Realm of Beasts Chapter 6

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Gone

Stop. Breathe. Think.

Qi was a delicate, transient substance. The slightest of disturbances would dissipate it. If Fang Fang had left a pearl for him in this tunnel, the jiaolong’s passage would have destroyed it.

But there may be other tracks.

Sun Yao walked down the length of the storm drain again, this time scrutinizing every square inch of his surroundings. He peered at the walls, studying patterns of moss growth. He inspected the stalactites of sludge hanging from the ceilings. He studied the many leaking holes all around him. He surveyed the tons of dead beast-flesh sprawled across the sewer.

There was something… wrong about the jiaolong. Why hadn’t he detected it? Was it truly the noxious energy? Or had the beast been camouflaged?

The thought froze him in its tracks. Granted, the waste qi of the sewers was overwhelming, but he could still sense something as tiny and subtle as a qi pearl. How, then, had he missed the beast?

In the Academy he had learned of beasts which could render themselves undetectable. But a jiaolong usually wasn’t one of them. Not unless it was old and powerful, and if it were he wouldn’t have survived the encounter. But if someone had used a camouflage skill on it…

His prey were cultivators. They knew how to erase their tracks. They had snatched Fang Fang cleanly and quietly, and navigated the sewers with an ease that spoke of determined preparation. They were pros.

They couldn’t have missed her laying down pearls.

But they let her do it anyway.

Which meant they came here specifically to lure would-be pursuers into the jaws of the beast.

He swore. In hindsight it was blindingly obvious. He’d been too caught up in the chase to think about what the enemy would do to anyone trying to rescue her. He had to be more careful. Had to pay more attention.

And yet…

If they were so professional, why would they count on a beast to take out a rescue party? Beasts had neither the discipline nor intelligence of men. The jiaolong could just as easily turn on the cultivators while they were passing through its territory, or it could wander away from the ambush site before the rescuers arrived.

It didn’t make sense.

He shook his head. He had wasted enough time. He had to keep moving.

The jiaolong’s passage would have destroyed tracks in the storm drain. This time, he turned his flashlight to the side tunnels, looking for something, anything, that would lead him to her. There would always be a sign. It was an ironclad rule of investigations: the criminal always left something behind; it was up to the investigator to probe the scene, to discover that one thing that could make or break the case…

Like this side tunnel.

The walls of the tunnel were caked in rich, moist gunk. On the left-hand wall, there were five long streaks carved into the soft sludge.

Finger marks.

He ran to the body of the jiaolong and inspected the paws. They had four digits, not five, and the claws would have left uglier, broader tracks.

He smiled. Fang Fang must have caught on to what they were doing. Smart girl.

He sprinted down the tunnel. It led to a T-junction. And at elbow height, there was a tiny dark streak that led to the right.

He turned right.

More bends, more tunnels. Two openings down, he discovered another sign of her passage: a finger-sized line of sludge that followed the bend.

At the end of this new tunnel, there was a ladder.

He paused. There was one ambush early. Maybe there was another.

There was a door on the left-hand wall. Behind it, he sensed three qi sources. Humans sitting in a circle on the floor. Regular humans, not cultivators. Not the men he was looking for. He’d heard that homeless people lived in colonies in the sewers of the city; perhaps this was one such outpost.

Briefly he thought about questioning them. Then he discarded the thought. He had no time to waste, and people like this would be more likely to mind their own business than interfere with others’.

He swept his light back and forth, looking for tripwires, sensors, alarms, anything that the kidnappers might have left to inconvenience a rescuer. Satisfied he was safe, he clipped the flashlight to his pocket, put the sword away, and climbed the ladder.

The humans got up and rushed to the door.

Sun planted his boots against the handrail and slid down, spinning around just in time to see the door fly open. Light spilled from the room, silhouetting the men. He drew his flashlight in his left hand and lit up the newcomers.

“Do you have business with me?” Sun asked.

The three men hesitated, taken aback by his bold approach. They were dressed in dull overalls and sturdy cotton gloves. Sweet perfume and energetic dialogue floated out from the open door.

And they were hiding their right hands behind their backs.

“Who are you?” the man in the middle demanded.

“A passer-by,” Sun said, bringing his right palm up. “Please show me your hands.”

The other two fanned out, closing off the space behind them.

“Why are you here?” the leader asked. “No one’s supposed to be here.”

“I’m a Defender. Now show me your hands!” Sun boomed.

The leader advanced, bringing his left side forward. “You—”

“FREEZE!”

Sun shone his light into the leader’s eyes. The man winced, backing off.

The left-hand threat grabbed Sun’s left arm.

Sun cammed his light, capturing the man’s arm. Spiraled into him and slammed his right palm into his temple. Pulled him down into an elbow strike, bouncing his head off the wall.

Grabbing his shoulder, Sun flung him at the other two thugs and moved to flank them. The leader pushed the first man away and turned to face Sun. A knife gleamed in his right hand.

The leader reached for Sun with his left hand. Sun parried the arm and smashed his right knuckles into his bicep. The blow spun the leader into Sun. Sun hacked his left forearm into the man’s neck. As the man staggered away, Sun clotheslined him in the throat, slamming the back of his head against the wall.

The last one screamed a war cry and charged, his knife held low. Sun spun around into a back kick and struck his knee.

His leg collapsed. He dropped, hitting the ground head-first, and went still.

Taking long, deep breaths, Sun looked over the bodies. They weren’t moving any more. Kneeling down, he checked their vital signs. They were all out cold. The one he’d struck in the throat was barely breathing. The other two weren’t much better.

He patted himself down, finding a shallow slice across his triceps. The second man must have nicked him. He slapped on a bandage and sent qi coursing into the wound to disinfect it.

He patted down the bodies, looking for weapons and tools, and gathered up their knives in his interspatial storage. Then he drew a bundle of zip-ties, tied their hands and ankles together in a jumbled mess they couldn’t hope to free themselves from, and rolled them on their sides to prevent asphyxiation.

Sun entered the room. It seemed to be a storeroom. Shelves lined the walls, packed with cardboard boxes. A cheap tablet rested on a flimsy work table. At the far wall, there were two televisions. One played a cheap gongfu movie, the other showed the feed from a camera. A camera pointing at a heavy plastic sheet.

Peeling away the sheet, he discovered a series of tiny holes bored into the wall. He shook his head. The sheet prevented light from escaping the holes. Without pressing his face up against the wall, he couldn’t have seen them.

Whoever the attackers were, they weren’t amateurs.

He pored over every square inch of the room, probing for trapdoors, hidden doors, passages. But he found nothing.

Labels hung from the shelves: gold, electronics, jewels. And, at the far end, he saw the words ‘beast parts’. Producing a utility knife, he opened a box of beast parts. It was filled with dried beast horns, packaged in shrink wrap and drowned in packing peanuts.

Who were these people? Were they connected to the cultivators?

So many questions, so little time. Fang Fang was still out there.

Climbing up the ladder, he hoisted the manhole cover aside and hauled himself up. He found himself in the middle of an empty street. Night had fallen, and the streetlights lit the world in amber.

He pulled the gas mask off his face and took a deep breath.

Gagged.

Put it back on.

He looked around. The pavement was narrow and cracked. Derelict buildings lined the roads, obscene graffiti painted and re-painted over the peeling facades. Qi glowed all around him. People, and pets.

A pair of faces peered out from a nearby alley. He approached them.

“Hello! I’m a Defender. I’ve got a couple of—”

They ran off.

He sighed.

Tapping his utility band, he called Fu.

“Are you done yet?” Fu demanded.

“No. I slew a beast in the sewers. A xianglong. And I had to defend myself against three thugs.”

“What happened?”

Sun summarized his subterranean encounters as quickly as he could.

“I leave you out of sight and this happens…” Fu sighed. “Well, that’s one less beast to worry about. Where are you now?”

Sun illuminated the nearest street sign.

“Heping Avenue. I’m still looking for the victim.”

“Wei, we’re not paying you to look for your girlfriend.”

“The criminals are skilled cultivators who anticipated my every move. This isn’t an ordinary kidnap. There’s something else going on here. I’m continuing my pursuit.”

“Negative! Stay put.”

“She’s still out there—”

“Stay put,” Fu repeated. “You’ve got a dead beast and three downed suspects in the sewers. Your must preserve the scene for the police.”

“But—”

“Do you have a visual on her? Any more clues?”

Sun reached for his spirit sense. Expanded it as far as he could. Probed every square inch he could sense.

Nothing.

“No,” he admitted.

“There you go. Preserve the scene.” Fu’s voice softened. “You have my sympathies, but the city takes priority over one woman. Once we can, we will look for her. But right now, you have your duty. Understood?”

“Yes.”

Sun swore and paced the street. If he could just find something, anything, he could leave the scene.

But there were no more pearls, and no one else wanted to speak to him.

Police sirens howled. Returning to the manhole, he arrived just in time for police cars to arrive. He readied his badge as a powerful flashlight shone into his face.

“Police! Show me your ID!”

Sun raised his badge. “I’m a Defender!”

The light quickly lowered, revealing a fresh-faced cop. “Sorry, sir.”

“No worries. Are you my backup?”

“Yes sir.”

A grizzled sergeant muscled past the cop.

“You the one who beat down the bad guys down the hole?” the sergeant asked.

“Yes,” Sun said.

“Come with us. We need your statement at the station.”

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Previous chapters: 12345

For more martial arts, magic and monsters, check out my novel Hammer of the Witches.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 5

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Hot on Her Trail

He needed a full-body protective suit, complete with self-contained breathing apparatus. He made do with his suit, helmet, and a gas mask.

Drawing a crowbar from interspatial storage, he lifted the manhole cover and set it aside. Sucking in a deep breath, he inhaled only the heavy odor of stiff rubber.

He returned the crowbar to his storage and prepared to descend…

Wait.

The sirens were still screaming. The Defenders were still out there. And the last thing he needed was to be declared absent without official leave. Bringing his utility band to his face, he called Fu Da Hai.

“What the devil are you doing? Where are you?” Fu shouted.

“The missing person I told you about has been kidnapped.”

“Leave it to the police!”

“She’s a Barrier Technician, and she was kidnapped by two cultivators with the ability to erase their presence. That makes it our business.”

