Rik's Blog Story

Rik's writings - novel excerpts, short stories and suchlike

Instance 20

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:19

Boude is wearing the body of a child, a girl on the cusp of puberty. She stands up as I approach her, letting me see her head above the bushes. I know that it's Boude because she writes her signature into the weave of her aura as she stands, a brief impression of a dragon draped around and about a tower – our team sigil – followed by the curves and cuts of her personal tattoo sigil.

I remain wary.

"You're not glad to see me." She offers her child-toned words as a statement of fact rather than a question.

I can hear my host's unspoken questions; they buffet me like the cold wind in the street buffets his body. Gently, I muffle them, assume full control of the body, ease Sam's conscious thoughts into the place of oblivion.

Until I feel the right hand tighten around the little knife hidden in the coat pocket, feel the sharp pain as its point presses into the flesh beneath the thumb, pierces the skin.

No, Sam silently whispers. I will not go!

I don't have time for this nonsense: I let the host have his way. Sam only has control of a few of his muscles, the gripping muscles in his fingers and wrist alongside their attendant nerves – which seems to be taking all of his strength.

I turn my attention to the girl in the bushes.

"Why are you here, Boude?"

"You know why I'm here."

I shake my head.

She looks confused – a strangely adult expression on the child's face.

"Falc told me he explained it all to you."

"Obviously he lied."

"About Bull's madness? How he bought a dozen of us through before Spar rendered him?"

Now I'm confused. I nod my head, then shake it.

"But everybody's accounted for."

"You're making no sense, Kal. Have you forgotten how to count?"

"So why haven't you rendered back?"

"I was held up. Those bastard monkeys put me in a children's home. With locks! Took me a while to break out, and then I had to track you down. You know I don't like rendering too far away from the band – especially this time round ..."

As she says those last words I can see her fear begin to widen her eyes.

"Is it true about some of the others?" she asks. "Is it true they missed their stones?"

I look away from her stare. "Some did, yes."

"How many? Who?"

"Bull missed, and four others. But the rest made it home fine."

"Who were the others?"

"I don't know – Falc never told me their names."

When I look back at her I can see no trace of adult intelligence in her face: she appears like a little girl, scared. For a moment her aura dims around her head and shoulders, flickers as if she is trying to recede away from her fears.

Her host looks rough, a jumble of dirty clothes – tight t-shirt, jeans, small lace-up boots, cardigan and scarf - over a thin, gangly body.

When her aura flares back up, it carries an edge of determination.

"I'm going to render back. You can't stop me!"

"I'm not going to try. But I need some answers before you go."

"What do you mean, 'answers'?"

"Like why my tallies are wrong, for a start. Falc was adamant that before Bull's madness, there was only him and Spar here. And of the twelve Bull bought through, eleven have rendered back already ..."

"Exactly! I'm the twelfth."

"No. Mada's the twelfth."

Boude laughs.

"Mada? What's that stupid bitch doing here?"

And we stare straight at each other, both seeing the answer dawning in the other's eyes.

"I want to look at the band!"

"It's too late," I tell her. "Mada's looked at it already."

Boude glances away for a moment, stares at the ground around her feet as she considers the problem. When she looks back at me I can see her determination hardened into the tension around her mouth.

"You'll have to deal with Mada, I need to get away from here. At least you now know she's up to something."

"You're not going to stay? Help me out?"

She shakes her head: small, slow motions that barely move her eyes as she keeps them trained on my face.

"Okay," I say. "But have you managed to find out anything about what Bull and Spar were so frightened about?"

"Can't you feel it?" she asks. "Everything's – wrong. The air tastes too acidic, the gravity is too sharp. The energy around everything looks – well it looks warped and normal at the same time. Like there's two of everything and they're not quite in step."

"Yes, but why? How is this happening? Why here? Why now?"

"Kal, I don't know. All I know is that this isn't the world I remember – things have developed too quickly since my last time here."

"When was that?"

"Ten years ago. Just about the time that host of yours was giving Bull and Spar a hard time. They bought me through to keep him out of trouble."

"Trouble? You rode Sam?"

Such a history might explain why Sam knows me – I've not heard of a host being ridden twice before ...

"No," says Boude. "I rode one of young Sam's joyriding mates. Got the boy to crash and die while Sam was in the back of the car."

I can see memories if the incident rising up in Sam's mind, distracting him. I sieze the opportunity, finally blanking him to oblivion. The relief as I unclasp the muscles of the hand wrapped around the knife is sore, yet welcome.

I turn my concentration back to Boude.

"Can I ask a favour of you? Can you stay here for one more day?"

"Why?"

"I'm meeting Mada tomorrow; it would be really useful to have some support – just until I'm clearer about what she's up to."

The girl stares at the ground, considering the question. I can sense by the darkening of her aura that she's not keen on the idea.

"There's another thing you can maybe help me with, too."

"Maybe help you?"

"Well, it's this host I've got. He's ... he's playing up."

Boude looks up at me, a small smile on her face. "Playing up? How?"

"It's a long story. How about we go and get something to eat and I'll tell you about it?"
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Instance 21

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:21

In this dream I'm not running. Sam wants me to run: he wants to chase answers, discover knowledge in the manner he has grown used to. But I refuse to run.

The scenes that the subconscious side of Sam spills across my vision are stunningly detailed – rarely have I come across a host who dreams so vividly, brightly. He attempts to panic me into running from him in a supermarket with aisles packed full of products and produce; he tempts me to chase him across carparks, through fields bright with weeds in flower, around mazes of oversized urinals and sinks. Each venue merges with its predecessor gently, the old one folding as the new one colours and forms. Maybe this is some trick he's seen on the television or the cinema, recreated for his own pleasure during each new epiosode.

Episode is a good word, I think, to describe Sam's dreams. I've noticed before that he has a talent for recreating scenes and testing his reactions within them in different ways, or alternatively picking up a previous dream scenario and taking it forward. He dreams in stories, whereas most people seem to dream in instances and short sequences. He also dreams in full colour, and seemingly with his point of view behind his eyes rather than at a distance from his body.

But however wonderful his dreams might be, I'm not going to run through them just to feed his needs.

Again the scene changes, but this time to something new. We're sat together in the back of a speeding car, whose driver can be no more than fifteen or sixteen. The colour of the dream seems leached, drained, a monochrome setting in greys tinged with red. The driving boy with the shaved head is talking loudly but indistinctly – his words are not important, it seems.

"I remember when Lee died," says Sam.

This, then, must be a direct memory pulled from the archives, coloured by emotions rather than imaginations.

"Is that Lee?"

"Yeah, that's Lee. He's about to die again. I don't want to watch that. Take me somewhere else."

"Think of a different place," I tell him.

"I ... I can't. Not with this dream. I'll wake up before we hit the lamp post."

"You fancied Lee, yes? You wanted to kiss Lee? You wanted to hug and hold and strain and sweat and lick Lee?"

It takes a few seconds, but slowly the dreamscape dissolves, resolves into a space I remember from the last episode: the huge covered marketplace with its shops and stalls, thankfully coloured - though more of a watercolour than an acrylic. Close by I can see the steps leading down into darker regions. Sam seems to have lost his clothes during the transition, but it doesn't bother him.

"Can we go for a drink?"

"No," I say. "It's better for you if I stay away from your basement. Put some clothes on, yes?"

"How?"

A old woman is approaching, formally prim – a memory of a teacher, perhaps? - pushing a trolley full of shopping. As she passes me I reach into one of the bags and pull out the blue-and-white Millwall strip – shorts and shirt.

"That should do." I give him the clothes, which he carelessly pulls on.

"Lee didn't die, did he. Lee was murdered."

Normally I don't do dreams. Not in the Outer World; not while I'm riding a host. I like to keep myself separate from the host's subconscious concerns and worries, use the time for resting and thinking. Remembering. Oh, I'll maybe dip into the host's dreams during the first day or so, when I'm breaking them to my will, but other than that I prefer to work with the conscious, woken mind. Attempting to build cloaks and ruses during the dream state tends to backfire: things get twisted in the archetypes and primals when they're set up beneath the thinking surface.

Dreams are not a good place for essential maintenance, in my view.

"How do you mean, murdered?" I ask.

"It wasn't Lee who was driving that night. It was that girl, one of you. Lee had a monster in his head."

I say nothing.

Sam's staring at me now, his face up close to mine.

"What's it like, being a monster?"

I can feel the muscles of my mouth pull into a smile.

"The hours are crap, and we don't get sick leave."

This answer upsets him. "You're playing with me. Stop it!"

I shrug.

"Sometimes I think you're real," he says, "like you're an alien or a body snatcher."

The shop windows behind Sam change, transmuting into a set of haberdashery displays, various hats on their stands each lined in tin foil. In one window a small being with an oversized, lozenge head and huge eyes rearranges the tilt of a silver sombrero.

"Stress can do strange things to a person's mind," I say.

"No, you're real. A real alien monster inside my head." Beneath the array of hats appear a range of latex masks distressed into hallowe'en grotesque-ness.

"Even if I am real, I won't be here forever."

"Are you going to kill me?"

The question is posed without any emotional colour.

"Why would I kill you?"

"Lee's monster killed him. That's what that girl said. She got into his head and made him die – to teach me a lesson, she said. Why are you aliens interested in me? Am I special?"

"No," I tell him. "You were loved. Mums and dads – they do strange things to protect their kids from danger."

The alien in the shop window pulls a coffin to the front of the display, clambers into its long space.

"Was there an alien in my Dad's head, when he killed Mum? Did one of your monster mates make him hang himself?"

I don't speak for a while, and neither does Sam. The question hangs in front of us, a dim mist of yearning, grey fluff placed midway between our chests. With good reason, too: I can feel dangers within the question; I can taste unforseen consequences resulting from telling Sam the truth, and equally unknown outcomes arising from a poorly constructed ruse.

"Your Mum and Dad, they loved you, yes?"

Sam nods, slowly.

"If they had been alien monsters, all the time, since before you were born, would that change your feelings for them?"

"Maybe. I don't know." He looks to the ground, examines the marble floor between his feet. "Dad still murdered Mum."

I make a decision.

"No he didn't. Your Dad didn't kill your Mum. Someone else did that. Somebody else killed them."

Sam's eyes snap back to mine. "Another monster?"

I nod my head.

"Dad was normal, then. It wasn't his fault. Maybe he tried to stop the monster ..."

I shake my head. "He was gone already." Poor Bull! I haven't had time to grieve for you properly. "Your Dad was gone before you last saw him, when you last visited them both at home. What you saw was just ... just flesh, nothing more."

