I don’t do this very often, largely because I don’t release books very often, but I’m getting close to finishing the second round of edits on Greetings From Sunny Aluna and wanted to share a bit of it. It’s a follow-on to the events of The Clock Man and represents a few firsts for me. For starters, it’s a true fantasy novel, which is something I’ve never done before. I’ve read fantasy works before, but never tried my hand at writing one. In case you’re wondering exactly what constitutes a fantasy novel (I was), it can usually be summed up by including magic, fantastic settings, mythical beings, and supernatural forms.
Most fantasy works I’ve written are set in a European Medieval setting with knights, sorcerers, and extremely bad villains. That’s all fine and good, but European Medieval history never did much for me, nor did the tales of heroism and knights in shining armor. So I dropped my story onto another planet, shifted a lot of narrative to Chinese martial history, and made my main characters basically normal people instead of knights. There is magic, it’s got a dragon, it’s even got a small dinosaur, combat magicians, and lots of morally flexible characters. Call it gutter fantasy if it helps. Greetings is fantasy from the street level and all kinds of crazies inhabit these streets.
The other thing that’s new to me was a shift from writing the narrative in first person present tense, I shifted this to third person past tense. The change allowed me to explore the four main characters with greater ease than I’d have with first person present.
Anyway, this is chapter 1 (of 36). Comments and critiques are greatly appreciated. Other than that, I just hope you enjoy it.
Chapter 1: Information Extraction Techniques
Felix Crow was a badass.
He wasn’t a good man, or even a stable man, but his heart was in the right place and there was no doubt he was a badass.
Seen from behind he cut a mysterious figure as he stalked down an unnamed alley in the Fànzuì Hútòng district of Croatoa. He always felt it was loony to call an entire district crime alley, but he didn’t make the rules. Felix Crow exploited rules, or ignored them entirely.
His keen eyes scanned the alley, seeking out a hidden sign that he was assured wasn’t a joke. In a place like this, calling something Xīwàng had to be a sick joke. Hope, in a crumbling alley filled with the lowest echelons of murderers and drug dealers was, at best, a fresh box to sleep in. But supposedly there was a place called Hope that held a secret he would very much like to know.
Felix walked right down the middle of the alley. The brim of his hat hid his eyes and his long coat flapped out behind him. The hat was lifted from a body he left in an alley a few months ago and the coat was a gift from his sometimes friend, sometimes enemy Chan. The coat supposedly offered magical protection, but Crow had yet to try it out. The hat just made the ensemble look good.
Ahead of him, a shadow stepped into the alley and laughed. It sounded like the giggle of a schoolgirl who just realized she’d traded her life for an endless supply of Johns and synthetic heroin. Madness and anger echoed down the narrow lane. The pale light from Xiǎo Mǔqīn reflected off a long and wicked looking knife that had to have been made of discarded bits of metal fused together in one of the cheap magic shops nearby.
Little Mother’s light was pale compared to Dà Māmā’s light, but it was one of those rare days where Little Mother was up and Big Mother was down. The pale light did little to illuminate the alley, but at least it was daylight; travelling the alleys at night was risky even for people like Felix Crow.
Crow kept walking. He had more important things to deal with than petty thugs with cheap knives. He reached out with his mind and found the knife. His fingers snapped and the blade exploded. The would-be thug, a gaunt thing with more bones than skin stared at the handle in his fingers. Some remaining neuron knocked another neuron around and eventually the message got to the man’s voice.
“Crow,” he gasped.
Felix Crow paused. He knew his antics had spread his name around the city. It was impossible to kill the Clock Man and go unnoticed; even if he had gone out of his way to keep the dirty deed quiet, brother baiju loosened his tongue. The thing in front of him was hardly worth the time, but it was important to keep up his reputation. “Xīwàng,” he said quietly. “Where is it?”
“There’s no hope here, man,” the thug replied. His wide eyes darted around the alley. Shadows moved quietly, hiding in corners and behind trash cans. Maybe, just maybe, enough of them could take down the legendary Felix Crow.
“Not for you, anyway,” Crow said. “But that’s not the kind of hope I’m looking for. A place called Hope. There will be a door. Where is it?”
