Constable Rowan to the Dark Tower Came…

The snow that had began as Constable Rowan had left the station earlier had now shrouded the borough in a blanket of white, lending it an almost fairy-tale appearance. Which was appropriate, given where Rowan had to go next.

He had sent Dr. Stone back to his lodgings and returned to the station to file his initial report, then collected his cape and ventured back onto the snowbound streets.

Having safely navigated the icy pavements, he pushed open the gate to the park known as Blackwell Common and trudged beneath the frosted trees towards the carillon at its centre.

It was assumed by most that this was a memorial to one of the innumerable foreign conflicts that Britain had involved itself in during the early part of the Queen’s reign, and, on the surface, this was true. But appearances can be deceptive, as this was also the Dark Tower, seat of power of the Night Mayor. Although given the recent incursions by members of the Court of Shadows, this power appeared to be waning.

Rowan approached the iron doors at the base of the tower, swallowed apprehensively, then raised the knocker.

“First for the princess, in the tower alone,” he murmured under his breath, as the knocker dropped for the first time, “second for the king, on his gilded throne, third for princes, sent on their quest, fourth for the supplicant, who is your guest.”

As the final echo of the fourth knock began to fade, the doors slowly and silently opened. 

“Who seeks audience with the Night Mayor?” Came a sibilnt whisper from within.

“Stanley, scion of the House of Rowan,” stated Rowan.

“Enter and ascend.” Said the voice.

Rowan climbed the internal staircase and reached the upper chamber, dimly illuminated with floating tapers. A tall, angular figure detached itself from the shadows and stepped forward.

“Young master Rowan,” said the Night Mayor, “it has been too long since your last visit. What matter brings you to my court?”

“You know very well why I’m here,” snapped Rowan, “your people have been causing disturbances on the streets – first Jenny and now, if I’m not very much mistaken, the red-legged scissor man. You are supposed to be in control of the Court of Shadows, but I’m not seeing very much of this control being evidenced.”

The Night Mayor turned from Rowan and approached one of the windows. 

“The World is changing, Master Rowan.” Sighed the Night Mayot. “I watch from my tower in my haven of green as the industrious nature of you mortals eats up the world I am familiar with. It is not one I understand and so, when the Court break the accords, I do nothing. I feel my time is past – there is no place for me in your world. The people no longer believe.”

“No,” sad Rowan, “that’s not true. You can adapt and change – embrace the new world and take your part in it. The red-legged scisdor man has changed. He used to punish children, now he’s abducting them. There will always be a place for magic in the world!”

The night Mayor turned and regarded Rowan.

“You truly believe…” he breathed in wonder. He stepped foward haltingly, his fingers questing, as though trying to grasp smoke

“Tell me where I can find him and I’ll share my belief with you,” said Rowan gently.

“He’s in Gimballs department store, with the children. Be gentle with him – he is no longet the avenging tailor of yore.”

Rowan reached out and took the thin, bony hand of the Night Mayor, closed his eyes and let his belief flow. He heard a gasp and felt the hand flex in his, filling out and transforming from cold flesh into warm metal. He opened his eyes and watched as the tattered robe dissolved into moths, which fluttered briefly before being burnt to husks by the heat radiating from the figure before him.

He removed his hand and regarded the transformation. Where once had been a shadowed and gaunt figure, reminiscent of a cowled monk, there now stood an imposing figure of iron and brass, steam leaking from its joints and fire flickering in its eyes. The figure flexed its iron hands and flashed Rowan a grin, illuminated from within as though from a furnace.

“I am reborn!” Boomed the Night Mayor, “a new incarnation for a new century! I thank you, Mastet Rowan, for this gift. I am indebted to you and I always pay my debts. Th night wears on, though, so you must hurry – for if you do not secure the children before the break of day, they will be gone from this world.”

Rowan bowed to the Night Mayor and began his descent. He now knew where the children were and who had them. However, he would require some help and, based on the book he had seen in the children’s room, he knew exactly whose help he required…

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A Visit From…

‘Twas weeks before Christmas,
And in Jerome Square,
The casement was banging,
The sheets, they were bare.

But where were the children,
Who should be in bed?
Snatched in the small hours,
By a figure in red.

Or so said the footman,
(And claimed it the truth),
He’d seen the strange figure,
High up on the roof.

The police they were summoned,
With Rowan not alone,
For he had brought with him,
The renowned Doctor Stone.

They examined the chamber,
Of the children – no trace,
But a curious article,
Was found in their place.

A garland of figures,
Hand and hand in a row,
Snipped from newspaper,
Then left, as on show.

Doctor Stone was perturbed,
For all of his lore,
Was of no real use,
He’d not seen this before.

But Constable Rowan,
Noted a mark that was made,
On the catch on the casement,
As if by a blade.

He had his suspicions,
Of the cause of this crime,
And would find the children,
If given the time.

If his theory was right,
Then he’d better take care,
But first he needs speak to,
The unnerving Night Mayor…

Night Work

As Constable Rowan approached the end of Hob’s Lane and turned left into Brewer’s Walk, the warm smell of malt wafted over the wall of the Merton & Son Brewing Company and caressed his nostrils. Their Blackwell Porter was a particular favourite of Sergeant Webb’s, but the scent always reminded him of one of his first cases with the Black Museum, that of the Merton Cask Murders.

