COMING TOGETHER

There I was, writing away on the next book, concentrating hard to get the words on the page while I had the radio playing in the background, and an ad came on for the stations annual five hundred word short story competition for youngsters. I was working on a short story myself so it was good to hear the drive to get others going in the field.

What Radio 2 did in the promo was to expand what you could get out of it.

Rather than simply being a relative call to arms, that particular promo also gave a small tip. It was done because they had webchats and other resources available on the website so was just an example of what else the kids taking part could use to deliver the best possible story they could.

But that little nugget was awesome.

As a way of getting going, think about putting two things together that wouldn’t normally go together. If you’re struggling to find a way of starting out, look at the way that you can subvert the normal.

It was so basic yet summed up everything that I’ve been trying to do in so much of my writings. It had boiled down my writing process to a single sentence.

In my first novel, The Circle of Fire, the central idea was doing just that. The big scary monster was the good guy. The main character was created to be a representation of a stereotype of the gym going man so I could turn it on it’s head as the series went on. My short stories include ideas around what we all think, and how we interpret words and I’ve tried to look at things in a very different way.

Don’t we like the idea of turning things on their heads?

Don’t we like the idea of what we’re all used to seeing being shown to be wrong?

Rooting for the little team versus the huge club. The David versus Goliath.

Excitement comes from looking outside the norm and by slamming things together that shouldn’t be together under normal circumstances. It can allow all manner of topics to be explored. The film Enemy Mine has the story based around a human and an alien being stranded on a planet. They’re sworn enemies and have been fighting in space prior to their crashing. Everything grows from there. The Odd Couple indeed.

Then think of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yet again, we see the strange bed fellows. The court room, the home of justice and all things honest is shown to be a terrifying place if you come from the wrong population. Truth, that which we all know that we have to maintain, becomes an irrelevance before the glare of twisted ideology.

All kinds of stories are out there to prompt thought and to entertain, and very often, by bringing things together that shouldn’t normally interact, you can uncover some interesting stuff.

Now I’m off to write a story about an HR performance review of someone on the Death Star.

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ROLLING

You know it’s important to plan. You know it’s important to manage your time. You know, that even though you don’t feel like it sometimes, you have to keep plonking along steadily towards the goal.

Doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you have to be smashing up against the clock to get the best results.

Over the last few weeks I’ve really put the hammer down on the next collection of short stories and you know what? The more I write the more it’s been flowing.

No you can see regularly as a writing tip, the more you do it, the easier it’ll get, but the reality is just that. The concerted effort is having the desired results.

Now being creative is a tough journey.

It’s not as if you can just turn your creativity on or off with the barest hint of effort. Sculpting a story isn’t something that just happens you know. Concentration and focus and inspiration all have to work together which takes time, and that’s when things are going well. Add in Writer’s Block and things get really tough.

Happily though, I’ve been able to get onto a real roll and the more that I’ve written, the more the ideas have been flowing. I’ve been able to really pour energy and urgency into the words and things have been going pretty well.

All in all, the purpose of this post was more to wave the flag of positivity.

It’s all too easy to get trapped into the spiral of negativity when we work on any and all projects. Trying to push onwards, even when it seems that everything you try is just fizzling out to nothing. We all have to deal with the nastiness of failure, if we try anything there’s always going to be the risk that it’s not going to unfold as planned. But that shouldn’t mean that we don’t give the project our everything just in case.

You know what all?

If you’ve got a project or hobby on the go, the more you do, the more you do. Practice may not always make perfect but make the most of those good days when they come along.

Now I’m off back to the fighting on the crippled starship I’ve been working on.

Good times.

CROSSING THE LINE

It’s Christmas day so rather than create a usual blog post for everyone, I’ve decided to give everyone a gift of my own.

Here’s the latest short story from my collection and it sits after the events of The Circle of Duty and before the events I’m currently working on in book three of the Circle series, The Circle of Stars.

Enjoy.

 

Have you ever moved house?

I have.

When you find yourself in the new environment you can’t help but look back fondly at the old location and think of all of the good times that happened there. Every time you hear your old home town mentioned on the news you can’t help but pay just a little more attention to what was taking place.

Now I’d moved from the metropolis of London, to the slightly more ‘out of the way’ South Wales so there tended to be mentions of London on the news quite often but recent life within The Circle had added in the extra layer of interest which comes with instances of the supernatural.

I’d just jumped all of my estate’s forces back home to Wales from somewhere in Africa and I was done in. There’d been so much fighting recently that all of the different locations around the world we’d been to were kind of bleeding together which, considering that included jungle, desert, city and ice field you can see that I truly was done in.

Climbing the steps at the front of the mansion I felt as if the weight of the world was sat squarely on my shoulders. Every inch of my body ached from a co-ordinated attack on a newly established stronghold of some kind of creature that despite lots of help, I still couldn’t pronounce, but that wasn’t the worst part about it.

As the troops all marched quickly back into the house either to the infirmary or their rooms, that now all too familiar gnawing sensation was buried deep in my stomach. We’d just wiped out a vast colony of whatever they were called, all under the banner of saving the world, but at no point had there been any kind of aggressive action from our would be enemies. Instead, we’d been the ones taking on the role of the aggressor. All in the name of the protection of the human race, we’d jumped ourselves, two Guardians and their forces, into what was barely a shanty town in the middle of nowhere and ripped the place apart.

As you’d expect there had been a response from our enemies that tried to match ours but despite what could only really be called a bloody nose in terms of injuries to our party, we’d overwhelmed them quickly and with the utmost brutality.

Add to that the fact that my former teacher and, I thought possible partner, Andrea, was avoiding me completely – even to the point of refusing to be a part of any missions which I was, that feeling of being done in had nothing to do with exertion but with the ever growing weight of guilt that I was dragging around with me.

Finally arriving at the top of the stairs, I found Mark, my massive general, waiting for me.

“Welcome home, my Lord. A successful campaign?” His voice was its usual basso rumble but I could feel the question more as a comment on the performance of his troops in his absence.

I humpfed and continued walking. I had too much on my mind.

“Sir?” enquired Mark as I passed by, no doubt worrying that he’d somehow displeased his lord and master. Sighing at the futility of our positions, I beckoned him to follow me towards my rooms at the top of the house.

Taking my armour off with as much grace and poise as I could manage, not wanting to too greatly destroy the image Mark had of the lord of the manor, I tried to explain to my colleague exactly what I was feeling.

“Mark, what do you do for relaxation? What are your hobbies?” I’d been a part of so much since joining the fray but I was feeling more and more each day, the weight that came with my role, and with it a detachment from those people around me. Everything was built on the single premise of the protection of the human race from the creatures that would tear it down.

Mark didn’t answer and his expression creased in thought. Finally he replied.

“I enjoy my role within The Circle, sir.”

He spoke without any fear of the words being somehow wrong. He spoke with just the slightest hint of question, as if it would be self evident that he say what he did. Obviously he enjoyed what he was doing. What more was there to say?

Still unhooking the multitude of plates which comprised my armour, I could immediately feel frustration. I was finding it more and more each day as every step we all took seemed to always have that ever so slight shadow of moral ambiguity to it and I swear that it was only me who could even recognise that the shadow was there. I asked again.

“Beyond your roles in the fighting or the cooking. When you’re not doing those things, what do you do to relax? To unwind after a long day of protection?”

Mark’s expression remained the same.

“I train, sir. Magically, physically. And culinarily.” He tried a smile but it just didn’t look comfortable.

“But what beyond that?” My frustration at my friend was rising again.

“There’s nothing beyond that though, sir?” Now he frowned. “Isn’t the protection of the whole human race enough for one life?”

I just stopped fishing and resigned myself to further circular arguments. I really was in The Circle after all. It’d been the same from everyone since I’d taken my first faltering steps into the service within The Circle but I’d hoped that by now there would have been at least some movement. Instead, one of the men I was able to call my friend was either totally immersed in what he was doing in his job so he had nothing beyond it, or I just still knew nothing about him because I was his master and he my servant.

I clenched my fists at the futility of it all, the social programming all the way through to the questions of ethics, and tried to force my mind away from the anger in my head.

Mark took the final pieces of my battle dress and turned to head out of the room to return them to storage when I stopped him.

“Wait.”

He stopped immediately and span to face me again, his face a calm mask of neutrality.

“That’s not acceptable.”

Now he looked worried. Time to use the system to my advantage.

“We are the guards of the whole human race and that includes all of us as well. I expect that everyone will be using the life that we protect for more than just their jobs. Do you understand?”

Silence thickened the air as Mark did his best to find the appropriate way to respond.

I moved forward and clasped his arm by way of reassurance.

“We’re all doing what we do to keep the world safe but that should never mean that we’re totally apart from it. We never forfeited the right to enjoy the fruits of our labour.”

Mark tried harder still to find the correct response. Still nothing.

