Trevor, dressed in his black suit and top hat, pulled a card from behind a boy’s ear. “Was this your card?” he said, presenting the King of Hearts to the crowd.
The boy’s jaw fell open. “That was!” he gasped. “But how–?!”
“Magic, my dear boy, and nothing less.” Trevor tapped the side of the nose. “Keep the card, I have plenty. Let’s hear it for Nate, everyone!”
The audience of children packed within Nate’s living room cheered. Trevor had performed in many venues before, but children’s birthday parties were always his favourite, mainly because nobody tried to work out how he did his tricks, and everyone believed he was magical. Some days, he wished he really was magical; for now, however, he had to rely on sleight of hand and illusions to get his kicks.
“And next!” he said, to the now very-attentive crowd. He took off his hat. “I will pull a ribbon out of this hat.”
The crowd didn’t doubt him.
Trevor picked up his wand from the table. It felt strange to him. He had used a black and white ‘baton’ since he began his career, but when he accidentally snapped it, he had to find a quick replacement. He found the solution in a strange little local shop which sold just about everything. The storekeeper’s eyes lit up the moment Trevor mentioned he wanted to ‘bring magic into his own life’. The storekeeper darted into the back and brought out what looked like a stick with a Christmas tree star stuck on top. Trevor said he wanted something a little more professional. The storekeeper said it would be free. Trevor relented.
Trevor tapped the hat with the wand. The wand glowed briefly. Ah, so that’s why the storekeeper was so enthusiastic about it. Cute.
Trevor placed the hat onto the table and reached within. The children watched in amazement as he pulled multiple feet of ribbon out of the hat. Trevor used both hands to emphasise how long the ribbon was, smiling as his audience watched, captivated.
Then, the ribbon jammed.
Trevor had never encountered this; not even in rehearsal. Everyone else seemed to think it was part of the show, giggling as Trevor frowned in confusion. Holding down the hat with one hand, he tugged at the ribbon with all his might.
“Just a minute,” he said, smiling to the crowd. “It appears my ribbon is being–”
Then the ribbon gave way.
Like something out of a cartoon, the huge head of a very annoyed-looking dragon popped out of the tiny hat. Its jaws were clenched around the end of the ribbon like a fish on a line. It gave a steely gaze to the audience; then, the owner of the ribbon that dragged it through.
The children fell dead silent.
Trevor, no idea as to what was happening, acted upon his tried and true magician fallback plan; if things go wrong, stuff it in a place where nobody can see it. Putting a hand against the dragon’s snout, he began to try to shove it back. The dragon, annoyed that it had been dragged through such a tiny hole, was now livid to discover it was being pushed back through it. It snorted and billowed smoke until, with the sound of a cork unfastening, the dragon’s head popped back in. The ribbon followed suit, shooting into the hat like someone slurping spaghetti.
The white-faced children slowly warmed into smiles. Then, applause.
“Thank you,” Trevor said, not entirely sure what he had just done. “Yes, thank you. All part of the trick, I assure you.”
But something wasn’t right. As the children clapped, he peered into the hat to figure out what had happened. Where the bottom of his hat should have been was instead a small hat-sized portal to another world. The view from the portal was quite high in the sky, which was emphasised by the fact the dragon he just pushed back through was flying directly below it. The ribbon still in its mouth, the dragon gave Trevor an annoyed look before flying away.
Now that the dragon was out of the way, Trevor could better see the other world from his sky-high view. He could see green hills and bustling cities. Giant lakes and towering mountains. Familiar animals and mythical creatures. Most of all, however, he could see magic. Magic everywhere.
Had Trevor done it? Had he finally cast a real magic spell? He didn’t know how he did it; everything he had used to this point was what he normally used for all his magic trick. That is, everything except…
As if answering him, the wand began to glow.
He picked it up. It had sensed home. It felt like a dog eager to be taken for a walk, sitting at the front door, tail wagging, waiting to be let out. It also reassured Trevor that it did, in fact, know plenty of spells to slow falls, should he decide to jump into any sky-high portals in the near future.
So that’s why he was given it.
Trevor looked at the crowd. They had since recovered from the dragon, and were now patiently awaiting the next trick.
Trevor smiled to himself. Oh, he had a trick alright.
“And now,” he said, slowly. “For my next and final trick…I will make myself disappear.”
He gave a wink to emphasise his point, tapped himself with the wand, then put the hat on.
Hats usually rest on heads. This one, however, didn’t come to a rest until it had hit the floor, ‘devouring’ Trevor as it went. It landed in a shower of sparks, and everyone applauded such an amazing trick. Even when they lifted up the hat, there was no sign of Trevor.
And thus, nobody heard of Trevor again; however, everyone agreed that it was a very impressive trick, and that it must have taken him years to practice, so they gave him five stars on Yelp for it.
A knock came from the office door.
Trevor looked over from his computer. “Come in,” he said.
The door opened. A tall, built man entered the room, dressed head to toe in spiked leather, his face covered by a white hockey mask. He carried a large machete in one hand and a full, bloody sack in the other. He crossed the office towards Trevor’s desk and took a seat opposite, placing the machete onto the desk and the sack beside him.
Then he waited.
Trevor finished typing something on the computer before smiling at the newcomer. “Ah, yes. I was expecting you in another ten minutes, but starting early is not a problem. Let’s see here…” Trevor peered at his screen, scrolling with his mouse wheel. “Ah, here we go. ‘Jacob T. Slasher’, am I correct?”
Jacob gave a single nod.
“Excellent. Yes, I remember you. You were the one enquiring about the treehouse residency, weren’t you?”
“Yes. Well, I’m sorry to say it, but we had a witch come in just a few days ago. She loved that property so much, she handed the deposit over there and then. You know what witches are like; they always like those sort of treehouse-type residencies, don’t they? You understand, don’t you?”
Jacob reached for his machete.
“Ah, wait a minute!” Trevor added quickly. Jacob paused mid-grab. “Before you, uh, do something drastic, I took the liberty of finding other suitable abodes for you. Ones that matched the conditions you specified to begin with. Well, would you like to see them?”
