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Fiction: The King is Dead

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The King is Dead

On the night of his fifteenth birthday, Gep’s father took him to see the king. His father was the Minister of State, and he was thus afforded this great honor. The royal family were very rarely seen in public. He was taken through one of the twenty-seven gilded gates of the Impassible Palace, and they made their way through the cyclopian maze of buildings in the dead of night, meeting no one.
His father ushered him down a long staircase, a flickering lamp the only light as they descended far below the earth. Finally, they came to a golden door. The room within was alcoves. Each contained a plinth on which rested a skull on a red velvet cushion. The last in the line wore a bright golden crown. Gep’s father said nothing, waiting for him to reach his own conclusion. It was a common test, although the circumstances were never this ghastly before.
“The king is dead!” Gep shouted. His father frowned and tilted his head. A sign that he was partially correct, but had missed something.
“Not so loud, boy. You are a man now. It is past time you were inducted in the mysteries.”
“How long, father?” Gep managed at last. His shock was overwhelming. His family genuflected at the royal portrait of King Rekir IV every morning with great ceremony. And now, he was staring at the king’s crown on the empty, grinning face of the skull.
“Him?” his father asked in a casual tone he’d never heard before. “A bit more than three years. He still has another seven or eight years in his reign before he’ll be murdered by his jealous brother. Of course, the royal guard will sniff out the truth of the matter, and not long after presiding over a lavish funeral, he will be tried, and his virtuous son will take his place. That is as far as the omens have worked things out.”
“But who rules the country?” Gep asked, still staring at the empty eye sockets. His father sighed. He’d hadn’t had this much difficulty when he was the lad’s age, but then, he hadn’t been quite so reverent as Gep. That was going to be a double-edged sword.
“The ministers, of course.”
“But how can a kingdom run without its king to oversee it?”
“The ministers have always run the government. They simply no longer do so at the whims of an inbred madman.” The boy flinched, as though he expected divine wrath to settle on his father that very moment. Nothing happened for a long while.
“How long has this been happening?” Gep asked, looking back at the long line of skulls. His father smiled.
“A very long time. My father inducted me in the conspiracy when I was your age. And his father before him, and so on.” Gep was silent for a while, as he worked on the implications.
“But how? Why hasn’t someone noticed before now?”
“Let me show you something,” his father said. They took another winding path up and down through the palace. They emerged on a balcony overlooking a vast, empty square. A building on far side was covered in scaffolding. It was being torn down, or remodeled, or rebuilt. It was impossible to see beneath the fabric. There was always some work being done in the Impassible Palace.
“You have never seen the king, or any of the royal family. Everyone knows they exist. They read the newspapers, they hear the gossip, they see the portraits and pay their respect. But they are apart from common concerns, protected by layers of guards. They are shrouded in a maze of bureaucracy as thick as these walls. They are kept alive in story alone, in chance encounters and the barest hints. In a few days, a palanquin will be brought to this courtyard. The workers will stop, and they will bow to their king. A hand might emerge, the barest hint for any brazen or bold enough to look up from the stones. And they will tell that story, and they will believe in the king who approved their work and graced them with his presence.
“So there is no king,” Gep said, almost dejectedly.
“Not at all, boy. There is a king, and he’s better than a flesh-and-blood ruler. Flesh and blood is fragile. It’s weak. It goes mad, it makes unreasonable demands. It drains the treasury. It exhausts the country in vanity and pointless struggle. But an idea? An idea is immortal as long as someone believes it. And the citizens believe very strongly. They work hard for their lord, and they are happy and prosperous.”
“But who leads them?” Gep stared up at his father with fear in his eyes. Behind him, the shadows were being chased away by a rising sun.
“We do. The ministers keep the country working in the king’s name.”
“But how do you agree?”
“Come with me, Gep. It is time for you to see what I really do.” The Minister lead his son up to a tower, a group of men and women were waiting for him. They ignored Gep and immediately began argue with his father about a dozen matters of state. He cleared his throat and brought the meeting to order. Each in turn presented their business. They sat at a mahogany table in fine robes and determined the fates of millions. Gep watched as they worked for and against each other, and he understood. He smiled as the sun rose over the Impassible Palace, and his suddenly rosy future as a head of state.
Afterwards, the minister of finance spoke to the boy.
“What do you think of our conspiracy, young man?”
“I am overwhelmed, sir. I don’t understand how people can be ruled by an idea.”
“People are constantly ruled by ideas, and it is important to remember that ideas can replace people quite easily.” Gep didn’t understand the threat for a long time.

