Skip to content

Tag: fantasy


Beyond the west of the world, where the sun cannot be seen, lies Crow Hearth – the city of ice and stone. A city out of time, lost beneath the snow and beyond the turn of the world. Men scurry through the lightless streets, holding their warm coats close until they can escape down into the rats’ nest of heated tunnels that make the bulk of the city.

Down now, down again. Through the tunnels. Follow the insistent ticking that lives somewhere behind the mind and pushes further onward. Don’t touch the men with blue-and-white carbuncles upon their skin, and pale light in their eyes – they are touched by the Heart and lost to the world.   

Down now, down again. Tick tick tick. The world here hums. The walls move in and out and the ice groans. There is a shop filled with clocks. An old woman attends. She wears goggles cobbled together from wire, obsidian and red glass; it is not clear what she sees. She scurries around, moving clocks back and forth. Her time is not up yet.

Watch. She opens a door in the back and enters the room of bad clocks. It is deeper, and closer to the Heart. The walls are ice, and glow with sickening light. In years past, she hammered hooks directly into the ice and now upon them the bad clocks hang. They tick a second too early, or too late. They tick when they should tock. They are ugly.

To make a gold clock, she coats it in a layer of, among other things, liquid mercury, then lights it on fire. The mercury burns so fast it doesn’t even damage the wood, and leaves a more pure and beautiful gold coat than mere paint could ever hope for. The room of Bad Clocks smells of piss and mercury. The old woman smells of piss and mercury. The horrid syncopated ticking hides the lower, more regular and insistent thump thump thump of the Heart.

She was young once. She did not want to die. Every second ticked away was a second she could never get back. She charted each passing second as the ice walls closed in. She took meticulous notes of her time ticking down. Now, she lives alone, encased in ice, with the ticking of her clocks for company.

Below, the Heart beats. Above, the snow falls.

There is nothing here but the ticking of clocks, counting down to gods-know-what.


Tremblay lay against gunwale, smoking a cheroot. The wind whipped up around the ship, and snatched away his smoke. A thousand miles of open ocean lay before him but hells, he loved a challenge. He didn’t have magic, or money, or even a crew; he had a boat, and a broken heart, and the wind behind him. Welta would’ve known what to do but he was–  

–elsewhere. Elsewhere with his beautiful smile and his wonderful strong arms. Elsewhere with his mushy poems and his big eyes that teared up when he heard the wrong song. Tremblay ran a hand through his greying hair: was he really getting so old? When they’d met, they were the same age. As Tremblay’d got slower, and heavier, Welta had stayed the same. It was, well-


Came the day it became obvious, they’d fought, then held each other and kissed and fought again. Came the day when Tremblay came home to find a poem on the bed:

An immortal man cannot love

a mortal without seeing time

writ in the reflection of his lover’s

eye. With all my heart, I wish


Amazing: ten thousand years alive and still a shithouse poet. The soul in the eyes? Boo. Tremblay took another long drag of his cheroot, then straightened the ship’s lines and maneuvered his way back around to the rudder. The taste of tobacco calmed him. He didn’t know how long his supply was gonna last but it was far from the most pressing concern. He’d run out of food days ago, though the ocean was seeing him through. Water was going to be a bigger problem but he’d choke on that one when he came to it.

The wind took his little boat skipping across the waves. The spray got in his eyes, but he was used to it by now. His hands were paved with salt: white lines wending their way through dark skin.

“You’re gonna die,” he said to himself. He laughed – yep, that was indeed the problem. The wind stole away his words and his laughter. Sooner or later he was gonna die and Welta wasn’t and it didn’t make either of them love any less. He’d be an old ghost with rattling bones, reading mushy love poems left on the bed at midnight. He’d be dead, and full of love.

Would be would be would be. Would that Welta had the goddam courage to stay. Would that the sea weren’t so wide. Would that love made the wind go where you wanted.

