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Gate to the Great Beyond by Nick Crutchley – 4/5 Stars

Gate to the Great Beyond by Nick Crutchley - Front Cover
What’s it about?

Here is the big question for Great to the Great Beyond (GTTGB): what is it about? Author Nick Crutchley’s books are interwoven and layered so it’s tricky to summarise and my interpretation may not be the correct one, but I shall try to start at what my mind tells me was the beginning.

There was this dwarf, Zorg Bloodbane, and he was mean and greedy. Aren’t all dwarves? Well yes, a bit, but Zorg was also resolute. He’s going to get that key to open the Gate to the Great Beyond at any cost and it doesn’t matter if he has to kill his friends. He’s aided by the sorceress Shiva (a ‘mutaton’) who has luck on her side; and he’s aided by an elf (magic) and a lion-headed humanoid (trying to save his people, blah, blah, blah), among others. They eventually get to meet this wizard who knows about alchemy and unwittingly has the key to the Gate to the Great Beyond. Still with me?

There’s much more beneath the surface

This key allows a questor – somebody destined or determined to have the key – to travel between the seven planes of existence. Or if the questor is someone like Zorg, maybe they’ll sell it instead. The setting widens out soon enough and we learn there is the Divine Plane and the six hundred and sixty-six hells among others, reminiscent of the virtual fantasy world in the first book, The Moment Between Two Thoughts.

There is a race of blue-skinned logical Ordaxions on one plane, trying to ascend through the Gate to the Great Beyond because they think there is another universe. At one point the Ordaxions are a super advanced civilisation, but then some event happens, this shining white light (keeps happening), and everything changes, putting them at the mercy of this thing called the Goo at the edge of their world. The Overseer of the Ordaxions has to work with this rather unremarkable amnesiac character, Srinivasa, who was somebody important in some past battle between heaven and hell, which was important by the way: the lion-headed Ashalonions were betrayed; there was this badass Nameless One with a staff and a string of lies to persuade others to his end of getting more power through a war; this annoying Preacher can’t stop preaching but his intentions are dubious.

Praise

It’s apparent after book two that author Nick Crutchley likes to weave together realms, peoples, plots, and magical objects as a platform for a good vs. evil battle, starring the supernatural, advanced beings, and everything in between. I didn’t get the impression the author was happy with a linear plot or a single reality.

The paperback was only 230 pages, yet there was a lot of worldbuilding and depth despite this. The author has taken care with the placement of each scene, I feel, so that by the end of the book you start to unravel what happened in the first hundred pages or more. There was more than one occasion when I wondered if I was reading an ingenious masterpiece, more so than the first book even, in the sense that we start small and then we blossom out seeing the full ramifications of what was really happening in those first scenes.

In many ways GTTGB is a clever story immersed in the same story template as the first novel, feeling excitingly, exotically foreign for all that, and it makes me wonder what else the author has up his sleeve.

Criticism

Zorg Bloodbane was a really interesting character and he brought about conflict with races wherever he went, and then the focus was off him and the reader was left with less interesting characters, at least until the logical Ordaxion Overseer was face to face with the impulsive Shiva. I’d have liked there to have been more to Shiva who bonded easily with men but she didn’t have much depth. Where did her power come from? That being said, I liked the idea of King Anorashiva.

If the story itself wasn’t a challenge to unravel, some sentences were easy to understand while others were passive, which made what was happening difficult to decipher. I did like the poetical quality to the writing, and the author’s tone never changed in this regard.

This is only a reader’s preference, but I wanted to stay in these worlds of Nick Crutchley’s a little longer before he shifted them. This was more of an issue in this second book, as I know the author can really stick us in these fantasy worlds, head and body.

Overall

You have to read Nick’s books to really experience the addictive quality to them and the unique storytelling style.

Author Website

 

ARvekt by Craig Lea Gordon – 5/5 Stars

ARvekt by Craig Lea Gordon - Front Cover
The main character, Tannis

From the first book in this series to this book, as soon as we’re introduced to new character Tannis, I wasn’t as interested since I felt she hadn’t been introduced properly, but it later became clear she was an action-first–personality-later type of character with a troubled past – and mental state – and that later made sense to me. The prose is a lot to take in – you feel like you’re plugged in – but it’s clear Tannis is a futuristic cop rooting out a group of criminal hackers who hack people’s brains, of all things. She works for some secret department and takes orders from an AI called Ix, a colour shifting entity whose voice changes gender but we remember her best as female.

There is more than meets the eye, as you could have guessed. Is reality real? Is Tannis psychotic or is she being fed lies? Is there really a conspiracy or is it in her head? Why does she keep blacking out? Why does she sense that what she’s seeing just doesn’t make sense? I liked these questions posed as they gave the story more depth, but what really gave it depth were the descriptions, making you feel you’re in a 3D world not dissimilar from the movie Alita or the series Ghost in the Shell.

