Friday, January 12, 2018

'Twas Not A Hero

'Twas Not A Hero
by Bobby Derie


'Twas not a hero that forged the sword, that mined the iron and smelted it, alloyed the steel and worked the billows. Not with hard labor did he labor as an apprentice for seven years, and journeyman for seven more, to present his master-piece to the guild. Nor was he the master's wife and helpmeet, who saw her husband sicken and die and be buried, to take up the hammer in her own hands.


'Twas not a hero that tracked the beast to its lair. Woodsman, hunter, suspected poacher. He dined on stags and rabbits, pheasants and grouse; moved through the wood like he was a thing of them. He had hunted bear and boar in his time, but this was a new thing. Yet there was a trail, and a stinking hole where it lay, strewn about with the bones of its victims.


'Twas not a hero who brushed his horse every morning, who fed and watered it, scooped the shit of it out of the stables, and stood up at night when it was taken with the sweats. To clear the rocks from its hooves and rub ointments into its muscles. The boy slept on straw more often than a bed, and of the two of them the horse had the better blanket.


'Twas not a hero who took a raw young prince, son of privilege, and cuffed and worked him. To scar that pride and insolence, to drill in the play of sword and lance. To build hard muscle where there had been softness, speed where there had been sloth. Veteran, grey-beard, bachelor knight, with no sons to carry on his name. Yet he trained him well.


All those that fed them, clothed them, served them; their parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews. The merchant and cleric, the miller and baker, falconer and soldier. Did they not have part, in that great and terrible dead? Perhaps it was not their hand on the sword, but there was nary a soul within 30 miles that did not have a hand in the deed.


It takes a village to kill a dragon.


###

Friday, January 5, 2018

Retirement

Retirement
by
Bobby Derie


Silver-flake hollow points, carved with a cross, blessed and sealed in smooth brass cases. Shit for accuracy at range. Too much air resistance. No good for hard targets. Not enough penetration. They tended to splatter when they hit anything like bone. So they were strictly short range, aim for something vital - an eye, for preference; or the base of the skull if you could get behind them and that close. Biters, when the jaws gaped wide, could give you a nice shot, let you punch through the thin bone toward the brain. For soft tissue hits - jugulars, genitals, all the sort of thing - I preferred buckshot, silver filings and kosher salt. Wouldn't scrape the paint off a golem, but did the trick against anything that was still basically meat wrapped skeletons.


I considered my options, then loaded the hollow-points into my back-up piece. Too many questions if I have to turn in my service weapon and there are bits of silver stuck in the barrel. You had to think about those kind of things.


Devils have a shelf life. Vicious cycle. They get hard in hell. Scrappers, survivors. It takes intelligence and resourcefulness to fight your way up the hierarchy of the organization. Only the strong and ruthless make it up here. To this cold, soft world. Not many blaze out - at least, not as many as you'd think. These are the ones that made it to the top of the ladder. Patient and nasty. They know had to lie low, hide their kills, build their powerbase. It's sweet and easy, up here, if you're careful. A whole world to bleed.


Then the life gets them. Gets to all of them, eventually. Humanity. Too much soft living. Easy deals, souls for the plucking. They lose the edge. Get whimsical, develop personalities, quirks. Maybe they foul up a deal here or there, but they're having fun. Win some or lose some, what does it matter when you have eternity?


A lot, to the boys downstairs. The number-crunchers. Tallymen of the Damned. They notice, and they know the signs. Then they give someone like me a call. A name and a number. Who and how much. Yes or no. I've never yet turned them down, and something tells me I'll be damned for that some day.


They don't call it a hit. They call it retirement.


###

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Chains Forged In Life

The Chains Forged In Life
by
Bobby Derie

So for a term I walked
Amid the grey lands
The noise of life and light
Were as poison to me.

My form was a semblance of life
A memory of what I was
These lean limbs, wracked with age
These brittle bones, worm-gnawed.

About me I dragged the detritus
Of life long and unfulfilled
Loves and friendships lost
Regrets troubled me brow.

More than this
Bright memories I clung to
Happy times, warm days
Quiet hours and familiar smells.

Years I wandered alone
'til the shackle of dismal thoughts
Fell from my mind
Yet my spirit remained fettered.

