomas. That was the name above the red and white pole. An odd name, Sebastian. That barber years ago had had an odd name, as well.

Albright thought about going straight into the barber’s, and asking about the missing men. But, although he might be built like a brick outhouse, he was not going to play silly buggers with somebody who was at home with a cutthroat razor in his hands. No, he though, he would come back with a few more boys, and with a search warrant, and do this one by the book. And, perhaps, he would give some time to researching just who Sebastian Thomas and the Morley foods people were.

Two days later and Inspector Albright’s investigations were complete. He had got his search warrant, and he had a pair of big, powerfully built constables with him. Despite the fact that they were powerfully built – and Albright himself resembled a brick outhouse – all three men were armed with revolvers. Albright was not taking any chances. He feared that this might be a bad one.

What is this?” Sebastian Thomas asked, as Albright pushed open the door of the establishment and marched in, with the two constables behind him.

Sebastian Thomas was alone in the barber’s. He was a tall, angular man, but with the litheness of a snake. His eyes were jet black. He held a cutthroat razor in his left hand.

It is a search warrant.” Albright barked at the man, as he flourished a piece of paper. “Constable Williams, stay with our barber friend, and make sure that he doesn’t go anywhere. Although he is not just a barber, this one: he is also the owner of Morley’s Tinned Foods. He has been a very busy man; a barber by day, and a canner by night, it would seem.

Put the razor down, Thomas, or I will give Williams the permission to shoot you.”

Thomas put the razor down.

Watch him, Williams.” Albright barked. Constable Williams kept his revolver trained on the barber. “If what I think is true, then Mr Sebastian Thomas is one of the most dangerous men in London.

Henderson, come with me, we’re going down the cellar.”

Albright and the other police constable found the door leading to the steps down to the cellar. There was a gaslight on the wall of the cellar, and it was lit. But Albright was not surprised by that fact.

Not was he surprised by the fact that there was some sort of mechanism on the ceiling of the cellar, directly beneath the barber’s chair. There was some sort of trapdoor in the ceiling, and it looked like the chair could flip down to drop anybody sitting in it down into the cellar. There were bloodstains on the slabs which formed the cellar floor, directly beneath the contraption in the ceiling.

There was a passage in the cellar. It went to the left, having been knocked through a wall into the cellar of Morley’s Tinned Foods next door. Albright was not surprised by that, either. In fact, he had expected something like that.

Come on.” he said. He led the way, through to the cellar of the tinned meat company.

The room was lined with Mason jars on shelves, the jars having been used in home canning since their invention some years ago. There was flesh in the jars. It was supposed to be pork, and there was a dead pig hanging from a hook dangling from the ceiling. But it was not only pork which was being canned, for there were two human bodies hanging there as well. They were unrecognisable, but Albright had no doubt that the men who had gone missing had fuelled Thomas’s meat canning business. The police inspector had found out that there was no Morley behind Morley’s Tinned Foods, and that the premises were owned by the barber next door.

There was enough evidence in that room to make sure that this second demon barber would swing. He was taken down the police station and charged.

It was later, and Albright was relaxing behind his desk, as best as he could, his thoughts on this latest killer who he had caught.

Albright shook his head, as he pondered the matter. A few years ago they had had Jack the Ripper. The newspapers had named him, of course, taking a most sensational interest in the case. Albright could imagine what the newspapers would call this new killer: the Mason Jar Man; or the Cannibal Canner; or something equally florid. To Albright, though, he was simply Sebastian Thomas Todd, the barber having dropped the surname which he had inherited.

One thing was for sure, though, Albright thought, as he thought about the case: he was never going to eat pork again.

A Life Of Fiction CXCVII

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

Here is yet another short story which I did for the Steampunk Empire. Like the others it is very short.

The Death Of Smudge

Note: this short story was written for a writing challenge, for the Steampunk Empire, to feature the death of a steampunk character.

The Death of Smudge

Smudge knew that he was going to die. There was nowhere left to run. There was only one window, but looking down into the Thames after at least a thirty foot drop. And Smudge, like so many people in those days, had never learned to swim.

