His Dark Materials Western (Cont.)

A few months ago, I wrote a short piece of fanfiction, which I housed in the Old West of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials universe for my friend Laura, as she went off on an adventure to Australia. It was supposed to be a one-off. You can actually read it here, if you like. That’d be fab. Well, I couldn’t get the character out of my head. Or the universe. I found myself captivated by the idea of a woman tied to the railroad tracks, left by a dastardly moustache-twirling villain, having to accept her fate whilst left helplessly with her Daemon, accepting their demise. So I wrote it. And I linked it back to that first bit. You don’t have to read that first, but I’d like it if you did.


The railroad is a part of American history. Mighty spiderwebs of steel of steel that unite the country. An ambitious feat of engineering prowess. A triumph of human hubris over nature. In England the whole thing was done without nearly as much fanfare. All practicality, no romance. But in a country sodden with rain half the year, what do you expect? Anyway, you can walk the entire length of the country in less time than it takes to cross state lines.

“We also don’t often tend to hogtie women to the tracks” Emily sighed. Americans certainly had a flair for the dramatic, but positively no sense of subtlety. Her Daemon stared at her despondently, his sad little sparrow eyes breaking her heart.

“Maybe if I’d been something more useful…” he began, and Emily’s sorrow congealed into something hard and sharp.

“There’s am awful lot of ifs in the world Archie,” she groaned as the rope bit into her skin, “but not a single one of them offer us any practicalities in the here and now.”

His eyes lit up. “So you have a plan?” He chirruped.

Emily looked at the desert that stretched out to infinity on either side of her, at the arid sands that hadn’t seen rain in years. In the distance the landscape was dotted with cracked red rocky outcroppings that rose ominously into the sky like tombstones. She longed for the persistent drizzle of Oxford, which only months ago had driven her to despair. She also longed for a cup of tea. Neither seemed forthcoming.

“Not precisely, no” she admitted, “but God won’t abandon us. He always has a plan for us, remember?”

Archie hesitated, “and… if his plan is that we die out here?”

Emily stared stoically up at the garishly blue, cloudless sky.

“Then we accept it…” she whispered.

When Emily awoke, the sun was still hammering down its punishment like an earnest blacksmith, each hammer blow a lance of pain into her head. She tried to lick her lips, but her tongue was swollen and dry. She could feel cracked pain around her mouth where the skin had blistered in the scorching heat. Archie was sat on her chest, his eyes drooped and distant. Emily looked lovingly at the subtle brown hues of his wings, the defiant strength of his beak. He wasn’t the most fearsome of Daemons, she had to admit, but he’d pulled her out of more scrapes than she cared to admit. Her chest swelled when she thought of their adventures. She closed her eyes again, and began to imagine the glorious and sublime Republic of Heaven that waited for them both. She pictured the soft bliss that would surround them, the warm light that would bathe them. She pictured the loving embrace of God.

It was at that point that Emily’s face pulled into a frown. The light that was blasting red and harsh through her eyelids had diminished, leaving little dancing spots of colour in its place. Reluctantly, she pulled one eye open, dreading another encounter with that obnoxious American bandit. She’d have sooner died. Much to her surprise, a young girl stood over her. She had a hard face, with squinting eyes filled with mistrust, and sandy blonde hair crammed under a beat-up old cowboy hat which was far too big for her. On her shoulder he Daemon sat in the form of a Gecko, in muted colours that matched her hair. In her hand was a wicked looking revolver covered in cogs and levers. Home made weapon modifications where quite the style in the States, she’d heard.

“Well, hello there young lady…” Emily began, peeling her raw cracked lips back into a smile that she wore more like a grimace.

“I ain’t no lady,” the girl responded.

Emily took her in. She was probably only twelve or so. “Quite. Well, perhaps you could help me. You see, I’m in a bit of a bind-” she chuckled at her own joke nervously, “so perhaps your mummy or daddy could be of some sort of assistance? Could you give them a yell and ask them to come help me?”

