WELCOME

Hello and welcome to Aldlis Chronicles an author blog for the fictional fantasy series I am writing. Here I will post original short stories and extracts from my ongoing novel The Gods Own as well as background material related to the fictional world of Aldlis and its inhabitants.

You can also find chapters in full for the Gods Own at https://www.chapterbuzz.com/profile/AlexisC

Please enjoy,

Alexis Cunningham (the author)

The Towering Inferno: A Review 46 Years Too Late

Image from The Movie Database -TMD-b click for link

In the first of a series of random posts I’m going to call “Stuff I Like Because…Reasons” I’m going to ramble on about one of my favourite stupid movies. The Towering Inferno.

The Towering Inferno is a 1974 Hollywood movie about people dying horribly in a skyscraper fire, so if you don’t want to read on about why I enjoy this movie way more than I should, please stop now.

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The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear -Available on Amazon Now

Click Image for Amazon UK listing

In a dystopian Britain, Lorraine has a severed hand problem. A trip to the woods turns to tragedy for Bethany and a deal with a love-struck demon goes awry for Chris. This is just a taste of the ten short stories of urban fantasy and horror gathered here. Spotlighting a strange and twisted suburban world, where a P.A’s unrequited love for the new girl in the office attracts a nightclub genie, vampires contract with the local cleaning service for discreet stain removal and everything and nothing is as it seems. Each self-contained story provides humour with a bite and chills with a smile focusing on the lives of normal people in an abnormal world where no one is entirely innocent and everyone has something to fear.

Available Now for £1.99GB or $2.77US.

Link to US listing

Welcome Alexis Cunningham to the U. L. S. The Underground Library Society — charles french words reading and writing

I want to welcome the newest member of the U. L. S. — the Underground Library Society — Alexis Cunningham! The U. L. S. is an unofficial organization dedicated to preserving books and to opposing censorship. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called poetry “the best words in the best order” or so the blurb on the inner […]

Welcome Alexis Cunningham to the U. L. S. The Underground Library Society — charles french words reading and writing

The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear Available on Amazon

Click image for link to Amazon US store

In a dystopian Britain, Lorraine has a severed hand problem. A trip to the woods turns to tragedy for Bethany and a deal with a love-struck demon goes awry for Chris. This is just a taste of the ten short stories of urban fantasy and horror gathered here. Spotlighting a strange and twisted suburban world, where a P.A’s unrequited love for the new girl in the office attracts a nightclub genie, vampires contract with the local cleaning service for discreet stain removal and everything and nothing is as it seems. Each self-contained story provides humour with a bite and chills with a smile focusing on the lives of normal people in an abnormal world where no one is entirely innocent and everyone has something to fear.

Available to buy from Amazon UK for £1.99GB Here

The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear Available to Buy on Amazon Kindle Now

In a dystopian Britain, Lorraine has a severed hand problem. A trip to the woods turns to tragedy for Bethany and a deal with a love-struck demon goes awry for Chris. This is just a taste of the ten short stories of urban fantasy and horror gathered here. Spotlighting a strange and twisted suburban world, where a P.A’s unrequited love for the new girl in the office attracts a nightclub genie, vampires contract with the local cleaning service for discreet stain removal and everything and nothing is as it seems. Each self-contained story provides humour with a bite and chills with a smile focusing on the lives of normal people in an abnormal world where no one is entirely innocent and everyone has something to fear.

Available to buy for £2.99GB Here or free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Click image for Amazon US link.

The Work of Cendrine Marrouat and David Ellis

charles french words reading and writing

Here is a post to celebrate and promote the work of Cendrine Marrouat and David Ellis!

Rhythm Flourishing: A Collection of Kindku and Sixku
Authors: Cendrine Marrouat & David Ellis
Genre: Multimedia – Poetry with some photography (non-fiction)
Release date: September 3, 2020

Synopsis:

‘Rhythm Flourishing: A Collection of Kindku and Sixku’ showcases two unique, brand-new poetry forms created by Cendrine Marrouat and David Ellis, the co-founders of Auroras & Blossoms, a platform celebrating positivity and inspiration in art.

By taking elements of found poetry and Japanese poetry forms, Cendrine and David have developed a style of poetry known as the Kindku. The collection also features a selection of gorgeous images and poems from Cendrine’s own visual poetry form — the Sixku.

