We Are The Desert (fantasy story)

Started by justatoady, January 12, 2019, 03:07:41 PM

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Hey people,

I'm writing a fantasy thing and would like to now and again share a couple of extracts and maybe get some feedback. I've pretty much only done short stories so far, so this kind of longer project is a bit daunting, but also quite fun^^

The story is set in a somewhat futuristic world much like our own but with loads of fantastical creatures and also magic.

I probably won't post everything (especially since I keep changing and rewriting things), but I'll conventionally start with the current beginning:

We Are The Desert


'Thank you,' the little blue demon said, as he took a coin from the dead man's limp, unresisting fingers. It was dull and grey and dripping wet. 'Who are you? Where am I? What happened?' asked the deceased. Behind him, a crimson river raged, silent in the dark. He was stumbling to his feet, his legs shaking, his formal attire drenched, his leather soles sliding across black glass. 'My name is Letor, you are below now, and it doesn't matter,' the little demon told him. 'You are here, and I'll be your guide.'

'Below?' There were no sounds apart from their voices, and they appeared to emanate from all sides at once, bouncing off walls too far away to see. As many had before him, the man looked up at a rocky ceiling and down, back down at the vast obsidian sea and its liquid, crimson scars. Tangled strands of hair clung to the side of his face as he struggled to remain upright. 'Below,' he said. Wide and restless, his eyes darted from left to right, but there was only endless void around them.

'Come,' said Letor. 'Your passage is paid.' The man spat. He tasted copper, Letor knew, and iron and nothing else. The coin disappeared beneath the demon's robes, and he picked up his lantern with no candle, no wick, and no flame. Its cold, white light illuminated the pair's path as they walked over smooth darkness, side by side, a little servant and a passing shadow. There were always more questions and never enough answers. 'What was that? What did you take from me,' asked the dead man. 'A toll, for my troubles. You won't miss it.' The demon tried to smile reassuringly. The dead man narrowed his eyes. 'I've never seen it in my life.' 'No,' Letor told him. 'But it is what you once had.' The man looked at his hand. 'I...' he began. 'I don't know my name. I... I have a family. What happens now? Where are you taking me?' Their steps were silent. Letor thought for a moment, but nothing helpful came to his little mind. 'Across,' he said. 'I'm sorry. This is all I know. You'll be at peace, I promise. You will rest.' The words echoed long after they were said, and Letor could see the man looking, searching, and finding nothing. His stare returned to the rock above. It was almost familiar, rough and brown and streaked with slow, molten rivers, their orange glow faint and distant. 'Rest. Yes, yes, I want to rest. My wife, will I see her there? My children?' 'I should think so, but not all their shadows have passed. Not yet.' The man laughed. 'Yes, I suppose that is something to be grateful for- hey!' he stopped. 'Hey! Hey, Letor! I... I can't move!' 'No,' said Letor. 'It's time. Stay calm.' The man flailed his arms, but his legs had stopped dead in their tracks. 'What? What is happening!' 'It'll all be over soon.' Letor's pale, yellow eyes rested on the man's reflection below. He followed the demon's gaze. His upside down form hung above endless shadow. Dead twigs, white and dry and brittle, had grasped his ankles, and ever more branches were sprouting and snaked their way up, twisting around hips and torso, arms and shoulders, coiled tightly around the dead man's throat. His muffled screams turned to wheezing and coughing, grew quieter and quieter, his struggles slower and sluggish, until he stopped. As he sank, tiny ripples were cast on the black glass surface until nothing remained and the dark sea was calm once more. Letor felt the lantern's pull and followed, his robe heavy with a man's life spent.

He never knew how far his journeys would take him, how long he must remain at sea. The lantern's white glow was a dying spark amidst the coals and kept at bay the shadows beneath. Ahead, a building came into view ponderously, the lantern's light rising as a full moon upon the wooden dome. 'What are you doing?'  He tapped the lantern with little blue knuckles. 'We're still missing someone. Why are you showing me to the vault?' he asked. Letor's grip tightened as the lantern trembled in his hand. 'Fine,' he said. 'Have it your way.'

The vault towered over him, steadfast and serene. The gate was too heavy and massive even for a taller man and next to it, Letor looked more like a child than ever. He produced the coin from a pocket. 'It's Letor,' he said. 'I've got another offering.' He had to move out of the way as the doors swung outward, so long was their reach and so sudden their compliance. Within the colossal walls lay mountains of metallic discs, bronze and copper and iron and brass, rusted and gleaming, shiny and blackened, their sizes and shapes as varied as those who once owned them. In the far corners of this landscape, the demons had seen coins made of stone and porcelain, wood, and even cloth and bone. The dull, grey coin flew from Letor's hand, up and behind a shimmering peak, and soon out of sight. 'Happy now? I guess I'll be right back.' He shook his luminous guide. There was a reply. Letor jumped.