The girl eyed her with her sharp, sceptical eyes, “Momma’s dead. Daddy too, for that matter.” She said it so matter-of-factly that Emily was stunned by how little emotion played across her face. But Emily was a trained member of the Church. She’d spent years learning to read people, to discover the things they kept locked away. To offer them salvation.

“Oh…” she put on her best counselling voice, the one she saved for widows and mothers of stillborn children, “Oh, you poor child. Was it a failed crop? Not enough water perhaps? Or maybe a terrible disease. You can tell me. I know it’s hard.” If she could earn this girl’s trust, she didn’t necessarily die tied to a train line in the desert. On her chest, Archie had tilted his head to one side too, mimicking her sympathetic tone.

“Nope,” the girl spat into the baking sand, “Man came and killed ‘em. And my baby brother too. Shot him right there in his crib.”

Emily blinked, momentarily stunned by the blasé way this girl reported such a horrifically barbaric act.

“Oh you delicate orphan!” she cried at the girl, who now rolled her eyes. “You must thank the lord God that you were spared. He must have a plan for you.”

The girl pushed her hat back, revealing more of her grubby face, coated with a waxy mixture of sweat, sand, and something darker.

“You reckon that plan was me following the man what did them in and emptying his brains out onto a canyon wall not two hours ago?” her face broke into a grin. If it wasn’t for the words she was saying, she’d have looked to Emily like any other little girl. Instead, Emily’s insides went cold.

“It’s all God’s plan in the end…” she told the girl,

“It God’s plan got you tied up like a prize pig at the county fair to roast under the sun, miss?”

“If that is his will then so be it, I am his humble-”

The girl interrupted her, which irritated her no end. Typical American, never taught any manners, raised like a wild child here in the arse end of nowhere.

“You someone’s slave?” she asked.

Emily felt her mouth flap up and down, shocked by the incredulity that she might be someone else’s property.

“I most certainly am not! What on Earth would make you think such a preposterous thing?!” she sputtered.

The girl considered her for a moment, then scanned the horizon, “’Cuz you’ve got the colour of the slaves I seen in the city. And you’re trussed up like a bindle. And your accent’s funny.”

“I am an Englishwoman I’ll have you know,” Emily growled. Archie had started flapping his wings ineffectually. On her shoulder, the girl’s Daemon stared unblinking and impassive, still in the form of a gecko. “And the only one who owns me is the Lord. Look, are you going to free me or not?”

“You gonna try any funny business?”

“I can assure you I shall not”

The girl seemed to take that under consideration, before nodding. In a fluid motion, she holstered her revolver and with the other hand pulled a knife the size of her forearm from somewhere beneath her battered looking trench coat. It caught the sun, making it seem like it was glowing white. One edge housed neat and lethal looking serrated teeth. It was with these that she began to saw at the ropes that kept Emily bound. Her Daemon was now sat staring out at the landscape, shifted into the form of a wily desert fox, his large ears scanning for trouble while the girl worked. Once the ropes were severed, the girl helped Emily to her feet, with sweat running down her hand. Emily tried not to notice.

“Thank you, that was very charitable thing you did there. God bless you.” The girl simply stared at Emily with the same squinted cold eyes. Archie was nestling affectionately in her hair, which was haphazard and straw-like, dried out by hours in the sun. “I don’t suppose you have any water to hand, do you?”

The girl reached inside her coat and tossed a metal canteen over to her. Emily caught it greedily with both hands, pouring what little water it contained into her mouth. It was hot, and tasted sharp and acrid, no doubt off the metal of the flask, but the relief burst through Emily like it was the very wine of communion. Without really thinking, she drank it dry.

“Good thing I got more, ain’t it?” the girl mumbled to her Daemon, “Anyways, you’re welcome Englishwoman. I need to be going.”

Emily sputtered, “Wait! Where’s the nearest town to hear?”

The girl sighed, her Daemon whispering close to her ear, “Tabernath is about half a day’s walk South East of here. Happens to be where we’re headed.”

“Would you like some company?”