Jacob let go.
“Excellent. Then let’s get started. I noted you were looking for somewhere that was reclusive and out-of-the-way, so I had a look around and discovered this beautiful shack in the middle of the woods.” Trevor turned the monitor to face Jacob, showing a run-down wooden building surrounded by fog and trees. “Very iconic piece. Very classic. Many serial killers before you made good use of shacks. Nice and remote, nobody around to hear the screams, dark and brooding. Plus, it’s bills inclusive.”
Jacob nodded with approval.
“Good, good. Glad you like it. There is this other property I found; much less remote than what you asked for, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tell you about it. Old meat packing facility, very large, very spacious. Previous owners didn’t remove the meat hooks, so you’ll have plenty of places to store corpses. Fridge still works, hidden away in a suburb, and — yes — while it is technically near a city full of people, that only means that you’re, hah.” Trevor gave a smirk. “Only means less of a commute to your work, doesn’t it?”
Jacob gave a single laugh at this joke. He pointed to the warehouse on the monitor and gave a thumbs-up.
“Glad to hear it. Yes, we have many a serial killer come in here looking for the perfect place to stay, so we always have a, how do you say it, certain premonition about what they like in a home. Would you like to make a deposit now, or do you want to look around the property first?”
Jacob simply ducked down toward his bloody sack. He began to draw out skulls from it, placing them in a row along the desk.
“Oh, awfully sorry,” Trevor said. “We don’t take trophies as payment.”
Jacob snorted with annoyance, scooping all of the skulls back into the sack with one sweep. Digging into his wallet (made of skin), Jacob drew out a credit card.
Trevor peered at the card. “Yes, yes, we accept MurderCard. This is all well and good. All I need is to enter the details into the computer and…there. You should be able to move in within the next week or so. Hope you, uh…” Trevor said, as he handed back the card. “Hope you make a killing at your new place, eh?”
Jacob’s face was entirely hidden behind the mask, yet he still gave a face as if he had heard that one far too many times before. He simply took his things and stood.
“Make sure to, ah, paint the town red, eh?”
No response; Jacob simply kept walking until he was out of the office.
Trevor shrugged the moment the door closed. The veterans of the trade had heard all the jokes before, but it never hurt to try. Actually, if he made a joke that was especially bad, sometimes it did hurt to try. But it didn’t stop him.
Trevor looked over his schedule. Jacob’s promptness meant that Trevor had a little time before his last two appointments of the day; the space alien secretly studying the human race, and a governmental lizardmen who wanted to keep on the low. Both known to be particularly fussy clients, but they always bought the higher-priced properties, so it was well worth the effort. For now though, he could do with some coffee; and maybe disinfect his entire desk while he was at it.
Nobody ever truly forgot their voyage to the elven tree city of Elegrad. Henry knew he wouldn’t. Even now, as he stood at the entrance to the forest grove, ready to leave after his week’s stay, he still wasn’t used to the sights and sounds. The wind rustled against the grand elven trees, and a group of elvish bards were playing soothing melodies and singing about past wars won and evils vanquished. The last thing Henry would ever forget were the Elven King Halkar and the Elven Queen Shy’la, who stood before him with warm smiles.
“We hope you enjoyed your time here,” Halkar said, soft like a summer wind.
“I have done,” Henry said. “Thank you very much for your charity. I feel refreshed and ready to continue my quest against the Sorcerer Nelfan.”
“We are pleased to hear that,” Shy’la said. “Before you go, please take this as a gift from us to you.”
Shy’la gestured to an elf to approach. The elf did so, holding something small in his hands. Shy’la took it from him and held it out to Henry. “Take it,” she said. “We call it Kingsbread, but your peoples know it as ‘Elven Bread’. A single bite will restore your stamina.”
Henry took the Kingsbread. It was a complete loaf of bread in a cylindrical shape, yet fitted in the palm of his hand. “Thank you,” he said. “But I must be off, for even now Nelfan’s dark grasp stretches across the land. Again, thank you.”
Henry bowed. The elves smiled in return. Henry walked the path out of the city, leading him behind the grand city walls.
Nearly immediately after Henry walked out of view, Shy’la sighed a breath of relief. “Thank bloody hell that’s over,” she said. “I thought the daft sod would be staying for years.”
Halkar exhaled as if he had been underwater the entire time. His gut fell into its true form, his slender physique now sporting a beer belly. “I hate visitors.”
“You should try exercise, you know. The next mortal that calls for an audience with you, you might end up passing out. Did you hear?” Shy’la called over a shoulder to the bards. “The mortal’s gone now.”
The bards stopped mid-song, looks of relief on their faces. They tossed their instruments aside, took a boombox out from behind a tree, and sat around listening to Slayer.
“Honestly,” Halkar said, “I can’t believe you just pulled off that ‘Kingsbread’ thing right in front of that poor bastard. You can honestly say anything you like to mortals and they’ll lap it up.”
“Too true. Can I have some ‘Kingsbread’ myself, actually? Haven’t eaten in yonks.”
The servant that brought the bread to her earlier nodded, opened up the pack of hot dog buns, and handed one over.
“I honestly don’t know how you do it,” Halkar said. “I tried to pass off a fork as a powerful wand and the party rejected it.”
“You have to be subtle,” Shy’la said between mouthfuls. “Just say it’s stronger or magically enchanted in some way. The guy before Henry, I gave a single strand of my hair and said it gave good luck. A single strand! Still held it like it was his newborn child, said he’d achieve great things with it. He’s probably dead by now.”
“This one didn’t want to see into the scrying pool, though, did he?”
“Oh, he did! He definitely did! He wanted to see where the Sorcerer Nelephant-whoever guy was. Then he wanted to see his family. Then his future. Then his past. Why his past? The daft sod lived it already, he’d probably know it better than the sodding pool. When he asked to scry into where the cheapest inns were, I had to make up some baloney about the spirits being restless before I slapped the idiot senseless.”
