The Future Form of Fiction

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Recently, Brian Niemeier argued that success in indie publishing demands a prolific release schedule. This, in turn, demands short novels. I think he’s right.

The maths is simple. A 50,000 word novel can be edited, formatted and published much faster than a novel of three times the length. An author who releases four books a year enjoys four times the product, four times the chances of being discovered, four times the odds of being recommended, and four times the potential profit (or more) than a writer who publishes merely one. While there are authors who can go for years between novels and become insta-bestsellers when their latest books hit the shelves, these authors are enormously lucky outliers, and professional writers can’t count on being lucky. They have to make their own luck.

This doesn’t mean long novels are obsolete. Larry Correia’s novels are as gigantic as he is. However, he keeps his stories tight and fast-paced, and when he’s in the zone he churns out ten thousand words a day. He publishes multiple books a year, making him as prolific as other indie writers who punch out shorter novels.

Book length isn’t as important as being prolific. But not everyone can dedicate so much time and energy to writing as Larry Correia, so for most authors, writing shorter stories would be a better writing strategy.

Self-publishing has opened the floodgates. At the end of this sentence a new book has been published. To generate and retain brand awareness in such an environment, an indie author must be prolific.

What does this mean for me?

I grew up in the age of mega-novels and densely-packed texts. As a boy I tore through massive tomes without regard for length. Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar and Southern Victory sagas, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Tom Clancy’s and Larry Bond’s technothrillers, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Ron L Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. In the early days of dial-up Internet, I consumed web pages filled with nothing but text and the occasional poorly-rendered image. Today, I still ignore nine in ten photographs I see in online articles.

It never occurred to me that I should be intimidated by the length of the current story I was reading, and that attitude overflowed into my writing. My first novel ran to over 300 pages, and my more recent novels start at 150,000 words. I’m predisposed towards reading and writing what would, by modern standards, be ultra-long works of fiction.

None of which matters in the current age of fiction.

In the 1990s, when I grew up, books merely had to compete with movies, television and video games. Books and library memberships were far, far cheaper than the competition, and they had the singular advantage of being seen as a prestige product. But we don’t live in the 1990s any more.

Today, books have to compete with movies, television, live streams, YouTube, Internet streaming services, mobile games, PC games, and console games. The price of traditionally-published print books haven’t changed significantly over the years, even with the advent of Print on Demand technology, but the entry price for everything else has dropped dramatically. Humble Bundle and Steam sales regularly offer steep discounts for games, streaming is cheap, and YouTube is free.

More importantly, people have changed. We live in an age of constant novelty and distraction. Social media feeds flood users with information every second of the day. Ebooks have no physical presence to remind users of their existence, but they do have page counts that suggest the reader must plow through mountains of words. When given a choice between regular, quick hits of dopamine in a fast-paced mobile game or a prolonged, subtle experience in a work of prose, your average consumer will gravitate towards the former. To even stand a chance of being read, digital articles must come with attractive graphics, attention-grabbing headlines, and be as short as the writer can get away with.

I didn’t create this world. But I have to live in it. And if I am to be successful I must flow with the times.

These industry and consumer trends point to the impending dominance of pulp-style writing. Short, punchy fiction, written quickly, released regularly and sold cheaply. Longer works like The Lord of the Rings would be released as serials or broken up into multiple shorter books. It is the same model employed by modern Japanese light novelists for decades. Its success in the Golden Age of pulp and in modern times indicates that prolific publishing of shorter works is a time-tested strategy for writing success.

There is, however, another method.

Web novels are the red headed stepchildren of the modern publishing scene. While virtually unknown in Western writing circles, they are hugely popular among fans of Japanese and Chinese fiction — especially WNs that have been translated into English.

On first glance, WNs seem to defy Niemeir’s argument: the most popular WNs run into hundreds or even thousands of chapters. But WNs create the illusion of brevity.

Each individual chapter takes no more than a few minutes to read, and is loaded on a single web page. Each chapter takes only a few minutes to read, reducing the perceived time and opportunity cost to the reader, and encouraging the reader to spend just a few minutes more on the next chapter (and the next, and the next…). With many short chapters released regularly, WNs are arguably the modern-day digital serials.

By contrast, books are experienced as a contiguous whole. Ebooks may tell you how many pages you have left to the next chapter, but print books don’t. Novels with long chapters can be a daunting experience to read versus novels with much shorter ones. By breaking up the reading experience into discrete web pages, each trickled down slowly over days and weeks and months, WNs shorten the perceived time it takes to clear each chapter and plot point. When printed, WNs tend to resemble light novels in the brevity of their chapters and story arcs, and indeed many popular LNs began as WNs: Sword Art Online, Re:Zero, Rise of the Shield Hero.

Which makes WNs perfectly suited for Steemit.

I know I can write huge amounts of words quickly. But to be a pro, only published stories count. Going forward, I must adapt my writing style to suit the times. As Kai Wai Cheah I’m obliged to complete the Covenant Chronicles the way I envisioned it: a series of at least six long-form prose novels. But as Kit Sun Cheah I’ve been experimenting with short fiction on Steemit, and the results have been encouraging. I won’t speak of what I will write yet, but come 2018, a new kind of fiction is coming.

Watch this space.

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If you like pulp-style action horror, check out my short story Redemption Road: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, part 4, Part 5

For long-form prose, you can find my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons here.

Redemption Road Part 5

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“What do you mean, he’s gone?”

The innkeeper flipped his record book around, showing it to Freeman. “Mr Johnson and his party checked out late last night. Right after the incident at the hospital. See?”

Freeman checked the log. Jude Johnson and his drivers had checked out at 0345, about an hour after Freeman and his team returned to bed.

“Did he say why he left?” Knight asked.

“He said it was too dangerous to stay here. Something about too many demons.”

“Yet he left his guards without telling them anything,” Bates said.

“When I asked, he said you’d completed your contract with him, and he and his crew can look after themselves.”
“That makes no sense,” Freeman said.

The innkeeper shrugged. “Did he pay you?”

“Just our signing fee,” Freeman said.

“Oh boy. Looks like you need to file a case against him.”

“Did he say where he went?” Knight asked.

“Nah. He didn’t tell me nothing. He screwed you good, huh?”

“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Got a job board around here?”

~

There were no motors in the caravan. Just wagons pulled by teams of oxen. No suspensions, no frills. Everybody left their belongings inside their assigned wagons and walked the broken road.

On the morning of the third day of the journey they arrived at Bernalow. It was a bustling town, but not so rich they could afford dedicated DNA testers and high walls. Once released from their caravan, Freeman, Knight and Bates dumped their rucks in their rooms and scoured the city in their assault packs and exos.

They visited the market and asked the merchants about Jude Johnson. They queried innkeepers about the man, and they asked the sheriff too. The response was always the same.

“You just missed him,” the sheriff said. “He was right here, talking business, looking to see where he could sell his stuff. I’ll get my boys to keep an eye out for him.”

Johnson was everywhere and nowhere in the town. Sometimes he sold goods, sometimes he just spoke to the people he met. But he was always one step ahead.

As dusk fell, the three men headed to the town square. Centred on a water fountain, there was Town Hall, people dining in the open air, merchants yelling out closing-time discounts, and most importantly, a church.

“Think they’ll let us in this time?” Bates asked.

“We have to try,” Freeman replied.

Inside, candles filled the stone building with light. The priest walked along the walls, extinguishing the candles one by one.

“Good evening, Father,” Freeman called.

The priest turned to them. “Good evening. What brings you here?”

“We’re travellers. New to town. Is it a good time for confession?”

The priest smiled. “There’s always time for confession. Who’s first?”

Freeman glanced at his companions. Bates raised his hand. “I’ll go.”

“Excellent. Come, right this way.”

The priest led Bates around the back where the confessional booth stood. Knight and Freeman planted themselves in the pews.

“How long has it been since confession?” Knight asked.

“Two years, eight months and twelve days.”

“You keep track?”

“You don’t?”

Knight snorted. “After everything we’ve done along the way, it’s hard to remember everything we’ve got to confess.”
“We do our best to remember. God will take care of the rest.”

“Like with all things, huh?”

“I—”

Gunshots ripped through the air.

Freeman’s rifle flew to his shoulder.

Another burst of fire.

Bates staggered out of the confessional, smoking pistol in hand.

“The priest! He’s a demon!”

A creature burst out of the booth. It had the face of the priest, but it had a thin proboscis for a mouth. Black blood dripped down its chest.

“Down down DOWN!” Freeman yelled.

Bates threw himself to the floor. Knight and Freeman cut loose. The demon sprawled face-first in a welter of gore, twitching.

The ground shook.

“What the—”

Tendrils sprouted from between the cracks in the floorboards. The wood blackened and softened, transforming into Bloom. Grey crystals condensed on the ceiling, long spidery lines cracking through the rock.

“We need to get out of here.”

Bates stood, swaying.

“Josh, what’s wrong?” Freeman asked.

“I…”

Blood gushed from his mouth and nose and ears. There was a thin ragged hole in his throat, surrounded with purplish flesh. A murky black substance plastered over the wound. Bates scratched frantically at his neck, drawing blood.

“Josh,” Freeman said calmly. “You’ve been infested.”

Bates opened his mouth, gasped. Black pustules burst from under his skin, hardening into carapace.

Freeman’s breath caught in his throat. It was Arkham all over again. It was a boy clawing his eyes out as the Bloom took him, a woman screaming as an infester mounted her, Father Abrams administering the last rites with Bible in one hand and pistol in the other.

“Do it,” Bates said. “You have to do it.”

Freeman aimed. The weapon remained silent.

“I can’t kill myself! DO IT!”

The trigger was stiff under Freeman’s finger. Nothing happened.

Bates’ voice dissolved into a growl. His flesh blackened. Bloom punched into his feet, engorging his torso, growing a hump on his back.

The trigger broke. Freeman howled, firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. The newborn demon dissolved under a hail of flechettes.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Freeman whispered.

“You can apologise later.” Knight fished an incendiary grenade from a pouch, pulled the pin, and tossed the bomb on the body. “We gotta go.”