‘Like a bright roll of silk thrown in the distance. Giant lily pads floated on its surface … thousands of them constantly ascending into the night sky.’

‘The last vestiges of the weapon platform jutting out of the top of the Thames, its rusting form a stark reminder of how close they came to losing that day.’

Ix, the AI

So, there is this AI called Ix that appears benevolent and all knowing at first, perhaps like that model of Alexa you have at home! Not too many chapters in we learn she’s demanding more powers. As soon as the reader knows of this, we suspect we’re up for a power grabbing experience or a conspiracy on a huge scale and the author makes no secret of this. Keep reading, I implore you! It was easy for me to assume how it was going to end …

Criticism

Sometimes I lost sight of where the character was in relation to other objects or situations. Sometimes all the action happened too quickly.

Overall

ARvekt wasn’t too convoluted or derivative as some works in this genre are. You read it having felt like it was unique in its own right, and it does twist the genre in different ways. It felt like a complex multi-coloured video game and to say the story had colour is no understatement: the scenes were vivid and I remember many of them now, a month after reading. ARvekt was a treasured experience and I recommend readers give it that go, which you won’t regret (unless you’re miserable?).

Author Website

Hypercage by Craig Lea Gordon – 3/5 Stars

Hypercage by Craig Lea Gordon - Front Cover
What’s it about?

The first book (?) in the Instant Reality series, Hypercage, had my interest. There was a husband character, Dave, addicted to virtual reality gaming at the cost of his marriage and family. The book coaxed the reader into having a vested interest into whether he would get his marriage and family together or if he’d finally reach Level 50 on his game when all his dreams would come true. Whereas the game offered exciting liberation, his partner was perhaps coming across as uncompromising and mundane, however, at times it’s clear to the reader Dave’s priorities were not his family. From Dave’s point of view, he was doing his best to get ahead to find ways of coping with one reality and making progress in another.

Criticism

I was disappointed we didn’t get to learn more on whether a solution was reached among Dave and his family before other events occurred, and this was likely because it’s a short story, and my rating above was harsher than it would have been as a result. Sometimes I lost sight of where the character was in relation to other objects or situations.

Overall

There were aesthetically pleasing characters in Hypercage, and some novel ideas such as a clinic to help with addiction. They really had everything covered in this world. There was a funny scene at the end of the book, which required more than a touch of imagination and I’d recommend reading through just to get to that part. I definitely had to read ARvekt, book two, to get a grasp on where the author was coming from and for a more fulfilling read – and I was not disappointed!

Author Website

After London Or Wild England by Richard Jefferies – 3/5 Stars

After London Or Wild England by Richard Jefferies - Front Cover

Quotes

‘If so, was it worth while to go upon so strange an enterprise for her sake? But if so, also, was life worth living, and might he not as well go and seek destruction?’

‘When the circle is once broken up it is often years before it is reformed. Often, indeed, the members of it never meet again, at least, not in the same manner, which, perhaps, they detested then, and ever afterwards regretted.’

First impressions

The first few chapters were introductory discourse from the narrator, on the settings and post-apocalyptic vision of England and it can lull you into thinking the rest of the story will be likewise information heavy, concerned with naturalistic detail at a level that isn’t easy to grasp. As a result, I wasn’t certain I knew where the author was taking the story itself, or what to expect beyond a vividly explained natural world of wild England. It almost made it sound as if England was so rural and uninhabitable that no story could come of the book.

What’s it about?

It so happened that After London or Wild England (ALOWE) resembled a historical story as the background for its speculative vision of the natural setting, peoples, and attitudes therein. I found it to be medieval in character, with Felix the main character nostalgic for the lost inventions of the greats but bemoaning the military prowess and status of knights and lords surrounding him. The latter have a much greater chance of winning the hand of his dear Aurora, after all.

It’s not all doom and gloom, and you can expect a few surprises in the plot – some which make sense and some which don’t or aren’t made clear. What is clear is that Felix wants some adventure to make him proud of himself so that he can stand out before Aurora, and on the way he may learn more about the world surrounding him: its past and its dangers.

Overall

ALOWE was an enjoyable read overall, with description that made you feel you were there and you were feeling what Felix was, as an observer of events around him more than a participant, and with ideas that ran contrary to the established order of things.

The aim was perhaps to show us the sort of society we could live in if we continue to poison the world with our society and industry, and the effect of the story itself did that, sometimes through narrative and sometimes through what I’d call an essay.

Author Website

 

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert – 3/5 Stars

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

The Worm tyrant

The son of Paul Atreides, Leto, had a legacy but little did we know after Children of Dune that Leto would embody a gigantic worm as part of the Golden Path for humanity. It’s a visage that alienates everyone he comes into contact with. He can’t love properly and even the beloved, loyal Duncan Idaho reviles him for being a monster.

‘Sand crunched beneath him as he rolled, flexing his body in pure animal enjoyment. He could feel his worm-self being restored, an electric sensation which sent messages of health all through him.’

