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Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes
 

Seven Blades in Black

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Monthly Short Story Winner: Fire

pyro hand on fire by hoo-yong (detail)

This month we asked our entrants to write about fire. The beauty of fire is its ambivalence. On the one hand we need it to survive (cooking our food, keeping us warm, protecting us) on the other hand it’s dangerous, maybe even diabolical (arson, battle magic, forest fires, household accidents).

A fire—no matter if it’s big or small—can’t be ignored.

Rules:

  1. The story can be prose or poetry.
  2. Fire must play an important role in the story.
  3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
  4. Poetry must be 100-750 words long.

This month we had two winning stories: David Macpherson (@David_Mac13) with “Fuel” and Alex Hormann (@HormannAlex) with “Heat Stroke”. Congrats on your win, David and Alex! 

You can find all our entries here.

And now on with the stories!

– – –

Cloud City by bearmantooth

“Fuel”

by David Macpherson

Ebezer Scrimp didn’t sweat anymore. It was a waste of energy and energy was his business. The citizens and senators above like to believe their paradise, the floating city of Metheus, was a work art or magic. That the ten thousand gas sacks that let it ride the Cloud Sea were filled with sweet summer air, and the nine hundred and sixty-six propellers that let it glides along the spice winds were spun by manifest destiny alone. 

But men like him knew differently. Hard work made the world go ‘round, and on this particular world most of that work was his. Such work came at a cost, as the city consul was about to find out.

“Mr Scrimp, sir,” his secretary’s voice in the speaking trumpet drew Ebezer’s gaze away from the window overlooking his factory floor. He crossed to his desk, where account books, scrolls and old candle wax intermixed to form a considerable geography, and opened a large ledger. Never let them see you resting, his father taught him.

Quill in hand, he barked an order, “Send him in.”

The consul, Patreus Rasus, was another man who didn’t care much for waste, except perhaps his own. His once proud soldier’s physique was becoming little more than a rack to hang flab on, and his purple hemmed toga did little to hide this disappointing decline. Despite this, Ebezer knew, you didn’t get to be consul for as long as Rasus by being a slouch.

“What can I do for you Rasus?” Ebezer called out before the man could even manoeuvre his large girth through the small doorway.

The consul didn’t reply immediately and instead made a casual survey of the desk’s mountainous paperwork. “So much to do, Ebezer. You should let me send some clerks down from the city chambers to help you.”

“Ha,” Ebezer snorted. “That’d be right. And have them clambering for bathroom breaks during the day and overtime during the night. You’re too soft on them, Rasus.” Ebezer scored a meaningless line through a row of old figures. “That’s why nothing gets done up there.”

The consul poured himself a glass of water from an earthenware jug. “Perhaps you should come up from this pit and whip them into shape,” he said, taking a sip. “You do still have your whip, don’t you?”

“Still got it. Still use it.” Ebezer made a show of closing the ledger. Rasus was about to get to the point. Warm up over. Time to play the game. “And that’s why my lines are the best in the city. But I assume you’re not here just to visit?”

Rasus lifted the water glass to his mouth but did not drink. His gaze was drawn to the window behind Ebezer’s desk. The factory floor stretched out in front of him, massive and manic, the far end lost in shimmer and heat haze. People had called him cruel when, as a general, he’d sunk the town of Asher, but in war you make hard choices. Standing here, he was reminded peace was no different.

“Our weather scouts are tracking a storm. A very large one, moving in from the East. It will catch us in four days. It is a bad one, Ebezer.”

“How bad?”

“Bad enough that I am here.”

“It will cost you, Rasus.”

“It will cost us all if we don’t. This is a city-sinker, Ebezer. Even down here, you’re not safe.”

“And…” Ebezer waited. This was the moment he enjoyed the most.

“And you will have the senate’s significant gratitude.” Rasus put down his glass. “Your water is warm by the way.”

Ebezer smiled. The consul could sit in the senate house with all those other warblers and weaklings for as long as he liked. When the chips were down, they both knew where the real power in Metheus came from.