Freeman ran. Behind him, something, someone, screamed.

Bloom erupted all around the town square. People fled. Tentacles smashed through buildings, reaching for the sky. Roots erupted from the Earth and shattered the fountain. Water gushed forth for a moment, then a thick black patch smothered the spring. An arch, thick and sturdy, grew from it.

Jude Johnson and his four drivers strode from a side street and stood before the newly constructed Hellgate.

Freeman loaded his grenade launcher. Along the surface of every patch of Bloom, eyes and mouths opened. Dripping fangs and tentacles protruded from the openings. The eyes—dozens, hundreds of them, big and small—pinned the Crusaders with their wide, unblinking gazes.

“Freeman! Knight! So good that you came!”

Johnson’s voice echoed in the square, his back still turned to Freeman. But Johnson had lost the accent, and now he knew where he had heard his voice from.

The creature from beyond the Hellgate.

“You!”

A deafening cackle spread throughout the square.

“Turn and face me!”

Johnson laughed again. Flesh and clothes melted and regrew. He was turning himself around, rearranging his body so he now faced Freeman. The drivers mimicked Johnson, turning themselves inside-out, becoming perfect copies of the former human.

“Here we are, men of the cross,” the five Johnsons said.

“You used us,” Knight said.

It was obvious in hindsight. During the attack on Metro City, no one had screened the refugees streaming into the city. No one had stopped Johnson dispensing his medicines to the wounded. No one had stopped them from being evacuated to the hospital.

The demon laughed. “Of course I did! You were so—“

“Pete.”

Stepping up, Knight cut down the Johnsons with a long burst. The bodies went down, and the Bloom absorbed them all.
Johnson’s voice issued from every mouth in the Bloom.

“That’s rude.”

“How the hell?” Freeman muttered.

“We are one. We are all. We are coming. Behold, our true form!”

An unearthly sound issued from the arch. It was a thunderclap, a howl, a tear, and a rip all rolled into one. A force of nature that forced the men down. Red light blasted from the opening, and for a moment Freeman saw the benighted lands of Hell.

A black mountain of carapace-covered flesh crawled through the opening, blocking out the light. Eyestalks and tentacles sprouted from its body, dancing in the air. It had no legs, oozing across the ground like a slug, sucking up the Bloom as it rolled over the substance. The ground shuddered and cracked.

And it was still coming.

Footsteps echoed behind Freeman. Turning, he saw the sheriff and his men. They were outfitted in a variety of antique firearms. Against a monster like that, he didn’t think there was anything they could do.

“Crusaders! I heard about the…” The sheriff’s face paled. “What in the name of God…?”

“Boss, if you have any ideas, now’s a good time,” Knight said.

Freeman checked his grenade launcher. A fresh HEDP shell waited within.

“Pete, on me. Sheriff, take your men, get the civilians out, and distract the demon. I’m gonna blow down the Hellgate.”

The sheriff nodded. “Godspeed.”

Donning their masks, Freeman and Knight ran clockwise around the creature. The sheriff and his men went in the opposite direction. Rifles popped and shotguns boomed, but the Elder Demon didn’t seem to notice. It squirmed and writhed, forcing its bulk through the Hellgate.

Limbs whipped through the air. Looking up, Freeman saw a massive appendage falling towards him.

“Get clear!” Knight yelled.

The men jumped aside as the tentacle slammed into the ground. The shockwave threw them off their feet. Groaning, Freeman picked himself back up.

The tentacle was gigantic. Clad in thick armor and twice as tall as he was, it lay across the plaza, resting in the ruins of a three-storey building. Bloom sprouted from its tip. There was no way around it. Freeman scanned its surface, looking for handholds, but it was completely smooth.

It rose, twisting towards him, and fell again.

Cursing, Freeman leapt.

BOOOOM!

He landed on his belly, his mask pressed against a pile of rubble. Getting up, he looked around.

Knight wasn’t with him.

“Pete! You okay?!”

A voice called out from the other side of the appendage.

“I’m good!” Knight shouted. “Finish the job!”

A desperate cacophony of gunshots filled the world. Explosions and tremors answered them. Freeman ran, placing himself directly behind the Hellgate. From this angle, the Hellgate’s mouth opened into an infinity of darkness.

He lased the arch of the Hellgate. His HUD told him how high to elevate his weapon. Taking careful aim, he fired.

The grenade smashed into the edifice. The Hellgate shuddered and crumbled. The portal winked out, leaving behind the monster’s remaining mass in Hell.

And opening an enormous wound.

The demon cried. Again the earpro saved Freeman’s hearing, but he felt its voice shaking his bones. A flood of black blood gushed from the wound, covering the square and filling the drains and gutters.

The demon was still in the fight. Fresh tentacles sprouted from its body and sucked up the Bloom. The gaping wound began to close. As Freeman reached for a fresh grenade, motion caught his eye.

A fresh tentacle, small but lithe, reached for the ground, winding around and snapping up a man. Peter Knight.
“Boss! Need some help here!” Knight called.

The tentacle was wrapped around Knight’s lower body, leaving his arms free. Knight pointed his weapon and ripped off a long burst. Freeman aimed carefully and fired too. Their flechettes simply bounced off its armour.

Swearing, Freeman advanced on it, trying to get a better angle. Another enormous tentacle came crashing down. He dodged it, but now he was cut off.

Knight’s weapon ran dry. He drew a knife and stabbed at the tentacle, but the blade did not penetrate. The monster’s body reformed. A pair of jaws opened in its flesh. Knight screamed, freeing one hand, then the other. He dug into a pocket, producing a small round object.

The tentacle flung him into its mouth.

DEUS VULT!” Knight screamed.

The monster swallowed him.

A moment later, an explosion rippled through its flesh, blowing out a large chunk of alien matter. The monster screamed, its voice filling the world.

ENOUGH. THIS ENDS NOW.

Eyes emerged all over its flesh. Its wound had become a massive mouth, lined with strange suckers and razor teeth. Crimson eyes turned on Freeman. Strange geometries danced at the edge of his vision.

He couldn’t look away. He couldn’t move.

COME TO ME.

Unbidden, he walked to the mouth. He willed his muscles to stop. They didn’t obey. Unearthly laughter filled his ears. One step, another, a third.

The maw yawned wide.

Under his shirt, Freeman’s crucifix crackled against his skin.

Breath filled his lungs. His lips and tongue moved.

DEUS VULT!

Freeman’s vision cleared. The voices fled his mind. He was himself again. He snapped up his M891 and fired.

The 40mm grenade hurtled into the darkness. A muffled blast followed. The monster roared in pain, its appendages flailing and trashing. Switching to full-auto, Freeman fired long streams of ultra-high-velocity metal into the mouth, tearing up its insides.

The creature squirmed, its eyes blinking shut. When his weapon went dry he primed an incendiary grenade and flung it into the hole. A glimmer of white flame shone in the dark. It grew larger and larger, consuming the Eater from the inside out.

The monster screamed, thrashing and wailing and gnashing and crying. One last spasm, and it went limp.

The demon was dead.

~

Clearing out the remaining Bloom took another day. The caravan he had joined left without him. Freeman stayed for another week, helping to rebuild. When it was over the townsfolk buried the dead in their cemetery. The priests offered prayers for everyone ‒ believers and seculars, excommunicated and faithful, they didn’t discriminate.

Freeman stood in front of the graves of Knight and Bates. Their headstones were marked with their names and simple stone crosses.

“And now it’s just me,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

The dead offered no solace or remonstration.

“I’m going to finish what we started. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

Crossing himself, he walked away.

~~

Freeman signed on with another caravan to New Rome. During the Fall, a regiment of Old World soldiers had retreated here and set up shop. They worked with the Church to restore order and preserve knowledge. Between the two, in the centuries since the demons came, New Rome had never fallen. If anything, it had grown.

They still had his biometrics on file. After a cursory inspection the gate guards let him through. Inside the city, after collecting his pay, he took a long, luxurious shower and fell into bed. When he woke, he discovered he had slept for nearly a full day.

He spent three days asking around, looking for directions, restocking his supplies. In the morning of the fourth day, the Sabbath day, he dressed himself in his freshest clothes and walked.

The church was tiny but well-kept. The kind of church given to new priests to gain experience, old priests as a final post, or priests who had fallen out of favour but could not be expelled.

In the courtyard, a balding man in a black cassock, his back straight, his eyes clear, swept the lawn. He looked up as Freeman approached.

“Good morning, Father Kelly,” Freeman said.

“Morning. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“You look like a man looking for something.”

“Yes, Father. I am William Freeman, formerly of the Order of Saint George. I am here with my brothers in spirit. We have walked the redemption road, and have come for confession.”

Kelly smiled. Stepping back, he opened the door to the church.

“Come in. We’ve been expecting you.”

~~

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Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

Thanks for seeing this story to the end. If you’d like to support my other fiction, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 4

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The stairs led to what was once an underground train station. Now it was a transition zone for people wishing to enter and exit Metro City. People packed the train platform, anxious and crying and commiserating. When the Metro City troopers descended, the people loosed a hearty cheer.

Bates, Knight and Freeman didn’t join in. They carefully carried Sharpe’s body to a corner and laid him down with the rest of the human dead.

“And now we are three,” Freeman said.

“We should police the body before looters get at it,” Knight said.

Wordlessly the men went through Sharpe’s pockets, taking everything useful.

“Who’s going to take his five-two-five?” Knight asked.

Sharpe’s M525 grenade launcher was still attached to the rifle. It was a critical weapon, one that shouldn’t be sold so long as they still had ammo for it.

“I will,” Freeman said.

Freeman slung Sharpe’s rifle around his shoulder, then methodically unfastened Sharpe’s grenade pouches and laced them on his armour carrier. He retrieved Sharpe’s bandoleer and wrapped it around his body too.

Behind them, a heated argument broke out, and the three men walked over. Johnson was arguing with a Metro City trooper.

“No! No drugs!” the soldier yelled.

“Your friend is dying!” Johnson insisted. “I can help!”