I wander on
Those bright thoughts
My shackles of adamant
On a long journey without purpose.

How long will I cling
To the memory of her hair
The small of grandmother's bread
To my stubborn name.

I burn to lose myself
These links weigh on me
Harsher than that black chain
I cast off before.


Friday, December 22, 2017

On Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve
by
Bobby Derie

The door to the church was closed to him, on Christmas Eve.

The foxfires burned in the woods.

Home and hearth were shut to him, on Christmas Eve.

The starry-eyed angels atop the trees barred him from their homes.

The potter's field called to him, on Christmas Eve.

Those long unblessed graves.

Dry treasures gathered from frozen soil.

Along the foxfire path.

Where the tree awaited.

On Christmas Eve, the pale shades gather.

All the unwonted things, cast off from this world.

The meanest spirits, at their lowest ebb.

To follow the foxfire path through the woods.

And gather in company far from the bells of Christmas Mass.

There is no parody in their celebration.

The hanging boughs of mistletoe, the great Yule fire.

Each branch of the sacred tree tipped with macabre ornament.

Relics of those dead, and lost, and forgotten.

Gods and men, spirits and monsters.

He gathered them there, on Christmas Eve.

For company, on that lonely night.

They gathered round, as the fire blazed, to drink in its warmth.

He cracked open the book, and read aloud to the assembled host.

On Christmas Eve.

###

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Road to Camelot

The Road to Camelot
by
Bobby Derie

On the road to Camelot, early one grey morn.

Past the farm of the crippled soldier.

Who had fought the Saxons at Badon.

We shared his morning beer and bread.

Spoke of Arthur.

On that other cold grey morn, years gone by.

The long thin line at the base of the hill.

The Saxon spears coming on.

A forest of stakes, moving through the mist.

A pair of shock-headed boys, at our first battle.

How it must have seemed to a bird.

To see those two lines converge. Break. Reform for the charge.

Then muddied together in the melee.

Too close now for spears.

The work of sword and seax, axe and shield.

Why were we at the base of that hill?

Why did we hobble away, like a three-legged beast, leaving the crow's feast behind us?

Arthur had broken through with the counter charge.

The spears were gone, the enemy formation confused.

The cavalry came through like a wedge.

Swift-flowing horse flesh, a hundred stones moving at a bird's pace.

Crashing through mail and plate, crushing bone and sinew.

We saw men simply burst when the horse trod on them.

They kept moving.

Chased the Saxons back, back, back and away.

Arthur.

Fair-haired king, a boy our age.

Barely in his beard.

He bellowed orders, and men hastened.

Til the grass at Badon's feet was stained red with blood.

We walked through that mire, unable to follow far.

The beer is gone. The sun has not broken through the mist.

Yet I must be back on my way.

On the road to Camelot.

###

Friday, December 8, 2017

Rue Charade

Rue Charade
by
Bobby Derie

"The alien had a ray gun. So what? One ray gun, doesn't matter. But it's not just one, is it? Because if one ray gun is built, that proves its possible. Ray gun research is a thing. Militaries get interested. There's a ray gun gap. There may be one ray gun now, but not for long."

Cathan stopped his monologue long enough to sip his coffee, the pale cream-colored china cup clicking gently against his teeth. Bespoke said nothing, but looked idly around the little cafe on the Rue Charade to make sure they weren't attracting too much attention.

The Rue Charade was the only street in the city with a French designation, and it had attracted, in a quiet and disorganized way, a group of like-minded individuals. Shops had opened with French names. A series of buildings had been rebuilt, promenade style, with wrought-iron railings and balconies. Little cafes with fold-away tables and chairs guarded the entrances at either end of the three-block strip. Even the local church, a quaint Catholic relic from the previous century, which guarded a little graveyard older still, sang masses in French.

It attracted that kind of artsy crowd, the ones which either didn't have much money or had enough to be gloriously weird without trying to cram a McDonalds serving Le Big Mac in. The Rue Charade crowd didn't take to any tourist-board efforts to mark them as Little France or the French Quarter. There had never been any substantial French immigration into this part of the city. That was the point. When Bespoke heard about it, he came sniffing, and found Cathan.

