Friday, August 3, 2018

Four Suitors

Four Suitors
Bobby Derie

"A woman once had four suitors," Grandmother Worm said, as she sat at her knitting. "One she lost to a mermaid, who had risen out of the sea; one she lost to a corpse, which a foolish boy had promised to wed; and one she lost to a witch, who sold his soul in place of her own."

"What about the fourth one?" The little girl at her knee said, holding the ball of yarn.

"Oh, I had to stab that bastard. Wouldn't take no for an answer."


Friday, July 27, 2018

Who Hath Not Desired The Sea?

Who Hath Not Desired The Sea?
Bobby Derie

Bloody footsteps trailed up the grass-covered dune, power armor sinking into the sand beneath. Fire and smoke lit the horizon. The staccato crack of pulse rifles rent the air. Servos whining, Orlando crested the dune.

The sea stretched out in a great arc, on a beach littered with burnt drop-ships, half-burnt corpses mangled from the anti-spaceship emplacements. It was all about percentages, the command had explained. Some of them would make it, enough...enough to...

The water was grey-green as volcanic glass, surging gently despite the angry sky overhead. Radio traffic chittered, and Orlando turned it off, to listen to the deep surge of the water running against the beach, the tide slowly coming in. A few hours more and it would cover the hulls of the drop ships, drown anything that hadn't freed itself by that time.

No gulls wheeled to pick at the dead. Not yet. It was too soon, the noise had driven them off. Orlando's armor wheezed as it descended the dune, onto the beach itself. The sea...

In the briefing room, the sea had been a spit of blue pigment on a map. A globe-skirting forbidden zone. Power armor wasn't made for swimming. The techs even warned you about crossing rivers, falling into domestic swimming pools. Too heavy to float, and the seals could be damaged. Orlando had seen in training how once a coolant hose had come loose, and the operator had been stuck in the suit as the chilled water filled up their suit, unable to escape...even sweat and blood often puddled around the "boots," could make walking a slog. That's why Orlando always made sure to wear fresh socks, change them at every opportunity. To keep the foot-rot off.

Orlando sat, pulse rifle across the suit's knees as he watched the tide come in. He didn't dare come any closer. If he should get stuck in the water, in his armor, it could be a long, ugly death. Troopers didn't like that. Suicide was something all of them had considered, at some point. If you were already dead, there was no point in drawing it out. The officers didn't like that kind of talk, so the troopers kept it quiet, among themselves. What hoses you could cut, flood the compartment, black out quickly before you asphyxiate. Or the chemical agent in the heating pack for the rations, was toxic if swallowed - if you were lucky. Then there was the weak spot at the base of the helmet - if you could maneuver your plasma rifle to point at it. One clean shot, and that was it.

He saw some of the ones on the beach had tried a few of those things. The ones that had made it halfway out of their dropships, but too crushed and broken to move, crippled armor their metal alloy tombs. Orlando wondered if, in their last few moments, they too had desired the sea...


Friday, July 20, 2018

Wizard Draughts

Wizard Draughts
Bobby Derie

There is a heat that conjures, when the long road shimmers and every patch of shade becomes for a place of respite from the cruel eye of an uncaring god. In that long afternoon, Pacella found her shade on a stack of boxes, overlooking a pair of old men playing draughts.

They were very old, with that wiry thinness that comes when the skin thins and sags, and they wore old, well-kept white suits and straw hats. One had a wisp of a beard, and the other a long thin mustache...and that was all Pacella could say about them. From any angle not staring them straight in the face, they might have been the same or two different men. They did no harm to anyone and murmured and nodded only to a few of the passers-by. They were intent on their game.

It was an odd game. They spent long times contemplating each move, and those moves were not the draughts that she knew, but some odd rule of their own, where pieces could go sideways or backwards...and sometimes, she swore, they moved on their own.

Pacella watched intently, for there was little else to do in the heat, where even the dogs whined and panted in whatever scrap of shadow they could find, and cats like tattered pieces of night had fled away, and all those who could were inside, perhaps having a siesta. She wondered, then, how many might be dreaming, just at that moment...and she saw it.

The old man with the wispy beard had his finger on a piece...and it was no longer the smooth, circular wooden chit. There was a man there, a little figure of a woman, no taller than a toy soldier. There was a knife in her hand.