On the floor, a wounded man groaned as a medic wrapped his right leg with bandages. A large shard jutted from the wound, slowly dissolving into his flesh.

“What’s going on?” Freeman asked.

Johnson gestured at the wounded trooper. “He’s been shot. There’s Bloom in his bloodstream. He needs treatment now.”

“And as I was saying,” the other trooper said, stepping forward, “we’re not cleared to use non-issue drugs.”
“What kind of drugs?”

Johnson held up a syrette to the light. “This.”

The markings on the tube read ‘Gardia Biotech’. Its logo, the company’s initials stylised to resemble a caduceus, was on the reverse. Freeman had seen many just like it. Hell, he carried a bunch of similar syrettes himself. It was the real deal. Probably.

“It’s a stimshot,” Johnson continued. “It’ll break down the Bloom and promote healing. If you take him to your hospital, the doctors are goin’ to give it him anyway.”

The wounded man moaned. Black fibres crawled out from under the bandage, spiralling up his leg. The medic backed away, unwilling to touch the alien matter.

“The Bloom is spreading,” Knight said. “He needs it.”

The trooper hesitated.

“When we served in the Church, we used stimshots just like this one,” Freeman said. “If you don’t use it now, he’ll die before he gets to a doctor. Or worse.”

The soldier swore. “Do what you want.”

Johnson uncapped the syrette and punched it into the wounded man’s thigh. The soldier groaned. The Bloom shrank away, drying up and flaking off.

“That’ll hold him until you get him to hospital,” Johnson said.

“He’d better,” the soldier said. “If he doesn’t, it’s on you.”

The rest of Johnson’s crew treated the remaining wounded with stimshots before handing them off to stretcher parties. Johnson supervised them.

“These stimshots… they’re your trade goods, right?” Freeman asked.

“Right.”

“You’re giving them out for free?”

“Times like this, money don’t mean nothin’.” Johnson grinned. “‘sides, it’s free advertising.”

Freeman chuckled.

~

When the chaos subsided, more people arrived to take charge of the situation and assist. The priests refused to say prayers for Sharpe. The soldiers accepted the body anyway, allowing him to be buried alongside their own dead. As they wrapped him in a simple white shroud, Freeman and his team stood over the body and recited their prayer.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison,” Freeman said.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

~

The far side of the train station led to down to Metro City itself. Everywhere Freeman looked there were people walking, haggling, eating, working. There was barely room to breathe. The background roar of a thousand voices tripped his earpro, dialling down the sound. Despite that, the moment people saw the weapons they gave Freeman and his team a wide berth.

After Johnson and his crew checked in at an inn, Freeman and his team were dismissed from their duties. Freeman moved the M525 grenade launcher to his rifle, then helped his team split up Sharpe’s belongings. They spent the rest of the day selling off non-essential gear or exchanging them for essentials: ammo, food, clean water, other supplies. They refilled their empty pouches and magazines, and retired to the inn in time for dinner.

A round of beers. A toast, a prayer and a simple meal. They said grace and tucked in, dining on stewed vegetables and meat best left unidentified.

As they ate, Johnson approached their table. “Am I disturbin’ you?”

“Got any work for us?” Freeman asked.

“Just checkin’ in. Must be tough, losing a man. My condolences.”

“We’re good,” Knight said icily. “I thought you were with your drivers.”

“They’re busy runnin’ errands.” Johnson glanced about the room. “Listen, I haven’t had anythin’ since breakfast today and I’m starved. Mind if I sit with ya?”

Freeman had half a mind to turn Johnson away. The other half insisted that he should be gracious to his employer.

The former Crusaders made room. Johnson pulled up a chair and ordered another bowl of stew.

“You guys doin’ okay?” Johnson asked.

“We’ll be fine,” Knight said testily.

“Just askin’ is all. I know you guys were tight.”

Freeman grunted. How could he begin to explain what it to kill and bleed and die side by side with a brother in arms? There was no need to explain to a fellow warrior, and no use describing it to a civilian.

“He is with God now,” Bates said. “He’s earned his reward.”

“That’s something, at least.” Johnson shifted uneasily. “Y’know, somethin’s been buggin’ me.”

“Yeah?” Knight prodded.

“Y’all told me you were pilgrims. But I heard the troopers callin’ you Crusaders.”

Freeman mulled that answer for a moment. “Before our pilgrimage, we served as Crusaders. That’s how we met.”

“Ah. But I also saw the priests denyin’ Neil a Christian burial. Why’s that?”

Bates frowned. Knight glared. Freeman had to remind himself to breathe.

“Did I do somethin’ wrong?” Johnson asked.

“It’s between us and the Church,” Freeman said. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

“I’m plannin’ to stop over at some religious communities. If it could cause a problem, I need to know.”

“It won’t be a problem.”

“Really? I heard you were excommunicated. That could cause issues.”

“How did you find out?” Knight demanded.

“Heard the priests talkin’. Now, I understand it’s unpleasant business, but I need to know if it could affect our business.”

“It won’t,” Freeman said.

Johnson met Freeman’s gaze. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Bates said. “It was just…politics.”

“Politics? That really could cause problems. Now I have to hear about it.”

Knight shot Bates a dirty look. Freeman just sighed. The cat was out of the bag. Might as well get it over and done with.

“Heard of a city called Arkham?” Freeman asked.

“Can’t rightly say I have.”

Freeman sighed again. “Three years ago, we received reports of demons emerging in Arkham. The Order of Saint George was dispatched to investigate. By the time we got there…”

Freeman stared into his beer. Knight took over.

“The city was crawling with demons. Every time we burned out a nest, they popped up somewhere else. It was brutal. Street to street, house to house, hand to hand. They destroyed half the city before we realized they had set up a network of Hellgates in the sewers. By the time we were done…there was nothing left of Arkham.”

Johnson nodded sadly. “It sounds terrible.”

Fury crept across Bates’ face. “It got worse. We took seventy percent casualties. Seventy percent. The ones still alive were court-martialled. They charged us with negligence of duty, mass murder, wilful destruction of civilian and Church property… The head of our Order defended us against most of those charges. But there was one thing he couldn’t help us with.”

“We were excommunicated,” Freeman said.

“That doesn’t sound fair,” Johnson remarked.

“It’s not,” Bates said. “It’s politics. The Church needed a scapegoat. Better to disband an order than for the masses to lose their faith. And the other Crusader Orders had their eyes on our gear for the longest time. The moment we were excommunicated they divided everything we had amongst themselves.” Bates sighed. “Politics.”

“Bad business all around,” Johnson said. “How are you handling it?”

The men exchanged glances. Freeman raised an eyebrow. Knight nodded. So did Bates.

“Among our Order, we have a tradition,” Freeman said. “Whenever one of us commits a mortal sin, we travel to New Rome on foot. Along the way, we help everybody we can and slay whatever demons we find. It’s our way of doing penance. And when we arrive at New Rome, we ask for forgiveness. We call it walking the redemption road.”

“Will the Church let you back in?”

“Excommunication is a medicinal penalty, not a punishment,” Bates said. “After completing penance, the Church will absolve us. It’s part of the sacraments. They have to take us back.”

“They must,” Freeman whispered.

~

After the evening meal they retired to their rooms. Freeman spent the rest of the night attending to his kit and praying. When he was done, he lay on the hard bed and stared at the ceiling until his eyelids drooped.

Gunfire.

He leapt out of bed.

Long hammers of autofire, mixed with howls and screams. He peered out the window. By the dim light he saw people fleeing down the street, lit by the underground streetlamps.

The door burst open.

“Boss!” Knight yelled.

“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Kit up. We’re headed out.”

Freeman’s hands flew. He slipped on his boots over bare feet, snapped on his armour carrier over his thin sleepwear, slung his rifle and fastened his helmet into place. In the hallway outside his room, he ran into his men.

“What’s the call?” Bates asked.

“We help, however we can,” Freeman said.

Outside, they encountered a demon. A roiling jumble of flesh and limbs and organs dragging itself down a tiny street with its oversized paws. A hump extruded from its back, mounting an extended barrel. The demon stomped on a body, fired up a shop, and turned towards Freeman.

The men opened fire. Freeman pressed the trigger as fast as he could, his vision narrowing into a black-and-white tube as it came closer, closer—

“Cease fire!” Knight yelled. “It’s dead already!”

“What fresh horror is this?” Bates whispered.

Freeman hadn’t seen anything like it before. The fleshy thing was immobile, bleeding from dozens of yawning wounds, its turret frozen. It wasn’t a threat for now, but he didn’t want to come close to it. Not until it was burnt to ash.

Sirens wailed, reverberating in the close confines of the underground city. Gunshots followed. The men ran, chasing the sound of gunfire.

A squad of Metro City troopers charged past them. Freeman sprinted alongside the squad leader.

“Hey!” Freeman called. “Can we help?”

The soldier glanced at him. “You the guys who defended the gate, right?”

“Right.”

“We could use more guns in the fight. Follow me!”

When they arrived at the hospital, Freeman saw writhing tentacles oozing wetly out of broken windows. Broken bodies littered the ground. Monstrosities rolled out of the entrance, one after another, each bearing different configurations of claws, guns, arms and legs.

No cover. Nowhere to run.

But Crusaders never ran from the fight.

“Light ‘em up!” Freeman ordered.

He flicked to full auto and hosed down the nearest monster. The flechettes cut through their carapaces as though they were paper. Something whined past Freeman’s ear. A heartbeat later, he released the trigger and scan.

The monsters on the loose were all down. But more emerged from the entrance of the hospital.

“Pete,” Freeman said calmly. “Lock it down.”

Knight poured streams of full auto fire through the door as a fresh wave of monsters burst through. Kneeling, Bates and Freeman fired short bursts at the ones that tried to escape. The Metro City troops joined in, throwing a wall of steel downrange. Bodies stacked up outside and around the door—but they were still coming.

“Make a hole!” a man cried.

A squad of Metro City troopers came charging down a crammed street. Dressed in heavy yellow chemsuits, they carried a mix of M891s and bulky flamethrowers. The Crusaders stepped aside.