'That's it?' The lantern pulled and Letor turned and recognised the speaker's face. A winged man slouched on a coppery hill. He was tall and golden and radiant, his silken, violet suit was as dry and pristine as the wavy curls that fell onto his broad back. Letor stared. Below, familiar faces were rare. 'I'm really not supposed to let anyone in here,' Letor said. 'I am not anyone,' the golden man proclaimed. He opened his palm and a fistful of coins fell noiselessly. 'Sorry, um, I guess you aren't, Phoenix King, but I'm still going to have to ask you to step outside now.' Even in the underworld's universally bad lighting, King Gruidos was beautiful, even here, his eyes were brilliant sapphires, and even here, they filled with disdain at the drop of a hat. 'Where is the woman?' he asked. 'Don't tell me you're running things down here now.' 'Oh no. The Amorous Aardvarks are playing, so I'm filling in.' 'What?' Letor thought for a moment, and in his thoughts, silver eyes glared at him, gleaming and unblinking. 'Actually, could you not tell her I said that. I think she's a little embarrassed about it.' 'What?' The Phoenix King blinked. 'Baseball,' explained the little demon.

'I...' Gruidos hesitated. Letor's apologetic smile did not waver. 'Don't worry. It'll be our secret.' The king rose, and with a single noiseless flap of his great golden wings, he appeared beside Letor. 'You are here for this, I understand,' Gruidos said. His own coin was big and golden. He handed it over. 'Yeah,  thanks.' Letor took it and stepped outside. Gruidos hurried after him. The demon sniffed the little disc, then bit down hard on the metal. Gruidos winced. It was warm and tasted of grass and dew, of wood and spring and sunlight. 'Looks to be in order.' Gruidos snatched it back immediately. 'Why are you back so soon anyway?' Letor asked. The king stared off into the distance. 'I... I don't know if I recall.' The doors to the vault remained open. Gruidos held his breast with both hands. 'That's normal,' Letor said. 'But I guess don't need to tell you that.' Gruidos shook his head. 'No... I drowned, I think. The ocean drowned me. I made it angry, so angry. I... I don't wish to linger here!' Letor nodded. 'No, few people do.'

'Are we done here?' 'You tell me.' Gruidos rose into the air, his wings motionless. In the black sea, his reflection had come to stand on a growing, white tree that hadn't a single leaf upon its branches. Letor saw at the gate ajar. He snapped his little blue fingers and made no sound. The tree grew no longer, and the phoenix king stood, suspended in mid-air. Letor caught up quickly as a branch picked up his reflection. 'Your coin is yours to keep,' he said. 'I needn't let it join its brothers.' 'I'm aware,' said Gruidos through perfect gritted teeth. 'So why won't the vault close?' Something stirred beneath Gruidos' jacket. Copper gleamed as it tore silk, and dead wood pierced the heart of the golden, inverse man below. A plume of red blossomed on the violet. Letor took a dripping coin from limp, unresisting fingers.

Chapter 1

The inspectors both looked up from the notice on their desk and smiled. 'What do you think?' the spirit asked. 'Do I really have to leave?' She appeared as a tall woman, her pointy fox ears covered in soft, orange fur and her bushy tail hanging awkwardly out to the side of the ministry chair. 'Depends,' Nate replied first. 'What is this breach of terms?' His fingers made to grip the big cup in front of him, but Steph knew it was empty. She'd warned him not to descale the coffee maker till after closing time, and the instructions had told him otherwise, so now he put a great deal of effort into pretending he didn't, in fact, suffer from a persistent caffeine withdrawal headache. 'Well.' The fox hesitated. 'Technically, it is a one bedroom apartment...' 'Makes sense.' Nate nodded. 'There is four of you, isn't there?' 'That's right, inspector,' she said. 'Three cubs and myself.' 'Four?' Steph asked. 'In a Block C apartment? How do you even fit?' 'We make do. I don't like to complain.' 'Of course.' Steph tried not to look into those golden eyes. Instead, her wandering gaze found the ears, flat against the woman's skull. Steph remembered the cramped rooms, the hard beds, the faucet dripping, dripping, and stopping, and the prayers. 'How're you for water?' Steph asked. The spirit smiled as her tail twitched. 'Your landlord makes a valid complaint, Mrs Arbory,' Nate was studying the notice once more. 'Still, I believe he made a slight error.' 'What error?' Steph quickly scanned the document. 'Were your children born after you took residence in Block C?' Nate asked. 'Yes,' the spirit took a deep breath. 'My late husband and I lived there together for many years, and so have the five of us until recently.' 'I see. Your husband was human, I take it?' 'Yes, inspector.' 'And your children are registered?' 'Yes, my husband took care of that.' 'Very well then,' Nate rubbed his hands together. 'The appropriate number of occupants is indeed critical when assigning accommodations. It is not, however, a reason to revoke residency, especially if these occupants have you as their legal guardian. An error, as I said.' 'Does this mean...?' the spirit looked from one inspector to the other.