He still recalled his sense of horror as he confronted the grinning ape responsible, on the slick tiles of the brewery roof, as it gleefully stuffed another broken and mangled corpse into a barrel. If it had not been for the presence of Sir Aubrey Michaels, the renowned big-game hunter, and his elephant gun, that could have spelt the end of both Rowan’s career and his life.

Rowan turned right past the gates of the brewery onto Blackwell’s main thoroughfare and followed the Blackwell Road until he reached Victoria Circus, site of the Blackwell Police Station and current home of the Black Museum. Dodging amongst the costermonger’s carts and hansoms circling the statue of the Queen, Rowan walked up the steps to the station and stepped into the cool quiet of the interior.

Sergeant Randall was on duty that evening and as it was still early, was catching up on some paperwork before the usual parade of ne’er-do-wells starting filtering in. He nodded to Rowan as he passed through the vestibule and into the station proper, to be confronted by a wicker basket placed in the centre of the corridor, which appeared to be buzzing.

“I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you…” said a voice and Rowan turned to see Sergeant Doyle stepping out into the corridor. His usually pale features were marred by several welts scattered across his face like buckshot.

“What have you got there, Doyle?” Queried Rowan. 

“These little buggers” said Doyle, tapping the basket with his toe, which increased the angry buzzing from within, “are what’s been causing issues over at Pemberton Gardens. Someone reported a fairy ring by the bandstand and it appears that rather than docile little Faeries, it was a bloody Wysp nest. So rather than calm them down, the smoker got them all riled up and the little sods got me good and proper.” Doyle scowled at the basket, “If it had been up to me, I would’ve torched the lot of ’em.”

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Doyle gingerly picked up the basket, after ensuring the catches were fastened.

“If you’re on your way to see the Inspector,” Doyle continued, “watch yourself down by the armoury – Murray and Arkwright are testing their Galvanic Rifle and their aim’s a bit off.”

As Rowan reached the top of the stairs leading to the basement, he heard raised voices.

“There’s nothing wrong with MY design, Murray” snapped Arkwright, “it’s your ham-fistedness that’s causing the issue.”

“And absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the regulator overheating and causing the barrel to yaw?” Said Murray. “Watch…”

There came a crackling sound, a burst of actinic light and the smell of ozone – followed by the tinkling of broken glass.

“There…” said Murray, “definite yawing.”

“You may have a point,” conceded Arkwright, “hand it over and I’ll take a look.”

“Coming through, Gentlemen!” Called Rowan as he cautiously descended the stairs. As he reached the door to armoury, Murray stuck his head out, his face breaking into a grin when he saw Rowan.

“Stanley!” He crowed, “good to have you back. We heard about your encounter – fae women can be a bit of a handful, so glad to see you’re unscathed. Arkwright!” He called, “it’s Stanley.”

“m’busy” muttered Arkwright, tinkering with a long metallic object on his workbench.

“Don’t mind him,” said Murray, “he’s correcting a flaw in his design…”

It’s NOT a flaw!” Shouted Arkwright. Murray winked at Rowan and went back in to help his colleague.

Inspector Neame was busy poring over various reports when Rowan finally reached his office, looking up as Rowan gently knocked on the open door.

“Ah, Constable Rowan,” said Neame, “good to have you back on duty, especially with Moore still recovering from being stabbed.” 

“Thank you, sir, it’s good to be back.” Rowan cleared his throat, “However, I think there’s something we really need to discuss, sir…”

Stocking Chillers

Whilst the Christmas period is more commonly associated with festive cheer, overindulgence on comestibles both solid and liquid and the time-honoured tradition of acknowledging distant friends and relatives who you haven’t talked to or thought about for the previous twelve months, for me, Christmas is also about…the Ghost Story.

Of course, I am not alone in this, as the earliest and most well-known Christmas story (after that one about the homeless couple giving birth in a shed, that is) is the tale penned in 1843 by a certain Mr Charles Dickens, namely “A Christmas Carol”.

Or to give it its full title “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas”.

And the ‘tradition’ has continued down through the years. Montague Rhodes James was best known for his ghost stories, many of which were written as Christmas Eve entertainments read aloud to friends whilst he was at King’s College, Cambridge.

A similar tradition was upheld by the Canadian author Robertson Davies, whose collection High Spirits (1982), was made up of eighteen ghost stories he himself wrote and told at the annual Christmas party at Massey College, Toronto. If you like your ghost stories to have a little bit of tongue in their cheek, this collection is for you.

However, whilst there have been many unsettling supernatural tales written over the years, not many of them were actually about Christmas. Yes, they may have been set amongst snowy climes, such as August Derleth’s wonderful 1939 tale “The Drifting Snow”, but that was merely the set dressing.