“Hot shot!” the leader called.

As the men laid down suppressive fire, a pair of flamethrower operators stepped up. Scarlet tongues of burning fuel leapt from their weapons’ throats, engulfing the hospital, the demons and the Bloom in cleansing flame.

It was over.

Freeman gagged at the sickeningly sweet stench of roast pork. Leaning against a wall, he paused to catch his breath. Down the street, he saw a man standing at the entrance to an alley, smirking at the sight.

Jude Johnson.

Freeman blinked.

And Johnson was gone.

~~

PSX_20170918_043442

Previous parts: 1, 2, 3

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 3

apocalypse

Johnson had a fleet of four biodiesel-powered trucks. Clean and cool and quiet. Impossible to find outside the big cities and major polities. He had stocked his vehicles with fuel cans, leaving precious little space for cargo. Or people.

The men spread themselves into two teams. Freeman and Sharpe in the lead vehicle with Johnson, Knight and Bates in the chase truck. It was a tight fit; every spare square inch inside the cabs was filled with goods of some kind or other.

Freeman wondered how Johnson made a profit. His drivers weren’t anywhere near as chatty as he was, and Johnson himself wouldn’t discuss business. Pre-Fall long-haul trucks had disappeared with the advent of flying demons, and most traders went with cheaper horse or mule-powered wagons. The ones fortunate enough to have motor vehicles relied on high-profit low-volume transactions to survive. Food was not included in those. Johnson had to be carrying highly valuable medicine indeed.

The road out of town was rough and bumpy, the highway long dissolved into well-worn dirt. Freeman scanned the world outside the windows, his M891 close to hand.

Black dots danced in the sky. Birds or flying demons, he couldn’t tell. This far away from polities with functional air defences, it was best to steer clear.

The road led to an ancient abandoned settlement. It looked like a horde of giants had thundered through the place, smashing aside everything in their path. Out the corner of his eye, Freeman saw things skittering between piles of rubble. Johnson sped through the ruins, unwilling to stop.

Past the town, patches of Bloom marched across the land. Crystalline vines suffocated hollowed-out buildings. Here it came in multi-coloured hues ‒ grey, black, red, green ‒ showing the world what they had consumed.

“I heard demons make their nests in the Bloom,” Johnson said.

“You heard right,” Sharpe said. “We should burn the Bloom down the first chance we get.”

“That’s mighty wasteful, if you ask me.”

“Wasteful? The demons are making our world more like Hell with each passing day. We have to stop them.”

“The Bloom’s been here since who knows when. No point tryin’ to root it out. It’ll just grow back. Always does. Better we harvest it instead. Nothin’ we have on us woulda been possible without it.”

“What about the demons who use it?” Freeman asked.

“They’re intelligent creatures. Instead of tryin’ ta slaughter each other for all time, we oughta talk to them, see if we can reach an accommodation.”

Freeman shook his head sharply. “No. They want only one thing: the final downfall of man. You can not negotiate with demons. I say we kill ‘em all.”

“Amen,” Sharpe agreed. “Fire and steel, that’s the way to go.”

“You got that from your Good Book?”

Freeman nodded. “Church records show that demons don’t usually talk to humans. Those who do seek only corruption and conquest.”

Johnson shrugged. “Well, I suppose you’re the experts in this sorta thing.”

“You got that right,” Bates said.

~

Metro City was a living city built into the bowels of a dead one. When the Fall hit this part of the world, humanity took shelter underground and stayed there ever since.

Bloom had overrun much of the cityscape. Grey and brown growths sprouted from gutters, shops, skyscrapers. Now and then the convoy had to bypass roads choked off with Bloom.

After an hour of wending and winding through the streets, they saw the first sign of human civilisation: a bazaar.

Formerly a city square, makeshift stalls of wood and cloth now lined the sidewalks. Merchants hawked goods fashioned from the bones of a dead civilisation, and traders led horse wagons through the market and haggled for the best prices.
A pair of guards stood watch at every entrance to the bazaar. They were bedecked in Old World arms and armour: exosuits and full plate, gloves and masks, M891s and fusion goggles. It was the same gear Freeman and his team had, but newer and cleaner.

Johnson exchanged some banter with the guards, and slowly drove through the bazaar. The crowds made way for them, gawking at the battered vehicles.

At the heart of the square a squad stood watch behind a ring of sandbags. A pair of tripod-mounted machine guns rested close to hand. Nearby, officials and machines awaited in booths to inspect and admit travellers.

Past the checkpoint was a stairway that led down into the depths of the hollowed city. The sign above the entrance had long ago been painted over, bearing the words ‘METRO CITY’ now.

Johnson and his crew stepped out of their vehicles. The four drivers clustered around the man, utterly disinterested in everything around them.

Freeman and his team mounted their assault packs on their massive rucksacks, shouldered their bags and spread out, watching the crowds and watching the guards watching them. He made sure to keep his finger off the trigger and his rifle pointed safely at the ground.

“Passports, please,” the guard commander said.

Johnson patted down his pockets. “Hey, what the… damn it. Must have left mine back in the truck.” He cracked a smile. “Sorry, gettin’ old. I’ll just pop out, get it, an’ come right back, okay?”

The guard sighed. “Fine. Next please.”

As Johnson sauntered away with his drivers, Freeman and his team lined up, their passports ready. The guard inspected Freeman’s little blue book and lifted his eyebrows.

“New Rome, eh?” the guard asked. “You Crusaders?”

“We were.”

The secular authorities of New Rome had allowed the former Crusaders to retain their passports. The guard flipped through the passport and compared Freeman’s face to the photo. “Completed your terms?”

“Yes sir.”

“Thanks for your service. Please line up for inspection.”

Dogs sniffed Freeman for contraband drugs while millimetre wave scanners peeked into his packs. After that, a technician swabbed the inside of his cheeks and fed the sample into a DNA tester. No matter how hard they tried, demons could not hide the Bloom that permeated their bodies, right down to the molecular level.

When he was finally cleared, he retrieved his kit and presented his passport to the customs officer. She sat at a table just outside the entrance, a computer at the ready. It was pre-Fall tech, a slate-like device propped up at an angle on the table, wired to a thumbprint reader and a passport scanner.

As Freeman handed her his passport, she asked, “Where did you come from?”

“Holstead,” Freeman said.

“That’s to the southeast, isn’t it? Have you heard of the Eater?”

“Who?”

She indicated the reader with one hand and patted her slate with the other.

“Right thumb on the reader and eyes on the camera, please.”

Freeman complied.

“Thank you,” she said. “The Eater. An Elder Demon. Word is, he’s a demon in the shape of a man, or maybe a man turned into a demon. He rolls into town, all polite-like, and when he’s settled in he opens a Hellgate and gobbles up everyone. He’s been making his way northwest, eating every town along the way.”

A light turned green. Freeman removed his thumb from the reader. “What’s this Eater look like?”

“He keeps changing his human form. Only consistent description is that he keeps smiling a lot. And when he turns into a demon, he becomes this huge, fleshy…thing with eyes and mouths and—”

Gunfire ripped through the air.

The men dropped everything and fanned out.

“What was that?” Freeman asked.

“M891s,” Sharpe said.

High-pitched chattering filled the world. Men and women and children screamed. Sirens blared.

The guard commander sprinted over. “Demons are attacking! Get underground now!”

The bureaucrat blinked. “But their passports—”

“No time, dammit! Go!”

Freeman hefted his M891. “Sir, we have weapons. How can we help?”

The soldier gave him a once-over. Nodding, he pointed at the sandbags.

“Take up position over there. Cover the civilians. Don’t let any demons through.”

“Got it. Gentlemen, let’s go.”

At the checkpoint, guards manned the machine guns and urged the civilians through. Freeman and Knight positioned themselves to the left of the entrance, Sharpe and Bates to the right. More gunfire split the air. In the distance, demons ululated.

“No sign of targets,” Knight said.

“Set up for a static defence,” Freeman said.

The men set their rucksacks by their feet, donned their helmets, and dug out their spare magazines, placing the mags by the sandbags.

Freeman had six spares in his pack, three on his armour carrier, one in his rifle. A thousand rounds in all. He set the last mag down and saw Johnson and his men hustling past the checkpoint. They were hauling massive boxes and bags. Without a word, they disappeared downstairs.

“What the hell?” Knight said. “Their cargo worth dying for?”

“CONTACT FRONT!” a guard yelled.

Pillars of smoke rose from the far end of the bazaar. Civilians scattered before them. Freeman turned on his goggles and peered through the smoke. No go; the smoke was too thick and hot for his thermal vision to penetrate. Through the haze the demons fired indiscriminately. People screamed and died, but Freeman saw nothing.

“Anybody see anything?” Sharpe asked.

“Nothing,” Freeman said. “Be ready. They’re going to—”

They came. Through gaps in the crowd and in between the stores, demons streamed towards the checkpoint. Like the ones at the Anderson farm, these superficially resembled men, but their bodies were covered in jet-black carapace, and their four eyes blazed red. Their left hands ended in wicked claws, and their right arms were machine guns grown from their flesh.

They advanced in bounds, shooting at every human they saw. Freeman aimed, but there were still too many civilians in the way.

“GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” Freeman yelled.

The demons fired. The machine guns answered.

Blood sprays and body parts flew. The surviving civilians screamed, diving to the ground and crawling away from the guns. The smoke began to disperse.

Through the chaos, Freeman saw a cluster of demons. Freeman patted Knight’s shoulder and pointed.
“Demons! One o’clock, two fifty metres, by the store!”

Knight fired short bursts of six. Two demons went down. The rest scattered. One of them ducked behind a nearby wooden cart. Freeman walked fire left to right, right to left. Shredded cabbages and tubers and wood went flying. The demon slumped over, falling out of cover. Freeman placed three more rounds into it.

A high-pitched CRACK rose above the gunfire.

Next to Knight, a Metro City trooper fell from his machine gun, a massive hole in his head.

“Man down! Man down!” a soldier yelled.

That trooper dragged the body aside and took up the gun—only to have his face explode before he could fire a shot.