A trash can tipped over, spilling ramen and rotting vegetables. Crow spared a glance at a kid holding a stick before looking back at the thug with the broken knife. “Not the brightest idea you’ve ever had.”
The thug chuckled. His knife may be broken, but Felix Crow was supposed to have an arsenal on him. If he could get hold of the arsenal, he’d be a king. With that jacket and that hat, he could move out of the alley. Anyone who killed Felix Crow could write his own ticket in the underworld. Hell, it was rumored that the Beast himself offered up a fortune for Crow’s head.
All around Crow the alley came to life. The people, things really, had been here so long they’d started to look like the alley itself. Dark eyes, tattered clothes, and grimy skin rose out of invisible hiding places. Some had sticks, others had knives taken from the dead hands of souls who had lost their way and wound up in the alley.
Crow sighed. It would figure a simple in and out job would turn to lā shǐ on him. The whole alley reeked of lā shǐ, why shouldn’t the job follow suit? Maybe job was too strong a word. Job implied an exchange of services for money. Quest would be a better term. Mad quest, probably. Still, it would figure a simple in and out quest would turn to lā shǐ on him.
He spun in the alley and took in the motley rabble. None of them had eaten in days. Their eyes were full of the madness of Tiāntáng De Fěn. Heaven’s Powder was a new drug on the scene, something for people who couldn’t afford anything more. It was gaining a toehold in the city, and even on Croatoa’s streets it wasn’t uncommon to see burnouts trying to visit heaven. They described it as a religious experience, but like all religion it was an addictive lie.
“Fuck off,” Crow said. “I’m busy.”
“Nice jacket,” a voice said behind him. “Nice hat.”
Crow didn’t bother to turn around. He could see the shadow of the of the speaker waving something around. “I know,” he said. “Now fuck off.”
“I want the hat,” another voice said.
That was the problem with Tiāntáng De Fěn; it convinced people they were already in Heaven. First time users experienced a euphoric high and usually slept it off. But, like all drugs, the effects waned and soon people were constantly chasing the religious high they got from the drug until the heaven became real all the time. A person who thinks he’s already in Heaven will fight over anything. These guys had spent a lot of time believing they were already in Heaven and Nüwa‘s tits were in their faces.
“It wouldn’t fit you,” Crow said. “Now fuck off before I turn it loose on your skinny ass.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Crow saw the shadow move closer. Whatever the weapon was, it had pulled back into position. Crow shook his head. He hated dealing with amateurs. Turns of hard training with legendary Chan had made him cynical when it came to fighting. Crow would readily admit he was no Chan, but he was hardly something to be trifled with.
The shadow shifted slightly and Crow knew the attack was coming. Some young punk, looking to make a name for himself was trying to brain him with a stick. Crow spun and dodged the incoming attack. The punk hit nothing but air.
Crow didn’t hesitate. He was busy and these idiots were wasting his time. He twisted his body, flexing his legs and twisting his hips. Force worked its way up from the ground, through his legs, up his torso, and through his shoulder. A fist flew, fast as an arrow and strong as stone. Knuckles hit the punk’s face, twisting his head to the side. Teeth flew out of his broken jaw.
The junkies watched as their temporary friend staggered. His face went ashen and the punk toppled to the side. Crow didn’t care if the punk was dead or out of it. He kept moving. The punks became targets in his mind. It was one of Chan’s little tricks – it’s easier to punch the life out of a target than a person.
Crow moved with random precision, drawing on the harsh tutelage of the man who became one of Croatoa’s most feared and respected fighters. Never become predictable and hit exactly what you wanted to hit. Chan taught Crow to move and keep moving; a static target was easy to hit. While he moved, he watched for openings and struck at the places most likely to hurt. Another junkie stepped up to swing a piece of pipe at Crow’s head and almost immediately found himself kneeling on a broken knee. He started to scream out in pain, but a vicious chop to the throat silenced him permanently.