Fu pondered his words for a moment.

“How do you know she’s been kidnapped?”

“She’s left a trail for me to follow. Including a qi pearl that showed me what happened to her.”

Fu grunted. “Where is she?”

“The sewers.”

“The sewers? It’s a no-go zone. Beasts infiltrate the city through the sewers. We do not enter the sewers during the Ghost Month.”

“We can’t let the kidnappers get away.”

“You could run into high-level beasts down there. Nobody will save you.”

“I’m not asking for permission. I’m going in.”

“You…” Fu sighed. “I can’t spare any backup. You’ll be on your own.”

“I understand.”

“Keep me updated.”

Sun grabbed the ladder and gingerly climbed down. It was hot. Dark. Sweat built up under his mask. Water gushed nearby.

He drew his flashlight, holding it in his left hand and clicked it on. Now he saw that he was standing on a narrow concrete platform. Dirty brown fluid gushed through an outfall by his side. Up ahead, a tunnel lead to who knew where.

A warning flashed across the eyepiece of his gas mask. High concentration of methane. A shot could ignite the gas.

He drew his jian and ventured into the darkness. He held his flashlight high above his head, angling it down and ahead of him. With the gas mask in play, he couldn’t hear much and smelled nothing.

He fired up his spirit sense.

There was so much noxious energy here, his effective range was reduced to barely fifty meters. Even so, dozens, hundreds of tiny creatures scampered about at the edge of his detection field. Rats and cockroaches and maggots and worms.

And a glowing pearl.

He found the pearl at a T-junction. Touching it, the pearl unfolded into an arrow pointing left.

Deeper and deeper he went, following the pearls. No more compressed memories, only arrows pointing the way ahead. She couldn’t afford to get caught.

He checked every corner he encountered, sword at the ready. Every few minutes, he paused and peeked over his shoulder. All he saw was the occasional rat. He kept his ears pricked, but he only heard his own heavy breathing.

His throat grew dry, but his suit’s hydration bladder was empty and he didn’t dare open his water canteen. Stupid, he should have refilled the bladder when he had a chance. He licked his lips, kept his now-warm flashlight, and followed her trail.

The string of pearls led him from narrow claustrophobic tubes to maintenance catwalks to sludge-caked channels. With so much filth and waste qi in the air, the enemy’s energy trail would be smothered. What little of it they hadn’t cleaned up. All he had to go on was her pearls.

There was no backtracking, no circling around. Whoever the perpetrators were, they were either intimately familiar with the underground or had planned and prepared for this job for a long time. They weren’t average criminals. They must have wanted something from Fang Fang.

Whatever it was, he would make sure they wouldn’t—

In his spirit sense, he saw the sewer’s inhabitants scatter.

He gripped his sword tightly. Prey always knew when predators were nearby.

He found the next pearl. Small and dim, it turned into an arrow pointing down a tunnel. The sound of rushing water filtered through his mask.

Past the tunnel, he found a storm drain. Another pearl, tinier than the first, guided him to his left. The tunnel was massive, easily large enough to fit a train and then some. Filthy water spewed from a multitude of cracks in the walls and ceiling. Sewage overflowed the central channel. There was no way to stay dry.

Sighing, he cautiously stepped into the sewage. His boot touched something soft and slippery. The wastewater came up to his ankles. He winced and forced himself to keep going. At least his boots were waterproof.

Gingerly maneuvering around the leaks, he kept going forward, looking for a sign of her passage. Smaller tunnels branched off to his left and right, but there were no pearls pointing that way. The walls were uniformly dirty, with no sign of recent passage. He kept going, sweeping the waters ahead, consulting his spirit sense.

Nothing. No signs of life anywhere. It didn’t feel right. It felt as if…

At the edge of his flashlight’s throw, ripples spread through the water.

He squinted. Angled the light down the tunnel.

Something heavy sloshed through the wastewater. Something huge.

He checked his spirit sense. Nothing.

Nothing? Or was the creature simply indistinguishable from the foul qi of the sewers?

As he framed that thought, an enormous serpentine bulk slithered into view. Muck sluiced off and around it, revealing a mass of dull white scales. Its sinuous body coiled round and round, clinging to the walls and ceiling and floor. The creature had the girth of a stout oak tree. Thickly-muscled legs ran down the length of its body, ending in ham-sized paws digging into the eroded brick. The beast’s head curled down from the ceiling, staring at him with amber reptilian eyes. It opened its long, thin jaws, revealing long rows of stained yellow teeth, and loosed a deafening bellow.

It was a jiaolong.

And it pounced.

Sun stepped aside, barely dodging its enormous jaws, and slashed. His blade slid off the pale scales. The beast roared. Out the corner of his eye, a dark mass fell on him. He turned into it, weapon ready. A heavy paw slammed into his steel. His boot slipped. He swiftly compensated, dropping into low and wide stance.

The jiaolong raised its paw for another blow. Leaping away, he slashed. The jiaolong’s scales turned his jian aside.

The creature undulated. It was turning around, trying to cut him off and crush him. He jumped into clear space. And ran.

The giant snake bellowed again, chasing him.

The textbook response was gun, grenade, or mine. He had all three in storage, but there was still too much methane. All he could use was his jian.

It would have to do.

The jiaolong had twisted round and round the tunnel, sticking to the walls. If he evaded its jaws and tried to strike it from the rear, he would expose himself to its claws—or it could simply fall and crush him under its mass. It was large, but not so large it wouldn’t fit in the side tunnels.

He had to make a stand.

The jiaolong pounced again. Sun jumped aside. Sewage splashed all over his suit. Grimacing, he wiped his eyepiece and ran. The beast chased him, winding round and round the tunnel, its claws scraping against stone and sludge.

And the end of the storm drain loomed dead ahead.

He faced the creature. Raised his flashlight to his temple. Held his jian low. Sent a wave of qisurging through his body and into his sword.

He waited.

The creature stalked towards him, winding round and round and round, closing in for the kill. It took his time, its tongue darting in and out, its head swaying from side to side.

He waited.

The jiaolong slinked closer, making its final approach, judging the distance between them.

He lit up its eyes.

The beast hissed once more, rearing its head back.

Keeping the light exactly where it was, he stepped to his right.

The jiaolong lunged for the light.

Sun thrust.

The jian pierced the beast’s eye, penetrated bone, and sank deep into its brain.

The beast spasmed, its limbs flailing in every direction, its body twitching. It crashed into the sewage, spattering sludge all over Sun. Shuddering, he withdrew his sword and stabbed it in the other eye.

The creature went still. It was most definitely dead.

He gingerly stepped over the beast and checked his utility band. He had no reception here. He’d have to call it in once he was on the surface.

He headed back down the storm drain, retracing his footsteps. Calming down with deep, regular breaths, he turned to his spirit sense again, seeking out signs of life.

Nothing.

He trudged through the sewage, heading to the far end of the tunnel. He sensed the rats returning, saw mold growing on the walls, edged around the leaking walls as best as he could. But, at the far end of the storm drain, he didn’t sense a pearl.

Fang Fang was gone.

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Previous parts: 1234

If you enjoy martial arts, magic and monsters, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 4

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Missing

Sun Yao called the Central District Barrier Station. After suffering through multiple transfers, he finally reached the duty manager, where he enjoyed the privilege of asking one question.

“Has Liu Fang Fang left the building?”

“Yes,” the manager said. “She completed her shift and left the building at six thirty-seven.”

Something must have happened to her. Either on the way home or inside her apartment. Sun contacted the front desk at the Defenders’ Guild.

“This is Defender Sun Yao. Do we have any incidents today related to a Liu Fang Fang?”

“How do you write her name?”

“‘Liu’ is ‘flow’ from ‘flowing water’, ‘Fang’ means ‘fragrance’.”

“One moment… No records.”

“Any beast activity in the Central District?”

“No. The barrier kept them out.”

Sun hung up. He had to investigate her apartment. But he had to assume the worst. If someone knew who she was, if that someone had left a trap behind…

Drawing his infinity pistol, he cracked the door open. No security bolt. No tripwire. No signs of life.

Slowly, slowly, he continued pushing the door, ready to ease off the moment he felt even the slightest hint of resistance.

No tripwire.

He stepped into the hallway past the door. The faint scent of sandalwood smoke tickled his nose. The final rays of the setting sun played through the windows. Slowly, methodically, he searched the apartment.

The closet next to the door was filled with nothing more nefarious than coats, shoes and bags. The modest kitchen opposite the closet was small but adequately equipped, but there was no sign that she was preparing a meal. The living room was spick and span, and the store room packed with all kinds of odds and ends.

In a corner of the living room, an altar to the Goddess of Mercy faced the door. A porcelain statuette of the goddess, seated on a lotus blossom with her right hand raised, took pride of place. In front of the goddess there was a bowl of incense, a cup of fresh water, and an oil lamp.

The bronze bowl was filled with ashes, the incense consumed long ago. The oil lamp was empty. He touched the cup of water and discovered it was at room temperature.

In the bathroom he found nothing more suspicious than hair products, makeup and toiletries. And at the balcony he found nothing.

With slight trepidation, he entered her bedroom. The last time he’d been in her room was five years ago, when they were still in high school and still studied at each other’s homes.

The bedroom was… neat. Clean. The bed was made and the dressing table spotless. An alarm clock and a lamp rested on a nightstand, while a potted plant sat on the other. Her closet was overflowing with clothes and bags.

No sign of her.

He thought about everything he had observed. The refrigerator was stocked. The closets were stuffed. The apartment was neat and tidy. The offerings to the Goddess of Mercy had yet to be changed. The windows were all closed, but the air didn’t feel stagnant.

She hadn’t planned for a long absence. Which meant she had to leave without advance warning, and without time to pack.

Or…

He sniffed the air.

A faint floral scent filled the air, sweet and subtle. It was the fragrance he had always associated with her. She’d lived here for so long her scent permeated the room.

But why hadn’t he sensed her qi?

His glasses vibrated against his skull. Incoming call.

“Sun Yao, you done with dinner?” Fu Hai Long asked.

“Haven’t even started. What’s wrong?”

“There’s a callout.”

Civil defense sirens wailed in the distance. A robotic voice warbled a prerecorded announcement, too muffled for him to make out.

