Memory Lane: Family

I’m sitting on a near empty Malaysian Airlines Plane bound for Penang from Kuala Lumpur. Outside a muggy haze covers everything, although it’s harder to see in the dying light of a sunset hidden somewhere beyond the smoggy horizon. The tarmac is concrete grey -probably actual concrete when you think of it – I wonder why they call it ‘tarmac’ The word has always evoked the colour of actual tar for me. In the distance, lights wink green and street light orange. I think that’s just the runway. I don’t think that’s houses out there. It’s too regular.

I haven’t been back here in years – over ten I think.

When I was a kid, I was always back in Malaysia on family vacations – AKA torturous endurance tests that lasted for weeks while my parents caught up with their family. They never felt like my family. Strange or not strange, I’m really not sure.

Asian families have this thing about calling close family and friends ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ (gender dependent) as a sign of respect. As a child, this meant being introduced to a lot of people I wasn’t related to, felt no connection with, and never saw again. Or if I did see them again in a few years I didn’t remember them. But more on that later. As a child growing up in western society, I felt this was a betrayal of the familial labels. As an adult I understand the intention, but the action that would have supported that intent was always lacking – or I always perceived it as lacking.These nebulous other relatives never felt like close family to me. They had no genuine interest in my life, my dreams or my goals. They didn’t know what I wanted or cared about. All they were concerned with was that I appeared to be happy to spend time in their presence, so that my parents would think their friends were good hosts.

Similarly, all my parents cared about was that their children played the part of good little Chinese kiddies so their friends would…actually I’m not sure. Possibly that they were good parents? Good people? Still Chinese despite living in a western country like Australia? Maybe it was an attempt to hold on to the facsimile of a close relationship? Reassurance that it was still there, however eroded by distance and time it may have been in the pre-social media era.

In any case, I was always given instructions not to speak too much (or at all, really), which for me is difficult as any of my friends will attest. They were afraid I’d say something culturally insensitive. Something…they were afraid I’d be too Western. There. I said it. Or wrote it. Whatever. I wasn’t to wear the wrong colour (black, which comprised about sixty percent of my wardrobe at the time and wasn’t mentioned when I’d been packing for any of the trips). I wasn’t to vocally dislike the strange foods if I actually disliked them. I wasn’t to fidget. I wasn’t to make any sign of boredom while people nattered on in one of the many dialects of Malay I didn’t know. I wasn’t to tune out and do something else like read a book. I wasn’t allowed to bring something that tempting with me either. I wasn’t to ask if they were related to me, how they knew my parents, or anything interesting that might actually have helped us build anything resembling a personal connection.

I was supposed to pretend I knew.

I was essentially asked to keep up the facade that these people were such wonderful friends that I knew everything about them. That my parents had regaled me with endless stories of their friendship or familial bond and I hadn’t just received a one sentence explanation in the car a minute before entering the house. Or restaurant. Or not at all if there were too many people showing up.

I only remember one of them in the end – my dad’s primary school teacher. And I only remember her because she broke the rules. I think her name was Miss Chin. She had glasses, black hair that came down to her ears and had a great smile. And she was wearing a dress when I met her. A peachy pink comes to mind. She asked me what I liked about school. She told me she understood how hard it must be to meet someone who was important to my parents but a stranger to me. She must have been a great teacher.

But she was one in I don’t know how many-scores at least. I think my concept of family was forever warped by those early experiences. Family was about appearances. Family was about making everyone else happy, about fitting in, about not offending.

Sometimes I wonder how hard it must have been for my parents. I’m sure they were barely cognisant of that ingrained cultural conditioning. I think the woman who gave birth to me is still stuck there, truth be told. But I digress. The upshot of all this is that most of my extended family know next to nothing about me.

Family means not telling anyone what you’re actually thinking.

***

9:50 AM and I’m sitting in a car with my immediate family, including my ‘mother’. I haven’t seen her in over a year. There was a wake for my grandmother–my father’s mother and until this week my last remaining grandparent. Malaysian Airlines managed to lose my baggage and there’s currently a motor cavalcade making its way from Penang to Ipoh in West Malaysia. It should take about 2 hours.