Like all drugged up hop-heads, the punks didn’t realize the danger they were in. They thought they were strong, but starvation and drugs had made them weak and Crow was a predator in their midst. For the time being, they worked together, but the alley was a place of constantly shifting alliances as each denizen tried to jockey for a better position. When a threat was great enough, like the time the police showed up looking for a rapist, the alley temporarily banded together. Felix Crow qualified as a threat and the added bonus of killing the guy who killed the Clock Man made Crow a delicious target. The hat and coat were nice, but the street cred from killing Crow would be overwhelming.
They attacked en masse, an uncoordinated mess of junkies wielding weapons culled together from trash or stolen from other junkies. Even with the mass attacking, Crow still had the advantage. He might not be able to work the same kind of magic that shattered the knife – that required focus and small amount of time – but he had the ability to sense when an opponent was about to strike.
It wasn’t much of a sense, maybe a half second, but a half second in a fight can be a lifetime.
The next junkie slashed at Crow with a piece of rusty metal that probably used to belong to a bed frame. Crow deflected the knife and snaked around the man’s arms. He drew the punk closer and head butted him. The punk’s nose exploded; his eyes started to water and he suddenly found he was having trouble breathing. He staggered back as Crow pressed his attack.
What the junkie didn’t realize was Crow could move forward far faster than the junkie could backpedal. Before he could take two steps, Crow had smashed the man’s ribs.
Crow assessed the fallen guy briefly before turning to find the next target. He found a burly man that had gone to seed when the drugs took hold. The big guy held long piece of rebar over his head. A fist hit the side of the man’s jaw and unhinged it with a sickening crack. A large boot slammed into the side of the guy’s knee, cracking bone and tearing tendon.
A lifetime of training, a hint of magic passed to him from a dragon, and a propensity for violence turned the junkies into a simpering mess in short order. Crow took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He looked around for the first guy and almost missed the terrified eyes looking out from behind a trash can overflowing with rancid meat and old noodles.
“Get your ass over here,” Crow snapped.
The eyes shook from side to side and disappeared behind the trash can. Crow muttered a string of Chinese curses and kicked a nearby crying mass in the ribs. “Now!” he yelled.
The junkie’s eyes were wide and his body shook as he slunk from his hiding place. Gone were all the thoughts of getting the jacket or the hat. He’d be lucky if he left with his life. “Please don’t kill me,” he mumbled. His remaining sandal slapped the pavement and squished through gelatinous puddles as he slowly made his way to Crow.
Crow’s arm lashed out and his fingers wrapped around the guy’s throat. With a slight grunt, he lifted the junkie into the air. “I promise I won’t kill you if you tell me where I can find Hope. I have a meeting there, and I don’t like to be late.”
Skeletal fingers grabbed at Crow’s hands. Fingernails that were trimmed like claws dug gouges in his arms, but Crow didn’t flinch. “I don’t have much time and if I have to kill you I’ll waste even more time looking for someone to beat on. So, do yourself and someone else a favor and tell me where I can find Xīwàng.”
The junkie croaked something that could have been anything from “it’s over there” to “go fuck yourself.” Crow squeezed. The man’s face turned blue and the light faded from his eyes. Crow pushed his face closer to the junkie, close enough to smell rotting teeth and a shallow diet of trash and whatever insects or lizards got too close.
“What was that?” Crow asked. “I couldn’t quite make that out.”
A feeble arm, more bone than anything else and shaking from lack of oxygen and food, pointed across the alley. Crow turned his head and peered, but all he could make out was decaying brick and the faintest hint of where a paifang used to stand. The outline of the archway was etched in shadow on the wall.
“Through that paifang?” Crow asked. “Is that there I’ll find Hope?”
The man nodded weakly. His skin was ashen and clammy. Crow knew the junkie didn’t have much time left, but also knew the man was barely alive as it was. When he’d been on the local constabulary, Crow had seen the same man in different skin time after time. It was only a matter of time before the Tiāntáng De Fěn caught up with him and sent him spiraling into a pain-wracked death.
“You’re not joking around, are you?” Crow asked.
The man barely managed to shake his head. Crow knew exactly how long it took to the kill the average person by shutting off the blood to the brain. He’d been counting to himself ever since he lifted the man off the ground. At one hundred and fifteen seconds, Crow dropped the man.