“I can’t respond to this one.”

“Why not?” Fu demanded.

“I’m handling a potential missing persons case.”

“Leave it to the police,” Fu snapped. “We have reports of multiple beasts terrorizing the city. We need all hands on deck.”

“I don’t think it’s a missing person. It looks like a kidnap.”

“So? People are dying!”

“The missing person is a Barrier Technician. She’s a critical defense asset—”

“Is she the girl you’re meeting?”

“I’m busy investigating. I’ll call you back.”

“Wait!”

Sun hung up.

Sitting on the floor, he took a deep breath, tuned out the sirens, and called up his spirit sense. He expanded his senses as far as they would go, maximizing his reach, feeling for every scrap of qi in the apartment.

Nothing.

That was it. There was no qi here. That was wrong. This was Fang Fang’s home, and she was a cultivator. Her apartment would be filled with her energy. It wouldn’t be empty.

Unless someone else had cleared it out.

He strode to the balcony. From here he had a clear line of sight to the street. He closed his eyes. Stuffed his fingers into his ears. Tried to tune out the sirens howling in the distance. And focused on feeling the world.

There were people in the apartments above, below and around him. Pedestrians scurried for cover. Shutters slammed shut, cars screeched to a halt, guns shouted in the distance. He ignored them all, focusing on…

There.

At the edge of his perception, he detected a tiny pearl of glowing white qi. Almost imperceptible, but he was as familiar with that specific qi signature as his own.

He closed the balcony door, activated qinggong, and leapt down to the sidewalk. Sprinted down the empty streets, made a left turn, a right turn, and found the qi pearl. It was floating above a manhole.

Reaching out, he touched the pearl, absorbing it into his body, feeling it with his heart—

A huge man hauled her over her shoulder. She kicked and flailed but her hands and feet were cuffed.

“Stop it!” the man shouted.

She kept resisting, she kept fighting, she had to fight—

Electricity tore through her body. White-hot pain fried her nerves, locked her muscles, froze her joints.

And the pain stopped.

“Keep fighting and it’ll get worse.”

She slumped, defeated.

A second man lifted the manhole cover. Hot, stinking gas wafted from the opening. She wrinkled her nose.

She couldn’t fight them. Not like this. She wasn’t a fighter, and they’d stripped her of the bangles she needed to cast her barrier.

But she could leave a trace.

The first man was wearing some kind of harness. The second man strapped her in. She focused her energies, creating a tiny ball. Filled with subtle energy, it was undetectable to anyone who wasn’t looking for it. Certainly not these men, too distracted with the logistics of kidnapping her. She floated the ball into the air, filling it with her thoughts and memories.

Sun Yao, help me! I don’t know who these men are. They were waiting for me at home and took me by force. I don’t know what they want. I’ll leave a trail for you to follow. Please, help—

She fell.

Reality snapped back into focus. Sun’s mind cleared. He gritted his teeth. Clenched his fists. Sucked a breath.

“Hang on, Fang Fang. I’m coming.”

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For more stories that combine mysteries, magic and monsters, check out my novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 3

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A Day in the Life

Six days. Eighty-three incidents. Twenty-two Defenders.

This city was insane. The second he received his issue gear and vehicle from the Defenders’ Guild, he hit the street running and never stopped. Day became night became day became night again. Sleep was the period of non-wakefulness between callouts.

At the border of the wildlands, this city was one of the most dangerous places for a Defender. Beast attacks were commonplace. Many Defenders were never assigned here. Those who did didn’t always survive their tour. It was almost unheard of for rookies to be deployed here.

But Sun had insisted. And he worked triply hard in the Academy to prove he was worthy.

After all, she was here.

And so, for his efforts, he had the honor of handling the eighty-fourth incident.

A xiangliu.

The massive serpent wound sinuously across the river’s surface, cutting swiftly through the water. Its nine heads fanned out in every direction, seeking prey. Oily streaks and shattered planks floated in its wake, the remains of boats too slow or too unfortunate to get out of its way.

Circulating qi through his body, he supercharged his limbs and pounded the pavement. Sirens howled all around him. Shutters slammed shut over windows and doors. Civilians ran in every direction. Some pounded uselessly on the barricades. Others curled up and pretended to be dead. Still more ran about like headless chickens, fleeing the beast.

“Defenders! Make way!” Sun shouted.

His infinity gun held high across his chest, he followed the beast’s trail. It was fast, but so was he. Utilizing the art of qinggong, he was as light as a feather, his limbs the match of a purebred stallion.

The gigantic beast was headed upriver, racing for the Bund. Great white domes loomed in the distance, protecting the city’s heart. There was no risk a single xiangliu would breach the barriers, but that was cold comfort to everyone caught outside.

Out the corner of his eye, Sun saw Fu sprinting up alongside him.

“Hey!” Sun yelled. “Will the police help us?”

“They won’t!” Fu replied. “They’re not trained for this! We have to slay the beast ourselves!”

“How? It’s huge!

The xiangliu reared its heads. Its enormous torso rose above the two- and three-story shophouses that lined the waterfront. Hissing, the serpent struck. Heads battered against shutters, smashed furniture, gobbled down unlucky humans.

“Shoot it until it dies!” Fu advised.

The xiangliu weaved back and forth across the green river, never staying still, its heads dancing in every direction. And right in front of the xiangliu were even more shophouses.

Shooting was easy. Not hitting a civilian was beyond him.

“I don’t have a clear shot!” he yelled.

As his words left his mouth, the xiangliu swerved around a river bend, leaving his line of sight.

“Keep up with me, rookie!” Fu ordered.

Qi emanated from the senior Defender. Subtle energies warped the world around him. He blurred.

Vanished.

And reappeared down the street.

“What the devil…?”

Fu blurred again. Now he saw Fu, a swiftly-moving shadow cutting through the air. Fu rematerialized at the bend.
Sun’s smartglasses transmitted Fu’s voice into his skull.

“Over here, Sun Yao!”

“I don’t have that technique!” Sun replied, still sprinting.

“If you don’t keep up, I’m claiming the bounty!”

Sun didn’t waste his breath replying. He just kept running.

Higher-level Defenders had access to a staggering array of skills. With proper cultivation, they could develop their powers however they liked, suiting their unique personalities and preferences. Sun, fresh from the Academy, only had foundational skills. He couldn’t hope to keep up with Fu. He didn’t even know what Fu had done.

Rounding the bend, he caught sight of the xiangliu again. A barrage of bolts slammed into its back. The creature howled, all nine heads searching for the source of the gunfire.

“Rookie, shoot the water around it! Force it out on land!” Fu ordered.

Taking careful aim, Sun set his weapon to full auto and triggered a long burst. Geysers erupted around the creature. It writhed in agony. Coiling up, it leapt out of the river, slamming heavily on the pavement.

Muzzle flashes winked from the roof of a shophouse. More bolts lashed the creature’s back. Squinting, Sun saw Fu perched on the roof of the building.

Four snake heads turned to glare at Fu. The other five twisted around to face Sun. Forked tongues darted in and out, tasting the air. No shot. A xianglu was armored all over—except its underside.

“Cover me!” Sun shouted.

He charged the beast. The nine-headed snake hissed. Fu blasted away at it, but the beast didn’t seem to care. Sun had the complete attention if the five heads eyeing him.

Sun dropped to a knee. Aimed up. Now, even if he missed, the bolt would soar harmlessly into the sky. He locked on the nearest head and pressed the trigger.

Star-bright bolts blew through its neck. The head splashed into the river. Screeching, four heads plunged down on him.

Sun rocketed off the ground, pushing off with all his qi-augmented might. The heads crashed into the pavement, smashing the weathered stone. Shrapnel struck Sun’s combat suit, bouncing off his chest plate. A head curved up, staring at him.

He shot its eyes.

The xiulong hissed, rearing up in pain—and exposing its soft belly.

Sun dropped to the prone. Planted his crosshair on the soft white flesh. And held down the trigger.

Red steam. Gray dust. The snake convulsed and screeched and went limp. As its heads came crashing down, Sun rolled to his feet and sprang away.

The heads slammed into the ground with a bone-shaking BOOM. Sun counted four… well, three and a half intact heads. Somewhere in the chaos, Fu had blown off the other heads.

The air parted next to him. Fu popped out into the real world.

“Good job, rookie.”

Sun wiped the sweat off his brow. “Thanks. What technique did you use to move around so fast?”

“Spatial manipulation, fifth degree.”

Fifth? Fu must have been a cultivator for a decade.

“Must be nice to have a specialization,” Sun said.

“You don’t have one? Oh, of course you don’t have one. This isn’t even your first week on the job.”

“Yeah. I only have the basic Three Dantian Empowerment.”

They inspected the corpse, prodding the cooling flesh and examining the wounds. No heart, no breath, most definitively dead. Sun stepped aside and worked his glasses.

“Dispatch, this is Defender Sun Yao. Our target has been eliminated. Requesting coroner team at…” he looked around. “Spark House.”

“Roger. Coroner team is on the way,” Dispatch replied.

“Ask if there are any more jobs!” Fu shouted.

“Do you have anything else for us?” Sun added.

“Negative. Board is clear.”

Sun heaved a sigh of relief. “Thanks.” He hung up and added, “Defender Fu, there’s nothing for us now.”

“Enjoy the calm while it lasts,” Fu said.

The sirens went silent. The shutters began to rise. Civilians crawled out of their hiding places. They whipped out their phones and glasses, taking snapshots of the body and whispering among themselves.

“Is anybody injured? Does anyone need medical attention?” Fu yelled.

No one responded. They were too busy taking photos and videos.

The police popped up out of the holes they had hidden in and circulated the area. As Sun moved to join them, Fu laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Let them do their jobs,” Fu said. “We’ll guard the body.”

“Guard the body? There’s plenty of wounded around here.”

“If the police need us, they’ll call us. Until then, conserve your qi. The day isn’t over yet.”

Cultivator he may be, but he didn’t have unlimited stores of qi. Sun retrieved a bottle of energy tonic from interspatial storage and gulped it down. Fresh blood and qi pumped through his body. His skin flushed, his face warmed, his dantian recharged.

“Why do we need to guard the body anyway?” Sun asked.