Enjoy a divine series of poems inspired by a variety of well-known poets including Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Emma Lazarus, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, William Butler…

View original post 296 more words

Story Taster: In Mandragora We Trust

Below is an extract from In Mandragora We Trust one of ten short stories available to buy in my kindle anthology The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear and Other Stories of Chilling Modern Horror Fantasy. 

You know what your problem is? My sister Delia asked me the other day. You’re a loser, she says. You never try. All you do is complain.

And like, that’s rich coming from her. All she does is complain about me.

Anyway, Delia, she’s still banging on, right? She’s like, look at this place, and waving her hands around like some manic orchestra conductor. And she has this shrill voice that gets all nasally when she’s angry –and she’s angry a lot, my sister.

Mushrooms, Livvy, she shrills. You got mushrooms growing in your bathroom. You’re a slob. A disgrace. I’m sick of cleaning up after you, she tells me, like I’m this terrible burden she’s been lumbered with.

Well, no one’s making you, I shout back, don’t I? ‘Cuz I don’t have to take that, do I? No, I don’t. It’s my life, I yell ‘cuz she’s always judging me and I’m sick of it. I’ll screw up if I want to, I tell her. You can’t tell me what to do!

I’m crying at this point, which is just typical. I hate that I’m a crier, ‘cuz it makes Delia go all superior, acting like I’m just crying for attention or ‘cuz I’m a whiny baby. I mean, it’s not my fault. It’s like I got all the most pathetic traits at birth and none of the good ones.

Not like Delia.

Visit the Kindle Store to read more. Available for £1.99GB.

Sometimes I really hate Delia. My got-it-all-together sister. Goody-goody two-shoes, perfect first-born, straight-A Delia with her perfect hair and perfect teeth and perfect corporate drone wife. She don’t understand how hard it is to be me.

Anyway, what was I saying? Right, about the other day.

Delia gives me this look, alright? Like I’m something nasty stuck to her shoe –not that anything nasty would dare stick to Delia’s shoes. Grow up Liv, she says, looking all serious and haughty. You’re thirty-two, not a teenager. Do something with your life.

I tell her to go to hell.

She leaves. And then I’m alone, right? Stuck in my crappy flat with the mouldy floors and mushrooms. I mean, you don’t have to worry, I cleaned up before you arrived so it’s not that bad now. But anyway. Mum and Dad pay the rent on this place ‘cuz I’m still looking for work.

It’s not like I’m lazy, mind. People just have it in for me.

They can’t deal with my realness, see.

I got self-respect, I’m not picking up after other people who can’t use a stupid bin. I don’t care what it says in my job contract. I know I was born for great things; it’s just that no one will give me a chance.

I haven’t found my niche yet, you see. That thing that I’m super good at that no one else can do.

Circumstances are against me. The whole world wants too much from me while I’m still trying to find myself. No one can see that I’m special. Different. Sensitive and stuff.

It’s like all them suffering artists from the past, yeah?

Did anyone tell Van Gogh, Oi mate, you can’t go ‘round cutting off your ears like that, you got to sign on. No, they didn’t. They just let him get on painting his sunflowers and self-mutilating ‘cuz they recognised he was special, didn’t they? Old Van Gogh even had a brother who took care of him, not like me and Delia.

But you know, Van Gogh had to deal with idiots who didn’t understand him too. He was painting his Starry Night and people were like whose that ginger weirdo with the one ear? We should lock him up.

That’s life though, ain’t it?

Special, sensitive, tortured people suffer. They get no appreciation until they die and then everyone is like, wow, look at them sunflowers, that’s genius. Let’s write sad, hippy songs about how no one appreciates artists ‘til they’re dead. It’s like, a cosmic rule or something.

And like, I know I’m one of them tortured artist people. I got to be right? ‘Cuz I’m living in a crappy housing estate full of winos and druggies. And that weird pale guy on the thirteenth floor with the widow’s peak who’s probably a serial killer ‘cuz he only goes out at night.

But like, I’ve been working on a novel right?

About a girl who fights against the whole stupid world that only sees her loser outer shell. ‘Cuz the world’s shallow and judgy and wouldn’t know greatness if it slapped ‘em silly with a giant sturgeon, would it? No, it wouldn’t.

It’s gonna be a best-seller, my book. I mean, I’ve only written, like, four thousand words in four years, but you can’t rush the creative process. Genius takes time to sprout.

