May 2014

I first learned a bit of a cantrip from my pediatrician, of all people. Children are always understandable nervous in a doctor’s office, because they have learned to associate those clinical surroundings with the pain of a shot in a way Pavlov would be proud of. So that particular small-town pediatrician would make the rounds in his small and shabby waiting room beforehand with a set of magic rings, making them dance and shimmer and disappear in midair as a way to captivate the young’uns before jabbing a needle in them.

My young mind approached this in what I felt was a very logical way: if I took the magic rings, the pediatrician would be unable to give me my shot, and I would take my chances with measels, mumps, or rubella. So I reached out with my hand, and muttered the incantation I’de heard the old doctor use. And sure enough, the magic rings suspended between his fingers wobbled a bit, just enough to throw off his usual practiced groove.

The pediatrician shook it off, but after my exam and my inevitable shot, as my mom was filling out insurance paperwork and only half-paying attention, the doctor passed me his rings. “That wasn’t bad,” he said. “What do you say I show you how to do a real spell?”

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Ohns woke up before the other two, and was startled to find the sun gone. Dark clouds, some grey and others fading to black, covered the sky, and the normal warm breeze of the lake had become a chill wind. Tiny hairs rose on Ohns’ arms, which were suddenly covered with goosebumps.

He thought of waking up Fer and Shua, asking them what was going on, but then he caught sight of a small figure at the lakeshore, dark hair whipping in the breeze.

Ohns ran up to him. “Hey, kid!” he said. “Who are you?”

The stranger–a year or so younger than Ohns, and shorter–turned around. He had a thin face, a sad face, and his large brown eyes seemed to brim with tears. He didn’t seem to see the boy next to him, the one pelting him with questions.

“Are you all right?” Ohns asked. “What’s happening?”

The strange child looked at Ohns, as if seeing him for the first time. “Where did you come from?” he asked.

“What?” Ohns said.

“Where did you come from?” The boy’s voice was distant, sad.

“I don’t understand.”

A fresh gust of wind tore down the beach. “Where did you come from?”

“I…I don’t remember!”

The strange child held out his hands. “Help me.”

“What do you mean?” Ohns cried, but his words were carried away by the gale.

There was no answer. The child turned back toward the lake and, as Ohns watched, simply faded away into nothingness. As he did so, the wind warmed and died, and the sun peeked through the clouds. Within a moment, the lake was back to its old self, and Ohns was left alone, water lapping at his toes, with no answers.

“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean?’” a voice behind him asked.

Ohns jumped, even though it was just Fer. “Huh?”

“You just yelled “what do you mean?’” Fer said. “I thought you were talking to me. I didn’t say anything, though.”

“Did you see him? Did you see the clouds, and the wind?”

“You can’t see the wind, silly,” Fer said. “Nobody out here but you. Shua’s still snoring in bed. “ She giggled. “No clouds, either. What are you talking about?”

“There was another kid here,” Ohns said. “In the wind and the dark. He had black hair, and he kept asking me questions.”

Fer gave him a funny look. “What kind of questions?”

“He asked me where I came from.”

“And you know the answer, right?” Fer asked. “You told him the answer?”

“No. What is it? Do you know? Where did I come from?”

“You’ve always been here, silly,” said Fer.

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Meetings of KGB Spetsbureau 13 took place in a well-appointed conference room on the fourth floor of the fortified Lubyanka building in central Moscow. The large conference table was always well-appointed with dossiers and information direct from the archives, as well as boxes of imported luxury cigarettes provided for the comfort of participants.

Colonel Shchusev, chairing the meeting, always brought his own smokes: a battered pack of Belomorkanals (“the strongest cigarette in the world” as he proudly called them). The Colonel had been smoking that brand since he had been a Young Pioneer, and he wasn’t about to give it up in favor of the effete European brands on the table. The meeting didn’t begin until Shchusev’s Belomorkanal was lit.

“In the dossier in front of you,” he said through a cloud of smoke and yesterday’s bottle, “is about one Katalin Kovácha, daughter of Lázár Kovách. That name ring any bells?”