The fourth Dune book is a funny one, standing out as it does in memory as being a book about the tyrant God Emperor Leto Atreides who claims to have godly powers and yet refutes them at the same time with proclamations about the miracle of the individual. In fact much of what Leto says doesn’t make sense, and he says a lot during the book. Leto meets with his dull advisor Moneo, who is Atreides with subservience that doesn’t resemble it one iota. Leto and Moneo talk about the meaning of prophecy, conspiracy, and some of the main characters, for example, this Reverend Mother Anteac and this ‘rebel’ Siona whose plans are housed within the greater machinations of Leto’s – Siona’s own father is the ever loyal Moneo.

Leto will then meet with Reverend Mother Anteac, for almost no reason at all. Or he’ll summon Duncan Idaho, his newly resurrected ghola, to his chamber. Perhaps he’ll have a few words with one or more of his conspirators about tricking Siona … The point is, when does it end? When will something happen? Well, three things happen in the whole book: three points where there is action, and all are short lived. This includes the prelude, which I felt didn’t have much significance to the emotions of the characters. The story of a legacy only took this story so far.

The Duncan Idaho gholas

The only character that brings any real interest to the table is Duncan Idaho as he’s in similar, though slightly different, circumstances to previous books. Yes, he’s been resurrected as a ghola again but the problem is the last dozen Duncans have been killed and he learns he’s only really the replacement to serve as another loyal subject of Leto. It’s this Duncan brain of the past with an idealized view of male soldiery and Atreides loyalty that is now face to face with an empire defended by the female soldier Fish Speakers.

‘You choose male companions for their ability to fight and die on the side of right as you see it. You choose females who can complement this masculine view of yourself. You allow for no differences which can come from good will.’

And the Fish Speakers pose problems for Duncan. They want to mate with him in a carefree way – they even mate with themselves in a way he finds objectionable, highlighting a change towards homosexual acceptance in Leto’s new Dune (Dune or is it Arrakis or Rakis now?). You can’t blame the Fish Speakers as Leto has propounded the myth that Duncan is holy, and he’s the only man other than Leto who has this status (well, remember, Leto’s a worm now.) Leto wants Duncan to mate with Siona. Whereas Duncan appears to be a one-woman man, and to make things complicated the one he’s taken a fancy to is Leto’s bride to be, Hwi Noree.

“‘My Uncle Malky used to say that love was a bad bargain because you get no guarantees.’

‘Your Uncle Malky was a wise man.’

‘He was stupid! Love needs no guarantees.’

A smile twitched at the corners of Idaho’s mouth.

She grinned up at him. ‘You know it’s love when you want to give joy and damn the consequences.’”

‘You choose male companions for their ability to fight and die on the side of right as you see it. You

Praise and criticism

I remember the story being difficult to understand with nonsensical monologues, and there were more than a few on this read. That being said, there is a richness to the description and awareness of the Dune universe that makes even this book irresistible, a bit like the melange sand.

Not much exciting happened. By this stage the reader must be wondering, are the real events of Dune over and are we to make do with nostalgia?

Conclusion

I suppose it can’t be helped. If you make your main character a gigantic worm that can’t move around much, maybe the story is going to do the same. I enjoyed reading nonetheless, being a Dune universe addict, but I can’t help but think that the first three books were a lot better.

Official Dune Website

 

 

Cranberry Blood by Elizabeth Morgan – 4/5 Stars

Cranberry Blood by Elizabeth Morgan - Front Cover

Heather is an infected Slayer

We’re not sure what this means at first for Heather, being an infected Slayer. Later we learn there is actually a whole three steps necessary to become a vampire, with temptation acting as motivation. Even so, many perish before becoming one. I really did enjoy the lore in Cranberry Blood (CB) – check out the author’s glossary.

I must say I was engrossed in the first few chapters with the action, both physical, and, ahem, sexual. There … yes, well, Heather wakes up in her home and there is this annoying guy called Brendan who’s being Brendan, and then he’s being Brendan some more, saying how he saved her and it was her clairvoyant Gran, Sofia, who told him to and that’s why he’s in Heather’s home making use of the facilities. (Hey, there’s a good story if there is a woman you want!) Heather doesn’t want to call the police though: she wants to kill him with her sword!

‘You’re not doing very well with the whole convincing me not to kill you just because you say you knew my Gran routine.’

‘Aware that I had not been stabbing and kicking his arse out of my house like I’d planned to when I first walked into the kitchen.’

I felt the dynamic between Heather and Brendan was the most important strength of CB and it made it interesting throughout. Heather kept reaching for those cranberry blood bottles, which I felt was a useful reminder of her ‘thirst’. Her and Brendan’s interactions just become funnier and funnier as they’re forced to work together:

‘Can you stop calling me kid?’ I snapped. ‘It may have escaped your attention, but I am not actually a child.’

‘He’s a walking buffet, and he doesn’t even realize it.’