As a connoisseur of things both Christmassy and macabre, I set out to find tales that fell solidly into both camps. A tale that you can read online, which I believe has never been published, is “Anti-Claus” by Graham Masterton, who is better known for his Dream Warriors trilogy. This explains the real story of Santa Claus – and he’s definitely more naughty than nice. Additionally, in Neil Gaiman’s 1999 short story collection Smoke and Mirrors, you will find “Nicholas Was…”, a short tale and unsettling explanation of Father Christmas and in Terry Pratchett’s 2012 A Blink of the Screen you will find “Twenty Pence, With Envelope and Seasonal Greeting”, which explains why you should justly fear Christmas cards…

Which actually brings me on to the ‘meat’ of this post. When I was younger, one of the banes of my existence was the annual writing of Christmas cards, as my mother insisted that each of us children should write and send a card to our various relatives. The usual fracas would happen as we each tried to secure the ‘best’ cards out of the bargain box of fifty and, although I was the oldest and biggest, I always seemed to end up with the crap ones. You know the ones – the ghastly festive candle, the Victorian carol singers or the pastel-shaded Nativity scenes.

Being of a mischievous and inventive nature, I decided to…improve…these cards, by adding captions and speech bubbles, to make them less crap. Whilst this didn’t last with my relatives (apparently some of the more strongly religious felt I was putting my immortal soul in jeopardy by “mocking the celebration of the birth of Our Lord”), I continued this with friends until I left school.

As I was preparing to send out cards this year to some of my blogging colleagues, I had a bit of brainwave. As I dabble in short stories, would it be possible to write a short story in the limited space available on the inside cover of a Christmas card, inspired by the terrible cards of my youth, that was both Christmassy and slightly unsettling? I set myself this challenge, with the images of Christmas Cards Past to guide me, and succeeded. The problem, I discovered, was that whilst the stories I had written fit nicely within the assigned space, they don’t make those sort of cards anymore…

So, the cards (and tales) were dispatched, but without the correct images. So, to rectify this flaw in my otherwise extremely cunning plan (and to share them with a wider audience) I present my three (very) short tales, but now with the relevant images.

I hope that you enjoy them, as I spread a little festive cheer fear.

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Once he’d been Grim – Now he was ‘Jolly’. Once he’d been showered with gifts – now he gave gifts to others. Once he’d had a steed with eight legs – now he had ‘eight tiny reindeer‘. Once he’d been worshipped, yet feared, by an entire nation – now he was believed in and loved by every child in the World…

Upon reflection, it wasn’t all bad.

And at least they’d let him keep the beard… 

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“As long as you eat by the light of this candle, you will never grow fat.” She held it out. “But only when you eat, understand?” He grunted and took the ugly thing, willing to try anything. However, it worked – he could consume as much as he desired by the light of the candle, never gaining any additional weight. In fact, he discovered, if the candle was left to burn for a few moments after he had finished eating, he actually lost weight! Which gave him an idea…

When the Police broke in, they found the smoking remnants of a candle and a corpse which appeared to have too much skin, yet not an ounce of fat…

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The coachman was the first. Concerned for the horses, he had stepped into the night and rather than the moonlight bleaching colour from him, it seemed to intensify it, making him look almost…artificial. As he approached the coach, his movements slowed, as though wading through treacle, until they faltered completely, next to the now un-moving horses.

One by one, each passenger rose silently and left the inn, flaring brightly under that terrible moonlight, then locking into place.

I am the only one left…but I feel it calling me. How long before I too join that frozen tableaux, like an insect trapped in amber for all Eternity?

Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Fright Night!

Eye of the Beholder

Over the past few weeks, my posts have been coming thick and fast, due to the fact that I was between contracts, which meant I had quite a bit of spare time. However, last Monday I started a new contract, which whilst closer to home, is regular office hours.

This has resulted in the bare minimum of ‘hobby time’ this week, none of which is fit to be shown. This presented me with a slight quandary, as I felt I should post something, but didn’t have any concrete ideas about what I should be posting. Should I resurrect one of my old posts from my previous blog, dust it off, tart it up and post it as revised content? Whilst this is something I do intend on doing, I haven’t really had any time this week, so I’m going to do what I did the last time this happened.

That’s right, it’s story-time…

Long-term followers of my blog will know that the last time this happened was at the end of February, when they had the dubious honour of reading the first short story I ever wrote that I considered was fit for public consumption. This particular piece of humourous fantasy, heavily influenced by the late, great Terry Pratchett is entitled “A Bad Day for Murakh T’arr” – which you can read by following the link.

The short story I’m using as a filler piece for this post was originally written for the ‘Pulp Idol’ writing competition, that the sci-fi magazine SFX ran on an annual basis. The story had to fit within the genres covered by the magazine and had to be 2,000 words or less. This was quite a challenge, as when I write, the story takes as many words as it needs and whilst 2,000 words sounds quite a lot, it isn’t.

So I beavered away at it, trimming extraneous words where I could and when I was finally happy, submitted it.

Then I forgot about it.

A couple of month’s later, the issue containing the final ten runners-up and the winner was published. I knew I hadn’t won or fallen within the top ten, as they would have contacted me. However, the magazine did publish a list of the names of those who had submitted stories that had made it through to the final 50.

And there was my name.