Anyway, I started an online appeal to drum up funds but people were all like, well what’s the outline? What’s the plot about? When’s it gonna be done? And I’m like, don’t distract me with all these trivial questions. My book’s not like other books. It don’t need things like plot or character or whatever. I’ve got tortured genius, don’t I?

So yeah, I read about Mandragora online, that’s how I found out about your offer.

I was doing one of those “what sort of vegetable are you” quizzes. I’m an aubergine, by the way. Did you know the aubergine is part of the nightshade family? Yeah, like, related to Deadly Nightshade? I thought that was pretty cool.

Anyway, I saw your ad saying you were looking for people who wanted to cultivate a new version of themselves, and I was like, that’s me, that is. I’m all about cultivating myself.

The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear and Other Stories of Chilling Modern Horror Fantasy Available to Buy on Kindle Now

Available to buy here: Amazon.co.uk: Alexis Cunningham: Books, Biography, Blogs, Audiobooks, Kindle

In a dystopian Britain, Lorraine has a severed hand problem. A trip to the woods turns to tragedy for Bethany and a deal with a love-struck demon goes awry for Chris. This is just a taste of the ten short stories of urban fantasy and horror gathered here. Spotlighting a strange and twisted suburban world, where a P.A’s unrequited love for the new girl in the office attracts a nightclub genie, vampires contract with the local cleaning service for discreet stain removal and everything and nothing is as it seems. Each self-contained story provides humour with a bite and chills with a smile focusing on the lives of normal people in an abnormal world where no one is entirely innocent and everyone has something to fear.

The Imp Caper: A Tale of Magical Rodents, Thieves and In-Laws

This is an original work of fiction and  novella involving characters introduced in my draft novel The Gods’ Own, which can be found here and here under the penname Spikey44. All words, characters and concepts are mine (details about me the author can be found on this blog in the ‘about me’ section). Line drawn images are mine. Digital images are from Pixabay free image site. 

Parts 1-29 of the story can be read on the blog.

‘I’m a bit disappointed,’ Ludo said peering at the slim seam of magic faintly glowing in the air under the spindly shadow of a few adolescent apple trees. ‘I was expecting more from a portal between realms.’

Alukov cocked his head. ‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ he said. ‘This is a very old portal. I’m not going to be able to seal it completely.’

Ludo whipped his head around. ‘I risked my life to get us here. I was treed to get us here. I ruined my clothes to get us here. And now you tell me you can’t close the damn thing. No,’ he jerked his hand through the air in a cutting motion. ‘That’s not good enough.’

Alukov rolled his eyes. ‘Calm down. I didn’t say I couldn’t close it. I said I couldn’t seal it permanently. Think of it like a ventilation shaft for magic. Sealing it means creating a magical bottleneck. No one wants that.’

Ludo narrowed his eyes. ‘I can’t tell if you’re making this up or not, but, for arguments sake, let’s say I believe you. What happens now?’

Alukov held out his left hand, palm up to the shimmering sliver of air that twinkled faintly iridescent in gloom. ‘I can’t seal this rift but I can seal the rifts it connects to on the Other Side. That should do the trick.’ Magic danced around his fingers like tendrils of green smoke, coiling to encircle his wrist. ‘You can come with me if you want,’ Alukov offered. ‘It’s probably safe.’

Ludo quirked a brow. ‘Probably?’

Alukov shrugged. ‘There is a small chance your lungs will explode or you’ll get stuck over there.’

Ludo sighed. ‘You could’ve just said you wanted to go alone. It’s not like I have a pressing urge to step through tears in reality. I like the one I live in just fine.’

‘I didn’t want you to feel excluded,’ Alukov shifted his stance, sparing him only a brief glance before focusing on the rift, which was now glowing a fetching chartreuse to match the magic licking its way up Alukov’s forearm.

A high-pitched whining noise came from the rift, like the chiming of a tuning fork, but much weirder. The metallic reek of magic in the air intensified.

Ludo took a step back, he could feel the pull of the Other Side. The anima thickening in the air until it pressed against his lungs with the force of pillow stuffed with sand. Ludo shielded his face with his arm, turning away from the light now filling the small copse.

‘Just remember, you owe me,’ he shouted to be heard over the whine of anima leaking through the rift. ‘You find anything useful over there I get half, got it?’

Alukov didn’t reply. There was an intense burst of greenish-tinged white light, fierce enough to dazzle and stun and a huge backwash of magic and displaced air that knocked Ludo over.

