The Restless Dead – Part One

I should quit smoking.

​They were strange words to be thinking when he was running for his life down the river path, the pounding of his pursuer loud in his ears, but there they were. Random, pointless words that had absolutely no right being in his head. He should quit smoking. Because then, he wouldn’t feel as though there was a raging inferno burning in his lungs and he might – might – just be able to run that little bit faster.
​He could hear a variety of sounds behind him, each individual one conjuring up a greater overall vision of abject terror. His imagination, healthy and very active, thank you very much, had already gone into overdrive. And yet he knew. He knew categorically that the reality would be far, far worse. He wasn’t going to turn around to verify it though, oh no. He wasn’t going to fall for that old chestnut. He’d seen enough horror films to at least have an inkling of what he was doing. Turning around to see what was chasing you never ended well.
​The snarls that left his pursuer’s throat were wet in tone, made thick with drool and saliva. The sound of claws scrabbling against the dirt and stone of the rough river path most certainly belonged to massive paws. But probably the worst thing of all, the most horrendous contender for ‘noise of the night’ was the panting. It wasn’t the panting of a dog attempting to cool down. It was the panting of a creature hungering for his flesh, blood, bones and probably a few internal organs as appetisers.
​The moon, full and bright, disappeared behind a cloud and the river path fell into complete blackness. The sounds of pursuit slowed, all six running feet reducing their speed momentarily. Without the light of the moon, both hunter and hunted were temporarily blinded. The difference, the running man knew, was that he wasn’t gifted with a supernatural sense of smell. It wasn’t going to be him who adjusted to the new levels of light in the space of a few heartbeats.
​Adrenaline pushed past the screaming in his lungs and gave him a new burst of speed as he willed his legs to pump harder, to run faster, to carry him to safety.

​I really should quit smoking.