Cover image by Loizeau shared under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives License.

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Podcast: “The Waiting Doom” on The Melting Podcast!

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Hello listeners and readers!

Have you heard the latest Freelance Hunters story on The Melting Potcast?

Well, wait no longer, because you can hear it, and all the rest of their excellence from their fourth anniversary show HERE!

When Joachim catches a stubborn cold, Glory takes him to one of her friends for treatment. While Joachim complains about Riverfolk medicine, he’s more concerned about his fellow patients!

Thanks to A. F. Grappin for lending their considerable narration talents to this story! Go and check out The Melting Potcast for more great podcast fiction!

Fiction: Angel of Secrets

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I am aware of the moment of coalescence, of incarnation. It is the point where I cease to be a facet of Creation and am embodied. I was at once everywhere, and thus, nowhere. I was a part of the grand design, as significant and invisible as Air, Gravity, and Love.
Now I hang suspended above the ground, formed and held in this reality by concentric rings of mystical runes inscribed in stone. A lone figure, small and so fragile, kneels below me, reverent in his supplication. I need no unearthly knowledge to be certain that every detail is perfectly executed. I would not be here otherwise.
My wings are still. I do not need to beat them here. My feet will never touch the base clay. I am here for a purpose, and I will fulfill my function, although in this moment, before the bargain is struck, even I, with my wealth of infinite information, do not know if it will for good or ill. I open my mouth, and my voice, full of power and majesty, issues forth, nearly unbidden by my own will.
“I am Raziel, the Angel of Knowledge and the Keeper of Secrets. There is nothing that is not known to me. I will answer one question, mortal. Think carefully, for not all wisdom is meant for human ears.” My voice reverberates through the chamber, and when it dies away, the figure slowly, cautiously raises his head. He is not the first sorcerer to seek out my knowledge, and though they risk their souls to secure it, I have been known to grant this wisdom. Even I do not understand the whims that govern my actions at times. I am myself merely the instrument of a greater power, after all. I wait in anticipation, although I remain perfectly still. I wonder what this human will ask of me.
In ancient times, philosophers asked of me the very building blocks of reality and the shape of the heavens. I told them, although their planet would not have the science to understand the answer for thousands of years. I have been asked many questions, whose answers shook the foundations of empires. My every utterance may shape the future of humanity.
Finally, in a soft voice, the sorcerer makes his request. And I blink at him.
“I beg your pardon?” I say, certain I somehow have misunderstood him. He repeats it, perfectly exact. He embellishes the request with a vague threat, as though the form with which he has caged me is held in his sway. I cross my arms.
“Access to the infinite knowledge of creation, and that is your question?”
He emphatically agrees that it is. I sigh. A promise is a promise.
“Fine. The item you seek is hidden in stage one dash three. At the end of the level, there will be a turtle standing on a suspended white block. Defeat the creature and crouch on platform until you fall through. You will now be in the background of the level. Proceed to the right, and the whistle you seek will be yours. I trust this answer is to your satisfaction.”
My knowledge shared, I can feel the spell unravelling, and I return to the fabric of Creation from which I came. My last thought before my sense of self dissolves into selfless awareness of all creation is, ‘Lousy wizards can’t learn to look this stuff up online?

Photo copyright Catherine Todd, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 license.