“He’s the premier of the People’s Republic of Banat,” said Captain Osadchy across the table. “Took Dourai’s post in ’54 after having the old premier shot, wasn’t it?”

“The very same,” said Shchusev. “It seems that Premier Kovách is a doting father and widower that can deny his only child nothing. She’s never known anything but the sweet life of Banatian largesse, and Daddy has made her both his heir apparent and his acting minister for the arts.”

“Oh dear,” mumbled Major Gorelov at Shchusev’s right hand. “Another spoiled brat like Brezhneva?”

“Worse,” said Shchusev, tapping his copy of the dossier. “It’s not just parties and drinking and self-gratification. Look at these receipts and travel logs: using state funds to travel to an ashram in India for a month. Using state funds to travel to Mexico for a ‘spirit quest.’ Using state funds to bring Salvador Dali to Banat for an art show.”

“And she’s the one Kovách wants to take over Banat when those polyps in his colon finally kill him?” sighed Osadchy. “This is where we come in, I assume.”

“That is correct.” Shchusev expelled a cloud of noxious smoke. “Until recently it was an internal matter that we trusted the Banatians to handle as a family squabble. But it has recently become a matter of state concern. As your folders show, gentlemen, Katalin Kovácha will be announced as vice-premier on 1 November during Lázár Kovách’s annual Independence Day speech in Timisoara.”

Gorelov thumbed through his copy, grimacing. “Psychics, telepaths, gurus, New Age quacks, yoga…is there any psuedo-spiritual religious fad she hasn’t thrown herself and her father’s funds into? I agree with Colonal Shchusev. This woman cannot be allowed to wield political power in any form beyond staging art shows.”

“So, what’s it to be, then?” said Osadchy. “Scandal? Expose an affair? Manufacture one with a handmaiden? A preemptive beating?”

“Death,” said Shchusev gravely. “The order has been countersigned by the Chairman, who you all know has the confidence of the General Secretary. The task laid before us, gentlemen, is to dispose of Katalin Kovácha in a covert, wet operation before 1 November…and to make it look like an accident.”

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And so it was that compassionate Clohl, whose caress is as gentle as that of a summer potato, came to the aid of Bee Jesus (the hive was in the Latin part of Minosia, you see, Jesus being a common given name thereabouts), a Hymenoptera drone who had been expelled from his hive after a nuptial flight and was wandering without purpose or even the ability to feed himself.

And so did Clohl come upon Bee Jesus and did show him that in order to rediscover his purpose and believe in himself, yea did he need to look deep within and scare himself out of himself. For it is only in scaring the self out of oneself that we can begin to look outward rather than inward and act with selfless compassion rather than selfish selfishness.

And these words did inspire Bee Jesus, and he did scare himself out of himself and return to his hive. And yea did he cast out the forces of wickedness within his hive, in essence scaring the Bee Jesus out of all his bretheren and sisters, before leading the hive in the charge toward a new golden age of honey. At least until he died after 90 days, as is the fate of all drones, and his colony collapsed for want of a queen.

So sayeth the Book of Apiary, the word of Clohl for the people of Clohl.

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“I guess the best translation of schadenfreude would be ‘damage-joy’ which gets at the essence of the thing, sort of: you’re happy at another’s misfortune.”

“Oh, neat! What are some more German words that have no direct translation?”

“Well, there’s drachenfutter. It kind of means ‘feed the dragon’ but it’s really a word for presents you give your wife after you’ve been an ass. Or maybe sehnsucht, which is more or less ‘I’m addicted to the feeling I get when I miss something.'”

“Wow, the Germans have a word for everything!”

“They sure do have a word for everything. It’s alles.”

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Columns of zombies streamed through the rift, lurching in perfect formation as they moved between the Zombieworld and Dessie’s world.

“How do you get them to do that?” asked Dessie. “Zombies, whether in the movies or in your zombieworld, aren’t exactly known for their coordinated movements or being able to march. Even the zombie soldiers in 8 Fortnights Afterward didn’t really have much semblance of-”

“It’s the Marching Grizzlies from the university, okay?” snapped Fext. “My thrall lieutenants laughed when I said I would zombifiy the lot of them just to make an impressive spectacle. But who’s laughing now?”

