Free fiction

The Velna Valsis

My story “The Velna Valsis” is now up at issue #11 of Fantasy Scroll Magazine.

Herr Doktor Ostermann drops the needle. A scratchy hiss fills the decayed splendor of Charlotte’s Viennese apartment. Outside, night is falling and a crowd gathers in the plaza. There are angry shouts — “Murderers! Juden!” — the sound of dogs barking. Charlotte does not know the reason for the commotion, nor does she care; her world has shrunk to the parlor, to Ostermann’s blood-smeared smile as he turns from the gramophone and says, “Shall we dance, meine Liebe?”

“The Velna Valsis” is a dark story. Possibly the darkest I’ve written. All the more dark since it’s obvious the Velna Valsis is still being played and eagerly listened to across the world right now. Its victims and players vary and swap sides, fluid like flame, but the damage left in its wake is unmistakeable.

Someone should really lift the needle.

Inspiration came from a writing prompt featuring a photograph by the talented Robin Cristofari, together with a piece of music by Carlos D’Alessio, his Valse De L’Eden. I paired them up, put D’Alessio’s piano waltz on loop, and a little while later “The Velna Valsis” popped out. The photo is obviously not of late 1930s Vienna, and the music didn’t urge me to indulge in wanton violence, so I’m not quite sure from which strange corner of my mind this story emerged, but that’s often just how it works. At least a couple of readers have mentioned Mikhail Bulgakov. I think one said they were reminded of The Master and Margarita. I’ve not read any Bulgakov so I can’t say whether I agree, but I’ll gladly take it as a compliment.

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PS. In case you’re wondering, “Velna Valsis” is Latvian for “Devil’s Waltz”. Why Latvian? No reason other than I liked the sound of it.

Full Night Over Thranrak

My story “In the Belly of the Angel” is now up at new e-zine Metaphorosis. Albino Angel Apes versus Vegan Super Powers, wheee!

It was Full Night, the climax of the two-week Festival of Threll, and the narrow streets of Thranrak heaved with the devout, the curious, and the avaricious. Freya Adinyan plunged past the torch-lit processions and the bustling market stalls, her heart pounding in time to the drums. Tonight she was determined to leave Thranrak and the world of man behind.

“Angel” began as a 17,000 word novelette, a spin-off idea from a novel in progress. Over time the story was topped and tailed, tightened and revised, until it shrank to less than half its original length. Became much better for it. Became the story you can read today.

(And in case you’re wondering: yes, the type of angel and the world described here are the same as featured in my other recently published story, “Dance of the Splintered Hands“.)
  

Bone Flowers

Aaaaand… a Happy New Year to you! I hope it’s a good one.

My story “The Osteomancer’s Husband” is now up at Diabolical Plots as the January 2016 story.

He warned his wife the villagers would come. With their pitchforks, their fire. Their hateful ignorance.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We have to leave. They saw beneath my mask.”

The inspiration for this story were a couple of photographs used for a writing group prompt challenge. One image was of flowing water (“…the burbling mountain stream…”), the second was of a hand tossing what looked like tiny bones to the wind (“Like…tiny snowflake vertebrae…”), both by the talented Robin Cristofari. To me the bones looked like seedlings, so I immediately began to wonder what their origin might be.

If you like the story (or even if you don’t), please feel free to comment here or on the Diabolical Plots site. Any feedback is always welcome.

"Les Feuilles mortes 3" by Robin Cristofari

“Les Feuilles mortes 3” by Robin Cristofari.

Hands Out

My story “Dance of the Splintered Hands” is now up at the Autumn 2015 issue of Kaleidotrope. What are you doing here? Go read it now!

Closer to the dome, I began to make out the hands in more detail. They varied hugely in size and shape: from crab-like creatures the size of dinner-plates, up to huge multi-legged earth-moving monstrosities that chewed up the ground with their jagged mandibles. Many of the hands were smoothly metallic, some were covered in swirling geometric patterns, and others were organic-looking and roughly textured — no two were exactly alike.

Although “Hands” is one of my earliest stories, it’s still a favourite of mine, set in my novel-verse milieu of the Heptatheon, with its god moons, angels, faces and hands. I’m really glad it found a home.

H.R. MacMillan Space Centre crab sculpture, Vancouver, Canada. Photo (C) Neil Every.

The Maze of His Infinities

My flash story “The Maze of His Infinities” has been accepted by Perihelion Science Fiction and is now available in their February edition.

This story arose from a combination of a dream that involved The Construct as described in the story (I woke shouting: “Infinity is not a number!”), vague recollection of this New Scientist article, and a story prompt based on the lyrics of Blue Öyster Cult’s “In The Presence of Another World”. It’s one of those stories I wonder if I should have fleshed out to a fuller length, say 3 or 4K, or perhaps even longer….but oh well. So many ideas. So little time.

NB: Also my flash story “Starfish and Apples”, originally published by Nine, is currently available for free all this week at QuarterReads. This is the first time it’s been available without being behind a paywall and you can check it out here.

Serge Salat's "Beyond Infinity" art installation.

Serge Salat’s “Beyond Infinity” art installation.