“Tell me about it. Three hours he asked me about the ‘proud and noble’ history of the Elves. Like, yes, we live forever, we do awesome stuff, we won a lot of wars, get over it. Go read a bloody book about our history, don’t pester me about it.”
“I know, right? And the worst bit is that they–”
“Ah!” came a familiar voice from down the path. Henry had come back the way he came, slightly out of breath from his jogging. “I forgot something!”
The elven king and queen slipped back into character like two schoolkids caught smoking behind the bicycle shed. The bards practically threw the boombox back into its hiding place, rapidly got to their feet, and resumed their tales of the victory in The Three Wars.
“We are humbled that you returned,” Shy’la said, her airy voice making a comeback. “What is it that you forgot, fair knight?”
Henry stopped in front of Shy’la, taking a few breaths before speaking. “Payment.”
“For your stay here? You should know better than any that an elven’s charity comes not with a price tag.”
Henry said nothing for a while; he simply took hold of Shy’la’s hand and kissed the back of it. “Back home, we’re told to always treat women with respect.”
Then he turned and left again.
“Ugh,” Shy’la said, her face dropping the moment Henry was out of sight. She wiped the back of her hand against Halkar. “Think I got some mortal on me. This has been a long and annoying week, so I’m going down the pub and getting hammered. If Henry comes back, tell him I’m off to commune with my ancestor’s spirits or something.”
Halkar gave a casual wave as Shy’la left. He would join her, but anyone turning up while he was gone would probably walk headlong into the bards who were now jamming to Metallica. Perhaps some guards wouldn’t go amiss.
Mrs. Driverly entered Jake’s Butchery, shaking the rain off of her hat. “Thank goodness you’re still open,” she said, rubbing her glasses dry. “Starting to think I was all out of options for a nice steak.”
Jake simply gave a warm yet crooked smile from behind the counter, his hands clasped together, his black hair smoothed back, his tall and spindly frame surrounded by meat hanging off of hooks. Of course Jake was open at such a late time. The only people who bothered going to a butcher at nine o’clock at night were the needy rich, loaded with money and surrounded by knives. Just where Jake wanted them.
They’d go missing. The police would question people around Jake’s shop. They’d chase gangs around Jake’s shop. They’d put up missing posters around Jake’s shop. Nobody pointed at Jake, the kind butcher at the end of Smith’s Row, who must have come from a rich family because he could somehow find the funds for expensive tools. The finest producer of pork, lamb, and beef in all the city; even if nobody took to the ‘strange meats’ he sometimes sold that he swore were a ‘foreign delicacy’.
“Good evening,” Jake said, with a slight bow. “What will you have?”
The little frame of Mrs. Driverly was dwarfed by Jake as she approached the counter. “If you had any steaks in, I’d very much appreciate one. If I don’t get one home, my head will be on the chopping block.”
Jake smirked as if he was in on a joke nobody else knew. Realising what he was doing, he snapped out of his trance. “Yes, well. Regardless, I could waste your time showing you the selection I have out front, but I’ll let you in on a little secret; I allow the real connoisseurs in the back where they can select from the finest meats I have to offer. Would you like that?”
“Ooh, a peek in a craftsman’s workshop!” Mrs. Driverly chirped. “Certainly, sir. I’d very much like to.”
Of course, Jake didn’t lie when he said that only connoisseurs were allowed. Connoisseurs were also stinking rich and loaded with jewellery and cash, and often didn’t watch their backs amongst ‘trusted’ persons. Mrs. Driverly was very this kind of person; so much so that she looked around the various carcasses around the back room with morbid fascination.
“The sirloin cut is just over there,” Jake said, pointing to a cutting board. “Is it to your liking?”
Mrs. Driverly approached the cutting board, checking the chunk of sirloin meat sat atop of it. “How fresh is this?”
“Cut it today,” Jake said. It was no coincidence that the cutting board was set up so that people standing by it had their backs turned to the vast wall of various butcher knives. Jake skipped over all of them in favour for his largest cleaver. “Fresh as can be.”
“Certainly looks it.” Mrs. Driverly said, turning it over in her own bare hands without any sign of disgust. “Prime cut, too. No wonder they say good things about you.”
“Do they?” Jake said, approaching Mrs. Driverly, cleaver in hand. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh, they definitely do. ‘Always go to Jake if you want stellar service’, they say. ‘Top quality meats and long opening hours’. Glad I heard about you, I did.”
“Yes,” Jake said, wiping the blade against his clothes as he approached. The way she was craning over, he could score an easy slice down across her neck. “So am I.”
“You don’t think I’ll be able to grab a cut and get home before ten, do you?”
“No.” Jake rose the blade high above his head. “I don’t think so.”
At that point, Mrs. Driverly turned.
Either she wanted to ask a question or just make a comment; whichever one it was was lost to history as her face turned white. “What are you doing?!” she blurted.
Jake froze on the spot. He hadn’t prepared for moments like this; now that it had happened, it felt like his entire body turned to stone. Visions of what would happen if his secret life was exposed flooded his mind at once. “Oh. I, see, I, ah…”
“How dare you! How dare you!”
“I’m sorry, I was, ah…”
“How dare you go at this sirloin with such a brutish knife? Give it here.”
Mrs. Driverly snatched the blade away, leaving Jake with his jaw hanging open, frozen in mid-swing. She put the cleaver back on the rack.
“Now let’s see here,” Mrs. Driverly said, adjusting her glasses to read the labels for each knife. “‘Serrated knife’…’knife for pork’…’human flesh’? Why do you have a knife for that?”
Jake’s face blanched. “I…perform surgeries on the side.”
“In a butcher’s workshop?”
Jake nodded sheepishly.
Mrs. Driverly nodded approvingly.”I’ll have to recommend you.”
“Ah, here we go; steak knife.” She drew it the rack, then crossed to the sirloin once more, immediately getting to work. “See, if you cut sirloin straight downwards like you were planning to do, you’d hack the top sirloin to shreds. If you cut that out first, you have yourself a source of prime steaks to sell to your customers.”