Podcast: “Ears to the Ground” on The Melting Potcast!

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Hey Freelancers!

Have you heard the latest Freelance Hunters story, as presented by the ever-extraordinary Melting Potcast crew? Well wait no longer, and click HERE!

When the town of Corn Hall is reported missing, the Freelance Hunters grudgingly return to investigate, but nothing can prepare them for what they find there.

As always, thanks to August, Erin, and Theo for another great performance!

Want more Freelance Hunters? Follow me on Patreon for early chapters, short stories, news, and more!

Fiction: The Halloween Gig

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“What the p’nong is this?” I said, slamming the plastic crate onto polished a synthsteel table. Amy, the bartender, turned around from where she was hanging some kind of banner.
“It’s your costume for tonight, sweetie.” She went back to the hanging, a pattern of orange circles, white ovals, and black crescents, each with a crude printed face. The shapes vibrated gently in station gravity.
“Costume for what?” I picked up the box with my lower arms and riffled through it with my upper ones. It was a length of cheap black plasticloth. I examined it for a minute before figuring out it was a sort of cloak, with holes for my head and all six appendages. The sleeves were all tattered and trailing, and the hood was so deep my head wouldn’t even be visible. It seemed a terrible choice for a musician.
“It’s Halloween, silly!” She didn’t even turn this time. “You agreed to play holidays.”
“Proper holidays,” I said, grimacing. “The Eclipse Festival, Harmonics Night, Harvest of Poetry.” I knew I was being petulant, but I made an attempt. Humans expected it from their musicians.
“It’s a big party night on Earth, we’re expecting a lot of traffic, so wear the costume.” That was when I noticed her face paint. It was a vivid shade of green. She was wearing an impractical black gown instead of her usual ship suit. A pointed black hat rested on the bar.
“Then why haven’t you cleaned properly?” I asked, taking in the room for the first time. The counters and corners were covered with wispy strands of white plant fiber. The stage was dusty, and the edifice of a ruin had been left there.
“Those are decorations, Ch’Brun.”
“They’re unsettling.”
“I was going for spooky.”
“Just what kind of holiday is this?” I asked. My elders thought I was crazy to run off to human space chasing gigs. Sometimes I agreed with them.
“For some humans, it’s a day of remembrance for the dead, but for others it’s a day for dressing up, eating candy, and getting scared.”
“Wait, your civilization frightens itself for fun?” I wasn’t surprised. Humanity seemed to have a collective fetish for destructive behavior. But since I was already working in an establishment that served weak poison as a recreational activity, this didn’t seem out of character for the species. “That’s so human. Give me a few standard hours to research and I’ll see what I can do.”
A few hours later, I took the stage. It was dark, it was grimy, and the house was full, just as she said. There were humans in all kinds of costumes, mostly mythological archetypes like Amy’s witch and a variety of living corpses. Humans have a ton of hangups about death, I guess. There were also costumes based on characters from popular entertainment programs, historical figures, and even elaborate jokes. It was all very weird, but it made a kind of sense. The humans came from a world with only one sun, which meant they had as much darkness as light. They lived in a world that developed scientific understanding of the universe relatively late, and was delayed by a few notable collapses of civilization. They had a talent for stories. So they found ways to laugh at the darkness. They practiced scaring themselves so they wouldn’t be afraid.
I fluttered my robe dramatically as I sat down on the fake step and pulled out my instrument. It was a fretted, stringed instrument similar to human ones, but it had multiple resonating chambers and was meant to be played with all six hands. Amy nick-named it the Ultra-Cello, and it kind of stuck, although my music teacher back home would probably have fits if they heard. In deference to the holiday, I had placed a representation of a human skull over the pegbox.
I flourished my arms, waiting for silence, then began to perform an ancient traditional hymn I discovered in my afternoon’s research. I sang out, a voice shouting against the darkness. The crowd cheered in recognition and glee, and sang along with religious enthusiasm.
“I was working in the lab late one night…”

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Cover photo by Derek Hatfield, used under a Creative Commons, Attribution license.