Authentic character voices and personalities

I dare say I imagined Heather’s voice as the author’s own, having seen author Elizabeth Morgan’s Tiktok and Instagram videos. However, with Brendan’s point of view, it became clear the voice I imagined was only my imagination as the author can write different authentic voices. Some readers may not appreciate all the back story covering the same events from two different perspectives, but I rather liked the bigger picture.

Brendan came across as more mature and understanding than you’d expect, and Heather as less mature than you’d expect, what with her vengeful ‘slaying’. But then we know at the beginning of the story that Heather is infected with vampire blood, which perhaps has hormonal implications. Maybe Brendan’s experiences have matured him while Heather has revenge at the front of her mind? The only thing that Brendan gets riled about is being away from Heather, away from his duty to protect her, but then there were times during the story I wondered if they were getting sick of each other and it was only the ‘thirst’ and duty that kept them attached; and it was a duty Heather didn’t feel she agreed with.

Comparisons

CB strongly reminds me of The Twilight Saga, which I didn’t read: I only opened the books so many times 😉. There is that furry fondness feeling of being around a group of friends who all have your back. It felt a bit like Blade in the sense vampires, for all their sinister plans, were pitiful fodder for Heather’s sword. I’d have liked the vampires to have been more worthy opponents. I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Heather’s slaying and her investigations into conspiracy and the Underworld series.

Criticism

Heather had already drunk human blood in the apartment block as part of her act, so her adamant avoidance of it later on in the experimental facility didn’t make sense to me, but maybe I misunderstood the point.

I wish more of the lore in the glossary had made an impact on the story itself: examples of mating rites, weddings, shifters, and the different vampire generations. Maybe I have to wait for the next books for them?

Heather and Brendan were the most interesting characters, though Sofia was important. The sub-characters didn’t interest me much and I found their names hard to remember.

Conclusion

CB is an exciting read front to back. I personally enjoyed the beginning more than the rest as I found the haunting background fascinating with the circumstances surrounding clairvoyant Sofia, and Heather’s bonding, and not bonding, with Brendan. After the initial sexual scenes, there wasn’t much that fazed me. I felt the author had much to offer readers in the urban fantasy genre and for anyone who generally likes vampire and werewolf books, including a sense of humour!

Author Website

Creepy Sheen by Rebecca Gransden – 5/5 Stars

Creepy Sheen by Rebecca Gransden - Front Cover

What’s it about?

From the blurb, and not necessarily from the collection of stories itself, Creepy Sheen (CS) describes that we are living in an alternative history in the 1980s, the Third World War, which has had an impact on the broadcast transmissions making their way through space, as we’re led to believe is usual, and now there is a response aptly described in the blurb: ‘At the head of Earth’s messages to the cosmos travelled the collective broadcasts from one atomic day in history … That transmission is Creepy Sheen.’

First impressions

I believed I was picking up a retro science fiction collection of stories based in the 1980s, possibly with bizarre or horror themes – just check out the cover. I assumed I knew what to expect of the time period, if only from books and media, and to some degree I was correct. Social and cultural attitudes among friends were different, and one may say more expressive or adventurous if we’re using CS as the template.

‘A perfect hiss erupts as Barney opens the drink with a shiny bottle opener. In one motion, he moves his head back, raising the bottle to take a cooling swig, an idealised silhouette against the shining white of the sign behind him.’

‘In outline they ingest the dark liquid and the brightness of the world glows, until gold turns to white and the heat of every particle lights them up in a burst of phosphorescence, the whiteness at the heart of existence tearing into their souls and remaking them anew.’

‘A distant and melodious bing bong echoed along the dusted walkways above. Starved ferns rusted, threatening to tumble and splinter under their own weight. The flatness of the mock marble seating attached to it in a warped triangle partially covered with drooping ornamental grasses, themselves in a process of steady decay.’

When a character checks her watch in the story Arcady, and not her phone, you feel an odd sense of displacement, a leaping back in time to when we had simpler gadgets, and when the desperation of life looked us in the face.

Just have a taster of the author’s choice of words: ‘And sighted a black truck … as it floated the roadway.’

There was a memorable scene in the same story mentioned above, in the arcade where the reader sees life how it is, with blinking lights and repeated tunes, but there is this disconnection and unreachable part of it that draws the character in and makes you question it. Do we live in these times? Why do we take our friends for granted? Why am I stood here in this arcade now? These questions almost make you feel that the strange circumstances that happen afterwards are the more normal ones.

Praise, criticism, and evaluation

With some stories I didn’t grasp the conclusion or the hidden meaning, if there was one in these ones beyond an alien-invading creepy sheen. This was the case in the stories Broken Wings, Tranquilizers at the Mall, Breakdown on a Synthesizer, and Liquid Crystal. We know something went wrong in the stories, but we’re not sure what. Despite this, the author has managed to make us easily imagine what it would be like when a crisis or two did happen in the 1980s and how the characters would respond to it.