Jake looked over her shoulder like a shy student watching a master. “Really?”
“Yes. Honestly, if you went to town with that thing on this meat, I’d have murdered you.”
Jake nodded, face still white. He pulled on his collar. “Yes, quite.”
With the top sirloin cut off, Mrs. Driverly cut it into steaks, with Jake looking on anxiously. Once done, she took a steak, placed payment into Jake’s still-shaking hand, and gave a sweet smile. “First pick of the prime stuff,” she said. “As payment for our little lesson today. Seem fair?”
Jake simply nodded in silence.
“Good. Have a good night Jake, won’t you?”
Jake watched haplessly as Mrs. Driverly proudly walked out the workshop with steak in hand. Maybe he should go into barbery instead.
The lives of the human race changed forever when they came in contact with the aliens known as the Somari. In terms of galactic scale, the Somari discovering the humans was like a human turning over a stone and discovering a nest of ants. The Somari approached with friendly intentions and offered much of their knowledge. From it, humans found planets more suiting for humans than even Earth, but current warp technology shredded carbon-based lifeforms to pieces. As such, they had to depend on stasis to travel.
Jennifer had never experienced stasis travel before, so the first time she awoke inside her glass tube felt strange. It felt like she had been ‘asleep’ for ten seconds, but the red timer above the other containment pods showed they had been out for twenty-six years now. Which was strange, given how the travel was predicted to take thirty-eight.
Even stranger were the two aliens outside her tube.
They were covered in what looked like metal chitin and tubing, wore red goggles that cast a sinister light, and were busy poring over a manual. One was considerably larger and taller than the other, and they both spoke perfect Universal language.
“Doesn’t look cooked,” the large alien said, peering through the tube’s glass. “Honestly, alien technology is so weird.”
“I know, I know! But this manual isn’t saying anything about how to cook them. I just assumed the thawing setting did that.”
“If you find out how to set it to medium-rare, lemme know. Can’t find the button on this thing for it. Maybe we just have to cook them from frozen?”
“Excuse me,” Jennifer said. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, it’s still talking,” the large alien said, peering in. “Yeah, it’s definitely not cooked.”
“You don’t know how to operate this freezer, do you?” said the smaller one. “I can’t find it in this…” It looked at the cover of the manual. “Cryostasis system. I guess that’s a fancy word for ‘food freezers’.”
“We’re not food,” Jennifer said. “We’re humans on a stasis trip to the Somari homeworld.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re made out of meat, which makes you food for the rest of us. And we’re very hungry bandits–”
“I prefer ‘space pirates’,” added the large one.
“–so we raided this giant floating freezer. But now I find the food is talking back to us. Great.”
The larger alien scratched his head. “So what do we do now?”
“It’s simple, right? Same thing we do with all carbon-based foods while it’s still alive.” He threw the manual to one side and drew a pistol, aiming it at Jennifer’s head. “Just put it out of its misery and handle the cooking ourselves.”
“Wait!” Jennifer blurted. “There’s no need for this! We have our own food you can have.”
The pistol-aiming alien drew his aim away, a doubtful look on his face. “On a stasis ship?”
“If the stasis system malfunctions. Enough food for the whole crew to survive while we wait for the distress beacon. It’s not a great deal, but you can help yourself to it.”
The aliens exchanged a look. The one with the gun then said, “alright, does sound a lot less messy. Let’s get you out of your freezer–”
“Call it whatever you like, honey, but you’re the one made out of food. Alright, here we go.”
The pistol-wielder pulled a hand lever on the side of the tube, opening it. Jennifer stepped out before immediately having the gun pointed at her.
“Alright then,” the smaller alien said. “Show us.”
The truth was, there was no food; the Somari answered distress beacons in no more than than twenty minutes. While her little facade to buy time wouldn’t last long, she’d only need twenty minutes maximum to wiggle free and get help. The question was; how?
The ship wasn’t for living in, so the only other features it had were seats near the entrance, and the luggage compartment for personal effects. The luggage, too, underwent its own stasis to stop possessions rotting over thirty eight years, which gave Jennifer’s claim that they were food packages more weight.
“So,” the larger alien said. It took a suitcase and pried it open with such strength the locks broke. “What in here is food?”
“All of it.”
He picked out a teddy bear. “Even this?”
“…sure! It’s food.”
He shrugged, took a bite out of the bear’s head, then coughed up stuffing. “Must be an acquired taste,” he said. “What else is there?”
Jennifer was getting nervous that her only plan was to let the aliens take bites out of their possessions until they realise nothing within was edible. The large alien had sampled a shirt (too stringy), a pen (didn’t like the juice), and a phone (sticks in teeth) before the big alien pulled out several bottles from a bag.
“What’s this, then?” he said. He held them out, their labels sporting the word ‘wine’.
“Those?” Jennifer said. “Oh, that’s liquid food! Very delicious. Make it from grapes. Humans love it a lot, drink lots of it back home.”
“Does it taste better than those ‘teddy bear steaks’?”
“Lots better. In fact, we have a custom back home; if two people drink wine, they race to see who finishes the bottle first, and the one who does has good luck for the rest of the day.”
“Really? Well then.” The large one handed a bottle to the smaller one. “Ready?”
“You’re on,” said the smaller one. “Race to the bottom.”
By the time the pair had picked themselves off of the floor again, the entire ship was swarming with Somari police, who found it surprisingly easy to apprehend the so-called ‘space pirates’ as they asked the police if they ‘had any more’. Twelve years later, a man would awaken from his cryo-sleep to discover that not only all his wine was gone, but he had helped apprehend two criminals while frozen in time, which he didn’t mind taking credit for.
Nobody had seen the moment a crooked man with a long nose and top hat and a shorter but well-built man pitched the tent in an alley. They stood in the streets of London and shouting over the sound of horse-drawn carriages: “Wishing well!” the taller one would say. “One shilling a wish!”