“Scavengers,” Fu said. “Leave a dead monster alone and they’ll pick the beast apart like vultures. They’ll take the skin, meat, bones and organs and sell them on the black market. Black doctors would buy them, grind them up, mix them with all kinds of rubbish, and sell them as ‘elixirs’.”

Sun sighed. A Defender’s bounty was calculated by the weight and quality of flesh, bone and organs harvested from slain beasts. Scavengers were thieves. And there was no telling what poisons went into black market elixirs.

“Every day we descend deeper into the Realm of Beasts,” Sun said.

“You’re religious?”

“I try to be.”

Fu shrugged. “So long as it keeps you sane.”

“Yes, this place is insane. I’ve never seen so many beasts in one place in my life.”

“It’s the seventh month. The gates of Hell are open, ghosts walk the land, and the beasts of the world follow them.”

“I thought it was a rumor.”

“It’s reality for us.”

“Why isn’t the City Barrier online?”

“If we kept it raised all the time, we’d starve. Planes, ships and trucks won’t be able to enter the city. It’s only ever raised during an emergency. For individual beasts like this, there’s the local Barriers.”

“Which sucks for the seventy percent of the population who can’t afford one.”

“On the bright side, we’ll always have a job.”

A dozen men in white hazmat suits approached the Defenders. Their leader waved.

“Defender Fu!” he called.

“Mr Shen. Took you look enough.”

Shen shrugged apologetically. “You know how busy it gets during the Ghost Month.”

The coroner team laid out series of gigantic plastic sheets on the pavement. Sun stepped out of their way. They must be planning to wrap up the corpse in plastic. But… how were they planning to move it?

“How do you handle massive corpses like that?” Sun asked.

“We’ve got a transporter just around the corner,” Shen replied.

Qi surged around Sun. The coroner team glowed. Six men grabbed a head each. Five more latched on to the body. Together, they hauled it across the pavement. Shen shouted instructions, guiding his men along.

“You want to take a break?” Fu asked.

“I can?” Sun asked.

“This job’s a marathon, not a sprint. You need downtime whenever you can take it. Besides, didn’t you promise to see your girlfriend?”

“She’s not my girlfriend.”

Fu laughed. “Go on, get going. If we need you, we’ll call you.”

The car was still where he’d parked it. Nobody messed with any vehicle that bore the red-and-blue stripes of the Defenders’ Guild. Nobody sane, anyway.

Inside the relative privacy of his vehicle, Sun called Liu. She picked up after the first ring.

“It’s me,” he said.

“‘It’s me’?” she echoed. “But I’m me. Who are you?”

“Very funny.”

She giggled. “You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t visit…”

“I’m calling you now. Are you busy?”

“My shift ends in fifteen minutes. What’s up?”

“I’ve got some free time. Want to have dinner?”

“Sure! Where do you want to go?”

“I’m still trying to find my way around this city. Any recommendations?”

“We could have dinner at my place.”

“Great. Where is it?”

“Seventy-seven Hanzhou Street. Unit five-eighteen. Could you be there in an hour?”

“Sure. See you then.”

In the relative privacy of his car, he changed into the only set of civilian clothing he owned, a plain white shirt and gray slacks. He applied fresh bandages on his cuts—he’d picked up a dozen over the past six days—and washed up in a public toilet before heading to Liu’s home.

The apartment blocks of Hanzhou Street loomed over him. Fifteen, twenty, thirty stories tall, so tall he had to crane his neck just to see the top. He’d spent most of his life living in a cramped single-story home in Hongcun and a succession of tents and dorms after joining the Defenders; he still didn’t know how people could live so high in the air.

He made his way to her door. A little early, but he supposed she wouldn’t mind. He rang the doorbell.

Nothing happened.

He knocked on the door.

No response.

He called her. The phone rang and rang and rang. Then:

“The number you have dialed is currently not available. Please try again later.”

He activated his spirit sense. No one was in.

Odd. If she were running late, she would have called him. She wouldn’t flake out on him like that.

He tested the doorknob. It turned.

She wouldn’t leave the door unlocked.

Something was wrong.

Cheah Git San Red

Previous chapters: 12

For more stories that blend magic, swords, guns and martial arts, check out my latest novel Hammer of the Witches.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 2

Sword.png

Defender and Barrier

“RUN!” the cop yelled.

Quick as a flash, the winged tiger bounced on the policeman, pinning him to the ground. The cop screamed, struggling under its enormous bulk. Sun raised his pistol. And the beast tore out his throat.

Sun fired.

A brilliant blue bolt slammed into the creature’s torso. Fire and smoke erupted from its fur.

Roaring in pain, the tiger spread its wings, covering its face and body. Sun ran the gun hard, dumping bolts as fast as he could fire. The power crystal siphoned his qi through his gloves, keeping the gun going.

But as the bolts crashed into the wings, they dissipated.

Turning to Sun, the winged tiger crouched.

Pounced.

And slammed into a crackling white wall.

Dropping to the ground, it shook his head, momentarily confused. It was so close, Sun saw the blood dripping from his teeth and paws, the meat caught between its canines.

Liu stood her ground, her feet planted solidly on the floor. Her arms were extended straight out, her bangles glowing white. The creature snarled, pawing at the barrier, but she stood firm and maintained the force field.

Guns howled. A barrage of bolts crashed into the beast’s flank. Distracted, it turned to face the new threat, and Sun retreated behind a nearby pillar. A team of armed police had arrived, firing from across the hall. But the bolts crashed uselessly against the beast’s wings.

The winged tiger poked its head out between its wings, turning to the cops. And its horn glowed.

“TAKE COVER!” Sun shouted.

A beam of blinding light blasted from the horn.

Liu screamed, throwing her will against the world.

The beam crashed against a fresh barrier. The barrier took everything the winged tiger could throw at it and scattered the infernal energy into harmless rays of multihued light.

The assault ceased. The cops were unscratched. But Liu swooned.

“Fang Fang!”

She caught herself before she fell.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”

The tiger chuffed. The policemen continued firing, but none of their shots penetrated its wings.

Stalemate.

But Sun was a cultivator.

Switching his smoking pistol to his left hand, he called upon his interspatial ring. Another wormhole opened. He reached in, found a firm handle, and drew.

Out came a jian. A straight sword with two keen edges and a needle tip. Holding it low, he circled around the beast.

“Cover me!” Sun shouted.

“Go!” Liu replied.

Summoning his qi from all three dantian, he supercharged his muscles. Filled his blade with qi.

Lunged.

Gravity fell away. The air parted before him. Wind pushed at his back. In a single bound, he flew to the beast’s flank. And cut.

Steel bit into hardened bone and sinewy muscle. A moment of resistance, and the wing snapped off.

Howling, the creature trashed about. Another barrier materialized, shielding Sun from its iron teeth and claws. Leaping aside, Sun extended his pistol, placed it against the beast’s exposed temple, and fired.

Its head erupted in pink steam. The winged tiger slumped to the ground, finally dead.

Scanning, Sun saw no more threats. He flicked the blood off his jian and returned to Liu.

She had propped herself against a pillar, her hands massaging her temples.

“Sun Yao…” she said.

“It’s over.”

She smiled. “Good job.”

“Couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I…” She frowned, pointing at the skylight. “Where’s the barrier? It should be up by now.”

He looked. Through the broken glass he saw clear blue sky and bright sunlight. But there was no barrier. The civil defense sirens continued screaming. And, high in the sky, he saw black dots. Lots of them.

“We need to get to the operations center,” she said.

He nodded. Turning to the cops, he yelled, “Cover the skylight! We have more beasts incoming!”

As the policemen scrambled into position, he pointed at the nearest.

“You! Take us to the operations center!”

The three of them trooped down empty halls and deserted corridors. The civilians had evacuated by now. He sensed no qi around him beyond Liu and the policeman. But just in case, Sun kept his head on a swivel and his weapon at the ready.

The door to the operations center was wide open. The lock had been blasted open. And blood spilled out the open door.

Ta ma de,” Sun whispered. “Fang Fang, stay behind me.”

He sensed no qi. Only death. Taking a deep breath, he stepped in.

Lao tian nah!” the cop exclaimed. By Heaven!

Bodies. Bodies everywhere. Seated, lying down, slumped against the walls. A lake of blood covered the floor.

Sun inspected a corpse. Her throat had been cut, almost decapitating her. Another one had been blasted in the chest. A third had been slashed in half. He couldn’t tell if the wounds were made by man or beast. Or both.

Liu pointed at a door. “We need to check the barrier control room.”

“Right.” Looking at the cop, Sun said, “Watch this room. Preserve the crime scene.”

Liu and Sun stepped around the bodies, careful to avoid disturbing anything they saw. The door to the barrier control room was unlocked. As Sun grasped the doorknob the door fell off its hinges.

“Not a good sign,” Sun said.

The barrier control room stretched out before them. Rows of computers and consoles glowed by the sides of the room. Dead ahead was a transparent panel of safety glass. Behind that was the enormous crystal that powered the airport’s barrier.

The crystal was dull.

And the room was empty.

“Where did everyone go?” Liu asked. “This is an emergency. There must be a Barrier Technician manning the room at all times.”

“Maybe they’re dead,” Sun said.

Zao gao,” she said. This is terrible. “We need to get the barrier online before the beasts attack again.”

“Anything I can do?” Sun asked.

She strode to a console. And heaved a sigh of relief. “This console is unlocked. I can activate the barrier from here. Just watch the door and make sure the beasts don’t come in.”

“You can raise the airport barrier?”

Her hands flew across the keys.

“Yes. I can do this. Just… watch the door.”

Heavy footsteps reverberated outside. Voices floated into the room.

“Defenders! Over here!”

Sun opened his ring, stowed his weapons, and drew his badge. Stepping away from the door, he kept his hands low.
A pair of armed men burst into the room, long guns ready.

“Defenders!” the leader shouted. “Who are you?”

Sun raised his badge. “Defender Class One Sun Yao. She’s Barrier Technician Liu Fang Fang.”

The senior Defender squinted at the badge. Nodded.

“I heard a Defender slew the winged tiger in the lobby. Was that you?”

“Yes,” Sun Yao said.

“Not bad. Ms Liu, what are you doing?”

“Bringing the barrier back online,” she replied.

“You’re authorized to do that?”

