Aural Fixation

Humans have been imagining creatures from other worlds for years. They were usually grey. Metallic ships. Spindly, grey lifeforms. No one expected something shimmering with all the colours of the visible spectrum, plus some only visible to mantis shrimp—who were, ironically, largely oblivious: tucked into the burrows they had carved for themselves in the ocean depths.

Humans have also long been fascinated by lights in the sky—devoting a lot of energy into reproducing same in the form of fireworks and the like—so most of the world’s population turned their faces upwards and gasped. And when it comes to communication, much of humanity has an aural fixation, and there’s no appropriate verb for ‘concepts transmitted directly into every human’s angular gyrus.’

So, let’s say that the alien invaders spoke.

‘This,’ said the voice, which to some sounded like heavenly choirs, and to some sounded like endless screaming, and to others sounded a parent who’s just watched their child do something unspeakable and is twenty-five seconds away from infanticide, ‘is a perfectly nice planet. Lots of water. Really, lots. Do you know how unusual that is? Not to mention all the plants. Photosynthesis is fucking amazing.’ (Powerful alien sentiences don’t swear, as such, but there was something there that implied emphasis, and most human minds filled in the gap.)

‘And here you are,’ it continued, ‘literally setting fire to the place. Never mind all the wasted metals. And the helium. You do understand that you can’t make that? If you keep putting it into thin-walled polymer-based containers and launching it into the sky you will run out.’

By now, some humans who’d convinced themselves they had power had started to collect in brightly-lit rooms with very thick concrete walls, where they were arguing.

Some said they should attempt diplomacy. They were naturally ignored in favour of the ones pushing for their own, rather more destructive, version of shiny lights in the sky. Missiles were shortly launched, plus some weapons the existence of which was only known to the humans huddling in heavily-concreted buildings, well away from the consequences of said weapons.

They all passed through the aliens harmlessly, like sand through a sieve, or neutrinos though miles of rock.

‘You’re ridiculous,’ they said. ‘The resources here are excellent. There are multiple intelligent lifeforms who’d be so much more grateful.’

‘What does that mean?’ thought several billion humans, more or less as one.

‘You’re toast,’ said the aliens. ‘But don’t worry, we’ll be selective. Some of the other primates are probably doomed, but most lifeforms will carry on. Maybe the next half-smart one to evolve will be less destructive.’

There was rage. There was frustration. There was helplessness.

And then, there was something else.

Something ancient.

It uncoiled itself from the depths of the ocean, inconceivably huge, a slick body covered in spines, each taller and thicker than ancient redwoods. Where the aliens had all the colours, this had none. It was blackness. The void. The absence of all light. It lifted a head the size of an island and spoke with a voice of thunderstorms and crashing waves.

It said: ‘Bugger off.’

The aliens considered. ‘What,’ they asked, ‘are you?’

‘What I am,’ said the great beast, ‘is here already.’

‘But,’ said the aliens, ‘it’s just them we object to. ‘

The creature rumbled. Huge waves rolled across the surface of the ocean. And the beat it created resolved into something that became…

Mozart’s Requiem, Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang’s Butterfly Lover’s Violin Concerto.

The sounds twisted into more recent pieces. I Got You, Bohemian Rhapsody, Experiment IV, too many others to recognise. There were words too, and not just songs: words of poets, playwrights, scriptwriters and novelists. Every beautiful sound the humans had ever created, compressed into a few minutes.

The final chords drifted away, wrapped around words:

 

But, spite of heaven’s fell rage,

Some beauty peep’d through lattice of sear’d age.

 

‘Oh,’ said the aliens. ‘That is interesting.’

‘They like sounds,’ explained the oceanic monstrosity. ‘Bit of an aural fixation.’

‘Fine,’ said the aliens, ‘all right. We’ll leave them to you. But do have a word about the fires and the ice caps, would you?’

And with that, they left, and the Earthly sky returned to its normal shades of mostly blues and greys.

The great beast rumbled again, but gently. ‘Sort it out, you lot,’ it said. ‘Else next time, I’ll join them.’

And with that it sank, far beneath the blue-black waves.


Author’s notes
June 2020 has been a bit rubbish, hasn’t it? Here’s a little something to brighten it up. Roll on July.


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© Kat Day 2020

How do you Sense the Sea, Child?

Stand at the shoreline. Curl your toes into damp sand, dip your fingers in the water, feel cold rush over your skin. Listen to the rumble, the roar and the hiss. Taste the air in your mouth. What colour is the sea, would you say?

#

Once upon a time the sea was a pale thing, clear as water in a glass. It was sweet, too, and good to drink. The ancient Viking sea-kings could sail for monthsso long as they had cured fish and dry bread and barley for porridgebecause there was plenty of water to drink.

The sea-king known as Mysing was a trader and a warrior, with grey eyes and the nose of hawk. Many said he had the mind of a hawk, too: sharp, opportunistic, and sometimes cruel. Mysing and his men invaded the lands of King Frodi, drawn there by a low rumble of song. A melody of pain and torment and misfortune, blood and tears and separation.

Upon Frodi’s inevitable death, Mysing discovered a mill and, chained to the wooden beam that moved the huge millstone, two giantesses with ugly red marks under the iron cuffs that circled their wrists. The muscles on their arms and legs were sharply defined from the unrelenting work of pushing the heavy stone.