He stretched his butcher block arm round Rasus’ shoulder and turned to the door. “Take a walk with me, Rasus. I’ve been making some improvements below you should see.”

Warm, he thought with a sneer, what do you know about warm.

* * *

Ebezer yanked open the heavy factory door and held it firm as cold air from the offices behind him surged into the vast space beyond. As soon as this initial blast was gone, the heat snapped shut like a beartrap. And not just the heat, but the noise and smell too. Heavy boots clanged on grated steel walkways as hardy men stripped to the waist, slick with sweat, pushed trains of screeching metal carts along tracks that ran up and down the lines. But this noise was mere background compared to the layers and layers of deafening guttural roars emanating from Metheus’ living engines.

“Mind how you go, Consul,” Ebezer shouted, striding onto the factory floor and heading down line thirty-six. “Wouldn’t want that nice toga to get all scorched.”

Rasus grimaced. Like the rest of the population, he preferred to forget what now kept his city afloat, what had let it become the fastest, the biggest, the richest on the Cloud Sea. But here was an image that seared.

Dragons. Rows and rows of huge dragons, each bloated body twice the height of a man, each creature held in a giant steel stall, gripped so tight it could neither turn ‘round, nor lie down. Each head clamped by means of a huge collar into a glowing red funnel that joined a forest of pipes reaching up into the machinery of the city above. All around the clock, the dragons blasted gouts of flame into these funnels, and if they stopped outside of the designated feeding and rest hours Ebezer’s men were ready with whips to provide the necessary encouragement.

“We’ve started docking their tales and amputating the wings at birth,” said Ebezer, his voice raised above the pained chorus of roars. “It stops them hurting themselves and lets us fit more stalls in each shed.”

Rasus followed, his face already streaming with eye stinging sweat. Passing between the captive dragons’ rear ends he could see the fat stumps of their tales and the crooked weave of scars across each rump where Ebezer’s linesmen whipped them. ‘I see,’ was all he could bring himself to say.

“And we stuff the ears with resin to keep them calm. It’s increased output by twenty-two percent,” said Ebezer, pausing to inspect one of the dragons. “But soon everyone will catch on and we’ll need to try something new. Constant innovation, that’s how you drive progress.”

Across the factory, one of the dragon’s let out an ear-splitting roar and crashed against the side of its stall. Exhausted, it longed to fall, but the stall’s vice grip wouldn’t even let it do that. It settled painfully on its elbows, its neck stretched upwards still stuck in collar and funnel.

“Dale!” Ebezer yelled, “get that bitch up. She still owes me two hours of flame.”

“Yes, Mr Scrimp,” called back the linesman, hefting a long spear over his shoulder.

Ebezer crossed back to the consul. “So,” he said, “you want to go faster?”

“Yes. The navigators say three knots for five days.”

“Three knots,” Ebezer sucked the foul factory air through his teeth. “And what about the other fire farms? I’m not wearing out my beasts to save their skins only to have them gouge me when we’re nice and safe.”

“My clerks are going to the others to explain the situation. But for you–”

“You came personally. Well I ain’t honoured if that’s what you’re after. Honour is for folk what can’t afford lawyers.”

“But you can do it?”

“I can do it. The alchemist boys have come up with a new feed mix. Makes for a hotter burn. That and some extra encouragement will get you your three knots.”

Rasus clenched his fists. He hated being in debt to any man and especially a slime ball like Scrimp. But this was politics, the land of bad choices.

“Agreed,” said the consul. “And the price for this benevolence?”

“Well now that’s the thing about doing something new,” Ebezer smiled, “You never know the cost until it’s done.”

Or until it’s too late, thought Rasus, gazing along the line of captive beasts. He couldn’t even tell how many there were, but the echoing roars seemed to carry on forever. The people wanted more, and he had given it to them. It had been the making of him. He wondered if one day, it would also be the breaking of him.