“I’m the only Barrier Technician available,” she replied.

“I see.” Looking at Sun, he said, “You… Sun Yao. You were supposed to report for duty today, yes?”

“Yes. This whole mess started right after I stepped off the airship.”

“Hell of a first day at work, isn’t it?” Shaking his head, he said, “I’m Fu Hai Long. This is Yang Guo An. And that’s all the introductions you’re going to get. The city is in a state of emergency. Beasts are everywhere, and we need every Defender on duty.”

Sun nodded. “I’m ready. Fang Fang…”

“I understand,” she said.

“I’ll meet you when I can.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”


Cheah Git San Red.jpg

You can find the previous chapter here.

For more stories that blend magic, swords, guns and martial arts, check out my latest novel Hammer of the Witches.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 1

Reunion, Interrupted

Crowds annoyed him. From the moment he received his first empowerment at the Academy, he could no longer tolerate crowds. Their qi was overwhelming. It was a flood of random energy that crackled and flowed and combined and crashed into him all at once from every direction.

And there was the small matter of not having time and space to react to an incoming threat.

Focus. Let the qi flow through you.

Breathing deeply and regularly, he allowed the qi to pass into and through him, fully and completely, leaving nothing behind.

He scanned the crowd in his peripheral vision. The terminal was packed. He saw a team of flight crew in smart blue uniforms pushing company-issue luggage; business people in sharp suits and pressed clothing lining up at ticket counters; tourists and travelers, marked by their huge backpacks and casual dress; a giggling, chatting, noisy mass of schoolchildren in crumpled uniforms, herded by a half-dozen worn-looking teachers.

And there was her.

She was a beacon of focused flame in a blizzard, her qi radiating from her like wings. Her aura was a gentle white blanket of soothing light, covered by a thin but hard shell, her energy warm and soothing and calming. Exactly as he remembered.

Breaking into a brilliant smile, she waved at him. He smiled back and approached her.

“Mr Sun, it’s been a long time,” she said.

“Only five years, Ms Liu,” he replied.

She sniffed. “Five years and eight months.”

“Three weeks.”

“Six days.”

“Twenty hours.”

She giggled, covering her mouth. “Did you count the minutes too?”

“I’m not as obsessive as you.”

They broke into laughter.

“You’ve grown,” she said, patting his biceps. “You’ve put on a lot more muscle since we last met.”

Her touch was soft and warm and gentle, and just a little longer than necessary.

“The job demands it,” he said, looking her over. “You’ve grown too.”

Raven hair ran down her shoulder, framing her almond-shaped face and high cheeks. Large, limpid eyes glittered in the light, as warm as chocolate and as deep as the sea. Exactly as he’d remembered her.

But in his memories he saw a tomboy. Today she wore a qipao the colour of snow. The one-piece dress clung to her curves and ended at her ankles. Long side slits allowed freedom of movement. A pair of smartglasses perched on her forehead, and she wore a jadeite bangle on each wrist.

And she was taller than he remembered her.

She crossed her arms over her not-insignificant bust. “Wei, what are you looking at?”

He gestured at her feet. “High heels? You?”

She pouted. “I can’t wear them?”

“You used to hate them.”

“People change.”

“Absolutely. You’ve finally developed a fashion sense.”

She humphed. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t look like a boy anymore.”

Tao yan!” Annoying!

“You don’t enjoy compliments?”

“You still enjoy teasing me?”

“Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?”

Zhen shi de!” Unbelievable!

Humphing again, she spun on her heel, presenting her back to him. Sun leaned over her shoulder and whispered into her ear.

“It’s good to see you again, Fang Fang.”

Smiling, she craned her neck and looked up at him.

“Same here, Sun Yao. Now that you finally graduated.”

He shrugged. “Empowerment takes far longer in my profession.”

“You made me wait. Any longer and I might have given up.”

“I’m here now. Do you still—”

A thunderous two-tone siren wailed from the loudspeakers, steadily growing in volume. A thousand rings and chimes and beeps issued from glasses and bands and pads.

“Code black,” the public broadcast system intoned. “Code black. Security personnel, please report to your assigned stations. Guests and passengers, please proceed to the civil defense shelter.”

Civilians paused in their tracks, listening to the announcement. The teachers gathered their children and led them deeper into the building, scolding and cajoling as they went. Nearby, a blue-uniformed cop stiffened, and rested his hand on his holster.

Sun touched the steel utility band on his left wrist and pressed a quick access button. A list of items and images popped into his head. The contents of his interspatial storage.

He selected an item. A flat black circle appeared, hovering above the band. It was a two-dimensional hole in space-time, so thin it seemed invisible from the side. He reached into the hole, wrapping his fingers around a solid plastic frame, and drew his infinity pistol.

Sun’s amplifier gloves warmed. Intricate designs woven into the black leather glowed in his mind’s eye, tracing the meridians and energy pathways of his hands. Circuitry in the palms of his gloves meshed with the weapon’s grip, feeding the infinity gun with his qi.

He needed a full combat loadout. His personal gear was nowhere near enough. But he had to do with what he had. Gripping his gun in both hands, he said, “Fang Fang…”

She was already in motion. Her jadeite bangles glowing brightly, she kicked off her heels and lowered her glasses into place.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Time to work.”

All around them, civilians dashed for cover. Airport staff directed them to the civil defense shelter with shouts and gestures. Armed and armored policemen raced into position, taking cover behind whatever they could find.

In the distance, monstrous roars filled the air.

The cop Sun had spotted earlier rushed over to them, weapon drawn.

“Sir, ma’am, you need to take cover.”

“We’re cultivators,” he said. “We can help.”

The cop visibly relaxed.

“Thank you. We’re facing—”

Glass shattered. Shards rained down from above.

A sleek, muscular beast crashed through the skylights. Flapping its huge crimson wings, it landed gently on the floor. Covered in blazing orange fur and black stripes, it boasted a set of wicked claws on every paw and a horn that tapered into a fine point. The creature curled its tail and bared its fangs. A deep growl issued from its powerful chest.

It was a winged tiger. Apex predator of the wildlands.

And it glared at Sun, bloodlust in its eyes.


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If you enjoy science fiction, fantasy or both, check out my supernatural military science fiction thriller HAMMER OF THE WITCHES, featuring magic, mayhem, martial arts, and a sinister conspiracy to enslave the world.

Appendix N Review: Three Hearts and Three Lions

To Holger Carlsen, Dane by birth and engineer by trade, science rules all. The immutable laws of physics govern the universe, and there is no space in this rational world for the mysterious and the magical. Yet one fateful day, when fighting along the Resistance in the Second World War, he is knocked out in battle, and awakens naked in a strange forest. Nearby is a horse of startling intelligence, carrying arms and armour that fit him perfectly, including a shield that bears the device of three hearts and three lions.

Thus begins Poul Anderson’s seminal work Three Hearts and Three Lions. Coming from an era saturated with Japanese isekai stories and Western dark fantasy CRPGs, Three Hearts and Three Lions is simultaneously refreshing and inspiring. Both of these media owe their origins to Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, and Gygax in turn drew inspiration from a list of stories, stories he listed in his famous Appendix N. Among them is Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Before the isekai boom, before the fad of Western dark fantasy, there was the traditional Western fantasy in all its glittering splendor. Three Hearts and Three Lions hails from that era, seamlessly weaving myth and religion into a tale of chivalry and romance.

Holger Carlsen is not on Earth anymore — and yet this Earth bears startling similarities to ours. There is talk of Charlemagne and Saracens and Jews, but there are also fairies, pagans, monsters, demons, and the Dark Powers that rule the forces of evil. Magic is accepted reality, but scientific principles also underline the world. Holger has no knowledge of the language of this world, yet when people speak he hears his own tongue, and when he speaks the words that emerge are those of this other world. Most curiously of all, Holger’s name is known far and wide across the land as a Champion of the Law.

As Holger attempts to understand how and why he was brought to this world, he joins forces with a beautiful swan maiden and a stout dwarf. Together, they embark on a journey to discover his identity, uncover the significance of the three hearts and three lions, and save both worlds from the forces of Chaos.

Fans ofD&D, Western fantasy and isekai can clearly identify the progenitor of many themes and tropes within this book. There are monsters taken from myth, the hero who applies modern-day knowledge in a fantasy setting, elves and dwarves and demons, the archetypal paladin who wanders the world doing good and smiting evil, and so on. Admiral Ironbombs does a commendable job here linking Three Hearts and Three Lions to D&D.

But there is one thing that many modern fantasies have not inherited from classical fantasy, something that is readily apparent in every page of Three Hearts and Three Lions: religion.

The world of Three Hearts and Three Lions is divided into Law and Chaos. As Jeffro Johnson discussed, they represent different polarities and different ways of life. Law is civilization, selflessness and predictability; Chaos is selfish, unpredictable and subversive. The lands of the Law belong to humans — religious humans — while the domain of Chaos belongs to the Fae and their vassals. Caught in between are the Middle Worlders who adopt a policy of neutrality.

In a direction confrontation with the forces of the Law, Chaos is impotent. The touch of silver or cold iron, the sight of a crucifix, or a sincere prayer will repel the forces of Chaos. Faith alone is the ultimate weapon against Chaos. Instead of direct confrontation, Chaos relies on a strategy of subversion, breaking the will of the inhabitants of the Law to spread their power. Chaos relies also on recruits from the neutral creatures of the Middle World. While lacking the magical powers of Chaos, Middle Worlders are not vulnerable to iron, silver or holy symbols, enabling them to battle the forces of the Law directly.

Such a conflict is reminiscent of Ephesians 6:12 (“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”), a battle of wills and faith instead of flesh and steel. When waging war on Chaos, you aren’t just placing your life at risk — you risk your soul.

In the world of Three Hearts and Three Lions, the Fae are cunning, seductive and manipulative beings who tempt their enemies into ruin. A prayer and a cross can ward you from demons in the dark, but a single impious thought will break the wards, and the tireless monsters of the night will fall upon you. Scenes like this resonate sharply with Christian readers, and yet it is presented as an organic aspect of the world, so non-Christians do not feel like they are being lectured to.