“Not particularly. But given that you seem prone to finding yourself in near death situations, I suppose you’ll be needing a chaperone. Proper English rose like you and all.”Emily ignored the thinly veiled jab at her pride, and instead stretched out a hand to the girl,

“Lady Emily St Grace Mendel” she offered smartly. The girl looked at her waiting hand for what felt like an eternity in the stifling dry air. Eventually, she slid off a leather glove and spat on her hand. Before Emily had chance to react, the slimy little creature’s claw was grasping her own, hot and wet.

“Laura, ma’am. Let’s get walking.”

“And what are you walking towards, exactly, Miss Laura?”

Laura’s boots kicked up clouds of dry dust as she made her way off at a steady, measured pace.

“It’s just Laura, your Ladyship” she answered over her shoulder, “and I’m off to free the slaves.”


So there you go. I hope you enjoyed it. I of course do not in anyway own the universe of His Dark Materials, this is just a bit of fun. If Philip Pullman reads it, I hope he likes it. If he does, I will die.

Thank-you for reading.

D

Down In The Tube Station at Midnight…

So here’s a short horror story I wrote this afternoon that’s been rattling around in my brain for the last few weeks. I was pretty proud of it, so I thought I’d share!


The tiled walls of the tube station shifted and swirled uneasily as Alicia tried deep breaths to steady her equally swirling stomach. As per usual, the after work “couple of glasses of wine” had become a couple of bottles, and now here she was again, unsteady and nauseous in the stifling stagnant air of Holborn station. Minutes crawled past her, marching steadily towards midnight, and a sense of regret came with them.

She breathed heavily, ‘Future Alicia is going to be super pissed in the morning… Saturday morning a write-off.’ her words echoed off the curved, dirty white walls. She was alone. Fortunately, respite was approaching – or the promise of a seat at least. The pressure change and blowing hot rush of air that indicated the imminent arrival of a train washed over her like a dusty desert wind, accompanied by the steady crescendo roar from down the tunnel. Alicia gathered her bag from where she’d let it slump to the floor, and turned to meet the pulsing of red and white that slowed steadily to allow passengers on and off. As it came to a rest though, it was obvious that inside the train was as empty as the platform. The doors slide open, and she stepped inside, wobbling slightly, but thankful to be able to escape balancing against gravity for ten minutes. So long as she didn’t fall asleep, she was fine. Sitting down, she even started to feel a lot less drunk than she had, and she surveyed the empty tube carriage around her. The light was searingly bright, and intense white that knifed through her skull like lightning, and it felt cramped and uncomfortable, but other than that it was a haven for her throbbing feet. The rows of seats stretched back from her towards the next carriage, but not a single one was occupied, except for a dog-eared newspaper that sat next to her, an unpleasant musty odour coming off it.

‘Solo tube Selfie, methinks’, she concluded after her inspection, noticing her words slurring into each other slightly, like a slow-motion car pileup, ‘what’s the point of being shit on for being a millennial if I don’t get to at least document my debauchery, after all?’

She pulled out her phone, already latched automatically onto the Tube’s Wifi, and opened up the camera. She pulled a suitably ridiculous face, all exaggerated pout and crossed eyes, the empty train carriage seeming endless behind her. It reminded her of when she was little, and she used to open two doors on the bathroom cabinet at the same time, enjoying the strange infinity of the door mirrors reflecting each other back and forth into eternity. She shivered slightly, despite the stuffy warmth of the tube, and took the photo, immediately opening to share it on Twitter.

“Solo Dork Adventures on the Underground” she tapped out, sending the tweet away with a wry smile.