Patreon Fiction: Mapmaker

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Hello Readers! If you follow me on social media, you may have seen that I’ve been making some upgrades to my Patreon feed lately. This includes weekly flash fiction and other goodies. You can visit patreon.com/hughjodonnell to have a look! Today I’m releasing a story here to give you a sample of what is going on every week in my feed for the low, low price of $1 a month! That’s like, a quarter a story!

Mapmaker

It has been a long time since Mapmaker was taken. He does not know how long. He has not seen the sun since then. He does not know where he is being held. He has only seen stone walls, dull, smoking torches, and the undead soldiers of The Necromancer.
Mapmaker prepared to return to the capital as soon as he heard of the invasion. He expected to be called out of retirement to help defend the kingdom. He had surveyed and drawn every inch of the land, and knew her down to the smallest detail. He had never married. How could one devote love to another, when all his energy went to his maps. He traveled to the palace, to lay battle maps for the king. The Enemy caught him first.
They tortured and interrogated Mapmaker regularly since he was brought here. The Necromancer’s generals and strategists, the ones he kept alive, wanted maps. Fortifications, barracks, ports. They wanted military targets, but those were not the maps he drew.
Mapmaker is a proud man. He never made a map he knew to be false, and he refuses to start now. Instead, he wastes the generals’ time. He maps peaceful villages, gave directions for forest paths far from the front lines. For every useless map, they punish him severely, but it another day lost to the Necromancer’s forces. It is all Mapmaker can do for his country.
Once, he stole a piece of chalk and tried to keep track of the days. He made a mark for every time the guards took him, each time he ate the strange food, each time he slept. He gave up when he ran out of chalk. Most of one wall is covered by the little tally marks, like a map backwards in time.
The guards never speak. Mostly, they are dead things. They move awkwardly, like puppets, and stare with sightless eyes. Occasionally, one is a living man, who watches his companions with mute horror. The price for failure in The Necromancer’s army is self-evident. He begs these living servants for information. How fares the kingdom, the war, and his apprentices. They dare not answer.
He was traveling with a pair of students when his coach was ambushed. He does not know what became of them. When he sleeps, he dreams. Sometimes he dreams they are killed in front of him, as a punishment. Sometimes they are pressed into the Necromancer’s service, and come to his cell as unseeing, stumbling things that do not recognize him. Sometimes he dreams they have all escaped together. Those are the worst ones. Mapmaker sleeps poorly.
His cell opens with the tooth-gritting noise of metal on stone. Two armored zombies enter to escort him. Mapmaker guesses they were made about two weeks ago. He has been imprisoned long enough to learn the cycle of the zombie guards. With so great a supply of bodies on hand, The Necromancer does not bother to prevent his guards from rotting, and they last about a month before they fall apart. These two are halfway through the process. Although they are covered in plate mail, he can tell by the stench.
The old man shrinks back from their outstretched arms. He is running out of safe places to map. He has drawn every safe place he can think of, and does not know what they will do. If they torture him today, perhaps this is the day he will break, or the day they will finally kill him.
The corpses lift him to his feet and march him out of the room. They are neither rough nor gentle. They move with a rote, measured steps. When he was a young man, under the old king, An inventor brought a mechanical elephant to court. It marched, trumpeted, and even bowed. It was decorated to almost look alive, with a hide covering and glass eyes, but there was something too precise about its movements. As horrific as they are, The Necromancer’s soldiers remind him of the elephant.
As they march him down the hall, he wonders what happened to the elephant. He has not seen it in many years. Perhaps it broke down, or is sitting forgotten in a dusty store room somewhere underneath the palace. It takes his mind off of what is to come.