We’re on the way to the graveyard to bury my grandmother. There’s likely to be mosquitoes at what is apparently an overgrown graveyard, long reclaimed by grasses and butterflies. There’s there’s lunch and then life goes on. Somewhere in the vicinity of 24 hours of travel, about 3 hours of ceremony in Mandarin where my highly religious aunt pats herself on the back for getting grandmother into heaven while asking if her conversion of ‘genuine’. I’m understanding about 20% of what’s being said and hoping my ‘mother’ doesn’t have one of her patented one sided conversations with me which largely consists of her bible mashing and me insisting I don’t have a mother anymore. In my mind the woman I called mum died a long time ago. I’ve made peace with the fact that she’s gone. I’m still not at peace with the fact that another, religious fanatic is walking about with a face the same as hers. I don’t really like that at all.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the patriarchal nature of Chinese culture. There’s the way the one child policy in China has led to a rash of female infanticides and in some areas a gender ratio of 10 men per woman. For me it’s the thing where the first son of the first son is automatically given special status by virtue of carrying on the family name – any children would keep the surname going. Before I figured out about me I seriously considered subverting the trend by taking on the surname of my spouse. I suppose I still could at that. Now think about what would happen to the only son of the only son. You do the math.

On her 21st Birthday, my older sister got a small sum of money from my grandmother. On my 25th I got a fair bit more. My other cousins, who lived in the same small suburban Malaysian town as my grandmother, shared her life and in at least one case was basically raised by her…they didn’t get a look in from what I’m told.

Today I was expected to represent the grandchildren, raising an lowering a basket of flowers in respect and memory. Me. Not my youngest cousin who had far more memories after living in her house for years. She was relegated to the role of onlooker despite being easily more connected than I. It was sexist, blatantly unfair and we all knew it, but that was what the older folk expected to happen. And since it wasn’t about us, that’s what happened.

Once I was asked to visualise how I felt about Chinese culture. I said it was a big red blanket of thick wool with golden embroidery. A bit, red smothering blanket that bore down upon you and suffocated you in its heat and filled your lungs with the dust of ages past. I keep being told that I should go back to Malaysia and see my grandmother. Despite the language barrier and 10 minute memory issues, she’d be happy to see me. In her last years she asked constantly about my father. And if me or my ‘mother’ was around she’d then ask about me. Part of me felt it was kinder not to reminder her of my existence. Part of me didn’t want to subject myself to the constant stress of being closeted. Of scanning every sentence ahead for hidden landmines. Thankfully somewhere along the way the questions about girlfriends seem to have died a quick and painless death, but I hate being on guard for the question with a quick disarming sidestep and redirection of the conversation.

Family means constantly having to lie.

Travel: Germany

German-Alps-Small---October-2015

The thing about Germany is that most people speak English and an English-German phrasebook is only so good when you’re going to Bavaria. Sure, they’ll understand you, but they use different words. ‘Ciao’ is goodbye for example. The language isn’t completely different, but well, my friends in Germany were quick to point out I didn’t need a phrasebook when I had them around. I also got to road test World Lens, a translation app. It wasn’t perfect, and missed as much as it hit, but it was able to give a general idea of what was on a menu or the content of news headlines.

Staying in Starnberg, a village about 20 minutes outside of Munich by car, means I’ve probably had a different German adventure than most. Sure, I climbed the tower at the Church of St Peter in Munich, went to Oktoberfest and eaten a lot of pork, but I’ve drunk zero beers, had one mug of gluehwein, and had a lot of apfelschorle (apple juice mixed with sparking mineral water). I’ve eaten local, spent time wandering along the shores of mountain lakes and spent way too much money on a cool Bavarian vest (coming soon to a reading near you), but my favourite parts of the trip have had almost nothing to do with the standard experiences. The view from the summit of Herzogstand in the Alps after climbing up on a sunny autumn day before climbing down on foot and ruining another pair of shoes is one. Learning a new card game, Wizards (or Zauberers to use it’s German name) sitting around a dining room table late at night, or having a Latte Macchiato, after watching my friend Mel attempt to explain it to the baristas on Phillip Island back home. Then there was the simple act of breaking open a packet of Tim Tams and talking for hours.

I’ve often said that my top tip is making friends with locals, wherever you are, and I do tend to plan my own holidays around who I can visit, and that is something that remains unchanged. I wouldn’t have found the tiny, paleontology display at Bayerischen Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Historiche Geologie München in Munich city (Richartd-Wagner-Str. 10 D-80333 – free enry) without them, or Der Verruckte Eismacher on Facebook with it’s varied flavours of ice cream including hemp (tastes like grass) or capsicum and lime.

Sadly, my time in Germany was cut short by a family emergency and I’m writing this from Malaysia, but that’s life for you. Neuschwanstein will just have to wait for another trip. Big thanks to my friends Mel and Kris for putting up with me (and putting me up) and I’ll see you both whenever we’re next in the same city.

Travel: Thoughts on Dubai Airport

600px-Emirates_tails

They have cars on the duty free shopping floor.
Stepping off the plane into the desert heat feels a lot like my trips to Asia – that rush of warmth that smacks you in the face when you step out of the plane air conditioning and out onto the aerobridge feels very much like Hong Kong – right down to the HSBC advertising on the way up to the terminal and the slow reintroduction of air conditioning. There are a few key differences though – the heat here is dry, and not as sweat inducing as the Asian humidity. It’s also already pushing 30 degrees Celsius at 6 AM in the morning. Only up from here I guess.