“Look Mark. The world’s a massive place which holds the most beautiful wonders and, as we know, the worst horrors, imaginable. We see the latter all of the time, so why not take a second to at least acknowledge the former?”

“I see.” He was trying his best.

“Look, all I want is to have a handful of minutes out of the world that is The Circle and to relax into the normality of what everyone else gets to see on a daily basis. And I want a friend to go with me.”

“I see,” he repeated but it didn’t sound that he did. I’ll give him credit though, he was saying something which didn’t prove his position in any direction. Very non-committal. Just how uncomfortable was I making him?

“You and I are going for a pint,” I declared with enthusiasm.

Mark’s face didn’t register any opinion of the statement, his eyes simply blinking once as he again struggled with the same internal question.

“I see,” he stated after another pause, though with a tone of uncertainty and fear.

Still a work in progress.

“Go and get changed and I’ll meet you on the steps at the front of the house in twenty minutes.”

He bowed deeply and was out of the room before I could say anything else. Heading towards the shower I was beginning to mull over the potential details of what a quiet pint with Mark could really be.

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

I made my way down the stairs a mere fifteen minutes later, dressed in what I hoped was the effortless casual style which just screamed that I was just like everyone else. Mark was already at the door waiting for me and his dress sense was a little different. He was wearing a very official looking charcoal grey suit.

“Is this you trying to relax?” He just maintained that flat expression and nodded slightly.

“Not quite what I was expecting for two fellas just going for a drink but I suppose you could have come straight from the office.” I was suddenly feeling under dressed and this whole thing had been my idea.

“Do me a favour big guy. Take your tie off at least, this is supposed to be relaxing, not anything official.”

“I see,” he answered and casually removed the tie with a deft flick of his wrist.

We climbed into one of the cars outside the house, a sporty Mercedes of some shape, and I put my foot down, heading us along the winding drive way and the world beyond. I’d eschewed the use of a Cascade Bridge in favour of the more ‘usual’ mode of transport to show Mark that the time we were about to have to ourselves was going to be more normal than magical but that said I was already fully planning on leaving the car outside wherever we ended up and bridge jumping us home after a few snifters.

After a few miles of winding roads, the straighter ones followed and I could feel the burble of excitement rising in me at the thought of what was coming. Not that I’m some kind of raging alcoholic you understand, rather I recognise the power for healing that talking over a drink with a friend can bring.

Finally, we arrived.

I’d aimed for the centre of Neath as a decent place to start. Not too small that we’d stick out as not being locals but also not too busy that you get swept into the masses. All in all it looked like a pretty decent place to unwind.

Making my way around the small streets, I was doing my best to locate somewhere to park but as with almost every town or city these days, residents only parking seemed to be all that was on offer. After the third circuit, I was getting a little cheesed off.

“Well this is a great start,” I moaned absent-mindedly, turning the car round and starting into circuit number four.

“You don’t have to look for a specific place to park you know. Leave the car wherever is easiest for us and I can have a member of the staff arrange for whatever steps may need to be taken.” Mark replied. He hadn’t even been directing the comment at me as such, rather he just spoke into the car, as if giving the correct answer to a posed query.

“Whatever steps may need to be taken? What does that mean?” A bit too sinister for parking surely?

“That should the car be ticketed, be towed away or should we be in need of someone else to drive the car back, we have the facilities to resolve any and all eventualities.”

Interesting indeed.

Time to put this to the test.

Armed with the knowledge that I was free of responsibility for any parking indiscretions, I started out small.

Pulling the car into a side street, I slid into one of the many ‘residents only’ spaces and turned off the engine. Close enough to the pub that we wouldn’t have to walk far but also not parking like an utter knob and daring someone to complain.

By the time we entered the pub, the evening crowd was already starting to build. I hadn’t been expecting much in the way of crowds, it being a Tuesday, but by the looks of things, there was some sporting event taking place on the TV which had a pretty sizeable group watching. I had a quick check but it wasn’t rugby.

To the bar.

The woman behind the bar greeted us with a smile and did the very slightest double take when she looked at Mark. There was no denying that a seven foot tall, heavily muscled man would be out of the ordinary almost anywhere, but she didn’t dwell on any kind of fear.

“Evening boys. What can I get you?” She spoke with a casual confidence that had no doubt come from years working in this trade. She looked to be in her late thirties and had the baring of someone who’d had to deal with more than a few drunks in her time. Standing a shade over five feet and built strongly, she looked as if she’d been born to be a pub landlady. Her name badge declared her as the Assistant Manager and that she was called Steph.

“I’ll have a pint of lager,” I replied before turning to Mark, “and my friend will have ……..”

He missed his cue.

“Mark. What do you want to drink?” I poked his arm but still there was nothing. He just stood there, his eyes scanning madly over every label on every bottle, his brow furrowing more and more by the second. I cursed myself for a very basic oversight. He didn’t know what he wanted to drink. He’d never done this before so he had absolutely zero understanding of what he should say next. Nice one Anthony.

“And my friend will have the same,” I finished for him.

His shoulders sagged at the release of the tension of choosing a drink and he did his best to fix an apologetic smile for Steph as she set about pouring. By the way she was moving she’d already forgotten about his indecision, happy to get the order and to move on to the next.

Handing over the cash, I picked the drinks up and handed one to Mark.

“There you go. Get your laughing gear around that.” I was quickly reverting to the persona I’d had way back when all of this magic and Dragons was just a fairy tale. You take on different behaviours dependant on where you are and here I was, just having a pint with a mate.

Mark clutched the glass in one gargantuan hand, his index finger and thumb able to meet, making the glass look like nothing more than a child’s toy.

“This is lager?” he asked as he considered what I’d given him.

“It is. Now have a drink, that’s the best part you know,” I replied and took another swig of my own.

He considered it, paused, then took a testing sniff, before delicately raising it to his lips and imbibing the most dainty of sips.

I almost spat my own mouthful all over him. All it needed was for him to raise his pinky finger to really sell the point.

I struggled to gulp down the drink to at least allow me the chance to laugh at him a bit but was beaten to it.

“It’s a pint of Troll Nectar,” he declared and without a second thought, dumped the whole pint down his throat as if he’d been a highly trained professional speed drinker. Less than two seconds, and the glass was empty.

“Another?” he asked brightly and started looking to attract Steph’s attention.

“What? Where the Hell did you learn to do that? Two minutes ago you were stuck choosing what to order and now you throwing them back like it’s been second nature all along? Explain please?”

He looked terrified.

Again, he’d just done something that the Master of the estate wasn’t expecting and knew nothing about so now he was panicking that he’d somehow insulted me.

“I meant no offence my Lord, merely that I have tasted this drink before, though never have I heard it described as ‘lager’ before.” He raised his glass, as if to emphasise the point. “This is Troll Nectar and is something I’ve enjoyed a great many times when collecting some of our more unique supplies for the kitchens.”

And suddenly, there was more information. Whatever he’d been doing over the years, he’d gone for a drink before. Though the location of that drinking sounded to be a little off the beaten track.

“What unique supplies do you collect?” I prodded. This seemed more than a little odd.

Mark still looked concerned but at least he’d shed the utter terror.

“Food and drink, mostly,” he replied with the tone of a man who was walking on very thin ice. “I’ve been buying and selling goods like Mr. Christian did before me.”

Sounded harmless enough.

“What kind of things do you buy? Just stuff you can’t get in the usual supermarkets? Local meat etc?”

He considered the possible wording for the answer.

“Of a kind, my Lord,” he was still dancing around the point despite the fact all I wanted to know was a bit more about the life of my friend.

“We bring in and maintain a store of very specific supplies in readiness for the arrival of members of other parties or groups. We exhausted our rather extensive supply of four week aged, rotted tree bark, beetles still alive, following the fighting in Bress Tal. The Tayne don’t feast in the same way we do.”

His words were factual, almost boring in their delivery but the mention of Bress Tal felt more akin to a scorching axe to the chest. My poker face must have been getting better as Mark didn’t pick up on my pain.

Bress Tal had been a victory in the wider context of what had taken place but watching Em, The Messenger, sacrifice herself whilst almost dooming another, will always be something that will haunt me. The big picture must be considered but I was finding that the detail of that picture was tough to stomach.

Keep on the surface, don’t dwell on the pain. Going for a pint was a good thing.

“And you have a drink when you go there? Are you encouraged or expected to join in?”

“Most certainly. It is the expected behaviour when undertaking the task so I have always been at pains to behave in a certain way.”

Interesting. So far, all I’d heard about The Circle was that we had a mighty role to play in the protection of the human race, but that we were the biggest and baddest that were out there. I’d never really stopped to consider the fact that the mansion and all of the people in it would have to be managed and maintained just like anywhere else, and that old saying of ‘an army marches on its stomach’ clearly came from somewhere. I’d just assumed that magic was the answer to all of the feeding and watering needs. Clearly not.