Most people ignored them. Some didn’t. Such was the case of the middle-aged balding man with a brown bushy moustache, who approached the curious two with a sparkle in his eye.
“I say,” the moustached man said. “Is what you fellows claiming true? That you have access to a real wishing well?”
The lanky man bowed. “Of course! For the great Andrew and Pete would not be here in the heart London if we did not have a decent service to sell. I’m Andrew, by the way.”
“Excellent. It’s because, well, you see…” the moustached man took a shy glance down at his own shoes. “I’m afraid these poor things have been worn to an inch of their life, but no cobbler within this city will dare touch the planks of wood that I call feet.”
“Well then, you’ve come to the right place! Step right into the tent, throw your shiniest shilling into the well within, and make your wish well-known to it. Then, should the well find you worthy, you shall receive your new pair of stompers right-away. Well, what are you waiting for? Go on!”
The man eagerly entered the tent.
“So then,” Pete said with a smirk. “What’s the secret trick with this one?”
“That’s the best part; there is none.”
“We’ve sold snake oils, phoney artefacts, promises that nobody made and amulets as spiritually powerful as your kitchenware. But then I thought; why bother going through making all that nonsense when you can sell someone a wish that never existed in the first place? They come out empty-handed, we mumble something about unwilling spirits and unlucky star alignments, wait ’til no-ones looking, and scoop the lot. Easiest money we’ve ever made. Now hurry up and put a sombre face on, he’s about to leave.”
Both of them cleared their throats and put on a face as if they were attending a funeral. The flap on the tent shifted to the side.
“Listen, I know your pain, truly,” Andrew said with exaggerated lament. “But wishes are fickle things. No matter how good a person you are, sometimes your wishes just–”
The moustached man was giving Andrew a happy look. In the man’s hands, as if he had just bought them, were a pair of shoes.
Andrew and Pete exchanged a look.
“Uh, sorry,” Andrew said. “Where did those come from?”
“What, these?” The man said. “Went and wished for them just like you charitable folks said I could. Popped right out of the well, dry as bone. For your kindness, I’ll make sure all of London knows the good you did to me this day.”
The man hadn’t gotten even halfway down the street before replacing his shoes and throwing the old ones over a fence. He didn’t even realise the two ‘charitable’ men were watching him as a walking miracle.
“This is bad,” Andrew said.
“Why?” Pete said. “We helped, didn’t we?”
“Yes, and we didn’t get paid squat for it. Soon there’ll be hundreds of people throwing their shillings into the well and having their dreams come true, and we won’t be taking advantage of them.”
A shrug. “Charge entry?”
“No, he’s going to go around saying he got in for free. Better idea; how many shillings do you have?”
Pete dug into a pocket, holding coins out in a hand. “Got five. Why?”
In a swift motion, Andrew scooped the coins out of Pete’s hand, entered the tent, threw them into the dingy-looking well, and said, “make us rich for once in our god-forsaken lives!”
“Like you said,” Pete said, peering into the tent. “Wishes are fickle things.”
“I don’t get it. How come other people get better fortunes than we do? Why are they more fortunate than we are? You hear that, you stupid well?” Andrew said, yelling down it. “If you’re not going to give me my wish, at least give me my money back!”
A single shilling shot out of the water, striking Andrew in the forehead.
“Yeah?” Andrew yelled, his face red. “You think that’s funny? Well, you’ll be pleased to know you just made mortal enemies with Andrew and Pete, master scammers and swindlers extraordinaire! You may think you’re smart, but we’ll find a way to drip every sucker in this wretched city dry, and we’ll use you to do it! How do you feel about–”
Andrew, until now, hadn’t noticed the small crowd of people who had turned up outside the tent, each of them holding a shilling in their hand. The one-eager crowd were now looking quite sour.
In total silence, one of the crowd members calmly walked up to the tent, past the horrified Andrew and Pete, threw a coin in, pointed at the pair and said ‘I wish they were somewhere else’.
Hey!” came Pete’s voice. “Look at this!”
Andrew turned from sitting under the palm tree near an oasis, the only cool patch of sand he could find. Pete was approaching, dressed in full desert clothes and a turban, accompanied by three others. They were all riding weird animals.
“They’re called camels,” Pete said enthusiastically, noting Andrew’s stare. “I love them. Like horses but with bumps on ’em. The folks at a nearby town let me ride one. Lovely people. Don’t know a word they say, but they seem nice. Come on, let’s go. I think they promised us food and some money to help us get going.”
Andrew smirked to himself as he climbed to his feet. It didn’t matter what side of the world he was on; as long as there was money, there were suckers ready to be swindled out of it.
Frederick was beginning to notice a worrying trend. No matter where in the castle he was, no matter what room he entered, every time he held his torch out to the darkness to see what was within, he found monsters. He didn’t understand; the way into the castle was eventless enough, save for the stray bit of rubble and rusted door. Now he was trying to leave, it seemed the whole place was swarming with monsters.
He opened the door to the next room, holding the torch within to illuminate the darkness. Sure enough, a sparse room with no interesting elements within now contained a ferocious looking wolf. Rapier in hand, Frederick swiped at the wolf, giving it a nasty scratch across the chest.
“No!” a male voiced yelled angrily. “Rapiers are for thrusting, you idiot! Try thrusting!”
The wolf was wounded,but not defeated. Frederick’s new battle strategy involved waiting until the wolf was almost in range, then making small poking gestures at it with the rapier. He didn’t get further than inconveniently prodding at the wolf, but it made it hesitant to attack, at least.
“Lunge, you fool!” the voice returned. “Skewer it with the blade as if it were a kebab!”
Frederick blinked. “That sounds like it hurts.”
“That’s the point!”
Frederick tried lunging. Unfortunately, it required a long wind-up, meaning the wolf had enough time to dodge and snap at Fredericks heels. Frederick swiped and slashed out of panic.
“Take a proper stance!” the voice said. “Sword arm out! Free arm behind! Shoulder facing enemy!”