"That is what a lot of folks don't get about uniqueness. Anything that can be done can, with time and effort, be replicated. And if you can do it, you can remix it. Modify it. Enhance, corrupt, degrade. Where they tend to fall down is then equating anomalous phenomena and items as technology. That isn't how it works."

Bespoke turned his attention back to the man speaking. The older side of twenties, the pale hard skin with deep dirt that spoke of hard work or hard living, but not in the sun. Tall but stooped, hair kept close-cropped so that you could only vaguely see the fine map of scar tissue that gave his head a bit of an angular appearance. A grey suit whose legs and sleeves were always spattered, as though he'd been painting in them - though they never smelled of paint. Johnathan Cathan could have been a drug dealer or an art dealer, until he smiled.

The extractions had started when he was six, Cathan had explained once. With a pair of pliers. Something to do with religion, at least initially, but after Child Protective Services had removed him from what remained of his living relatives, he'd finished the job himself. The implants were his own work too - white, sharp incisors, sourced from a local veterinarian. A row of sharp teeth, planted in the pink sockets. Smaller than human teeth, so there were gaps. It left a smile like Hell's own picket fence, the thin pink tongue caged and waiting to strike. Bespoke figured that the difficulty in actually chewing anything with those teeth was part of the reason Cathan was so thin.

"How does it work?" Bespoke asks, sipping his own cold coffee and nibbling a beignet.

"Technology is based on readily observable laws. Anyone can do it. Anomalous processes aren't. The laws are either obscure or occult, but they're particular. The results are only accessible through a given process - ritual, spell, alien agency, whatever. The ray gun, you see it work and assume that since you can see it work, you can work out how it works - but that isn't always the case. There's a barrier to the possible there, because it functions on a system which isn't compatible with our regular experience of the world. To grok it, you need to step out of that headspace for a moment - try to comprehend a different system. Sometimes, those systems can sense that, and respond to it. Imagine looking through a microscope and an amoeba gave you the flagella. Which is why a lot of the...more pervasive systems, they tie it all up into ritual and thaumaturgy. Those are relatively safe paths, mapped out and defined by explorers. They're idiosyncratic, and most of them are not optimized for efficiency or effect, but they work. That's the important thing. Fuck with them, and the systems that you're playing with can fuck back.

Cathan was a connection. A low-level one, but he had been in the game since he first got out of juvie, if not before. Bespoke knew how to treat connections from his days dealing in college. You let them talk. You bought the coffee, or the beer. Sometimes they said too much, and you pretended you hadn't heard - but you had to listen carefully enough to ask the right question, to show you'd been paying attention. Because connections didn't like having their time wasted.

"So some of these anomalies can be...manufactured. Or replicated, with the right materials. Even modified, if you have the skill, know-how, and balls." Bespoke said. She smiled. "What have you got for me?"

Cathan peeled the lips back from his teeth to expose the gums, like a horse. He had, Bespoke knew, acquired a vomeronasal organ through one of his anomalous processes - or maybe in a trade; it was like the smell equivalent of being able to see infrared light, a superhuman ability to detect and analyze the chemical constituency of particulates in the air. Bespoke believed him when he said it helped him sniff out bullshit.

He laid a small object on the table. A netsuke, on a loop of black silk with dark brown rosary beads, in the shape of a smiling Budai. Except the Budai wasn't smiling. It's head had been carved in the grinning likeness of a skull, looking odd on the corpulent body.

Bespoke stared at the morbid trinket, but knew enough not to touch it.

"A memento mori - literally. Count back the beads, you get - flashes. Being beheaded. Stabbed. Burned. Drowned. Shitting your guts out. Last five minutes of a lot of lives. Mostly feudal Japan or China, maybe. It stores final impressions, and you can play them back." he said. "Could be useful."

"Useful." she said. "Can you hack it? Replicate it?"

"No." the connection replied. "Not my area. But I can put you together with somebody that can."

"What do you want?" she said. Because for anything this weird, money was usually the last thing that sealed a deal.

###

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Consultation

The Consultation
by
Bobby Derie

There were no corners in the shopfront. The edges had been molded or sanded down and rounded off, although it was otherwise your basic retail office space. Big front window, single glassy door, the rounded corners fitting into what looked like a rubber seal. Julia had the impression the whole store had been exuded by some mutant oyster, spat out like a half-finished pearl. The door gave way with a bit of stick and a sucking sound.