‘Self deprecation is my favourite,’ she muttered to no-one, pushing her headphones in and firing up some music to drown out the toothless roar of the tube as it pulled into the next station. No-one got on. She pulled her phone out of her pocket again, feeling restless, the tiredness of alcohol making her yearn for bed. Her photo had garnered a few likes, as well as a couple of comments of “creepy!” from her followers. Her friend Adrian had replied, “Wow, cool shot! How’d you set that up?” which was an odd question. She told him that she’d just got on the empty tube – that it must have been good luck to get the whole train to herself, before sinking back into her music. She let her eyes droop, shielding her from the harsh buzz of the florescent light, but was careful not to let them drop completely. Last thing she wanted was to fall asleep and end up in Sheffield. After a minute or two, Alicia felt the train slowing down for another station, but it was once again empty, filled with litter and echoes. She checked her phone again. Adrian had replied saying “Haha, very funny – true dedication to the joke” which was even stranger than his first comment. She flicked back up to her original tweet, and felt the blood in her run ice cold. She was sat in the photo on her screen, in the same seat she was sat in now, pulling the ridiculous face she’d pulled earlier. The rows of vomit brown seats stretched away behind her just like she remembered, but sat twenty places or so behind her was a little boy. His black hair hung greasy and dank into his cold, black eyes. He was staring right at her.

Alicia pulled her headphones out and shot to her feet, spinning, her heart hammering double time, to look down the train. It was completely empty. She could see over the seats from standing, and there was no-one hiding behind them.

She called out anyway, ‘Hello? Is someone there-’ she caught herself mid-sentence when she realised she was uttering the dying words from every horror film ever made. Shakily, she held her phone up and took another selfie, her skin clammy and pale, but the alcohol purged from her system by adrenalin and fear. When the picture flashed up on screen, the boy was closer. Only ten or so chairs away this time. His eyes looked back at her through the phone, horrifyingly deep pools of black that sang hunger and sadness. Alicia screamed, and checked behind her again. Nothing was there. The carriage suddenly felt unbearably claustrophobic, the weight of tonnes of rock and London city crushing down on her. The air had gone from a stagnant heat to crackling with malevolent energy. She raised her phone to her face again, terrified of what she’d see when she took another picture, but more terrified of not knowing where the thing that was stalking her even was. When she tapped the shutter button gently, the picture showed just half of her face, cut off by the edge of the camera. There was a pale, mottled grey hand grasping her shoulder in the picture, the fingernails cracked and peeling away. The second she saw the image, she felt the pressure of a tiny but unbelievably powerful grip on her shoulder, sending a spider web of cold pain and abject horror through her. Her legs buckled, but she didn’t quite fall, instead stumbling with a wordless moan of primal fear towards the door of the tube. The train was slowing for another stop – not hers, but there was no way in hell she was going to stay trapped underground with some invisible child-shaped abomination. The slowing wasn’t fast enough, the seconds stretching out impossibly to long minutes of cold terror. Alicia was certain she felt tiny hands grasping at her hair, and jerked this way and that as though spiders where crawling up her body.

Finally, the tube shuddered to a stop, the doors swung open, and Alicia flung herself onto the unmoving concrete of the station floor. As she sucked in lungfuls of dry air, she just caught the glimpse of the boy stood behind the glass of the door behind her. He looked at her with those painfully yearning black holes, his mouth opening impossibly wide in a scream that sounded like a dying cat’s yowling. A thick, inky black fluid spilled out of his mouth in heavy, dripping ropes, and in response to his otherworldly howl, thin arms ending in long, grasping fingers snaked their way out from the dark gap between the train and the platform edge. They snatched blindly at Alicia, the desperation and starving need to have her coming off them with an animal lust. One grabbed her ankle, the fragile looking fingers exerting an impossible pressure on her skin, ice and agony knifing into her bone. It was pulling her towards the dark space beneath the tube as the it began accelerating away from the station again, moving with a heavy certainty that promised a messy death if the hands had their way. Alicia summoned all the strength she had and kicked her free foot at the hand that held her, and connected with enough force to shock it into releasing her. Driven by a pure and thoughtless survival instinct, she ran lopsidedly from the station, her crushed ankle screaming with agony as her broken bones ground against each other beneath the skin. Finally, when she reached the cold, fresh and freeing air of the world above, she allowed herself to collapse into a sobbing wreck, the pain becoming to much for her to bare. She passed out, the echoing black void of the child’s eyes swallowing her consciousness.