Smudge could hear clanking from the floor below. Once upon a time the sounds of machines had not bothered him. They had merely been the background noises of London: the rattle of omnibuses as they plied the streets; the metallic clanking of the hooves of the horse automatons which pulled the Metropolitan Police’s Black Marias; the hooting from the horns of automobiles as they fought for space on London’s crowded roads. But that had been before metal men had begun hunting him.

Smudge looked around the room for some sort of a weapon. He was in an abandoned or empty office above a warehouse. He had run up here hoping that the stairs would not be sturdy enough for the metal assassins, as he had heard of one man who had escaped death from these monsters due to stairs collapsing.

There was nothing to use. There was not even a spanner, let alone something deadlier, like a gun. Not that a gun would have been of any use, as bullets simply bounced off the metal carapaces of these soulless things.

Smudge backed away from the doorway. All that he could do was to wait and hope. There would be no rescue for him.

The clanking was on the stairs leading up to the door. The stairs were holding. His last hope – that the stairs might collapse – had failed.

They were close now. There would be no getting out down the stairs. But what was the point of running away when they always seemed to know how to find you? Wherever he had tried hiding in London they had come after him.

Smudge heard the heavy footstep on the landing beyond the office door. His heart fluttered in his chest, as one hand sneaked into a pocket to search for a knife which wasn’t there.

The wooden door burst asunder, the hinges ripped away as it was forced inwards by one powerful shove from one of the automatons of the Iron Duke. The metal man entered the room. Smudge could see that there was a second mechanical assassin slowly stamping its way up the stairs.

The red eyes glowed in the semi-darkness of the room. It fixed its merciless gaze on Smudge, and advanced towards him. Smudge reflected on how he had come to be in such a parlous circumstance, as a rather unchristian life flashed before his eyes.

It had all started when he took that damned playing card from out of the box in the house in Richmond. That was when things in his life had gone from bad to terrible. That was when these monsters had begun hunting him.

I don’t ‘ave the four of diamonds.” Smudge pleaded, even though he knew such words were pointless. These machines knew mercy. They had already proved that fact from the other people who they had killed, in their reign of terror. Yet he could not help but plead for his life. “I fenced it. I don’t ‘ave it any more.”

The first automaton advanced, as the second stood in the doorway of the office, to make sure that the thief could not get away. Smudge was now close to the closed window, the murky waters of the Thames yards below.

Smudge tried to dodge out of the way, as the automaton came towards him. Smudge evaded the first chance to catch him. But the automaton launched itself at Smudge, as the burglar tried to get out of the way. It caught Smudge in its iron grip as it slammed forwards into the side wall and window.

Brickwork and glass exploded outwards. Smudge screamed as he fell towards the Thames, unable to free himself from the death-grip of the steel assassin. It would not have mattered if Smudge had been able to free himself, anyway, as he couldn’t swim.

It seemed as though the two entwined figures hung in the air forever, over the dirty waters of the polluted river. Then they fell, and were gone in an instant, the waters closing over their heads after a great splash of water.

A few bubbles came up to the surface. Then the waters were still. Smudge was gone.

A Life Of Fiction CXCVI

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

Still in the process of putting on here little vignettes which I write for Steampunk Empire. It is an excuse for the lack of ideas at the moment. But as I write these words I’m struggling to throw off a very bad of influenza. It means I am so ill that all that I feel like doing is watching TB as I go hot and cold and cough every time that I move. Perhaps an enforced sabbatical will refresh my writing, once I actually recover.

Anyway, here is another short piece of fiction which once appeared on the Steampunk Empire.

The Steel Assassin

The old man wandered between great, hulking machines, each one a marvel in its construction. Together the cost of the construction of these machines would have been enough to bankrupt a nation state. But those wise men who ran the great British Empire from London had no idea that these machines even existed; and they had played no part in their creation.

There were hundreds of Difference Engines, all of them linked together, connected by wires. Occasionally there would be movement on one of them; then another one would have a part move.

The old man checked several of the machines, to make sure that they were in working order. Everything seemed to be fine. Nothing was sticking, or needed replacing. But, the following day, he would check them again, and the day after that. Every single one of the machines needed to be in working order for ‘It’ to be able to think.

The old man walked into a small chamber at the end of the cave. Wires from the Difference Engines ran in through the stone wall of the chamber, and into some great set of controls, all levers and buttons. There were several dials on the control panel, indicating remaining fuel, internal pressure, and so on.