With some stories, it took me a bit to see the link between the premise of the book and the culmination of the short story itself, such as in The Future is White and Infomercial for a Dying World. In retrospect, the way the premise was shown was excellent, saying no more than was necessary.

One of my favourite stories was Night Drive Drifter in a Bad Dream. The way this story starts! I found this story illustrated the creepy sheen premise in the most visual way, propelling the character into action and taking none of the creepiness out of the sheen, so to speak. You must read Hell Alley, also, in a story akin to Ghostbusters but with more violence, ugliness, and conspiracy than you’d imagine. I would be interested to learn what happened to the character Myra also, after her ordeal.

Overall, I’d say CS is a story that will take any expectations you had of it and slice it into pieces, leaving you with the uneasy feeling of past reminiscence, perhaps, of stepping into a world you’d thought you’d left but you’re forced to return to when on the run. It’s a collection destroyed by the realities of its … reliance on broadcast transmission, or social or cultural attitudes? I don’t say the last sentence with any certainty, but I do intend to compliment the collection as a whole in this paragraph. There is a sense of adventure or the surreal in some stories you may be familiar with from other works by Rebecca Gransden, and increasingly, there is the theme of disconnection, as we have in this collection: reaching out only to be transported to violence or a warped version of a distinctive time that advertised its rosiness but maybe hid uglier things.

As with all of Rebecca Gransden’s fiction, it’s worth your time to read!

Author Website

Alex James – New Website Focus

What is alexjamesnovels.com?

Alexjamesnovels.com has been in operation since 2012 – barring any website downtime – starting as an outlet for writer and author with autism, Alex James, to showcase his published books and to spread awareness of his experience of autism through the science fiction and fantasy genres.

From 2013, Alex started posting book reviews on this website, along with an assortment of writing blog posts as he sought enlightenment about how to ‘market’ – reach new readers for – his books. Occasionally, he’d post photos of stalls he’d booked where he sold his books at events. He even had book review slots available, but he thought he overdid it at the time!

Of note, he attended the Lighthouse School for children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorders on two occasions in 2016 and 2018 to help them with their writing and/or act as a source of inspiration.

2014–2021

Alex started working on friends’ manuscripts in the hope of pursuing proofreading as a career, and so publishing his books and updating his website was on pause as he moved his activities to alexjameseditor(dot)co(dot)uk. Read more on his Experience and Qualifications  and Portfolio pages.

In 2021, to combine the fun apparent in his own books and his interest in fellow authors with the professional elements of his proofreading/editing career – and to save costs – he decided he’d move back to alexjamesnovels.com to serve:

  • Readers and reviewers looking for a new book to read by Alex James and authors in general
  • Writers and authors, new and experienced, looking for professional editorial services

Aerol MegaFortress Teaser – 2

Aerol crouched and picked at what he saw as the northern edge of the bridges he’d traversed more often than any others, placing his fingers in their grooves and aware that he was away from the bustle and weight of his own soldiery further south on the bridges. The bridges here widened until they expanded out, or thinned, on the way north. The air was silent and the mist was thin, leaving the open black chasm visible, embracing him from below on all sides as a black curtain, inviting in its gaps between the bridges.

He felt he was at a point in life where things had to change. Gone were the times of barbarism, and gone were the difficulties posed by Nemea. He wanted something else, hope even, for the future, and not just for himself. If there was something that could get him away from the noise and distraction from everyday life, then maybe he ought to pursue it. He’d tried to read the future before from within his warlordship, using his shifter abilities, and it told him he was to move to a different location. He put his head up, still picking at the ground, and wondered if this was the time.

Some commotion was happening from behind, and the soldiers were insecure, making angry movements in response to the presence of a new company heralded by a white flag with the black Nemean stalk black. Aerol turned, and Cress appeared from between his soldiers to announce Warlord Grin’s presence.

They held daggers with arrowhead-shaped protrusions beneath the sharp blades as hand-guard protection – only good for stabbing – and they did not sheathe them as the company of two dozen stopped, with Warlord Grin at its head: a short diminished figure with vigorous movements. Grin was well known for arriving to the north-east of Nemea, attempting to establish his own dominion, illegally, but he’d been defeated far north of Nemea and had given in to Nemea with uncharacteristic fatalism, at the mercy of self-appointed Nemean Hemis’ harsh policies.

Grin’s sewn mouth, made bloody being held together as it was with metal needles to prevent a gaping comical inability to talk. He’d taken an axe to his mouth in the past, and a shard had also embedded into his nose. But he was presentable now, encumbered by shiny armour and golden gauntlets over a breastplate with the same Nemean stalk. Two headdress flaps flowed beside his face underneath his open helmet with a nasal piece. The helmet was decorated with serpentine monsters that rose and fell.

Aerol felt uncomfortable about the presence of Warlord Grin. Their friendship had parted on unfortunate grounds, with Grin a victim of Nemean economic policies, and they’d not had opportunity to repair it. Aerol suspected Grin had lost his marbles, which didn’t help. The sight of the soldiers with arms, bearing Nemean standards, only made Aerol more distrustful. Some said the Age of Warlords had gone, but if somebody with Grin’s experience could still attain leadership over a city then maybe it still was alive, and it put Aerol on edge as he stepped back and put his foot at an angle.