They were dressed in blue rags, and it was this which first caught Mysing’s attention. These days, of course, blue dye is no great thing, but then it was rare and valuable, something only the wealthiest would have, so Mysing knew the enslaved women were important. He wondered if he could gain some advantage with the giants’ clan.

And then he learned that the mill was bewitched, and would grind anything one desired so long as the stone could be made to move, and his grey eyes glittered with greed.

Mysing poured a smile onto his face and spoke kindly to the giantesses, whose names were Fenja and Menja, promising freedom and safe passage if they would join him on his boat. They were so relieved to be free they did not ask questions when Mysing broke their chains but left the cuffs on their wrists.

Fenja and Menja walked willingly onto Mysing’s boat and drank the cups of spiced wine they were given. Exhausted from many weeks of hard labour, they slept.

When they woke, they found the millstone had also been transported, and their chains had been repaired.

They roared, then, so loud it might have been thunder, and pulled at their bonds, but it was no use. Mysing laughed and bade them grind salt which then, you understand, was more valuable than gold, for one cannot preserve food with gold.

When they refused he had his men turn their longbows on Menja alone, telling Frenja that he would kill her companion and leave her to live. Mysing recognised love when he saw it and, if you’ll recall, his mind was sharp and opportunistic and, sometimes, cruel.

The giantesses turned their dark eyes to each other and an unspoken word passed between them. They began to push, and Mysing smiled as salt started to pour from the millstone. They moved faster and he laughed, imagining his retirement as a wealthy man.

Then, in little more than a few breaths, the salt began to fill every space on the boat. His laughter died. With the millstone and the giantesses, the boat already sat low in the water, and now the weight of the salt pulled it lower.

Menja and Frenja began to sing a song of pain and torment and misfortune, blood and tears and separation, and Mysing’s eyes turned to horror as he realised it was the same song which had led him to destroy King Frodi.

Fingers of white lightening caressed the sky, the wind screamed, and waves of icy water breached the sides of the boat. They say the giantesses clasped their hands together and stared into each other’s eyes as the boat, its crew, the mill, and all the salt sank beneath the churning sea surface.

#

So, what colour is the sea, child? They say that on a still day it is blue, stained forever by the dye that seeped into the water from Menja and Frenja’s ragged clothes. While on a stormy day it is grey-dark, to remind us of the folly of a cruel, greedy man with grey eyes.

Now touch your finger to your tongue, child and tell me.

Do you taste salt?


Author’s notes
This is a retelling of a Norse story/poem called “Gróttasöngr” (The Mill’s Songs) with a few extra twists of my own. The character names, however, are unchanged.


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© Kat Day 2020

The Trickster

Said the trickster, here’s the game, if you’re able,

remember all the things upon the table.

I’ll take one and hide it away, he explained,

and if you can tell me what I’ve obtained,

then you’re the winner! And I’ll return it,

and I’ll also give you this nifty outfit.

 

He held a dress, midnight black and glitter,

belonged to a witch, he said–never fit her.

I admired it, imagined how it would look,

And if I lose, I said, you keep what you took?

That’s it, he replied, are we in accord?

Very well, I agreed, consider me on board.

 

It was my desk, after all, I knew it well:

Skull, wand, phial and ball. Cards, scroll, mirror and bell.

Turn your eyes, then, said he, and I’ll make my choice,

and I faced away, only hearing his voice.

A handful of moments, he bade me return,

Well, he said, eyes flashing, what do you discern?

 

Skull, wand, ball and phial. Cards, scroll, bell and mirror.

Seemed untouched–moved neither further nor nearer.

He was a trickster, though, and so I thought hard.

What was gone? A drop from the phial, a lone card?

A word from the scroll? The swirl inside the ball?

The blank smile of the skull? The bell’s ringing call?

 

It was none of these, and I heard his laughter.

He had me, I’d lost, and what would come after?

I looked in the mirror and saw my own face,

bright, sharp and clear and… it fell into place.

My mouth curved then, and his attitude shifted,

cursing as he understood he’d been grifted.

 

I reached out my hand, nails sharp, pale skin blistered,

Give me what you took from the glass, I whispered.

He tried to argue, deny, make demands and lie,

I gestured; he produced the walnut with a sigh.

Cracked it and nestled within that dark, dry space,

my fingerprints, took from the mirror’s surface.

 

Did you expect to bind me, foolish trickster?

I’m older than old, and my blood’s a mixture,

my magic is human and infernal, too.

Now begone, before I use your bones for glue.

And he ran, but of course I did keep the gown.

Monster I may be, there’s no need to dress down.


Author’s notes
One last poem from the Victory in Verse contest at the Codex Writers’ Forum (check out D. L. Davitt). I enjoyed playing around with rhyming couplets, and I think we could all use a bit of fun right now. Speaking of which, if anyone would like to see any particular type of story over the coming weeks, hit me up. I’ll do my best.


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© Kat Day 2020

Sympathetic Magic

I turned the book over in my hands. It felt all wrong.

A book like this ought to be bound in oxblood leather, with embossed lettering and crinkly pages that smelled of old chocolate. Mystical grimoires should not be heavy paperbacks with razor-cut pages and glossy covers.

Frowning, I opened it and studied the contents page.