So that’s it! Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment if you liked it!

D

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgewick

The Ghosts of Heaven is a hugely ambitious and original work of YA fiction, and it’s been languishing on my shelf for a good long while. Last month, I finally got round to giving it a try – and two days later I was done, having read one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The Gorgeous Hardback Cover

The Gorgeous Hardback Cover

Told through four different stories, the book channels different characters and time periods in each quarter, all linked through a theme of spirals. We open of the dialogue sparse pre-history tale of a nameless teenage girl, part of a hunting party who use shapes painted on cave walls to summon good luck and strength to aid the hunt. The second story tells the tale of a girl accused of witchcraft, and a quiet country village under the grasp of a tyrannical reverend. The third quarter is a tense story of a psychologist and his highly intelligent patient in a cliff side Insane Asylum. The final story in the book is set in the far-flung future, aboard a sleeper ship filled with dreaming people destined to colonise a new planet, and follows a solitary sentinel who watches over them in a lonely vigil as their ship spirals through space.

This Book. Seriously, I cannot begin to describe how swept up in these four interwoven narratives I was. The first quarter, told eerily through fractured stanzas that bounce along poetically, is filled with hope and bitter-sweet melancholy. The second is stiflingly oppressive, painfully and blisteringly unfair, whilst the third is so wonderfully windswept and Gothically HP Lovecraft, unfolding with a spiralling sense of madness and chaos. The final quarter is a cold, uneasy science-fiction tale that pulls through the whole story and links each narrative together, like a needle and thread spiralling through four patches of fabric to create one whole blanket.

The Paperback Jacket

The Paperback Jacket

Sedgewick is such an outstanding writer – each story has its own feel and style, but they’re all part of a greater whole, and it’s done with such clever skill that flows naturally. None of the stories feel discordant with the others, despite their massive differences in time periods. Plus, the four parts of the book can be read in any order, giving a different experience depending on how you read it. It’s honestly mind-blowing, and by the time you get to the last quarter it all starts to pull together in a way that staggers you. The Ghosts of Heaven is a book that I’m going to return to again and again, a perfect balance of genres, filled with twisting unease and suspense, reading flawlessly and beautifully. It evokes something wonderful just remembering it.

Thanks for Reading,

D

If The Ghosts of Heaven takes your fancy, you can pick it up here.

Eden Summer by Liz Flanagan

Whenever Phil Earle over at David Fickling Books asks if I want a proof of something, I know I’m going to be reading an outstanding YA Novel. The publishing house is responsible for heavy hitters like The Art of Being Normal and Unbecoming, so it goes without saying that their books come with emotional depth and intelligence, and Eden Summer is a perfect addition to their roster.

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Jess’ best friend Eden is missing. Ever since her sister died, Eden’s behaviour has become more and more erratic and unstable, and over the Summer Jess and Eden’s boyfriend Liam have been trying desperately to keep her head above the waters of grief. But now she’s missing, and Jess and Liam have no idea where she’s gone. Her behaviour has been deeply concerning, but is there something deeper and darker going in Eden’s past? And Jess has her own past trauma to work through as well… Can anything ever be truly normal again for the three teenagers?

Eden Summer is a stunning début, weaving themes of guilt and regret with an honest and beautiful friendship between its main characters. Eden is a whirling mess of emotion and chaos, and the way she gradually falls in on herself whilst pushing desperately outwards creates a tragic character arc to follow. Inside she’s blackness but on the outside she’s frantically grasping to all the things she thinks will make her better. Her progression mirrors Jess brilliantly, as Jess goes from fragile and skittish to resourceful and determined. In a way, Eden’s disappearance is a catalyst to help her face her own past and start to mend the wounds that affect her psyche. I think the most enjoyable character in the book is the setting though – Liz manages to use a much less known part of the country (Yorkshire) to create a sense of drama and bleak desperation to the plot, and she does it with knowledge and passion.