“And you stick to the behaviour etiquette? Why hasn’t The Circle just taken what we need when we need it?”

Mark tilted his head at the thought, very much akin to an inquisitive dog. It reminded me of Em again.

“The supply chains for all that we need are not always easy to maintain and it has proved to be easier to show deference than to fight. The Circle don’t like to waste power on simple food.”

Made sense. Why waste energy and resources on a fight that would just make life tougher even if you won? There was logic to the thinking but that seemed to be at odds with everything that had been happening in terms of the ‘public’ appearance of The Circle. So far they’d been more we’re the power so we do what we want.

“So this place is a market?” Back on track.

He considered his words again but now it was without the previous fear.

“It’s a place where you can acquire, exchange and explore all manner of things, of tastes. It’s less a market, more a meeting place where anything and everything can take place.”

“And there’s a bar?”

“There is indeed, and it has a much wider selection of beverages to explore than are on display here.” Mark had clearly seen some amazing things at this place, wherever it was.

“Then you’re taking me along the next time you go on one of your shopping runs. I suspect that this is a place I could do with knowing more about.” I winked at him and took another drink. This mystery location was very interesting indeed.

His expression dropped and his eyes widened to saucers.

“You couldn’t possibly attend my Lord. I could never take someone such as you to a place like, that.” The emphasis he placed on the final word showed clearly what he really thought of the trading place. Despite all that we’d seen together, he was still falling back into the tried and tested routine of making sure that the master of the estate would never be sullied by attending somewhere so very menial and therefore, beneath them.

I wasn’t having that.

“Come on,” I protested and did everything I could not to come off sounding like a petulant child. “This is exactly the sort of thing that I need to understand if I’m going to do what I do properly. Besides, having a place to go to unwind is an often overlooked necessity.” The ball was now back in his court.

“Attending this place is not something which the wider community of The Circle would be pleased to discover at the best of times but taking the Guardian there would be completely beyond acceptable. Please my Lord, I cannot take you.”

That was more interesting. Not only didn’t he want to take me to such a low place, but he also didn’t want to let anyone else in The Circle know that he’d been going there at all. Very interesting indeed.

“So let me see if I understand what you’re saying.” Let’s see what we can see. “You go to a place you potentially shouldn’t be going to, in search of all kinds of foods etc. and you’re afraid of taking the Guardian of the estate with you because the place you go to is too, seedy?”

Mark didn’t look well. I’d put him on the spot with the question and he was now feeling the full weight of all of the perceived expectation of my position bearing down on him. I did feel guilty about doing this but if I could show him that I wasn’t going to rip his head off because he’d been doing something a little questionable, maybe he’d be more comfortable in the long run.

He responded as best he could.

“I meant to say that I wish to protect you from exposure to that place. As my master, you shouldn’t have to be involved in such menial tasks or their locations.”

I’ll say this for my giant general, he was certainly getting better at standing his ground in the name of The Circle but I was still going to that location.

“Thank you for looking out for me but believe me, I’m more than capable of looking after myself, and besides, I can just order you to take me you know.” I cocked an eyebrow to try and show I was joking with the order comment. It seemed to work as Mark’s posture relaxed slightly and his expression softened.

“Very well my Lord,” he replied and bowed his head ever so slightly. I think Steph caught it but no-one else.

“Excellent stuff. The next time you go on a shopping trip, I’ll be there with you.” It felt positive to have the idea that there was somewhere new to go and more detail to paint into the picture of this world.

“We could go sooner than that should you wish my Lord?”

“Really? When do you suggest?” Hoping I knew what he was about to say.

He frowned at the question, yet another example of me not knowing something I should have done?

“We can go now. You have had less than a single pint so you should be safe to drive.”

“Drive? Where is this place?” I didn’t fancy having to drive hundreds of miles but I also would have thought that I would have heard of any magical meeting place which was close by.

“It’s just down the road from here, maybe ten minutes drive.”

My drink was on the bar, still half full and I was heading for the door even before Mark had finished his sentence. We were that close to something that was that chock full of all things magical. There was a place where, as Mark had described it, the world I was used to met the magical lands of The Circle. It was a place where I could be both, Anthony Johns, Personal Trainer and Anthony Johns, Guardian of The Circle. That sounded exactly like the kind of place I needed right about now.

“So where’re we going?” I called over my shoulder as Mark fought to catch up.

“I’ll direct you in but head towards Cwmgwarch. We’re going to the Valley of the Witch.”

 

Now I’ll admit that I was a little excited.

Who wouldn’t be?

I was being directed to a place that seemed to hold all of the possibilities of a middle ground for the two worlds I inhabited and therefore had the potential to salve a spiritual wound I’d been picking at ever since I’d been introduced to all of this. I’d be able to have a relaxing drink surrounded by people and creatures who knew all about the magical landscape that surrounded us all and not have to worry about accidently revealing everything that I was. I could be the Guardian and still just kick back in a drinking establishment as a way of letting off steam. I’m pretty sure my uncle David would have been over the moon if he’d known I was going to do this.

Which made me think.

“Mark,” I asked as I pushed the car hard along the main road towards our destination. “Did my uncle ever come here?”

“I am unaware of the wider movements of the former Guardian I’m afraid my Lord. When he was in role, I was a mere functionary so was very far from ever knowing anything more than the widest details of campaigns and the like.” Mark’s response was measured as he relayed the facts but there was still that hint of apology that he wasn’t able to give his master what he wanted. I’d have to ask Mike when we got back to the mansion.

Eventually, after me jumping the gun on the directions Mark was giving, and sending us down cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac, he told me to pull in to a small lay by, proclaiming that we had arrived. Turning the engine off and looking around, I was sceptical. There was nothing around us but fields, bushes, the road which had been shrinking all the way up here, and what looked like a gate to quarry or the like?

“We’re going in there?” I gestured beyond the gate, hoping that this wasn’t going to mean that I was going to end up wandering about a muddy field.

“We are,” Mark confirmed brightly and vaulted the gate.

Great.

I followed him but was a little more careful when climbing the gate. The last thing I needed was to find myself up close and personal with the after effects of a cow’s dinner.

Happily, we didn’t have to travel that far into the depths of nature before we arrived.

One minute we were making our way through the great outdoors and the next we were surrounded by small buildings and a wide variety of people and, indeed, not people. I recognised a similar magic to that which was encasing the prison site under Neath Abbey and felt the tingle of power as we passed through the barrier to the world of the interior.

The buildings inside were all stone built and looked as if they’d been there for a great many years. Placards, flags and other types of sign adorned the outside of each of these establishments, all giving some kind of clue as to the contents or purpose of the buildings. Some I could work out as being smiths of different kinds, some looked to be all about different potions and lotions and by the noise from at least two of them, some were clearly drinking establishments.

“So which is the best place for a drink?” I asked, my eyes bouncing from glowing doorway to glowing doorway, with my feet already inching me towards the nearest option. I was feeling like a kid at Christmas.

“We have quite a way to go into the compound until we arrive where I’m taking you my Lord. These are not places you would wish to spend a great deal of time as a first visit.” He paused to look me in the eye before continuing. “These establishments are of far too low a quality for a Guardian of The Circle.”

He marched off purposefully into the irregular lanes and pathways of the place, and as I followed him, it was only now that I could make out just how many other shacks and hovels there were all around us. There was a thick mist squatting over every inch of the surrounding streets and alleys which not only obscured the sights but also the sounds around us, deadening the environment around us. This place was clearly massive and it instinctively drew out a feeling of subtle threat in me. It wasn’t as such that I felt that there was going to be trouble, rather that due to the clearly high numbers of people around me and the environment they were all crammed into, there was a better chance that I’d be crossing paths with someone who may be on the lookout for something violent. Add to that what Mark had said about this place being a trading station for almost anything and the sheen of going for a drink was quickly turning into a potentially very risky idea.

“In for a penny …………” I muttered to myself and continued to walk, exuding as much self confidence as I could drag together. Dragon or not, I was very new to this.

We’d walked less than ten feet before I sensed the problem. It wasn’t my spinning head magical spidey-sense, rather, that feeling we all get from instinct, when we just ‘know’ that something is off. Flicking my eyes back and forth, hunting for anything and everything I could imagine, I became aware of eyes on me from all directions. Some were glowing brightly, pin pricks in a shadowed window, while others were sunken voids, empty within the tortured faces of those who watched on. There may have been the smallest handful of shapes moving around the streets as we’d entered the location, but now I was really looking, I could pinpoint that there were a massive number of beings crammed into any and all space, and all of them seemed to be tracking me.

“Keep calm Anthony,” I whispered to myself. My rational mind knew that I could do some real damage as my huge red Dragon form but being the centre of attention like this was making my rational mind want to hand over the reins to irrational mind and just run. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all?