The junkie hit the ground like a bag of meat and collapsed in on himself. With a bit of luck there wouldn’t be any brain damage that couldn’t be made worse by living in this place and using Heaven’s Powder night and day. The drug was odious. Even Crow, hardly the paragon of virtue, eschewed the stuff. Had he still been a cop, he probably would have been stuck tracking down whoever was making and distributing the stuff. But, he was no longer a cop and would never get assigned to the Heaven’s Powder case.
No matter. People could do whatever they wanted with their bodies. Crow had higher aspirations.
Felix Crow wanted the city. He wanted it in the same way that a man wants a woman he doesn’t respect. He wanted to slap it around and control it, keep it on his arm during the day and scream at it at night. The key to the city was controlling the underworld. No matter what people believed, the root of all power in any capitol was germinated by graft and tended by people with knives.
In the dim light Crow could barely make out the faded, dingy remains of letters: Xīwàng. The legends were true, then. Croatoa was an old city, not ancient, but old. Like all cities, it was alive. It breathed and bled and heaved in orgasmic revelation. Croatoa changed and grew after the Dragon Wars. This part of town was old and decayed, quite possibly the first part built.
Crow ran his fingers along the old stone and closed his eyes. The cold mind of the rock told him stories of dreaming gods and magic and dragons bigger than houses. He thought back to his little dragons and made a mental note to pick up some meat for them on the way home. Through his fingers, he felt the weight of centuries, through wars and strife and junkies puking and killing each other for hats or jackets. The stone lived on, quietly watching the world go by, unperturbed by the goings on of Croatoa’s transplanted children.
“Xīwàng,” Crow whispered.
His fingers felt along the smooth stone. There had to be a switch or a lever somewhere. The legends of Hope had largely been forgotten, but a musty tome in ramshackle pawn shop spoke eloquently of the place. Hope, it is said, remembers everything, but cares about nothing. Things slide off Xīwàng’s back like baiju tossed in a drunk’s face. The only way to keep hope alive was to let the world move without letting it interfere. The monks that founded Hope dedicated their lives to providing hope while the world itself descended further and further into the madness of the Dragon Wars and the unpleasantness that followed them.
Crow’s fingers traced the whole of the stone wall and found nothing but whispered memories. He stepped back and scowled. There had to be a way in. If anyone in the city would know where to find the Beast, it would be the monks of Hope. He hadn’t come this far to be stopped by mere stone.
He reached out with his senses and felt the cold stone. His mind pushed aside the stories and visions and dug deeper. The stoneness of the wall gave way to increasing emptiness. Crow pushed deeper until he saw the first pinprick. Soon the world was filled with pinpricks of light, each vibrating in mad intensity. He didn’t completely understand exactly what he was looking at, but he knew how to make it do his bidding.
His mind gently pushed one of the vibrating things. Crow was no aetherist, but he knew enough to know what he was looking at was intensely tiny. In addition to being able to see very slightly into the future, the dragon in the North gave him a kind of magical power. The stone wall, immense though it was, was essentially the same thing as the knife that exploded earlier. It was matter and all matter was made up of the tiny pieces.
Crow nudged one of the buzzing things and watched as it collided with another buzzing thing. Soon they were all buzzing and knocking against each other. A final push set the pieces atwitter. The air in the alley buzzed and hummed. He’d never tried anything this big before, but like the dragon said, “Magic can create a gold statue or remove a mountain.”
The humming in the air turned in a deep basso thrum, the kind of thing the kids in clubs like to listen to. That music always gave Crow a headache; he was more of the traditional music kind of guy. He slowly backed away from the thumping door. Once the reaction started, it was almost impossible to stop it.
Thunder and smoke rippled down the alley. When the dust cleared, Crow found himself staring through the black and white paifang into an exquisite garden. He pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. The paifang was an archway to another country, one that shouldn’t be in the middle of an alley in one of the many worst parts of Croatoa.
He stood and stared at the garden and wondered where the golden light was coming from. The garden reeked of calmness and peace – promises too vague to be disappointing when they don’t show up. Felix Crow calmly stepped over the rubble of the old stone wall and into the garden. He didn’t need calmness and peace. He needed information and this was as good a place to start as any.