“SNIPER!” Freeman shouted.

Knight ducked and scooted away. The other mounted machine gunner stepped off, and a heavy shard blew through his chest.

“The sniper’s targeting the machine guns!” Knight yelled.

Freeman turned on his thermal vision and poked his head up.

The sniper had to be on the move. That was fine. All he needed was a glimpse—

—a flash of red—

Freeman pumped out rounds as fast as he could pull the trigger. With his left hand, he pulsed his weapon laser.

“Engage my target!”

A red crosshair appeared on his display, and everybody else’s. They opened fire ‒ Bates with single shots, Knight with disciplined bursts. Sharpe fired his forty. The window exploded in fire.

“Got ‘im,” Sharpe said.

A loud ripping noise.

Sharpe toppled over, shards embedded in his helmet, his face, his throat.

“Man down!” Bates yelled, pumping fire downrange. “Contact, ten o’clock!”

The demons advanced like a tidal wave, pouring out from behind cover. Their arm-guns pointed at the sandbags, firing with every step as they steadily advanced. Most of the shots went wild. Freeman ignored them, flicking to full auto.
“FPF!” Freeman called.

Final Protective Fire. The men unleashed storms of full-auto fire, punishing the enemy wherever they concentrated. The demons scattered, hiding behind barrels, stores, carts, and corpses. Freeman fired through them all, his high-velocity flechettes tearing apart everything in their path.

The magazine went dry. He grabbed a fresh one and scanned.

The Metro City troopers had rallied. They were back on the machine guns, taking over where Freeman’s team had left off. Freeman slapped in the drum, hit the bolt release, and saw more troops bearing heavy weapons charge out the stairwell.
They crammed themselves next to the living defenders and loosed an impenetrable wall of firepower. Freeman joined in, dialling down to single shot and firing at everything that remotely resembled a demon. Aim, fire, aim fire, aim—

“Cease fire! Cease fire!”

Freeman released the trigger.

Silence.

Stillness.

It was over.

~~

PSX_20170918_044151

Previous parts: 1, 2

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 2

soldiers-grave.jpg

The men removed the bodies, dug a firebreak around the house and set the house ablaze with an incendiary grenade. The wood burned, taking the Bloom with it.

Freeman dug out his radio and tuned it to a clear channel. “Sheriff Hart, this is Freeman. Do you copy, over?”

“Freeman, Hart here. How’s it going?”

“We’ve finished investigating the Anderson farm. We encountered demons and Bloom on site, including a Hellgate in the attic. Six demons KIA, Hellgate shut down, and now the site is being purged. No sign of the Andersons. But we saw six bodies being digested.”

Hart sighed. “Copy. Guess we know what happened to them. I’ll round up a posse and swing on over. We’ll be there by dawn.”

“Roger. And Sheriff?”

“Yes?”

“We need a priest.”

~

The team took turns to stand watch through the night. At dawn, a dozen hardy men headed up the main road. Hart was in the lead, and at the rear was an elderly man in a black cassock and white clerical collar. Freeman raised a hand in greeting, and Hart returned the gesture.

“Mornin’ gents,” Hart said.

“Morning, Sheriff.” Freeman coughed; his armour had stopped the shard, but it had left a deep bruise that he was only feeling now.

With a broad sweep of his arm, Hart gestured at the smoking ruin and the Bloom-covered field.

“Looks worse in daylight, don’t it,” Hart said.

“Yes sir.”

Hart looked at the bodies laid out by the road. “Those the demons?”

“Yeah.”

“Ugly way to die. But at least we don’t have to… Is that a child?”

Freeman sighed. This was never easy. “Yes sir. The demons must have taken her. Changed her into one of them.”

Hart crossed himself. “My God…”

“That’s demons for you.”

“Horrible business, what they do to humans.” He paused. “I only see four of you.”

Freeman pressed his lips together. Steadied himself with a breath. Looked into Hart’s eyes.

“We lost a man.”

Hart shook his head sympathetically. “I’m sorry. At least you stopped the demons before things got worse.” Digging into the pocket of his coat, Hart extracted a small bag. “Here. Your reward. I know it won’t bring your man back, but at least y’all did the right thing. And don’t worry; we’ll take care of the rest.”

“Thanks.”

Freeman stuffed the coin bag into a cargo pocket. It was so heavy his pants sagged.

“What are you planning to do with the Bloom in the fields?” Freeman asked.

“The Mayor’s going to ask AYG Mining to look at it. Might even sell land rights if the price is right.”

Freeman bit his lip. He’d rather burn it all, but he knew remote communities like this would see things differently.

The Bloom was both bane and blessing. It leeched out the life from the land around it, sucking up nutrients, metals, and other materials buried in the Earth and concentrating them in itself. When the demons were hungry or wounded, they ate the Bloom to restore their strength. When they needed reinforcements and there was no Hellgate nearby, the Bloom turned human prisoners into more demons.

When humans learned how to harvest the Bloom, it had marked the turning point of the Tribulation. Everything Freeman had on him ‒ his gear, weapons, ammo ‒ were perfect reproductions of pre-Fall tech. The Church had preserved the knowledge to create them, but only the Bloom had made the raw materials readily available.

“Think it might breathe life back into town?” Freeman asked.

“That’s the Mayor’s thinking. Got to make the best of a bad situation. For now, my boys are gonna guard it.”

“Fair enough. But be careful. The Bloom spreads fast. You’ve got to station the guards at least half a kilometre from the field.”

“Will do.”

The priest stood at the smoking ruins of the house, offering a prayer. Freeman and his men waited until he was done then approached him.

“Father, we need your help,” Freeman said.

“What’s the matter?”

“We lost a man last night. We’d like you to perform a burial service for him.”

The priest nodded. “My condolences. The Sheriff said you were Crusaders. Is that right?”

If the priest were an ordinary civilian, Freeman would have opted for an obfuscation. But he had never lied to a priest before, and this was no time to start.

“We… We were, Father.”

“Were?”

Freeman held the priest’s gaze. “We’re from the Order of Saint George.”

The priest pursed his lips, disgust lighting his eyes. “I cannot help you.”

“Father, please. He helped to save—”

“You are excommunicate and anathema. The sacraments are forbidden to you.”

“Can’t you spare—”

“You are no longer of the Church!” the priest snapped.

“Father—”

Knight laid a hand on Freeman’s shoulder. “It’s no use,” Knight said. “We’ll take care of him our own way.”

The priest grunted and walked away.

~

The four men carried Knowles’ body to a flat patch of ground, dug a hole so deep the Bloom wouldn’t touch him, and gently lowered him into the hole.

Bowing their heads, they gathered around the grave. Freeman cleared his throat.

“Lord, we commend unto thy hands the soul of our departed brother, and we commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He gave his life in service to you and to humanity. Please have mercy on him and grant him the absolution he sought in life. Please continue to watch over us as we continue to walk the road. Thank you. Amen.”

“Amen,” the men echoed.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

~

Back in town they divided Knowles’ belongings with the mechanical manner of men who had performed the same unpleasant task too many times before. Food, water, ammo and money they divided among themselves. Everything else was sold or traded to the town merchant. The gold they received was heavy, but it was the one currency accepted everywhere in the Fallen world.

With that out of the way, they made for the saloon. Checking in their firearms, they ordered drinks and clustered at a table in the corner. They rarely drank, but today they made an exception.
Standing, Freeman raised his mug. “To absent companions!”

“Absent companions!”

They drained their glasses in a single pull and slammed them on the table.

“And now, we are four,” Freeman pronounced.

“Gone too soon,” Sharpe said. “Too damn soon.”

“Oliver was the best of us,” Bates said. “No better friend, no worse foe. Saved our hides who knew how many times. Sent back too many demons to count. What the priest said doesn’t matter; if anybody earned redemption among us, it’s him.”

Knight signalled for another drink. “Amen, brother.”

“We’ll walk the road in his place,” Sharpe said. “We’ll finish what we started.”

A tall, thin man entered the saloon and scanned the room. He fixed his gaze on Freeman, smiled and sauntered over.

“Heads up,” Freeman said. “Single male approaching.”

The man raised his hand. “Hello. Mind if I join you?”

“What’s the occasion?” Knight asked, his tone taking on a studied air of neutrality.

“Just wanted to thank y’all for dealing with the demons at the Anderson place. Terrible business.”

The man had the strangest accent Freeman had ever heard. It sounded like it came from all over, a mix of hayseed twang and slicker sophistication.

“You’re welcome,” Freeman said.

“Heard the demons killed someone too. Friend of yours?”

“Yes.”

“My condolences. Mind if I get the next round?”

“Go ahead.”

The man flagged down a waitress and ordered five beers. Then he pulled up an empty seat and joined them.

“Don’t mean to intrude,” the stranger said. “Just wonderin’ if y’all are soldiers or mercenaries or something.”

“Pilgrims,” Freeman said.

The stranger’s smile grew broader. “Packin’ heavy firepower for pilgrims.”

“Dangerous world out there.”

“No kiddin’. Looks like you’ve got some trainin’ too.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You dress the same way, carry the same kind o’ gear, keep watchin’ the room even as we talk. You Crusaders?”

Freeman pondered his response for a moment. On one hand, lying was a sin. On the other, the men still had to earn their keep.

“We completed our terms.” Freeman paused, locking eyes with the stranger. “But we still keep the faith.”

“Ah. Well, are you boys interested in a job?”

“I’m more interested in your name right now.”

The man laughed. “Of course, of course. Where are my manners? Name’s Jude. Jude Johnson. I’m a travelin’ merchant. Heard the demons are actin’ up again ‘round these parts. Lookin’ to hire guards for my caravan.”

“What cargo are you carrying?” Knight asked.

“Medicines and food mostly. Nothing that goes against the Good Book, I assure you, but this cargo won’t keep for long and I’m itchin’ to offload them ‘fore they go bad.”

“You don’t have a freezer?” Freeman asked.

“I do, but they cost me money every day to run. I’ve got a real tight margin already, and if I don’t start sellin’ I’m gonna start bleedin’. I’m willin’ to pay a premium if you can get me to market safely.”