Frederick held the hilt of the sword up near his face, glaring at the red gem on it. “Can you please be quiet for ten seconds?”
“I’ll be quiet when you learn to fence properly!” the gem snapped, its center glowing in tandem with the volume of its voice. “Now take your proper posture and show me what you have!”
“You know, I–” Frederick said, stopping to dodge a wolf taking the opportunity to try lunging itself. “I’d prefer it if you’d stop giving me lessons and started killing things better.”
“Me? I’m just a soul trapped in the hilt of a blade! You’re the moron using me!”
“Well cast a spell, enchant yourself, anything! Just do something!”
“I am doing something! I’m telling you how not to die!”
“Do something better!”
Frederick felt his entire body lock, as if he had lost control of it. Then, with no effort on his part, his body took a refined fencing stance. It thrusted the sword at the wolf, skewering it with a clean blow. The wolf keeled over.
“There,” the rapier said, returning Frederick’s body to him. “And don’t ask me to do that again. I haven’t much power, and even less patience. Next time, do as I did by yourself.”
“Do you have a training manual?”
“No. I had hoped you wouldn’t need one.”
Frederick tutted. “It’s not like I’m a hero or anything.”
“You told me you were a legend back home!”
“I am,” Frederick said, walking down the corridor with care. The one with seemingly no monsters in it were by far the worst to actually walk. “Beat Freddy Fast-Foot at a race once.”
“Do you have any idea of my legacy? I was wielded by the great Joseph the Quick, my blade used to draw blood from a tyrannical king. Joseph set a challenge that one who could retrieve me from a stone island in shark-infested stormy waters could have me, which Gregor the Witted achieved, using me to turn the tide of an entire war. He then set me within the den of Gezzakar, the Bearmother, who Susan the Brave defeated and used me to set upon the fiercest bandits in the land. Take a guess as to what she did.”
“I don’t know,” Frederick said, opening a door to reveal a decrepit larder with nothing more interesting past bygone foods. “Didn’t pay much attention in history class.”
“She set me within a podium deep within the castle, and cast a curse on it. Anyone brave enough to try to take me would have to prove their strength by fighting their way out.”
Content with looking in the larder, Frederick continued down the corridor. “I didn’t know that.”
“It said so on the podium! ‘Those brave enough to take me should make quick friends with me, for the way back will be more perilous than the trip here’. Didn’t you read it?”
“Of course not, those usually talk about boring civilisations and dead people.”
Another sigh. “Well, let’s just get you out safely. You may be an idiot, but nobody deserved death because they didn’t know how to fence.”
“Great. So, which way is out?”
“I don’t know, I’ve been stuck in a podium for two hundred years.”
“I’ll try the door at the end of the corridor. Looks important enough.”
“Fine. Now, a quick recap; sword hand out, spare hand behind. Aim your sword shoulder toward the enemy, and make sure you’re holding the handle. Now, for the finer points of the ‘balestra maneuver’. The balestra requires that you–”
Frederick opened the door, holding the torch into what looked like a very dark banquet hall. Almost instantly, a huge swarm of eyes glinting in the torch light turned to look at him, displaying a wide range of species, size, and hunger for human flesh.
They all began to creep forward.
“…okay,” Frederick spoke softly. “Can we skip to the part where you teach me how to use you against twenty monsters at once?”
“Yes,” the rapier said. “This one is what I like to call, ‘turn your tail and run’.”
“Sounds fancy,” Frederick said. “How do you do that one?”
Frederick’s body locked up again, his legs moving him at a blistering speed back down the hallway. Behind him, a swarm of monsters tried to cram through a small door all at the same time.
“Oh, this one,” Frederick said. “Yeah, very familiar with it.”
Judy, Sally and Jack were sitting around a kitchen table, looking at their hands of cards. On the wall, a calendar had its days X’d out. People wrote what was happening for each day of the week, but all that was written in the box for the current day was ‘FULL MOON!’ in big red letters, with sad faces drawn in around the letters. From an adjacent room came the constant sound of something large being filled with water.
Judy checked a clock on the wall.
“Six minutes,” she said, half-heartedly. “Hope Chris manages to finish before midnight. I wouldn’t like to have a repeat of last time.”
“He’s been at it for the last half hour,” Jack said. “If he’s not done by now, he’s at least mostly done. We can take care of him.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s your go, by the way.”
“Oh, sorry. Three sixes.”
Jack sighed and began to collect all the cards from the center pile. At the same time, the sound of running water from another room had stopped. By the time all the cards had been collected, Chris had entered the room wheeling in a large plastic tank of water. He wheeled it to an empty spot at the table, then climbed into it fully clothed, squatting to ensure maximum water coverage. Everything below his neck was submerged.
“What’s up, Chris?” Jack said. “Glad to see you made it before time was up.”
“Yeah, no worries,” Chris said. “After you saved my life last time, I thought I’d be a little better prepared.”
“Right. Judy and I were just talking about that. What a mess that was. Your turn, Sally.”
“One King,” Sally said. Nobody called her out for it. “Three minutes until midnight, by the way.”
“Don’t remind me.”
Sounds of footfall could be heard upstairs. The sound moved toward the stairs, which they promptly went down, and then stopped just outside the kitchen. Opening the door, Dave poked his head through, looking at the sombre scene with the only smile in the entire house.
“Whatcha,” Dave said. When nobody replied: “So, uh. Really soon to midnight, so I’m going to go ahead and leave now. Sorry that I’m not sticking around, it’s just–”
“No need to justify yourself,” Sally said. “You just got the luck of the genetics draw, that’s all.”
“Right. So, I’ll be off now. Yes.” Dave went to close the door, opened it again, said a quick “Sorry”, and then closed it properly. Everyone listened as Dave left through the front door.
As soon as he heard the front door slam, Chris quiclky spoke: “So how come he got to be a wolf?”
“Like I said, luck of the genetics draw. We don’t get to pick what we become, we’re given it. It’s just so much that most people like us get to be wolves, and we’re the…unique ones.”