#

My big sister is five years older than me, which doesn’t seem like much, now. But when I was four and she was nine, it was huge. It snowed that winter, and we were both desperate to go outside. Mum said she had to look after me. I wanted to throw snow and crash into things, because, hey, four. She wanted to make the perfect snowman so that she could take photos and post them on some social media thing.

Know what she did? She told me to lick the signpost near our house. And I did it, because, hey, four.

She left me there until she finished that blasted snowman.

#

I looked at the figure I’d been working on. I did a hand-building pottery class for a while, so it wasn’t terrible. Okay, it wasn’t going to win any awards: the legs were too thick, the shoulders were boxy and no matter what I did, the armpits weren’t quite right. But it was recognisably human, even somewhat feminine.

I picked up a wooden tool and cut a hole in the figure’s belly. I prodded strands of hair into the space, then pushed a piece of well-chewed gum in after them. There was nothing about chewing gum in the grimoire, but it had been in my sister’s mouth so that had to be a ‘link to the target,’ right?

I jammed the piece of clay back into the hole.

My sister told me Santa didn’t exist when I was five, stole the baby tooth that fell out when I was seven, broke my games console when I was nine, spilled red wine on my favourite jeans when I was thirteen.

I used the wetness from my eyes to damp the clay and smooth the edges.

I checked the time on my phone.

Then I picked up the old kitchen knife I’d been using and, glancing at the book, cut off the figure’s left breast.

My sister gave me her favourite doll when I was six, and money to buy cake at the school bake sale when I was eight. My eighteen year-old sister bought me fabulous new jeans that Mum hated. She spent a week teaching me integration before my maths exam. Whatever she said to that that boy who was hassling me, I never saw his face again.

My phone beeped.

My sister was out of surgery.

Again, I used the wetness from my eyes to smooth the clay over the cut and placed the figure in a shoebox filled with cotton wool.

Then I found my sister’s favourite song in my playlist and left it playing nearby.


Author’s notes
I had high hopes of selling this story but… it kept coming back to me. So. Here you are, lovely readers, you can have it. It’s too nice to keep in a box, I think. Coffee is, as always, very much appreciated ☺


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© Kat Day 2020

Meeting Life

The girl with red pigtails and a blue dress crouches by a dead rabbit. Her schoolfriends know her as Jori Hawes or, sometimes, ‘the weird one’. She is not yet Jorininki Castroflame, not yet a member of the Seventh Order of Wrivaca.

But, although she has yet to understand it, she is a necromancer.

She touches a finger to creature’s ear, surprised at how soft the pale fur is. The knowledge that it died recently is in her mind, but she doesn’t know how it came to be there. The ground is covered with fallen leaves and the air is damp and full of the scents of apples and woodsmoke. And, now, it also contains a sound just below the edge of hearing.

The sound stops and the rabbit shivers, and so does the girl. The animal jumps up and bounds away into the trees, while Jori falls back as though pushed. Dampness seeps into the fabric of her dress and caresses the bare skin of her calves.

‘Hello,’ says a voice. It reminds Jori of an open fire. Warm and comforting. And slightly dangerous. She looks up, and there’s a woman standing at her side. She’s dressed in impossibly bright white robes, a hood pulled over her head. Her skin, when she turns her face, is black as night but for the pale pinpricks scattered across the bridge of her nose, like stars.

‘Hello,’ said Jori, because she cannot think of anything else to say, and her mother has always encouraged her to be polite.

‘Do you understand what you did there, child?’ says the woman.

Jori looks in the direction of the disappeared rabbit. ‘No.’

The woman nods. ‘Life can be a gift, or it can be a curse. Either way, it is not something to bestow lightly.’

Jori looks at the fingers that touched the rabbit’s ear. ‘I didn’t mean—’ she says.

Eyes lock with Jori’s, and the girl stares, unable to look away. A light flares in the woman’s eyes, a distant explosion.

‘What’s your name?’ asks Jori.

‘I’m called lots of things. It doesn’t matter which you choose.’

Jori considers this. Lots of words scatter and tangle in her mind, but one floats to the top, onto her tongue. ‘Life.’

‘That,’ says the woman, lips twitching, ‘will do.’

‘I don’t understand.’

Life reaches out and places her long-fingered hand on Jori’s. It should be comforting, but there is a hardness there. A suggestion of sharpened iron. ‘No. It would be concerning if you thought you did.’

‘Why are you here? I mean, I suppose you’re here because of,’ Jori gestures at the woods again. ‘Did I… did I do a bad thing? I didn’t mean to. ‘

The girl finds herself counting heartbeats in the silence that follows. She gets to twenty-three. ‘Good,’ says Life at last. ‘Most humans don’t ask enough questions.’

‘They don’t?’

Life’s lips twitch again. ‘They don’t.’

‘What do you want from me?’

Life looks into the distance, still gripping Jori’s hand. ‘It won’t live long, even now,’ she says, apparently ignoring the question. ‘Its body won’t be able to sustain it once your influence wears off.’

‘Oh,’ says Jori, feeling a twinge of sadness. ‘Then what’s the point?’

‘You’ll have to decide that for yourself, child. Time is… both an unfathomably big thing and also, sometimes, a very small thing. Look one way, and nothing seems significant. Look the other and everything could pivot on tiniest fraction of a moment. The difficult bit is deciding which way to look.’ Life takes a breath and Jori finds herself wondering how much she really needs it. ‘You have a power that humans are not meant to have. Were never meant to have. Do you want it?’