“Where’s your destination?”

“New Rome.”

The four men exchanged a look. Freeman raised an eyebrow. Knight, Sharpe and Bates nodded as one.

“We’re in,” Freeman said.

~~

Cheah Git San Blue

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 1

House 2

 

Something

Something stirred in the dark.

Dropping to a knee, William Freeman powered up his helmet-mounted fusion vision goggles. The machine combined night vision and thermal imaging into a single image, delivering it to the heads-up display over his left eye.

He saw it. The Bloom.

It was a thing that defied classification. It was a living crystal, a voracious weed, a semi-sentient animal. Before him a dense mat of warm viscous matter covered the Earth. Here and there, hard nodules of crystallised Bloom poked above the mass. It had swamped what was once a field of maize, absorbing and transforming the crops into more of itself. As he watched, a fresh tendril burst through the ground and waggled in the air, discharging clouds of tiny spores.

The demons were here.

Touching the push-to-talk switch mounted on his chest, he whispered to his men, “Bloom sighted. Stay sharp.”

Oliver Knowles replied, “No point looking for survivors. We should burn everything down.”

Past the blighted fields, at the edge of his vision, was a three-storey house. Heat spilled out of the windows. It was the Anderson family abode. Where the Bloom appeared, demons followed. Everybody knew what they did to humans.

But they still had a job to do.

“We have to get eyes on survivors or remains first,” Freeman said. “Form a wedge.”

The five men arranged themselves in the dark. Freeman was at the tip of the spear, two men on either side. He wished for more men: a full squad, a platoon, everyone from the Order. But things were different now. They had to make do.

He dropped to his belly and crawled across the dry earth. His men followed. He led them around the house, keeping his bearings with the virtual compass projected at the top of his display. If there were demons about, going through the front door was suicide. He hunted for a side or back entrance.

It was slow, tedious work. Between his weapons, armour and gear stuffed into his assault pack and plate carrier, he was hauling one-third his body weight. Thank God the team’s exosuits were still operational.

He crawled on and on and on, brushing aside the odd fern, twig and stone. Now and then he looked up, orienting himself. They were getting closer, about six hundred meters out. He kept going, one inch at a—

“CONTACT!”

Gunfire ripped through the air.

“Who fired?” Freeman demanded. “What’s the situation?”

High-pitched roars answered, like angry giants tearing massive strips of canvas. Freeman’s earpieces dialled down the noise, saving his hearing.

“Contact!” Peter Knight called. “Demons at the rear door!”

Freeman zoomed in. Hot orange blobs flashed past the windows, brighter than the background heat. Incoming rounds screeched above his head. There were no muzzle flashes, no target indications he could call out.

Two could play this game.

“Flush fire!” Freeman ordered.

Taking up his M891 rifle, he set its optics to infrared and fired at the nearest window. Fired to its left, fired to its right. Picked another window, fired again. The shot pattern would keep heads down, maybe scare some demons out of cover. Or negate cover altogether; there were few things on Earth that could stop a ten-grain two-millimetre flechette screaming in at one and a half klicks per second.

The rest of his men followed, hammering out one round a second. Knight laid down the hate, his light machine gun ripping off three round bursts in rapid succession. Every weapon wore a suppressor, even the LMG. All the enemy would know was that someone was firing at them from somewhere; there was no muzzle flash, no cone of sound to pin down his team.

The incoming fire died down.

“Grenadier up!” Freeman called. “HEDP! Breach the wall!”

“Roger!” Neil Sharpe answered.

THOONK!

The 40mm High Explosive Dual Purpose grenade struck. Fire and thunder followed. His goggles cut out for a moment. When they were back online, Freeman saw a smoking hole carved into the wall.

“Push forward!” he ordered.

The team advanced, one man moving, four men firing. When it was his turn, Freeman got up and shrugged off his pack and sprinted. Counting to three, he hit the dirt and continued firing and firing—

CLICK!

“RED!” he yelled.

All around him, the men laid down a storm of covering fire. He ejected the magazine. Dropped it into his dump pouch. Slapped in a fresh hundred-round box. Hit the bolt catch.

“GREEN!”

The incoming fire died down. As they neared, they reduced the rate of fire. No sense wasting ammo on an enemy who wasn’t there anymore.

Twenty meters out, Knowles radioed. “We’ve got incendiaries. We should burn the place down. Only way to be sure.”
Close quarters battle with demons was for fools and the desperate, and the Order suffered no fools. But they weren’t here to slay demons. They were here to save lives. As he framed that thought, a long wail cut through the night.

A human wail.

A girl.

“We might still have innocents inside,” Freeman said. “Enter and clear.”

“Boss, it’s a trap,” Knight said.

“Of course it is. But we are not going to risk burning down a human.”

“Just sayin’.” Knight sighed. “We’ve got your back.”

“Thanks.”

They stacked on the breach. Joshua Bates up front, Freeman right behind him. When he felt Sharpe pat his shoulder from behind, Freeman squeezed Bates’ own.

“Let’s go,” Freeman whispered.

“I see Bloom. PPE up,” Bates replied.

“PPE up,” Freeman echoed.

One by one, the men paused to don their gas masks. When he felt a pat on his shoulder, Freeman doffed his helmet, dug out his gas mask and fitted it to his face, taking extra care to check the seal and filter. The mask would simply keep the Bloom spores out of his lungs; when this mission was over they’d have to wash themselves down and replace the filter.
He snapped his helmet back on and patted Bates’ shoulder. Ten seconds later, Bates had his mask on. Bates stepped through the breach. Freeman turned on his weapon light and followed.

Bloom coated the floor and far wall. Parts of it had been charred by the blast. The men edged their way around the biomass, careful not to step on it. They flicked their tactical lights on, examining the room.

“Blood on the floor,” Sharpe whispered.

The blood trail led to a staircase feeding up. Knight and Knowles stayed put to guard the stairs. Freeman followed Bates and Sharpe down a narrow corridor.

They found a closet. Empty.

They found a kitchen. Filled with Bloom.

They found a pantry. Flooded with Bloom.

Just past the back door, they saw a humanoid body, motionless in the dark. It was the demon Knight had seen. Maybe dead, maybe living. The men blasted its head apart. Now it was dead.

The girl shrieked again.

Back to the stairs. Freeman pointed up. The men formed up, Knowles in the lead, Freeman behind, and headed up.
At the top of the stairs, a girl stood.

“Contact,” Knowles reported.

Knowles trained his light on her. She was short, about chest height, dressed in a simple white nightgown. Long dark hair obscured her eyes.

“Hey there,” Knowles said. “What’s your name?”

She didn’t respond.

Knowles stepped up.

“Can you hear me?”

She tilted her head, tracking him.

Another step. “Are you okay? Where’s your family?”

Her hair retreated. Her skin turned black. Her fingers and toes transformed into short stubby tubes. She opened her eyes and howled.

“DEMON!”

It extended its hands at the men. Freeman raised his weapon—

A volley of blasts split the air. Shards slammed into Freeman’s chest plate and shattered into dust. Blood splashed across his face. A body fell against him. Freeman shoved it aside, wiped himself down. His men fired. He looked up, saw a shredded mess where the demon once was.

He glanced down.

Knowles was gone, his head obliterated.

Unearthly voices filled the air.

“DEUS VULT!” Freeman yelled.

He grabbed a stun grenade from his belt, pulled the pin and tossed it upstairs. Blinding light and thunderous sound followed. Freeman charged up, wafting through the smoke.

Another demon. It covered its blinded eyes with one arm, the other morphing into a gun barrel. Freeman doubled-tapped it in the chest and it went down. Another shot to the face and he moved on.

There were four rooms here, two on either side. Freeman found the nearest. The door was open. Knight was right behind him. Together, they entered. Nothing but Bloom here, creeping across the floor and eating the furniture.

“Clear!” Freeman called.

“Clear!” Knight replied.

“Coming out!” Freeman shouted.

“Come out!” Bates acknowledged.

Next room. Bloom, but otherwise empty.

Heavy footsteps sounded from above.

At the end of the room, a trapdoor burst open. A ladder dropped. A black ball followed.

“GRENADE!”

Freeman dropped. Closed his eyes. Opened his mouth. A flash, a thunderous boom. His hearing cut out. Unbearable light flashed through his eyelids.

Something heavy thudded on the floor.

Freeman pointed his weapon, flicked to full-auto and held down the trigger and swept from left to right. Pause. Right to left.

Sanity returned. A pair of demons lay broken and bleeding. Freeman rose to a knee, shot them again, then reloaded.

“Pete! Flush ‘em! Neil! Bang and clear!”

Knight reloaded with a fresh three-hundred round drum. Aiming at the ceiling, he placed bursts through the thick wood. As sawdust rained down, Sharpe dashed to the trapdoor and tossed a stun grenade through.

“Pete, lift fire!”

The grenade went off, Sharpe climbed, Knight ceased firing, and Freeman followed.

A dead demon lay just past the entrance. Bloom matted the walls and floor. A half-dozen bodies lay covered in the stuff, dissolving into their constituent elements. In the middle of the room an arch of metallic Bloom rose from the floor.
Deep red light leaked through it.

It was a gateway.

Past the opening, he saw barren rock, clouds of yellow dust, Bloom as far as the eye could see.

Hell.

A massive eye appeared in the opening.

It stared at him.

He froze.

It was a field of fire with a central slit of infinite darkness. Incomprehensibly complex diagrams danced at the edge of his view. Freeman tried to move. He could not.

A voice, deep and terrible, filled his mind.

I SEE YOU.

He tried to speak. His brain shut down.

COME.

Unbidden, he stepped toward the gate.

Another step.

A third.

Under his shirt, his crucifix warmed against his skin.

He drew a breath and the spell broke.

“DEUS VULT!” he yelled.

“DEUS VULT!” the men echoed.

They fired at the eye.

A sound, so massive and terrible the earpieces shut off, shook the house. A flood of black blood gushed forth. The eye retreated, leaving behind the wastelands of Hell.

“We’re done,” Freeman said. “Burn the place down.”