They have cars on the duty free shopping floor.

The first store I pass is Hermes, followed closely by Chanel. I then see Hugo Boss and Armani Jeans and I’m wondering if I’m actually at an airport or in a luxury megamall with really bad plastic seating and a distinct lack of tables. To be fair, Dubai is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, one of the richest nations on the planet (oil) and luxury goods in the (almost) exclusive Emirates (and recently Qantas) only terminal is understandable. Still, I was hoping for more than your average selection of duty free, ubiquitous high end luxury goods with their typical tricks of turning the air conditioning up to freezing in an attempt to sell woollen trenchcoats, and a selection of Chinese technological battlers like Lenovo and Huawei. The only thing I find remotely tempting is a pack of cards, which instantly reminds me that I forgot to bring my Cards Against Humanity deck to face off against my European friends with. Or Once Upon a Time. Or Gloom. I should have brought one of them… sigh.

But yeah, they have cars on the duty free showroom floor. Apparently it’s some kind of competition (thanks Facebook friends), which I don’t investigate. But shipping must be a bitch. It’s always bad trying to judge countries by their airports, and I don’t really have much time to, as even arriving 30 minutes early, I still need to go through baggage scanning, where I appreciate past me’s decision not to pack knitting needles into carry-on luggage. Admittedly that would have been a more productive use of my on board time, but all up I consider 5-6 hours of sleep and four movies to be time reasonably well spent – Ant Man was great. Far better than Age of Ultron (seriously, Marvel, if you get Joss Whedon, let him tell the story he wants, okay? It’ll be better), and I finally got around to seeing Inside Out, Pitch Perfect 2 and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Also, aircraft food got immensely better than it was last time I flew international on Qantas, and suddenly we have non static inducing blankets, which is a winner as far as I’m concerned. Also, big thanks to the check in lady who swapped out my seat selection without my knowledge and moved me to the upper deck with an empty seat beside me. No crying kids, quick to board and alight and you made my trip. As of the time of writing, I’m sitting down the tail end of an Emirates A380 bound for Munich, wondering if I’ve beaten the Oktoberfest rush. There’s about 30 minutes to take off (go figure that one. EK board early), and I’m hearing a lot of German accents and seeing a lot of Asian faces – the former not really your typical Oktoberfest traveller and the latter not known for heavy drinking. Or at least, not at the ages of the little old ladies who are streaming aboard. I wonder if I should pull out the German phrasebook I picked up and attempt to read it or if that’ll make me look like a knob. Ah well. Concerns for another time. You’ll find out how that goes when I’m next able to post. I always start thinking I’m going to blog, and then I stop on account of life being busy.

In any case: note to self – come back and explore Dubai someday. Maybe I’ll hate it, or maybe I’ll love it, but I should allow myself the chance to find out.

Mr. Perfect – A Lex Cranbourne Story

Mr Perfect

It is officially the worst night of Lex’s existence. For starters, he’s dead. Notice I said, ‘for starters’. The Dead Man Walking* has been hired out by a group of Vampire geeks. And right now, Lex is really wishing he’d bothered to check their reflections in the mirror. Featuring cocktails, footnotes, three sheep and a duck, Lex may have finally found his Mr. Perfect. The question is. Mr. Perfect what?
*formerly located at 228 Nicholson St, Footscray, Melbourne, VIC, 3011

Placed equal second in the Midsumma Sex Write Off competition 2010.

Available as:

Inheritence – A Lex Cranbourne Story

Lex Cranbourne has adjusted to his unlife as a creature of the night–mostly. The unspoken divide between the living and vampiric is sometimes hard to take, and Lex has consoled himself to a lonely life. When a hot young man dares to push past his barriers to find his buttons, Lex has to decide whether or not he can let someone in. Featuring a vampire, half a cow, and no geese whatsoever.
Sequel to Mr. Perfect

Available as:

Screens

Genre: Gay Fiction Short Story
Publisher: Originally published by banQuetPress

Synopsis:
Modern tech junkie Dirk spends his days webcamming with hot guys over gay chat sites–including today. Only today his best friend Fiona’s dragging him out for a night on the town. But is it really better meeting someone in person as opposed to over the internet? And which is truer to reality: the persona we affect in person or the one we show the world online?