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Cam pulled up the statement with a sigh.

Planet R38245n – Titanium ore – 12.2 ha – 3700 USC
Planet A47267u – Gold ore – 1.3 ha – 4200 USC
Planet N99182m – Atmosphere/Gravity Ratio – 10000 USC
Asteroid D16007b – Uranium ore – .7 ha – 5300 USC
Planet O19329e – Platinum ore – .2 ha – 1000 USC
Planet M50495r – Cobalt ore – 9.1 ha – 1500 USC

Oh sure, it looked great on paper. Charting resources on faraway planets with an RPD drone. How glamorous, how profitable! But considering the exchange rate of USC scrip into actual dollars, how many hours hooked up to his remote rig Cam had wasted just to be claimjumped, and how high his monthly expenses for student loans and payments on the RPD drone and rig themselves…

…he barely had enough for groceries.

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Zombies and vampires, thanks to enthusiastic supporters on the one hand and a carefully calculated public relations campaign on the other, have never been more popular among mortals. But they are not the only corporeal undead. The Society for the Advancement of the Neglected Undead would like to remind you of the many other varieties that are often overlooked, discriminated against, or even endangered:

Liches, so called after the Norse lík for “corpse,” are powerful mortal spirits that retain their faculties and bodies after death or the completion of a powerful ritual. Contrary to the depiction in media of the skeletal or cadaverous undead being stupid and clumsy, liches are extremely intelligent and skilled: they are master necromancers and virtually immortal. Their body deteriorates only because it is a husk whose presence is an unfortunate necessity, as they have long evolved beyond any sort of personal vanity. But appearance-conscious mortals constantly recoil from them, shallowly, and accuse them of consorting with viler forms of undead. But who else are they to associate with

Wights, named from the High German for “unpleasant person,” are far less powerful and more ordinary spirits that remain bound to their bodies even after death through sheer force of willpower. While admittedly strong-willed persons can often seem unpleasant to observers, where would we be without them? In addition to being tarred with such an unpleasant name, wights can’t rely on sorcery or science to sustain them after death like liches can (though the more clever ones occasionally are able to ascend to glorious lich-hood). Instead, they must consume life energy stolen from the living. Merely touching a mortal can provide enough energy to sustain a wight for some time at the expense of only some nausea and one less day of life on the mortal’s part. Imagine the harmony that could be sown if wights could receive life energy transfusions just as mortals receive blood!

Ghouls, whose name comes from the Arabic ghul for “to seize,” have a stable source of life energy after death, usually due to being slain by unnatural means. But their bodies constantly deteriorate and, driven by trends and fashions left over from their mortal existences, strive desperately for biomass to replace that which is constantly rotting away. This desperation is behind their unsavory reputation as cannibals–though it should be noted that plenty of mortal cultures have practiced cannibalism in the past, shielded by busybody anthropologists. Mortals, as a race, have inert corpses to spare; surely some donations would go a long way toward building ghoul culture and civil society!

Ghasts, a term coined by noted friend and benefactor of the neglected undead H. P. Lovecraft, are ghouls who have been particularly successful and therefore begin to evolve in a new and wonderful direction. They become much cleverer, cast off many unnecessary and vestigial mortal features, and obtain others (like talons and fangs) most evolutionarily suited to their diet. Occasionally obtaining near-lich intelligence, they are the leaders of groups of ghouls, zombies, or wights and must feed somewhat less voraciously on a choicer selection of cuts from mortal flesh. It’s worth noting that they have nothing in common with the foul black death-dogs of Yorkshire, the barghests, aside from their mutually disagreeable odor to mortals and undead with noses.

And those are only the most common sorts! Mummies, animate skeletons, beautiful penanggalans, manananggals…there are all sorts of corporeal undead severely discriminated against and neglected in favor of trendy and popular vampires and zombies. So please, open your hearts, your minds, your wallets, and your rib cages to the Society for the Advancement of the Neglected Undead. We wouldn’t be caught dead without you.