“Mark,” I called into the mist. “Does the attention always happen when you come here?”

“Attention?” he replied, clearly not sure what I meant. “No, this is very new,” he finished as he’d clearly taken in all of the details I had. In a flash, he was at my side with his hands raised to a defensive posture, that familiar blue fire wreathing his balled fists.

“What do they all want? Never seen a Guardian before?” My attempt at levity was more for my good than anyone else’s.

“It was a mistake to expose you to this place. I am sorry my Lord, but it would appear that we must leave.”

What? Already? We’d only just got here and all of a sudden we were being pushed away by the first crowd we came into contact with? The idea that I was suddenly in mortal danger so should run just put my back up.

“Leave? I’m not going to be scared away at the first sign of curiosity.” I stepped out from behind Mark and raised my hands in what I hoped would be understood as a gesture of no harm.

“I’m not here to hurt anyone. I’m only here to see this place and everyone in it.” I was speaking slowly and clearly, making sure that there could be no come back if it did kick off. I was friendly and just one of the guys, not any trouble. I’d only act to defend myself.

From within the mist, I could hear hushed voices creaking and rasping as there were myriad discussions about what I’d just said.

“I do really believe that we should leave this place and allow them all to return to whatever they were doing before we arrived.” Mark was on edge again but in a way that he didn’t seem embarrassed by. He was preparing for a fight and this was clearly an arena he was familiar with.

“Guardian,” was belched out in a deep roar from a rundown hut directly before me. I couldn’t see anything through what was passing as a door and window but there was a slimy, squelching, dragging sound coming from within which suggested that there was something very large filling all of the available space. The ‘Guardian’ call was then repeated by a small, sharp voice behind me which brought to mind fragments of broken glass, then by a third voice, this one shaking and hissing the word from a position which seemed to be above me.

More and more voices joined the call, repeating that single word again and again and again. Each added to the layers of sound and each and every one cast the word as an accusation, singling me out as the focus of their ire.

That thought made me mad. Not just angry, but violently furious, that these creatures had decided that they wanted to have some kind of violent confrontation. Didn’t they know who I was? Well they must have done, they were all calling me Guardian.

Mark announced into the murk, “I am a familiar visitor to this place. I have shown that I respect the laws here and my Master is sworn to the same pact. Let us be in peace and we shall leave this place.” He was still dead set on appeasement then.

In response, the voices started up again, though this time they were chanting the single word in unison. The word drummed a constant rhythm around us and I swear that I could feel the power of that call through my chest.

“GUARDIAN. GUARDIAN. GUARDIAN,” just stomped in place, forming an almost tangible barrier to our progress.

Well if they were going to start a fight I was more than willing to oblige them.

Raising my hands before me, I called fire to my mind and a wall of roaring orange flame blasted skyward in a ring, circling Mark and I. The chanting stuttered as fear spread throughout the crowd but was quick to recommence.

I held the fire for a further second before releasing it and it fell back to the ground with an audible thud, leaving behind a scorched and smouldering patch around us. Sporadic flames still flickered and danced as fuel on the ground was consumed and it cast out light enough for me to begin to see the faces of the nearest members of the gathered crowd and what I saw chilled me.

There were all manner of creatures wedged together in that crowd. Some giant, others far from it, some clothed, others very far from it and some carrying weapons and others with weapons as a part of their anatomy. But the chilling factor was that there were at least the same number of humans mixed into the mass as well.

I was here to see the sights and yet I was being confronted. I was a Guardian of The Circle yet there was a crowd of humans, those I was sworn to protect, the very reason for The Circle itself, who were standing against me.

In that instant, my anger flickered in my mind, usurped by confusion.

They all knew.

Every being surrounding me knew that I was the Guardian yet all of these people didn’t seem to care. It’s not that I was expecting a fawning, servile crowd, I just wanted to have a pint and somehow I was hated.

I hadn’t even been aware of any spinning early warning before the small stone hit me in the side of the head. I’d been aware of the whistling sound and then there was an explosion of white before my eyes, and pain in my temple. Through the immediate confusion, I could quickly make out the blood starting to flow down the side of my face.

I’d been attacked and for nothing more than being there. One of the creatures had launched a missile at me. I couldn’t entertain the thought that it had been one of the humans but either way the end result had been the same.

Shaking my head to try and force my focus back into place I was dimly aware of Mark nudging me away from the crowd with his back to me. He was shouting into the misty air as he kept himself between me and the mob, barking out some very choice phrases as he covered our retreat. A handful of steps more and I felt the shield wall part around me as I re-entered the field where we’d started. I was still a little fuzzy in the head so it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise that I face planted into the mud.

Mark came through to find me laying still.

“My Lord,” he yelled as he panicked at the sight of what he could only assume was, at best, his master unconscious or at worst, dead.

Rolling me over he started to run through checks on my breathing and if my heart was still beating.

“Hey,” I protested. “The mud was soothing.” My anger had drained away thanks to the bang to the head and the relaxing mud so I tried to let Mark know I was OK. He let out a massive sigh of relief and slumped to the floor himself.

But were those things coming through after us?

I started to climb to my feet just in case but Mark took a casual grip on my arm and made sure that I stayed put.

“They won’t leave that place. We can relax a while before we head back to the estate.”

“Perfect,” I replied. “But you’re driving.”

We decided that it would probably be wisest to avoid description of where we’d been and what we’d been up to and instead rely on the old faithful response when returning from a night out looking a little worse for wear. I’d drunkenly decided to go marching through a field and had slipped over on the way. It seemed to work.

I showered and after the briefest inspection from Llewellyn, my medical guru, who declared that I must have a pretty hard head, I was left alone in my room. I’d been half expecting the knock on the door so when it came and Mark entered the room, I was sat on the end of the bed, waiting.

“I am extremely sorry for placing you in harm’s way my Lord,” he started and bowed his head, clearly feeling a burning shame within.

I sighed.

“It’s not your fault that we went there, it was mine. I pushed the point and from there, everything that happened can be lumped on my shoulders. You were the one looking after me despite my best efforts.” I was tired and needed him to know that he wasn’t to think he was a failure. I think he relaxed a bit but I wasn’t certain.

“But I do have a question for you,” I added.

“Anything I can provide,” he replied, seemingly happy to resort to doing things he was told.

“No-one wanted me there. Every single creature there was dead set in opposition to me and they all knew who I was.” It was a statement of fact so there was no need to Mark to confirm it.

“The Guardians and The Circle aren’t liked, are we?”

“We are never here to be liked, we have a vitally important role to fulfil so surely, the outcome is all that matters.” Mark’s response had all the feeling of something which had been learned at a very young age and was now just being regurgitated. It was doubtful if he ever considered what the words really meant.

I nodded slowly and gestured weakly that he was dismissed. He bowed and hurried from the room. Maybe that was the way he was used to being dealt with? Maybe my attempts to loosen the environment around here had been banging against such powerfully learned rules, that it had always been doomed to failure?

Laying back on my bed, I could feel a weight settling on my chest.

I’d gone out with the intention of finding some way to put my role as Guardian to one side, to find somewhere that I would be able to relax and not have to worry, just for a short time. Instead, I walked smack into a very real dose of the world I was a part of. There was no middle ground. I was there to protect the human race as a Dragon Guardian but that meant that I was going to be viewed with suspicion from all sides. I was a figurehead of something which was not viewed well and, as such, would forever be treated as a threat. Maybe this would have been a part of my uncle’s thinking when he decided to leave the estate and live permanently in London to look after my brother and I?

When you move away from an area you’re familiar with, it’s all too easy to romanticize the memories and gloss over the bad bits. The new home will always have that to work against but as I lay there, being surrounded by a world that had chosen it hated me, for every second of every day, it became too much.

I was going to be the best Guardian I could be, birthright and all that, but I was going to need to be more than just that to keep myself sane.

I knew what I needed to do.

I was going home.

LIFE AFTER DEATH

I’ve been working on a new batch of short stories for a second collection book to be released next year, and with Halloween just around the corner, it seems like the perfect time to unveil the first offering.

This story tries to look into the existence of Death.

The hulk twisted through the unending nothing of deep space. Occasionally there was a flash of an isolated light to signify that the pulse reactors deep in the heart of the once mighty ship were still producing flickers of power, but there was no consistent drive and it was clear to anyone who would have happened to look in the direction of the ‘Laputa’ that this ship was already as good as dead.

The black clad figure stood on the outer surface of the ship, in line with what would have been the largest loading bay if it had still been intact, and just gazed out longingly at the emptiness of the universe and the few far off stars that were visible.