This information seems to numb him. I watch as he clasps his arms around his chest. I can see I'm going to have to do some subtle cloaking work in the morning, when he wakes up.

"Hey," I say. "Maybe you ought to go and have that drink now. Go see if Marc's downstairs, waiting for you."

End this dream for us both: I've got other things to worry about.
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Instance 22

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:24

After Marc leaves for work, all shiny black shoes and snazzy blue-on-blue shirt-and-tie lagged within the obligatory herringbone wool-woven to-the-knee overcoat, I recede and start planning the day as Sam clears dishes and cleans the kitchen.

Sam's been quiet, contemplative, since waking. He hasn't remembered much detail from the dream, but I can feel its implications beginning to knit new structures just beneath his conscious grasp.

I've already decided not to interfere. I don't know why: I should be rusing the man – planting suggestions, laying false tracks, beguiling him to my will, but something holds me back. Maybe I'm interested to see what will come of this – experiment, I suppose – this unexpected, evolving process within my host. I have the strongest feeling that Sam will somehow be able to help me in more ways than just providing the meat-and-bones carriage for my essential being.

In any case, I have more important things to do. While I worry about possible options for dealing with Mada and Boude, I watch through Sam's eyes as he fills the sink with suds and tips plates and cups into the water.

The band is warm today, almost hot, and seems to be clenching even tighter around the thumb. Sam ignores the irritation. Indeed he's ignored the band ever since the episode in his childhood bedroom when I first slipped it over the knuckle. This fact gives me hope: there's still a chance for the man to survive this misadventure relatively unharmed – as long as he takes no interest in the band.

I don't want Sam to die – he's Bull and Spar's son, beyond the mundane genetic sense: I can see that now. And when the time comes I think I'll be able to render back to Mescwar by taking an overdose of the tranquillisers the doctor prescribed for him; once I'm gone Marc – or someone – will be able to get him to hospital to have his stomach pumped, an irrational suicide attempt calibrated to cause the host minimum hurt.

I don't enjoy killing my hosts to render myself home. I couldn't walk out in front of a car, cold and calm, like Falc. Much better a brick to the back of the head, or the furies of a fever to melt the knots and chains between us.

Sam's walking out of the kitchen now; somebody is ringing the doorbell. The postman usually delivers at this time.

"Yes?" says Sam.

The voice that comes through the ansaphone grill catapults me away from my reverie.

"Wasiq! Let me in!"

It's the old woman's voice, Mada's host, but the authority behind the words is absolute. Without thought I break Sam's hold on his body, attempt to blank him as I press the red button next to the speaking grill to open the main door up to the apartment.

When he resists, I resort to begging: 'please Sam, we're both in danger now!' It's the first time I've attempted talking to him directly while he's awake. By the time Mada reaches the apartment door he has relaxed his opposition to my control, though he remains alert.

'Wasiq' means 'guardian', but in a language that's never been spoken on this earth - except by those of us thralled to the band, and then only when absolutely required.

When I open the door Mada is there, panting.

"Do we run, or hide?" I ask her.

She shakes her hand in front of her, palm outwards. "Stay! Let me come in!"

I take hold of her hand, guide her into the apartment towards the kitchen.

She looks exhausted, and scared.

"What's happened?"

"Shit!" she says, looking around her, "this body was never designed for the running. A seat would be good, yes, and some water." She grasps my shoulder, looks up into my face. " Did you not feel it? He near scortched me when he saw me!"

I shake my head, but suddenly the band's itchiness – edginess – seems significant.

"Talk to me, Mada. Tell me what I need to know. I'll get you some water."

But the only sounds she makes are gasps, pulling air down into her lungs to relieve her ribs and flesh of their exhaustions.
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Instance 23

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:26

"Describe him to me," I say. "All of him."

Mada is calmer now, thanks to my decision to mix gin into her water, and has settled on the sofa in front of the television. I can feel Sam's distaste for the woman in his throat, but I've resisted his desire to wipe everything she touches. - the smell of the street is strong on her; if she thinks I'm safe staying here, then Sam's going to be having a busy afternoon of cleaning house.

"I didn't get a good look at him, not with my eyes."

"Where did this happen?"

"I told you! At that station by the big bridge - the one they sold - the station with all those arches."

"London Bridge." Which explained her exhaustion if she had hurried all the way from there to Islington. "How long ago?"

"Like I know! You don't keep a time piece for long, living in the rough." She takes another large swig from her cup. "No more than an hour, maybe an hour and a half."

"And you didn't get a good look at him – was it a man?"

"No, too many people around: rush hour, heh? And yes, he was definitely a him; no mistaking those energies!"

She's talking about the aura around the man, I know, but even after all this time I still have problems understanding how she – and the others – can read an aura like a book, or a map.

"So there's a man," I continue, "who was at London Bridge Station sometime around eight, eight-thirty this morning, who managed to scare you enough to make you run all the way across town to warn me to do nothing."

She fixes a hard stare across her face, the narrowing scowl deepening the hue of her light blue eyes.

"This is not a time for doubt, Kal."

"Why are you here, Mada? No," I wave down the anger I can see growing in her shoulders. "I need an answer! A couple of days ago you told me that you and me were the only ones left in the Outer World: everyone else had deserted me, you said."

Whatever protest she had planned to voice seems to leach from her face; I have her attention now, though she stays silent.

"Boude's still here," I tell her. "She's the last of the dozen that Bull bought through when he went mad."

She sighs, lets the tension ebb out of her shoulders wrapped in their dirty cardigan.

"Is that the problem?"

I nod.

"Idiot!" she says, though there's no anger in her voice. "I didn't come through that time. I'm the one what bought Bull and Spar through – handed the band over to Bull for safe keeping while I went out to have a bit of fun."

"I don't believe you."

"Don't have to believe me, lad. It's all in the band, for those that can see it."

"Which I can't – as you well remember!"

"Then you'll have to trust me on this, yes? I've been riding this body for over fifty years now – she's done me well, I can tell you! Can you at least tell how long a person has been riding their host?"

She doesn't wait for me to shake my head. "Course not - they ain't great at the learning, not them in Mescwar. You need to see the colours in the flicker at the edge of the heat: the deeper and wider the hue at the base of the flicker, the longer the host's been ridden."

Against my better judgement, I squint my face to bring her aura into clearer focus: now I know what I'm looking for I can see the colours she's talking about – a deep emerald band close to the edge of the flickering borders, like a ribbon in the breeze.

"Like you say, they don't teach us much in Mescwar, not about the Outer World."

"Most have forgotten it even exists," she says.

"So I'm going to have to trust you. What were you doing at London Bridge, anyway?"

She offers me a brief nod. "Trust is good, yes, but earned trust is better. I was checking out vampires."

"Huh? You said they were harmless."

"They can have their uses. I like a good crowd – easy to not be noticed in a crowd – and the vampires like crowds too; lots of energy being thrown off in a crowd which they can sip at, lots of frustrations gathered under the one roof – it's like a big, free, safe soup kitchen for them."

Sam's picked up on the word 'vampire': I suppress the images he calls up of fangs and opera cloaks.

"So how do you use them?"

"I count 'em. They tend to cluster round stations when things are going well in the world. Wondered if maybe the monkeys were picking up on what we've been feeling."

"And?" I learned long ago not to bother with the 'monkey' word – people like Mada just don't understand the concept of denigration or how hurtful it can be to be on the receiving end of it.

"No more than the usual numbers. Stupid idea, now I think on it."

"At least we know the dread is specific to us, then."

"Some of us, heh? Maybe Falc was doing something right when he decided you'd be a good guardian for this time. You got any more of this special water, lad?"

I reach over and take the mug out of her hand, head towards the kitchen for a refill.

"So you're at the station, counting vampires," – be quiet, Sam! – "when you spotted this man with his aura in the crowds, yes?"

"Near piddled my panties when that happened, I can tell you!"

"Why?"

"Him, he weren't supposed to be there!"

"You know him?"

I look over to see the old woman nodding her head.

"Heh! I remember that one, yes I do!"

"So he's of the band; why would he be a threat to us?"

"Because," she says, looking directly at me, "he's supposed to be lost!"

Without volition, I feel a twist of excitement in my chest, taste a word start its formation in my throat: could Bull have dodged the grasp of the Spoy stone, maybe hopped into a new host?

But before I can utter his name, she continues.

"His name was Herrow, back then. He was solid, reliable. A good friend to me."

"Back when?" I ask, handing her the refilled mug.

"Back before the band broke itself. Before we lost Tintuun, when the big ice covered this city. He ain't supposed to be here! None of 'em are, not from Tintuun!"
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Instance 24

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:28

Rosy Tintuun, lost before my time.

Hearing the old woman speak the name out loud brings memories back to me. Harsh memories. I feel them embrace me, carry me into an unwanted reverie.

I had been so proud when my father agreed to take me on the journey. My mother had been less keen on the idea: even though the trek would take no more than a fortnight to the henge by the sea and back again, she worried about the dangers, argued that I was too young. Father told her that it would be a good education – see the world beyond our valley, learn how to hunt in new forests, trade and negotiate with other families. The elders agreed with him, leaving Mother no choice except to daub fresh warding patterns in stinking woad across my back and cheeks.

She didn't give up, though. She made father agree to take her along as hearth-keeper and tree-seer; she had the backing of the valley's priestess, so he had no choice in the matter, really, not once the priestess had blessed the suggestion.

The danger was not in the travelling. Many folk travelled in those days, to the rings and henges for the barter, or the springs and wells for the worship. And father was known to the families and elders that lay between our valley and the henge by the sea. No, the danger was that which waited for us at the land's edge.

We went to collect a magician: a trade which had cost the folk of our valley a fortune in hides and bones and flints.

I might have been young, but I wasn't stupid. The trade had been debated for over a year, man against man, priestess against elder, but in the end the profit of the trade had won out against the danger it bought to the valley. It wasn't as if this was the first magician to come to our shores, and the profits they offered were immense.

Metal. The magicians had the know of it.

Stronger than the bones we shaped into scrapers, or the flints we knapped into daggers and arrows. Harder than the rocks it was sung from. Everlasting, shape-forming, glamour-full. The magicians even wove thin sheets of the stuff, yellow like the barley, into their hair: I'd seen that with my own eyes!

I remember our days of walking, keeping the ever broadening river to our right until at some point the southern bank disappeared, drowning the horizon in grey waves. We hunted gulls with my sling, and the small deer that hid in the woods above the marshes. With permission from the families who tended their areas, we gathered the last of the hazelnuts, already being buried under new foliage – the equinox had gone and the new year was bursting across the world.