'Mrs Arbory, it looks like you and your family won't be headed to the camp anytime soon.'

'Oh, thank you, inspector, thank you.' 'We're just doing our jobs.' He smiled. 'Now all that's left is the paperwork. You'll need to fill this out and I'll help you with your statement and that will be it, I believe. I must stress, however, that it wouldn't be in your best interest to do anything else that could arouse your landlord's suspicion. You could do without further errors.' 'Errors?' Steph looked at her partner, but his face was a model of sincerity. The sword Bhael leaned against the opposite wall out of reach, the red blade clean and shining in the office's cold light. 'Can you finish up here?' Nate rose. 'Sure thing. You heading home early?' she asked Nate. It was barely a question. 'No. There's a lead I'd like to follow up on.' 'The Barker thing?' 'Need to know, I'm afraid.' He excused himself to Mrs Arbory. Nate was tall for a human, athletic, with white hair and high cheekbones and a uniform that made his shoulders even more pronounced. The spirit looked up at him through heavy lids as they shook hands. 'Here.' Steph handed her a pen. It was one of Nate's, heavy and metal and engraved. Steph leaned back and watched patiently, while Mrs Arbory filled out the form all by herself.

Steph yawned. The lounge with its sofas and its padded armchairs and all three of its vending machines was empty except for a raven-haired young woman with a glossy mag in one hand and a sugary drink in the other. 'What a happy fox,' Ava said, looking up from her reading material. 'She practically skipped out of your office. A job well done I suppose?' 'Except she'll skip straight back to Block C,' Steph said and stretched her arms. 'Can you believe people actually fight to stay there?' 'And good thing too.' Ava shrugged. 'I would have hated to see the happy, little fox burn. Nate had that look in his eyes when strode past.' 'Nothing to do with the fox. He's out chasing super secret leads or something. You been here all day?' 'Well, you have no need of my talents, when all your cases leave with a smile on their face.' 'Should have gone with Nate then. Maybe, he's got something interesting to do on his special little mission.' 'I'd still be working then. I'd much rather go with you. They've got a happy hour at the Floating Essence, you know, though you may want to change out of your little uniform first.' Steph had sat down in a cushiony recliner, the sword Bhael across her lap. Her reflection stared up at her, small and distorted and crimson. 'Sorry, hon, I'm headed somewhere. I got a bit of catching up to do.' She drummed her fingers against the Bhael's obsidian hilt. 'Again?' Ava shook her head. 'It's fine. I want to.' 'Tell your face.' Ava jumped to her feet, and the magazine slid to the ground. 'Well, nevermind. I'm off too, I suppose. No point in hovering round here all by myself.' She drained the last of her soda before crushing the can.

'Sorry, I'll make it up to you.' 'Don't sweat it.' Ava flung the can at the trash bin and missed. 'Say hi to the dead girl for me.' Steph picked up the can. A bright pink cartoon berry smiled at her obnoxiously with its ecstatic face crumpled. Somewhere out in the desert, there probably were berry spirits of some kind. Steph had never met any. Maybe they were better off staying out of her city, away from all the noise and the lights and the colours.

The blackness outside the new rapid transit railway was streaked with neon. Steph flicked through Ava's magazine, but she had no real need for an all-new wardrobe consisting entirely of latex and leather. Two fellow inspectors were sat opposite, both as white-haired as Nate and neither familiar. She met the gaze of the younger of the two. 'Still on duty?' she asked. He flinched, just a boy in a big uniform. 'Yeah,' said the elder. 'More complaints from the camp. Seen it lately?' 'No. Hear it's pretty bad, though.' 'Sure is. You ask me, it doesn't matter if these guys are criminals when we stick em in, cause a few weeks in there'd make me do some pretty messed up armadillo too.' 'You may have a point there, Sir.' Steph studied the calm, wrinkly face next to smooth, sweaty one. 'You heading home then?' wrinkly asked. 'No,' Steph said. 'But not as far out as you either. I'm paying a visit.'