Out of the 5,000 odd people who had entered, I had made it through to the final fifty. I may not have won, or come within the final ten, but they did think my story was better than 4,950 other stories that had been submitted. As far as I was concerned, that was a win. So, here it is. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it.

Eye of the Beholder

By

Jeremy Winstanley

Carla was impressed. The way the artist had captured the hesitancy of the creature, as it cautiously stepped from beneath the overhanging trees, dappled sunlight patterning its flanks, was breathtaking. The detail was amazing too. She could see each individual hair on the creature’s coat, the small soft wrinkles along the lips, the soft delicate eyelashes surrounding the deep brown eyes.

Behind the creature, in the depths of the wood, shafts of sunlight from the canopy above struck motes of dust, or possibly small insects, giving the whole picture a sense of realism that was usually lacking from this type of art. It was almost as if the artist had stepped into another world, armed with a digital camera, and taken photos of the wildlife.

But that was impossible, as the creature depicted in the picture was a unicorn and they do not exist. Yet, the picture almost made you believe that they did and that they should…

The rest of the pictures in the gallery were similar, each showing a creature of myth or legend, depicted in such a way that it was like walking through a room of windows, with each picture showing a different view of a world not our own. Here a faun perched on a tree stump, his face ruddy with drink, proposing a toast with an overflowing tankard to a group of shadowy figures gathered round a campfire. There a scaled wyvern curled protectively and alertly around a clutch of eggs, their shells the colour of a summer sky…

The exhibition was called ‘From Life?’ and, according to the pamphlet she had been given by a girl wearing too much make-up on the door, ‘showcased the amazing skills of an artist who has mastered the nuances and subtleties of the medium of digital art.’ As she had meandered about the gallery, examining the pictures, she had overheard the phrase ‘photo-realistic’ mentioned several times. She had to admit, the phrase fitted.

Whilst she had admired each picture individually, there was something about the unicorn that kept drawing her back. She stepped closer, her lips pursed.

A deep male voice interrupted her thoughts, ‘I’m guessing that you quite like my picture, then?’ it asked.

Carla turned. Standing behind her was a tubby, bearded man in an obviously hired suit. He looked slightly uncomfortable, as though he was not used to talking to women, or people, for that matter.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I do. It’s perfect. Exactly what I imagine a unicorn would really look like. You’re very talented.’ The man looked even more uncomfortable.

‘It’s nothing, really’ he said, flushing slightly, ‘Anyone could have produced this picture, with the right equipment.’

Carla turned back to the picture.

‘But to actually produce a picture like this, and the others on show here, takes more than just “the right equipment”.’ She said, ‘You have to be able to see something in your mind, before you can transfer it into another medium, surely?’

The man looked even more uncomfortable, if that was possible, and started to nervously sidle away.

‘Sometimes, they just come to me…’ he muttered, before making a hasty exit.

Carla turned back to the picture of the unicorn. Yes, she decided, I must have this…

At the front desk, an eager young girl in a baggy white t-shirt explained that ‘due to the versatility of this particular digital art form, whilst the artist keeps the original files, we can produce copies of the artwork at any size and for considerably less cost than buying an original piece of art’. She then launched into a detailed explanation of the type of computer equipment necessary to produce work of this nature.

Carla gritted her teeth as the techno-babble washed over her. She thrust her credit card like a talisman at the eager young thing, an action that caused the girl to finally stop talking and produce a typed order form.

Carla selected the size of her copy, chose the type of frame and arranged delivery.

Her apartment was sleek and clean, almost utilitarian, and a picture like this would offer an ideal counterpoint to the modernistic space she dwelled in. Besides, she had a large blank wall space that needed filling.

A few days later, the picture arrived and, true to their promise, the people form the gallery professionally mounted the picture exactly where she wanted it. She stood back and admired it, which at 6’ x 4’, was considerably larger than the one shown in the gallery. It suited the space perfectly, looking like it had always meant to hang there. Now it looked like her fourth-storey apartment had a window into a sylvan glade, occupied by a mythical beast.

Who needs a wardrobe, she thought, smirking.

Over the next couple of days, every time she passed the picture, she paused. There was something about the picture that was niggling at her, like a loose tooth. Something out of place, slightly off kilter, like a warm toilet seat in an empty house.

But, for the life of her, she could not work out what.

Night after night, she found herself sitting pensively in a chair opposite the picture, scouring it with her eyes, trying to see what her mind was trying to tell her was wrong…

Finally, after spending many sleepless nights tossing and turning, as it preyed on her mind, it came to her. She quickly threw back the covers and padded barefoot into the lounge. Flicking the lights on, she rummaged through her desk drawers, searching until she found what she was looking for. A magnifying glass.

Moving across to the picture, she dragged an armchair close to the wall beneath the picture and clambered up onto its soft, yielding surface.

The eye. There was something different…no, not different…more…about the unicorn’s eye. Balancing unsteadily on the arms of the chair, Carla peered through the magnifying glass at the picture. There was a shape there, very small, but she could just make out what it was…

Realisation struck her like a blow and the magnifying glass fell from her now numb fingers. She slowly collapsed into the soft embrace of the chair, hugging her knees tightly.