And then we were at the circles of the henge, a little inland from the foreshore, wood-built: a good place to trade with the folk across the sea. Payment for the trade had already been delivered – it took many weeks to transport that amount of hide and bone and flint – and our magician was waiting for us, with his companions.

One of them was an astonishing sight: a huge man with bright red hair, coarse across his head and his face.

"He's cursed," Mother had said on seeing him. "An abomination to the ancestors. He wears a fire on his shoulders!"

"These magicians, they worship the hot flame," said my Father. "No harm has come of it yet. Fire, too, has it's place in the world."

Oh, Mother!

I should have loaded my sling with sharp flint, let fly the spinning edge into the face of that murderer. But I was too young, too young, and knew nothing of danger beyond the charging boar.

Our magician, he wore a metal amulet , dangled from reed-string to rest over his heart.

One of its pretty stones was already missing.
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Instance 25

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:29

This is my soil.

These are my waters.

Bull told me that, after the man with red hair turned mad and slaughtered his companions, my Mother and Father, even the magician from over the sea.

This is my soil. These are my waters.

"How was Tintuun lost?" I ask Mada. "I've never heard the story."

Her eyes widen, but she manages to keep any comments she might have about the stupidity of my stone-folk to herself.

"I'll be needing stronger water than this if you want to hear that story."

I take the hint. Marc keeps a supply of his favourite gin under the sink. I'll let Sam row with him about the theft later.

"Were you here, in the Outer World, when it happened?"

The old woman sighs, lets her gaze unfocus as she recalls the story. "No," she says as I walk over to the sofa, gin bottle to hand. "I know only the rumour of gossip about what happened. It aches the skull to dig out these threads, let me tell you! Nobody's talked about it for so long ..."

"I thought it was a tabboo or something." Which is true: every time I've asked about the missing stones others have told me not to worry about them; I gave up asking after a couple of hundred years.

Mada pulls her cardigan more tightly around her shoulders with her free heand, though the apartment's central heating is turned up high.

"Tabboo – yes, I know this word. It's not tabboo; more like – unlucky – to talk out loud about it, heh?"

"Since when have you believed in luck?"

"Since I decided I didn't want no shit-spawned Power interfering with me, specially here in the Outer World!"

"So this has to do with the Powers?"

She nods her head sharply. As if in response to her movement I feel a jolt of adrenaline hit my stomach, sketch out quickly to the end of each limb.

I'm not sure I want to hear this story.

But I need to know what's going on.

"Him today, he wasn't tainted by a Power, was he?"

"What, Herrow? No. No sign of that."

I want to ask more questions, but I block them before they reach the air. Instead I offer Mada silence, wait for her to tell me the story.
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Instance 26

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:32

I can hear the gentle drones of Mada's snoring as I walk Sam over to the computer desk on the other side of the room, near the window.

She's given me a lot to think about.

The computer is new – it's Marc's computer really: Sam's main interest in the machine before my arrival seemed to be playing games and occasionally visiting gay porn sites. I let him switch the machine on and watch it warm up.

Where to start?

There's no way I can verify the main thrust of her story – even if the conflicts between the various Powers had left any physical evidence, there would be no written record of it.

What would the physical evidence look like?

I've been told many different stories about a great inundation: Dardanus; Deucalion; Dwyfan and Dwyfach; Tumbanot; Bergalmir; Manu, son of the Sun; Lip-long; Ziusudra; Atrahasis; Yima; Noah; Du-hu; Pawpaw Nan-chung with his sister Chang-ko – all building their boats and rafts and hollowed-out logs to save themselves and a few others and various animals from the rising waters ... but Mada was adamant that it was ice that troubled the outer world when the stone was lost, not water. Floods came later, she said.

The magic of the machine takes its time to bring light to the stiff, warm, flat sheet in front of me. Sam has his own account, separate from Marc's and guarded with passwords, which is just as well given some of the websites he frequents; if I had the skin for it, I'd blush!

Luckily, Sam has no interest in such places at the moment; I can taste the words he's planning to type into the searching box when it arrives on the screen: 'vampires' and 'energy'. I take a few moments to ruse his thoughts, plant a desire within him to investigate 'ice age' and 'maps' instead. Then we wait.

Mada hadn't talked of ice, though.

"We were away from all that," she said. "It was a warm place I came to, on my last visit before it all happened. The monkeys were making pots and worshipping the endless oceans that gave birth to the sun. Air was heavier, too: the seas are much higher now."

Once the link list arrives, I let Sam go to work. His preference is to look at climate change stuff, which is everywhere – each link talking about how the world is heating up and everyone is going to die. Interestingly, this seems to be a relatively new phenomenon; some of the links he tries talk about the imminent arrival of a new ice age, though these are older reports. The conflicting views don't surprise me: people seem to like their prophecies to be resolutely apocalyptic.

I take more interest when he finally locates a series of maps charting changes in plant distributions over time. The language is too technical for me – I'm happiest knowing the location of a rich grove of hazelnuts – but the maps, they seem to make sense.

One map in particular shows the world around thirteen thousand years ago. There's no England on this map, no Ireland; the coastlines have been drawn to include them with the continental mass to the east. And there's a pale blue mass reaching down from the top of the image to cover much of that area.

Sam enlarges the map when I suggest it to him, uses the plastic contraption on the desk to navigate south and east, looking for greener colours.

The green band is much narrower than on the equivalent maps of the now, centred on the equator. Three areas look interesting: the eastern coast of South America, and of Africa. And also a great peninsula of land to the south of China, joining Siam and Malaya to the Spice Isles of Java and Sumatra, Borneo and Celebes, and northwards around the South China Sea to - possibly - include the Philippine Isles.

I send Sam on another search: pottery philippines ice age – a stab in the dark, but the volume of information contained in this modern magical network never fails to amaze me. Sure enough, the second link on the search results leads to a page that informs me that 'monkeys' were indeed using pottery in Japan and in Burma at that time. The earliest date for the Phillipines is eight thousand years ago, but then the earlier shards would almost certainly be under water, what with the melting ice caps and everything.

A quick check tells me that the oldest African pot seems to come from the wrong side of the continent, two thousand years too late.

How do they come up with these dates, for a bit of old clay?

I don't have time to worry about that – Sam's beginning to think about vampires again. A second check on South America offers nothing useful.

Which means that parts of Mara's story make sense: the place; the time.

"Why were the Powers fighting?" I asked the old woman.

"Who knows? Does the flea ask the dog why it eats mutton instead of rabbit? Does the rock ask the sea why it runs away twice a day? The Powers argued. There was a terrible conflict between them, here in the outer world. Fatal energies were drawn out of the band, and in the end the band broke."

"And when things calmed down, Tintuun was already lost."

"That's what I was told, heh? Once the Powers had withdrawn, the band brought through new guardians. Since that time our only work has been to keep the band hidden – hidden from any danger!"

I look over at the woman, now asleep on the sofa, mug still in her hand. There's a little gin and water left in the cup: when I suggest it to Sam he quickly stands and strides over to rescue it from falling to the carpet. I have no objection when he drains it, nor when he walks back to the computer to start learning about vampires.

I'm wondering about ice ages; it seems like a very long time since the outer world has had one. Are we overdue a very cold snap?

How powerful are the Powers? How dangerous is the band that even now tightens its grip around my/Sam's thumb?

I feel my concerns shiver down my host's spine. These questions are too big for me, I decide.

Learning about little problems like vampires might not be such a bad idea after all.
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Instance 27

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:34

"It wasn't his fault," I say. "I realise that now."

"I know," she says.

The world around me is a pattern of silvers and blacks – a moonlit world, not the drained imaginings of memory. I'm lying on my belly in the underbrush, about a dozen long paces from the dark glow of the hearth, and the shape of my Mother beyond.

The big man with red hair has moved on, searching for monsters. The others have scattered, those that remain alive. Somewhere out there is my Father, possibly hiding like me, though in my young heart I can feel the certainty beyond the terror that he would not hide: rather he is already sorting through his flints, fixing a sharp head to a spear haft, or an axe handle, preparations necessary to bring down this giant and rescue me from my unmanly terror.

Another scream erupts to my left. I hear the sound of flight and pursuit heading again towards the clearing. Through my teeth I chant a song of calming, bring the ease-full waters of the goddess's springs at the head of our valley into my head. My unplanned impulse is simple: when the giant breaks into the clearing I shall run at him, trip him up with my body so that my father's task can be made simple.

Courage comes to those who seek it, the Elders tell us. I shall seize my courage with shaking bones.

Closer comes the hunt, louder the shouts. I shake my head, pull myself away from the cool leafmould to bring my legs beneath my belly, ready to sprint and lunge.

He breaks into my sight. I have no thoughts in my ears as I launch myself forward. Nor do I have a scream in my throat. Like the wolf I sprint towards the runner's legs, like the boar I curl my head down to my chest as I push myself into the quarry's path.

The impact is harsh against my back; a foot lands in my face as the body tumbles. Behind us I hear a foreign roar, a triumph of a cry as the man with red hair sees his victim fall to the ground. As the spear descends, I detach from my boy's flesh and watch myself faint.

"He was bitten by a dog," I say. "Before he even stepped ashore, he was doomed to this madness. They call it rabies, now. A capsule of evil intent packaged in proteins and passed from saliva to blood and flesh, and nerve, slowly inching its way towards the brain day after day until there is no choice but to succumb to the madness."

"I know," she says.

I am not unconscious long. Just long enough for the foreign demon to finish his slaughter and head downhill towards the marshes and the river beyond. Even so I remain motionless, refusing to move a single joint until the last of the man's tearing screams are swallowed by the sprouting woods.

There are words to be said, I know, for the man who lies still beside me. I don't have time to utter them. There is a cold numbness within me, an unreality, and alongside them there is an anger. The words I want to say are for my Father's ears, not for the luckless dead. I stand up, look over the hearth stones at my Mother's unmoving form. And then I turn my back on her.

There are several bodies scattered in the surrounding copse, each bearing a black slick of blood, shimmered by moonlight. My Father's corpse is the fourth.

"He was a good man, my Father," I say. "There was nothing he could do. We were all asleep when the madness came to the giant; we thought we were in a safe place. He wasn't running away: he would never run away!"

"I know," she says.

I have no idea how long I stand looking down at the corpse. My search through the copses, once it resumes, is slower than before.

When I find the magician, he is barely alive. He's taken several blows to the head, and the giant's shorter spear has pinned his shoulder to the bole of the tree behind him. He doesn't share our words, our tongue, but I understand his feeble gesture. I crouch and move towards him, without a clue as to what I can do to help him.