Her hands rested on Bhael's hilt. Sweaty stole a sideways glance at the sword, his brow furrowed. Wrinkly followed his gaze. 'Is that...?' the old man began, then he recognised it. 'Oh. I'm sorry for your loss, dear.' He shoved his junior. 'Yeah, sorry for your loss.' The boy's grip tightened around his own weapon. It was silver and shone as bright as the Bhael, not like the old man's. His sword was scarred and dull and grey. Steph thanked them both. 'It's a good thing you're doing.' Wrinkly smiled. 'We need more blades on the streets.' 'To be honest, the Bhael's mostly hanging round the ministry these days,' she said. 'That's something to be thankful for as well, I suppose. Tobias here would kill for that, figuratively speaking.' Sweaty looked down in reply. 'Don't worry.' Wrinkly patted the boy's shoulder. 'All I need you to do is wave it about a bit and look all menacing like.' Steph couldn't feel the train move, but a constant, steady humming noise told her it was live and well. 'If things kick off, that is,' she said. 'Course,' agreed the old man with a shrug. 'Next Stop, Newhall Crypt,' was announced over the tannoy by a female voice, pleasant but dull and monotone. Steph told her fellow peacekeepers to keep up the good work. 'We're all in this together,' Wrinkly said, and Sweaty sighed.

The reception was white. Steph had to squint before she could adjust to the brightness, and make out the person in front of her. White walls gleamed beneath white artificial daylight, their curves and slopes gentle, smooth, and edgeless. The receptionist approached. A construct of rose light, she had a woman's silhouette, taller and slimmer than Steph and flickering almost imperceptibly. 'Good evening, Inspector. Welcome to the Newhall Crypt. How may I be of assistance?' Her voice emanated from all around Steph, a familiar voice. Steph knew it from the Rapid Transit and from work and from home. 'Cancel shape,' Steph told her. The woman shrunk until all that remained of her form was a sphere of light. 'I'm here to visit Dinah Pierce.' 'Profession?' asked the sphere.
'She was an inspector as well and a student before that.' 'Former zone of residence?' '34.' 'Follow me, please.' The urns were stored below. In their millions, they stood upon rows of glass shelves that lined miles long corridors and reached higher than Steph could see. The urns ranged from small as a fist to larger than the deceased themselves, they were ceramic or metal or plastic, plain and unassuming or intricately decorated, some were busts or statues, and some were held in the furry stone arms of the God of Life. Steph had never understood that. The sphere floated just ahead of Steph's transport pad, and the dead zoomed past. She saw some of the living as well and several rose women made of light. As soon as they had reached their goal on the horizontal plane, they shot straight up and came to a halt a hair's breadth away from another, identical pad.

A woman knelt there before a tiny, bronze urn. When she could hear Steph coming, she looked up at the new arrival. She had sunken eyes and long, coarse hair with more grey in it than black. Steph waved at her guide. 'You can go now.' 'Very well.' The rose ball flickered and was gone. 'Hey Leah.' Steph stepped onto the other's pad. 'Steph!' Leah drew her into a hug. 'Thank you for coming.'

She smelled of cigarettes and cheap perfume. Her coat was clean but tattered. 'Join me.' The pad wasn't comfortable to kneel on, but Steph imitated the woman anyway. 'How is she doing? What were you talking about?' Leah smiled. 'Oh, you know, same as always. I was telling her about the park. Did you know, we have a tree now. It's this high.' Judging by her hand, it just about came up to Leah's knee. 'It's only small, but it's green and growing thanks to the new well. Oh, it's so very green.' 'That's cool,' Steph told her. 'Oh, my wife and I like to sit there in the evenings and just look at it, don't we, Dinah? That must sound silly.' 'Not really.' 'Well, we don't get many opportunities anyway.' She turned away from Steph and back to the little urn. 'Norma's working such long hours, you know. Oh, but you don't want to hear me complain, do you? Look, it's Steph, she's brought your sword, look. How's the Bhael doing, Steph, are you carrying on what my baby started?' 'Trying to.' Steph noticed her hand resting on the hilt again. 'Go ahead, tell us, dear.' 'Oh, um, I'm keeping law and order. We helped a spirit today. Helped her keep her family under a roof.' 'Isn't that nice. You and that young Inspector? I hear you are working together now. It was in the news feed. Oh, my Dinah was obsessed with him, you know. And he's so young.' 'Nate sure is great, um, Inspector Lance, I mean.' 'And what a great opportunity for you, oh, my Dinah would have loved to learn from that man.' 'Yeah, we're all really looking up to him.' 'Oh, look at me hogging you all to myself. Is there anything you wanted to say to Dinah? Please go ahead, dear.' The little urn always looked like it had only just been polished. It probably had been.