She then recollected the exact words the artist had said to her, what seemed like such a long time ago, and realised that every word he had spoken was true.

For what she had seen, reflected in the eye of the unicorn, was the tiny figure of a bearded man, holding a camera…

A Bad Day for Murakh T’arr

If you’ve come here expecting a further update on the Ghostbusters Project, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed, as the inclement weather has caused a few issues here at the Crow’s Nest. The strong winds managed to tear one of my fence panels to prices, which had to be rebuilt and the cause of the pendulum motion of the offending fence post diagnosed, which resulted in the post having to be re-cemented into the ground with a larger ‘base’.

So, not a lot of time for painting and when I did find myself with some ‘spare’ time, I found that I had lost momentum. Looks like the Ghostbusters train has run out of steam…

However, I consider this a brief stop to enable the engine to refuel. There’s one final week before the launch of Marchsters of the Universe, so I’m hoping that I will have something Ghostbusters-esqe to show before the end of the month. As Bryan of Vampifan’s World of the Undead has very kindly sent me some Horrorclix figures, I can feel my enthusiasm returning. Even I don’t manage to get anything done this week, I will ensure that next weekend’s post has a picture of the current size of my ghostly horde,as there seem to be rather a lot of them now…

But a post on the Buffet without any content is like decaffeinated coffee or vegetarian hamburgers – pointless – so as the tagline of Carrion Crow’s Buffet suggests, whilst there is no wargaming here, there will be some fiction.

Over the years, I have penned a handful of short stories and the one I am about to share, whilst not the first story I ever wrote, is the first story I ever wrote that was rejected for publication – by Interzone, no less, who said, and I quote, “A bit too D&D-ish, try a gaming mag.” My late father read the story and described it as “Pratchett Lite”, from which I inferred that it was similar to the Discworld tales, but with fewer calories.

Anyway, as you’ve probably gathered, it falls into the category of humorous fantasy and, even though I wrote it and know what’s coming, it still makes me laugh. Hopefully it will make you laugh too. So, without further ado, I present…

A Bad Day for Murakh T’arr 

“I’m afraid I must press you for an answer, dear boy,” said the Sphinx politely, continuing to sharpen its talons on a convenient outcrop of basalt, “I haven’t got all day, you know.”

Murakh T’arr, Barbarian Hero, Prince amongst his people, the savage Bear Nomads of icy Tengia, and fully paid-up member of the Professional Adventurer’s Guild of Shist, shuffled his fur-clad feet and muttered an oath not fit to be printed.

Standing just shy of six feet tall and almost as wide, Murakh T’arr’s heavily muscled form gleamed in the feeble illumination cast by the winter sun. Criss-crossing his body, like a street-map of a large city, were the many scars associated with his chosen profession. There were so many scars that the goose-pimples caused by the extreme cold had given up, having no space to work with.

Clad in only a bearskin hold-all with matching boots, he should have been freezing, as the wind blew due South from the arctic wastes to the North, bringing with it the promise of snow.

But he was a barbarian from the North, and Northern barbarians never felt the cold and, even if they did, would never admit it. They were a proud and noble people, blessed with strength, fortitude and courage, but sadly lacking in the brains department.

This was why Murakh T’arr was having so much difficulty with the Riddle.

Sphinx love to pose riddles, especially long, complicated and devious riddles, as if the questionee got the answer wrong, the sphinx got to eat them. This was job satisfaction at its most basic.

As one of the many guardians of the Citadel of the Faceless One, Undying Lord of All Evil, the riddle this particular sphinx had been assigned was one of the most fiendish and convoluted ever to crawl out of  the twisted psyche of the Faceless One himself. Consequently, this sphinx was one of the most well-fed of its species.

A voice, the sort of voice that would require the invention of a totally new type-face, full of jagged lines and sharp edges, to properly record its tonal quality in print, screeched metallically into the contemplative silence, “I WANT TO EAT YOUR HEART!

“Shut up,” came the automatic reply from Murakh T’arr, glancing down at the bejeweled pommel of the sword sheathed at his side. He was getting fed up with that bloody sword.

In fact, he was getting fed up with this whole damn stupid quest. But it was his own fault.

As a Hero, he was expected to behave in a prescribed way in certain situations, such as always rescuing a damsel in distress. But he had let the side down. He had, (he broke into a sweat, just thinking about it), Run Away, losing his magical axe, Whalekiller, in his haste to get as far away as possible.

True, he had been fighting one of the Unspeakable Elder Gods, namely Great Cthunda, the Star Elephant, who would have sucked his brain out through his nostrils and used his empty cranium as a novelty ash-tray, but that was beside the point. It was just… Not Done.

So, to atone for his misdeed, and assuage his guilt, he had first replaced his magical weapon with another, the ever-hungry and vocal demon-possessed broadsword, Fishblight, as no barbarian hero should ever be without a magical weapon of some sort, be it ever so lowly as an enchanted salad fork.

He had then come to this blasted rock, the Isle of Sheol, which could only be described as an island by the sheer fact that it was sticking out of the sea, to slay the Faceless One, Undying Lord of All Evil. How you actually slay a being reputed to be undying, he had not quite worked out yet – but something would turn up. It usually did.