Contrast this with many modern fantasy stories, isekai or otherwise. The Church — or any kind of centralised religion — is usually nonexistent, a target of ridicule, or an evil and oppressive organization that must be destroyed. The forces of evil are powerful and innumerable, sweeping across the land like an infernal scourge. The enemy is known and readily identifiable. The hero is usually either a displaced shounen with overpowered cheat skills, a designated hero only slightly less evil than the Big Bad, or both.

Such a setting ignores or denounces the concept of a central moral authority. Morality thus stems from the characters’ personal code of conduct, or relies heavily on the perspective the consumer brings to the table. Lighter works like Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsodyhave the heroes act generally according to accepted modern moral norms, without exploring the moral dimension. Darker or more mature works attempts to undermine the notion of objective ethics altogether. For instance, in Tsuyokute New Saga, protagonist Kail will do anything — lie, cheat, manipulate and murder — to attain his goal of defeating the Demon King, and suffers no consequences or guilt from his deeds.

Stories that lack a moral dimension tend to become predictable. The main character begins by fighting small fry, and as he becomes more powerful, the bad guys become increasingly dangerous and the stakes ever higher. Past a threshold, there is no longer any excitement from fighting lesser scum, for the reader knows that the hero will steamroll them. The writer knows this too, so the only way to keep things interesting is to either expand the cast of characters or to shoot for the highest stakes: to defeat the Big Bad and save the world.

While there is nothing inherently wrong in escalating stakes, in one paragraph I’ve described nearly every major shounen and seinen fantasy story of the last twenty years.

Stories where morality has consequences and religion has weight carry a gravitas unknown to the previous category. Religious institutions and rituals meaningfully contribute to the world, adding layers to the setting and influencing the events of the story. Indeed, Christian rites and beliefs influence the inhabitants of the world of Three Hearts and Three Lions in ways minor and major. When faced with critical decisions, characters must weigh their options and act appropriately.

When good and evil both have costs and advantages, every decision has impact and significance. From a craft perspective, you don’t have to keep coming up with ever-more-exciting setpiece sequences to keep the audience interested; you can always switch things up by making the character make a difficult choice.

Stories in which an ever-increasingly powerful protagonist merely faces mortal peril must eventually fall back on spectacle and action extravaganzas to make continued conflict meaningful to the audience. Stories that place the hero in mortal and moral peril require the hero to guard his soul from corruption every step of the way. The latter doesn’t need a Demon King, a horde of cannibal barbarian warriors, or slavering eldritch abominations from Beyond to keep things exciting — when the hero must constantly struggle with his inner demons, a single misstep will leave him naked to the forces of Hell. Such a setting allows for fresh stories, meaningful drama and compelling arcs — and prevents the hero from being trapped into a never-ending loop of beating up foes, getting stronger, and beating up even stronger foes ad infinitum.

Most of all, in stories with a positive portrayal of religion, a skilled writer can drop the veil at the right moment, revealing exactly where the protagonist stands in the grand cosmic design and how he touches the lives of everybody and everything around him. It is a powerful moment that affirms the value of the good life and inspires awe and wonder in the reader. This is the moment of awe the Superversive movement strive for. And the climax of Three Hearts and Three Lions does this beautifully.

With the hero facing mortal and moral peril, Christianity as a powerful force for good, tireless evil that hunts patiently for souls, fantastic creatures and marvellous characterisation, Three Hearts and Three Lions is a worthy addition to any fantasy library. It is a seminal novel that upholds the pillars of Western civilization, yet speaks to readers of every creed. Quite simply, it is one of the finest fantasy stories of the twentieth century.

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My own stories also conspire to place the hero at mortal and moral peril. Check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES here.

Reminder: SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE Open Call on 14th February

In case you missed it, the #SteemPulp crew’s first open call, SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE, opens on 14th February. A Steemit-exclusive event, SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE aims to champion pulp-style stories and identify promising talent on Steemit.

The theme for SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE is love and chivalry. No genre restrictions, but we want pulp-style stories — fun, action-packed stories that place entertaining the reader first.

To participate, publish your story on 14th February in your local time zone and tag it with ‘swordsofstvalentine’. If you’re planning to write a serial, you must complete the story by the end of the month. There is no minimum word limit, but there is a hard limit of 15,000 words.

All authors who participate will receive compensation through Steemit payouts. Everyone who participates in this event will stand a chance to earn fair compensation for their time and energy invested in the story, and there is great incentive to publicise their stories far and wide. Authors of the best stories will be invited to submit their stories to the SteemPulp crew for inclusion in an anthology.

The selection criteria is two fold: fit to theme and aesthetic, followed by number of upvotes. Authors who pay for bot upvoting and resteeming services or use sock puppet accounts to upvote their own stories will be disqualified. There will not be a penalty for using the platform’s native post promotion service, and writers who are discovered by content curators will receive extra credit. Total payouts will not be considered as part of the selection critiera; an upvote from a whale carries the same weight as a minnow.

To summarise, here are the requirements for SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE:

Theme: Love and chivalry. Story must fit the pulp aesthetic.
Word count: No minimum. Hard limit of 15,000 words.
Event opening date: 14 February 2018. Publish your story, or the first part of a serialised story, on this date.
Event completion date: 28 February 2018. Serialised stories must be completed by then.
Selection criteria: Fit to theme and aesthetic, and number of upvotes.
Disqualification criteria: Use of paid upvoting and resteem bot services, and use of sock puppets. Use of Steemit’s native promotion service is allowed.
Extra credit: Discovery by content creators.
Compensation: Payouts on Steemit.

Selection and slush reading shall be performed by the SteemPulp Council — members of the SteemPulp crew who have pledged to participate in the event. Even now, @everhart@noughtshayde@t2tang@jimfear138@notjohndaker and @jd-alden are punching away at their keyboards, composing the finest fiction yet to be seen on Steemit.

I, Herald of the PulpRev and Warboss of Steemit, will also publish a story for this event. There will be fearless xiake wielding sword and gun, rampaging man-eating beasts, superpowered cultivators and martial valour. It shall be a tale where East and West collide and combine into a shining alloy of undiluted awesomeness.

SteemPulp is here to take Steemit by storm. Join us, and we will Make Fiction Great Again.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

Cover image credit: Saint Valentine on stained glass, royalty-free stock photo on Dreamstime.

To get a taste of the kind of stories we’re looking for, check out our PulpRev Sampler here.

The Last Post

The harsh scent of gunpowder tickled Michael’s nose. Boots stamped through the night. Whispered voices carried across the air. The weight of a hundred eyes fell on him. Squinting, Michael peered through the dark woods, down the hill, at the moonlit valley before him.

And saw no one.

“Halt!” a voice boomed.

Michael twitched.

“Advance to be recognized!”

Just in front of Michael, a man peered around a nearby tree—and aimed a rifle at him.

Michael took one step forward, slowly raising his hands.

“Easy there. I’m a friend,” Michael said.

“Sundown!”

“Are you asking for a password?”

“Yes! Sundown!”

“I don’t have the password of the day—”

“Then get out of here. Quickly. This ain’t no place for civilians.”

Another step. “Listen, friend, I’m not a civilian. You recognize my uniform jacket, don’t you?”

“Anyone can wear a uniform,” the man sneered.

“I’m not your enemy. I can prove it to you.”

“How?”

“Let me reach under my shirt.”

“Do it. Slowly,” the guard warned.

Michael deliberately brought his hand to his collar. Found the fine steel beads of his necklace. And the cross hanging from it.

He held the cross up to the pale moonlight.

“See this?” Michael said. “I’m not one of them.”

The guard heaved a sigh of relief, lowering his weapon.

“Thank God.”

“It’s been hard on you, huh?” Michael said.

“Yeah. There’s no end of them.”

“But you held the line.”

“It’s what we do.”

“Your dedication to duty is commendable. What’s your rank and name?”

“Corporal Tom Lee. And yours?”

“Just call me Michael.”

“No rank?”

“I don’t need one.”

Lee pointed at Michael’s hip. “Is that a sword? Not exactly standard issue, is it?”

Michael laughed. “It’s served me well. Listen, it’s kind of hard to talk like this. Would you mind stepping around that tree?”

Lee stepped out. Under the moon he glowed a faint, spectral blue. His uniform was torn and faded. A ragged wound consumed his belly. His mangled jaw hung loosely from his face, and his left eye socket was empty. The faint moonlight pierced his translucent skin, illuminating the tree behind him.

“I’m a mess, aren’t I?” the ghost asked, his voice issuing from an open mouth that could never close again.

“Don’t worry. We can fix you right up.”

“I’m dead. I can’t exactly be fixed.”

Michael’s eyes twinkled. “Never say never. Tell me, how long have you been here?”

“I don’t know, sir. Time gets kinda… fuzzy. I… we’ve been standing post here since… well, you know. I only remember the seasons. The sun, the rains, the occasional snow…”

“You’ve been here for seven years.”

“Seven years? So long?”

“It’s all right, corporal. Your job’s done. You can go home now.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

Lee pointed downhill.

“Look.”

Faint blue figures meandered across the valley floor. Some were tiny balls of light, others resolved into the shape of men with shouldered rifles. By their light Michael saw blackened grass and salted fields, burnt-out husks of war machines, broken and discarded weapons, and bones. Miles of old bones, stretching as far as the eye could see.

Michael saw enormous ribs, larger than elephants. Crumbling skulls of strange beasts that sprouted massive horns and tusks. Femurs as massive as oaks, wickedly curved claws twice the height of a man, piles of too-large hands and feet with too many digits, skeletons of neither men nor beasts.

And, at the far end of the boneyard, was a closed door leaking infernal red light.

“We have to stand watch,” Lee said. “When that door opens…”

“Don’t worry. We’re ready for them.”

“‘We’, sir?”

Michael thumbed behind his shoulder.

“Look.”

Behind Michael, a brilliant white light blazed to life. Lee squinted, peering into the second sun. And gasped.

“Are they…?”

“Yes.”

“Are you…?”

Michael nodded. “You kept the faith and stayed true to your duty, Corporal Lee. Your work is done. We’re here to relieve you.”

Tears trickled down his cheeks.

“I…”

Michael patted Lee’s shoulder. “It’s time to go home.”

Lee’s throat bobbed. He looked at Michael. Looked behind him. Looked back at Michael.

“I stand relieved,” Lee said.