‘You summon me, Warlord Aerol?’ Warlord Grin said.

Not ‘old friend’ as he used to call him.

Aerol stood to his full height to address him.

‘You’ve been north, Grin, and I’d like information on your travels.’

Aerol glanced away and tried to keep his tone neutral. The situation was awkward. Where was his social intermediary and mentor Galouch at a time like this? He should be here.

‘Now … not over a tankard? Where is the respect between warlords, between friends even?’ Grin said.

The soldiers behind Grin nodded fiercely.

‘I see you’ve claimed Nemea as your own, Grin. I had no idea. I’m concerned at the absence of enemies around these bridges, and you once tried to tell me—‘

‘Tried to tell you and you wouldn’t listen,’ Grin said. ‘You only wanted to know what would help you survive, as you still do. That day I was afraid of the north, and I was trying to help. But no … Your dominion, your warlordship, and your Tekromun are all you care about. Well, the surface isn’t just about your plans. There are thousands who would back me in Nemea, Aerol, thousands!’

Aerol didn’t want to fight his old friend, invade Nemea again, or even grab him by the throat and coerce him. He’d hoped he was past those days.

‘What do you want, Grin?’ Aerol said.

Grin straightened his back and put his arms behind his waist.

‘You think a trade can solve this, Aerol? There are problems between us—‘

‘Problems that I do not know how to resolve, Grin. I’m a warlord, not a diplomat. Get to the point, and quickly!’ Aerol said.

Grin’s face fell. Did he look hurt?

‘I don’t want you to leave, old friend. Not north. I can’t rule Nemea by myself.’

Oh … that changed things. The crux of the matter was that Grin couldn’t do it by himself. He didn’t realise he was in good company.

‘What’s wrong up north, Grin? The cities will still be here, but if we’re to defend them we need to know what’s there, and my soldiers don’t know,’ Aerol said.

Grin shook his head.

‘Only pain, Aerol. North has always been the realm of the past and the fantastical. I wasn’t the same when I returned from there. There are enemies you’ve not defeated, shifters, and there are mutant monsters that would confuse you. I’ve told you this before.’

‘What else? Where do they all reside? Do you have a map in your mind?’ Aerol said.

‘No, I wasn’t that far north. I went south-east and then to the centre where the mega-fortress …’

News of the mega-fortress: what was this?

Grin paused.

A circle of Aerol’s soldiers gathered closer to listen and with relief Aerol noticed members of his council: Galouch, Cress, Denan, Inde, and Heyt.

‘Don’t go there, Aerol. We were entranced, but something guards it.’

‘How can you be so sure? Attacks by soldiers and warriors in nearby locations doesn’t necessarily mean …’ Aerol said.

Aerol was quite taken with the idea now. Perhaps the mega-fortress was the salvation he sought for himself and his Tekromun; that something new he’d been looking for to expand his horizons and better rule these cities. He’d not thought to enter it before and examine its contents, though there were rumours it had never been entered. But what dense bandits couldn’t achieve, surely the organised soldiers he trained could.

Thoughts raced.

The mega-fortress was a landmark he could use as a temporary fortress. From inside it was likely defensible. Aerol brandished his fist in victory.

But Grin shook his head.

‘There is a horror there, Aerol, and sorrow. The elements have taken over it. Some power of the past.’

‘You’re not making any sense, Grin. Galouch?’ Aerol said.

Galouch shook his wide head slowly, wagging his appendages. He didn’t know about it either, of what Grin spoke.

Grin walked towards Aerol and Aerol’s soldiers shuffled forward in alarm, but Grin had dropped his arrow-headed blade, which clattered and then went still as if stuck on the ground. It reminded Aerol of a dream, for some reason, when he’d been stabbed in the back, and he belatedly realised it was his alter ego Gunder, claiming subliminally as he usually did with these visions, to Aerol that what Aerol was seeing was in fact a real memory of Gunder’s past life.

In the vision, a realm separate from reality and only in his mind, Aerol saw himself crouch and pick up the arrowhead, brushing his fingers on the shiny blade, and echoes of screams blasted into Aerol’s ears, of atrocities committed with the blade.

The heart stabber.

Aerol turned and ran up the yellow path, shoving the infirm out of the way to catch up with the leading armed figures at the front, on the path that rose from wooden structures, away from the hundreds of stretched tubular hissing monsters, snakes he somehow knew, which connected the edges of the path to a featureless base that passed for a surface.

A blink later and he was back among his council, Grin, and the soldiers.

Grin didn’t even notice anything, and neither had anybody else. It was as if time had frozen over, with some events running parallel to these ones and yet could only be discerned in a heartbeat that represented a longer stretch of time.