Jori thinks about this. Then she thinks about the words that came before. ‘Why,’ she says eventually, ‘would I want it, or not want it?’

This time Life actually laughs. She lets go of Jori’s hand. ‘Oh, very good, child,’ she says. ‘Well done.’

The girl watches as the woman, or rather, the woman-shaped being with dark skin and white robes, disappears like smoke on the wind. Then she gets up and brushes down her dress.

She is not yet Jorininki Castroflame, not yet a member of the Seventh Order of Wrivaca. But she will be.

And she will never stop asking questions.


Author’s notes
More Jori. Because I like her.


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© Kat Day 2019

Charcoal and Ice

Jorininki Castroflame, Necromancer of the Seventh Order of Wrivaca, shivered and wrapped her cloak around her body. The fabric was turquoise. She’d never favoured the traditional black.

‘So,’ said the King, indicating the body in front of them, ‘bring him back.’

Jori stepped closer to the corpse of Malek Angevin. His skin, once a warm brown, was now ashen, almost grey. His eyes were closed, arms by his side. The King’s aides, since dismissed, had packed ice around his body. Easy to do, given that he’d helpfully collapsed in his own icehouse. She inhaled the crisp, metallic air and her breath clouded in front of her face when she exhaled again. ‘He died an hour ago, in here?’

‘Yes,’ said the King, ‘he came in here for some sort of foodstuff apparently. Heaven knows what. Probably something for that wretched animal.’ He added, glaring without heat at the brown cat currently winding around Jori’s ankles. She bent and scratched its head, letting her professional awareness flow over Angevin’s body.

He was dead, there was no doubt. His heart had stopped—it happened without warning sometimes—but she thought he could still be reached, largely thanks to the King’s orders not to have him moved. The King liked to play the role of buffoon, but the truth was that he had a mind sharp enough to fillet the steaks stacked on the wooden shelves in the chilly room. He employed experts, and he paid attention. He had an experienced, and extremely discrete, physician on standby, and she had been quickly informed of her very urgent appointment.

‘You understand, Sire,’ she said cautiously, ‘that bringing someone back to full consciousness isn’t always possible? Even if the death is recent.’ And she had never done it, although she wasn’t about to admit that. It was rare that the conditions were right. Usually the body was too badly broken, or its organs too damaged by illness or age, or too much time had passed and the spirit was simply gone.

The standard necromantic trick of raising the long-dead was different. That was merely pushing a little energy into the right place. A simple matter of animation. The things that rose had no ability to think for themselves. Once she let them out of her mind’s grip they fell back to the ground, puppets with their strings cut. She had worked that dark magic for the King on both small and large scale, several times.

He had never asked her to try this before.

The King looked at her, eyes as icy as the blocks stacked around the room. ‘Can you do it or not?’

She dared to avoid his question. ‘May I ask why? You’ve lost plenty of good people before.’

He stared at her and for a moment she thought he would snap that it wasn’t her place to question his motivation. Then he seemed to deflate, looking away from her to Angevin’s body. When he did speak, his voice was surprisingly soft. ‘I need my Vertex Minister back, Castroflame.’

Something about his tone and use of the title tugged at her. Her mind whirled.

He turned his head to look at her again. Jori couldn’t help noticing his fists were clenched at his sides.

‘No one lives forever, Sire,’ she ventured, quietly. ‘His heart stopped once. It might again. Even with the care of your physician.’

‘Dammit! Get him back!’ The King pushed his hands through his blonde hair, a gesture she’d never seen him make before. ‘Do, do…’ he stuttered over the words. She could almost feel him changing tack. ‘There was an expensive election. I gave the people a vote. It was decided. The will of the people was done! I will not have it undone by an inconvenient death!’

He stopped speaking and silence spread uneasily through the small room. The only sounds were his ragged breathing and the wet noises of the cat cleaning itself.

‘I had the right man. In. In place,’ the King said eventually, eyes turned away.

Jori reached out and touched his arm. It was an action that went against protocol, but they were alone and the King was, after all, just a man. ‘I’ll try,’ she said.

‘Thank you,’ he said. Her hand dropped as something in his demeanour changed. The mask that had slipped falling back into place. His voice became crisp and formal. ‘Hurry up and get on with it. I may not have your talents, but I am aware of the theory. The more time that passes the more difficult this becomes.’

She nodded. ‘Best you wait outside, Sire.’

To her relief, he didn’t question or argue. She watched until the heavy door closed behind him, then she shook herself and reached into her leather bag.

She rejected the pouch of salt, knowing what it would do to the ice, and instead opted for charcoal. It didn’t matter, really. Salt was traditional, but power was more important than props. Ten minutes later, she’d created a sequence of sigils around the body, and a larger, unbroken circle around that, the black standing out sharply against the frosty granite floor of the icehouse.

She stared at the black symbols for a few long moments, gathering her focus. Then she glanced thoughtfully at the cat.

Jori stepped into the circle and closed her eyes.

All humans are inherently close to death. She had more power than most, but this part actually required very little. She wasn’t trying to go far—it was like looking through the window before you decided to throw your shoulder against the door.

Jori felt a jolt, not unlike the sensation of jerking awake as you start to fall asleep, and she opened her eyes.

Everything looked much the same, except for a slight purple hue, as though she was looking through tinted glass.