Available as:

Mass Effect: Collision Trailer

So, Mass Effect chapters have been not coming out for a while, and yes I’ve been busy with things, but the reason for that is I’ve been waiting for chapter artwork from the amazing Annah Lang. And the reason I’ve been waiting for artwork is because of this. See, the Mass Effect RPG went on hiatus on account of real life events (like our GM getting married, congrats guys!), and we I messaged Annah saying ‘Hey, I have this cool idea. We could make a trailer for our game that would also show up in game as a trailer for the reality vid show that’s being created in game…but…that would mean you doing a ton of drawing…’
And she said okay. I don’t know why. But she did.

So…I wrote a script, got all the players to record some lines, and contacted Andrew Armstrong, AKA Dawnforged Cast on youtube who featured in Hark’s Dragon Age campaign as a narrator…and Annah completed the art about an hour before the game we needed it for. The video description went up with minutes to spare. I hope you like it. It’s the first video I’ve actually scripted and directed, and we went through sixteen edits before we were happy with the story. I hope you like it.

Another Letter to Joy FM, re: Racism on Air

JoyFM

For nostalgia’s sake, here’s the image I posted two years ago, which was nicked directly from JOY. I’m only now realising how white it is…

from: Matthew Lang <matthew@matthew-lang.com>
to: wpd@joy.org.au
date: 3 September 2015 at 21:43
subject: Racist remarks on C&C Drive Factory, 9th September 2015
mailed-by: matthew-lang.com

Dear James Findlay,

I am appalled at the recent racist remarks made on Joy on Thursday the 9th of September, 2015, around 6:30 or 6:40 PM, which implied that Chinese people (that is, Chinese nationals and/or people of Chinese descent) would not listen to Joy FM, by extension were either not part of the Queer community or not a relevant part of the Queer community, and indeed only existed to provide a source of entertainment for white people in form of hard to pronounce names.

This occurred during a brief newsbreak on the C&C Drive Factory, which on the night was hosted by Chris, Cam, and someone from the Taste of Radio program, who I believe went by the moniker of ‘Baz’. Having tuned in on a brief trip home from a meeting, I’m not sure I caught the newsreader’s name, although it might have been Tim. The newsreader was reporting on the earlier Chinese military parade celebrating the defeat of Japan in World War II. He then went on to say that your newsreader needed to say the Chinese President’s name 10 times because it would funny – he wasn’t really sure how ‘Xi Jinping’ was correct pronounced, although he was gamely trying his best.

While often forgotten or overlooked by the western world, China was one of the first countries to enter what became world war two, allying with the USA and the British Empire just after Pearl Harbour in 1941. Estimates of casualties stand around 14 million. Military deaths are typically quoted at 2.2 million, ranking it third in terms of highest military deaths by country, behind the USSR and Germany.

There are many reasons to mock China. Their treatment of Tibet, memorable food poisoning scandals (milk and berries spring immediately to mind), their handling of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is a personal favourite, but for one of the JOY FM hosts to say ‘We need to make fun of them for celebrating something so…silly’ is ignorant, racist, and frankly shows a great disrespect for a country that kept some 600,000 or more Japanese troops bogged down up north, despite having the majority of its eastern land mass under foreign occupation. This prevented Japanese troops sweeping through the USSR, Europe and arguably Australia. In short, had China capitulated, we might be speaking Japanese right now, and not for the nice cultural exchange, awesome food and anime reasons. It also suggests that the correct way to make fun of a country for throwing a giant military parade is not to look at who was invited (not the public) or the obviously political posturing towards Japan, but to make fun of a name that isn’t English, because all real names should roll easily off the average English speaking person’s tongue, and anyone who doesn’t have that sort of name is to be treated as an object of ridicule and ‘not one of us’.

At that point, one of your other hosts piped up and pointed out that that there might well have been Chinese listeners who hold a different view of the matter—or as I like to call it, ‘facts’—but the original speaker brushed that off with a ‘they’re not listening’, had a laugh, and the show moved on.

Joy FM is queer community radio station. It touts itself as the voice of the queer community. It’s hosts are perceived as the voices of the queer community. It is understood that the views expressed by the hosts are in line with the views held by Joy FM and the queer community. Now apparently, according to Joy’s host and representative, I, as an Australian of Chinese descent, don’t listen to Joy FM, presumably because I’m not part of the Queer community, or don’t deserve to be part of the Queer community by virtue of not being white. Or possibly just being of Chinese heritage. Attitudes such as this speak towards a cultural hierarchy which places white, Anglo Saxon people and culture at the top and relegates all others into a cultural zoo—something to be looked at in a proprietary fashion while patting each other on the back about how multicultural and accepting white people are—as long as the others stay in their places over there and don’t try to be part of ‘our’ space. It also normalises and legitimises the practice of sexual racism that’s always hovering around the edges of any discussion of race in Queer spaces. This is the attitude that was expressed on air. This is the attitude that if unaddressed, will have been tacitly endorsed by Joy FM. I would like to believe this isn’t Joy FM’s position.