“Good man.”

A pillar of starlight cut through the sea of clouds above, bathing Lee in gentle light. His stomach wound closed over. His jaw closed, returning to its proper place. Light issued from his empty eye socket. A moment later, it subsided, revealing a fresh eye.

Lee blinked. Worked his jaw.

“Thank you,” Lee whispered.

“Go into the light,” Michael said.

Lee looked up. And floated.

The light drew him up, higher and higher, lifting him into the skies. Lesser lights ascended from the valley and the forest, following Lee’s flight. By the ones and twos, then dozens and hundreds, the lingering ghosts left their posts and patrols and soared to the source of the light.

The smell of gunpowder gave way to fresh grass. The sound of boots faded. There were no more voices, only silence. Michael’s jacket and cross vanished in a puff of ethereal smoke, revealing a suit of glowing plates. He drew his sword and turned around.

Before him, a great host of warriors awaited in formation, armed with brilliant blades and clad in radiant plate. They stood at attention, awaiting his command.

“It is time,” Michael said.

Two wings of dazzling flame unfurled from Michael’s back, extending to their full length. Flapping his wings, he took to the sky, rising above the forest, above the valley, above the boneyard.

The army spread their wings and followed him, arraying themselves in a massive flying armada. Their light banished the darkness below, laying bare the valley of death. The last of the lost souls had departed. Now there was only dust and decay and the red door.

And the door cracked open.

“Brothers, to war!” Michael commanded.

Raising his sword, he swooped down on the red door.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

How to Make More Singaporean Writers

Reading Sumiko Tan’s interview with Tash Aw, I am reminded of the questions that haunt the Singapore writing scene. How can we produce more writers? How do we get international recognition? How do we create, in Tan’s words, ‘international literary successes’?

From my perspective, the answer is simple: Do not be limited by Singapore.

The Culture Crush

Tash Aw has the following observation about Singapore culture:

“The pressure crushes too many [exceptional people] who might have been exceptional but they are not able just to rise to their own level,” he says. “So they are constantly striving to reach a level imposed on them by the rest of society, by school teachers, by their family.”

“Because if you have the kind of mind that leads you to become a brilliant illustrator or a brilliant fashion designer or a brilliant anything, it’s unlikely you’re going to have that methodical approach to work that getting straight As requires you to have. And so if you’re forced to suppress those creative instincts in order to achieve those A grades, then you kill >off a certain part of your brain.”

Having experienced the Singaporean education system myself, I can attest to the pressure. From primary school to secondary school to junior college, every adult around me recited the same message: study hard, get good grades, get into a good school, rinse and repeat all the way to university, then graduate and get a good job.

In my day, Chinese language was taught by rote. English wasn’t much better. Math was an endless sea of drills and concepts and more drills. The hard sciences were about memorising and regurgitating key facts. The social sciences were about memorising, regurgitating and repackaging key facts to fit an analysis of questions we had seen over and over again in countless exercises.

This education system produces engineers, lawyers, doctors, administrators, and other technocrats with specialist skills to be applied in formal situations with clear-cut outcomes. This is not what creators do. Creators strive to build bigger and brighter and better things, systems, institutions and cultures, and that means stepping outside rigidly-defined boundaries to see what else can be done. A creator is a risk-taker, a visionary, an idealist, a tinkerer, a non-conformist — the exact opposite of the kind of person the Singapore system churns out.

This is not to say that the non-creators are a lesser class of beings. They are administrators, executives and maintenance experts. They specialise in keeping the advanced machinery of high civilization going. These are necessary jobs, but the mindset needed for such positions usually clash with the mindset needed to be a creator. And Singaporean society elevates the former and ignores the latter.

Singapore has it worse than the West. America mythologises the cowboy, pioneer, settler and inventor — the men and women who headed West to chase dreams of riches and land, who wrestled life from the unforgiving earth and built homes and communities, who invented madcap devices that made life ever more comfortable and wonderful and easier. Europe celebrates its long and rich history of poets, writers, artists, playwrights and creators of all kinds. Singapore has neither a national myth nor a cultural history that nourishes the souls of would-be creators, nor inspires people to back them.

What Singapore has is pragmatism.

Show Me the Money

Why the emphasis on grades and schools and jobs? Answer: to make a living, support your family, and buy a home. And woe betide you if you fail, because no one is coming to save you if you fall.

Understand that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If every fiction writer quits tomorrow, the world would keep chugging along. It might be culturally, spiritually and emotionally poorer, but life would still go on. Fiction is a luxury, and as a luxury it is a buyer’s market. Singaporean culture is built on the pursuit wealth, commercialism, and material abundance; highbrow entertainment is a distraction, an escape, and a luxury, utterly unnecessary to the serious business of making money.

In light of this, how can Singapore produce more writers?

Demonstrate that writers can make a living.

A working writer who makes a living off writing creates a virtuous cycle. He shows that he can support his family, so his friends and loved ones would be more willing to back him. With the time and energy to focus on his craft, he can write more stories of ever-increasing quality. This makes him even more money, increases his fame, and inspires more writers to follow in his footsteps.

Tash Aw seems to agree:

“If you’re a real writer, what you should aim to be doing is to have a career. It is a solid professional career like anything else. If you’re a journalist, if you’re a hairdresser, if you’re a coal miner, if you’re a banker, what you want to do is to be the >best you can and involved over the years.”

The best writers I have seen are those that treat writing as a career. They show up and do the work, day in and day out, with the discipline and regimen of every other small business owner. They tend to their finances, study the market and the industry, and adjust their writing and their output to match.

How do you make a career out of writing in Singapore?

Simple. Don’t do what the Singapore writing scene does.

The Word Machines

Singapore is obsessed with awards, and the writing scene is no different. Awards and certificates hold great weight in Singapore, serving as proof of quality. Everywhere you go, you’ll see certificates for food hygiene, product and service technical skills and so on. In a society where degrees and diplomas are a dime a dozen, certificates serve as easily-understandable social proof. It’s no wonder that the local writing scenes chase prestigious awards like the Man Booker Prize and the Walter Scott Prize.

But you can’t eat awards.

Many literature awards earn you accolades and at best a token sum. Even if you win the most prestigious literary prize, you’ll only be able to live off the proceeds for a year or two at best. Prize money is a windfall; it is not sustained income. Without sustained income, a writer will have to keep to his day job. And a writer who can only write one or two hours a day will have far less output, skill and writing-related income than a writer who can dedicated four, six, eight or more hours a day.

Not that the local writing scene recognises this. Every Singaporean writers’ group I’ve participated in cater, without exception, to hobbyists. Being a hobbyist is fine, but there is a vast gulf between a hobbyist and a pro. A hobbyist can spend hours, days, weeks, doing nothing but poring over the minute details of a short story and agonising over every single word choice. A pro has to keep pumping out stories, keep talking to fans, keep up with industry developments, and keep hustling.

To be a pro, you have to be a word machine.

You can’t count on producing a book once every three years like Tash Aw and expect overnight success. It’d be great if it happens, and sometimes it does, but such writers are outliers. If you want a surer way to professional writing success, you need high output, high energy, and a solid grasp of market forces and industry trends. This is the way of the pulp greats who supported their families on their stories, and the way of modern-day indie writers who pull in royalties in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

This also means you must ignore the Singapore publishing industry.

Putting it bluntly, Singaporean publishers are behind the times. Industry talk tends to revolve around publishing Singaporeans who write about Singapore for Singaporeans, getting these books into bookshelves at home and abroad, and how to win literary awards. There’s next to nothing about effective use of Print on Demand, working with Amazon, marketing and publishing strategies, competing or collaborating with indie writers, the impact of self-publishing, or leveraging new technologies. And it shows.

Until recently, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Singaporean novel on Amazon. The ones you can find tend to have reviews only in the single digits. At 48 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 stars, my novel No Gods, Only Daimons easily outperforms most Singaporean novels. Sure, you can find Singaporean novels in local bookstores, but Amazon and online marketplaces have eclipsed brick-and-mortar bookshops long ago. Getting a book in a Singaporean bookstore may grant you a modicum of social proof, but if you aren’t selling to the largest marketplace in the world, your prospects are limited.

My publisher, Castalia House, took pains to create a publishing and marketing strategy that suits its customers and the current state of the market. I took pains to write a story that would appeal to a broad audience, not just the tiny fraction who might be interested in Singaporean culture. I treat fiction as a profession, and so does Castalia House. And as far I can tell, the local publishing scene caters only to hobbyists.

To Be A Pro

I aim to be a professional fiction writer. I will use every tool and platform at my disposal to achieve that goal. I recognise it’s a long haul, but with the results I’ve seen, it’s no longer a pipe dream. And my experience tells me that Tash Aw’s advice to be a writer is flawed.

To quote the article:

He sees his writing classes as enabling students to be creative, and is alarmed when young people regard being published as the only goal. Publishing too early and in an uncontrolled manner that lacks direction is very damaging to a writer’s long-term career, he says. “Because if you publish at 25, what does that mean? And then you go and work in the >bank and you continue writing little books on the side? Are you a writer? Are you really engaging?

Robert E Howard published his first story at 25. H. P. Lovecraft published his first story at 27. Earnest Hemingway published his first fiction collection at 24. C.L. Moore published her first story at 22.

All of them became legends.

Age doesn’t matter. Drive and direction does. These writers knew what they wanted to write, kept improving with every story, and produced the kind of stories people loved.

And if your early stories are lousy, what about it? Whatever self-inflicted damage you may incur is temporary. People only pay attention to the latest stories you write. The antidote to having poor first stories is to write more, publish more, and drown the garbage with quality stuff.

To continue the interview:

His new novel will be out only next year or 2020. “Young writers should be aware that it’s a long haul. It’s not just about >publishing the maximum number of books. People like that tend to burn out. It’s about being better with every book.”

Aw is right in that you have to get better with every book. But if you want to be a pro, you have to publish the maximum number of books you can sustain.

The pulp writers became famous for their staggering corpus of work. Hundreds of published stories were the norm, not the exception. It’s not unheard of for pulp writers to write short novels overnight.

This mindset applies to modern indie publishing. The Galaxy’s Edge series is on a 30 day release schedule: there is a new novel in the franchise every month. Dean Wesley Smith produces a monthly magazine, with a full novel and a collection of shorter stories. Likewise, prolific writers with high outputs tend to enjoy great success.