The old man sat in a chair at the control console. He had one final look out of the room. But everything was still fine. The Difference Engines were still thinking. And there was nobody to witness what the old man was doing.

It was time. The old man pulled down a lever. The control console made a humming noise. It lived.

Miles away, in the darkness of a seemingly abandoned building, mechanical eyes opened, rising up inside a steel skull. The eyes glowed red, like coals in the night.

The eyes flickered, looking first to the left, and then to the right. Then the head moved, first to the left, and then to the right, before finally returning to its original position.

A cog whirred; a great, heavy foot lifted off the ground, and paused, raised nine inches above the floor. Then another cog moved, and another, and the automaton began walking slowly forwards. Its feet were like thunder on the floor.

It pushed boxes and old tea chests out of the way. It reached the wooden door leading to the outside. But the great hulking automaton did not slow down, not even to try whether the door was locked or not. It simply carried on walking, bursting through the door as though it was only made out of balsa.

It was the middle of the night. But this was London, and there were always people on the streets of the capital, whether whores or policemen or night-dirt shifters.

It was only two minutes after the automaton had burst through the door that it was seen.

Harold Minter had stumbled out of the Cog and Steam tavern, too drunk to keep a straight line with his feet. They had their own ideas of where he should go. Unfortunately, neither left nor right could agree where that should be.

Then Harold saw the automaton clanking down the street towards him. Suddenly Harold was not quite as drunk as he had been only a moment ago.

He made the sign of the cross, despite not having seen the inside of a church in years, and suddenly found the coordination to stumble down the street in the opposite direction to the mechanical monster.

Others, too, saw the automaton that night. A few even made it into the police stations to announce what they had seen. By the time that the police decided that they probably should investigate these reports it was too late, anyway.

The automaton moved onwards, his red eyes taking in everything, caring about nothing. It did not matter who saw it. It could not be stopped.

Within twenty minutes it had reached its destination: a house in the East End of London, a house much the same in outward appearance as any other in the area. The house was not a slum. But few people would have chosen to live there.

The automaton walked up to the front door of the house. It raised one hand, and brought it down in a chop which smashed the less-than-sturdy door in two.

The mechanical assassin marched in through the doorway, flicking the broken door out of the way.

Upstairs an old man got out of bed, woken by the terrible crash of the door being destroyed, but not knowing what it signified.

The old man staggered out of his bedroom, onto the landing, to see the automaton begin to climb up the stairs.

The old man stared. He could not move. He was caught by terror. Besides, there was nowhere else where he could go, unless he dived out of his bedroom window onto the hard cobbles of his back yard.

The metal automaton placed its heavy iron foot on the second step, and put its entire weight on it, as it raised its other foot to place on the third step. The step creaked, and collapsed. The weight of the automaton had been too great for the rickety old stairs. The automaton plunged through the stairs into the space below.

Below the stairs there was the stone steps leading down into the cellar. The automaton crashed down onto the stone steps. Something stopped whirring. There were a couple of clunks from the cellar, and then silence…

A Life Of Fiction CXCV

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

Still in the process of putting on here little vignettes which I write for Steampunk Empire. Here is another one I made earlier.

The Box

Note: this short story was written for a writing challenge, for the Steampunk Empire, to feature the four of diamonds. This was my second attempt at such a vignette. The first one I rejected as not being interesting enough, although it will appear in First Drafts And Unfinished Tales, when that finally sees the light of day.

The Box

Smudge had spent days checking out the house which he intended to burgle. The house was in Richmond, out of the areas where Smudge usually wandered. But the rogue had received a tip off that the old man who lived in the house was extremely wealthy.

He certainly didn’t go out much. Nor did the old man appear to have any visitors. Unless the old man went out there was no way in which Smudge could burgle the place. Smudge was not going to go in there unless he knew that the place was empty.

The next time that the old man was out Smudge was going in, the criminal had decided. He was hungry, and could not afford to waste his time just watching some house.

The would-be burglar was almost sure that the old man did not have any servants in the place, which was a little strange. Smudge thought that all rich people had servants. But what did he know? He didn’t even know who his parents were.