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For more works by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Publishing Announcement: INVINCIBLE

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In an Empire beset by internal rebellion and ferocious yaomo, the elite Shenwujun stand ready to defend human civilization. Among the Shenwujun there is none finer than Ensign Zhang Tianyou, who earned the nickname Zhang the Invincible. During a mission to quash a nascent rebellion, a Shenwujun detachment discovers evidence that the Grand Union is supporting the rebels. Zhang is tasked to investigate and destroy this new threat.

But will Zhang the Invincible meet his match at the hands of the rebel called Han the Demon Sword?

I’m pleased to announce the publication of INVINCIBLE, a historical xianxia novella which won an Honorable Mention at the Q1 2017 Writers of the Future Contest. First published on Steemit, it has now been formatted into an ebook for easy reading.

INVINCIBLE can be purchased on Amazon, Smashwords and Payhip for just USD $2.99.

To enjoy a 30% discount, be sure to share my Payhip page on Facebook and/or Twitter.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to my next story.

Appendix N Profile: Robert E Howard

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In the 1930s, the glory days of the pulp age, Robert E Howard cast a formidable shadow. The creator of Conan and Solomon Kane, a legendarily prolific writer with hundreds of stories and dozens of poems to his name, he molded the genres of weird fiction and sword and sorcery, leaving his mark forever. In his mythical Appendix N, Gary Gygax cited Howard’s Conan series as one of his many inspirations in creating Dungeons & Dungeons. Having heard much of Howard’s prowess, yet having never read any of his stories (the closest being the Conan animated series), I grabbed tomes of his stories and devoured everything I could find.

What I found was breathtakingly magnificent.

Every story was like diving into a bottomless well and returning with armfuls of glittering gold and glimmering gems. Here were hard-hitting tales of passion and zest delivered in muscular prose. Here were restless men of action, pushing ever onwards to the next great adventure and conquest; and beautiful women who recognized and reveled in their femininity, dangerous and clever and charming and tough. Here were stories of mortal and moral peril, of blackest evil and foul monsters, of savage men who found glory and triumph in the dark corners of the world.

These were the stories I’d waited my entire life to discover.

To understand Howard’s enduring popularity, we need to understand the elements that made his stories great. I’ll begin with the characters whose stories I’ve read: Conan, Solomon Kane and Breckenridge Elkins.

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Conan is Howard’s legacy. A powerfully-built barbarian from Cimmeria, he walks the world of the Hyperborean Age in an endless quest for adventure and treasure. He is a pirate, a mercenary, a raider, a soldier, a king. Unaccustomed to the norms of civilisation, he meets his foes head-on with sword in hand. With the raw strength that comes from a hard life in the wilds, he fights like an enraged wolf, less a man and more like a force of nature. Conan is the archetype of every barbarian and fighting-man that ever graced a role playing game.

Despite his shady background, Conan is the epitome of the noble savage and a paragon of pagan virtue. He goes through women faster than he goes through weapons, but he never coerces them, instead winning their hearts through derring-do. He is never shown knowingly harming an innocent on the page, saving his wrath for evildoers. Though well-versed in the ways of corsairs and mercenaries, he does not himself prey on the weak or break an oath. A leader of men, he freely aids those who help him, and quickly rises to leadership positions. He becomes a mercenary leader, a pirate chief, a kozak hetman, and finally a king. Apparently uncivilized, he is nonetheless talented in tactics and warcraft, easily deduces schemes of more civilized characters, and has a gift for learning languages. While not overtly religious, he nevertheless slays unnameable horrors and monsters, acting as a force for good. And through it all, he embraces life to the fullest.

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Where Conan is joyful and passionate, Solomon Kane is grim and brooding. Named for a wise king and the first murderer, Kane is a late 16th century / early 17th century Puritan whose sole passion in life is destroying evil wherever he finds it. With rapier and pistols by his side, Kane hunts for monsters, human and otherwise, in the dark corners of the earth.

Where Conan is the embodiment of nature, red in tooth and claw, Kane is far colder, but no less driven or ruthless. While Conan fights like a wolf, Kane’s rapier play is described as ‘cold, calculating, scintillant’. Instead of driving into the fray like Conan does, Kane plans his moves and takes advantages of openings as they arise. While Kane wasn’t as popular as Conan, and appears in far fewer stories, he is nonetheless the archetype of a crusading demon hunter.

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Breckenridge Elkins veers away from fantasy and into Westerns. Specifically, comedic Westerns. Delivered in the first person through Breckenridge’s dialect (some daresay accent), they follow the misadventures of Breckenridge as he travels the American West and (attempts to) find a wife along the way.

Breckenridge is an idiot. He is barely lettered and completely incapable of detecting the schemes and lies unfolding all around him. He takes too many people at their word and jumps to wrong conclusions all the time. This character device sets the reader laughing at Breckenridge’s foolishness, then laughing again as he attempts to untangle himself from his latest mess (usually with fists, Bowie and gun). Even his prodigious size and strength are used for comedy: he complains about how clothes and beds for people six feet tall are too small, describes enormous meals as mere snacks, and downplays knockout blows as light taps. Despite that, Breckenridge respects the law, helps his friends and family, repays his debts, protects the innocent, never shies from hard work, and always sees his jobs through to the end. A lesser writer would merely portray him as a bumbling oath; in Howard’s hands Breckenridge is a good-hearted if uncivilized cowboy and mountain man who suffers for his ignorance of human nature, but nevertheless fights his way out of trouble and brings plenty of laughs to the reader.

The trio are virile men of action and virtue. They don’t waste time brooding on slights, concocting overly elaborate plans or manipulating innocent people; they confront their enemies directly in honourable combat, using skill and wit and brute strength to win the day. They are larger than life, standing out from friend and foe alike, leaving their mark on the readers’ soul. They uphold moral codes and enforce them with blades and bullets, helping the helpless and dispensing justice to villains and their minions.

With his mastery of the craft and language, Howard paints vivid settings for every story. With a handful of words, Howard transports the reader to wintry mountain peaks and searing deserts, sweltering jungle islands and forbidding ruins, haunted swamps and lost cities. The Breckenridge stories speak of tiny wooden towns waiting to be busted up and the untamed wilds of the West. The Kane stories ease the reader from the mundane to the terrifying, beginning in some relatively innocent setting and ending in a place home to great evils and eldritch horrors. Conan wanders across many vividly-described lands, lands where glory, treasure, powerful magic and terrible monsters await behind every corner, where nations rest upon the bones of older, forgotten civilisations, and those nations too will soon be dust by the days of Kane and Breckenridge.

Howard’s economy of words is likewise remarkable. Many of these stories are short, far shorter than contemporary counterparts. Yet every single Howard tale is packed with memorable characters, intense action, and dramatic plots. These are simple stories, well told, enabling Howard’s prodigious output. There is more life, more fire, more soul in any Howard story than contemporary novels double or triple its length.

Robert E Howard is a grandmaster of the art. His incredible output and versatility exemplify the finest traditions of the pulp era, his command of the language and the craft is superb, and there is hardly a false note in his stories. Through Conan and Sword & Sorcery, Howard’s stories will endure the test of time.

If you’d like to support my own pulp-influenced stories, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

Be Still Every Day

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As important as it is to move every day, making time to be still is of equal importance. It is the quiet yin to the yang of activity, the vessel that holds the fire of creation. Without stillness you can only hope to achieve half your potential.

The modern world is antithetical to cultivating mindfulness. The Internet tempts users with unbridled access to unlimited information: images, videos, games, information, with no limiters and every opportunity to get even more. Many games–especially mobile games–are Skinner boxes that draw the player in with bright colours, instant gratification, and just enough frustration to keep the player wanting to keep playing in, for a small, small price. Social media lets you share your thoughts on anything an everything, peek into the lives of people you want to follow, and deliver and receive instant gratification through like and share buttons and quick comments. Web articles with clickbait titles stir up your passions and suck you in, then drive you on to even more clickbait. Devices ring with notifications every hour of the day, and with constant connection comes the constant demand to keep working, keep doing, keep seeking more.

Much of the modern world, deliberately or otherwise, induces a quasi-permanent state of insatiable desire. Whenever you think you are fulfilled, something new comes along and stokes the flames once again. This state of constant rushing about to do things and get things leaves people exhausted, sick and unsatisfied. With so much activity, and brains entrained to keep acting, there is no space to breathe, to recharge, to remember.

In a world that demands constant activity, learn to be still.

But stillness is not the destination. A statue is still, but it is not alive. A man can stand in an empty room and stare blankly at the walls all day, but he’s more likely to be insane or addled than self-realised. Strive for mindfulness. A total acceptance of everything around you, with your mind completely engaged in the present. Yet to achieve mindfulness, first understand stillness.

Meditate Every Day

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Every day you are becoming your tomorrow. What you do now, in this moment, influences what you will do next. Do something enough times and it becomes a habit. If you are habituated to seek sensory pleasures, to seek more work to do, to keep moving, your mind will fixate on opportunities to do so. If you are habituated to be mindful, to be receptive of everything around you, to appreciate the present exactly as it is, your mind will free itself to be one with the moment.

Earlier I’ve written about taking back your mind. Now we take things to the next level.

Meditate in the morning. After you wake up, meditate. What you do first thing in the morning sets the tone for the rest of the day. You don’t want to be irritated, distracted with emails and thoughts and the latest media scandal, or otherwise emotionally upset. There is always time for that later. You want to be calm and focused. Find it through meditation.

Find a quiet spot, sit or stand, breathe, and relax. Pay attention to your body. Does something ache? Is your back bent and your head hunched forward? Is there tension in your muscles? Are you fidgeting?

Let your body go completely liquid. Perfectly at ease, perfectly relaxed, yet perfectly unified. The old adage is to be like water. In Cheng Hsin: The Principles of Effortless Power, Peter Ralston explains how to achieve this state when standing upright. Rest your weight in the center of your soles, pressing down into the earth. Align your knees, hips, torso, spine, shoulders and neck so that each successive limb or joint is stacked upon the one below it. Imagine that there a thousand-pound weight hanging between your legs, and stand so that the weight won’t pull you into the ground. Think of it like stacking a series of ever-smaller plates one atop the other. If you need help, press your back and the back of your skull against a wall, and maintain that posture.