Malek Angevin sat up. At least, something of him sat up. A dark shadow remained on the ground, a man-shaped, oily pool that glinted in the dim light. He looked down at it, and then up at Jori, eyes wide in question.

‘Your heart stopped,’ she explained.

‘Ah,’ he paused. ‘My father died the same way,’ he added after a few moments.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Jori.

He sighed. ‘You’re the necromancer.’

‘I am. And you’re Vertex Minister Angevin, and the King wants you back.’

‘Malek,’ he said. ‘No point in formalities at this point, is there? And I suppose he would. Terribly inconvenient I imagine, my death.’ There was a trace of bitterness in his voice.

‘I won’t force you,’ she said.

‘But you could.’

‘I could,’ she agreed.

‘It felt… peaceful,’ he said wistfully, looking down at the oily pool.

The cat jumped carelessly over the edge of the circle and into Malek’s lap, which seemed to be solid enough, for the cat at least. He scratched its ears. ‘Hello, Cinnabar. I’m sorry you never got your dinner.’

Jori looked at the animal. ‘I voted for you,’ she said to Malek, not really knowing why.

He laughed. ‘Thank you?’

‘The King said he had the right man in place.’

He looked at her. His eyes were translucent. She could see faint lines of shelving through them. ‘Did he now?’

Jori bit her lip, wondering how much to say. ‘I think… I don’t think he meant just… politically.’

Malek raised an eyebrow. ‘Not like him to make his feelings clear.’

She felt a pang of relief that she hadn’t entirely misjudged the situation. ‘Well. You were dead. Are dead. Sort of.’

He sighed. ‘It won’t change anything.’

‘Perhaps not.’

‘I suppose you’ve had a lot of conversations like this.’

‘No, not really. Usually they’re long gone by the time I get involved.’

‘Special case, am I?’

‘He went to a lot of trouble to make sure of it.’

Malek rubbed Cinnabar’s head again. The dark man-shaped pool on the floor began to shimmer, glittering white and red. A soft humming sound started up. Or perhaps only became loud enough to hear.

‘It’s your choice,’ said Jori. ‘I don’t know what lies on the other side, truly. No one does. I know what’s here, though.’

‘Oh? And what’s that?’

‘A man who has found his priorities suddenly clarified, I suspect.’

Malek gave a small laugh.

The humming sound became louder. Ripples flowed across the surface of the pool, creating patterns where they hit the edges and rebounded. Jori looked at it, thinking. ‘Life is a fire that burns and scars us from the moment we’re born,’ she said eventually. ‘But it’s also bright and warm, and it gives us the chance to see and feel.’

He looked up. ‘And will I be truly alive? Not some kind of… zombie?’

‘No. Your body is undamaged and well-preserved. The King has a healer on standby. Think of it as more of a second chance.’

Malek looked wistfully and the rippling pool.

‘I suppose someone has to feed my cat, eh?’ he said with a weak smile.

‘Absolutely.’

‘He pretends not to like her,’ said Malek, nodding at Cinnabar, ‘but I caught him stroking her the other day.’

Jori smiled. ‘Still,’ she said, ‘I’m not sure you can count on the King to take on cat-caring duties.’

‘Ha. No. This is going to hurt.’

‘Yes. Sorry.’

He set his jaw. ‘Like you said, price of life. Pain.’

She pressed her lips together in agreement.

He sighed. ‘Very well, necromancer. Do your worst.’

Jori threw her metaphysical shoulder against the door.

The King pushed past her when she used her somewhat less powerful physical hand to open the door of the icehouse. She let him, but found herself blocking the path of the physician. ‘He’ll be fine for a few minutes,’ she said.

The healer, who was after all very discrete, smiled thinly. ‘I don’t approve of necromancy,’ she said, glancing over Jori’s shoulder. ‘But… well done.’

Jorininki Castroflame, Necromancer of the Seventh Order of Wrivaca, returned the smile, somewhat more warmly. Then she pulled the hood of her turquoise cloak over her head and walked into the dusk.


Author’s notes
I meant to write a creepy story about my favourite necromancer. I accidentally wrote a slightly soft and fluffy story instead. Oh well. Stories are what they are.


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© Kat Day 2019

Proud

Jorininki Castroflame, Necromancer of the Seventh Order of Wrivaca, pinched the bridge of her nose and turned over the page in the grimoire she was studying. It was bound in human skin. It smelled funky.

She muttered words to herself, trying to fix them in her memory. She left careful pauses, of course— it wouldn’t do to accidentally summon the undead hordes— but she had to know her spells. There would be a battle tomorrow, and Lord Alstaz would expect things to work.

The words slid away from her, slippery as freshwater eels. A ball of black anxiety settled in her stomach.

The magical garnet of Ifera set in the heavy gold bracelet on her left wrist glowed red and emitted a cheerful chiming sound. Jorininki sighed and tapped it.

A voice spoke. ‘Jori, is that you? Can you hear me? Hello?’

‘Hi, Dad.’

‘Can you hear me?’

‘Yes, Dad, I can hear you. Are you okay?’

‘Oh, that’s good. We’re fine. How are you?’

‘I’m fine. Look, Dad, I’m kind of busy here… big thing tomorrow, you know. Is it urgent? Can I call you back tomorrow evening for a proper chat?’ That is, she thought to herself, if Lord Alstaz hasn’t thrown me into his dungeons because the undead hordes turned out to be three tatty skeletons with missing bits and a couple of zombie rabbits.