He reaches out with his free arm, quicker than should have been possible. I dodge back, remain out of grasping reach. He smiles, a sad smile, the movements of muscle within the face bring a dribble of blood to the angle of his lips.

Again he gestures, slower this time, and nods his head. Against my better judgment, I comply with his request. As his smile broadens, the blood at his mouth becomes a stream, a ferret sniffing a trail through the grey whiskers down towards his chin.

He doesn't grab me. Instead, he reaches for the talisman that hangs on a weave of grasses around his neck. I watch as he hauls at the string, pulls the talisman up and over his head until with one final grunt the necklace swings free. He spreads his fingers wide within the loop, pushes the noose towards me.

I remember thinking: this is a gift. He wants me to take his magic back to our valley. I lower my head and allow him to place his hand on the crest of my skull, let the string fall around my neck, let the amulet dangle ahead of my heart.

"It was no gift," I say. "It was my doom."

My gift should have been the giant's longer spear, protecting my Mother from his thrust, rather than scurrying away from its tender knap.

"I know," she says.

"Find me!" she says.
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Instance 28

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:35

I feel calm.

Sam is still engrossed in his search for psychic vampires; he's found some impressive web pages on the subject from what I can see, though I can't vouch for the veracity of the content. I can review the information he retains in his memory later tonight.

Mada is still sleeping. She has an impressive ability to vary her snore through at least two octaves, though the volume remains thankfully subdued.

Why do I feel calm?

There's things I need to do, and things that Sam has to do. They don't seem that important to me at the moment, but rather necessary: tasks undertaken to clear the way for a better purpose.

Sam has to bury his Mum and Dad. Normally, I wouldn't have to worry about this sort of thing, but seeing as these are the vehicles that once housed Bull and Spar, and given Bull's disasterous render back to the band, and the fact I will never see him again – well, some sort of ceremony to mark the passing of the flesh feels right in this instance.

Marc, Sam's lover, has been dealing with all the formalities. I wouldn't have known where to start and Sam is still – partly - on the medication to help him deal with his grief. But apart from formally identifying the bodies, there's been little for Sam or Marc to do.

There's going to be a coroner's inquest into both deaths, but the post mortems and the police enquiries 'indicate' that this was a case of murder-suicide: the father taking a frying pan to the back of the mother's head, and then hanging himself in remorse, or depression, or madness. Meaning that the inquest is likely to be a formality, which in turn led to the coroner issuing the death certificates, which allowed the deaths to be registered, which allowed Marc to take Sam to the undertaker to choose a good coffin for his Mum and a cheap one for his Dad.

I've always said a blow to the back of the head is a good way to die. It's certainly my preferred choice or rendering back home.

Sam's decided to burn the bodies. His mother's funeral is in three days time. For all I know, Bull's host has already been cremated: when the undertaker asked about the arrangements, the only request Sam had was whether he could piss into the open casket.

Marc has taken the occasion as a good reason to go shopping for completely new outfits for them both. In black. Matching in every detail, I expect.

Something's happened. I shouldn't be feeling so calm.

I've got to go and meet with Boude. She was desparate to render back to Mescwar the last time we met. I'm going to let her take some of Sam's tranquillisers, see if that effects a render without killing the little girl host. These modern day tranquillisers might prove to be even better than a brick to the back of the head.

There was something I was going to discuss with Boude before she leaves. I remember being worried and confused that she and Mada were both here in the outer world, when I was expecting only one of them to be. Now Mada has explained herself I don't need to worry about that.

There was something else, too, something else about ... about ..."

Sam. Something about Sam. He knows I'm in his skull. He's fighting my control of him. Fighting a monster that can cloak his thoughts, ruse his plans ... ride him ...

I shouldn't be calm. I feel calm, yet I know I should be feeling – uncalm. Yes, not calm, but rather angry. Very angry!

The host has a leech. And the leach has a ... a worm!

I slam through Sam's thoughts, push him aside without finesse or care.

"Mada. Mada! Wake up!"

I'm shouting as I rush over to the old woman, grab her by the shoulder and shake her hard.

"Mada! I need your help now!"
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Instance 29

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:37

Now I can taste the ruse; I can appreciate the delicacy of its construction.

"Slow down, lad!" says Mada. "Explain it to me again."

"It's simple enough, Mada. Someone – something – is trying to ride me."

"While you're riding this one here?"

"Yes."

"At the same time?"

"Yes!"

"It doesn't make sense."

"I know that, but I also know the fact of it. Someone was trying to ruse me, just now!"

"Step back a minute: let's have a proper look at you, heh?"

I do as she asks. As much as the woman may infuriate me at times, I trust her knowledge, and her skill. She doesn't have to squint and unfocus her eyes to inspect the detail of my heat.

"It makes no sense: there's only one aura around the host, and that one is definitely yours. But you're sincere in your belief, too. Why?"

"I've been ridden before," I tell her. "I can taste the effects."

"All I can taste is the gin around these teeth. When did this happen?"

"It was a long time ago. The first time I saw the band. Something used my memory of that time – my parent's death and the death of the guardian – to plant suggestions in my thoughts."

"Okay," she says, straightening her eyes and settling herself upright on the sofa. "I know you're different to us, that you were a monkey before the band snapped you up. Yes, I remember that story now. You were the one who caught Grussa napping, heh? The host who rode his rider straight back to the stones."

I nod, turn and sit down next to her.

"Monkeys are too different! Different ways, different means. Not many monkeys find a home in the band."

"I know."

"How long have you known about this, this visitor?"

I look down at the carpet for a moment, notice the street-grime marks Mada's dirty shoes have made on it.

"I think ... I've been aware of something since Falc brought me through. Yes. But I was assuming that it had something to do with the threat he was worried about. You and Boude, and Falc, you were all talking about the strange feeling, but I wasn't feeling anything much out of the ordinary. Except a general unease, and maybe a faint, metallic taste."

She's nodding, agreeing with me.

"So it's possible, yes?"

"Possible for you, maybe. For us, it would be different."

"What do you mean?"

She answers with a question of her own. "What was the ruse?"

I replay images from the recent past in my mind. This time, they have the comforting monochrome of memory, and lack the intensity of the moonlit original.

"She was showing me my past ..."

"She?"

"Yes." Though the revelation shocks me. "It's female, and I get the impression I know her from somewhere. She's – helping me? No, making me relive that particular memory. She's saying nothing ... hardly anything. The ruse – it comes right at the end, when the magician gives me the band."

Find me!

"She wants me to look for her, find her."

"How can you find her if you don't know who she is?"

"I don't know," I say. "I think I don't want to know."
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Instance 30

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:40

We're sitting outside a Turkish cafe in Stokie, as everybody calls this part of the Lonely City. Or it could be a Kurdish cafe – the Turks and Kurds have been at each other's throats for decades, back in their own lands, but somehow they seem to co-exist in peace in this space. The Lonely City has that effect on people: this is a place of refuge, of business, of reinvention. An oasis in world affairs where all tribes agree to an informal truce, whatever their differences. Most of the time, anyway.

The cafe owner was not keen on letting us inside his establishment, and to be honest I can't blame him. Both Boude and Mada have been living on the streets; they carry the marks and aromas that encourage people to look the other way as they pass. Not that this street is particularly busy this afternoon.

We walked here from Islington, mostly in silence. Boude had been wary of Mada at first – I remember they have a history of arguments between them dating back centuries. I hadn't wanted to explain what had happened in the apartment to her, not until I'd had more time to think things through for myself; thankfully both women seemed happy with my suggestion that we walk rather than talk, and our aimless wanderings had bought us here to this table and the three cooling mugs of tea on the table between us.

"This reminds me of better times," says Mada, checking out the range of köfte, döner, börek, dolme and gözleme dishes listed in the menu taped to the big display window, just above Boude's head. "I've never really enjoyed being so far north, but Bull and Spar were too settled to wander much."

I know what she's talking about: we're all tied to the band by its strange energies. To move a distance from it invokes nothing but pain, an anguish in the heat of us that is enough to render us back to the stones with no outside assistance. My limit is about thirty kilometers before the pain reaches a level sufficient to break my will.

"Have you told Mada about your little problem?" asks Boude, her hands wrapped around the mug as she sips the over-sweetened tea within it.

I shake my head. Mada seems to be concentrating on the progress of a drunken man beyond the traffic on the other side of the road.

"Then what's this all about?"

"There's several things," I say.

"Tell me about the little problem," says Mada, still watching the drunk.

I shrug my shoulders – there seems to be no danger around us, no harm done by delaying the important stuff.

"It's this host of mine. You know who he is?"

"I told them they were being stupid, having a kid."

"Something you'd never do?" asks Boude.

"Something I've learned not to do. It's a lot easier to rid the host of its babbies, nowadays. Less blood; less questions."

Boude keeps her head down, close to the mug.

"So? You got landed in their kid. Monkeys is monkeys, heh? You ride 'em till the job's done."

"This one, he's ... well, he's aware of me."

Mada switches her full attention to me. "How?"

"How should I know? I know it's happened before, to others; I thought Boude might have heard of ways of dealing with the problem."

"Crush the little bugger; extinguish him!" Already her attention is moving back to the drunken man. "Keep the memories, of course. They can be useful sometimes, heh?"

"I can't," I tell her. "I was a host, once, remember?" Even though I'm talking with a normal tone, I can feel a stone of anger forming just beneath my|Sam's heart.

Boude, too, is watching the drunk. "Is he doing what I think he's doing?" she asks.

"He's very clever, ain't he," says Mada.

"What are you two talking about?"

"That drunk across the road, with the stripy tall hat and knotty hair," says Boude. "Well, he isn't drunk."

"No?"

"Nope," agrees Mada. "He's feeding. Each time he goes near someone, they let off a little bolt of fear. He's very good at catching the flares."

"Like he knows exactly what he's doing," says Boude, taking another sip of tea.

"An intelligent vampire, that one. You sure you can't see it, Kal? Try squeezing them eyes, like when you were checking my tenure heat."

I shake my head: I know my limits. "Have you ever had a vampire as a host?"

"Yes," says Boude. "I don't enjoy it. That's when you've got to work on the cloaking and rusing and spinning. The host has to get the energy from somewhere, and I've never been able to figure out how they do it."

"Slippery buggers, vampires. Make me itch!"

"But they're still people," I say.

Mada drains her tea noisily, looks into the mug as if hoping it will refill itself. I take the hint, go into the cafe to order a second round.