The finger moved, just a nudge, and the little figure moved off and to the left, the knife now tucked in along her left arm...and as it came to rest, it was a wooden circle again. And the bloody footprints she had left were even now fading from view. The two men stared at the new configuration of the board, their minds working through the new possibilities this presented.

Pacella stepped down from the crate, even though it put her half in the blazing sun. She stood in front of the old men and their game.

"Why?" She asked out loud, and in the quiet street it was almost worse than a shout. The one man stroked his thin mustache, and looked up from the game at her, stars in the deep depths of his eyes.

"It is good practice, for greater things." He said, not unkindly.


Friday, July 13, 2018


Bobby Derie

I called a hoary demon from an antique hell, hugging to its chest a book.

I asked him for a story to tell and he smiled, shy and wicked.

"A wizard called me up by name,"

"A child granted authority over their betters."

"First he asked for power, but I refused him."

"Then he asked for a service, but I would not bow to those greater by far."

"And last, for knowledge. This I would grant, at a price."

"So, we made our bargain."

"My term was that such as I told him must be written down,"

"In a book imperishable."

"He sensed a trick, but agreed."

The demon laughed.

"I filled him with unclean lore,"

"Night after night I visited, and he would sit at the desk and write,"

"And his days and dreams were wracked by what I told and showed him."

"By the arts he practiced and studied."

"By putting them all into words, knowing they would corrupt others."

"His hand scribbled against his will upon the parchment,"

"And all the warnings he interjected, the formulae for exorcism and defense,"

"Were but encouragements along the way for eager readers."

"After forty nights, body and mind were sullied,"

"And his soul, not long after."

"For he could not burn the book, nor drown it fathoms deep."

"So he hid it well, and took his own life."

"Only to awake to new and grim existence."

"Bound to his book, and all copies made."

"An empty shell, sustained by whispered secrets."

"Unable to rest."

The demon caressed the book in its arms.

"Because the book was found,"

"By would-be wizards,"

"And treasured by the blackest cults,"

"His name echoes still in their rites,"

"Studious occultists dedicate their works to him,"

"And all, all he wishes is that they would forget."

"So that he can cease to be."

"But that will be a long time yet."

The demon's laugh did not haunt me half so much, as the weight of the book when it pressed it into my waiting hands.


Friday, July 6, 2018


Bobby Derie

Hell, she reflected, was like Iowa. Her feet crunched through snow, through which dry blades of straw stuck up. The plain, yellow and white, stretched on forever; the sky above was the high, clear blue without clouds that you sometimes get, where a pale sun stares down at you like the eye of a disappointed god, burning a tan into your neck. She had lost track of how long she had been walking, though she knew it was days, because the eye would dim and sleep, and then all the vast stars would come out in the impossible blackness...and with the stars would come the wind, which shivered through everything. There was no escape from it except to huddle in the wet, compacted snow like a dog, curled up around yourself. Then, at last, the morning would come, and more walking. 

Like Iowa stretched out forever.


Friday, June 29, 2018


Bobby Derie

"You have failed yourself too often of late," Grandmother Worm said, tapping the contents of her pipe into an old horned skull.

"You mean I fail others too often." Jeneive was sullen, but her feet were rooted to the floor as though nailed.

"Same thing, same thing." The old woman filled the pipe with willow bark. "We serve ourselves that serve others. You ain't learned that yet." She stared at the pipe, all the fury of the sun scrunched up in that aged face, until a curl of smoke arose from the stone bowl. "But by-and-by you might."

There was a long moment of silence as Grandmother Worm sucked on her pipe, and Jeneive said nothing.

"I told you to carry the bucket of blood to the crypt," the old woman said.

"There was a girl there, behind the bars. She was so thirsty." Jeneive said.

"And what did you do then, my girl?"

"I left it there, just out of reach." The young eyes were bright. "And waited there all night, as she stretched and stretched. And when it looked like she would give up, I took the ladle and gave her a sip...but that just made her thirstier."

"Because of the salt. And when the sun rose?"

The girl smiled. "She burned."

"Silly girl." The old woman tch'd. "When you take the bucket to her tonight, just leave it close to the bars. Or else have enough sense to cut off the head and finish the job." She paused to suck on her pipe. "And mind you not to get too close, she's apt to be angry at you for your little trick. There's things you have to know, and she's the one to tell it. You'll have to be extra sweet to her now."


