Happy New Year Everyone!
Though the world is on fire and our leaders are useless and the discourse is toxic and the future is uncertain, I hope you found some time over the holidays to sleep in, discover new music, indulge in one or more of life’s temptations and make a few unforgettable memories.
It’s time to kick this lazy blog back into action by sharing a piece from the first chapter of The Last Smile in Sunder City.
A few hours ago, Fetch Phillips received a call from Principal Burbage of Ridgerock Academy asking him to stop by the school so they can discuss a potential case. Though their meeting would happen after the kids had gone home, the principal asked Fetch to arrive a little early so he could witness a special presentation.
We pick up the story as Fetch enters Ridgerock…
It wasn’t my school and I’d never been there before, but the grounds were smeared with a thick coat of nostalgia; the unforgettable aroma of grass-stains, snotty sleeves, fear, confusion and week-old peanut-butter sandwiches.
The red doors were streaked with the accidental graffiti of wayward finger-paint. I pulled them open, took a moment to adjust to the darkness and slipped inside as quietly as I could.
The huge gymnasium doubled as an auditorium. Chairs were stacked neatly on one side, sports equipment spread out around the other. In the middle, warm light from a projector cut through the darkness and highlighted a smooth, white screen. Particles of dust swirled above a hundred hushed kids who whispered to each other from their seats on the floor. I slid up to the back, leaned against the wall and waited for whatever was to come.
A girl squealed. Some boys laughed. Then a mousy man with white hair and large spectacles moved into the light.
‘Settle down, please. The presentation is about to begin.’
I recognized his voice from the phone call.
‘Yes, Mr Burbage,’ the children sang out in unison. The principal approached the projector and the spotlight cut hard lines into his face. Students stirred with excitement as he unboxed a reel of film and loaded it on to the sprocket. The speakers crackled and an over-articulated voice rang out.
‘The Opus is proud to present …’
I choked on my breath mid-inhalation. The Opus were my old employers and we didn’t part company on the friendliest of terms. If this is what Burbage wanted me to see, then he must have known some of my story. I didn’t like that at all.
‘ . . . My Body and Me: Growing Up After the Coda.’
I started to fidget, pulling at a loose thread on my sleeve. The voice-over switched to a male announcer who spoke with that fake, friendly tone I associate with salesmen, con-artists and crooked cops.
‘Hello, everyone! We’re here to talk about your body. Now, don’t get uncomfortable, your body is something truly special and it’s important that you know why.’
One of the kids groaned, hoping for a laugh but not finding it. I wasn’t the only one feeling nervous.
‘Everyone’s body is different, and that’s fine. Being different means being special, and we are all special in our own unique way.’
Two cartoon children came up on the screen: a boy and a girl. They waved to the kids in the audience like they were old friends.
‘You might have something on your body that your friends don’t have. Or maybe they have something you don’t. These differences can be confusing if you don’t understand where they came from.’
The little cartoon characters played along with the voice-over, shrugging in confusion as question marks appeared above their heads. Then they started to transform.
‘Maybe your friend has pointy teeth.’
The girl character opened her mouth to reveal sharp fangs.
‘Maybe you have stumps on the top of your back.’
The animated boy turned around to present two lumps, emerging from his shoulder blades.
‘You could be covered in beautiful brown fur or have more eyes than your classmates. Do you have shiny skin? Great long legs? Maybe even a tail? Whatever you are, whoever you are, you are special. And you are like this for a reason.’
The image changed to a landscape: mountains, rivers and plains, all painted in the style of an innocent picture book.
Even though the movie made a great effort to hide it, I knew damn well that this story wasn’t a happy one.
‘Since the beginning of time, our world has gained its power from a natural energy that we call magic. Magic was part of almost every creature that walked the lands. Wizards could use it to perform spells. Dragons and Gryphons flew through the air. Elves stayed young and beautiful for centuries. Every creature was in tune with the spirit of the world and it made them different. Special. Magical.