White writing this I’ve had a strange sense of déjà vu. For reference, please see my much earlier letter to Joy FM, which is published on my website here (http://www.matthew-lang.com/2013/an-open-letter-to-joy-94-9/). After writing this, I got a very nicely worded reply stating that the host during the time of my 2013 complaint had been a guest host, the song choices had been chosen by a studio guest and not the host, and the guests intention had been to draw parallels between the racist overtones of the song I’d heard and the 457 visa issue that had been rather hot at the time (note, another reason to be angry at China at the moment is the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. You know, the one Tony Abbott is so keen on that allows ‘foreign companies’, which we call know is code for ‘China’, to bring in their own workers and not even advertise their jobs to Aussies. Actually, that might be more a reason to be angry with Tony Abbott, but you can take that one too). Anyway, the host had nipped that topic in the bud and not let that discussion go to air, leading to a rather unfortunate juxtaposition. Both guest host and studio guest then agreed to go through further radio training. I wish I’d kept that email. I’d have liked to have published it.

Unfortunately, this is not that. Both of your regular hosts were in studio, although I appreciate you had a newbie in the booth. The comments were uttered with a good 20 minutes left on air and I texted in to the Joy phone specifically to air my concerns. I would have expected them to be acknowledged on air and corrected. As mentioned above, if Joy FM lets comments such as these stand it tacitly endorses them as views held by Joy FM and the wider Queer community—at the very least, the Queer community of Melbourne. I appreciate Joy’s preference may be to not engage with such issues at all, and in the case of a poor song choice, I can appreciate not making further comment. In regards to a host on one of your prime time drive shows… well, disappointed doesn’t really cover it.

I have written this at the invitation of someone on your social media team, who has asked for the matter to be sent to yourself via email, probably in the hope of keeping it off Twitter, where I very deliberately did not direct tweet given the lack of response from your studio team to my text message. I trust you will take this matter seriously, and while I don’t expect this to never happen again in the future, or for you to make a promise that you’ll make sure it doesn’t, because we both know that’s not a promise you can hope to keep, I do expect that Joy FM will take public, on air corrective action to ensure that it is made clear that these Anglo-centric, ignorant, and frankly racist viewpoints are not endorsed by Joy FM, tacitly or otherwise. Frankly, that tacit endorsement was broadcast to some 329,000 listeners in Melbourne and more online according to your own figures—and the sponsorship ad that came on during the show—and I feel it is important that the message of racial acceptance is heard by the same number of people. A polite email to myself really won’t address the damage this sort of behaviour can have on normalising the marginalisation of people due to the colour of the skin.

I would also like to state that while I am disappointed by your host’s words, and am fully against their viewpoint and think it sickening, I’m not in any way claiming these words were said out of deliberate malice. I think it’s far more likely that they were said out of unthinking, subconscious privilege, and reflect a lifetime of growing up in a privileged position as far as race is concerned. Arguably, I’d say the culture that enabled the individual in question to form those views is the problem, but I think it would be in tune with community values if Joy was not seen in any way as endorsing said values.

Kind Regards

Matthew Lang

Writers Resources: Fictitious Phone Numbers

Phones in Writing

A short post for writers who may not be aware of this–sometimes you need to have a phone number in a story. Or a cartoon, or film, whatever. Now you can use a real one, such as when Dave Eggars initially wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but you might want to not have curious people dialling your random number and annoying some poor sod at the other end who actually has that phone number.

Enter government sanctioned fictitious numbers reserved only for use in artistic endeavours. I know that at least Australia and the UK have them, the US probably does (I haven’t looked) and might be something you want to consider. For Australia, you can find a list here on the ACMA website.

Anima: Allette

“Did you find anything?” Catherine asked, calling down from the top of the cliff as they made their way out of the ship.
“Not sure,” Tebryn called back before anyone else could answer. “Tell you when we get up there.”
Keith was first up the rope, scrambling up the rocks to the grassy top in what seemed the blink of an eye to Max. Tebryn was a bit slower, but finished his ascent with a showly flip, leaving Max to struggle up behind them in chainmail, after he refused an offer to haul him up on the rope.
“…know where that is, yes,” Catherine was saying when he reached the top, red faced and sweating. “It’s in the middle of the island though, closer to the Marque’s manor than the village really.”
“So we go tomorrow then,” Tebryn said, looking up into the grey sky. “It’s about mid afternoon now and I don’t fancy running around a ruin in the black of night.”
Catherine nodded. “All right. I’ll see you at my place after breakfast then.”
“After an early breakfast,” Max said, coiling the rope up.
“Agreed.”