Friday, June 22, 2018

The Reading Beast

The Reading Beast
Bobby Derie

It was one of the northern tributaries of the Nile. None of the explorers had named it. Where it met the mighty river the tributary flattened out into a weed-choked swamp. Pillars of stone jutted out of the great grey-green morass. Shaped by time and water. Baked by heat. Carved with innumerable lines in an unknown script. A lost remnant of some ancient empire. Sunk and forgotten by all.

Stanewell knew better.

He had studied the carvings. Taken photographs on his way up the Nile. Then again when the expedition came tumbling back. Slick with malaria-sweat he had compared the black-and-white images. Fresh-cut figures on the ancient stone. Some new hand had re-carved the faded sigils a little deeper. Keeping alive whatever story they told.

In Cairo he had asked the wrong questions. Looked amid dusty scrolls as grey heads spoke of King Solomon's apes. Bought coffee and brandy for toothless smugglers who spoke of fantastic beasts. Plied gin at last to the Explorer's Club. An old hunter of ivory looked up from his whisky. Eyes focused on something far away as he spoke.

"For every prey," his voice a broken whisper that spoke of long nights on the savannah and dark campfires amid the jungle. "There is a bait."

So Stanewell once more sailed up the Nile. Under a heavy tarp the artisans toiled. The linguist had gone over the photographs again and again. The stonecutter had striven to recreate the lines and dots, in the same hand. The pyramid of stone took shape. Incised with a story that only one creature in all the world could read.

Stanewell nursed his elephant gun with the same care he nursed the fevers that came to him at night. Lying in bed. Dreaming of terrible glories. A lost race!

The serpent-haunted swamp. This was not the true Sud. Only a little fragment, a delta where the water twisted and pooled. No boat could progress far without beaching itself on some hidden projection of sand or stone under the water. The workers constructed flat-bottomed rafts amid the buzzing of insects. Stanewell stood on the edge. Close enough to watch the work. The crane shook beneath the weight of the new story. If the raft capsized...all of it for nothing!

The timbers creaked and dipped low in the water. Yet it did not sink. Not even when Stanewell and his men climbed aboard and began to pole it deeper into the swamp. Closer to that unseen unbegotten source. The little tributary which spawned this bit of green hell. Which nourished whatever traced those strange letters over and over in the columns of stone.

Columns which Stanewell now saw were never raised by man. They were as the oyster's shell and river rock. Not stacked or joined by any science of humanity. Whoever had carved their stories here had done so only because it was here. A blank canvas. Yet when it was filled...some had returned. Did return. It had only been weeks between his visits. Some of the old carvings had been half-faded. Now they were freshly-hewn. Characters sharp. Surely that meant some tool of bronze or iron. Bespoke some civilization...

The tributary was little more than a mountain stream. It had cut through the rock on either side to form a small cataract. Every exposed surface was carved. Some higher than a tall man might reach. Some down to the water line.

Stanewell spied an islet. Beached the craft and removed the tarp. The fresh limestone of the pyramidion glinted in the sun. The story scrawled across its surface was as one with the walls of the cataract. It was the work of the afternoon to drag it on shore. Then the crew retreated. Minus one.

With shaking muscles Stanewell clambered up the bole of a tree whose low-hanging limbs almost touched the surface of the water. He lay on a long branch. Rifle at the ready. They would come with the moonlight. To read what was written.

The day died by hours and the night came on. Stanewell slept a little. Shivered with the malaria-chill despite the heat. Only now did he wonder at what he hunted. The stories had been fairy tales and contradictions. No-one knew what it was. He had supposed that it was human, some long-lost people of the Nile. Dwindled in numbers now, and hidden. As the moon rose, doubt ate at him. What else could it be? Man was the only creature that had yet mastered script! Only the intelligence of man could discern reading and writing. For it to be otherwise was impossible, unfathomable.

The moon sat high and shapes moved in the darkness. Along the dark shore, things moved quietly into the water. Ripples in the moonlight. Stanewell brought up his gun, sighting on the pyramidion. The first one. The very first one that came to run a hand or paw along a line of script. One would do it. One would make his reputation.

The tree rustled, but there was no wind. The water rippled around the pyramidion, but no shape climbed it. Stanewell shook with fever, then steadied himself. But the tree limb he was on continued to shake. His thighs clutched the rough branch and he struggled to hold the rifle. Then the words of the old hunter came back to him... For every prey, a bait.

The moon was eclipsed by a dark shape...and Stanewell now knew, at last, what was the reading beast.