He checked his compass, then adjusted the rudder to take him north. Last known heading, hah! Dead man’s heading. The hours tore by and in time he saw a treetop canopy, then a small island. Not on the maps, but what place worth being was? He took the boat in, around a small shoal, then jumped out and hauled it up on the sand. His pants got wet, but his pants were always wet: that’s what living in a tiny boat does to a man.

A boar peeked out at him from a nearby bush. He nodded at it. “You seen my husband?” he said. The boar went snrrreeeeeeekkkkt then ran away. Well, at least he wouldn’t go hungry. The canopy burst with brightly coloured birds, and the smell of sweet sap hung heavy on the air. It was paradisical, almost, though he knew he couldn’t stay. Water, then food, then onto the next island. Birds, and boar, and–

paper? He wandered over to a tree, and found a small sheet pinned to it. He recognised the handwriting immediately.

I knew you’d follow

though it breaks my heart.

it said. Right-o. Soppy motherfucker. A creek creeped its way out of the jungle. Tremblay took a sip, then spat it out: brackish, but with the promise of freshwater upstream. He followed it, ducking under vines and periodically frightening the wildlife. After about an hour, he found another piece.

I don’t want to watch you grow old.

it said. The creek kept going. A snake peered ruefully at Tremblay from a nearby branch. It was bright green, and very long, but it didn’t look like a strangler. Good thing too: he’d seen more than a few stranglers. This wasn’t his first strange island. It had been, all things considered, a very strange life. It should’ve ended a long time ago, with a bullet or a blade or a snakebite. It hadn’t. It had kept going, and time had started its implacable course on his face and his guts and everything in between. He tried the water again: better, but still not drinkable.

Tremblay kept going. The interior of the island was darker, and strange animals followed him. He kept his gun at his side, but they didn’t want to approach. In time (how long? A day, an hour?) he came to a lake. The water was cool, and fresh. He filled his belly, then he filled his canteens. Something fluttered from a nearby tree trunk: very high up, the bastard. Fine for young strong muscles, but Tremblay’s body didn’t work quite like it used to.

He took a stout vine, then wrapped it around the trunk. He braced his feet against it, then tensed his core and forced the vine upwards. Slowly, by fits and starts, with his arms screaming every inch of the damned way, he made it to the top. The menacing whisper of the jungle stopped. A cool breeze came down through a gap in the canopy, and for just one moment he felt alive again. Five words greeted him.

I love you. I’m gone.

He didn’t cry – he felt too good to cry: vital and strong and filled with goddam life. He slid down the trunk, and took a moment to collect himself. He let out a whoop, and the jungle didn’t respond.

“I’m going to die,” he said to himself. He smiled, then headed downstream for the shore.

What Ukto Saw

In Enji, the citizens fell through the world. On the eighth day of summer when the sun was high over the sand, their floors and streets swallowed them. Many died or disappeared, but some did not – they were stuck jutting from the earth, alive, with twisted limbs and bent backs. This is not interesting in-and-of-itself; in the world of Ataal, such things are commonplace. Enji is different, because Enji went on.

On the eighth day of summer, not all of Enji was inside Enji. Not all of a city’s work happens in the city: farmers in the fields, hunters in the desert, mystics sitting upon marble pillars. They did not fall through the earth and when they returned home, they found their loved ones crying out in pain. They sat with them, and stroked their hair; they spoke of the land-locked as if they were already dead. They gave palliative care and they did not weep. They held meetings about dealing with broken bones, and filthy clothes. They got very good at caring for the land-locked. They loved them, you see: they bathed and fed them, but they also hugged them, and sang to them, and told them stories about the changing world outside. They coated them in perfume made from sweet desert flowers.

In time, the society of Enji twisted to accommodate their new lives. Industries sprang up: a man could not could not care for his land-locked husband every hour of every day, but he could pay another man to do it for him. In time, that changed too: one man to feed, one man to bathe, one man to sing songs. Enji was rich in mineral wealth, and in time the city refilled on its own. New arrivals were briefed on the land-locked. Many took jobs looking after them, and when more folks showed up, the old-new-arrivals briefed them. The oasis of Enji rose higher: a city of jasmine, chrysanthemum and gold. Wealth flowed through the streets of Enji – the city of men-within-earth.