The next day the old man went out just as the sun was setting. Somebody in a tilbury came to collect the old man. Smudge watched from the shrubbery near the house as the old man was helped up into the carriage. Smudge took particular attention of the fact that the old man appeared to have a silver head on his walking cane. Anybody who could afford something like that had to really be rich.

Now it was time for a little redistribution of that wealth.

Smudge had already determined how he was going to get into the house. There was a window at the back of the house which he could break, open, and then climb through. The window could not be seen from the road, and Smudge hoped that the house was far enough away from the others in the area that nobody would trouble the police with a tale of having heard breaking glass.

Smudge crept up to the window at the back of the house. Smudge grabbed the ragged scarf from around his neck, and wrapped it around his dirty fist. He used it to punch a hole through the glass.

Smudge waited, his fist through the hole which he had just made. There were no shouts. Nobody came running to see what had made the noise. Nobody had heard the sound of the breaking glass.

Smudge undid the catch of the window, and opened the window wide. He then carefully withdrew his fist. He unwrapped the dirty scarf from around his hand, and shook it, to remove any bits of glass which might have been sticking to it. Then he wrapped the scarf back around his scrawny neck.

Smudge climbed through the window. He left the window open in case he was required to make a swift exit. Then he began to search the house.

Smudge was disappointed. He couldn’t see anything worth stealing. There were no silver spoons in the kitchen, and no silver candelabras in the bedroom. A search of a bureau in the study turned up the less than princely amount of three shillings and sixpence. He had expected there to be pound notes. But there was not one.

There were a lot of papers, and a lot of books. Smudge was not interested in them. He had never been interested in books, due to the fact that he was virtually illiterate. He had no idea if any of them were valuable or not. Anyway, it was a moot point, as his fence was not interested in such things.

Where d’you keep your brass?” Smudge muttered out loud. He hadn’t busted into this place to go back empty-handed.

Smudge threw open drawers, looking for something which might have been hidden. He threw socks and underwear all over the room. But the sock drawer contained only socks.

He began to get desperate. He felt that he had spent too long in the house already. Smudge feared that the old man might come back and catch him.

Smudge glanced around the room. There had to be something there which he could cabbage. Then his eyes alighted on an ornate wooden box on the mantelpiece above the hearth.

Smudge grabbed it, and tried opening it. It was locked. It didn’t rattle, but why lock it unless there was something valuable inside it? There had to be something good in there.

It was time to get out of there.

Smudge ran to the open window. He had a look through first, to make sure that nobody was about. He couldn’t see anybody. It looked safe. He climbed out of the house, and got out of there, the box held hidden underneath his shabby clothes. He did not bother to examine the box until he was a good half a mile away, on a small piece of waste ground.

The box was rosewood, not that smudge realised that. It was just wood, as far as he was concerned. It had an intricate design carved over all sides apart from its base, an interweaving lattice. The box was held closed by a small lock on one side, which jutted out from the wood of the box.

The box was not all that heavy. Smudge held the box up to his ear, and shook it. Had he heard something? He could not be sure. But nothing had rattled loudly. There were no gems or jewellery inside. No coins, either, as those would have made a noise. But he thought that he had heard something.

He supposed that there might be something held in cotton wool. Well, it was time to discover what that something was.

He picked up a small rock, from off the ground, big enough to fit nicely in his fist. He got his knife out of his jacket. He put the tip of the blade on the top of the lock, intending to use it as a makeshift chisel. He raised the rock high, and brought it down on the end of the knife with all his strength

The lock smashed, falling off the box. Smudge flipped open the lid, still believing that there had to be some great treasure inside. You did not lock a box unless there was something inside which you wanted to protect.

He flipped open the lid. Inside there was the four of diamonds, and nothing else. Just a playing card. He had burgled that house for nothing at all.

Smudge picked up the card and stared at it. The card was heavy, and appeared to be made out of metal. It was quite thick, as well, perhaps a quarter of an inch. It would have been no use as a playing card. You couldn’t have shuffled it into a pack. Smudge noticed that there was what looked like tiny grooves along the edge of the ‘card’.

Smudge stared at the card that wasn’t. It was not what he had expected. Then he pocketed it, put his knife back in his pocket, and got out of there, leaving the broken box on the waste ground.