“Come, Consul,” Ebezer wrapped his arm around Rasus again. “I want to show you the hatchery. Nothing like seeing one of these critters taking their first flame. Majestic.”

“Yes,” Rasus said. “I know.”

“Of course,” said Ebezer, “I forgot. You were a dragon rider back in your army days. And now we all get to ride them. Bet you never imagined that back then.”

And Ebezer was right. Nothing Rasus had seen in war had prepared him for this.

– – –

Spontaneous self combustion by torvenius

“Heat Stroke”

by Alex Hormann

South Wales suffered under a three-month heatwave, and the Department of Supernature was stretched thin. With most of the force tackling a beached pod of mermaids, I had been left to deal with the exploding pensioners.

There had been three cases of spontaneous human combustion in the past month, all occurring in the same care home. The Nos Da House of Care had never come up on our radar before as a site of supernatural interest. Not on a ley line, no historical crimes of significance, no cursed bricks used during its construction. Nothing at all to differentiate it from the dozens of other care homes that were springing up on a weekly basis to cater for the ageing Welsh population. The staff all checked out too. No changes there for a few years, and none of them had any trace of magic about them.

It had to be something to do with the residents. I spread out twenty photographs on my desk, each one attached to a brown folder by paper-clip. Pushing aside my pen holder to make space, I mentally grumbled about the lack of decent computers in our HQ. Last winter’s lightning sprites had really wrecked our chances of getting an upgrade.

Someone coughed to get my attention, and I looked up to see Dafydd’s familiar, mug-chugging face. He took a swig of coffee and said, “How’s it coming Will?”

I gestured at my work. “Take a look.”

Dafydd snorted. “Thanks, bud, but I’ve got my own stuff to work on.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Boss wanted me to let you know your partner is here.”

I frowned. “Partner? I don’t have a partner.”

He shrugged, spilling coffee onto my shoes as he carelessly flung his mug about. I suffered in silence as he continued, “Boss said he has expert on combustion. Local pyromancer, apparently you know each other. She’s on her way up now.” With that he left.

Oh no. Please no. There were three pyromancers I knew of in the local area, but only one I’d met in person. We’d got along like a house on fire. By which I mean she set my house on fire after I tried to arrest her for arson.

I turned as she walked through the door.

Rani Anderson was a short woman of Pakistani descent, her grandparents having come to Wales just after the war. Her light brown skin was almost hidden under a sprawling mess of tattoos. Flames and dragons battled across her bare arms, while butterflies and skulls sat awkwardly on her square-jawed face.

“Miss Anderson,” I said, standing up to shake her hand.

She gripped it tightly, pressing her warm palm against mine. “Will,” she said with a smile.

I sighed. She was clearly enjoying this, and that didn’t bode well for the case. Happy pyromancers tended to be fire-starting pyromancers. The last thing I needed was more fire destroying my crime scene.

“Your boss said you might need some help,” Rani said, her chipper attitude already grating on my nerves. “Seems you have an old folks problem.”

I glanced over at the Sergeant’s office. He was on the phone and clearly unhappy, so I decided against bothering him. “Are you actually here to help, Rani? Or are you just going to get in my way?”

She placed a hand over her heart in mock shock. “Me? Get in your way? Never.”

I gave her a flat glare.

“Alright, I’ll level.” She usurped my desk chair and looked at the pictures. “Old people catching fire isn’t good. Obviously for them, but it’s not great for us either. Pyros that is. Any time people start going boom, the cuffs come out.”

“It’s a natural reaction. You have a reputation.”

“True, true. But in this case, I am innocent. Besides, a proper Pyro would’ve taken credit for this by now.”

I leaned over her shoulder. “You’re saying this wasn’t a wizard’s work?”

“You bet your sweet cheeks I am. This problem has ‘monster’ written all over it. And,” she tapped one of the photographs, “it all started when this fine gentleman arrived at the home.” She smiled at me.

“I’d have found that if you hadn’t interrupted me,” I muttered. “Let’s go interview him then.”