Eden Summer uses beautiful language to create a lyrical sense of unease and tension, which pushes the plot along, accelerating as it goes, and Liz’s use of flashbacks creates a wonderful discord between happier memories, chaotic memories and the harrowing present day. It’s through these flashbacks that we slowly unravel the darkness of each character’s backstory, and the fragments of secrets are revealed. The book really reminded me of Tanya Byrne’s Follow Me Down, and it’s an excellent thriller with vibrant, emotionally driven characters and a superbly written backdrop for it all.

Thanks for Reading!

D

Eden Summer is published this July. You can pre-order a copy here.

The YA Book Prize

melinda salisbury

mrlIf you follow me on Twitter, and Instagram, you’ll know that to celebrate the forthcoming YA Book Prize, this week is #TeamSalisbury week – during which the YA Book Prize focuses The Sin Eater’s Daughter, one of the ten nominees this year.

Tonight, I’ll be taking part in an hour long Twitter chat, from 8pm, where you can ask me questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them. Please come and chat with me!

For now, I want to talk a bit, about The Sin Eater’s Daughter, and what it means, both to me, and apparently to a lot of young people too. And how unexpected that was.

I expect that to some people, at first glance The Sin Eater’s Daughter being on the list is a little strange. On a list featuring multi-award winning and critically acclaimed authors like Sarah Crossan, Louise O’Neill, Frances Hardinge and Patrick Ness. Against…

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The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This month’s Waterstones Book of the Month is an absolute joy of a début novel from a bright new talent, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who has already made a name for herself through her work as a poet and playwright.

Girl-of-Ink-and-Stars.jpg

 

The Girl of Ink & Stars is the tale of Isabella, the daughter of a cartographer forbidden to travel outside of the small island village Gromera, which she calls home. Through her father’s maps and stories, Isabella dreams of a world she’s never seen and yearns for a chance to follow in his footsteps; to map the island she lives on and to see the world across the sea. When her best friend, the Governor’s Daughter Lupe, goes missing into the forests that border the village, Isabella is determined that she is the only person equipped to find her – relying on her study of maps and stars to track Lupe accurately and swiftly. It’s outside of the safety of her home that she starts to understand why the rest of the island has always been out of bounds, and starts to realise that the stories and myths that she grew up with might be a lot closer to home than she first realised.

GOIS-open-book

Good lord do I love a good map in a book.

This book is traditional children’s storytelling at its very best. Isabella is shot through with powerful curiosity and courage, and Lupe is filled with confidence and determination, and the two of them are the perfect two sides of the coin to Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua, and through them the story is given its sense of whimsy and wonder, as well as its pace and tension. The Governor is another highlight as a character too – his motives being shadowy and complex, morally grounded if muddier in their execution. The real main character of the book though, is the Isle of Joya itself – a beautifully tragic and richly imagined home filled with myth and folklore that pulls so much from ancient stories of warrior princesses, crazed demons and dizzying labyrinths. The way the island is described – its history, the lack of animals, the grey and ashen trees and strange empty villages – all create a real sense of age and melancholy that counteracts the story’s two main characters and creates a battle between hope and fate that weaves into words, underlying the narrative.

Kiran’s skill as a poet shines through the way the story is told too, filled with rich language and lyrical passages that make it seem as though the story and the setting are singing as your work through it, filling the whole plot with a sense of magic, wonder and beauty. Plus, the book is simply sublime as an object, with gorgeous pages dotted with golden illustration, a striking choice in font style & colour and an absolutely beautiful fold out map that serves as a jacket (which I actually squealed at upon first seeing) – it really reminded me of the first time I picked up a copy of The Hobbit, and the feeling of ancient, deep world building you get from looking at something so beautifully crafted.

The Girl of Ink & Stars is the magic of J.K. Rowling and Diana Wynne-Jones wearing the adventure pyjamas of Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell. It’s exactly the fun and feel a future classic Children’s novel should have, and I utterly adored it.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. You can pick up a copy at your local Waterstones, or on the website HERE.