Six Hours Earlier

‘Afternoon, Mister Flanagan.’
​ Ed looked up from his newspaper and grunted acknowledgement. He looked back down for a moment, then realisation kicked in. He raised his head again and there was something almost pleading in his eyes.
​‘Dennis? It’s not that time of the month again already is it?’
​‘You really would benefit from a calendar,’ said the customer in a light, scolding tone. ‘Or get yourself one of these new fangled electronic thingies. An Orange, or a Banana. Some sort of fruit, anyway.’
The irony of you saying that…Ed coughed suddenly, not entirely sure that he had not just said that out loud. But his customer didn’t appear to be deeply offended and carried on with his little lecture. “I’ve heard that those electronic doo-hickeys do just about everything short of making the tea for you.’ Ed folded his newspaper and took his feet off the counter.
​He had seen four customers all day. Three of them had come in thinking he sold video games. He had briefly attempted to engage their interest in outdoor pursuits but that had resulted in the kind of looks that could slay nations. It had also invoked a slew of expletives that he had never known at that age. With the infinite patience of a man dealing with People Like That all the time, Ed pointed them up the stairs to the market. Then he returned to contemplation of the tabloid rubbish that so entertained him.
​‘Well, this is nice,’ said Dennis, taking one of the fly fishing rods from the wall and bending it to test its suppleness. He was a mild, unassuming-looking man. The sort of man who, in books, would likely be described as the type who wouldn’t say ‘hello’ to a goose – never mind ‘boo’. Receding sandy hair formed a near-halo around a high forehead and his myopic green eyes blinked at the world through thick glass lenses. He was heavily set, the evidence of too much enjoyment of pie and peas at the weekly darts matches he played.
​Ed knew Dennis very well. He was forty nine years old, married to an equally unassuming, yet remarkably angry woman called Barbara. He had two children. Ed didn’t know their names. Dennis had told him once, but he was so infernally dull that without really meaning to, whenever he spoke, Ed had sort of tuned him out. When Dennis spoke of his home life, Ed heard white noise.
​ Dennis flexed the rod a few more times, then put it back carefully on the rack. It teetered there precariously for a moment or two before promptly falling off. A second or two later, the others followed. They fell to the floor one at a time with a surprisingly loud noise until the carefully laid-out display was strewn across the dusty concrete of the shop floor. Dennis blinked down at the chaos he had wrought and took out a handkerchief. He removed his glasses and anxiously cleaned them. ‘Ah, sorry. Should I just…?’
​‘Don’t worry about it, Dennis. I’ll sort it.’ Ed unfolded from his lounging position and moved across to recover the fallen items. He was tall; lean and rangy with whipcord muscles honed from the hours of training he put in. Dennis blinked up at him, then perched his glasses back on his nose. He hesitated a moment or two, then spoke.
​‘I’ve got it, this time,’ he said, lowering his voice surreptitiously. ‘I know exactly what I need to catch the blighter.’
​‘You said that last month, Dennis.’ Ed grinned in a friendly sort of way. He knew, deep down, that he really shouldn’t humour the man, but he couldn’t help it. Dennis was so set on making the catch of his life. ‘And the month before that. In fact, you’ve said this to me every month for the past two years.’
​‘I mean it this time,’ insisted Dennis. He nodded sagely and peered up at the lanky Irishman. ‘But I’m going to need your help this time.’
​He took out a brown envelope from inside his tweed jacket pocket and slapped it down on Ed’s counter. There was a faintly triumphant expression on his face which lost some of its impact when the envelope knocked over Ed’s mug of tea. In a few brief seconds, the fishing flies that Ed had been tying that afternoon were swimming forlornly in a brown, murky puddle as though trying to attract some kind of lesser-known tea trout.
​‘Oh, I’m sorry… should I just…’ Dennis made a move as though he would clean it up, but Ed held his hand up to forestall him.
​‘No,’ he said, wearily. ‘No, Dennis, it’s alright. I’ll sort it.’ He picked up the envelope, saving it from certain tannin doom and peered into it. He pulled out the contents and studied them thoughtfully.
​‘Please tell me this isn’t the money you were putting aside for your second honeymoon, Dennis?’
​‘Of course not!’ Dennis was almost comical in his indignant rage. ‘Do you think Barbara would…’
​‘Dennis?’ Ed had a hard edge to his soft Irish brogue that was all business. ‘Is this the money you were putting aside for your second honeymoon or not?’
​The little man seemed to sag visibly. ‘Yes,’ he said, sadly. ‘It’s that money.’
​Ed shook his head and put the cash back into the envelope. There was a lingering sense of regret; he could have used the money, certainly. But he had limits and incurring the wrath of the terrifying spectre known as Barbara was way over the line. ‘I can’t take it. I’ve met your wife, Dennis, and of all the ravening monsters and terrors I could imagine, she’s by far and away the most unnerving. No.’ He put the money back in the bag. ‘Go on your second honeymoon, Dennis. Walk across the sand at sunset. Sip tropical punch beneath the shade of a parasol…’ Something faintly wistful came into his tone. Once, he had promised to take his wife to the Caribbean when he could afford to.
​‘I don’t know that you can get tropical punch in South Shields, actually, Mr. Flanagan.’ He paused. ‘Although, there is that new curry place. Maybe…’
​ Ed sighed and held his hand up again, forestalling another tangential diatribe.
​‘Tell you what, Dennis. How about we worry about the money later? And as for the tropical punch. Let’s not even go there. Tell me what your plan is, Dennis.’
​Dennis told him.
​In hindsight, Ed should never have asked. If he’d just said ‘no’, he wouldn’t, six hours later, have been running for his life along the banks of the River Wear.

All Work…

Well, this has been quiet for a while, hasn’t it? This is in part due to a combination of real life pressures, general apathy and a lack of anything remotely interesting to discuss. But there’s something that I was talking about yesterday that’s prompted me to write an entry.

First of all, as I’ve mentioned in passing on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I’ve decided to take a step back from writing projects for the time being. After writing four novels in less than three years, three of those practically back-to-back, I found that I was pretty exhausted. With a full-time job, a family and other external pressures, it’s been hard to throw myself into it as fully as I might otherwise have liked. So a rest is kind of welcome. I even sat there the other night reading a book for the pleasure of it and it feels like ages since I last did that.