For the so very many years that Death had travelled all existence, carrying out the ultimate task of reaping the life from every being there had ever been, she’d never ever considered what beauty there was all around her. She clasped tightly to the shaft of the implement that had gone with her all of these years she’d travelled, her skeletal fingers creaking more than the scythe despite the lack of atmosphere. Over the ages, she’d used so very many different versions of this tool to claim the lives of everything she’d come across. Guns of all manner of design, all possible kind of bladed weapon and even as far as constructs of other living creatures to fit within a given food chain, but at this point she felt, and didn’t really understand why, that the scythe, the classic implement, was the way to go.

She was brought crashing from the considerations of her mind when the ship lurched under her feet.

Peering over the ruined edge of the blast crater that had been the loading bay, she saw what she had been drawn here for.

The tiniest flare of fire blossomed deep within the ship, behind one of the many sealed emergency doors which had slammed shut when the original accident had taken place, but even that barest push had been enough. Decades of exposure to space had taken its toll on the ‘Laputa’ and that gentle nudge had been enough to blow out the pressure seal of the door and expel what small volume of trapped gases there had been behind.

That in turn had been enough to dislodge some mangled debris and send it floating free of the ship along with a handful of other crates and boxes, and crucially, the very last functioning cryo-chamber on the ship, containing the very last human in the universe.

Death strode out into the nothing as if walking on a smooth, rigid surface and made her way to intercept the chamber.

She began wondering about the details of what she was going to do and let her mind wander around the specifics. ‘Why was she here now?’ ‘The chamber was leaving the hulk behind as it floated free but there was nothing about her that was likely to destroy it, and therefore the creature inside so it was odd she’d been drawn here’. ‘Pre-emptive strike?’

She arrived next to the chamber and just stared at it trying to work it out but didn’t have to wait long. One of the other crates from the ship was nudged ever so slightly from the cloud of debris and just grazed the chamber before heading off on its own way to oblivion. That graze had been enough to hit just the right pads on the chamber and Death could see the outcome clearly.

First there had been a flash of golden light and then an expulsion of gases and finally, the chamber cracked in half as it opened.

Onboard any ship, when this process had taken place, there had been an atmosphere surrounding the contents of the chamber as it was released. Out here now, there was nothing so the result was going to be clear.

The man inside wasn’t even conscious.

It had been a miracle that life had remained for so long despite all of the horrors which had befallen the others on the ship. A miracle that the power had remained for this long. A miracle that the chamber hadn’t been destroyed before now. A miracle that the ship was just floating derelict with this one survivor for all these years.

But time had run out for this poor man.

Death reverted to her role.

With a mighty backswing, although not strictly required, she felt this lonely person deserved the full treatment from her, she whipped her scythe through him from head to toe, traversing a path directly through all of his body. The stroke left no physical clues as to its passing, it never did, but as Death held up the blade to inspect it, glinting within, producing a light source of its own, was the very life energy of the man. But he wasn’t alone. There was also the bacteria which had been in his gut, what looked like some kind of fungus and something she could only assume was some kind of virus. Add to that some other things that she’d never really taken the time to understand and it was clear that all of the life that had been within the cryo-chamber was now gone.

The man just looked the same. He was still sleeping.

Stopping her momentum, she just stood in the emptiness and watched the open chamber drift away from her.

“I wonder if I should just follow him as he falls through space?” she spoke aloud.

“That won’t be necessary,” said a deep male voice from behind her.

It’s fair to say that Death hadn’t been expecting a response so she felt her reply of screeching a dry cry and whirling with the scythe towards the voice was perfectly justified.

The owner of the voice didn’t react in the slightest as the mighty blade slashed through him. Not past him, through him in the same way that it had for the man in the chamber. This time, though, there was no further movement and no light was taken from the person to build within the blade. If Death had had features she would have been frowning. No-one had ever been immune to the power of her scythe.

She quickly re-gathered her composure, but still held herself ready for the unexpected.

The other figure was robed in exactly the same way as she was and carried with him, a scythe just like hers, though she could see clearly that the blade on the scythe was pristine to the point of having never been used.

He nodded slowly in what could have been a greeting before speaking.

“I give you my most humble salutation, Death. I have waited so very long to meet you.”

“And you are?” Death didn’t stand on ceremony at the best of times so having someone jump out on her wasn’t going to change her way of doing something.

“I am Death,” said the hooded man and gripped the wooden shaft of his scythe with a skeletal hand that, despite being the same as hers, made her feel slightly on edge.

“You can’t be Death, I am. I am, and always have been, the reaper of the life of all things in this universe. So who are you really?”

“If you are Death, my lady, then I am Death, too.”

His voice was hypnotic and despite the confusion that his presence was causing, she was feeling more comfortable with each second.

There was a second Death.

“And you’re here to help me in my task of taking the lives?”

Death too took a stride closer to Death before answering.

“No, my lady.”

“So you do the same but we’ve never met before? I find that hard to believe.”

“We do indeed do the same thing, my lady and it is indeed true that we have never met before.” Again his voice was just so calming.

Death considered this.

“So were you meant to reap that man and all of the other life in him? Did I beat you to it?”

“Oh no, my lady. The task of claiming the contents of that, container,” he beckoned to the cryo-chamber as it continued away from them. “You were always meant to be here to claim that which you did.”

“OK,” said Death and felt confused.

“So are you supposed to be claiming more life from the ship? Is there other life you have to reap?”

“No the ship is quite devoid of anything resembling life. I am here for you, my lady.”

“You’re here for me? What does that mean? You said that you weren’t here to help me?” This was ridiculous.

Death too dropped back his hood to reveal the same skull head as Death but this time, Death felt terror coming from that bone visage. Death too was causing her to feel terror.

“If you’re not here to help me, are you replacing me? Do I get to put my burden down after all these years?”

Death too dropped his head very slightly, as if looking at the ground that wasn’t beneath their feet.

“No, my lady,” he began while still looking down. “You have completed the work you had been charged with.”

Death didn’t understand.

“With the action of claiming the contents of that chamber, you have reaped the final examples of any form of life in the universe. There is now nothing left that is alive, so there will never be anything that dies. As such, Death is no longer needed in this universe, so I am here to claim the life that is you.”

Death swung the scythe again, and again it passed harmlessly through the robes of Death too, having no more effect than if it had been passing through a cloud of smoke. Death too remained still as Death swiped again and again, each time hoping for a different reaction.

Eventually, Death stopped swinging. Breathlessly, despite the utter lack of so many of the things needed to breathe, she spoke.

“I am Death. I cannot die. I am eternal through all of the ages that are and shall be. What makes you think that I will allow you to try to claim me?”

Death too raised his gaze from the floor and fixed it on Death.

“Firstly my lady, if you have nothing more to reap as all life is gone, what are you for? What should you do now?” Death listened on, preparing to respond. “Secondly, how can you feel such fear from simply being gazed upon by me? You are eternal and unending yet you grip to the fear of what your own death would represent in the same way as some of the creatures you have claimed. Death should elicit no fear in those who cannot die.” Death didn’t like the soothing tone anymore. “But thirdly, it is what I am here to do.”

They both stopped at those words.

“Since you existed,” Death too continued, “have you ever known a time before doing what you do now? Have you a memory of a time before you were Death?”

Silence in response.

“Can you recall when it was that you were asked to complete the task of Death? Did you take up the reaping because you saw it as virtuous or needed?”

Death opened her skinless, lipless mouth to answer but no words came. She couldn’t.

“In the same way that you’ve always been, always followed the same path, as have I. I ‘know’ that my task is to claim Death as that is all I’ve known since the very beginning of me. If you’ve continued with your work for as long as you have because you knew you had to, doesn’t that mean that I have the same level of conviction to my ‘known’?”

Death stepped back but wasn’t feeling like giving up just yet.

“But if I had such conviction to complete what I have to, why would I just drop my guard to anyone. You’re not the first person who said they were going to end Death you know?”

Death too seemed to smile.

“But I am the first to say that, not only with the power to do it but also the knowledge of life, or indeed the lack thereof, in the universe. You’re finished. Your life’s work is complete. With the action behind you,” he gestured again at the man in the cryo-chamber, “you have reaped the final life anywhere, thereby making your role in the tapestry of existence, superfluous.”

Death considered his words and attempted to construct a response but there was nothing to say.

Until.

“But life could reappear, couldn’t it?” She stood taller and made an unconscious step forwards, almost as a challenge. “I can feel the absence of life, likely in the same way you can, but I also recognise the fact that abiogenesis could happen at any time. Life springing from non-life has happened before, you know that, so why wouldn’t it happen again? And if it could, surely there would still be the need for Death to oversee the growth of that life?” She felt triumphant and could hold close to her chest the relative certainty that she’d undone all of the twine Death too had been wrapping around her.

In response to the clear defeat, Death too just maintained a fixed focus on her, looking into her eyes and driving a fear into her that she’d been doing her best to push aside but that resisted every effort.

As he spoke, his voice sounded sad.