* * *

Lawrence Cobble was, as one would expect of a care home resident, an old man. According the nurses, he was about to celebrate his one-hundredth birthday, and looking at him even briefly was enough to convince me that was true. He was almost entirely bald, with more wisps of hair in his ears than on his scalp. Wheelchair-bound and pudgy, he was the stereotype of an old man. With a crooked smile and a dirty laugh, he greeted us as we entered his room.

“Guests, guests, honoured guests.” He spun his wheelchair in a circle, like an excited puppy. “Always good to see guests.”

“Hello, Mr Cobble. We’d like to ask you some questions if that’s alright,” I said.

He nodded happily.

I ran through the basic Q and A with him. Had he seen anything unusual recently? How well did he know the other residents?

Cobble had a lot to say, but very little of it was useful. Gladys was a bit of a looker. Nurse Jamie was stealing pills. Walter cheated at Scrabble. When it came to the spontaneous human combustion, he explained he had been asleep each time it had happened. Being ninety-nine, he was asleep a lot.

As I questioned him, Rani prowled the room, looking at family photos and poking mementos from a long life. She took more time with some of them than others.

“Don’t touch that!” Cobble suddenly snapped.

I turned to see Rani holding a small bronze vase, and glared at her. She raised an eyebrow and carefully put it back on the cupboard she’d taken it from.

“Sorry to snap,” said Cobble, smiling once more. “That’s my beloved.”

I nodded, conveying sympathy. I wouldn’t want a pyromancer holding my dead wife’s ashes either. I asked a few more questions but, having learned nothing, soon left.

I looked to Rani. “Any ideas?”

“Oh, several,” she said. “It was boiling in there wasn’t it.”

“It’s boiling everywhere,” I replied. My collar and the seat of my jeans were both soaked. My feet were starting to moisten too. “You’d think they’d have some fans set up or something.”

“Exactly.” She leaned in close. “So why wasn’t Lawrence sweating?”

I narrowed my eyes. “He wasn’t?”

“The whole building reeks of sweat. Except his room.” She sniffed. “Until you walked in anyway. And that’s not all. That urn on his cupboard, I’ve seen one before.”

“Me too. Mum kept Dad in one for twelve years. It’s not exactly unusual to find an urn in a care home.”

Rani snorted. “What do they teach you at the Department. Don’t you know an Efreeti Jar when you see one?”

Apparently, I didn’t, but I knew what we were dealing with as soon as she said it. “An Efreet? Here?”

“Looks that way, doesn’t it? I’d guess Old Cobble has made a deal. She looked around with an air of disgust. “I’d assume he asked for long life rather than riches. Probably taking the life out of other residents to balance it out.”

“Alright, smash the jar and the Efreet leaves, right?” When she nodded, I continued. “I’ll do it. Just have my back if anything happens.”

“Not a problem,” she answered.

Cobble smiled again as we re-entered his room. “More questions, officer?” he asked in his genial tone.

“We know about the Efreet,” I said. “We’re here to send it away.”

“Efreet? I don’t know what–”

“Oh, put a sock in it, old man,” Rani snapped. She made a move for the jar.

“NO,” Cobble’s voice took on a commanding edge as he stood. He looked ten years younger as he raised a hand at me. “It’s all I have.”

I tried to placate him. “I don’t know what deal you had, but it’s over now.”

Rani grabbed the jar and flung it at the floor. Despite being bronze, it shattered like glass.

The effect on Cobble was immediate. He was flung away as if hit by a fist, landing in his wheelchair. He let out a soft moan, the skin tightening on his face until it tore. It was like watching a man age a hundred years in a matter of seconds. Smoke rose from his mouth and chest, slowly at first and then billowing as the fires in his chest were revealed. As the fire spread to engulf his whole body, the fire alarms sounded.

Looking at the charred remains, I tried not to gag. Four people dead, including himself, all because he was afraid of dying. It couldn’t possibly be worth it.

– – –

Congratulations again to David Macpherson and Alex Hormann! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for more information. 

Happy Writing!

Title image by torvenius.

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