Ludo blinked back green afterimages to find Gambrische standing above him, extending a large-knuckled hand. ‘You are needed for the negotiations.’

Ludo stood. ‘Negotiations?’

The horned man nodded. ‘You must finish what you started. You have amused Varkarion; do not fail now.’

Amused was not the same as impressed, Ludo thought, but it was better than enraged, or offended, or even bored. ‘What does she want?’

‘Come and hear it for yourself.’

The wildr strode ahead, back toward the house. Ludo followed in his slope-shouldered wake.

Discussions had moved into the parlour, which had weathered the wyrm’s attack surprisingly well. It still had a ceiling and all its walls. The dark wood coffee table was upended and the cracked and crumbled remnants of a painted flower vase littered the carpet, but that was the only casualty. Ludo walked in to find Garnid Orgliov sitting on the loveseat her husband clasping her hand beside her, equal parts cowed and furious.

‘Your days are numbered, Silvandado,’ he croaked, round, flaccid features flushed with rage.

‘Numbered they might be,’ he replied flippantly, ‘but I happen to know its still a big number.’

He looked around the room. Irinoi sat in the wingback chair by the fireplace with his instrument on his lap, flanked by a trio of imposing looking wildr. One of them had so many teeth dangling from his dangerous overbite he couldn’t close his mouth and drooled onto the floor. Another had rather delicate fawn ears but arms as wide as tree trunks. Another hunkered on all fours, cord-like tail up and twitching in the air.

There were also a large number of imps of various breeds and sizes lurking at the periphery of the room, huddled in the corners, hanging from the floor lamp or skittering about the floor. He’d passed several house staff on his way inside, all of whom were in different degrees of recovery from their ordeal and some of whom had crowded the hallway to eavesdrop. The wyrm Ludo had noted, was asleep in the back courtyard. Some of the wildr were bathing it with buckets of water filled from the outside spigot.

The entire scene, inside and out, was bizarrely domestic. A picture of bucolic contentment; just a possessed woman, her gangster husband, his bewildered and outwitted heavies and their menagerie of assorted monsters. Almost cliche, really.

There was nowhere to sit, so Ludo went to stand beside the upended coffee table, momentarily distracted to find someone had laid out a plate of bread and butter slices and placed them on the underside of table. He blinked, wondering who in their right mind would bring buttered bread but no tea.

‘I understand you would like to make a request of me,’ he said to Garnid Orgliov, looking into her very human blue eyes. There was no hint of the seraph Varkarion in her body language and the lack of glowing yellow eyes was a clear giveaway that the seraph had sunk back into whatever subconscious abyss she lurked in when not in control. No wonder Orgliov felt brave enough to hold her hand.

‘The imp tourneys must continue,’ she told him. He’d expected the real Garnid to be a timid woman for some reason, perhaps because she looked so tortured, but she certainly didn’t sound timid. She squeezed her husband’s hand. ‘And the wyrm must stay with me.’

Immediately irinoi brayed an objection. Ludo waved his hand for silence. ‘The wyrm needs the wetlands, madam,’ Ludo replied calmly. ‘However, if your husband agrees to reinstate the original deal he had with Irinoi’s clan –with a generous increase in payment for the inconvenience he’s caused,’ –he added smoothly spotting the swift signalling Gramische sent his way, ‘then I see no reason why you and your deified tagalong can’t have access rights to the wyrm.’

Orgliov looked sour. ‘What about the duke?’ he grumbled. ‘He’ll never allow it.’

Ludo smirked. ‘That’s your problem.’

Garnid pivoted to glare at her husband. ‘You promised me more playmates, Fydor. You promised blood and death and the symphony of violence and pain. But all your deal with the duke has done is make everything worse. Do what the man says, or I won’t stop Her next time she tries to pluck your eyes out.’

Orgliov stared at Ludo eyes bulging, perhaps due to his wife’s threat or perhaps due to bad genes, it was hard to tell. ‘The duke will come for you too,’ he reminded Ludo.

‘He’s about to lose access to the Other Side,’ Ludo pointed out. ‘He’s going to have other problems. And that is an opportunity,’ he beamed, ‘for a pre-emptive strike against his minions while he’s distracted. I know you know who they are. Get your boys to take them out before he has time to come after you.’

Orgliov flexed his wide, thin-lipped mouth. ‘Some of them are well placed in the Voisera. I’d risk exposure.’