When one of the land-locked died, there was clear procedure. A priest would lay garlands of sweet-smelling flowers around the deceased, then call out to Ukto, the vulture goddess, to carry them away into the sky. No man in Enji would dare to hurt a vulture, for fear of angering Ukto, the cleaner of the dead. The temple of Ukto was the tallest in Enji: its golden minarets towered over the city of sand. If the family of the deceased were wealthy (and many in Enji were wealthy) they’d commission an artist to encase the body in beautiful enchanted glass so it could last forever.

As the land-locked died off (of old age, or some other invisible malady that carried their kind away), the city of Enji became littered with prisms. At sunrise, sunset and the hour when the sun was most high, the glass sang – light refracted off the prisms in just the right way to have them ring out. A true citizen of Enji could set their watch by it. Clever men with mirrors would stand by the prisms and play music for travellers – the locals saw the practice as tacky but there were always strangers’ feet upon the streets of Enji. Enji: the city of men-under-glass.

In time, the last man who remembered the face of a land-locked –Ibu, a merchant who’d been on the road outside the city– died. When Ibu’s husband had gone to the earth, Ibu had cried and cried until his neighbour shouted at him. Ibu had cried with his husband Yaji, and expected him to die. Yaji died, but not for forty years. Ibu died ninety years later, at the ripe old age of two-hundred and six; Ibu died peacefully, in his sleep, and took with him the last memory of Yaji.

In time, the last man who remembered the purpose of the prisms –Ajata, who lived a thousand years unremarkably– died. His father told him stories about why the city sung at dawn and dusk. He told him the prisms once contained skeletons. Little Ajata had not believed it, but had rushed to his classmates to tell them anyway. They hadn’t believed him, and had forgotten all about Little Ajata’s strange lie. Big Ajata died because he said vile words at a vulture and it pecked his eyes out. He died in the mountains, with Enji stretched out below him. He took the memory of skeletons with him and so Enji was left only with prisms of coloured glass that sang at dawn and dusk; Enji was left with men with mirrors, who played songs on the prisms and who were beloved by all.

A university rose and bloomed. Archaeologists studied the glass and said “maybe it is to capture the sun” or “maybe it is to pay homage to Ukto, the goddess of the sky” and made careers of this speculation. They made sure the glass was well-kept. Tourists flocked to Enji, and took photographs, and even though the earth had long since ceased to spring forth gold, Enji remained a rich city – the envy of Ataal. Enji: the city of glass.

The world turned, and another nation (its name does not matter –I cannot remember it, therefore it does not matter–)  attacked Enji and burnt the great city of prisms to the ground. They took its riches, and killed its people, and smashed its musical glass. They took their loot home. They drank wine and toasted the murder of a city.

In time, the last man who remembered Enji –a singer, a storyteller. His name does not matter– died. The sand covered up his bones, as the sand covered up Enji.

In time, the sun above Ataal got so hot that it cooked men inside their homes. Oceans evaporated, and silence came to rule Ataal. The deserts around Enji got so hot, they turned to glass. If a man had walked across the desert –though there were no men left on Ataal– he might’ve seen a ruined city under glass. When the sun was at its highest, it struck the glass and the glass sang out.

It sang for nobody save Ukto and the endless open sky.

When the earth opened up, Enji went on. When the skeletons rotted away and their memory was lost, Enji went on. When war came to Enji and smashed its glass, Enji went on – silent beneath the sand, not even a memory. It is not a lie to say: even in death, Enji went on. Enji: the city under glass.


Wending down through stone, and loam

lies land where men may find a home —

we wind our way through tunnels tight

and do not stray up-to the Light.

William left his level.

It’s more complicated than that, but it’ll have to do.

He moved through the old stone corridors, eyes wide, ears attentive to the sound of beasts. Everybody knew if you walked up into the Light Level, you got et. No ceremony to it, no songs — just crunched up and et like a crumb of biscuit: buh-bye idiot.