I also returned to LRP this year and realised just how much I missed both the fun and the people and it’s that, in part, that I want to talk about in this entry.

I had a physiotherapist appointment yesterday and Greg, my very nice (and exceptionally brutal) physio asked if I had any energetic hobbies. So I said ‘Live Action Role Playing’ and, joy of joys, he knew what it was. For once, I didn’t have to try to explain it. I’ve heard people use all sorts of ways to try to summarise it:

1) Cross-country pantomime;
2) ‘Like paintball, but with swords and stuff’;
3) Lord of the Rings-style… thingy

For me, the phrase I prefer most of all is my own. ‘Let’s Pretend for grown-ups’.

I have long held to the belief that grown-ups should have playtime. When you are at school, they encourage that break from the grind to let you run around aimlessly letting off steam in whichever way you prefer. When I was at primary school, this ranged from playing ‘Red Rover’, or skipping, through to the summer joys of handstands, cartwheels and ‘British Bulldog’ on the school playing field. On quieter days, I loved nothing more than lounging beneath the beautiful big tree at the top of the field and creating pictures in the clouds.

At secondary school ‘playtime’ became ‘breaktime’ and once we hit thirteen or so, largely consisted of groups of Trendies gathering together in secretive knots that never untangled to let me in. For a handful of us misfits, bullied and awkward, breaktime meant freedom from the torment and a hiding in the drama studio where we picked scenes from plays and did little lunchtime readings. Or talking about the Trendies in the safe knowledge that the drama studio wasn’t a Cool Place to Be.

I remember well the games of ‘Let’s Pretend’ I had as a child, mostly played out with my neighbours-but-one, Darren and Lindsay. Over the years we created stories and characters of startling complexity when you look back at it. Sometimes we acted as characters from favourite films of the time, but mostly we just created our own characters. We were always a family, the two sisters and the brother. Our playground was the patch from the back path of our terrace down to the alleyway and it was variously an ocean, a mountain range, the plains of the Western USA… the year we slid into the farmer’s field beyond the copse and built a castle out of grass cuttings still lingers in my memory.
Now there’s houses being built on that field, just as there are houses on my old school playing field. My tree is still there, though, and that gladdens me.

When you become an adult (according to the conventions of society), and enter the world of work, you get a lunchbreak. You usually take it at your desk whilst still working. Sometimes, I gaze out of my window at the clouds. I still paint pictures in the sky. (As I type this, there’s an elephant out there). What happens to playing?

Those of us who engage in roleplaying games of any kind, tabletop or MMO or LRP are given a connection to our creativity that is horribly stifled in adults. I had missed the freedom of being someone else for a few days, not just in thought, but in action and body. Sarah would never dream of being as adventurous and daring as Morwenna Kerrow turned out to be. Sarah would never have thought she could stand in a ritual circle and be a part of an exceptional success ritual for which the preparation was ‘we need to do this ritual, off we go’. But Morwenna didn’t think twice. Sarah would never have put complete trust in a strange priest of an unknown heritage. Morwenna didn’t think about anything but her drive to obtain a greater understanding of the world.

It’s an escape of the best kind: a freedom. An unspoken acceptance amongst like-minded people. A playground.

I still firmly believe that if workplaces had playgrounds, the grown-ups would be out there on the hopscotch in a flash. There’s all these soft-play centres for kids opening up in industrial units, where are the soft-play centres for adults? I’d go. And I bet most adults, if given the chance, would do the same. (Case in point – adults on bouncy castles. ‘Nuff said).

Why does society expect us to just switch off the need to play? Well, guess what, society? I’m pinging an elastic band in your face.

(The elephant-cloud’s gone. There’s a giant lobster up there now).

So… go outside and play.

Help Wanted – Apply Within

I haven’t updated the blog much of late. Or even remotely recently, if I’m honest. But for once, I find a subject that motivates me to flex my ranting muscles just a little.