“It may indeed. Life is an agile quarry and as such it’s one that we’ve all got to be vigilant for, but without life in the universe, you represent an imbalance between the forces of life and death. It still holds that if there is nothing which is alive, how can there be a need for Death? Until a time that there is life, Death is nothing more than an empty threat. Could you reap a star? Would you appear to claim the life force of a rock? Could our scythe claim the life of space?”

He looked back at where the floor should have been.

Death ground her teeth as she did her best to build a response but no matter what she tried, there wasn’t one. She’d thought that she’d be able to see a way out but she just couldn’t.

Now her voice was sad.

“So death is gone from the universe, reaped by you,” she sighed with a resolution. “So, to me, there are two questions that come from that. If I’m gone and life returns to the universe, who will reap that life? The other is, if you claim me, doesn’t that mean that you then have no purpose? Wouldn’t that mean that you would need to be reaped, and then so on for eternity?”

Death too stood still and, deep within the nothingness that was the farthest reaches of deep space from anywhere, seemed to consider the questions. There wasn’t the ready response which had been in place for the other questions, instead, he just considered the words.

After a silence which lasted for an age, he responded.

“Do you recognise the passage of time?”

Well that made no sense.

Death, again despite the lack of a mobile face, frowned.

Death too continued.

“Do you comprehend the grip that time has on all things? I ask because the time we’ve spent here discussing this point has been slightly more than it would have appeared had we been just linear beings.”

Death snorted but looked around her and only now noticed that the ‘Laputa’ was gone from behind Death too. Looking around quickly she could make out a very different star field surrounding her and there was no sign at all of any proof that the ship had ever been near her. Death too noticed the apparent confusion.

“We are beings that are controlled by the nature of the passing of time, are we not? Indeed, it could be argued that we are the very servants of time, tolling the bell that signals the end for all life, but without that life, as you can see,” he didn’t move but his voice just drew her eye-line around the darkness, “we are cut loose of the effects of the universe, with no way to anchor ourselves. Ultimately, the reaping becomes a mercy to the creature who would be lost to the whims of time itself.”

Death examined the stars around her and panic enveloped her. She could see that there had been millions of years pass by as the two of them had spoken. Stars had been born and others had died, all within the scope of a conversation. Was he telling the truth? She had reaped the final life but would that mean that she too, needed to die?

Death too continued.

“Death is a response to the arrival of life and as such is a creation that comes from the universe itself. With no life to control, there is no need for Death. Should Life appear, so too will Death. The universe will create the balance as it always has and should Life appear, our position will be fulfilled but without life, there needs to be a ‘without Death’.”

Death released her grip on the wooden shaft of her scythe and, rather than falling to the same floor she and Death too were standing on, it instead drifted away from them and into the darkness of the void.

Death too walked closer to Death until they were skeletal face to skeletal face, and took her in an embrace which gave a feeling of utter calm and warmth.

“My lady. I have existed only since you took the final life in the universe. Before that moment, you were all that there was but the universe has created that need for balance. The universe needs there to be equilibrium in all things. In a universe with no life but only Death, life will never appear. Life could never overcome the force that is Death so I am the need of the universe to restore that balance.

Death hugged in closer and there was an oddly comforting warmth coming from Death too. The embrace that they were both enfolded within wasn’t one of darkness and fear. It was of a welcoming release that made it clear that there was nothing left to do.

“My lady,” Death too spoke in hushed whispers, just above her head. “I am here to maintain the balance but that means that I have to reap both of us. I came to be for that singular purpose, nothing more. I need to bring a balance to what the universe is.”

He lifted her face to his and, in those unmoving and cold features, conveyed more love and understanding than Death had ever seen in all of time.

“I just wish I could have seen beyond just this one life of yours. You must have seen so very much more. Until the next time my lady.”

When his scythe swung, there was no hint of missing. Instead the life of those two creatures vanished and there was no trace of them left for anyone to find. Death had left the universe.

And on some far off planet, amino acids lined up in just the correct way to welcome life again.

And far off in the emptiness of the void, a newly formed skeletal hand reached out for the shaft of a falling scythe.

HOW MANY?

It has often been said that us men are incapable of multitasking. Everyone knows that us lads just focus on one thing at a time and the fairer sex are the ones who can juggle all of the various different balls that can get thrown at them during the every day life we all experience.

Now aside from any scientific question marks which are raised from the idea, when I write, I find myself actually enjoying the challenge of doing many things at once.

Now it’s not a question of me having a different computer under each hand and a pen grasped in my toes, rather it’s me having lots of projects going at once.

I’m working on the third book in the Circle series but also on a second collection of short stories so I’ve found myself working on four different short stories and the novel all at the same time.

On any given day I could be writing about almost anything and I bounce around between the topics and just go where the various stories take me. Now it could be easy to say that I should be focusing on a single project at a time and not spreading my creative juices about but for me, being able to move where my imagination takes me, where I have the ‘oomph’ on any given day gives me a great deal more flexibility to be able to aim my creativity at the topic that I feel most drawn to means that I can keep the wheels of writing turning regularly even if I don’t ‘feel’ a particular story on any given day.

Oddly, I find it helps that I put a particular set of characters and situations away to allow me to work on another, by giving me the chance to relax about them. If I’d only ever worked on a single topic at a time, and I have in the past, when you have a dip in creativity, you’re stuck with nowhere to go and aside from the lack of words, the feelings of frustration just make things worse. You can try to force the point but that just pushes you further away from where you want to be. With just the one topic, a bad day can turn into a bad week and a bad month and all of a sudden there’s been an age where you’ve done nothing at all.

By keeping lots of irons in the fire I’m able to change the focus as and when I need to so not only will there be something that I can work on on whatever day, but by removing the risk of getting stuck in the barren wasteland of no inspiration, I’m able to stay away from frustration. I can maintain a pace in my writing even when a particular idea needs to be left fallow for a while.

We all need to have focus on the important things in life but it’s important to make sure that don’t become too cycloptic and risk getting stuck in the creative mud.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

I’ve been working on my latest book recently and can present you with the cover for my soon to be released anthology of short stories.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the cover for “Tall Tales for Dark Nights”.

cover

I’m really pleased with the book and I’m looking forward eagerly to the release.

Watch this space for the date.

SHORT STORIES

Just a quick post this week but as we close in on the anthology of short stories, I remind you all of one of the previous efforts to give you an idea of what to expect in the new book.

It’s been said that being a parent of a child who is going through the ‘terrible two’s’ is akin to attempting to placate and cajole a hurricane. Parents the world over have been swept aside by the battering they receive of constant howling screams, prized possessions being hurled around with absolute abandon and the constant knowledge that at any time, it could get even worse. But why are the two’s so terrible?

Walking backwards, very slowly and deliberately, from her son’s bedroom, Sam could practically feel the rain water from the latest appearance of ‘Hurricane George’ dripping from her hair. Step by step, inch by inch, she made her way away from the now dormant form of her son and towards the relative safety of the world beyond those four walls. She managed to avoid all of the scattered toys which had threatened to impede her path and even steered clear of the now infamous, ‘squeaky floorboard by the door’. Both Sam and her husband Jeff had been caught out by the floorboard in the past. Just when they had started to feel they were in the clear, they hit the board by the door and George was awake and looking for trouble, his angelic looking golden curls mussed in such a way as to cover completely the devil horns he must have sprouted by now.

Step by gingerly placed step, she eased out of the room and slowly pulled the door closed, running through the same deliberate movements to make absolutely sure there was no way George could be disturbed. Finally, with the barest hint of a click, the door was closed and she could breathe a silent sigh of relief.

Letting her shoulders sag at the sudden release of tension she had been holding in every muscle and sinew of her body, she padded slowly down the hallway and headed back down stairs to curl back up with Jeff. As Sam walked hurriedly back into the living room, keen to settle back down to gentle relaxation, Jeff looked up from scrolling through the TV guide.

“I don’t know how you keep so calm?” he shook his head slowly and patted the sofa next to him, raising his arm in a gesture of beckoning. Sam settled back into the nook of his arm and felt great swathes of tension wash away.

“I had to get out before I started screaming myself.” Jeff continued and kissed the top of her head.

“Don’t panic Jeff. Just save your energy, you’re going in on your own next time.” Sam looked up at her husband and could feel the almost primal dread shoot through him. She giggled and nudged him in the side. She knew she could never do that to him. She’d definitely leave him in there on his own but they would always start out as a team.

Turning the TV back on, at a very low volume of course, she took one look at the baby monitor which was stood on the coffee table, the modern day equivalent of the master ringing a bell to attract the attention of a servant. Crossing her fingers that George would sleep for at least ten hours, she could make out the gentle rhythmic breathing sounds her son was making. Everything was settling down again, and Sam closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift with the sounds of her sleeping son.

The noise from the baby monitor made her frown.

It wasn’t enough to really draw her full attention but, it was there none the less. Then it happened again, but this time, just a little louder.