His Dark Materials Western

So the other night I was having a Twitter chat about how there was very little in the way of His Dark Materials fanfic, given how prominent Philip Pullman’s trilogy has been to an awful lot of readers. One of my best friends Laura suggested I tried writing some for her as a leaving present (she had the gall to fall in love & decided to move to Australia. How rude.), and I had a think about it and came up with the idea of taking the universe and looking not to the iconic snows of Svalbard, but to the dry wastes of Southern American. A Western. I was influenced a little by True Grit as well. So this is what I threw together in a couple of hours. Laura seemed pleased at least!


The man’s run was slowing to a stumble, his heavy boots and blistered feet thudding into the dry desert sands with clouds of pale dust. The bullet wound in his calf was searing like the punishing sun above him, and his daemon – a thin wiry coyote – was lolloping along, her tongue lolling from her mouth dehydrated and close to lifeless. Above them, the sky was a beautiful calm blue, not a single cloud to blemish it. It was like a mockery of the harsh landscape below. A memory of water unreachable up above.

He always knew that the devil would come for him one day. Of course he would. He wasn’t a saint, he knew that – he’d started rustling cattle at ten years old. Killed at fourteen. Done worse at sixteen. He was a bad man in every way the good word of the Church defined it, but it didn’t mean he was any happier than dying alone in the burning wasteful desert at the hands of…

He glared at the cactuses that clung to the rocky outcropping a few metres to his right, the only feature on the bland, bleak face of the land around him. At least Choloro had mountains. He would give anything to die in the mountains. But the rocks offered shade, and he was damned if he was going to die out in the open to let the vultures pick his bones clean. The cactuses looked mean and hardy, the only sign of life for countless miles around, but the man knew they kept a precious cargo of water locked deep inside. He’d lived in the desert long enough to learn that little tip. Maybe if she’d lost him, he might be able to wash out his wound and rehydrate from them. He could even survive this whole thing.

“Thoughts, Laiku?” he asked his Daemon, pointing to the outcropping.

She didn’t respond for a few seconds, the exhaustion etched on her face breaking his heart. He knew every gallon of blood he gave up to the desert drained life from her just as much as it did from him.

Laiku sniffed, “I can’t smell her on the air,” she narrowed her eyes, “but she doesn’t smell much. This whole desert smells like death. I never wanted to come here, you know, Marcus.”

“Ayuh,” he nodded, “I know it girl, and it might be a mite too late for me to be apologising, but know that I’m feeling it anyway.”

They plodded to the temporary promise of shade, finally collapsing the second the rocks were cold enough to touch. Marcus threw his pack to one side. His pursuer had slashed the bottom of it in the night at the camp, so he’d left most of his supplies scattered across the desert, useless. If he went back for them he’d be dead from heatstroke within the hour.

A stone dropped from the rocky ceiling that shaded him, and his hand immediately moved for the pistol on his hip. If he hadn’t been starved and chased through the punishing heat, he might’ve maintained some of his old speed, but as it was she got the drop on him.

“Your hand touches metal I shoot your Daemon square in the head,” the girl dropped from above him, landing in an effortless crouch and wrapping her arm around Laiku’s neck, a dull brass pistol covered in tinkers and mods at point blank range. Marcus felt his stomach knot and churn at the sight of another person touching his Daemon.

“You’ll get no sudden moves from me, miss” he attempted to placate her, but the hardness never left her eyes. Marcus was struck by how young she was. She couldn’t be more that twelve or thirteen years old. Her Daemon hadn’t even settled yet. And yet she’d tracked him across miles of inhospitable desert without him once spotting her silhouetted against the perfect horizon. He took off his wide brimmed hat, clutching it to his chest. Her Daemon, in the form of a mountain lion, growled menacingly, but slowly the girl unhanded Laiku, who bolted back to Marcus as fast as her weary legs would let her.

“You know what I want from you?” She asked, her voice low, even. The cold of it was comforting in the roiling temperature.

“I reckon you’re looking for revenge of one kind or another.”

“You reckon right.”