However, it was not going very well. First, there had been the fisherman…

“What do you mean NO? Bellowed Murakh T’arr at the small wizened form standing on the jetty in front of him, “I’m a bloody Hero, you have to give me your boat!”

Over the aged fisherman’s shoulder, enshrouded in mist, lurked the dim shape of the Isle of Sheol. The village of Evight was the closest human habitation to that accursed isle and the closest place to get a boat to take Murakh T’arr there. If only this fisherman would listen to reason.

“No, I don’t,” said the old fisherman, his wrinkled face impassive. Murakh T’arr towered above him, waving his massive arms about, his jaw muscles creaking as his jaw flapped, no sound issuing forth.

The sight reminded Old Eli, for such was the fisherman’s name, of a large fish he had caught last Soulsday. The fish had claimed to be magical and would grant Old Eli a wish, if only he would throw it back. Old Eli had never had any truck with magic, especially talking fish, and had dispassionately clubbed it about the head until it had stopped talking and, finally, moving.

“Besides,” said Old Eli, “how do I know you’re a Hero?”

Murakh T’arr grinned and began to rummage energetically through the small pouch at his side. With a cry of triumph, he pulled out a small white rectangle and thrust it in Old Eli’s direction, a smug grin on his face.

Old Eli gingerly took the rectangle from Murakh T’arr’s outstretched hand. He was convinced that this man was, in the local parlance, a ‘Nutter’. He was sure he had heard him say “I WANT TO EAT YOUR LIVER!, then “Shut up”, both in different voices. In the village of Evight, they knew how to deal with Nutters. You took them up to Arvod’s Bluff, tied large stones to their feet and threw them in the sea, where they could not bother anyone anymore.

Old Eli looked at the rectangle he had been handed, which was made from some curious flexible material, smooth to the touch, which he was unfamiliar with. Probably some invention of the Gnomes, he thought, as everyone knew they were far too clever for their own good. On the front of the rectangle were some squiggly black lines, which he assumed was that new-fangled thing called “writing” and a small, colour portrait of a man.

The face in the picture looked as though it had been hit repeatedly with a large, heavy, blunt object, like a wardrobe. From a gold hoop atop the otherwise bald head, came a long tail of hair, like the straggly bit at the top of an aged spring onion. The man who had posed for this picture had obviously been trying to look proud and noble and had succeeded, in the same sense that a one-legged man is a sure bet in an arse-kicking contest. It did bear a passing resemblance to the man standing in front of Old Eli, but only if the distances involved were very great.

“What’s this then?” Said Old Eli, suspiciously.

“That’s my HeroCard™, that is,” said Murakh T’arr proudly. ”‘Means I’m a Hero.” He inflated his chest, preening. Old Eli stepped back, quickly. He had seen fish do a similar thing, just before exploding. The last time it had happened, he had to buy a new boat and he stank of fish for the next three weeks.

“That’s you, is it?” Asked Old Eli, from a distance, “only, it doesn’t look much like you, does it?”

“Of course it does!” Bellowed Murakh T’arr, striding forward and snatching the card. “Look, see the noble brow, the firm, jutting jaw, the steely eyes, the classic nose. No mistaking that face.”

“If you say so…” Said Old Eli diplomatically. Old Eli usually had no truck with Nutters, especially barbarian Nutters, but he had run out of jetty and one more step would plunge him into the icy embrace of the sea. Old Eli had lived a very long time and planned on living quite a bit longer if he could help it. So, taking early morning dips in the icy, cold sea were right out.

“So,” said Murakh T’arr, “are you going to lend me your boat or not?”

“No.”

“Arrgh!” Screamed Murakh T’arr, “Why the Abyss not?!”

“Because,” said Old Eli seriously, “you are obviously a Nutter. Only a Nutter would want to go to the Isle of Sheol and I’ve a strict policy against lending my boat to Nutters, on account of them being, well… Nutters really.” Old Eli crossed his arms and gazed impassively up at Murakh T’arr.

“Is that you’re final word on the matter?” Asked Murakh T’arr.

“Yes.”

“Well, old man,” said Murakh T’arr, “I will respect your wishes then and…BY THE GODS, WHAT’S THAT?

Old Eli dropped soundlessly to the swaying jetty, a lump forming on the back of his head. Murakh T’arr shook his hand, blowing on his knuckles.”Ow.” He muttered.

He then clambered into the boat and cast off, casting a final glance at the recumbent form of the old man.

“Bloody peasants.” He growled as he began to row out to sea.

I WANT TO EAT YOUR LUNGS! Screeched Fishblight.

“Shut up.”

 

Now, of course, he was facing….a Riddle. He had already got the Sphinx to repeat the riddle twice, the second time more slowly, occasionally stopping to get the Sphinx to explain a word he did not understand, but he feared the Sphinx would guess that he was stalling. As far as Murakh T’arr was concerned, brains was the gray stuff you wiped off your sword.

“Well”, said the Sphinx, examining its now razor-sharp talons, “Time’s up, I’m afraid. I have given you rather a long time to cogitate, which was jolly sporting of me, don’t you think? But, it’s time to pay the fiddler, as the saying goes.”