When I return I can see my companions have been talking about something. Because of the way they stop and look at me as I step through the door, I know they've been discussing me.

"So when are you planning to render me?" I ask.

After a short silence, Boude smiles. "We've decided to let you stay."

"You're scared of what might replace me?"

I can see the look of confusion build around the girl's eyes.

"We ain't talked about that, yet," says Mada. "I'm more worried about my man at the station."

"Are you sure of it? That he came from the ... the lost stone?"

"Sure as can be, lass. He ain't been near the band for a long while."

I'd been thinking about this during our ramble to Stokey. "If you're right, doesn't that mean there's another band nearby?"

Another guardian.

Mada shrugs, reaches out to take the hot china in her wool-gloved hand.

"Don't see why not. I don't have the know of how the band works; none do now, not since Spoy turned grey."

"Apart from the Powers," adds Boude.

"I don't want to think of the Powers," I say.

"Why not?"

"Because our man here's scared he's got a Power in his head. Ain't that right, Kal?"

"Is it that obvious?"

"Can read you like a book, lad. But I don't reckon that's the truth of it."

"You're not making sense, neither of you."

I let Mada explain this morning's other incident to Boude, let my eyes wander around the street scene. The sky above us is murky with the clouds, cutting down on the ambient light, muting the colours of the early rush-hour cars and vans and buses parading along the road. There's more people around now, too, brisk in their solitary walks as they head to the shops, or the pubs, or home.

"We need to make a move," I say after a while. "This place will be shutting soon."

"This presence of yours," says Boude, "how do you know it's a woman? How do you know you know her?"

"I don't," I admit. "It's just a feeling. I caught the ruse, but maybe this 'visitor' of mine managed to spin me unawares?"

I learned about the various strategies a rider will use on the host during the time I first bore the band, back in the age of flint blades and metal-singing magicians, though I only learned the words and terms later. Blanking is obvious – Sam was aware he was being blanked even before I pushed the band over our left thumb: he'd said as much to Marc. Cloaking – amending the host's memories – was less obvious, but rarely done by my rider with sufficient finesse to keep me ignorant of the changes; knowing what I know now of the possibilities, I'm confident I haven't been cloaked.

Rusing was more difficult to spot, that first time around. A good ruse leaves the host convinced that the planted suggestion is entirely their own idea, and played well the strategy can be the most effective method of riding him or her. It was the metallic taste along the sides of my tongue that used to warn me I was being rused, that ideas I had at such times were not necessarily my own. It was the memory of a metallic taste that warned me this morning that something was wrong.

In the end my first rider had resorted to spin – the confusion of my senses – to assert control. Cleverly deployed, spin can help reinforce a cloak or a ruse. Grussa – the unlucky occupant of my flesh after the magician hung the band around my neck – was incompetent, spinning me too hard before I regained control of my mind and blanked her to oblivion. My synaesthesia here in the outer world (I make an effort to collect interesting new concepts on each visit) is a direct consequence of her clumsiness.

I could have been spun and rused at some point in the past few days, or weeks, to give me the impression that my guest was female and known to me.

"So it could be an influence from the lost stone?" Boude directs the question at Mada.

"I don't know. Possibly." she says.

I stand up, start preparing myself for the walk back to the apartment. "If we assume that this man is like us, then maybe we ought to assume the lost stone has made its own band."

"Don't make sense, lad."

"Not unless this other band got to your host before you were brought through," says Boude.

"It's worth thinking about," I say. "Do you still want to render back home?"

When the girl shakes her head, I feel a shot of unexpected relief lift from my chest. I hadn't realised how much I was hoping Boude would stay.

"Cheers boss, cheers a lot," mumbles the not-so-drunken Rasta-man as he ambles past our group. "Gotta light for me fag, boss?"
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Instance 31

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:42

"What do you think you were doing, bringing her here?"

"She needed some help. I don't see what the problem is."

"The problem, Sam, is that she's a kid. In our home. People might talk, for Christ's sake!"

"Is that it? Is that what you're worried about? What the bloody neighbours think?"

"You know what it's like! People talk. Especially when it comes to kids! Child protection and paedophilia; they don't think, Sam. They open their mouths and talk and make up stories in their own heads and tell each other about it and then someone will be calling the Social or the Police or ..."

"What are you talking about, Marc? That's ... that's sick, that is! You think I brought her here so I could fuck her?"

"What am I supposed to think! I walk in the house and there she is! Naked! In our fucking bathroom!"

"She's taking a bath! Of course she's going to be naked! And if you'd agreed to let me put a lock on the door you wouldn't have walked in on her like that."

"So it's my fault now, that there's a naked child in our bathroom!"

"Oh, great! Come on Marc, fan those flames. I enjoy the smell of burning martyr before dinner!"

Silence. Retorts forming and dying in throats.

"You know what? It does stink in here. Look at the state of the carpet; scuffs and scrapes – what is that? Mud? Shit?"

"I'll clean it up. I always clean up the mess: my mess and your mess and ..."

"That's not the sodding point. You don't even know who she is?"

"Of course I know who she is. Do you think I'd let a complete stranger into the house?"

"You've done it before! What about that plasterer you picked up last year ..."

"Oh here we fucking go ..."

"It's a fact, Sam: you've got form ..."

"I'm not going to fuck the girl, Marc! I know her!"

"How? How do you know her?"

"Her Mum knows my Mum! They go to ... used to go to bingo together. I've known ..."

Her name's Boude, Sam.

"I've known Boude since she was in fucking nappies! So she's having problems with her parents, something about boyfriends and there was a big fight ... she was wandering around the streets, no coat, nothing. She'd just walked out in what she was wearing. I told her she could come and stay here for a few days ..."

"Without asking me first? Jesus Christ, Sam, we're cremating your bloody Mother in three days time! We don't need this ... Sam? Sam. No, you don't! You don't go fucking moody on me right in the middle of this discussion!"

"She. Needs. My. Help! So piss off down the pub or something and throw a couple of gins down your neck and start realising that – Boude – is going to be sleeping on our sofa for the next few days!"

Silence, interspersed with an occasional, forced clatter to signal continuing volumes of anger between the combatants.

"Has she phoned her parents yet?"

"Haven't asked her."

"They ought to know ... they ought to be told that she's safe, not harmed, you know ..."

"That's up to her."

"She's a kid. Kids don't understand ..."

"She's old enough to make that decision herself."

A shorter silence.

"What about food? We haven't ..."

"I've been shopping. Look, everything will be fine! It's only for a few days, and she really does need our help – she just needs a little bit of space to work things out in her head. She's been sleeping rough, Marc! At her age! I'll talk to her, help her sort out this problem with her Mum. It's something for me to do, yes?"

A moment's silence, intense.

"You're such fucking hard work at times!"

"I know I am," says Sam. "And still you love me."
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Instance 32

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:53

"He's a strange one, that one. Are you going to make me eat this cardboard shit or fix me some toast?"

"The cardboard shit is called 'cornflakes', thought this supermarket own-brand stuff isn't as good as the real thing. What's wrong with Marc?"

However many times I come through to the outer world, and see others wearing different hosts, it still gives me the shivers to see a friend operating through an entirely inappropriate host. Boude does not belong in the body of a twelve year old girl. She's too athletic, hard-nosed and raunchy – trying to project those attributes through a juvenile face just confuses me.

Mada, on the other hand, is entirely fitted to the looks of her current host. Old, abrupt, grumpy, knowledgable about too many things – and keen to make you realise it, uncaring of herself or her surroundings. Delicacies are wasted on that one.

"I don't know. It's like the pair of them are trying to be the normal, contented couple. That Marc wants to be a husband to you."

"To Sam, not me. I doubt I'm his type. Anyway, things have changed – men can marry each other nowadays, or almost marry."

"That's a change?"

"They used to hang sodomites a few hundred years back. I remember watching a couple of lads swing for it, last time I was here."

Boude shrugs her shoulders, reaches across the table for the carton of milk.

"They never used to have problems – all the lads together guarding their goats while the older men had the choice of the women. You was doing some good work last night."

"How do you mean?"

"That argument. Takes a lot of delicate riding to convince the close ones that the host isn't going mad."

"Oh, that wasn't me," I say. "That was all Sam."

"Really? Not even a ruse to bring me back here?"

I shake my head, lean forward with my elbows resting across the breakfast bar.

"He seems to have taken an interest in you."

She spoons cornflakes into her mouth, grimaces when she chews.

"So what's the plan?"

"I don't know," I say. "Unless you can think of something to do we're going to have to trust Mada."

She grunts through toasted crumbs of corn. I'm tempted to ask her why she doesn't get along with Mada, but the milk is losing its chill and beginning to soak into the flakes in my bowl. I pick up the spoon and start eating.

After a while, she says: "I don't think we can hide."

I look across the table into the girl's eyes. I don't know why. They are the host's eyes, not Boude's - a mix of mid and dark browns contained by a thin deep grey border, all settled within the surrounding reflective milk of the white. They lack the spark of Boude. She once told me that if you look closely, you can see signs of the rider within the eye; I've never seen it: eyes are eyes to me. I have to rely on the heat mantled around the shoulders and head to know she's in there, somewhere.

"Why not? Why can't we hide?"

"Because of the history."

"What, the way the band was broken?"

"No," she says, resting her chin on her hand. "What happened afterwards."

"You know something about it?"

She closes her eyes, as if thinking.

"Some of it, yes. The lost stone ... it's a threat to us." She opens her eyes again, stares at me. "Don't ask me why. All I know is that when the other stone shows up, the guardian runs. Long journeys, more often than not."

I consider the information.

"Mada seemed very surprised about seeing that man at the station, she was panicking when she got here yesterday morning. But she said there was no need to run. 'He's supposed to be lost' – that's what she told me."

"She's tricky, that one. She'll only tell you what she thinks you need to know."

"That's just stupid. The only reason we're here in the outer world is to keep the band safe. Why would she play games?"

"Because she can, I think. Because it amuses her. I don't know why."

I stand up, walk into the kitchen area to make us a hot drink. I ignore Marc's expensive perculating machine – too slow and pretentious – reach into the depths of the overhead cupboard to retrieve Sam's secret stash of instant coffee.

"So we're supposed to run away whenever the missing stone turns up, yes? So why did Bull go and bring through a dozen people when he first realised Tintuun was back in town?"

"I see your point," she agrees. "The guardian can't go far when there's too many of us out and about."

She confirms my suspicions: moving too far from the band doesn't just hurt the rider, it hurts the guardian too. It's when that happens that the guardian will place flesh within the loop of the band, to dull the pain.