The sun was low on the horizon and the fields of cabbages, turnips and potatoes were visible in the distance when Keith held up a hand.
“What’s wr—”
“Shh!” Keith’s reply was both soft and sharp and cut Max off mid query.
The big man drew his blades and turned just as the first darkling attacked.
They were human—or had once been. They moved with a swift economy of motion that was human in form but inhumane in the way it completely disregarded the safety of the mover. The first one crashed out of a thorny gorse thicket, covered in scratches from the needle sharp thorns, some deep enough to bleed painfully. Or should have been deep enough to cause painful bleeding. Only the darkling didn’t bleed blood at all. Ichor the colour of midnight dripped from their wounds, dissolving into the air in trailing streams of darkness. Still, Max was sure that these had once been people, sunken eyesockets, jet black eyes and hollow cheeks included. They moved forward deliberately and without vocalisation, the only noise of their approach their footfalls and the whip slap of springy gorse branches being pushed out of their way. Their long, blackened fingernails were more akin to talons than fingernails, and they closed in with hands raised, ready to strike.
Keith dodged the first attack, spinning out of the way and sending the darkling crashing off the road with a well placed kick to its behind, and struck out at the a second, but it pulled away, only a tiny line of of dark ichor on its torso any indication that it had been hit at all.
Damn, these things were fast.
In the background, he heard Catherine scream and saw Tebryn hesitate a second before drawing out a large, oriental fan. A fan. Thinking back, he hadn’t actually seen the man use any blade larger than a belt knife, or pick up anything resembling a weapon. Gritting his teeth, Max drew his shortsword from his belt, his shield from where it rested on his back, and squared off against the third darkling. This one had been a woman once, if her tattered garb was anything to go by. Now her lank black hair hung in thick matted snarls, most of them plastered to her face and neck. She stared at him without any trace of recognition or acknowledgement as another human being. It wasn’t a look he’d really seen before. Well, maybe once when his patrol had come up against a den of mushroom juicers, the brain fogging combination of blackcap mushroom powder and strong spirits had turned a normally placid, drugged out juicer den into a cave of blood thirsty maniacs.
Two of his squad had died that night.
The first blow came from his left and Max barely got the shield up in time. The force of the blow was as hard as his captain’s back home, and was being delivered by a five foot something, wiry darkling that had once been an inoffensive peasant woman. His own over shield blow missed its mark, and it seemed that Keith wasn’t faring much better. The normally nimble warrior was having to fend of too of the creatures, and his blades were being turned toward defence and misdirection of attacks rather than landing killing blows themselves.
Suddenly, a small rock hit the side of the woman’s head, and it turned to glare balefully in Tebryn’s direction, only to be hit up the side of the head with the butt of the trickster’s fan. The thud of metal on flesh mixed with the crack of bone and Max took advantage of the distraction to run the woman through, his blade slipping between her ribs to her heart. Black mist bubbled out of ther mouth and blew away in the sea breeze as her body collapsed to the ground, nearly yanking Max’s blade from his grip. Stepping over the corpse, he thrust at the second of the darklings attacking Keith. Drawing its attention allowed the Kushistani to go on the offence, cutting down the third creature in a hail of blows that left its head detached from the rest of its body. Max himself wasn’t as fortunate, trading fruitless attacks with his opponent when a twisted root caused him to stumble backwards, his guard dropping momentarily as he was pushed backwards into the prickly gorse.
Tensing in anticipation the guardsman prayed his armour would prevent any serious damage, but instead of an opportunistic blow there was a slick grating sound and a burst of cold air blasted past his face. Looking up he saw a lithe young woman, dressed in leather leggings and a jerkin covered by a sunshine yellow dress. She was holding two heavy daggers, which were currently jammed to the hilt into the eye sockets of the final darkling, the once stocky man’s body now lying twitching in the grass. Wrenching her weapons free the girl cleaned her blades on the rags the darkling still wore, and then sheathed them in a harness on her back.
“Hi,” the girl said, pushing her hair back from her face. “I’m Allette. Are you the new people I’ve been told about?”
Max blinked and hauled himself to his feet. “I’m Max, that’s Tebryn and the big guy’s Keith. And you could say we’re new around these parts.”
“And…” Allette looked over to where Catherine was kneeling by one of the fallen darklings.
“That’s Catherine,” Tebryn said softly, ushering Allette away from the woman. “She’s a local. How’d you get here?”
“I woke up in a tree,” Allette said. “With a note pinned to my dress saying ‘Sorry for the inconvenience, but I’m running out of time’. You?”
“Went so sleep in Archangel, woke up here,” Max said. “Keith and Tebryn were on a crashing airship—”
“You crashed here?” Allette asked, turning to Tebryn.
“No,” the trickster said. “There was a sorcerer, everything went dark and we were here.”
“That was…kind of him,” Allette said.
“How do you figure that?” Tebryn asked.
“You didn’t crash and die?” Allette suggested.
Tebryn sniffed. “I suppose. But given that I think he was the cause of the crash, I’m not sure how much of a mercy that was.”
Over by the bodies, Keith was squatting down beside Catharine. “Are you all right?”
“I knew him,” Catherine said, one slender hand resting on the shoulder of the darkling Allette had stabbed in the eyes. “Edward was a farmer. He was the first one who vanished and everyone thought he’d gone…lost at sea.”
“Come. We should leave,” Keith said, offering her his hand.
Catherine accepted his hand and rose gracefully to her feet. “Yes. And I need to get you all to the ruins of the old cathedral. Cavalcanti won’t get away with this any longer.”
“You didn’t really just say that, did you?” Tebryn asked. “Nothing good ever happens after someone says that.”
“Um…who’s Cavalwhatsit?” Allette asked raising her hand.
“The Marque of the island,” Max said.
“A demon,” Catherine replied. “He feeds on your fears and turns you into…those,” she added, turning away from the darkling corpses.
“Well, in that case, maybe you shouldn’t be telling people that he feeds on fear, because—”
“He gets into your nightmares,” Tebryn said. “Or gives them to you. Or if not him something. He’s just our best suspect right now.”
“That sounds a bit…supernatural.”
“Very,” Tebryn agreed. “But don’t take our word for it—see how you feel after you get a bad night’s sleep tonight.”
“Also, if you don’t defeat him, you’ll never get off the island,” Catherine said. “We’ll never get off the island.”
Allette paused. “But Goodie Wallace said that a merchant ship is due in port any day?”
“That ship’s been due any day for several years,” Catharine said.
A rumble startled them all and Allette blushed. “Sorry, I didn’t eat lunch. Fill me in over dinner?”