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This post is part of the May 2014 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “Take a Character, Leave a Character”

MELINDA: Hello and welcome to our program! We’ve got quite the show for you here today, as always! But first, let’s meet our panelists. First up is Ulgathk the Ever-Living, Elder Lich of the Seven Lands. Tell us a bit about yourself, Ulgathk.

ULGATHK: Well, Melinda, I’m currently a sitting member of the Council of Undeath, sole ruler and commander-in-chief of the Unholy Army, and Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs in the Obama Administration. In my spare time, I do volunteer work to help rehabilitate the public image of what I like to call the ‘neglected undead:’ liches, wights, ghouls, ghasts, and my other non-zombie and non-vampire brethren.

MELINDA: Touching! Executive experience, leadership, and volunteering? He’s a triple threat, ladies and gentlemen.

ULGATHK: I am a threat to all that lives or cools in undeath, Melinda.

MELINDA: Our next panelist is sure to be familiar to all you sports fans out there. It’s Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting. Tom, I hear next season is looking pretty good?

TOM: That’s right, Melinda. I look forward to providing meaningless patter to help fill the otherwise dead air in between sacks, home runs, zombie attacks, and other pulse-pounding moments in sports.

MELINDA: And what would you say to people who call sports commentary boring or vapid? Are they wrong?

TOM: That’s right, Melinda. I would challenge those people to actually listen to one of my rambling monologues, delivered in a sports voice, during the interminable pregame show for a major sporting event. In addition to the usual useless statistics that assume causation, I touch on themes as universal as the philosophy of consciousness, artificial intelligence, and predestination as I am chained in that chair for hours on end with airtime to fill but no one paying attention. Unable to live, unable to die. Back to you, Melinda.

MELINDA: Also joining us on our celebrity panel is Dowager Empress Cnhyn Hallud of the Crimson Empire. Viewers of the popular reality show Princess Search know her as a judge there, but before that she was the 19th and final wife of Crimson Emperor Testarossa, plucked from obscurity for her beauty before outliving the Emperor by 40 years and counting.

HALLUD: The many splendid mushrooms of peace be upon you and yours, Melinda. I seek only to see the beauty in everything, especially that which has no beauty. For what is life but a journey of self-discovery and love and flowers and smiles and puppies and rainbows and love?

MELINDA: Dowager Empress Hallud, how do you respond to critics that call you out of touch, given your fabulous personal wealth and unimpeachable position as stepmother to Crimson Emperor Testarossa II, or criticize the Crimson Empire’s human rights record?

HALLUD: I don’t think about it for even a moment, Melinda. I was a lowly milkmaid until my beloved Testarossa executed his former wife in my favor; as a self-made and powerful person, I seek to help others realize the self-actualization and harmony with nature that I have already achieved. Human rights are but a fleeting shadow substituted for true enlightenment, as my old bocce ball partners Elena Ceausescu, Imelda Marcos, and Madame Mao would tell you.

MELINDA: Here in the corner, still in his neural interface suit and HUD rig, we have noted RPD (remotely-piloted drone) jockey and interstellar prospector Cameron “Cam” Hickson, RPD (remotely-piloted drone) jockey. Cam, I understand that RPDs use faster-than-light communications technology to remotely survey the far reaches of our galaxy with the human pilots safely back on Earth.

CAM: Bullseye, Melinda. Communications are fast, spaceships can be made fast, but we humans are awfully, awfully squishy. Space exploration becomes an order of magnitude easier and cheaper when you strip out the parts needed to keep humans from becoming chunky salsa.

MELINDA: So you sit at home and pilot your drone all day? What makes you any different from a gold miner in an MMORPG like Dungeons of Krull?

CAM: Well, for one thing, I am paid in cash for my surveying and prospecting, and I own my own rig, and I don’t have to kill a hundred kobalds to level up my piloting mojo. For another, when your character in Dungeons of Krull dies, you just respawn. There isn’t a chance of a neural feedback loop that might kill you. And instead of farming the same patch of ground endlessly, I–or, more accurately, my drone–am out there finding real things that will be actually exploited to make life better for everyone. Provided that claim jumpers and psychotic griefers don’t wreck my rig.