Let’s talk about PUGs, you and I. I’m not referring to those stupid dogs, no no. I’m talking about random groups formed in MMOs to run through dungeons and/or raids. Pick Up Groups.

It is no secret that I’m a bit of an online gamer. I cut my teeth on World of Warcraft, upped sticks and moved into Star Wars: The Old Republic, dabbled a little in Guild Wars 2 and Rift and most recently have plundered, looted and grinned my way around the early levels of Wildstar. All of these games have things that I’ve liked and haven’t liked. Some have fallen by the wayside, one eats up most of my spare time and there’s one thing that can be said for them all.

PUGs are the stuff of nightmares.

I was first introduced to the concept of group finder whilst playing WoW. I see a sweet, green-behind the ears new MMO player when I queued to join a group to go through my first ever dungeon. Rather innocently I presumed that all the faceless people I met there would be like me – people who enjoyed the fun of the game and wanted to experience content.

Boy. Was I wrong.

Wrong.

And then some.

With a few notable exceptions, every time I found myself in a PUG on WoW, they completed the dungeon at lightning speed, never allowing me to read the quest stuff. (That happens in SW:TOR sometimes – whenever I see someone say ‘skip’, I don’t. Out of spite.)

Usually, the PUG would remain silent. Not even a cheery ‘hello’. It was eerie. I was booted several times in the early days for – and this is a direct quote – being a noob.

Well, yes. It’s the first dungeon of the game. I haven’t been playing the game since I was in utero like some of you, and I know this is a tough one, if you cut me, I don’t bleed MMO.

I have seen the same in SW:TOR and Wildstar (although SW:TOR does seem less inclined to attract that kind of PUG aggression). I’ve used PUGs in Wildstar to complete Adventures and they’ve been mostly fine (but again… Silence! Silence is WEIRD! Say hello to your fellow adventurers for goodness sake!) I’m only level 25 now but could have gone to the first dungeon at level 20. I haven’t dared.

I have joined a guild, but despite being an incredibly lovely bunch, they are also veterans and super hardcore PVP players – all knowledgeable and great gamers – and I’m a bit anxious about asking for a hand-hold through a dungeon.

Which leaves the PUG option.

And I can’t. I just can’t. The thought of Nexians booting me for being a noob is too horrible to contemplate.

I even read the strategy guide for that dungeon and I know that if I can just get in a couple of learning runs all will be well. I learn quickly.

Maybe a Wildstar personal add?

WANTED: PUG for casual gamer who really, really doesn’t mind learning-by-wiping. Ability to not take things insanely seriously preferred. Also, capacity to at least say hello would be welcomed. Patience of saint would be added bonus.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had an additional button you could tick when queuing for a PUG that indicated this was your first time through content? Or that you were experienced and happy to help new players learn? Hell, I would go for both those things. I’ve often found myself the one explaining tactics in SW:TOR flashpoints and ops. I’ve led ops runs and they were great fun.

FUN! That’s the thing that PUGs seem to suck out of these games. If you don’t do seventeen gajillion DPS in one hit, out you go. If your gear is the wrong shade of blue, out you go. You are a novice and not welcome here. Get thee hence to Kiddy Corner and play with the water.

I may be feeling a little strongly about the matter.

On the flip side – Wildstar is so much fun just on a levelling and questing front that it’s entirely possible I will level cap without ever seeing the dungeon content. By then, I’ll join the ranks of old timers leaning against their virtual fences, nodding sagely and saying ‘I remember when this was all just fields…’

OK. Maybe not.

Extract 4: ‘Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising’

Charles Weaver sat at the desk in his study, his head bowed over the ledger, his hand writing the reports from the week’s activities in his beautiful slanted script. The Welsh prisoner had yielded nothing of note, but there was time yet for him to break. At his side was a tray bearing his choice of sustenance: bread, cheeses and a few slices of home-cured meat. The simple repast would serve him well enough. A bottle of wine was uncorked and stood before him. But Charles Weaver neither ate nor drank. To do either required the removal of his mask, and until his personal servants retired for the night, he would not take it off. Even then, he had become strangely reluctant to do so.