“But why have we got to be ‘unique’, as you so kindly put it?”
“You can’t pick and choose, Chris. You just make do with what you get.”
Chris snorted. “Well, if you ask me, this whole thing is a load of–”
The clock chimed midnight.
If anyone had peeked through the window at that given time, they probably would have thought they were looking into a mad scientist’s laboratory. Human-like figures convulsed and twitched as the underwent a change of fur or feather or even scales. Thankfully, the concept of onlookers had been previously considered, and large curtains prevented any unwanted spectators from seeing the frightful sight. As quick as it had began, it was over, leaving several human-sized and fully-clothed animals where humans once were.
“You know,” Sally the weremouse said, “you never quite get used to it.”
“Probably for the best,” Jack the werepig said, trying hard to keep hold of his cards with his hooves. “The moment you get used to your entire body morphing into something else, the moment a part of your sanity dies.”
“Still not as bad at the first time it ever happened,” Judy the wereduck said. “That was a real surprise, let me tell you.”
“For you?” Chris the weregoldfish said, jostling in his tank with annoyance. “You can still breathe air. I was lucky I was next to a river on the first full moon that affected me, else someone would have had the biggest fish and chips dinner they’d ever had.”
“Yes, well,” Jack oinked. “No point making a feud of it now. Let’s just ride tonight out and get back to our lives.”
The card game tried to continue, as much as people could play cards using hooves, paws, and wings. In the middle of struggling to continue their game, a distant wolf howl echoed through the night.
“Tch,” Chris said, his face bittered. “Glad Dave’s having fun, at any rate. Come on, sod these cards for a laugh. Wheel me over to the living room and let’s watch a movie.”
Their wereforms left much to be desired for the case of opposable thumbs, but their eyes still worked very much the same. Thus, as much as it was a decision made by the moon cycle rather than the housemates, that night became a night of going through the DVD collection and putting on whatever came to their fancy. Just so long as it wasn’t An American Werewolf in London.
This story was inspired by this tweet, which became the basis and inspiration of this Friday Flash. While the original tweet states the photo’s location as Finland, this story doesn’t necessarily have to feature there! Thanks to Cat Russell for the idea.
Island House, Finland https://t.co/3nP5gx4DtK—
Architecture (@archpics) June 27, 2016
“Thanks for having us, great-uncle Jack!” the two children said in unison as they left the house.
“That’s quite alright.” great-uncle Jack said, holding up a liver-spotted hand.
The parents of said children were already standing on the boardwalk, the only connection between the tiny island the house sat on and the mainland. To catch up, the children ran across the boardwalk.
“Careful!” Jack called, his tone insincere. “Your noise will anger the siren of the lake!”
When they were younger, this threat would stop the children running and begin near-tiptoeing until they were on solid land. This time, however, one of the children simply turned mid-run and yelled ‘we know stinkin’ sirens aren’t real!’.
The other members of the Carden family didn’t understand Jack. If he wasn’t so kind-hearted and good with the kids, he probably wouldn’t receive visitors at all. There was nothing wrong with him, per-se; they just wondered why he lived in the run-down shack in the middle of a lake. It was old, creaky, and smelt of damp after it rained. Every time the Cardens visited, they made their greetings, caught up with news, then got stuck into the topic of the house.
Houses are cheaper on the mainland. You can get a lovely apartment near the shops for half the price of maintaining the shack. Move out and do yourself a favour. Jack would simply fold his arms and state that the house ‘meant something’ to him. The Cardens wondered what rotting boards and black mold ‘meant to him’. He’d never say.
After waving goodbye, Jack walked back into the house. The washing up had to be done, and if he was quick, he could finish before his favourite TV show came on. The tablet sitting on the kitchen table was the only gadget he owned. He had only just learnt to download and play songs on it a few weeks ago, so he put on a relaxing song and got to work. Scrubbing the plates, he looked out the window over the sink to admire the view of the lake. That’s when he noticed her sitting on the shore just outside of the window.
“I bathe daily,” said the siren, ringing out her red hair with her hands. Her mermaid-like body from the waist down glistened in the sun.
“Sorry?” Jack said, raising his voice a little to speak over the tablet’s music.
The siren scoured over a shoulder. “I said, I don’t stink. I bathe daily.”
“You live in a lake, it’s hard for you not to.”
A sigh of disgust. “Don’t remind me.”
“What’s wrong with the lake? I think it’s a rather pretty place, myself.”
“Yes, but that’s because you weren’t a feared creature of myth, sitting upon the rocks and singing a song of sailor’s doom, watching as entire boats dashed against the rocks. Now I sing a song and some passer-by walking their dog falls in the lake. At best. And then there’s you.”
Jack gave an exaggerated shrug, pretending to not know what she meant. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Oh, I don’t know, the fact that you built a house on the lake’s island so you can listen to me more. I don’t do long-term, only one-off gigs.”
“Nonsense. It’s a shame and a waste for only dead men to hear your singing. Want some bread?”
“No,” the siren said. Regardless, a slice of bread landed beside her. She picked it up and chewed on it, pretending not to appreciate it. “I’m not a duck, you know.”
“If ducks sang like you did, they’d probably be fed whole loaves.”
A snort. “Your terrible compliments haven’t worked for seventy years; they won’t start working now. Still, if I could get back into my singing days, I’d be much happier.”
“Didn’t you join in with that lakeside Christmas carol singing that happened a few years ago?”
“Yes, the one time I tried to make my voice ‘normal’. By the time I had realised it wasn’t working, several grown men in santa costumes were already waist-deep in the lake. I can still remember the faces on their angry wives.”
“But you still enjoyed it.”
“Sure. Beats singing to the fish in this boring lake. But what can I do? The moment I show my face to sing for actual people, I’ll be snatched away in the name of science. No thank you.”
Jack was about to make a comment about putting on fake legs and a dress and getting up on stage somewhere, but then he realised he was already listening to someone singing on his tablet without knowing what they looked like. An idea formed.