The band likes to keep us together, as well as close.

"Have you been in the outer world when the band's crossed paths with its lost stone before?"

"Mmm. Just before, I think." She slips from her stool, brings the milk over to where I'm preparing the coffee. "And it didn't feel like it does now, no feeling of dread."

"So Bull was afraid of something else?"

"Maybe. Maybe the fear has brought the lost stone to us?"

"Dammit!" I say as the kettle finally comes to the boil. "I thought things were beginning to make sense, after Mada told me about the man at the station."

I feel the girl place her hand on my arm.

"Maybe it's time we sat down and figured out a game strategy."

"A battle plan?" I lean over and lift the heavy kettle from its cradle.

"A battle plan. What's the situation, who the players are, their strengths, their weaknesses. The moves we need to make to keep the gates open, keep the game flowing."

"Or shut them all."

"Or shut them all," she agrees. "A lockdown can win the game, too."
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Instance 33

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:55

In Mescwar, the Game is everything. Nothing else pertains. Oh, there's the stuff of daily life: walls around each island are maintained; fields are ploughed, sown, weeded, harvested; the long gangways between islands are inspected, their dragonbone stays and supports checked and replaced as necessary; expeditions are arranged to the encircling mountains for the timber. There's love and feud, celebration and contemplation; new arrivals are welcomed and laments held for those who depart.

And then there's the Game.

Every island competes in the Game – a series of one-on-one matches every forty-or-so days, with each installment anticipated, planned, supported. The walkers perfect their complex rhythms on dragonskin drums, the supporters prepare food and beer for the journey, or a feast for those who journey to us. The players practice, plot, spy, debate, train.

Boude's words have reminded me of important things.

Nobody can evade the Game. We train in the fields as we weed, vaulting each other into the air; we train alongside the shallow littorals, hurling stones for others to catch and throw back, or else pack into the sea walls; we fight in the evening, facing each other with short staves: attack, parry, block, thrust.

For each match twelve players are selected - six men and six women. There's eight vaulters, three stoppers and a runner, affectionately known as the sacrifice because - more often than not - if there's to be an expiration in the arena, it will be the runner who faces the excrutiation. Sometimes the runner is a man, sometimes a woman. We are sacrificed in equal numbers.

I look over at Boude, still sat at the kitchen table. She's talking out loud as she draws columns across some paper scraps, prepares headings and groupings. Boude is good at planning and strategy - very good, in fact; she surpasses me in more ways than I care to recall.

The Game is not played in leagues, or knockout cups; nobody keeps a track of how each island team performs over the years and decades and centuries. Only the last match counts, and the next.

Survival in the arena depends entirely on good preparation, with every player aware of the gameplans, the contingencies, the ruses and cloaks and spins of deceit necessary to force the opponents into a wrong move, a poor leap, a misjudged throw, a missed gate.

Any costly, bloody, painful miscalculation will do.

It only takes a single, simple mistake to lose a game. Yet most mistakes are made even before the players take their place in the arena, before the runner starts his run around the great circle, before the first ball is released from its trap, the first gate closed, the first point scored, the first blood spilt.

"If you don't start paying attention," says Boude, "I swear I'll cut your face with the breadknife!"

I smile. I remember the first words Boude ever said to me: 'know your opposition, idiot!' Actually, they were the first words she said to me in the arena. Her very first words were: 'they've sent me a fucking runt!'

Know your opposition. Understand the facts you know about them. Estimate the gaps in that knowledge, the unknown factors, the potential dangers, the unexpected gameplays they may bring to the arena.

Because the team that plans together, anticipates together, works together, believes and trusts in each other without fear or doubt – that is the team that wins the match, and the next match, and the next.

I believe in Boude. And as we sit together at the breakfast table and compile lists, test assumptions, sketch scenarios and possibilities, I become more certain that she will not abandon me, render herself back to Mescwar to escape her fears.

Mada believes there is nothing to learn in Mescwar. I disagree. Mescwar teaches me that we can all survive, grow strong and old and wise and earn the right to forsake the arena in favour of a plough, or a hoe, or a mallet for the shaping of stones and bones. Mescwar teaches me that there is a chance to move beyond the arena, the community, the island; become part of the soil, merge with the mud, cease, end, dissolve.

It is the closest thing to a true death, a complete and final death, that we who are caught by the band can ever hope for.

"I think we need to think more widely," I say. "What is it that we don't know? What's missing? What's possible?"

Boude shrugs. "Best get some more paper then. That's going to be a big list."
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Instance 34

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:57

Inside, the church is surprisingly light. Most of the woodwork – pews, alter, tabernacle – has gone, theived or reclaimed or maybe sold; all that remains is the shell of the place, lit by windows, some stained, and gaps where windows had once sat. The floor is littered with the detritus of previous visitors. Scorch marks on the wall tell of a recent bonfire; the air still carries the scent of burnt offerings wound around the must of pigeons.

The main doors are still intact, and locked: Boude and I had entered through the small vestry door, forced open by Mada's new friend.

"He don't bite," Mada told us. "He's quite tame for a vampire." The man had just smiled at this, letting the uneven whites of his teeth show in his dark face. Close up, it was apparent that he wasn't a permanent fixture of the street scene: his clothes were ruffed and stained, but not filthy, and I could detect little hint of a soured body odour. A man who acts for the world, I decided.

Mada has set up home in a corner of the great space, not far from the apse, but away from the guano highway laid down by the pigeons flying between the thin vaults of the rear window and the rafters. Home, for Mada, consists of around a half-dozen supermarket bags, some stuffed with rags, others with news sheets, one with wires and string spilling from the toppled carrier. Mere props, just another necessary act for the people who see but don't watch.

The three of us are sitting on an old blanket in a ring around a scattering of papers – the product of our work this morning.

"We're sure of the threat from Tintuum," says Boude.

"Though we don't know why it's a threat," I add.

"But it's not the only threat out there."

"There's also my 'visitor'. She could be from Tintuum, or maybe even from the band – though I doubt that: why would she want me to 'find her' if she was already part of the band?"

Mada remains silent, looking down rather than at us, picking fluff from the blanket between her feet.

"We thought she might be from Spoy – plenty of people have been lost to that stone over the years; maybe one of them has found a way to reach out to the guardian?"

Mada's shaking her head. "Don't feel right to me, that thought. I saw no mark on the band near Spoy when I last looked."

"That's another worry," I say.

"Heh?"

"The band – it's still tightening." I pull up my left hand to let her see. "It's making quite a dent in the flesh now, as if it wants to sink towards the bone." I don't mention how much pain the slow constriction was causing me.

"Lookee see!" says Mada, reaching her hand over to me. As I let her pull my fingers towards her face, Boude kneels up and leans forward to get a closer look.

The examination is minute, the old woman turning my hand this way and that to check each of the stones in turn, along with the connecting, unmarked metal. Her gaze lingers over Spoy, the grey stone, and I smell the heat around her neck hone itself to a point, making a probe to poke the air just above the stone and around its setting.

"Like it wants to hide," she concludes. "I don't remember it doing that before. But then most wosiq don't go round wearing it. Why did you do that, Kal?"

"I've always worn it. Bull wore it too, according to my host's memories, and Spar was wearing it when me and Falc went to visit her."

"They may have been driven to it. Are you sure you've worn it before?"

Mada adds emphasis to the word 'sure', and given what happened yesterday I can understand why.

"I've only been the guardian three times, and that first time I didn't even know what I was carrying, not until Grussa tried to turn me insane."

"How did you wear it?" asks Boude.

I switch my face to the girl without twisting my neck. "First as a pendant hung over my chest with string. But when Grussa pushed me too far I kept hold of it in my fist. Then once I'd bested her it changed shape, turned into a sort of arm band so I wore it like that."

"And the other time?"

The other time had been in a place called Calleva, a comfortable, bustling town far west of the Lonely City – pulling up thumbnail memories of my six years within its walls brings my mouth close to a smile.

"It was shaped as a ring, then. I wore it on my finger."

It was a strange time all round, I remember, only the second time my host had been a woman. She developed a craving for the caresses of both men and women, and a reputation to go with it, soon after my arrival.

If the host is keen to experiment, who am I to prevent it? I like to think I give as much as I take.

"You're flaring a touch of cerise there, Kal," says Mada. "Stay with us, lad!"

Now I do smile.

"And you're sure these are true memories?" she continues. "They ain't been cloaked by your guest?"

I shrug my shoulders. "If she's managed it, she's done a superb job. Those are good memories, even if they might be false."

"What does your host think of the band?"

The change in tack of Mada's question brings my mind fully back to the realities of the abandoned church.

"He ignores it completely."

"That sounds suspicious. He don't look at it? Rub it even? He must be feeling something, the way it's tight on his thumb."

I can feel Sam's mind alongside my own within the folds of his brain, visualise our relative positions within the columns of conscious and subconscious thought. Since Marc left for work, he's been content to sit back, but at the moment he seems much further withdrawn than I would have expected. Now I consider the matter, he seems to withdraw whenever I look at, or think about, the band.

"She's riding Sam too? Without me noticing?"

"If she is," says Boude, "then she's more skilled than anyone I've met before ..."

"Or stronger," agrees Mada. "Maybe she hides in one mind most of the time and swaps over only when needed?"

"Would the band permit it?" I ask.

Mada shrugs her shoulders. "What else have you two scribbled down on your paper?"

"Vampires." This was actually Sam's suggestion, and I was happy to add it to the 'possible threat' column. "How much do we really know about them? How certain can we be that they don't see us?"

"What if they've been learning?" adds Boude. "Say if a vampire host became aware of his rider like Kal's host has? Or like Kal did with Grussa? Your new friend, he's a vampire who knows what he's doing: what if someone like him survived the hosting with knowledge of us?"

"I've not heard of such a thing," says Mada. "Rule is, you always render from a vampire host by making sure it dies."

"That's our rule, yes, but we're not the only band in the world."

This statement sends a short shiver across Mada's shoulders: "What else?"

"Tintuun, my visitor, vampires. We wondered about Fol Huun ..."

"That was a grievous business," says Mada.

"I know," I tell her. "I was there - but there's other stuff, too. Maybe one of the Powers is here in the Outer World – could that be causing the fear?"

I'm not ready to talk about Fol Huun in any detail, not yet. Boude mentioned the possibility, not me.

"Powers have stayed put since the loss of Fol Huun," says Mada. She's staring at me again; I know she wants to know what I know about the loss of the lavender stone: I can taste the hunger in her heat.

"Until now," I say. "They don't need our help to come through. For all I know, they probably don't need a host while they're here."