Grin came closer, and was now six feet away from Aerol, benefiting from a lot of space on the bridge. He held out his bare hands, palms down. What was this? Then, Aerol saw that Grin’s hands shook, and then with more vigour. Aerol took a step back in wariness. No, this must be an excuse or a joke.

‘A cheap parlour trick of veterans, Grin, and I’d hoped—‘

Aerol’s shifter abilities exploded outward in sensory awareness, stopping him mid-sentence as he perceived something encircling him, some presence that slid in the air like a viscous black liquid that had lived so long it had begun to eat itself from within, making him sickly. He gulped. He’d not had experience of late combating shifters, and what else could this be.

The air itself was shaking, threatening to tear Aerol’s heart out of his body, tugging at the mighty vessels that held it safely central. He glanced at Inde, who was as apprehensive as he was, and yet she must have been the source of the demonstration. There was nobody else this frighteningly powerful. Certainly not Grin.

Quiet, from all around Aerol. Whether everybody else was transfixed by Grin’s wobbling hands, time passed more slowly for them, or they could at some subliminal level feel that something was amiss, Aerol didn’t know.

And then the chasm spoke, first with a deep thrumming and then with an angry vengeful roaring rising up. Aerol panicked and gazed around his space, and then bent to assess the chasm. Breathing rapidly, Aerol wondered what foul invisible predator surrounded them.

‘Rrrooaarrhhaa!’

‘Hisssssssss!

It passed close by Aerol’s ear, but then he could see them: hundreds of black snakes slithering in straight lines up walls that were not there, towards the edges of the bridge, eagerly shifting their black underbellies to reach him, tongues darting out in forked anticipation. Before Aerol thought to break himself free of his paralysis, they were around him, coiling and stretching around his feet.

They leaked a reflective puddle of some semi-luminescent water, and Aerol knelt to probe his finger into the mysterious pool, until two mini snakes hissed loudly, breaking their necks and upper bodies above the pool to warn his fingers away. Aerol recoiled and looked back toward Grin and everybody else. Grin had transformed, holding a staff with a cobra snake head dominating it: a fearsome monster Gunder told him in his mind.

Shielding his eyes from Grin, he realised he couldn’t look at him because he now wore a pointed hat and grey or dark blue robes akin to some mana civilian. And he could not be seen distinctly when Aerol tried to, or was it fear that prevented him from looking at him. Behind the figure that had been Grin was a cave blocking out his view of everybody else, and a faint mist oozed from the bottom. Inside there was only darkness.

The figure regarded him and Aerol dared not move. In fact, he was inclined to run away from this dreadful threat. The snakes continued towards the entrance to the black cave. For some reason, Aerol did not know, they had to be stopped. But first, he had to address the unknown character before him, whose hooded staff gazed toward him with threat. Still, Aerol shielded his eyes while talking to him.

‘Grin, what is this? What happened to you?’

‘More than what, Aerol is who.’

The voice was deep, unlike Grin’s at all, as if it came from the darkest reaches of the chasm.

‘The monster you see everywhere around you has entered the collective unconscious of the world you live on. And it rules.’

‘There are no monsters,’ Aerol said.

‘It calls itself a “sorcerer”,’ Grin said.

‘There are no sorcerers or supernatural oddities. They were even less than monsters back at the time. There are only shifters. This isn’t the Age of Heroes, Grin.’

‘I’m not Grin. I’m the Shadow, your enemy, and these snakes are my essence. I’m the unknown and all fear the unknown.’

The laughter boomed.

Aerol crouched, dug his hand into the bridge and pulled out a stick, which he fashioned into a sharp bladed weapon with a thought. He held it aloft, now a spear, and charged towards the figure. Snakes all around him sealed off his escape, bunching together and stretching and squirming in tandem to stop him from reaching any of his allies. He held the spear in raised fist, and then aimed at the figure, the Shadow. He missed.

The illusion vanished, if it had been, and Grin collapsed, to everybody’s horror. There was no Shadow, no cave, and only an ordinary and weak Grin, riddled with snakes of blood that slithered behind the skin of his face as he moaned and writhed on the ground.

Cress ran up to Aerol’s side.

‘What happened, Aerol? There was some optical illusion. We couldn’t see behind this screen.’

‘Sorcery, from the sorcerer,’ Grin said.

Aerol shook his head.

‘No, it was just a shifter. Somebody turned Warlord Grin into a shifter, and I don’t know how,’ Aerol said.

Grin’s breastplate cracked apart, to reveal an open heart, mutated and with discoloured patches of pulsing purple that had been basted on. It looked like a double heart.

‘Some strange shifter,’ Cress said.

‘Monster power,’ Grin said.

‘Don’t listen to him, Cress. Whatever has happened to him has altered his perception.’

Aerol felt rather than saw Galouch hovering by his right shoulder, peering down.

‘He’ll have to be treated, you know, Aerol,’ Galouch said.

‘Only the mega-fortress … my only salvation,’ Grin said.