Ludo rolled his eyes. ‘You’d risk nothing,’ he scoffed. ‘Just tell your bosses they have traitors in the fold and reap the rewards for your initiative in taking them out. Pit damn it man,’ he exclaimed, ‘how did you get so high up in the Bloom in the first place?’

‘He’s right, Fydor,’ Garnid pressed. ‘You’ve gotten too comfortable. It’s been years since you killed anyone important.’ She complained, ‘I can barely see anything of that dashing cut throat I married. That man had dreams, ambition. Bloodlust. You’ve let it all go. And for what? A house in the country, playing second fiddle to a jumped-up phantom,’ she sneered. ‘You’ve gone soft, old man.’

‘I’ve been protecting you,’ Fydor objected. ‘Everything I’ve done has been for you.’

‘Everything you’ve done is to keep me caged,’ she snapped back. ‘Varkarion knows it and so do I.’

Ludo cleared his throat. ‘Not to interrupt, but I wasn’t finished.’ He fixed Orgliov with a hard look. ‘There is the matter of my compensation. You did try to kill me, plus digging you out of your hole deserves a reward, I think.’

‘You want me to waive the debt your brother owes,’ Orgliov sighed deeply.

‘No,’ Ludo retorted. ‘I expect you to waive the debt. I want you to pay me one hundred thousand shenka.’

Orgliov croaked loudly, mouth opening and closing. ‘I should kill you right now,’ he said when he could.

‘Perhaps, but you won’t. We all know you’ve lost your nerve, old man.’ Ludo buffed his nails on his jacket, or tried to, all he actually managed to do was send a crust of mud and tree bark scattering to the floor.

‘As I’m feeling generous, and because I want to see the duke put out of business in these parts. I’ll offer you a deal. I happen to be Djisi’s pre-eminent technomancer. I’m offering to outfit your men with my tech –for a small rental fee — to aid you in your campaign.’

Orgliov sat back against the loveseat. His expression had shifted from flushed outrage to a wary calculation. ‘I know your reputation,’ he admitted. ‘And you did defeat my security at the warehouse. I’ll offer a counter offer. You provide my men with tech for free and I’ll ensure they protect you from the duke.’

Ludo cocked his head. He had intended to extort Alukov for protection; the scion did seem to know the most about the Pit Lord, but it didn’t hurt to have an extra layer of protection. ‘Extend that protection to my sister and her family and agree to pay me the hundred thousand and we have a deal,’ he said. ‘So long as the duke is still a threat,’ he added the caveat to be clear. ‘After that, you want my stuff you pay for it.’

There was a skitter of tiny claws across the wood and Ludo looked down to see Rolanda and Josefet tucking in to the bread and butter slices. Ludo rocked crossed his arms in thought.

‘One other thing,’ he said. ‘I want a stake in the imp fights. One percent of the door charge, and myself and Alukov will be checking in with Irinoi and his people to make sure the imps are being cared for properly.’

Orgliov looked unimpressed. ‘I suppose you want me to stop extorting the breeders as well?’

Ludo snorted, ‘Of course not,’ he said, ‘If they’re stupid enough to buy insurance from you, that’s their look out. But you will stop murdering imps.’

‘That was the duke’s doing,’ Orgliov grumbled. ‘He forced me to take his stock and his breeders, after he decimated my own.’

Ludo hummed in appreciation, pleased that the final mystery had been solved. He never had understood why Orgliov would undermine his own racket, by taking out imps. That the Duke of Bones had been behind the exploding imps so he could leverage Orgliov did make a lot more sense.

‘No human murder matches,’ he said, ‘unless they’re the duke’s men, in which case, have at it.’

Orgliov glanced over to his wife. ‘Garja, is that alright?’

Garnid Orgliov sighed, slumping sulkily into the cushions. ‘Very well. The men you found were poor sport, anyway.’

‘Excellent,’ Ludo clapped his hands together, already considering all the things he could do with an extra fifty thousand shenka and Alukov’s promised windfall of aurite crystals, as well as round the clock Voisera protection and the prospect of lifelong leverage against the Voisera’s Djisi commander. His future in the magical underground was all but assured and all it had cost him was two suits, two pairs of imported shoes, a portion of his sanity and a few minor knocks to his dignity.

He looked around the room, taking in the assorted wildr, the Orgliov’s and various human and a imp onlookers. Yes, he rather thought things had gone rather well. He’d ascended to a new level of prominence in the magical world, faced off against real powers and come out of it richer, which was always the goal.