‘Yes of course, darling. But before you go. Um,’ her father paused.

‘What is it?’

‘I know you’re busy, I expect you’re working. You work so hard. Very important stuff. I know I couldn’t do it.’

‘Dad, you have no idea what I do.’

‘No, no, I know. Protecting a kingdom. It’s a lot of responsibility. I can’t imagine. Me, I’ve been a farmer my whole life. I don’t know anything about politics—’

‘Dad, I really am busy…’

‘Yes, yes, of course. Anyway. Look. We were at your aunt’s funeral on Tuesday.’

‘I know. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.’

‘No, it’s fine. Everyone understands. They all asked after you. It just made me think, you know, it does, doesn’t it? A funeral. Everyone saying things they couldn’t say, you know, before.’

‘Mmm-hm,’ said Jorininki, turning the page back on the grimoire.

‘Well, I just wanted to tell you that we’re very proud of you, Jori. Very proud. You’ve achieved so much. You work so hard. We love you very much, your Mum and me. That’s all, really.’

Jorininki pushed the heavy book away before the tear could splash onto the yellowing paper. ‘Oh, Dad.’

‘I don’t say it enough, I know that. I wasn’t brought up to talk about these things. It’s different these days. Anyway. I just wanted you to know that even if I don’t say it all the time, I do love you.’

‘I love you too, Dad.’

‘That’s good, that’s good. Well, bye, bye, sweetheart. Don’t work too hard. You need your sleep.’

‘I’ll do my best.’

‘All right then. I’ll talk to you tomorrow?’

‘I promise.’

‘Bye, bye.’

‘Bye, bye.’

Jorininki Castroflame, Necromancer of the Seventh Order of Wrivaca, smiled as the red light of the magical garnet of Ifera blinked out.

Then she wiped her eyes and pulled the grimoire back towards her, the words now seeming that much easier to remember.


Author’s notes
It’s a trope of fantasy fiction that the parents of heroes and bad guys are dead. This piece came about after I wondered: what if the evil necromancer still has a Mum and Dad, who like to chat to their daughter every now and then? (And what about grandparents, that’s what I always want to know — maybe that’s for another day.)


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Wish Missed

Fariha soared through the sky, her glossy feathers drenched in gold light and violet shadow. The sun would soon drop below the horizon. It was her favourite time of day, not because of the sunset — she had seen many sunsets, and she had grown rather bored of them — but because it was a time of change.

Change was interesting.

Two eagles glided on the thermals ahead of her, working together to hunt. Fariha could feel their prey below, a rock rabbit, ears twitching as it sensed danger. The eagles separated, the female hugging the cliff edge while the male soared in the light of the dying sun. The tiny creature stared at it, transfixed. It was not blinded by the light, but it was distracted as the female eagle circled behind and prepared to dive. Fariha watched, fascinated, and then hissed a word. The rock rabbit suddenly turned and let out a high-pitched, shrieking, chucking sound, many times louder than its tiny lungs ought to have been able to produce. The female eagle, spooked, missed her target and rolled into a ball of feathers and screeching frustration.

The rock rabbit, shocked by the sound it had just heard itself make, froze in place and was bitten by an opportunistic puff adder.

Fariha cawed with delight and soared higher.

She continued to drift on the thermals, skimming over the boundary of a small town. Houses lay below her, whitewashed U-shaped buildings that curved around small gardens. At this time of day, most people were beginning to retreat indoors, but something below snagged her senses. Longing. Clear and sweet as the note of a bell.

Humans who wanted things were so much fun.

She tucked her wings and began to descend. She found the girl quickly enough, sitting in a small garden, fingers working a lump of clay. She wore a dress of muted greens and browns, her dark hair tightly braided. Her face was smudged with dirt.

Fariha landed, clawed feet scratching the hard earth. The girl looked up and then scrambled to her feet, eyes widening at the creature before her with gold earrings and human-like eyes and a nose-bridge that stretched and curved into a brutally sharp beak.

Fariha folded her dark wings around her body and said nothing. She wasn’t tall, but neither was the girl, and they gazed at each other eye-to-eye.

‘Who are you?’ asked the girl, after a moment.

‘Fariha, goddess of the winds, mistress of machination, sovereign of schemes, arch of artifice, at your service,’ said Fariha, sweeping one wing in front of her and dipping her head.

The girl stared. ‘My father told me stories,’ she whispered.

‘Did he indeed? And what did he tell you, child?’

‘That the bird goddess Fariha is… clever.’

‘Hah. And appreciated flattery, no doubt? An astute man. There are some. What is your name?’

‘Elissa, and I am pleased to meet you,’ said the girl, nodding her head. ‘But if I may ask, why are you here?’

Fariha looked around. The house to which the small garden was attached shared walls with both of its neighbours. The doorway was dark, and spoke of damp coolness. The air in the garden was heavy with the scents of late-blooming flowers, long shadows stretched over the gum trees and red yucca plants. A small, wooden stool lay overturned at Elissa’s feet. She had not dropped her clay.

‘You have a pretty garden,’ said the bird goddess.

‘Thank you. I have worked hard to make it so,’ said Elissa.

‘But your house is very small. Perhaps you dream of something richer. More opulent. With servants to bring delicacies and cool drinks?’