Aerol narrowed his eyes.

 

 

 

Aerol MegaFortress Teaser – 1

They were heading north, and Aerol was among them in the group, spearheading the many relaxed lines of his soldiers as they hastily went to work on the bridges, for a reason that he’d not asked about, but he assumed it was the occasion. That was until he saw his soldiers were hastily folding or sliding the bloodied and battered enemy soldiers away, revealing puddles of smeared blood that could not be hidden.

The fallen scarcely had bodies left, crushed as they had been by brutal warfare, caked with blood; bruises having burst to leak with congealing blood spots. The bodies were dotted all over the place, lying in wait. No pattern to the conflict and attack, but whether they’d been cleared away or whether it was the reason for their demise, was to be seen. Their armour, weapons, and possessions had mostly been stripped, and flimsy tunics and the odd weak segment of mail their only protection from nakedness. Their eyes stared upward in shock, the whites of them chilling to behold.

Did soldiers, or any Tekromun, ever really die? There was something ‘present’ about their stillness. A few shifting noises and grunts preceded his soldiers hurling the bodies off the edge of the bridge, falling to the silent all-encompassing black abyss that they called the chasm that was a spectator in this event. Aerol walked to the edge of the twelve-foot wide bridge, and watched the bodies engulfed by the immensity of the blackness, returning to the womb of the world, until a mist flowed over the chasm to hide it from view. He could hear no roaring or see no magical emanations from the chasm at this time. All was dull.

Aerol shook his head, and then noticed General Cress close by.

‘They looked like soldiers, but with cheap armour. Care to enlighten me, General?’ Aerol said.

General Cress who had been issuing orders calmly close by, turned to answer. His squat body still had heavy armour plates on with gaps to allow for movement and skill – important for Aerol’s soldiers. His helmet rose with a peak, and sat on his head like a squat creature, with its narrow nose-shaped protrusion at the top looking down as if to see Cress’ chubby face with emerald eyes below.

‘It was ridiculous, Aerol. There were soldiers, bandits, warriors, and all manner of odd creatures we’d never seen before. We hacked them and hewed them for years but they kept coming. Then, they stopped early this month. We sent scouts in all directions, and the way was safe. Perhaps we finally beat their numbers. We were gaining ground year on year, after all.’

Aerol crouched on the edge and squinted below, looking into the mist where the enemy soldiers had been swallowed.

‘Yes, Cress, but where did they come from?’

‘Our territories are not so great to know that, Warlord Aerol. I assumed they came from the dilapidated structures that are north-west, which are the usual hideouts for warriors, and there are a few theories from the apprentices they came from the under-surface at specific locations. Even the apprentices don’t know why there was a rise in the population of enemies. Now they’ve been culled, it may not matter until we’ve conquered further.’

Aerol stood and looked back the way they’d come.

Behind him were the onlookers outside the West Dominion: soldiers and lines of civilian spectators forming a semi-circle of expectant faces, or the judgemental faces standing above them on higher ledges from the white-robed apprentices with their arms folded and faces held high above to appraise this event. Where they were now, the expressions had become indistinct, and the impressive West Dominion, encircled by rising white-grey walls that curved to conceal rising turrets and structures that belonged to his fortress and the curious habitations of the city that had grown within his dominion.

‘Apprentices … I rely on them too much and they’re overstretched working on demand for the thriving city that my dominion has become. I can’t rely on them much longer,’ Aerol said.

He rubbed his chin with thumb and index finger.

‘Warlord Grin is a Tekromun who has been north, and has seen horrors, perhaps not too dissimilar from those you describe Cress. Could he shed light on this?’ Aerol said.

Cress turned and gave Aerol a bizarre look.

‘You told me his theories were crackpot ones and that he was crazed. We’d give credit to his ravings now?’ Cress said.

‘What choice do we have?’ Aerol said.

‘Inde has travelled further also. Should I bring her on the trip to see what she says?’ Cress said.

Aerol glared at Cress.

Cress shifted back and hesitated.

‘She is, after all, still a member of the War Council. Her contributions may help.’

Aerol let silence be his answer.

On opposite bridges were soldiers going back and forth in lines, idle, and Aerol looked away in distaste at the lack of discipline and orderliness. Their purple forms bobbed up and down, and they passed among themselves trinkets they’d forgotten on previous searches of the bodies, while casting the bodies away, and some of them passed things down the line all the way back to the dominion where eager Tekromun awaited for them. It still seemed strange to Aerol that the soldiers had wives – it had never been commonplace in the past.

‘I’ll bring them both, then,’ Cress said.

Aerol tensed the fingers of his right hand and then clenched them, but didn’t reply.

He gazed north at the mists that hid from view the great spaces that would lead to yet more bridges, destroyed structures of battlefields and even surface platforms, and he wondered how far up he’d continue before reaching the limits of what could one day form part of his new dominion. For now, he brushed away from the soldiers who had surrounded him and were perhaps waiting for new orders in Cress’ absence.