Completely, consciously and totally relax every muscle from your toes to your neck. It may feel wrong, especially for people who unconsciously carry tension in their bodies all day long, but it is worth it. Your pelvis and shoulders may feel unnaturally wobbly, limp or useless. That is perfectly natural. The key is to remain completely balanced. If you are balanced in a neutral position, able to maintain your posture without swaying back and forth, you are doing it right.

Adapting these principles to a seated position is relatively simple. Sit upright, soles flat on the floor, legs relaxed. Your weight should be focused on your coccyx, directed into the floor. As with the thousand-pound weight analogy, sit so that the weight won’t pull you down. Should you try more advanced position like the half-lotus or full lotus, always keep your back straight and your body loose.

You probably won’t get this right the first time around. Or even the first hundred times. That’s okay. The key is to keep at it until you do get it right (though engaging a coach or therapist to check out your posture won’t hurt). When your body is aligned and loose and free, so too is your mind. Take your posture–seated or standing–and begin.

Clear your mind. Whatever it is you may be thinking, let it go. Simply cease paying attention to that stream of thought, and pay attention to a complete silence. Let this silence engulf you. In that silence, take in everything around you. The feel of your clothes, the temperature of the air, the rustling of leaves in a breeze, the gentle light of the morning sun. Drink in the moment.

Don’t force it. This is not a state of work. This is a state of rest. You know how to let your body rest; simply let the entirety of your being enter a state of repose. And should you find your mind distracted by a random thought or some strange sensory input, simply let it go and return to the state of stillness.

Yin and Yang

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Stillness is the stepping stone to mindfulness. Once you are familiar with the whole body sensation of mindfulness when you are still, apply mindfulness in motion.

When speaking to someone, grasp his body language, tone of voice, gaze, tone, content of speech, assumptions, emotional state and implied meanings. When walking in the wider world, study the environment, people, ongoing events, traffic flow, weather, geography, your posture, physical sensations, weight distribution, fatigue, pain. When working, let your mind be completely absorbed in it and allow nothing to disturb your state of being. Be completely in the present, exactly as you were when you were meditating in stillness.

Mindfulness is a state of being. Of receiving and parsing all the information around you, acting in the most relaxed, calm and efficient manner, and appreciating the entirety of Creation. By moving every day you become healthier and learn to be disciplined, creative and efficient; by combining motion with mindfulness you eliminate distractions, receiving useful information, and seeking the most fluid way of doing things.

Achieve synthesis of action and non-action, decisiveness and thoughtfulness, yang and yin. Be as immovable as earth, as free as the air, as focused as fire, and as mutable as water. Balance these traits to suit your current situation.

When apprehending something new, approach it with complete openness and curiosity, seeking to understand everything about it. When acting upon it, do so with complete resolution. If you encounter an obstacle your first thought may be to blast through it. Seek instead a way to flow around it and reserve your energy for powering to your goals; if there isn’t one, identify the path of least resistance and blast through. When faced with a thousand and one things to do, root your mind in place, identify what must be done, and act with complete calmness and pinpoint focus. At the gym, relentlessly engage mind and body. Seek the most efficient and effective ways of working your muscles, preventing injury and enhancing performance.

Always remain mindful of your actions. When you find yourself straying, return to that state of stillness and presence.

Be still every day to achieve mindfulness. Then leave stillness behind and be mindful in what you do.

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If you’d like to support my work, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

Chasing Literary Awards Won’t Promote Singlit

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Epigram Books, a Singaporean publisher, is aiming for the Man Booker Prize. As part of its goal, it has opened an imprint in the United Kingdom, so that its offerings will be eligible for the Prize. Founder Edmund Wee believes that the publicity generated from such an achievement “would be a turning point for people to see that Singaporean books aren’t that bad at all”.

I wish him the best of luck, but my experience suggests that it’s a long shot. I am Singapore’s first, and so far only, writer nominated for the Hugo and Dragon Awards. I can tell you that chasing awards means nothing.

Epigram Books is the creator of the Epigram Fiction Prize, Singapore’s richest literature award. Each winner receive $25,000 and a publication offer. Per the article:

Out of the 72 entries received in the first year, four were shortlisted and published. All four sold out their initial run of 1,000 copies within two or three months, a milestone that normally takes bestsellers a year to reach in Singapore, according to Wee.

Colour me impressed, but I should note that my own novel, which was not selected for an Epigram Fiction prize, did far better in the same time frame. I’m not sure if I can publicly disclose the actual sales figures, but I can say that neither my publisher nor I had to sink in $25,000 to bring it to the market. We both enjoyed healthy profits from that one book in three months.

And I won’t comment on Epigram’s UK imprint selling only 100 copies per title in its catalogue.

The key to understanding the TradPub mindset is that they don’t sell stories. They sell paper. It’s the traditional way of delivering stories to customers. But technology has significantly altered the publishing industry in the past decade.

Print on Demand technology has rendered storing mountains of paper books in bookstores and warehouses obsolete; if you want a paper book, just go on Amazon, and it will print and deliver the book to you. Ebooks are far cheaper than paper books, and far more convenient and accessible in an age of smartphones and tablets. Ereaders and ebook stores have opened the floodgates to new markets and new writers, and search engine algorithms and social media have made discovering and following writers easier than before. Self-publishing platforms allow anybody to write and publish stories from anywhere in the world without having to go through publishers.

Books themselves are facing stiff competition from elsewhere. YouTube, Crunchyroll, Steam, GOG, NetFlix, and other media are all competing with books for the readers’ entertainment dollar and time. If a customer has to choose between dropping $18 on a paperback that can be read in 8 hours, or $15 on an indie game that lasts for 50 hours, you can bet that he will choose the latter. Likewise, $18 on a single paperback versus $11.95 on a monthly Crunchyroll premium membership with complete access to all anime and drama in its catalogue is a no-brainer too.

We live in the sunset of traditional publishing. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing down, and Big Publishing is declining. Writers and publishers must adapt to changing times or be forgotten.

Encouraging Singaporeans to read Singaporeans may be an admirable goal, but publishers need to remain profitable to continue publishing stories. If they can’t make a profit, publishers will be force to close down. Becoming profitable is simple:

Give readers what they want.

Technology may have changed, but readers’ tastes have not. Romance readers want love and drama. Thriller readers want excitement and derring-do. SFF readers want awe and wonder. Produce books that meet their expectations, using technology to minimise costs and penetrate markets, and you’ll make money.

Publishers need to take a long, hard look at the industry and themselves, and see how they can best serve their readers’ needs. Wee’s words are instructive of his attitude:

“For many years, it has been in Singaporeans’ minds that foreign books are better and local books not so good,” he says. “I blame everybody. I blame the schools because literature is not compulsory. I blame the bookshops. I blame the press because they still want to interview famous international authors instead of local authors.”

Blaming everybody is not the solution. Courting people with awards will not work. If you don’t publish writers whose works people love, people aren’t going to love them back. It’s as simple as that. Of all the Singaporean-authored books and stories I’ve read over the years, none of them have left a lingering impression on me. None of them met my tastes — or my standards of craft.

Chasing a Man Booker Award is a snipe hunt. Writers who can win such an award are incredibly rare. Gambling everything on the hope that that such a talented writer signs on with you is the literary equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket. After all, what are the odds that a writer capable of winning the Man Booker Award sign on with a small publishing house from tiny country?

Even if Epigram manages such a feat, it’s not likely to have a knock-on effect on all other Singaporean books. As I have seen first-hand with the Hugos and Dragons, should an author win an award, readers will flock to the award-winning book, then the rest of his backlist, and only then other authors of similar standards in the same field. Sharing the same nationality as a Man Booker Award-winning writer isn’t compelling enough to capture a reader’s heart. These other writers must be in the same league as the award winner to stand a chance.

Mickey Spillane once said that people eat more salted peanuts than caviar. Other writers mocked him for his writing style, but through hard work and appealing to the masses, he left his mark on the American crime thriller genre. I have a similar philosophy.

I don’t write stories to chase awards. I write stories to entertain my readers. Awards are pleasant, but profits are king. If you want to encourage readers to read more books, you have to sustain the ability to publish more books, and to publish books you need to be profitable. If I were a Singaporean publisher, this is what I would do:

  1. Focus on genre fiction. There is a dearth of genre fiction in Singapore; other than Young Adult and the odd romance and horror story there is a stunning lack of Singaporean genre fiction. Grab the first mover advantage in this field. Don’t limit yourself to submissions from Singaporeans, but do try to sign on as many Singaporean genre fiction writers as possible.
  2. Publish stories that meet and exceed genre conventions. Stories must be entertaining. Build a brand focused on quality entertainment and powerful story-telling. In a world where anyone can publish anything, publishers can differentiate themselves by creating a reputation for quality.
  3. Break into ebooks and Print on Demand technology, and target a global audience. The wider your potential market, the more money you make. Minimise cost, maximise distribution.
  4. If your goal is to promote ‘literary’ works, create another imprint dedicated to literary fiction. Channel profits from genre fiction into this imprint to keep it running. Follow steps 2 and 3, building a reputation for publishing quality work and delivering it to the world. You might not make much money out of the literary imprint, it might even be a loss leader, but hey, you’re promoting Singlit and your own brand.

I am leery of ‘literary’ stories. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two kinds of books: books worth reading, and books not worth reading. To stay competitive, publishers must do the former and avoid the latter. Qualities like ‘literariness’ or subversiveness or other avant-garde properties take a back seat to market demand. To remain in the publishing game, publishers have to turn a profit. Ignore the market at your peril.

At the end of the day, trad publishers would do well to study the history of publishing. The literati may elevate the heavy, ponderous tomes of great literature — but it was the cheap pulp magazines, filled with energy and excitement, that instilled the joy of reading in the common people.

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To get a taste of my writing, check out my Steemit serial NIGHT DEMONS and my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.