‘Not really,’ said the girl.

Fariha clucked. ‘No? Then…’ she twisted her head to the south, where there was the beat of distant music and lights were beginning to mark the darkening sky. ‘Perhaps the party? You yearn for the music, and dancing and song? The hand of a handsome prince?’

Elissa giggled, then clapped a hand over her mouth. ‘No!’

Fariha’s brow creased. ‘All young girls want to go to the party, surely?’ She looked Elissa up and down. ‘The dress is easily remedied. And the hair. And I’m sure there’s something around here that would do for a coach…’ Her eyes stopped on a lizard skittering up one of the whitewashed walls. ‘Certainly, attendants would not be a problem. And shoes, yes, I could make the most beautiful shoes,’ which, she mused silently, would pinch and stab and fall off at the most inopportune moment. She had heard the prince had a thing for shoes.

‘No, please,’ interrupted Elissa. ‘I don’t want to go to the party. My sisters went. They will tell me about it when they return. I would rather stay here.’

Fariha buried her fists into the feathers at her waist. ‘Well, then, child. I felt your longing, and it was strong. Tell me, what is it that you want?’

‘Honestly, there’s nothing,’ said Elissa. She paused. ‘You must be tired. Would you like some tea?’

‘Tea?’ Fariha found herself disconcerted. Usually, when she found a human who wanted something, she offered it to them, and they took it. And more. Their avarice tangled them like fish caught in nets, and she took great joy in watching them flap and flip and try to squirm out of the predicaments they created for themselves. They never offered her anything. At least, not until it was far too late.

‘I’ll make some,’ said Elissa, darting through the dark entrance of her house. She returned a few minutes later with a pot and cups. The scent of cardamom drifted across the garden.

Fariha sniffed cautiously. A beak was not the most conducive thing for drinking from a cup, but if she allowed the liquid to cool a little she could pour it into the bottom part of her bill and swallow it from there. It smelled deliciously sweet.

‘I think,’ said Elissa after they had both taken cups, ‘that you came to my father, once.’

‘Perhaps. I have seen a lot of men, in my time.’

‘He was a good man, my father. My mother was pregnant. Her time was near and he had only one thought on his mind. He wished for a healthy child that would live a long life.’

‘And you’re here, I see.’

‘Yes. But he never wished anything for my mother. She died a week after I was born.’ Elissa looked up from her teacup and met Fariha’s gaze. Her eyes were challenging.

Fariha shrugged. ‘That was not my doing. Human childbirth is a difficult business.’

‘You could have saved her.’

‘I could have. I wasn’t asked to.’

‘He blamed himself. ‘

‘Again, that is not my doing.’

Elissa looked down. ‘No. I suppose not. He loved me, of course. He was happy that I was healthy. But I know that in his heart, he always wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t taken that wish. If he had refused it.’

‘If you’re asking me for the answer to that, I don’t know it. I can move a thread in the tapestry, but I cannot tell you how the pattern would have looked if I had not done so.’ Fariha paused, fixing the girl with a beady stare. ‘Unless, perhaps, that’s your wish?’ Yes… she thought, and the knowledge will burn inside like you a parasitic grub, eating its way through your flesh until it utterly consumes…

‘No,’ said the girl thoughtfully, ‘I think it is better not to know.’

Fariha huffed. ‘Well, then. What is your desire? I felt something. Tell me.’

Elissa laughed, and looked at her ball of misshapen clay. ‘Probably that I wanted my sculpture to actually resemble something.’

‘Is that all? That’s simple. I can make you the best sculptor in the world. People will weep to see your work.’ And the King will find you, and insist you make endless models for him, until your nails crack and your fingers bleed and they are so calloused that you can no longer feel anything, and…

‘No, no!’ said Elissa. ‘No. If I am to become good at modelling clay, I shall learn the skill for myself. With practice. If I acquire it by magic, it will be as though it’s someone else’s work, and what would be the point of that?’

Fariha looked at the sky with irritation. The sun was gone, leaving nothing more than a bloody glow across the darkened horizon. Soon, it would be night, and her power would be gone for another day. ‘You waste my time,’ she hissed.

‘I’m sorry. It was not my intention. There is nothing that I want. Take your leave, if it pleases you, of course.’

Fariha screeched. ‘You bore me, child! I hate being bored.’ The bird goddess spread her wings wide, so that the tips almost touched the walls of the tiny garden, filling it with black shadow. The teacup fell to the ground with a crash as she flexed her talons, long, wicked things that dug deep into the ground, and stared at Elissa. ‘Such lovely, soft skin. I promised your father you would live a long life. I never promised you would live it painlessly. Unscarred.’

Elissa took a deep breath. ‘You need me to ask for something?’

The two stared at each other for a long moment.

‘Do not think of tricking me, child. You cannot wish me harm.’

‘No,’ said Elissa, breaking Fariha’s gaze and looking up at the sky, now a deep indigo marked with a single pinpoint of white, light. ‘But perhaps there is another way.’

Fariha’s black eyes glittered. Time seemed to stretch and stop, and snap.

‘I wish… you were not bored. And would never be so again.’

There was a sound, just on the edge of hearing. Clear and sweet as the note of a bell.

Fariha began to laugh. She flapped her great wings and leapt upwards, still laughing, and the sound turned into cawing as she soared into the endless sky.