But Boude is shaking her head. "We would know it if one of them was here. The Powers aren't shy, Kal. They wouldn't see the need to hide from us."

"They'd just use us, heh! Same as ever. Powers is Powers: they do as they see fit!"

"They used to, maybe. But this is a different world – a different order of knowledge and intelligence. Us monkeys, we're tricky nowadays ..."

"I don't know," says Boude. "This fear, it's in my guts and my joints. It's in the whiff of the wind and the damp of the rain – it's everywhere! If it was a Power doing this, then I'd be able to locate it – east or north or something; a Power has to be somewhere, a location. None of them can be everywhere at once. They aren't gods!"

"They're gods to us," says Mada, hunting through her pockets for food.
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Instance 35

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 14:59

Sam's fretting about Marc: he was due home two hours ago. He's busy texting on his magic mobile phone at the moment, which is fine by me.

Since yesterday I've been keeping far back, leaving Sam to cope with things on his own. Mada's comments about Sam ignoring the band are worrying me; her assertion that it would take someone with great skill to ride two minds at the same time has caused a cold fear to develop in my|Sam's guts – he thinks it's something to do with tomorrow's funeral, though the fact that both of us feel it points to something more important.

Boude stayed out last night with Mada. They've gone hunting with Marton the vampire, trying to find Herrow, the man from Tintuun. It took us some time to convince Mada that this would be a good idea; she only agreed to the plan once I promised to keep Sam inside the apartment, just in case.

When Marc asked about Boude, Sam told him she had gone to talk to her Mother. Sam seems to be good at lying - at least to Marc, as if he gets some pleasure from deceiving his lover every so often. I know he has sex with other men: brief encounters arranged by email, or sometimes he takes time to loiter around public urinals on the half-chance of meeting a fresh stranger. His need for such cold comforts increased greatly following the murder|suicide of his parents, a strong and regular impulse which I've had to work hard to cloak; I don't want the distraction of sex at the moment.

I'm watching Sam for any signs of interference, which is most easily done if I keep my own interventions to a minimum – such as bringing his left hand into his line of sight to see what happens in his head when the band registers.

Not that it's done me much good. It's like the band really is invisible to his eyes, and his nerves. It has to be a ruse – a deeply embedded ruse, almost a forbidding of some sort which I cannot feel or taste. Only by the absence of Sam's reaction can I detect its presence.

I certainly don't know how to lift it, or break it.

Or maybe I do. Maybe I, too, have been rused to prevent me from interfering in the ruse on Sam.

As my host slept and dreamed and slept again through the early hours of this morning I examined myself – concentrating mostly on what has happened to me since Falc brought me through.

In all ways this latest visit to the outer world has been my strangest. And not just because of Sam's awareness of me in his head, our shared dreams, our too-easy accommodations with each other (which is another worry - when Grussa rode me I fought like a cornered weasel to be rid of her).

Why did Falc bring me through?

Oh, his explanations seemed plausible at the time, and there's no doubting that something is wrong in the outer world – as Boude and even Mada have made clear.

Rather, I worry about the method of my translation between worlds.

It is the guardian of the band who mediates the translation. It has to be the guardian: the band is somehow wary of letting more than one person be responsible for it, in 'control' of it if such a thing is possible, at any one time.

I know this to be fact not only because I've been the guardian before, but also because all of us who are brought through have at some time attempted to sneak our friends through without the guardian's knowledge.

It cannot be done: the band will not permit it.

So how did Falc sneak me through into the outer world when Spar was the guardian?

It makes no sense.

Another thing that worries me is the sharing of dreams with Sam. Mostly I don't bother with my hosts' dreams – incoherent episodes that no doubt serve a purpose for the host but offer little in the way of entertainment for the rider. And manipulating the host while they are in the dream state is rarely successful. The only reason I don't ignore them completely is because sometimes they can offer me insights into the host and the world around us, and on very rare occasions they turn prescient: the gift of foreknowledge should never be refused!

Not only have I shared dreams with Sam, I've gone so far as to amend a couple of them. I've never felt the need to act like that before.

In one dream I took Sam to Fol Huun. Why?

Fol Huun is a whole world of worry in itself!

For centuries upon centuries I've rused myself, taught myself not to think of Fol Huun. Of all the people I've worked with here in the outer world, or lived with in Mescwar, only Bull knows – knew - about my time in Fol Huun. Bull, who watched me render to the lilac stone the very first time I died. Bull, who watched me come through from the stone an hour before it was lost.

I showed Sam a vision of Fol Huun. I remember the towers and lifts and scaffolds of Sam's dream; I remember taking him through the mist to a different place. Was I shocked when I recognised the scenery? The presence or absence of shock - I don't remember.

And yesterday I might as well have confessed to Mada and Boude that the stone was once my home: 'I was there', I told them. And now they'll be wondering why I was there, what I was doing in that place at such a terrible time.

I won't blame them if they decide to render me. Sam is not the only one who's been lying to his friends.
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Instance 36

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 15:02

"How old are you?" asks Sam.

"I don't know. After a while, age doesn't seem important."

We're sat on the dry-built wall that surrounds my home island. I've already admitted to Sam that the island doesn't have a name, that I don't know what season it is because seasons don't happen in this place, and that we're dreaming this scene.

Once I'd taken the decision to bring Sam here, the mechanics of altering his dream proved to be a small problem, easily overcome; Sam dreams in such detail that all I have to do is slip him snippets of information as part of an ongoing ruse and let him work his imagistic magic. The result is an approximation of Mescwar: the sky, for instance, is a touch too orange and lacks the veils of subtly changing hues that sweep like the northern lights from horizon to horizon, but it is enough for my needs.

For the transformation I followed the model used on us both in that first dream – a chase through Sam's city, climbing the towers and scaffolds to reach the plank in the clouds, at which point I launched my ruse. First the sky and the shallow, warm sea, with us upon it, paddling in coffins towards the island. As we neared land I added details to the ruse, collecting the data from selected memories and pumping it through the link to build the island's low hill with the tower perched on its crest and the arena gouged into its side; then the grey horizontals of the sea wall and beyond it the greens and browns and yellows of the fields, each at its own point in the cycle of sow|weed|harvest|plough. The only other structure I added was a path leading beyond the wall and strutting across the waters to an unknown destination.

Sam seems relaxed. He's interested in his surroundings, and hasn't commented on the lack of other people in the scene. I've chosen not to include them in the information stream in case they distract us from the matter at hand.

But I couldn't resist adding the dragons - for my benefit, not Sam's: two of them float high above us, circling through the sky without the need to beat their wings. Mescwar wouldn't be Mescwar if there were no dragons in the sky.

"Are you scared of me?" I ask.

Sam is looking at the path, which passes over the wall a dozen meters to our right. He's done a good job with the wooden planks and curving dragon-bone struts.

"I don't know," he says. "I think I should be frightened of you."

"But you're not?"

He shrugs. "Everything's been strange since Mum ... died. Like there's a blanket between me and the world. I read that book Marc bought me – the one about grieving. It's like I'm stuck in the numb stage and don't know how to move on to the other stuff."

"You've felt anger though. And sadness. And the physical pain."

"It's like I'm acting those things. I think you're protecting me from the worst of it – like you're the helpful monster inside my head."

"You're still taking the tranquillisers the doctor gave you ..."

"You don't like them," he says, turning his gaze away from the path and onto me.

Now it's my turn to shrug.

"You should keep taking them at night. They help you sleep."

"You're planning to do something with them. Use them as an overdose."

It's a statement of fact, nothing more. He's already returning his gaze to the path as he says it.

"Where does that road go?"

"It goes across the sea to other islands, like this one. It's easier to walk to them than it is to row there."

"How many other islands are there?"

"It varies," I tell him. "Sometimes there's a few more, sometimes a few less. We only bother with the islands closest to us."

"It's a boring place."

"There's worse places to be."

"Really? What about that other place you took me? Is that a better place, or a worse place?"

"It's a ... different place."

"You said it was lost. That woman wants you to find her."

Part of me remains outside the dream, observing, checking. I can feel Sam's rhythms tingle across the palms of my clasped hands, as if I was stroking a cat; any interference should register as a change in texture. But nothing is different: Sam remains in a natural sleep pattern, as do I.

"What woman?" I ask, keeping my tone even.

"The one on the cliff in that other dream. She really needs your help."

"How do you know this?"

"She told me."

"When?"

"During the dream. And then afterwards. I like her: she doesn't try to force me out like you do, sometimes."

"What else do I do to you?"

"You make suggestions like all of the time! Sometimes it really pisses me off! What's that road made of? Glass?"

"The struts are crystal. They're dragon bones."

He stares at me with his mouth half open and his eyes widened with disbelief. I point upwards. He pulls his lips to a thin close, but obliges me. A few seconds pass before I hear him empty his lungs in exclamation.

"Fuck! That's cool! Do you ride them like in the books?"

"No," I say after a brief pause to ream his memories for the reference. "This isn't Pern."

I let him follow the lazy loops of the beasts for a couple of minutes. But the part of me outside the dream reminds me that time presses. Dreams may seem to last for an eternity, but the dream state is finite, and short. I've wasted too much time already just getting Sam to the island.

"This woman," I say. "Has she told you anything else?"

"Oh, lots of stuff."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Sometimes she says funny things about people, how stupid they are, or when I ought to listen to what they say. She's a bit like my Mum looking out for me, though she likes it when I get into trouble. She doesn't mind about the sex, not like you!"

"Does she talk to you a lot? Has she said anything about me?"

"No, just now and then. She said you can be a bit thick at times. But I'm not to get in your way because you've got to go and find her."

You're not helping me here, Sam.

"Has she mentioned the band – I mean a ring – to you at all?"

"What, the one on my thumb?"

I nod my head, aware that I'm holding my dreamstate breath. I was hoping I could get the information I need without mentioning the band.

"I know it's there. She told me about it, said it wasn't a good idea to look at it."

"And you trust her on this?"

"Yeah. She said it was your problem."

Shit!

"How long have you known about the woman, Sam?"

"Like forever! She's always been there – like an invisible friend when you're a kid, except mine never went away. But I never saw her, not until you took me to her in that dream. So if you don't ride these dragons, what do you do with them?"

Time's up: the sky is beginning to lose colour and the bridge and the wall are losing definition.

"We eat them," I tell him, "and they eat us."

Which isn't too far from the truth, I suppose.
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Instance 37

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 15:03

For someone who's been around since the stone age, who's walked the streets of Carthage before the Romans destroyed it, who's lost his life more than once in the Lonely City, I haven't been to many funerals.