“Did you hear that Jeff?” she asked, opening her eyes to look at the monitor.

“Hear what?” replied Jeff, not taking his eyes from the TV.

The sound came again and this time Sam sat up and lent forwards towards the small device. George could still be heard, snoring a little now, but she was certain there was more than just his slumber being transmitted to the unit. Sam tugged Jeff forwards with her and muted the TV.

“On the monitor. It sounded like a giggle.” She was straining to strip away every other sound which was adding to what was taking place above her in her son’s bedroom, piece by piece ruling out noise after noise.

“He’s probably having a funny dream,” added Jeff in way of explanation, quickly adding, “He’s probably laughing at us. Thinking about how much trouble he seems to be causing and having a good laugh at our expense.” Sam elbowed Jeff but smiled to herself. George always did find the frazzled expressions on his parent’s faces to be the funniest thing in the world, like he was being egged on by them feeling worse.

Sam started to relax back into the sofa; wrapping one leg over Jeff’s to get comfortable for the night. The calm didn’t last.

The monitor crackled and popped gently and the sound of rushing air could be heard spitting from the speaker. Then the giggle came again, but this time much louder and accompanied by a hissing, breathing call of “Georgie”.

Sam and Jeff were out of the sofa and surging up the stairs in seconds. Gone was any pretence of not waking the baby as they rushed towards the baby’s room and the source of the strange sounds.

Throwing the door open they turned the light on and were stopped still in the centre of the room by the sight that greeted them.

George was stood in his cot with a broad smile on his face, clapping his hands as he jumped up and down and shrieked with laughter. On the floor of his bedroom, less than two feet from the triumphant toddler, was the broken casing of the baby monitor, its innards spilling out like a macabre electronic murder scene amongst the other scattered toys.

Sam rushed forwards and scooped up their son while Jeff checked that the window was still closed and there wasn’t anyone under, behind, on top of or in any of the furniture. As Sam watched him track through the room and find nothing at all out of the ordinary, she felt more at ease. George continued to howl with laughter the whole time this search took place.

When Jeff started to look inside the drawers of the table and chairs play set they’d bought George last Christmas, Sam couldn’t help herself and she started to smile. Jeff noticed and realised what he was doing was probably a little excessive. He straightened himself up and looked at Sam, to report his findings.

“All clear in here. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

That almost felt worse. Looking at their son who was now calming down but who still had a huge, open-mouthed grin, the couple began to run through the facts as they could see them.

George was still in his cot when they entered the room. As far as they were aware, there was no way he was able to climb out of the bed let alone return to it after having made his way out. The smashed baby monitor was not only on the other side of the room from the cot, it was also on top of a five foot high chest of drawers, well out of the reach of their sons tiny grasping hands. The unit was battery operated so there was no trailing wire to be reached for and there was no object that could have been pushed into place and used as a boost for their son to reach up from.

Sam looked at Jeff but there was no answer coming from either of them. George hadn’t smashed the monitor because he couldn’t get to it. There was no-one else in the room who could have done the deed, they would have been seen, yet they had both heard that voice saying their sons name, George giggling away to himself about something and then the wrecked monitor.

“What about the voice on the monitor?” Sam wanted to know where that odd voice had come from.

“Probably picking up something from a TV or radio around here. God knows what the range of that thing really is.” Jeff was very matter of fact about the whole situation.

“But it said Georgie, Jeff.”

“It sounded like Georgie. It could have been any number of things. We haven’t got to worry about an evil ghost coming to play with our son; your mother’s still alive.”

Sam snorted a laugh of her own but her unease remained.

“He’s coming back downstairs with us and he’s sleeping with us tonight.” Sam’s tone told Jeff not to argue, this was a statement of fact. Decision made, they both turned and headed out of the door, Sam with George bundled up in her arms with his head rested on her shoulder, Jeff picking up a few stuffed toys for George to play with.

Just as Jeff switched off the light, George let out a short laugh and waved back into the room, “Bye bye Mimp”.

The two adults looked each other, wondering what he was on about but thought he must be talking about a toy that he had seen but hadn’t made it through the selection process for the journey downstairs. The walked on and George continued to wave over his mothers shoulder, repeating over and over again, “Mimp, Mimp, Mimp, Mimp”.

Back downstairs, Sam and Jeff struggled to get their son to settle down and go back to sleep. They each took turns waiving different toys at him but he wasn’t even remotely interested in anything that was presented. They tried different DVD’s. Time after time, the colourful cartoons or dancing men in silly animal suits failed to draw his attention. Time and again, he turned away from the options presented to him and all he could be heard saying was, again, “Mimp, Mimp, Mimp.”

“I’ll go and find this bloody ‘Mimp’ toy of his. He may not be getting tired but I’m knackered,” said a haggard Jeff.

“Do you even know which one is Mimp?” asked an equally exhausted Sam, dropping her head back to stretch her neck as George wriggled in her lap. They both looked down at George and tried to think. Which toy did George call Mimp?

It didn’t sound like a real name of a toy they had bought him so it must be one he had given himself. They both mulled over the multitude of options, trying to work out who Mimp was.

“MIMP!” shouted George with a delighted smile on his face. He cranked up his wriggling and started to moan.

Sam had had enough by now so let him go. They both watched as he toddled his way towards the doorway and happily sat down in front of it. The door opened into the room, next to the sofa they were both sat on. Looking down on their son he finally seemed happy to stare into the hallway beyond and gurgle and giggle to himself.

“Finally!” said Jeff and relaxed back into the sofa.

“George, you OK?” Sam wanted to make sure before she even dared relax. George nodded back at her, grinning all of the time.

“Finally!” Sam agreed.

George spent the next twenty minutes staring out into the hallway, jabbering to himself. He would occasionally wander towards his toys and take one back with him but other than that he was content to amuse himself. The DVD’s of all the kids programmes were put away and Sam and Jeff started to watch a film which was more to their taste. Gradually, the mood of the evening started to calm down as everyone in the house could relax and enjoy what was going on. Sam was always keeping one eye on George but he seemed content so all was fine.

Then it moved at the edge of her vision.

Snapping her head to focus fully at he son, Sam watched in shocked disbelief as a small, jet black, leathery hand reached out and touched her sons face. Her blood froze and all the sound of horror and fear were jammed solid in her throat. What was sat on the other side of the door?

She tried to move but before the impulse had passed to her muscles, the hand gripped Georgies romper suit and dragged him forward, behind the open door and into the darkened hallway beyond.

George screamed.

That sound was enough to shatter the spell of fear which had been gripping Sam. She burst to her feet and steamed out of the room, Jeff not far behind.

Flicking the switch, the hallway was bathed in the diffuse light from the overhead fittings. George stood still in the centre of the hallway, holding hands with, something. Their once angelic son was different. On his face was an expression which he had never had before. It could only be described as being malevolent. His brow was furrowed and his eyes were full of anger. All this on top of his wide smile created a vision to be truly unnerved by.

And both he and the something were holding very large kitchen knives.

Sam skidded to a stop and tried to take in the detail of what she was seeing. It was only now that she really looked at who was holding her sons hand. It was small; roughly the same height as George, but it was black skinned. It wasn’t wearing any clothes and had no hair anywhere on its body. It stood with a hunched back and its spindly limbs jutted out, almost painfully, from an emaciated body.

As Sam took in more and more of the detail, it slowly tightened its grip on Georges hand with its own taloned appendage and a wide, serrated toothed grin spread across its face under its sparkling blood red eyes.

Jeff leaned over Sam’s shoulder, also piecing the details together. He gripped tightly to her arms as the situation settled on him.

Sam spoke first.

“Who’s your friend George?” She tried her best to keep the fear out of her voice and raised her hands in a gesture of non-aggression.

George didn’t move, but hissed, “Mimp.”

Mimp shook his head and turned his head to face George. Its voice was like broken glass.

“Mummy. Daddy. Just like all little children, Georgie included, I want to play. Do you want to play with us?”

The final ‘s’ was elongated into the sound a snake might make if it had been granted the power of speech.

“Georgie. Are you OK honey?” was all Sam could think to ask. She tried to put the little thing holding his hand out of her mind as being something she was making up but she still had to get the knife out of his grasp. George nodded at her and his smile seemed to grow wider as he started to chant the name Mimp over and over again, his head bobbing around excitedly as he did.

Mimp spoke again. “We should play a game. Let’s play doctors and nurses.” Again, the final syllable was stretched out as the thing spoke and caused the wave of icy fear to roll over Sam.

Mimp slowly turned towards Georgie and started to raise the almost comically over-sized kitchen knife in a gesture of slow attack. Jeff was fast to move.

Sam was only able to utter a sound rather than a word as her husband took two quick, reaching strides across the space between the two pairs and made a sweeping grab at the knife being wielded by the ‘it’.