A Life Of Fiction CXCIV

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

The following short story was entered for an online short story competition, on the theme of a person being stranded on a deserted island, and what items they might need. Needless to say, I did not win. But I had fun writing the story.

A Deserted Island, A Long Way From Anywhere

The man sat on a sandy beach, his blue eyes looking out at a calm sea. He was dressed in rags, the remains of clothes in which he had been dressed upon the Sallee Rover, and other ships.

There was a sword lying on the sand within reach of this man, ready to be grasped if needed. He had a flintlock musket across his knees.

A mongrel dog sat on the sand near the man. The dog had been the man’s constant companion ever since events had brought them to this barren place. The dog barely left the man’s side. At the moment is stared out at the sea, as though looking for something. Occasionally it would turn its head to one side to glance at the man, as though to confirm that there was something which it was supposed to be looking at.

The man was unshaven. It looked as though he had not shaved in many days, a light brown beard disguising his features, covering the fine line of his chin. His skin was cracked by the sunlight and the salty air. Dirt, not washed away, stained his forehead.

That forehead was shadowed by an old hat, which kept the sun out of the man’s eyes as he gazed out across the waters of the ocean. It seemed that he had an eternal vigil, looking out across the water for a ship which never came. How long had he sat hear, in this position, staring out across the waters for some sign that his time on the island might be coming to an end?

He did not know, not for certain. Sometimes he felt that he had only been on the island for a few days. But, at other times, he was sure that he must have been on this island for years. Yet he knew that this could not be the case. It had only been days.

The castaway moved slightly. His legs had gone to sleep. But he had no desire, yet, to get up from his position. Where would he go? He had explored his island, long ago (or was it only yesterday?). Apart from the rats and the birds he was alone on the island. But the musket across his knees suggested that he feared an attack; and the truth was that this man had suffered at the hands of callous pirates in the past. In his mind he carried the memories of that dread pirate ship, and the cruelties which he had suffered. He remembered the Moor, and the Maresco.

The castaway recalled all of the events which had brought him to the island. They were as clear in his mind as though they had been written in ink on parchment; and those recollections did not change or alter, from day to day upon this deserted island. no, the time that he had spent at sea was perfectly clear, from that day on the first of September, 1651, when he had first gone out to sea, until that day when some savage storm had sunk the ship in which he had been sailing. Those thoughts were as clear as the sky, untroubled by clouds as far as the horizon. No, it was more recent memories which seemed confused, for some days he imagined it to be less than a week since he had been washed up on these foreign shores; yet, at other times, it seemed more like years, and the castaway could not account for the discrepancy between the two.

On the beach, close to the ragged man, there were the remains of a raft, wood lashed together in a makeshift manner. The raft would only have been of use for a short journey upon that great blue ocean which surrounded the island on which the man sat; it would surely have foundered had he attempted any great distance. But the raft would have been of use in exploring the waters around the isle, or of securing any provisions from some ship which had sunk.

Of such ship there was no trace to be seen, anywhere that the man’s gaze fell. If there had ever been such a ship it must have long disappeared beneath the waves. Perhaps it laid there still, the bodies of the sailors who had been shipmates of the castaway now only food for fishes. It was settled on the ocean bed, on its side, planks ripped apart by the storm scattered about, what provision the marooned man had not been able to recover now lying close to him, yet beyond his ability to recover. Ship’s biscuit destroyed by the waters of the sea; black powder ruined; casks of grog lying on the sand beneath the waves. They were so much useless lagan.

The castaway continued to stare out across the water. There was not a cloud in the sky; there was not a ship to be seen. Not even the smallest dot of another island broke the perfection of this view. The castaway, perhaps, should have abandoned this vigil minutes ago, had he been here for days; or perhaps he should have abandoned it years ago, if his faulty memory was correct when he sometimes imagined that he had been here for decades.

There was a compulsion which, each day, brought him out to this beach, to look out at a featureless horizon. He felt, though, that should any ship come he needed to be seen. He needed to be seen. But, surely, he would see any ship long before they saw him…

Behind the ragged castaway, at the end of a little plain, there was the opening to a cave, which, over considerable time, had been fashioned into a home for this castaway. No, it was not just some cave for those abandoned by God, but had been turned into a veritable fortress.

Two rows of strong stakes surround the cave. Anybody rushing the cave in the hours of darkness would risk impaling themselves on the end of the wooden stakes.