Bending down to scoop Josefet and Rolanda up in his arms, Ludo beamed. ‘What do you say to sketching out a contract so we can put this caper to bed, eh?’

The Imp Caper: A Tale of Magical Rodents, Thieves and In-Laws

This is an original work of fiction and  novella involving characters introduced in my draft novel The Gods’ Own, which can be found here and here under the penname Spikey44. All words, characters and concepts are mine (details about me the author can be found on this blog in the ‘about me’ section). Line drawn images are mine. Digital images are from Pixabay free image site. 

Parts 1-28 of the story can be found on the blog. Updates on Fridays. 

There is a blink and you’ll miss it window wherein terror can morph into farce. Ludo had passed through that window about the time he allowed himself to be treed by a horde of rabid rodents.

‘You are disappointing me, mortal,’ Varkarion told him, standing at the base of the tree unperturbed by the fact that a ferret-imp was gnawing on her ankle, or rather the body of Garnid Orgliov, gangster’s wife and host body for the deranged goddess. The short, dumpy woman propped her fists on her hips and scrunched her nose in irritation, rather adding insult to Ludo’s indignity.

‘I didn’t come here to perform for you,’ Ludo shot back.

His arms were wrapped around the trunk of the apple tree growing beside the estates extended kitchen and his feet were resting on a slim branch each. The branches were at different heights and Ludo was getting cramp in his right thigh. His posterior was dangerously exposed to jagged teeth of a particularly intrepid rabbidillo that had decided to defy gravity and leap straight up into the tree in an insane show of magic propelled strength. Pit damn, mutants. Ludo twisted his neck to glare over his shoulder at the nasty, buck-toothed thing with what he hoped was quelling ferocity.

‘Look, I’m trying to offer you a very profitable deal. If you could just let off with the bloodlust and let me get down, I’ll explain.’

There was a scrabble of claws and burst of excited chittering heralding the arrival of Ludo’s former pets, Josefet and Rolanda. The two ferret imps looked at him with blood-red eyes. Rolanda sat up on her hindlegs on the branch right beside his right ear and bared her teeth, head going back and neck convulsing. Ludo flinched back, grip on the trunk loosening as he tried to brace himself for a face full of acid spit.

Aim perfect, Rolanda spat her load right passed his head. Ludo could not follow its trajectory but he heard the rabbidillo squeal and heard a thud as it fell, belly flesh burning, to the ground. It was set upon immediately by the seething mass of imps squabbling at the base of the tree.

Ludo broke into a mad grin. ‘Oh, you beauty. Daddy’s so proud of you!’

Feigning nonchalance Rolanda lifted a paw to wipe almost delicately at her jaws. Josefet darted back down the trunk. Ludo heard a series of sharp, pained squeaks and then the sound of a small body falling to the ground. Josefet returned to the branch, somehow managing to radiate triumph.

‘Good boy,’ Ludo praised.

Now, if only his beautiful, loyal babies could do that thirty more times, he’d be golden.

Ludo looked down at the ground, ignoring Garnid/Varkarion, who still hadn’t noticed she was being chewed on to his supposed ally. Alukov was sitting on the stone step in front of the kitchen door, elbows braced on his knees and chin palmed in his hands, watching Ludo’s distress a look of mild boredom.

‘You could help, you know,’ Ludo grumbled.

Alukov arched his brows. ‘She challenged you, not me.’ Ludo swore in two languages. Alukov sighed. ‘Alright, but I think you’re giving up too easily.’ Standing he approached Varkarion. ‘He’s just stalling, you know,’ he told her conversationally. ‘He wants you distracted when he springs his attack.’

Varkarion looked at him, finally deigning to kick away the two-headed rat trying to climb her bleeding leg. ‘You’re lying. He is toothless.’

Alukov shrugged artlessly. ‘Well, in that case. Why don’t you tell me where the wyrm’s gone?’

Ludo jolted against the trunk, almost losing his footing as he strained to peer over his other shoulder to courtyard where the giant swamp wyrm had been coiled up napping. It was now gone, the evidence of its travails a slithering line of mud and slime over the gravel leading toward the front of the property. How could he have failed to notice it had gone? Yes, he’d been worried about the tiny furry army below him, but it wasn’t like a giant magical wyrm with the face of a lamprey was easy to miss.