‘But six years ago, maybe before some of you were even born, there was an incident.’
The thread came loose on my sleeve as I pulled too hard. I wrapped it tight around my finger.
‘One species was not in tune with the magic of the planet: the Humans. They were envious of the power they saw around them, so they tried to change things.’
A familiar pain stabbed the left side of my chest, so I reached into my jacket for my medicine: a packet of Clayfield Heavies. Clayfields are a mass-produced version of a painkiller that people in these parts have used for centuries. Essentially, they’re pieces of bark from a recus tree, trimmed to the size of a toothpick. I slid one thin twig between my teeth and bit down as the film rolled on.
‘To remedy their natural inferiority, the Humans made machines. They invented a wide variety of weapons, tools and strange devices, but it wasn’t enough. They knew their machines would never be as powerful as the magical creatures around them.
‘Then, the Humans heard a story, a legend that told of a sacred mountain where the magical river inside the planet rose up to meet the surface; a doorway that led right into the heart of the world. This ancient myth gave the Humans an idea.’
The image flipped to an army of angry soldiers brandishing swords and torches and pushing a giant drill.
‘Seeking to capture the natural magic of the planet for themselves, the Human Army invaded the mountain and defeated its protectors. Then, hoping that they could use the power of the river for their own desires, they plugged their machines straight into the soul of our world.’
I watched the simple animation play out the events that have come to be known as the Coda.
The children watched in silence as the cartoon army moved their forces on to the mountain. On screen, it looked as simple as sliding a chess piece across a board. They didn’t hear the screams. They didn’t smell the fires. They didn’t see the bloodshed. The bodies.
They didn’t see me.
‘The Human army sent their machines into the mountain but when they tried to harness the power of the river, something far more terrible happened. The shimmering river of magic turned from mist to solid crystal. It froze. The heart of the world stopped beating and every magical creature felt the change.’
I could taste bile in my mouth.
‘Dragons plummeted from the sky. Elves aged centuries in seconds. Werewolves’ bodies became unstable, leaving them deformed. The magic drained from the creatures of the world. From all of us. And it has stayed that way ever since.’
In the darkness, I saw heads turn. Tiny little bodies examined themselves, then turned to inspect their neighbors. Their entire world was now covered in a sadness that the rest of us had been seeing for the last six years.
‘You may still bear the greatness of what you once were. Wings, fangs, claws and tails are your gifts from the great river. They herald back to your ancestors and are nothing to be ashamed of.’
I bit down on the Clayfield too hard and it snapped in half. Somewhere in the crowd, a kid was crying.
‘Remember, you may not be magic, but you are still … special.’
The film ripped off the projector and spun around the wheel, wildly clicking a dozen times before finally coming to a stop. Burbage flicked on the lights but the children stayed silent as stone.
‘Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions about your body, your species or life before the Coda, your parents and teachers will be happy to talk them through with you.’
As Burbage wrapped up the presentation, I tried my best to sink into the wall behind me. A stream of sweat had settled on my brow and I dabbed at it with an old handkerchief. When I looked up, an inquisitive pair of eyes were examining me.
They were foggy green with tiny pinprick pupils: Elvish. Young. The face was old, though. Elvish skin has no elasticity. Not anymore. The bags under the boy’s eyes were worthy of a decade without sleep, but he couldn’t have been more than five. His hair was white and lifeless and his tiny frame was all crooked. He wore no real expression, just looked right into my soul.
And I swear,
TO BE CONTINUED…
There we go. Yeah, it’s a bit of exposition but now that you have an idea of the world, we can launch into the rest of it.
More pieces coming soon!
P.S. If you’re reading this before Saturday 11th of Feb, I’m auctioning off a signed first edition of The Last Smile in Sunder City and a half-hour Skype chat for #AuthorsForFireys on twitter. Check out @longlukearnold if you want to join the bidding.