MELINDA: Perhaps our most distinguished panelist is next: French filmmaker Auguste Des Jardins, director of Les trois Juliets and multiple Oscar nominee and Palme d’Or laureate. Forgive me for asking, Mssr. Des Jardins, but didn’t you die in 1976?

DES JARDINS: A man must have his secrets, Melinda, and a filmmaker even more so. A wiser man than I once said that no one dies until the last person who knows them through their works can no longer remember; by that measure, I have never been more alive and have, I hope, many long years ahead of me.

MELINDA: Mssr. Des Jardins, your films are as divisive as they are critically acclaimed. There have been widespread reports of seizures, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences viewing your cinema, especially your last film, The Sacred Cenote. Would you care to respond?

DES JARDINS: I will only say that filmmaking as a whole is a violent seizure, a vivid hallucination, an out-of-body experience of the most profound kind. It is a linking and a meeting of minds, of souls, and I was able to make only very gradual progress toward that ideal with my work. The Sacred Cenote came closer than all my other works combined to the true unity to which I realized I had been aspiring all along. If that makes people uncomfortable, there is always Jaws.

MELINDA: Splendid! Our final panelist was chosen from a pool of applicants to help add a more popular dimension to our program. Please welcome Odessa “Dessie” Mullin, paranormal enthusiast and native of Hopewell, Michigan.

DESSIE: Oh man, it is just such a huge honor to be here, Melinda! I watch this show so religiously that I really ought to be ordianed in it as a high priestess or something. I do just want to say, though, that ‘paranormal enthusiast’ is kind of a misnomer. I do love all aspects of the paranormal, but my first and truest love is zombies. And, in fact, I sometimes slip into a horrifying alternate dimension where the zombie apocalypse, or zompocalypse, has already occurred, and-

MELINDA: Ms. Mullin? I-

DESSIE: -it hasn’t done anything to decrease my love for those lovable brain-eaters. On the contrary, I love them more than ever! But I also love ghosts, and ghouls, and liches, and banshees, and wights, and ghasts, and barghests, and Ulgathk the Ever-Living, and…you know what? Maybe ‘paranormal enthusiast’ is an okay thing to call me after all.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Ralph Pines
Sneaky Devil

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The Crimson Empire has a large and expansive royal family, but has always recognized the absolute authority of the Emperor, as both ruler and Heirophant of the Crimson Tabernacle, to have a wife of his own choosing and to freely divorce her. This, coupled with the Crimson Emperor’s unquestioned ability to name a successor of his choice, means that most Emperors are serial monogamists, rotating between wives every few years to ensure a diverse pool of princelings and heirs.

A divorced Empress is stripped of her imperial titles but retains any she holds in her own right, and is guaranteed a pension for life. The Empress at the time of the Emperor’s death, however, becomes the reigning Dowager Empress and is provided with a much more generous stipend and the position of regent, should one be required. The combination of wealth, temporal power, and the luxurious Dowager Estates throughout the Empire make the position highly sought-after–so much so that many an Empress has poisoned her husband to rule the Empire in the name of a young son.

Dowager Empress Xicia is perhaps the most notable example, having served Crimson Emperor Doricus I a plate of poisoned mushrooms while she was pregnant and then ruling the Crimson Empire as Regent for 21 years before relinquishing the throne to her son Doricus II. Rumor still holds that Xicia substituted a peasant baby for her own when she delivered a stillborn son or a girl, though the prominent nose of Doricus II suggests that the child was a close relative of Doricus I at the very least.

The only thing which can unseat a Dowager Empress is if the sitting Crimson Emperor dies on the throne while married. In that case, the sitting Dowager Empress is immediately ousted, reverting to the status that she would have had in the event her husband had divorced her. This tradition does nothing to lessen the intrigue surrounding the position, as many Dowager Empresses have sought to poison or murder the wives of ailing Crimson Emperors to preserve their power.

But, as often as not, the position of Dowager Empress is used to live a life of dissolute luxury. Especially when an old Crimson Emperor marries a young Empress and then leaves the throne to one of her younger stepchildren. Freed from any reliance on their own funds, and with massive resources at their disposal, the parties thrown by the sitting Dowager Empress were some of the most legendary in the era of the Late Empire.”

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