That’s what made it so exciting. Everybody talked about how Light was dangerous and Light would burn you. His dad especially had told him that the Light was where the most dangerous monsters got borned out of. Things with too many legs and great big torsos, and hair all over ‘em like an uncle from the low-low you don’t talk to any more.

“I’m scared of no demons!” he said, very quietly.  

William went – up-and-up through the big dark. It hurt his eyes up this high. There was no Light but it was subtly brighter, and his eyes wasn’t made for that kinda bright. Mankind was borned in the lowest of low after all — far below the gods on the surface, beneath the angels who lived only a level down, beneath the monsters and demons what lived all the ways in between where Light was found. Man’s eyes weren’t not made for Light, which is what made William wanna see it so bad.

His pastor’s words echoed in his head, and his dad’s, and his teachers’, and his mum’s especially — Man was made in the low-low and he belonged in the low-low only.

He’d lost count of the level, but he hadn’t seen any demons yet so it was okay. He sat down and had a drink of water, and et a biscuit. Munch munch munch his teeth went, and the biscuit was all gone. He looked around for monsters, but didn’t see even a single beastly hair. They all said there would be monsters. What a crooked con. He picked up a handful of dirt, and let it run between his fingers. It mixed with the biscuit crumbs, and the two become the same. They pattered against the ground, and it was as if he’d done nothing at all.

Somebody coughed. It weren’t really a human cough, except it was just a little bit.

“Hello?” he said.

The cough coughed at him.

“Are you a monster?” he said.

The cough coughed in the negative, and he understood.

The hallway lay ahead of him, long and empty. He strained his eyes, and saw a closed stone door. He stood up, brushed the dirt-crumbs off himself, and wandered over. He touched the old door. It was rough-hewn, and it hurt his eyes to look at.

“Are you a demon?” he said. “You gotta tell me if you are. The pastor said so.”

There was no response, but the hairs on his arms wen’ all goosepimpley. His daddy would whoop him hard if he saw any of this, but that’s what made it all so exciting. This was an old place, from when things got made and not just lived-on-in. Nobody made things no more, because that’s how things like Light got made. You lived and then you stopped living, or kept on living but somewhere that nobody could see you any more — the stories weren’t clear on that.

William’s head went round-and-round, and he stumbled for a moment. The soft dirt of the tunnel floor came up at him. Falling didn’t hurt, but he was very embarrassed. He pushed himself up and glared at the door.

“Hey!” he said. “Hey idiot! F-“

He stopped to make sure his dad or the pastor weren’t listening.

“Fuck you!”

It felt good to say it. He half expected the door to tell him off, but it didn’t even cough. He punched it and it hurt his fingers but also felt pretty good.

“Yeah,” he said. “You big idiot door. You fucking baby. I bet you don’t even open.”

The door opened.

It was Dark in there. Not dark mind, but Dark — low-low kinda dark like inside the mouth of a great beast. A blast of foetid air made William gag. He’d smelled that smell before in the pantry, when you didn’t eat the biscuits and they went bad. They had a carrot in the pantry once, and nobody wanted to eat it because it was the wrong colour, so it went bad and black and it smelled kinda like the Dark but also not really. William knew this was a Bad Room where he was not meant to go.

He went in.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. There were white things buried in the dirt. Vast white things that were maybe bones, but bones too big to come from a man. They were the off-white-yellow of bones picked clean and left for too long. They hurt his eyes to look at. There were great big tooth marks in some of ’em, but only the ones close to the big skull — like the demon had et itself up.

He knew he wasn’t allowed to touch the bones. He touched the bones.

His head went round-round again, but he didn’t fall. Something washed over him, and he [i]saw[/i] darkness, and hunger, and a thousand years locked in a cage waiting to be set free until even he magic sustaining him wore off, and the hunger gnawed at him, and he bit deeply into himself and felt the rich iron-wash of his own blood and–

It was done. There was nothing in the room but William, and the bones. He thought about crying for a moment, then sucked in a big ole breath.

“I’m scared of no demons,” he said, very quietly.

The Dark did not respond.

William sat, and did not know where to go.