'Um, sure. Hey Dinah. Thanks again. I owe you everything. I'm taking good care of the Bhael. It's not seeing a lot of action, but, man, people still remember you. You should see them try and run when I get it out, um, but I guess you did. I like working with Nate. He talks about you sometimes. Well, he mentioned your stance during practise, and trust me, that's basically a eulogy from him. I really hope you like what I'm doing now. I want you to know that.' 'Oh, of course, she does, sweetheart. My Dinah couldn't have hoped for a better successor.' 'Thanks, Leah.' What had Dinah hoped for? Steph's head always felt a lot bigger on her Rapid Transit rides home from the crypt than on her way there. No successor, not for a long time. That's what Steph would have hoped for.

'Stephanie, your meal has materialised.' She swiped across a little screen, and the FoodMatters3000 slid open to reveal steam rising off a plate of fish and chips, with mushy peas and a glass of pale ale. Steph couldn't hear the city through her apartment's windows, only look down at the colours and the blinking lights and the shadows that sometimes moved in the dark. 'Any messages?' she asked the empty room. 'You have two unread messages from Inspector Lance and Ava Ashport.' 'What's Nate want?' 'Playing message. Stephanie, I need you to come in early tomorrow and sign off on Mrs. Arbory's report.' 'Ugh, tell him fine.' 'Playing reply. Fine, face of woman frowning.' 'Nice job.' Steph licked grease and vinegar from her lips. She liked greasy chips. She had eaten this exact meal dozens of times. Steph knew for a certainty because she hadn't changed the FoodMatter's fish and chips settings since she'd been issued the thing. 'What about Ava?' 'Ava Ashport has invited you to an event. Department Chicks Night Out. How do you wish to reply?' 'Sure, I'll go.' 'Stephanie, there appears to be a conflict of dates. Inspector Lance has created the following appointment. Camp Rounds – Supervised.' 'Ugh. Guess I'm not going.' 'Cancelling event.'

Steph had the FoodMatters top up her ale. She took too big a gulp and let out a resounding burp. 'Play the song where they're in the desert, and they paint the rhino's nails in the music video,' she told the room. 'Stephanie, are you referring to Pretty As I Am by the Beat Sisters, in which the singers dress up a dromedary like a pageant girl?' 'Oh yeah, that was it.' 'Playing Pretty As I Am by the Beat Sisters.' Pretty As I Am was followed by the one where they're building skyscrapers shirtless in the rain in a really brave way, the one where there's a fairy and fireworks come out of her, and the one where she was an alien all along but also hot and really in love with the guy from Supercop 4, not the blonde one, the other one. Dinah had liked all the guys from Supercop 4, except the baddies. Steph hadn't really been able to tell them apart.


I added some formatting for you :)

I'm still unclear exactly what happens at the end of the prologue - are we meant to infer that the Phoenix King has actually just died yet again?
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


Liked it a lot :)

I think there are a few sections like towards the end where there is an awful lot of dialogue and I found it a little hard to follow, for example the last few paragraphs (the last one in particular). Might just be me though.

I like all of the little details you add. It feels like a big busy world too with lots of intrigue.
<< Signature redacted >>


thank you for the formatting and the feedback : )

i think i would like the reader to think that the phoenix king is either trapped in the underworld or just dead
he isn't, he is physically fine, and the tree throws him back up to the world of the living, though he is very depressed for most of the story, because he failed to steal the coin again
it could actually be a bit much to throw at the reader at the beginning, or be made a bit clearer,

re: dialogue,
i think that's very true, especially with the robot voice, i really need to add a couple "said the robot voice" or finally decide on a name for the robot voice^^


I would've guessed "dead" but I thought it was a bit confusing/unclear especially given we've sort of just established his immortality and it's unclear why this additional issue has happened. Maybe wants a tad more clarity.

Re formatting, I'm wondering if spacing the dialogue (new line for each speaker) would help make it more readable, you've got the "blocked into the para" style here. Not sure.

The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...