Later that week, Jack hired a sound engineer to record some singing, with strict instruction that it had to be done outside. The engineer was confused as to why the recording spot was a strange shack in the middle of the lake, but by the time he had finished, all he could recall was that he heard someone singing the best song he’d ever heard, and that, for some reason, his legs were soaking wet.
The songs would eventually go up for digital purchase, where it began to shift units in droves. Nationwide reports began to spring up of interested men checking to see what all the fuss was about, and the next thing they know, they had bought all the albums. Women would claim that, yes, it’s very pretty, but to be frank, they couldn’t understand why the men made such a huge fuss over it.
In time, people (mostly men) flocked to see the face of the singer that they so loved. All they found at the end of their journey was a strange old man in a crooked shack saying he didn’t know what they were on about, but if they wanted, he’d gladly dress as a woman and try his best, which proved a very effective way of driving people away from the secret of the siren of the lake.
John Bath had been trained for scenarios like these. When caught in a troublesome situation with nothing but their bare fists, a spy is not expected to put their hands in the air and mumble surrender, even if the enemy have rifles. Of course, a large part of making sure you don’t get shot is not allowing them to see you coming in the first place. This is why the guard stationed outside the mastermind’s planning room didn’t go out with a bang, but with a soft thump from a punch by a spy dangling out of an air vent.
John Bath took the fallen guard’s weapon. If he knew Dr. Doomsday as well as he thought, asking for a fistfight wasn’t going to garner any favours. If a fight was going to break out, it was absolutely going to be against the new foul invention Dr. Doomsday might have invented. Pushing the button, the metal doors to Dr Doomsday’s lair opened with a whiff.
The lair seemed standard issue for a scientifically-minded megalomaniac. A large cave cavern was filled around its walls with computer terminals and giant screens depicting ominous threats to the countries of the world. Situated near the middle of the circular room, sitting within a hovering chair guided by a joystick on the armrest, was Dr. Doomsday. He was giving a leering smile that John couldn’t distinguish between sadistic pleasure and annoyance, his bald head and eyepatched left eye wrinkled from the expression. Lying in the very middle, strapped to a table with a large ominous laser emitted hovering over it, was John Bath’s current (and sixth) love interest Daphne.
“Aha!” Dr. Doomsday grinned. “So you finally made it here, John Bath. It’s about time. I thought my wine would evaporate from all the waiting.”
“Whatever nefarious plan you have in mind, Dr. Doomsday, I’m going to put an end to it tonight.”
“As you always say, John Bath. However, this time around, you may find things are slightly…different. Also — go on. Take a shot at me.”
John frowned. “No.”
Dr. Doomsday put on an exaggerated look of concern. “Why’s that, John? I thought you always wanted me to meet my demise.”
“Because every time I see you in that floating chair of yours, I take a pot shot at you, it reflects off, and you cackle and say ‘your attacks mean nothing, John Bath, for I am behind a force field’. It gets old.”
“It’s not turned on.”
“Yes it is.”
“Look, watch.” Dr. Doomsday pressed a button on his chair. Visually, nothing seemed to change. “It’s off now. You can take a shot. You’ll win.”
“I can’t tell it’s off. It’s an invisible force field. For all I know, you just pressed the button for the espresso machine.”
“No, that was it. That was totally it, one-hundred percent. It’s off now. You can shoot me.”
“So why are you smirking?”
Dr. Doomsday looked away, hiding his face. “Just feeling particularly good today, that’s all.”
John exchanged a look of disbelief with Daphne. Half-heartedly, he raised his rifle and took a shot. The bullet reflected off an invisible barrier.
“Ha!” Dr. Doomsday cackled. “Your attacks mean nothing, John Bath, for I am behind a force field.”
John rolled his eyes. “Very surprising.”
“Now that you know your attacks are useless against me, I present to you my latest plan. You have two options; save your precious Daphne from being torn apart by a laser, or disable the laser cannon I have set up pointed at the moon. Save the moon and your precious girl dies. Save your girl and doom the world to a permanent, literal half-moon. So, what will it be?”
John looked between Daphne tied to the table and the screen showing a very helpful and informative animation of a large laser cannon blowing up the moon. After a small deliberation, he said, “did you make that?”
Mr. Doomsday’s evil grin maintained; now, however, it was noticeably forced rather than natural. “Sorry?”
“The cannon. And the Daphne Laser.”
Mr. Doomsday blinked. “…yes, of course I did. You can’t buy moon-destroying lasers on the market.”
“I’m only saying because, well, the first time we met, you put a gun to the love interest’s head. Then you suspended one over a cliff edge, and the one after that was a slow descent into the shark tank. And now you’ve really upscaled.”
“To be honest with you,” Daphne said, “being compared to the moon, I’m feeling flattered right now.”
Mr. Doomsday scoffed. “So what if I upscaled? Isn’t it a villain’s duty to?”
“Given how you’ve basically advanced laser-based technology by a hundred years by yourself, why are you still demanding huge ransoms of money when you could be, you know, inventing and selling things?”
Mr. Doomsday went to answer, stopped, thought, then said: “It’s not like anyone will buy my stuff, given all the horrible stuff I’ve done.”
“Technically, you haven’t ‘done’ anything. I’ve always thwarted your plans before they come to pass. You could still, you know, not blow up entire celestial bodies and make something of yourself. So, how about it?
The secret services didn’t hear much else about what happened when John came back from the excursion. Just that there was a very much intact moon, and an uncharred Daphne, and promises that ‘everything had been taken care of’, despite the fact that Mr. Doomsday was nowhere to be found on the abandoned lair, alive or not.
Elsewhere, a new and wildly-popular laser surgery and tattoo removal center appeared. Customer reviews noted it was strange for the operator to strap them to a table, point something that looked like it was straight out of a sci-fi film at them, and cackle madly. Despite this, it was totally painless, the fastest and cheapest laser procedure of all the country, and the operator gave a free lollipop at the end, so it was alright and got five stars.