~*~

“That’s her story?” Captain Melville asked, looking over to where the youth sat on the deck, wrapped in a thick blanket and leaning back against the mast.
“Appeared out of nowhere, saved my life and nearly got killed in the process,” Tebryn said. “Truth be told, she threw her lot in with us without so much as a second thought, and not a lot of evidence to go by.”
“Lucky for us,” Max said. “Not so much for her.”
“Perhaps,” Tebryn said. “But she’s alive, and that’s more than we all might have been if we hadn’t confronted the Marque.”

~*~

The Cathedral was in a coniferous forest in the central area of the island, deeper into the forest than the villagers ventured with their axes. It stood tall and mostly intact—the last building remaining from what must have been a much older settlement of thick hewn stone—far older than the brick and thatch cottages of the town.
“Erabus,” Tebryn said, running his fingers over the faded chisel marks on a stone marker. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” Catherine said. “Father Scott didn’t know who built it or how old it is.”
“It’s massive,” Tebryn said quietly.
And indeed it was. It was easily three stories high with a belltower that must have held a bell taller than Max himself, one which surely had been claimed by rust. It had a familiar cross shape, or near cross shape, with a still standing stone wall that enclosed what must have once been a graveyard or garden of some nature. The yellow-grey stones were covered in green mosses and lichen, and vines had grown up about a third of the way up the walls. The doors were easily nine feet tall and held together with black, wrought iron bands.
“You’d think there’d be rust,” Tebryn said, from where he was inspecting the hinges. “I don’t even think this will squeak when you push it open.”
“We push it open?” Allette asked.
“Well, mostly Keith,” Tebryn said with a shrug.
Allette rolled her eyes. “Come on big guy,” she said, striding forward.
The doors did indeed slide forward noiselessly on smooth hinges, revealing a scene of remarkable preservation. Max wasn’t sure if the place had always been this austere, or if the people who abandoned the dwellings had managed to take all their soft furnishings with them, but the two lines of stone pews were still intact, an aisle between them leading up to a large round column that reached up into the stone dome that was visible from the outside, and curiously devoid of ornamentation. There was no pulpit, and only the stone altar remained at the far end, only empty wall where Max would have expected a wooden cross. Where he would have expected seats for the choir on the left was an archway, a blue-white light shining steadily out from it. To the right was empty space, with just a small, plain door in the corner. Piles of rubble from a partially collapsed wall rose some eight feet high along the right hand side of the cathedral, and the grey light of the sun still cast colourful patterns through the stained glass windows which showed scenes from the War of the Cross.
The central column was…odd. It looked far too big to be there, and as Max stared up into the vaulted ceiling above, it looked like it wasn’t supporting anything. At the front of the columns were three vertical lines of tiles. Or tumblers, as Max found upon closer inspection, each tile rotating around through a series of letters and numbers, although at the moment they were all blank.
“Three names, huh?” Tebryn said, twiddling with the tiles. “Seems straightforward enough—just have to find them.”
“Okay,” Allette said. “Where do we start?”
“Ah,” Tebryn said. “The not straightforward part.”
The glowing light turned out to be coming from a granite sphere that scintillated with a white glow, despite not appearing to be cut with facets. It lit the walls with hundreds of bright white dots, that danced in random patterns and swirls. Max paused in the doorway, only to have Tebryn push past him, reaching out to lay his hand on the rock.
It was hard to explain, but it almost seemed like the lights were drawn to Tebryn’s skin, causing the palm of his hands to light up, fleshy and red, while the top of his hand remained dark in the shadows. Tebryn looked up at Max, his eyes wide.
“Yeah,” Max said. “I know.”
“What? It’s just a rock,” Allette said.
“A glowy rock,” Tebryn said, picking it up. It was about as large as the man’s chest and he needed two hands to carry it. “Do you think we can take it?”
“You can try,” Keith said with a shrug.
Grinning at Max, Tebryn carefully carried the rock over to the door, but once he stepped over the threshold, the lights that had lit its surface faded, and the feeling of power faded. Frowning, he stepped back into the alcove, and the stone lit up again, or at least, one half did. The side outside of the room remained dark and dead.
“Can’t take it out of the room,” Max said.
“Yeah,” Tebryn agreed. “Oh well, we know it’s here if we need it,” he said and carried it back to the plinth and set it down gingerly. “Pity,” he added.
“You can get another pet rock somewhere else,” Allette said as they headed towards the door on the other side of the room.
“But it won’t be as good as that one,” Tebryn said with a sigh. “Never mind.”
It was nice to know he wasn’t the only magically gifted person around, but he hadn’t seen the juggler do anything remotely magical so far. To be fair, he’d done nothing magical since meeting Tebryn and Keith, so perhaps the other man was just being cautious.