The reports came in on a regular basis and not all were pertinent. Here there was an account of possible evidence of magic use in a distant English backwater village. There, details of attempts by magicians to receive the support of the Church. So many of these ended without the intervention of the Inquisition, overly-dramatic scenes of self-martyrdom by the desperate and unofficial elevation to sainthood in the eyes of their faithful followers. All these Charles Weaver read, and more. Wherever there was a hint of unusual activity, the Inquisition would follow up the leads.

So many reports. Weaver growled quietly as he read. A plague upon the people of this country. Nothing seemed to get through to them. Threats that were made and carried out served as little more than a temporary bump in the unholy road they persisted along.

‘My lord?’ There was a tapping at the study door and Weaver raised his head.

‘Enter.’ He set down the quill and leaned back in the heavy oak chair. One of the staff he had brought from his country estate to work in the Tower as his personal servants entered the claustrophobic office.

‘Forgive the disturbance, my lord, but this arrived moments ago. The bearer stressed its importance.’ The servant, a faceless serf whose name Weaver had never bothered to learn, held out an ivory scroll case. Rising to his feet, Weaver moved the bulk of his huge body round to the front of the desk. He took the scroll case, recognising the seal instantly.

‘It’s from the King, isn’t it, my lord?’ It was presumptuous of the servant to speak without cause, and as the metal face turned on him and he saw the glint in the eyes beneath, he wished he’d remained silent.

‘You may leave now,’ the Lord Inquisitor replied stonily. He watched the servant scuttle out of the room, taking a quiet satisfaction in the obvious discomfort he had caused. When the door shut, he stepped across to it and turned the key in the lock. He would not be disturbed again.

He opened the scroll case, slid out the parchment within and unfurled it. He leaned against the desk, holding the paper taut as he read the missive from King Richard. It did not take long. There were several lines that discussed the logistics of what was to come, but Weaver’s eyes were drawn to the words at the very bottom, above the flourish of Richard’s signature.

We will go to war.

You will lead them in my name.

 

Beneath the mask, Weaver began to laugh, a sound entirely devoid of humour.

Finally, it was going to happen. Finally, the moment he had been waiting for had arrived. He would sweep across France, then Italy. Spain and Portugal. All the countries who wore the badge of magic on their breasts would be crushed. Magic would be driven from the shores of the continent and a new British Empire would be born in the twin lights of science and reason.

‘We will go to war,’ Weaver repeated aloud.

Extract 3: ‘Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising’

Isaac Bonnington knew that the Indomitable was unlike any other vessel in the King’s Fleet. The fact gave him great pride. He had brought the initial designs to court and stood, visibly trembling, whilst the King had pored over them in mute reflection. Isaac was not a brave man, but he knew how to build gunships. He understood the workings of black powder weaponry with fine precision, and when he had come to choose his career, he had wavered between becoming a shipwright and taking an apprenticeship at the Hall of Science. The apprenticeship had won out in the end, and in time, the position of Royal Engineer had come to him.

But ships had ever been his first love, and it was the shipyards of the south coast that were now his home. He was a quiet, intelligent man in his late forties, with a balding pate and a rat-like face that was incapable of concealing emotion. Women and children had entirely failed to feature in his life, and so he devoted every waking moment to his craft and, of late, to the Indomitable. When she was launched, when the French fleet felt the bite of her cannon and broke before her prow, the world would know of Isaac Bonnington’s work. This ship would immortalise his name.

Who knows, he thought with uncharacteristic bitterness, he might even get paid. He was certain that if he approached the King and asked for an advance, he might find himself replaced with someone King Richard considered more patriotic and less materialistic. Others had ended their days in the Tower for less.