#SFWAPro

“Survivors”

I don’t usually make a habit of posting my stories here, especially unpublished ones, but this morning a challenge came up I just couldn’t resist. An intriguing, and cormorant-free tweet from @SimonGuy64 (otherwise known as Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director of Gollancz) prompted a spontaneous competition between RJ Barker (@debutdrmng) and myself: the challenge, to write a subflash story based on the tweet by the end of the day. Mr. Barker, as you all must already know, is the antler-sporting harbinger of the apocalypse made flesh, and must be defeated at all costs. A fact he will cheerfully admit. (Yes, he will.)

Here is the tweet that stirred up all the fuss:

And then they took the tree’s skull and they nailed it to the prow of their barge.

How could you not want to write a story based on that sentence?

This is RJ’s dark and pathos-filled story, finished well before mine: The Totem

And here is my own effort, just finished, warts and all, featuring some of the world built for “Starfish and Apples”:

SURVIVORS

And then they took the tree’s skull and they nailed it to the prow of their barge. The ghost of the cleansing fire burned deep in its sockets as the survivors capered in the night, drunk on their hope of victory.

“It’s not over,” warned Abe. His eyes swam red with reflected flame. “If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that the forest endures no matter what.”

“Oh, cheer up you old fart.” Jack clapped Abe so hard on his shoulder the old man almost lost grip of his pole.

Abe grimaced, trying to regain control of the barge. It lumbered through the smoke-shrouded water like some over-laden beast of burden, it’s top bristling with windmill sails, spouts to collect rainwater and crooked chimneys for over a dozen stoves: everything required for an existence led out of reach of the carnivorous trees.

“I tell you it’s not over,” Abe repeated.

The burning tree had staggered into the water in a great cloud of steam. At first Jack and the others had been terrified, believing the barge was under attack, but as the giant fell and thrashed in the water, their confidence grew. Against Abe’s advice they waded out and jabbed at the smouldering wreck, urging each other on until they had hacked away their grisly trophy to hang upon the prow.

“Now we shall be the hunters!” Jack had declared, and Abe had known better than to argue. “No more will the forest steal our children and kill our people!”

Jack took a long swig from his flask of fermented root-juice. The sour tang cut through the fumes billowing around them. “The forest is burning, it’s been burning for weeks. Soon the land will be ours again.”

Abe grunted. What did this youngster know about the land? He’d never even set foot on it. On water was the safest place. The only safe place.

On both sides of the riverbank, the embers of the all-consuming fire glowed blood-red. The survivors had stripped to only the damp cloth masks about their faces, and they swayed and laughed and shouted in the heat-gleam.

Abe scowled at the tree skull leering down at him from the prow. “We should have coins,” he muttered.

“What?” Jack’s gaze lingered on young Molly as she dervished upon the deck.

“For its eyes.”

“You’re crazy, old timer.” Jack was no longer listening, if he ever had: he was gone, whirled away. The others made space and clapped and stomped as he and Molly linked hands and spun across the deck, each taking turns to teeter perilously over the water.

Abe sighed. Let them dance. Perhaps Jack was right. Perhaps the long reign of the claw trees was finally over.

He stared at the lithe figures prancing in the firelight and shook his head. God, he felt old. Old and irrelevant. These youngsters, these survivors, born after the forest rose up and swallowed the world, all they knew was life on the river, of gutting hard-won fish, of navigating the root-choked waterways, of keeping away from the forest that only wanted to reach out and snatch them. If their hopes proved true and the forest had truly been defeated, what sort of world would they build from its ashes?

Once they had listened to his stories. Of the old world. As children they had sat in a ring around his feet as he told tales of men who had walked on the Moon, of glowing screens that showed truth and lies, of birds of metal that could circle the Earth…but nowadays they had stories of their own: credible, more relevant. Tales of Arna Strongheart, who strode into the forest and created a glade of his own. Leil the Smith, who had tried and failed to plough the forest under. And now tales of Verun the Quick, the Firestarter, who managed to kindle a flame so strong not even the slime that flowed in the claw trees veins could resist it.

Yes. He was old. He belonged to another world, one long gone. Its remnants could now only be glimpsed through the drifting smoke: distant skeletons of iron-scaffold, dripping shattered concrete.

Able felt a tug on his arm. It was Molly. Her face gleamed with sweat, and she was coughing from the smoke. But behind her mask he could tell she was smiling.

“Grandad. What are you doing here all alone?”

“We need to keep the boat moving.”

“No we don’t. Not anymore.” The tug on his arm became more insistent. He realized the others had stopped dancing and were gathering around him. “Tell us again. The tales about the cities. The cars. The towers that scraped the sky.”

Abe grumbled, but something within him warmed. He lay aside the pole.

“Tell us about the old world,” Jack said. “So that we can build it again.”

“Yes,” the others echoed. “Tell us.”

They sat in a semi-circle around him and he spoke again the old stories. Of the roads that spanned entire continents and the wheeled vehicles that crossed them faster than a bird could fly, of rooms filled entirely with books that held more stories and knowledge than one person could ever read in a lifetime, and of a world before the forest, a world where humans were masters of their own fate. “More!” they cried, and so he carried on even though his voice grew hoarse and every other word was a stifled cough.

He did not even notice when, sometime later as the rising sun ignited the clouds like a new-lit conflagration, the barge nudged against the shore and at last came to a stop.

END

A little too on the purple side? And yes, I know “dervished” is not a real verb. Until now.

Write a story in a day for a bet? Never again.

But given that prompt, what would you write?