Without there seeming to have been any movement at all from the two smaller bodies, light glinted from the whirling blades of the pair and Jeff let out a startled yelp of pain and slid past his intended target, collapsing into a pile on the floor behind them, breathing hard. Blood was starting to spread out across the fabric he wore around the now multiple slash marks where the knives had casually, and far too swiftly, sliced through both material and flesh.

Jeff scrambled himself round so he was facing the two but just lay, still grimacing through the pain.

“Doctor. Daddy is hurt. How do we make the pain stop?” Mimp’s voice held a small giggle under all of the shards of speech it was capable of. Georgie kept grinning as he looked round at his father and slowly lifted the knife.

“That’s right Georgie. Let’s make all of daddy’s pain go away.”

“Wait,” was all Sam could think to shout. She had to stop her son doing something to her husband, while stopping the thing doing anything to either of them, all the while trying to protect herself as well.

Georgie kept his eyes intently on his father as Mimp turned back to face Sam.

“Does Mummy want her pain taken away first? Does Mummy hurt?” The red eyes narrowed in its inky face and it tilted its head to regard her in a way that paralysed Sam to the spot. That fear was so primal that it had managed to rush straight past the rational parts of her mind and hit her in the unguarded sections of her psyche, rooting her to the spot.

She had to move fast or this little horror was going to be more than able to hurt them all, or worse.

“I want to play a new game. Don’t you?” she stammered.

Mimp considered that for a brief second and then its own smile started to widen in pleasure.

“Yes, yes, yes. What game?” It started to bob around much like Georgie did when he got excited, obviously eager to start a new playtime. Georgie even turned back to his mother and started to smile. He looked more like himself now, humour replacing threat.

“What games do you like?” Sam asked with a quivering voice. “How do I know what games you like the most to make it the most fun it can be?”

“All games are fun. All games are fun. I do love musical statues,” it spoke excitedly and in a blur, streaked back towards Jeff. Jeff screamed out in hot pain as Mimp plunged the kitchen knife deeply into his flank. He dropped the heavy ornamental dragon he had been easing towards the monster with and slumped back down on the floor, now with much more blood seeping from him. Before Sam could do or say anything, Mimp was back across the gap to Georgie and was taking his hand again.

“I love it when people are still in games. Moving is cheating.” Mimps eyes bored into Sam.

“What games don’t you like to play?” She had to keep her composure. Looking up briefly at Jeff she could see that he was placing as much pressure on the latest wound as possible.

“I love all games. All games are fun.” Mimp was jumping up and down at this point clapping his hands at the sheer delight of new play mates. Georgie, though, wasn’t. Instead her son was now standing looking a little confused. The smile was still there but he looked a little lost. The knife had also dropped from a ready position to now having the tip on the floor.

Then it dropped from his hand and Georgie started to toddle towards his mother, arms outstretched and the smile slowly receding.

Mimp was quick to notice and swiftly grabbed Georgies hand again. The action immediately stopped the childs forward motion and in the passing of a handful of heartbeats, the wicked smile had returned to Georgies face and he had started to reach back for the knife he had dropped.

Sam was quick to register the significance of the action. All she needed to do to break the spell of the creature was break its physical contact with Georgie and he would likely return to being the little boy she knew and loved.

Just, how to do that.

Sam settled herself as much as possible and tried to regain what little composure she had worked together.

“Who are you Mimp? What do you want? To play?” She had to keep it focussed on her and try to engineer the release of its grip on her son.

Both Mimp and Georgie adjusted their respective grips on their weapons as Mimp spoke.

“I am an Imp. We all like to play games, make jokes, have fun. Georgie likes to have fun too that’s why I’m here.” That made Sam think.

“How did you know that Georgie likes to play games?” The more focus the Imp had on her the better and she was starting to get more information about the creature.

“I watched him. I spoke with him and we played together. He likes to play tricks doesn’t he?” With the last word of the sentence the imp tilted its head and hardened its gaze, almost challenging Sam to disagree with it. She was running out of time and she knew the creature was aware of it.

“How did you speak to him? Why didn’t you speak to me? I like to play games.” Sam continued without giving the imp the chance to move from the conversation.

“Mummies and Daddies don’t listen to us. We have to speak to kiddies. They’re the only ones who really want to play so we come in to rooms through mirrors and talk to them. Georgie and I are going back so we can keep playing.” Sam could feel the immediate rise of an overwhelming panic at the last comment.

“Why would you want to take my son?” asked Sam and she knew that her terror had come leaking through as she had spoken.

The imp smiled back and narrowed his eyes even further. “He’s mine now.”

The attack that followed was swifter than anything Sam could have thought possible and hit with the strength of a car crash. Jeff had continued his slow, shuffling progress towards the imp and had brought the ornate piece of sculpted stone down on the head of the imp.

The shock and undoubted pain of the attack slammed through the imp and it dropped the knife it had been brandishing and relinquished the grip it had had on Georgie. It had been given no opportunity to respond in any way and was hammered to the floor.

Jeff continued to swing and bash at the little monster, mashing more and more of it across the floor of the hallway in a gore filled paste. Thick grey blood and chunks of black flesh were split and spilt everywhere as Jeff yelled his own defiance.

Thunderous blow after thunderous blow landed and pulverised the target. What little movement had come from the imp soon stopped and there was soon very little to show that it had ever been anything other than a revolting pile of parts in an awful puddle.

Sam rushed forwards and scooped Georgie up into her arms, knocking the knife away as far as she could. Running quickly away from what Jeff was doing, she could see that Georgie’s face was turning back from the mask of anger to a startled, fearful expression of someone who wasn’t sure what was going on around him. He started to grizzle and Sam bathed in the relief that brought.

“It’s dead,” called Jeff from the hallway. Sam rocked Georgie, attempting to calm him. She shushed him as gently as she could and slowly edged back towards the hall, making sure to keep her son facing away.

The hallway had now been coated in the entrails of the imp. Jeff was slumped back on the floor clutching tightly to his side where he had been stabbed by the imp. The blood was free flowing again and by the almost empty pallor on his face he needed medical attention and he needed it quickly.

Looking at the mess Jeff had made of the imp, Sam let out the tension of the ordeal and set about bundling her family into the car before heading off to the hospital at break neck speed.

Jeff was quickly seen to by the nurses who rushed him through for surgery. Sam was asked on more than one occasion how he had been injured but each time she trotted out the story she had concocted. He had fallen down stairs in the garden at home while they had been moving a collection of old tools they were going to throw away. Every person she told the story to had the same expression on their face when they left but there was no further argument.

Eventually she was left alone in a small waiting room with Georgie bundled up in a blanket sleeping on the sofa next to her. He was breathing smoothly and snored just a little bit. Sam looked down on her son and felt that she could relax. Closing her eyes she let herself drift slowly and slip into a warm sleep, one hand resting gently on her sons back.

Here mind was filled with flashback images of the encounter they had all had. Dreams of flashing knives, scarlet glowing eyes, black leathery skin and that inhuman voice rebounded around her mental landscape, until,

“We liked the game, playing dead. That was fun, oh yessssssssss.”

She snapped awake with a renewed sense of terror churning in her stomach. Her hand was still resting on the blanket but now Georgie was no longer in it.

“Georgie,” she called into the small room, pleading that he had just climbed down to toddle around but there was no answer. She frantically searched the few spaces in the room that her son could have hidden behind and again found nothing. She was just about to leave the room and scream for the nurses, porters, doctors, anyone who could have seen Georgie when her eyes fell across the mirror which was looking back at her. The mirror and the two shapes which were staring back at her from behind her in the room.

The imps red eyes beamed back at her and she could see that it was holding hands with Georgie again.

Sam turned to reach for the boy from his position on the back of the sofa but was greeted by nothing as she turned. They weren’t there. Looking back to the mirror, they hadn’t moved so she checked again but there was nothing.

Then she looked into the mirror and saw the truth.

“We come in through mirrors,” screamed in her head in the same broken glass voice the imp had used at the house and a terrible realisation hit her. They were in the mirror.

“We’re going to play now. Bye bye mummy,” creaked the imp and beckoned to Georgie.

Sam thrust her hands out to the mirror but they slapped uselessly against the cold surface. She stared deeply at her sons face which was again contorted into a rictus grin but the eyes looking back at her were now a deep red.

“Bye bye mummy,” slithered out of Georgie’s mouth and Sam started screaming, beating her hands against the mirror until it fell to the floor and smashed into hundreds of irregular shards. Lifting each piece in turn Sam checked for the reflection image of her son and the imp but in each there was nothing but the room around her.

The imp was gone now but it had taken a new friend.

Remember, parents, when you think that your child is becoming more mischievous and is turning into a little monster, there may be something whispering into their ear that they should really be playing a game.

Always check under the beds and behind the cupboards. Never underestimate what could be lurking in the shadows and, always, always watch out for the mirrors.