To his surprise, they take him somewhere different today. After a few minutes of confusing twists and turns, he finds himself in a huge circular tower. The stone floor is marked by a chalk circle. Inside, soldiers are building something. Some set colored stones into the floor, Others lay down planks and spread papers on them, almost haphazardly. Others light candles at fixed points outside of the circle. Mapmaker tries to get a closer look, but the rotting guards push him towards a staircase ascending to a platform. Like a bucket on a chain, they guide him up.
The stairs spiral a long way to the top of the tower. By the time he reaches the platform he is winded and sweating. He aches from a thousand pains. He was frail when they brought him here, and this is the most exercise he has gotten in months. The Necromancer, in his black robes embroidered with gold thread, is waiting for him.
This is the first time Mapmaker has seen the leader of the enemy, but there is no mistaking him. He cannot tell how old he is, or even if he is truly still alive. Fear claws at the old man, and he simply wants to flee. The other guard stands on the stairs and prevents his escape. The Necromancer looks him up and down, purses his thin, dry, lips, and asks a question.
“Have you ever heard of sympathetic magic, Mapmaker?”
Mapmaker has not.
The wizard smiles. It does nothing to put Mapmaker at ease. “Sympathetic magic is one of the oldest forms, but quite powerful. Observe.” He take a little object, about an inch tall, out of his pocket and sets it on the railing. The doll made of wax and brass. A bundle of brown hair sticks out of the top. It reminds Mapmaker of a candle. The Necromancer picks it back up and without effort snaps it two. One of the guards blocking the stair collapses without making a sound. Mapmaker feels sick to his stomach. The Necromancer’s smile widens.
“If you wish to control a man, or learn his secrets, or kill him, there is a simple method.” The Necromancer recites as though they stand in a classroom. “Make a figure of him, fill it with his blood, or his hair, or the clippings of his nails. “Say his secret name, and he is yours, to do with as you wish.” The mapmaker trembles. He thinks of how much hair he has lost, how long his nails have grown, how often they whipped him until he bled. The Necromancer could have made quite a large doll of him, by now. Mapmaker finds his courage. He is a servant of the Kingdom, and he swears he will die before he gives up. He looks the Necromancer in his colorless eyes.
“Why are you telling me this? Are you going to kill me?”
“Kill you? Why, you are my best and most trusty servant! Look below you!” The Necromancer gestures out over the railing to the ground below. The old man turns and sees what the servants are doing. A new nadir of fear and horror strikes at him, filling his belly with ice. He understands immediately what they are making.
At this height, the circle takes on meaning. The red, black, and gray stones resolve into mountains. The green and brown become forests and fields. The blue stones become lakes and rivers. And set among them are the papers. From their locations he knows what them must be. He has been making them all of his life.
“Lovely, isn’t it? Your greatest work. We milled the paper from the trees of your forests. We made the ink from plants and stones we gathered here. We hewed the very earth of your little country to remake mountains. If you want power over a man, build his likeness in a doll. Bind it to him with his hair and blood. If you want power over a country, draw a map. The principle is the same.” Mapmaker stares in horror. He cannot look away.
“I never mapped a military target. Never once since you captured me.”
“Commendable. But you drew these instead. And they will serve me just as well.” The Necromancer spreads one hand out over the map. The candlelight catches on gold rings.
“What are you going to do?” Mapmaker whispers.
Below him is the most detailed and beautiful map he has ever seen, and it terrifies him. The Necromancer doesn’t answer.
A ball of poisonous green flame appears in The Necromancer’s hand. He holds it out over the pit for a moment, then lets it drop. It falls for a long time.

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Drabble-The Alien Message

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The message was short, and at first, puzzling.  It boomed in every local language from anything with a power source and a speaker.  There should have been a mothership, a miles long modern sculpture hanging over a major metropolitan center.  That was the alien invasion Hollywood promised us.  But the skies were clear.  All we got was the message, delivered in a smooth, emotionless baritone.
“The test begins now.  You have eight minutes.  Good luck.”  At first, this contact was met with confusion.  We only understood it when the sun went out.
And by then, it was far too late.

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