The opening to the cave was not on the ground, but on high. A ladder, made by the maroon, provided the only access into the cave. When the man went back into his cave to sleep at night he would draw the ladder up into his cave. At the front of the rise, before the opening of the small cavern, he had constructed a tented canopy, to help protect the entrance of is home from the weather.

For the most part the weather on this island was good, with sunshine which bronzed skin and bleached clothing. But, occasionally, Hell released cursed storms upon the island, and the place was battered by the same winds and rains which could sink any sailing ship. When those storms struck all that he could do was to cower in the back of the cave and wait for the tempest to pass.

On the shelves of his cave were those items most important to this maroon. The items precious to the man were in shelves which had been fashioned out of the planks of some sailing ship.

There was some ship’s biscuit, not entirely rotten; raisins; a bag of rice, three Dutch cheeses, some pieces if dried flesh, of some indeterminate animal; and a little corn. The fact that the biscuit was still palatable, and that the cheeses had not yet been eaten, were surely the proof that the castaway could only have been on the island for a few days; and that the idea that he had sat on the beach for many years must surely be an illusion.

The stores were not limited to food, however. There were a couple of horns containing gunpowder on those wooden shelves; a musket; two flintlock pistols; and a rusty sword. There was a hammock hanging in the cave, where the castaway would sleep at night.

There were tools in his cave, ones which he remembered recovering from the ship. There was a saw, a hatchet and other items of carpentry, which he had used to create his ladder, and the wooden stakes which protected his home. Every ship had a carpenter – and without those tools his existence on the island would have been very bleak.

There were books, brought from the ship which had foundered and presumably sunk beneath the waves. He had three Bibles in English, so his soul would be saved, even if his body would not. There were a few books in Portuguese. There were Roman Catholic prayer books. There was even a journal, lying on one of the shelves.

Each night the man wrote in the journal – or, at least, he thought that he did. So why, each night, when he wrote, did he feel as though he had written those words a thousand times before? Yet those words were not in his journal. The page was blank; and there was nobody else on this island to change his journal, or to rip out the pages which he had written.

There were a pair of cats there, as well – when they chose to be there, for no man could command a cat. They, like the dog, had been on the ship, and had earned their keep by keeping down the numbers of mice and rats. Now they carried on that tradition, albeit on this island. They would keep safe what little grain the man possessed.

The man sighed, and stood up, slowly, his legs aching as feeling was restored to them. He had spent his time watching from the beach. Now it was time to search the island, although he had searched it many times before. He knew every little hillock, and every clump of grass.

The dog whined, and looked up at the man. The dog stood up, on all fours, and wagged his tail, perhaps happy that now they would be going for a walk, rather than just gazing into the distance.

The man set off, along the beach. He knew all of the other creatures of the island: of land animals, there were rats and goats. Seabirds nested on the island, and he had purloined their eggs more than once. There were parrots, but he had failed in his attempts to capture alive one of those birds.

Turtles came onto the shore of his island, as did penguins. Each of those animals had provided him with a source of fresh meat, in the past.

Beyond where he had created his home there was a small brook, which trickled down into the sea. As he walked across the strand he crossed that source of fresh water. He had to wait, though, as his dog stopped to lap at the water. Then they continued their walk along the isle.

They walked past where there were a couple of turtles on the beach. The dog ran over and sniffed at one of the turtles. The turtle desperately tried to skim across the sand, and back into the water, in the ungainly gait which turtles have on solid land. The dog followed the turtle all the way. It liked the taste of turtle.

With a whistle the castaway called the dog away. They were not hunting at the moment. There was food back in the cave. They would eat what they possessed, and only go hunting for turtle when they were low on supplies. For now the turtles got to live.

Come on.” the man said. He carried on walking. The dog, pink tongue lolling from his mouth, followed along.

The island was more than twelve miles long. Perhaps it was as much as twenty, for the castaway found measuring distance to be difficult on his home. He had buried posts on both the north and south shores of the island, to mark where he believed the twelve mile mark to be. He would not go beyond those posts today.