To be a successful author today, you need to publish as much as you can without burning out. Find the sweet spot that allows you to sustain both high productivity and high quality. In my case, it’s about 3000 words a day — while juggling a full-time job. The day I can ditch the full-time job, that number is bound to get higher.

To create more Singaporean writers, you can’t follow the Singaporean approach to writing. You can’t be a hobbyist. You have to be a pro. You have to study the market, formulate a winning strategy, write the best stories you can, and stick to it until you succeed.

And I will lead the way.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

To be a pro, you need a series, and the latest novel in my Covenant Chronicles is now available. Pick up your copy of Hammer of the Witches here.

 

Reading Sumiko Tan’s interview with Tash Aw, I am reminded of the questions that haunt the Singapore writing scene. How can we produce more writers? How do we get international recognition? How do we create, in Tan’s words, ‘international literary successes’?

From my perspective, the answer is simple: Do not be limited by Singapore.

The Culture Crush

Tash Aw has the following observation about Singapore culture:

“The pressure crushes too many [exceptional people] who might have been exceptional but they are not able just to rise to their own level,” he says. “So they are constantly striving to reach a level imposed on them by the rest of society, by school teachers, by their family.”

“Because if you have the kind of mind that leads you to become a brilliant illustrator or a brilliant fashion designer or a brilliant anything, it’s unlikely you’re going to have that methodical approach to work that getting straight As requires you to have. And so if you’re forced to suppress those creative instincts in order to achieve those A grades, then you kill >off a certain part of your brain.”

Having experienced the Singaporean education system myself, I can attest to the pressure. From primary school to secondary school to junior college, every adult around me recited the same message: study hard, get good grades, get into a good school, rinse and repeat all the way to university, then graduate and get a good job.

In my day, Chinese language was taught by rote. English wasn’t much better. Math was an endless sea of drills and concepts and more drills. The hard sciences were about memorising and regurgitating key facts. The social sciences were about memorising, regurgitating and repackaging key facts to fit an analysis of questions we had seen over and over again in countless exercises.

This education system produces engineers, lawyers, doctors, administrators, and other technocrats with specialist skills to be applied in formal situations with clear-cut outcomes. This is not what creators do. Creators strive to build bigger and brighter and better things, systems, institutions and cultures, and that means stepping outside rigidly-defined boundaries to see what else can be done. A creator is a risk-taker, a visionary, an idealist, a tinkerer, a non-conformist — the exact opposite of the kind of person the Singapore system churns out.

This is not to say that the non-creators are a lesser class of beings. They are administrators, executives and maintenance experts. They specialise in keeping the advanced machinery of high civilization going. These are necessary jobs, but the mindset needed for such positions usually clash with the mindset needed to be a creator. And Singaporean society elevates the former and ignores the latter.

Singapore has it worse than the West. America mythologises the cowboy, pioneer, settler and inventor — the men and women who headed West to chase dreams of riches and land, who wrestled life from the unforgiving earth and built homes and communities, who invented madcap devices that made life ever more comfortable and wonderful and easier. Europe celebrates its long and rich history of poets, writers, artists, playwrights and creators of all kinds. Singapore has neither a national myth nor a cultural history that nourishes the souls of would-be creators, nor inspires people to back them.

What Singapore has is pragmatism.

Show Me the Money

Why the emphasis on grades and schools and jobs? Answer: to make a living, support your family, and buy a home. And woe betide you if you fail, because no one is coming to save you if you fall.

Understand that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If every fiction writer quits tomorrow, the world would keep chugging along. It might be culturally, spiritually and emotionally poorer, but life would still go on. Fiction is a luxury, and as a luxury it is a buyer’s market. Singaporean culture is built on the pursuit wealth, commercialism, and material abundance; highbrow entertainment is a distraction, an escape, and a luxury, utterly unnecessary to the serious business of making money.

In light of this, how can Singapore produce more writers?

Demonstrate that writers can make a living.

A working writer who makes a living off writing creates a virtuous cycle. He shows that he can support his family, so his friends and loved ones would be more willing to back him. With the time and energy to focus on his craft, he can write more stories of ever-increasing quality. This makes him even more money, increases his fame, and inspires more writers to follow in his footsteps.

Tash Aw seems to agree:

“If you’re a real writer, what you should aim to be doing is to have a career. It is a solid professional career like anything else. If you’re a journalist, if you’re a hairdresser, if you’re a coal miner, if you’re a banker, what you want to do is to be the >best you can and involved over the years.”

The best writers I have seen are those that treat writing as a career. They show up and do the work, day in and day out, with the discipline and regimen of every other small business owner. They tend to their finances, study the market and the industry, and adjust their writing and their output to match.

How do you make a career out of writing in Singapore?

Simple. Don’t do what the Singapore writing scene does.

The Word Machines

Singapore is obsessed with awards, and the writing scene is no different. Awards and certificates hold great weight in Singapore, serving as proof of quality. Everywhere you go, you’ll see certificates for food hygiene, product and service technical skills and so on. In a society where degrees and diplomas are a dime a dozen, certificates serve as easily-understandable social proof. It’s no wonder that the local writing scenes chase prestigious awards like the Man Booker Prize and the Walter Scott Prize.

But you can’t eat awards.

Many literature awards earn you accolades and at best a token sum. Even if you win the most prestigious literary prize, you’ll only be able to live off the proceeds for a year or two at best. Prize money is a windfall; it is not sustained income. Without sustained income, a writer will have to keep to his day job. And a writer who can only write one or two hours a day will have far less output, skill and writing-related income than a writer who can dedicated four, six, eight or more hours a day.

Not that the local writing scene recognises this. Every Singaporean writers’ group I’ve participated in cater, without exception, to hobbyists. Being a hobbyist is fine, but there is a vast gulf between a hobbyist and a pro. A hobbyist can spend hours, days, weeks, doing nothing but poring over the minute details of a short story and agonising over every single word choice. A pro has to keep pumping out stories, keep talking to fans, keep up with industry developments, and keep hustling.

To be a pro, you have to be a word machine.

You can’t count on producing a book once every three years like Tash Aw and expect overnight success. It’d be great if it happens, and sometimes it does, but such writers are outliers. If you want a surer way to professional writing success, you need high output, high energy, and a solid grasp of market forces and industry trends. This is the way of the pulp greats who supported their families on their stories, and the way of modern-day indie writers who pull in royalties in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

This also means you must ignore the Singapore publishing industry.

Putting it bluntly, Singaporean publishers are behind the times. Industry talk tends to revolve around publishing Singaporeans who write about Singapore for Singaporeans, getting these books into bookshelves at home and abroad, and how to win literary awards. There’s next to nothing about effective use of Print on Demand, working with Amazon, marketing and publishing strategies, competing or collaborating with indie writers, the impact of self-publishing, or leveraging new technologies. And it shows.

Until recently, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Singaporean novel on Amazon. The ones you can find tend to have reviews only in the single digits. At 48 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 stars, my novel No Gods, Only Daimons easily outperforms most Singaporean novels. Sure, you can find Singaporean novels in local bookstores, but Amazon and online marketplaces have eclipsed brick-and-mortar bookshops long ago. Getting a book in a Singaporean bookstore may grant you a modicum of social proof, but if you aren’t selling to the largest marketplace in the world, your prospects are limited.

My publisher, Castalia House, took pains to create a publishing and marketing strategy that suits its customers and the current state of the market. I took pains to write a story that would appeal to a broad audience, not just the tiny fraction who might be interested in Singaporean culture. I treat fiction as a profession, and so does Castalia House. And as far I can tell, the local publishing scene caters only to hobbyists.

To Be A Pro

I aim to be a professional fiction writer. I will use every tool and platform at my disposal to achieve that goal. I recognise it’s a long haul, but with the results I’ve seen, it’s no longer a pipe dream. And my experience tells me that Tash Aw’s advice to be a writer is flawed.

To quote the article:

He sees his writing classes as enabling students to be creative, and is alarmed when young people regard being published as the only goal. Publishing too early and in an uncontrolled manner that lacks direction is very damaging to a writer’s long-term career, he says. “Because if you publish at 25, what does that mean? And then you go and work in the >bank and you continue writing little books on the side? Are you a writer? Are you really engaging?

Robert E Howard published his first story at 25. H. P. Lovecraft published his first story at 27. Earnest Hemingway published his first fiction collection at 24. C.L. Moore published her first story at 22.

All of them became legends.

Age doesn’t matter. Drive and direction does. These writers knew what they wanted to write, kept improving with every story, and produced the kind of stories people loved.

And if your early stories are lousy, what about it? Whatever self-inflicted damage you may incur is temporary. People only pay attention to the latest stories you write. The antidote to having poor first stories is to write more, publish more, and drown the garbage with quality stuff.

To continue the interview:

His new novel will be out only next year or 2020. “Young writers should be aware that it’s a long haul. It’s not just about >publishing the maximum number of books. People like that tend to burn out. It’s about being better with every book.”

Aw is right in that you have to get better with every book. But if you want to be a pro, you have to publish the maximum number of books you can sustain.

The pulp writers became famous for their staggering corpus of work. Hundreds of published stories were the norm, not the exception. It’s not unheard of for pulp writers to write short novels overnight.

This mindset applies to modern indie publishing. The Galaxy’s Edge series is on a 30 day release schedule: there is a new novel in the franchise every month. Dean Wesley Smith produces a monthly magazine, with a full novel and a collection of shorter stories. Likewise, prolific writers with high outputs tend to enjoy great success.

To be a successful author today, you need to publish as much as you can without burning out. Find the sweet spot that allows you to sustain both high productivity and high quality. In my case, it’s about 3000 words a day — while juggling a full-time job. The day I can ditch the full-time job, that number is bound to get higher.

To create more Singaporean writers, you can’t follow the Singaporean approach to writing. You can’t be a hobbyist. You have to be a pro. You have to study the market, formulate a winning strategy, write the best stories you can, and stick to it until you succeed.

And I will lead the way.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

To be a pro, you need a series, and the latest novel in my Covenant Chronicles is now available. Pick up your copy of Hammer of the Witches here.