Varkarion must have been having similar thoughts. She twisted around on the spot, neck swivelling in the opposite direction to her feet -albeit not beyond the natural limits of a human neck, there was only so much creepiness Ludo was prepared to accept –a look of horror dawned across her scarred face. ‘That music…it can’t be…’ her features became slack in shock.

What music? All Ludo could hear was chittering of the imps and the distant shouting of men and women hiding in the estate. He thought he could hear Fydor Orgliov bellowing from somewhere around the front of the house. What was the toad of a man up to? Ludo narrowed his eyes. Alukov was supposed to be watching the gangster. Why had he let him go?

Alukov winked up at him. ‘Irinoi is here.’

Ludo didn’t have time to decide if he was relieved that back-up had finally arrived or not, because at that moment the air popped with staccato bursts of gunfire. Josefet, startled by the noise leapt onto Ludo’s head, digging his nails into Ludo’s locks for purchase, Ludo’s right foot slipped and he feel, snatching desperately at the trunk as his left leg buckled. He ended up clinging to the trunk, legs kicking uselessly with an imp hanging from his hair, threatening to scalp him by degrees.

It was a short eternity of helpless scramble and a quick drop after that.

Except not. Dark green light flashed behind his eyeballs, lighting up his brain and Ludo experienced the queasy sensation of nothingness once more before tumbling to his knees on solid ground. He leapt to his feet, ignoring the roar of vertigo in his ears and glared at Alukov. ‘You could have done that any time,’ he accused.

Alukov didn’t answer him. He jerked his head toward the side of the house instead. ‘Look.’

The wyrm oozed around the side of the house, wriggling over the ground like a grub. Irinoi walked alongside it, strumming a stringed instrument that looked a little like a lute, but made no audible sound. Several of the clan slapped their palms on tambourines or shook tiny cudgels decorated with shells in a vaguely rhythmic manner. A few appeared to be dancing.

More of the tribe came through the house, deftly moving around the wreckage as they swayed and gyrated to Gambrische’s warbling voice.

‘Is he singing?’

Alukov cocked his head thoughtfully. ‘I think it’s an evocation.’ His gaze was rooted on Varkarion who appeared fixated upon the clan. Garnid’s body swayed almost unconsciously. ‘It’s been so long,’ Varkarion spoke, voice dreamy. ‘So, so long since any have sung for me. I had thought my worshippers gone for good.’

Ludo stirred himself into action, recognising opportunity when it came knocking. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘This is what I was talking about. Why waste time killing me when you could have this?’ he waved his hand to incorporate the clan as they came together, the wyrm rolling in the gravel at their feet, Orgliov and his handful of armed protectors bloodied but alive and held among them.

Garnid’s face was suffused with a soft joy that might have been heart-warming to behold if not for the alien yellow glow of her eyes. Irinoi struck a note on his instrument and she gasped, clearing hearing something more than the discordant twang of an animal gut string whacking the air. Even the horde of imps seemed entranced. Ludo noted Josefet and Rolanda standing on hindlegs watching without a chitter between them.

He sidled closer to the mesmerized goddess. ‘Turns out not everyone has forgotten the old ways,’ he dared to murmur in her ear. ‘The clan has carvings in your honour. I saw pictures of them in dance and song, worshipping you. They memorialise your fall with sorrow.’

That had been the point of the largest of the carved scenes in the clan’s small office. Ludo hadn’t precisely expected the clan to break into a song and dance number when he’d invited them to reclaim their wyrm but he’d suspected that had some secret way to control it.

‘I brought the wyrm here to remind you there’s more to life than the scraps your husband’s been giving you. More to the goddess of beasts than wasteful murder. Think about it. Imagine what it would feel like to have this on a regular basis. Imps at your feet and your chosen people serenading you as you ride a wyrm on the night of the full moon.’

Varkarion’s eyes were solid glowing yellow, lurid as a melted buttercup so it was impossible to know if she was paying attention to him, but Ludo knew she was. He was well practiced in charming a mark. ‘I didn’t come to challenge you,’ he murmured, modulating his voice to its soothing best. ‘I came to honour a goddess and ask a boon,’ he said. ‘Because I remember the old ways too.’

Varkarion turned to look at him. ‘What is your request?’

Ludo kept his triumph from his face, but allowed himself a small, gratified smile. ‘I would like you to show my friend and I where the Duke of Bones keeps his portal so that we can put him out of business once and for all.’