Perhaps he would only walk a few miles on the southern sand, and see if anything had washed up on the shore. He hoped that some other items from the sunken ship, which he had not been able to recover, might by force of the tides become jetsam which he could collect. He had recovered everything which he had been able to get on his raft; yet he knew that items had gone down beneath the waves before he had been able to bring them to the shore. Some items, doubtless, had gone over the side of the ship before it had foundered, defeated by a storm it could not outrun or endure. Perhaps the captain had had a trunk of clothes, and that sealed trunk might, one day, wash up, waiting to be opened, and the castaway could clothe himself in fitting raiment, rather than the ragged vestments which his clothes had become. He tried to repair them as best as he could, but he feared that, one day, he would be forced to walk around like Adam before the Fall.

At the heart of the island he had discovered a deep, wooded valley surrounded by hills on all sides. He had not explored that valley, for he could easily have become lost between the trees, and not found the way back to the safety of his stockade. There had been no sign of any people there, anyway, only the colourful parrots which he had seen flying over the trees.

Only once had he walked around to the very far side of the island. That was not a trip which could be done in a single day. But he had had to know what was there, in case he had missed something of importance.

It had not been worth the trip. There had been a rocky bay in the far east of the island, slippery with seaweed underfoot. He had been forced to sleep outside, a long way from his protective stockade, his flintlock musket cradled in his lap, his back against a rock. The musket, and the dog, had been his only defences. Yet any animal could have come along and attacked him while he had slept.

There had been nothing in that furthest stretch of the island to justify ever returning to the region. There had been a few turtles, seaweed, and seashells. But those could all be found elsewhere on the island, much closer to the point which he had chosen as his home. Why risk injury and exposure to the weather if it would not lead to some material gain?

The marooned man could see small clam shells lying on the sand of the beach. He turned a few over with the end of his rusty sword. But these clams were only a single shell. Some creature had already got at them, and eaten the soft meat inside.

There was the shell of a conch a little further along the beach. The castaway investigated that, as well. But it was another dead shell.

He picked it up and held it to his ear, marvelling at the fact that he could hear the sound of the sea inside it. He tried holding the shell to the ear of the dog. But the dog backed off a little. He did not want to play.

The man sighed, and let the conch drop from his fingers, back onto the sand. He turned away from the beach, and headed off in the direction of his cavern home. Perhaps he would have something to eat. Or perhaps he would only record that day’s events in his journal. Life went on.

Fate – and the hard work of this castaway – had provided this man with everything which he needed to survive on the island. He had a secure place in which to sleep, where he could relax, without fear of some attack in his sleep. He had weapons, with which to protect himself from man or beast. He had food, until what he had recovered ran out – but, armed with his pistols, he could hunt what birdlife there was on his isle. He could collect the eggs of gulls, or shoot dead the parents. He had grog to drink. He had everything which he needed to survive.

The man had all that he needed, apart from companionship, for he was truly alone. He knew this, for he had searched the island time and time again.

The castaway had everything he needed, almost as though it had been provided for him. But the one thing which he wanted was to see footprints in the sand, and to know that there was some companion to share his time on this Island of Despair. The company of a dog or a cat was not the same as that of a human being.

Perhaps tomorrow… Perhaps tomorrow they would let him meet his Man Friday.

The visitors to the museum strolled past the hemisphere, looking in at the island in the distance. The entire island, and the sea around it, was contained in the exhibit, distortion of dimensions allowing miles of desert island to be shrunk down to a few decametres.

Here we have a recreation of the island of Robinson Crusoe, from the novel by Daniel Defoe.” the tour guide said. “As in all other exhibits, the human inside the hemisphere cannot see out of the exhibit, and has no idea that he is a museum. He believes that he on an island on the planet Earth, in what the humans called the early eighteenth century. He has no idea that Earth suffered a cataclysmic ecological collapse five hundred Earth years ago, and is no longer capable of sustaining human life.”

One of the young aliens went right up to the plastic of the hemisphere and stared at the human in the distance. The alien picked one of his three novels with the end of a tentacle, which another tentacle operated the viewer, telescoping forwards for a closer look at this human as he sat on the shore of his desert island.

He’s really ugly.” the alien said.

We will come back this way on the way back, and you can have another look at our Robinson Crusoe.” the tour guide said. “But let us move on to the next exhibit. I think that you will find it really interesting. It is our recreation of the novel Dracula…”