Since he had taken the throne of England, Richard the Unyielding had proven himself to be a man gifted with drive and determination. Blessed with a fierce intellect that grasped the principles of construction and engineering, the King possessed knowledge of the sciences quite beyond the most gifted scholars. Heavy industry had flourished in the cities of England. The cannon of the Indomitable had been cast far from Portsmouth and transported down from Liverpool by ship, while the plates that armoured her hull were beaten in a forge in Manchester.

There was no shortage of bodies to work the furnaces, swing the hammers and dig the mines, as criminals and the homeless were pressed into service. Shackled work gangs toiled in shifts to pull iron, copper, tin and coal from the earth and feed the fires of industry. Labourers and artisans worked the forges and foundries to produce the wonders of Richard’s kingdom. It was dangerous work, but not without its benefits. Those free men and women in service to the Crown were well paid for their efforts, though it was argued by some that the risks outweighed the rewards. Richard did not tax his vassals heavily, but he taxed them all. Farmers, once exempt from the need to present their annual accounts, now had to employ the literate and numerate to control their spending. Failure to provide to the Crown guaranteed a stint in a work gang.

Freedom was a thing long forgotten in England. But Isaac didn’t mind. He was happy in his little office with its tiny window that let in the reek of the port. The odour of the shipyards clung to him; the constant smell of tar, metal and brine. He had grown so accustomed to it that he no longer noticed it, although it was the first thing his visitors noticed.

Extract 2: ‘Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising’

There was a sudden shifting in the air, something both Mathias and Tagan recognised. It was like an inward rush of a breeze, or of water in a sudden eddy in the stream, and with it came the metallic scent of magic. Where the stocky man had stood was a second dog; also a wolfhound, but that same bright shade of copper that his hair and beard had been.

‘Mathias!’ Tagan was staring. There had been no gradual transformation. No extending of limbs, or changing of the face. No sprouting of fur and a tail. There had been a man, then there was a dog. There had been, in fact, a shifting of shapes. Tagan had never seen such powerful magic. Unable to hold back the reaction, she clapped her hands together, delightedly, like a little girl.

The two dogs romped around in circles for a few moments until the female finally stopped and sat on her haunches, her tongue lolling and her mouth open as she stared at Mathias in the most unnervingly human laugh he had ever seen from an animal.

Another rush of air, another inexplicable sense of the world bending inwards, and the red dog was gone.

‘I am Warin, called the Red.’ He made this pronouncement as though daring them to dispute it. ‘Welcome to my home.’ He stamped a little way away from them, then stopped and turned around. ‘Well? Come? Stay? Makes little difference to me.’ He continued striding away, the wolfhound trotting along beside him. Warin rested a hand on the dog’s neck and scratched affectionately as he walked. He didn’t cast a single backwards glance to see if he was being followed.

Tagan and Mathias exchanged glances and followed him. It didn’t seem as if they had a lot of choice in the matter. Their fingers interlocking once more, they moved deeper into the woods, to the very depths of the forest where a true silence reigned supreme. Here and there, bright flowers tried to force their way through the needles; hardy little things that grasped weakly at the wan light.

After a while, the tantalisingly familiar scent of wood smoke joined the mingled scents of earth and pine. Warin walked a little further, pushing aside branches with effortless ease. He didn’t once stop to ensure that his companions were following, and several times Mathias had to duck as tree limbs sprang back in his wake. The great dog loped along at Warin’s side, occasionally dropping back behind the two stragglers, herding them along. Once, Mathias attempted to engage the stout man in conversation. It was not particularly productive.

‘Where are we going?’

‘To talk.’

‘Where are we?’

‘You are in my land now. The lands of the Teuton.’

That, it seemed, was that. Mathias pressed on, his thoughts churning with the impossibilities of the past few hours. Days. Months… It had occurred to him that he had no idea just how long it had taken for him and Tagan to get wherever they were now. One thing seemed right, though. Warin was the one they had come here to find. That was without doubt. The Shapeshifter, Wyn had said, and they had witnessed Warin’s magic. Exactly what his intentions were remained to be seen.