Murakh T’arr frowned, but this did not help. Neither did licking his lips nervously. What he needed right about now was, not just a plan, but a Plan.

“I do hope you get it wrong,” said the Sphinx, “Nothing personal, you understand, as you do look rather appetizing and I haven’t eaten in, oooh, ages!” It licked its lips in anticipation.

“So, do you have the answer, then?” It asked.

Got it, thought Murakh T’arr.

“Yep.” He answered.

“You have?!” Asked the Sphinx, a little taken aback, “Well, let’s hear it then.”

“No.”

“No? No? I am so sorry, my dear chap, but it doesn’t work like that.” Said the Sphinx, “So, it looks like I get to eat you anyway.”

The sphinx tensed, ready to pounce. “Nothing personal, of course.”

“What I meant when I said ‘no’”, said Murakh T’arr, raising his hands defensively, “was that I wasn’t going to shout it out for everyone and his mother to hear!”

The Sphinx paused and looked around. Black, cracked basalt as far as the eye could see, was all that greeted it gaze.

“That’s not very likely, is it?” Said the Sphinx, testily.

“True.” Said Murakh T’arr, “But are you prepared to take that chance?” The Sphinx’s eyes narrowed in speculation.

“How do I know that you know the correct answer?”

“You don’t,” said Murakh T’arr, grinning, “But what if it is?”

“I suppose you have a point,” said the Sphinx slowly. It had a feeling that this Barbarian chappie was up to something, but wasn’t sure what. That would be a moot point soon, as there was no way he would guess the correct answer. “What exactly do you suggest?”

“Well,” said Murakh T’arr, “I’ll come over and whisper it in your ear. That way, if I do get it wrong, you won’t have so far to go.”

“I say!” Said the Sphinx, “That’s awfully decent of you. Come on then.”

Murakh T’arr walked over and stood just to the right of the Sphinx’s head.

“Could you lean down a bit?” Asked Murakh T’arr, “I can’t quite reach.”

“Oh. Sorry,” the Sphinx leaned down. “Is that better?”

“Yes, yes, that’s fine,” Murakh T’arr’s hand crept towards his belt, “The answer is…”

I WANT TO EAT YOUR BRAIN!

“I say,” said the Sphinx, toppling forward, Fishblight’s pommel just visible inside its tawny ear, “That was a bit below the belt.” Then its eyes glazed over and it expired.

Murakh T’arr withdrew Fishblight slowly from the Sphinx’s head. Fishblight was humming to itself, sated for the moment. Murakh T’arr waited until the sword had absorbed all the blood, then re-sheathed it.

“I may be a Barbarian,” he said, “but I’m not that bloody stupid.”

Whistling a favourite Barbarian drinking song, he turned and headed up the path making for the mountains, where the Citadel of the Faceless One hung like a parasitic barnacle to the side of the cliff.

 

“COME ON OUT!” Bellowed Murakh T’arr, “I WANT TO SLAY YOU ALL!”

He stood before the huge black, metallic gates of the Citadel, which loomed over him like a very large, castle-shaped looming thing. He had seen activity on the walls as he had approached, but now all was quiet. Too quiet.

“I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!” He shouted, “COME OUT AND FIGHT LIKE MEN!”

In the silence that followed, Murakh T’arr could hear nervous muttering and whispering coming from behind the crenellations. After a brief whispered conference, in which a decision must have been made, a voice called down from the castle walls.

“Who is it?”

“It is Murakh T’arr, Barbarian Hero, Prince among my people, the savage Bear Nomads of Icy Tengia and,” he paused for breath, “Smiter of Evil.”

“Oh.” Said the voice. The whispering started up again, then stopped. “What is it you want, exactly?”

“I want to fight my way through this Citadel, slaying indiscriminately, until I reach the sanctum of your evil master, The Faceless One, where after much boasting and posturing, I will best him in mortal combat and slay him, forever freeing this realm of his evil stain.”

Murakh T’arr struck a pose, sword held high and smiled, a stray beam of sunlight catching his teeth, *ting!*, just right.

The whispering started up again, this time more frantic, then a face peered over the wall and looked down.

“You did say `Faceless One’, didn’t you?” Asked the head.

“Yes.” Answered Murakh T’arr.

The face retreated and the whispering resumed. Murakh T’arr frowned, tapping his foot impatiently. The face reappeared.

“You’re sure you want The Faceless One, Undying Lord of All Evil?”

“Yes.” Said Murakh T’arr, testily.

“Only,” said the man, “He’s not here right now…”

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE’S NOT HERE?!” Screamed Murakh T’arr, finally losing his temper.

“Well,” said the man leaning on the parapet. Murakh T’arr could now see the distinctive black and gold uniform of the Faceless One’s personal guard now the man had revealed himself. From the insignia, this guard was a sergeant.

“It’s winter, isn’t it?” Continued the sergeant, “His Undyingness always goes away in the winter. ‘This Citadel may be imposing and steeped in wickedness,’ he says, ‘but it’s bleeding draughty come winter. You lads hold the fort, as it were, ‘cos I’m off to sunnier climes.’ And then he buggers off on that big black, flying horse of his. So you see,” continued the sergeant, apologetically, “he’s not here right now. If you’d like to leave a message, I’ll be sure he gets it when he comes back. Sorry.” Then he ducked back out of sight.