He fixed her with a weary stare, trying to piece together if there was a way for him to get out of this with his skin intact. He didn’t see that there was. Her Daemon, impossibly nimble, shifted to a polecat and darted forward. Quicker than his eyes could follow him, he’d pulled his gun from the holster on his belt.

“What’d I do to you then?” He asked her. Fire blazed in her eyes.

“You mean to say you don’t know?”

“I done many bad things to many people. My memory lost track a few years back, miss.”

She stood up from her crouch, keeping her strange revolver fixed on him. She was dressed like a bounty hunter, numerous bandoleers filled with ammunition criss-crossing her chest, and a dark brown leather coat scraping on the floor at her feet. Her hair was the same yellow as the sand around her, her eyes a strikingly bright blue.

“Let me see if I can’t help you bring this particular atrocity to mind, Mr. Marcus” she spat, “You shot my papa, the honourable Doc Williams, as he enjoyed his pipe on the porch last Summer. Then you went inside and had your way with his wife. My momma. Oh, and then when you found a baby screaming in the room next door, you shot him in his crib for good measure. Getting clearer for you?”

Marcus nodded, “Yup. Doc Williams. Made a lot of fuss against the keeping of slaves. Two hundred dollars on that bounty. I remember.”

“The bounty didn’t say nothing about helping yourself to his family”

“Spoils of war, little lady”

Her Daemon twisted into the form of a desert fox, yapping at him with unbridled aggression. Her manifested soul letting out the emotions that she kept so fiercely locked behind her angry, youthful face.

“I was there,” she growled, sounding more animal than her Daemon ever could with her voice low, but perfectly audible above the whistling winds, “hidden under the floorboards. I went down to the cellar to play when you stormed your way in and destroyed my family.”

“Ruined a lot of families little lady. Stopped feeling the guilt a while back now.”

She regarded him again, pure contempt etched into her skin. Behind her, the heat was causing a shimmering mirage above the ground. It tricked his eyes into seeing water where there was only a dry, merciless death.

“Look, miss” he began, “If you’re gonna play at being men, just get it over with. Otherwise-”

The shot cracked like lightning from the gods as the bullet slammed into Marcus’ head just above the eye. Blood spattered vibrant against the pale sandstone as his eyes lost the spark that he himself had snuffed out countless times before. Laiku disappeared in an instant, her life inescapably linked to his. The recoil of the gun was minimal, thanks to the gadgets of her own invention, though the strain of holding it aloft throughout their conversation had left her arm tired and strained. She slid it back into its holster.

“You know Arty,” she said to her Daemon, who was sat on her shoulder in the form of a large, thorny lizard to match his desert surroundings, “I actually think I do feel a little better after that.”

“You’re only saying that to be contrary, Laura” he sniffed huffily, “I feel the same emptiness you do, remember? I am part of you, after all.”

“Spoilsport” she teased.

He was right though, of course. She didn’t feel any fulfilment from the murder she’d committed. Not that she felt guilt – Marcus had murdered and raped his way across the South for almost two decades, so to meet his fate at the hands of a twelve year old girl was to her mind, absolutely delicious. But still she felt a gnawing at her heart, one that she couldn’t find an easy solution for.

“So what next? We got the world at our feet” Arty asked her.

She pondered the horizon, seemingly endless from where she stood. As the gathering dry wind whipped her pale hair about her face, it really did seem like the world was at her feet. And it was a world filled with murderers and injustices. Laura made her mind up.

“We’re gonna finish Daddy’s work, Arty,” she told him, “You and me, we’re gonna rescue slaves and burn down the homes of the wicked. We’re retribution a-coming.”

“You know that’ll cause the Church to have some disagreements with us? They quite enjoy their slaves.”

“Oh I expect they’ll be awful unhappy with us,” she smiled, “but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

Arty sighed, shifting into a dragonfly and launching himself into the air, brilliant green glinting in the sunlight.

“Somehow I was afraid you might say that,” he said.


 

There’s a chance I might build on this… I guess I’ll see what the feedback is like! Let me know!

Thanks for Reading!

D