Bull and Spar – known as Jim and Mary in this incarnation - had both lived quiet yet sociable lives, if the size of the crowd gathered to pray for Spar's immortal soul can be considered an accurate measure of sociability. Both of them had worked: he had an office job of some description, a step above the mailroom but not much further up; she cleaned people's houses.

Though maybe the size of the crowd was more a product of the news coverage. The story of the murder-suicide had attracted the attention of journalists and media outlets; not a lead story by any means, but a news item nonetheless. Sam's decision to only hold a funeral for his Mother has added a new dimension to the story: there were photographers at the gates of the crematorium, and no doubt a few in the audience around us, too.

Can strangers - aquaintances even - mourn? Do photographers feel a stone of grief in their bellies as they snap the carefully dressed crowds? The sympathy of Spar's neighbours seemed more honest to my mind. They at least recognised Sam, gripped his hand with a more genuine grasp.

My own reactions to this morning's events necessarily mark me out as a voyeur. As the service progressed I found myself grinning and had to check to make sure my lack of solemnity hadn't transferred over to Sam's face. If only these people knew the truth of the matter: I knew exactly where Spar's 'soul' was, and the embrace of a 'loving Father' was not part of that reality.

I remember that the very first funeral I attended was a cremation. The choice of burning or burying the corpse seems to swing according to the fashions of the day; when I was a child burials were reserved for people who had earned such honours. Lesser folk were placed on a pyre and burned, though the ceremonies surrounding the event were just as complex and heartfelt as the burial of any king in his mound.

This cremation was pale and shallow by comparison. A routine yet shameful function of life, an event to be endured: fourty minutes of officious mourning followed by the secretive disposal of the flesh. The modern world has many magical touches, but its failure to embrace the facts of death - the realities of death – as part of the living world strikes me as ... strange, disjointed.

Why are people ashamed of death nowadays? Is it seen as a sort of failure? Or maybe a betrayal? I can tell that the service means little to Sam; the man at the front might as well have been talking about anybody, so little did he know of Spar's time in this place – her hopes, desires, frustrations and achievments. Just another corpse to be committed to the flame before lunch time.

Whatever, as Sam would say.

After the service, we were driven to a pub, closer to the crematorium than the family home, for drinks and sandwiches. Here, people were more themselves – relieved to be away from the formalities of mourning the departed, more willing to remember and reminisce. A few of the guests even managed to laugh, and Sam laughed too as the next door neighbours recalled Spar's reactions to some of his more adventurous pranks.

And then another car, a taxi, back across the river to Islington, to the small one-bedroom apartment Sam and Marc call home. They talk of little things during the journey, leaving me to wonder at the surreality of the day.

When Marc unlocks the front door I notice an envelope on the mat, a note from Boude. Sam also sees it, reaches down to pick it up and pocket it – Marc has been wondering why Boude was not at the service.

"Do you want a drink? Tea? Something stronger?"

"Tea sounds good," says Sam. "I need to get out of these clothes."

He walks quickly to the bedroom, closes the door behind him. He doesn't need a ruse from me to bring out the envelope and open it.

The message is simple: 'We're being followed.'

Sam turns over the paper, but it contains no other marks, no secret messages.

Carefully, Sam refolds the paper and pushes it back into the envelope. He hides it in a pile of magazines by his side of the bed. Then he takes off his new jacket and throws it carelessly across the bed. As he loosens his tie, the first tears of the day seep into his eyes and dampen his cheek.

He makes no sound as he cries, and I make no attempt to comfort him: this is his grief; his alone.
Rik
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Instance 38

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 15:05

"I don't want to go back to work, not yet."

"Why not? It would be good for you, get your mind off things. Get yourself back into a routine."

"Working at that place isn't a routine ..."

"You've got to start somewhere – at least you know the people there."

"But everything's changed. It's all different now."

"It's not all different. You've still got me; still got our friends. A job – you've worked in worse places. Remember that packing factory?"

"It feels like you're pushing me back into the world. I don't like it!"

"It's not healthy, you sitting around here all day. Going back to work will get you out again."

"We only cremated Mum yesterday. I don't want people to see me crying. It's embarrassing!"

"They'll understand ..."

"Fuck will they! They'll be as embarrassed as me. I've seen it happen, like when Sid's wife died – everyone avoided him for weeks. We even made bets about when he'd start crying ..."

"Who's Sid?"

"He worked in the acquisitions team across the corridor from me. Fat bloke, always going on about Arsenal – until his wife died. I told you about it last year. I don't want people running a book on me."

"It won't be like that, Sam. Anyway, you're stronger than that; everyone likes you."

"Yeah, I'm the fucking celebrity now. Got my photo in the papers and everything. I'm not going back to work yet, okay? I've already talked to Sue and she told me to take as much time off as I needed. She gave me the number for the welfare officer ..."

"Are you going to talk to them? The police gave us the number of a councellor and you threw it away."

"I've still got this number – maybe I will talk to them. Sue said I'd be able to work part time for a while, perhaps, or do some work at home – just go in for meetings. That sort of stuff."

"I wish I worked for your firm ..."

"Yeah, whatever. I want to be right in my head when I go back, you know? Not like Sid – Sue said he came back to work too soon. He resigned in the end, a couple of weeks before Christmas. Told his boss where to stick his in-tray and walked out."

"When was the last time you had a shower, Sam?"

"Changing the subject, Marc?"

"No."

"Yesterday, before the funeral."

"And before then?"

"I shower every fucking day!"

"Really? Some days over the past couple of weeks you've not even bothered to clean your teeth. You can't sit around here much longer – you're letting this thing turn you into a ... a vegetable. What is it you do all day? Watch telly?"

"Oh fuck off, Marc! I'm taking the pills like the doctor told me. I go out for walks, do some shopping, you know, stuff. I'm not a sodding layabout!"

"I'm not accusing you ..."

"You want me to go back to what I was like before all ... before Dad killed Mum. I can't do it! I can't click my fingers and make everything better like it never happened."

"Look ..."

"I'm beginning to sort things out in my head, Marc, but I'm not there yet. I still need a bit more time to ... to pull myself together."

"Okay, okay! I hear you!"

"Maybe you're right, though. Maybe I ought to get out of this place for a while. Get away. Go somewhere different for a couple of weeks ..."

"You mean like a holiday?"

"Yeah. No, not a holiday. Just somewhere out of London ..."

"I suppose you could go and visit Jeannie – I'm sure she'd be willing to let you stay for a few days ..."

"No, not your sister. She's worse than you for the fussing."

"What about staying with friends?"

"They'd be the same. I don't want people looking after me, like I'm an invalid or a nutter or something. I'm sure I could book a room somewhere ..."

"I could wrangle a couple more days off from work ... we could go for a long weekend in Amsterdam, or Berlin ..."

"I was thinking maybe a couple of weeks ..."

"A proper holiday? I can't get that sort of time off work, Sam. I've used all my days up already with this business, and some. Not until May at the earliest. Plus I've got the conference in Manchester ..."

"I could go on my own."

"... I mean, if you could bear to wait a few weeks, we could go off to the Canaries for a fortnight, yes? Pete's got an apartment over there – you remember Pete and Luke? I'm sure they'd be happy for us to use it for a couple of weeks ..."

"No, not there. It's not a holiday I need, Marc. I just need time away from here. You're not listening to me!"

"I am listening, Sam. I just don't understand ..."

"You don't have to understand."

"I don't want you to be on your own, not now ..."

"What, you're scared I'll do something stupid?"

"Yes. No! Of course not. We've got through this together so far. Running away from it now is a really, really bad idea, okay? Talk to the welfare people. Talk to your boss about part time working or whatever. Then in May we can go somewhere special – Florida! You've always wanted to go there ..."

"Oh, Marc. You just don't see it, do you? Mickey Mouse isn't going to solve my problems. Tinkerbell isn't going to sprinkle some magic dust and take the pain away."

"I never said that ..."

"I know you didn't. See, I've got to solve my problems in my own way and I can't do it here, or at work, or with friends. I've got to do it on my own."

"Shit, Sam ..."

"On my own! Just for a little while."

"You know, some days you do my fucking head in!"

Sam smiles. "Now you're listening to me."
Rik
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Instance 39

Postby Rik on 03 Dec 2008, 15:07

The render, when it comes, jolts me upright in the shared bed. I had been reminiscing about something or other while Sam slept, eased into Marc's cuddle. Luckily, the sudden movement doesn't disturb my host's lover.

The bedside clock reads 4:18am. The room is dark, with only a trace of streetlight seeping through the lightweight curtains covering the window. Thanks to Sam's innate tidiness, I can slip my legs to the floor and walk to the bedroom door and the living space beyond without the aid of further illumination.

Someone's rendered home. Why?

Sam is still asleep – it takes only a moment's concentration to make sure he stays that way.

My thumb is tingling from the band's activity when I reach the bathroom. Without thinking I reach for the cigarette packet Sam keeps stashed by the shaving gel dispenser, slip one of the tobacco sticks free with my lips and light it. The glare of the flame reminds me to turn the room's fluorescent light on – a mistake. I need to examine the band, and I can't do that under such an intense flood of photons. I pull the light cord again to darken the room, then settle myself on the closed toilet seat with the gas lighter in my hand.

I know the basics of the interrogation; the requirement to relax the mind to a point, the need to direct my energies softly along the circumference of the metal. But I've never been very good at it.

Properly prepared, I flick the gas flame into existence, bring the band - still tight around my thumb – level with my eyes.

And ... stroke.

And ... turn.

And ... stroke.

I feel the reaction in my chest, in the bone above my heart. It's the green stone that gently chimes to my inquiry – Fuebe.

Mada's home stone.

I'm embarrassed by the surge of relief I feel when I identify the render point. I respect Mada for her knowledge and insight, but I have no emotional attachment to the woman. Boude, on the other hand ...

Mada would have been able to tell far more about the render than I can. She would have been able to identify the person returning home, and the place where they had jumped out of their host. She could probably have been able to tell how the render was effected. All I can make out is the catching stone.

Fuebe is Mada's home world – she told me she had never been to any of the other worlds. But it doesn't mean that the returning being is Mada.

Bull missed his stone, after all ...

The realisation clears Sam's flesh of my brief flush of euphoria. As I sit in the dark, smoking, I consider possible options.

My need to know what has just happened overrules all thoughts of caution. By the time I finish the cigarette I come to a decision. I recede into Sam's sleep, prod him gently with my thoughts.

'Come on Sam,' I tell him. 'Time to wake up.

'We've got to go out!'
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