Somewhere far below, a girl picked up a lump of clay and began to work on it, so that it resembled something a little like a woman.

Or perhaps a bird.

Or perhaps, a reminder.


Author’s notes
This story was written for another Mythmaking event. The idea behind these events is that a group of storytellers write and perform stories inspired by museum artefacts that have no stories of their own. In this case, we know these small, female-form, ceramic figures are about 4000 years old and were widely traded, but that’s all — no one knows who, or what, they represented, or why they were significant. The event took place at the Ashmolean Museum, was organised by Brian Mackenwells and Charvy Narain, and was totally brilliant — look out for more in the future!


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© Kat Day 2019

A Tower of Cards

I’m building a tower of cards.

Layer after layer, resting on those below.

Supporting those above.

Surfaces shimmering with lambent light.

At the base is Temperance, wings outstretched as she stands,

one foot in water and one on land.

In the middle is the Magician, creating at his altar.

And at the top is the World: naked, and watched.

Why build so high? they ask.

Because, I say, I want to reach the Star.

What if one of these cards is creased? What if it’s frail?

Yes, Towers sometimes fall, I say.

But I think,

I’ve built this,

to prevail.


Author’s notes
This is a drabble that accidentally poemed. But it is still exactly 100 words long. And it RHYMES. Well, in places. Please don’t give me a lecture on tarot meanings 😉


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© Kat Day 2019

Spears and Marbles

Eria wriggled her fingers and let them drift across the wooden countertop. It was warm in the shop. She looked longingly at the door.

Obligingly, it opened, letting in a draft of ice-tinged air.

A man ducked under the lintel and stomped in, snow falling from his boots. His body was huge, almost too big for his tattooed head. He wore armour made of dark leather padded with sheepskin. A battle-axe hung from his belt.

‘Hello,’ said Eria, ‘how may I help you today?’

He looked at her. ‘Where’s the old man?’ he grunted.

‘I’m minding the shop for Master Winga.’

‘You’re a child.’

Eria ran her hands down the front of her dress as though brushing away dust and nodded thoughtfully. ‘I’m older than I look,’ she said.

There was a sound from the back room. The man narrowed his eyes.

‘Master Winga will be several hours, at least,’ said Eria. ‘You can wait, of course, but I am more than able to help you.’

‘Give me that spear up there,’ said the man eventually, tipping his chin upwards. She turned to follow his gaze. The spear had been hung horizontally and ran almost the full length of the back wall. Its head was diamond-shaped, forged from reddish metal, and behind it sat wicked barbs which would make it impossible to remove from a wound without catastrophic damage.

‘Big fight?’ she asked.

‘Dragon.’

‘Have you got any identification?’

‘Huh?’

‘That spear is a dangerous weapon. I can’t sell it to just anyone.’

The man pulled out a leather pouch turned it over so that its contents spilled across the countertop. The gold glinted in the light. ‘Here’s my identification.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Eria. ‘I need to see some paperwork. Have you got a dragon-hunting licence?’

‘A what?’

‘A dragon-hunting licence.’

‘No! What is this nonsense? I am the Warrior Philip Elfweard and–‘

Eria made a tiny snorting noise. He glared at her.

‘Give me the spear, impudent child, or I shall take it for myself!’ he thundered, drawing his axe.

‘Why waste time asking for things in the first place if you can just take what you want?’ she asked calmly, catching his eyes with hers.

‘It is– It is not–‘ His voice faded. She saw smoke and flames and tasted metal and salt. Underneath it all, though, was the scent of lavender, a song, and a child’s laughter.

Eria had a knack for seeing things in people’s eyes.

She reached into the pocket of her dress. ‘I think your daughter will like these,’ she said, holding up her hand.

Eyes still locked on hers, Philip reached out and took one of the objects she held. It was a perfect, green sphere with a graceful swirl of gold in its centre.

She blinked and his eyes snapped to the marble he was holding. It sparkled as he turned it. ‘How did you know I have a daughter?’ he asked, after a moment.

‘Lucky guess,’ said Eria, lightly. ‘I made these myself,’ she added. ‘I’m good with glass.’

He nodded.

‘I won’t sell you the spear,’ said Eria. ‘The dragon doesn’t deserve to have her eye pierced. And you,’ she continued quickly as she saw him start to speak, ‘don’t want to be so badly burned by her flame that your daughter screams every time she looks at you.’

‘The reward…’ he started, but tailed off as he stared at the marble he was still holding.

‘There are greater rewards than money.’

#

Eria waited for a several minutes after he had left before she turned and walked into the back room. She untied Master Winga from his chair and removed the gag. He spluttered and cursed, but she laid her hand on his arm and caught his eyes, and he calmed soon enough.

She left the old man’s shop and stood outside the door. She shivered and stretched, breathing in the chill air and bathing in the red-gold rays of the sunset.

After a moment, her skin began to shift from human softness to something harder and glossier. Wings burst from her back, the joints in her arms and legs clicked and snapped into new positions, her neck lengthened.

A gout of flame shot from her jaws and hit, with extreme precision, a nearby rock. It melted into a glassy puddle.

The dragon dropped from the mountain edge and caught a thermal, hovering in the clear air. She watched the tiny figure walk down the mountainside for a few moments. Then, finally, she headed home.


Author’s notes
I really want a set of dragon marbles.


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© Kat Day 2019