The far door led out into a cloister, or what would once have been a cloister, if the forest hadn’t reclaimed the grassy garden. Most of the covered walkways had collapsed under the ministration of the elements, but the stone paths were still there, and the group trekked right around the trees, hugging the cathedral wall. Through another door they found a long corridor that seemed to run alongside the inner wall, although it seemed superfluous from Max’s perspective. Maybe it was a storage area. It certainly seemed like the equivalent of a cathedral shed, although it didn’t hold much bar a few moth-eaten scraps of fabric and sacking and the rusted remains of of gardening tools. At the end there was a number of carved busts, although of who exactly Max didn’t know.
“These have been moved,” Tebryn said. “Look at the discolouration on the stone.”
Looking down Max saw the square print on the stone that was lighter than dirty discoloured areas around it. “They were blocking the end of the room.”
“Let’s see what’s behind it, shall we?” Tebryn asked, raising his lantern as he led the way between the statues.
“Marble,” Keith muttered as he followed after the juggler. “Heavy.”
“And empty,” Tebryn said. “Well, except for this.”
Following the others between the heavy statues of religious icons long forgotten, Max found Tebryn looking up at an engraving in the wall. “A puzzle,” he said flatly. “I hate puzzles.”
“One puzzle, three names.” Tebryn said.
“And numbers around the outside of the letter square,” Max said. “Wonderful.”
“Keith?”
The big man shrugged and leaned up against the wall. “You’re the thinker, you figure it out.”
“Hey look, Erebus. Isn’t that what was on the sign out front of the cathedral?” Allette asked.
“Aye,” Tebryn agreed. “And it was on the documents we found at the shipwreck.”
“There was a shipwreck?” Allette asked.
“Didn’t we cover that over dinner?”
“Mostly you talked about potatoes. And how much you never want to eat one again.”
“Oh, right.” Reaching into his backpack, Tebryn drew out the oilskin wrapped parcel of documents out of his backpack and handed it to her as he stared at the numbers. “Here you go.”
“Uh, thanks.”
“Could it be the numbers pointing towards letters?” Tebryn muttered, half to himself. “Each set of numbers provides a letter?”
“That doesn’t provide anything resembling names and doesn’t give us Erebus at all.”
“And how would the zero come into things?” Allette asked.
“Hey look, Abaddon,” Max said. “Would that be one of the names?”
“If we’re just picking names, there’s Julia, Jedah and Maria if you go backwards,” Allette pointed out.
“Erebus, Jedah and Meseguis,” Tebryn said.
“Meseguis? That’s not a name!” Max objected.
“Maybe not, but it’s all eight letters in that column,” Tebryn said.
Max stared at the square of letters for a moment longer. “Oh,” he said.
Keith straighted up from where he had slouched against the wall. “All right. Let’s go do this then.”