Julia crossed the threshold into a world of warm, dry air. The scent of drying herbs and fresh earth. The carpet crept up the walls and down from the ceiling. No corners, again. A kind of cavernous space where nothing was exactly parallel. Opposite the door, a low table, littered with...offerings. A plate of gold. Decanters of cut crystal glass. Small plates and bowls with arrangements of plants, dried herbs, wood shavings, cigarettes. A glass jar in which nightcrawlers turned in black earth. An assortment of very plain, functional knives with handles of different metals. Behind the table, staring at her, a beefy young woman in a business suit that was cut, frayed, and burned at every edge - deliberately, she thought. Behind her, a curtain.

An office laid out like a temple, a secretary guarded the holy-of-holies.

"They see you." the secretary said, rising from behind the table. She towered a head over Julia. Guided her around the table, drew back the curtain. "They see you now."

The way behind the curtain was dark. Darker than it should have been. Yet there was a light.

Julia hurried past the secretary, ducking under her arm. She caught a scent of something wet and animalistic as she swept past. Like a wet fart of pure musk. Swallowed a gag as she stepped forward. Then the curtain fell. She was alone in darkness.

A twenty-watt bulb burned, perfect and red, frozen in space about five feet off the ground. Julia took a moment to let her eyes adjust. There were walls, which formed a rough corridor with a sagging ceiling. Ran a hand against rough fabric. Sloping walls, like a tent. Or skin hanging off some strange, angular skeleton. The air was warmer here, the herbal smell giving away to something a bit more...harsh, medicinal, with overtones of old nicotine.

Julia walked, feet sinking into something like denim covering thick carpet - a strong, yet giving surface on top of something softer. The floor was also off - she felt the ascent, though it couldn't have been more than a few feet.

Then she was in the space. She saw the...

"Consultant." The figure said. "You are here for a consultation."

The figure was naked beneath their business suit, Julia thought. Skin showed through the jacket when they moved. No shoes, or socks. No undershirt. The tie formed a ribbon of blackness that hand between the small breasts. The hair and face were carefully androgynous. Full lips, a ribbon of black around the eyes.

"Sit." The consultant said, and Julia did - on an amorphous shape like a piece of exercise equipment wrapped in layers of blankets. Soft edges, hard skeleton. Ergonomic, but not exactly comfortable. The consultant moved something, revealed a small flame burning beneath the bare bulb. They tossed a wet leaf on the flame, which immediately began to smoke. The nicotine smell increased, and Julia began to sweat.

"Historically, people understood magic in a very different sense than is common today." The consultant said. "The Babylonians, we know they had witches and exorcists, priests and astrologers. Yet this was not all understood as magic in the way we think of it today. We think in terms of spells and conjurations, cause and effect. We separate sorcery and sanctity, science and religion. They did not. To them, it was all a spectrum. Parts of the natural and supernatural world interlocked, interacted. They had superstitions - rituals and beliefs by which people could interact with that supernal world, the seen and unseen. When that was insufficient, they would consult others. Specialists in those interactions. Intermediaries trained in the lore. You want tigers, you hire a hunter." The consultant's eyes flashed. "Today is like yesterday. You have encountered a problem you cannot handle, perhaps one you do not understand. You need help."

The smoke stung Julia's eyes, but she was starting to get a buzz, like from your first cigarette. "I want..."

The consultant held up their hand. The nails were tapered, sharpened. She could easily imagine them scraping across her thigh, drawing blood. "You need to absorb this consultation first. Digest the information. Define your problem. Then, if you need it, there will be another consultation." The consultant came close, hand grasped Julia's chin, drew her in close...to stare her hard in the eyes. "There will be a price. The things we deal with, have their price, and that cost is passed on to you. Think on this."

Julia let the consultant take her arm and guide her up from the chair-cum-torture device. Her ass hurt, and her head felt funny. The ceiling seemed like it was going to collapse in on her. Finally, there was a door. A fire door. Steel covered with paint. A bar at waist height. Instinctively, Julia reached for it. Felt the cool metal beneath her palms. Something pushed her from behind. Julia stepped forward into the light.

###