“HOW DO I KNOW YOU’RE TELLING ME THE TRUTH!” Bellowed Murakh T’arr, “THIS COULD BE A TRICK!”

The sergeant reappeared, his face flushed with anger.

“LOOK MATE!” He bellowed back, “DO YOU THINK WE ENJOY SITTING AROUND FREEZING OUR ARSES OFF, GUARDING THIS HEAP OF MOULDERING STONE, WHILST HIS NIBS IS OFF GALLIVANTING AROUND THE WORLD AND DRINKING THOSE FANCY DRINKS WITH PAPER UMBRELLAS IN? WELL, DO YOU?”

“Cocktails,” said a second voice from behind the wall.

“WHAT?!” Exclaimed the sergeant, turning to face the speaker.

“They’re called cocktails,” volunteered the second voice.

“What are?” Asked the sergeant.

“Those fancy drinks with paper umbrellas in.”

“Why?”

“I don’t bloody know!” said the second voice, “They just are!”

The sergeant disappeared from sight. Murakh T’arr waited. Voices carried over the wall.

“So, think we’re clever, do we?” said the sergeant’s voice, sarcastically, “Knowing what cocktails are is clever, is it, Private Thurg?”

“No,” said the second voice, “I just thought…”

“WE DON’T PAY YOU TO THINK, PRIVATE THURG, WE PAY YOU TO GUARD! DROP THOSE CARDS, COLLECT A SHOVEL AND PAIL AND GO AND CLEAN OUT THE STABLES! NOW!”

“But it’s Molov’s turn…,” whined the second voice. There was the sound of someone being hit, then a scream, followed by a distant thump. After that, there was a brief silence.

“You’ve knocked him off the walkway, Sarge…” said a third voice in hushed tones.

“I know, lad,” said the sergeant, “I didn’t mean to hit him quite that hard…”

“You know what this means, don’t you, Sarge?”

“What, lad?”

“Someone else is going to have to clean out the stables now…”

“I’ll dice you for it…”

“You’re on…”

There was a brief period of silence behind the walls, interspersed with the faint sound of dice being cast and muttered curses, until Murakh T’arr became fed-up again. This was not supposed to happen. They were supposed to rush out, swords flailing, into the waiting engine of destruction that he became during his battle frenzy. None of this skulking behind walls crap. He came to a decision.

“OI!” he shouted to the guards, “WHAT ABOUT ME?”

“Does he want to clean out the stables?” asked a voice from behind the walls,”Is that what he’s asking?”

“Naahh!” said a second voice, “Heroes don’t do that sort of thing.”

“What about that dead famous Hero?” said a third voice, “He cleaned out some stables.”

“Which one was that then?” asked the second voice.

“Cor! Fancy you not knowing,” said the third voice, “He was dead famous, he was. Name was…er…um…Harry..Something. Not important, anyway. Did it with a river, he did.”

“Did what?”

“Cleaned the stables.”

“Why didn’t he use a shovel and pail, like everyone else?”

“Dunno. Probably because he was a Hero and you know what they’re like…”

“Yeah…”

“EXCUSE ME!” bellowed Murakh T’arr, plaintively, “BUT AREN’T YOU GOING TO LET ME IN?”

The sergeant reappeared, a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth and a steaming tankard held in his hand. He leant forward, and addressed Murakh T’arr.

“‘Look, mate,” he said, “As I told you before, he ain’t here. Now,” he took a drag on the cigarette, “I could get one of the lads to dress up as his nibs…”

“Not me!” said the second voice.

“Nor me!” said the third voice.

“Shut up, you two!” snapped the sergeant, “As I was saying, I could get one of the lads to dress up as his nibs, but it wouldn’t be the same, would it? I mean, where’s your sense of achievement, eh? ‘I beat up somebody dressed as the Faceless One.’ I mean, anyone could do that, couldn’t they?”

“I suppose so…” said Murakh T’arr, crestfallen.

“Best thing to do then is, go home and we’ll send a messenger when he gets back, okay?”

“Okay.” said Murakh T’arr, his voice so small, it was almost non-existent.

“Bye then,” said the sergeant, “Nice meeting you.” then he stepped back from the wall and was lost from view.

Murakh T’arr heaved a big sigh and started plodding back down the path.

I WANT TO EAT YOUR LOWER INTESTINE!” screeched Fishblight.

“Oh, Shut up!” snapped Murakh T’arr.

 

Far away, on a sun-drenched beach on one of the Ait Islands, the Faceless One, Undying Lord of All Evil, replaced his crystal ball, with which he had been observing Murakh T’arr’s misadventures.

He snapped his fingers and a dusky, island maiden brought him a fresh cocktail, complete with paper umbrella, his last one having grown tepid in the heat. Sipping from the glass, he placed it on the table beside him and relaxed in his chair. A smirk crawled onto what passed for his face, then a grin and he began to laugh.

He did not stop for a very, very, very long time.