A New Way Through the Labyrinth

As readers of my perverted series of comedy fantasy novels, the Rampant Damsels range, will know, I always like to indulge myself by including one chapter which is formatted as a ‘choose your own adventure’ escapade, allowing the reader to steer their own course through a section of the story, using their ingenuity to select a path through the atrocities and depravities secreted within the numbered paragraphs.

So far, readers have plundered a dungeon to battle the Demon Lord at its heart; attempted to rescue a kidnapped Elf-maid (who had no intention of being rescued until she’d succeeded in seducing her hunky kidnapper); tried to get laid in a brothel (considerably more difficult than it sounds, apparently); guided a vicious, foul-tempered old codger through a desert; tried to find a way back to their home reality from a multi-dimensional nightmare.

I am currently writing the sixth book in the series, Starship Damsels, which features the alternate universe sci-fi alter-egos of the usual characters (first introduced in book #5, Damsels and the Dark Arts).  I’m half way through the book, the ship has crashed on an artificial planet made of space junk, the crew are scattered and must find each other and effect repairs and … it seems like a good candidate for this title’s ‘choose your own …’ entry to me!

In the past, I have always painstakingly flowcharted the adventure before beginning, then I’ve numbered all the options, then written the numbered sections, then reallocated the numbers, then gone through and changed all the links to match the new numbers, then playtested thoroughly to make sure I haven’t missed or mistyped a link …  You get the picture.  It’s a lot of work, even for a single chapter length adventure, with less than a hundred options.

But now I’ve discovered The Gamebook Authoring Tool.  It’s a great piece of software that allows me to simply start typing.  Every time the path splits and there are multiple choices, it generates the new locations, allots them numbers, displays them on a detailed flowchart and labels them with the text of the choice that leads there (which is adjustable if desired to provide a better memory prompt).  All I need to do is write the damn story, with all of its meanderings as the whim takes me.  I can see at a glance where everything separates and comes back together, it’s obvious which threads I’ve left hanging and need to go back to.  And best of all, when I’ve finished, it will randomly reassign all the numbers (except those I assign as start and finish, and any other specifically designated as immovable by me) as many times as I want till I’m satisfied, updating all links to match automatically.  It then generates a text file in one of several formats, which I can paste into my manuscript and format to suit.  All of that fiddly nonsense gone and dealt with, all I have to do is write!

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The Gamebook Authoring Tool

This is so amazing, so time-saving, and if your gamebook comes in at less than 100 numbered references, it’s even free!  To date, all of the Damsels  chapters have been less than 100, this one may be too (though maybe not; I notice I’m producing a lot more material since I don’t have to chart and track it all by hand!)  But I’m going to pay for the Pro version with my next pay anyway.  It’s pretty cheap, only £39, and it’s quite simply a piece of software that I’m pleased to pay for and support.

If you write this kind of thing, give it a go.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Keeping Yourself Covered

Back in ye olde days of indie publishing, it used to be the work of moments to tell an indie title apart from a conventionally published one simply by looking at the cover.  The indie books would be the ones with no cover art, amateurish cover art, a hilariously bad CG image, or a photograph which only had a vague relevance to the subject matter.  But it was the story that mattered, right?

But in a saturated market, that simply won’t wash any more.  You need to be noticed and it’s as simple as that.  Simply consider how you purchase books yourself if you’re browsing for something new at Amazon.  You might narrow your search down to a genre you’re interested in and then you scroll down, glancing at the titles and the thumbnail cover images.  So if a book doesn’t have a cover that leaps out and grabs you, you’re not going to buy it.  And what’s more, it’s not enough to have a good cover image; you also have to put some thought into how effective that image is going to be when it’s shrunk down as a thumbnail, because that’s how most people are going to be exposed to it.  If it’s too murky or too busy, it’ll not be effective, no matter how gorgeous it is at full size.

Fortunately, these days it’s easier and more cost effective than ever before to source a really good cover, something that wasn’t the case a few years ago.  I want to give a few samples here from cover artists I have used and the experiences I’ve had with them, giving them a shout out so you may consider your needs for your own next cover art.

Rampant Dames cover finish

Rampant Damsels was the first book I self-published back in 2009 and I knew I wanted something special for it.  I scoured the Net trying to find an artist / cartoonist with the right style for the comedy fantasy image I wanted, who was open for commissions.  I eventually found the portfolio of British cartoonist Ian Baker, who produced the above masterpiece for me, costing me some £220 at the time if I recall correctly.  But it’s a beautiful image that meant I actually sold a few books, encouraging me to continue on instead of shriveling up and dying.  The image is colourful, striking, bold, simply composed so it stands out as a thumbnail, but full of detail at full size, and leaves the viewer in no doubt that the title exudes a kind of raunchy humour.

The next three covers I want to show were all prepared for me by a great guy on Fiverr named Boris.  He is fast, sources a wide selection of images based upon your brief and offers nine or ten alternate covers for you to choose from, he’s VERY cheap and a really great guy to work with, coming up trumps every time.

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‘Vicars and Tarts’ cover by Decovski

The first job I put his way was for erotic comedy novel Vicars and Tarts.  I had a few suggestions for the cover:  if possible, I wanted the colour to be a warm orange tone to suit the holiday theme of the novel; I wanted it to feature a Bible to reference the titular vicar, and a pair of lacy panties for the tarts; I also wanted these latter to be draped over a glass of red wine, as a reference back to the previous book in the series, Water Into Whine.  The above cover contained every single element I had asked for.  There was also an alternative, which in some ways I preferred, it being a photograph of a pair of panties draped over a glass of red wine.  However, it lacked the Bible and the orange tone.  I probably would still have gone for that alternative if I was judging purely by personal preference, but here’s where you have to be canny when selecting a book cover.  The cover chosen above was a much trendier, more modern style of image, and WOW, does it ever stand out as a thumbnail!  And these were the decisive factors.  The book sold relatively well right from launch and continues to do so, so I obviously chose well.

The Waters Of Life

Boris’ next commission for me was a much more sombre one, for the horror novel The Waters of Life.  For this, I specified a stone sarcophagus in a vault, with a sinister hooded figure, and just look at the macabre black and white stock photo Boris discovered for me and adorned with suitable title fonts!  Again, he provided several alternatives, some of which were great and very tempting, but this one is just so full of eerie menace it was a no-brainer.  It also reduces down to a suitably sinister and effective thumbnail.  It did the trick, the book sold instantly and well.

EARTH MOTHER

By now, I was becoming painfully aware of the shortcomings of some of my earlier novels which had never performed well, all of them with half-arsed cover designs.  It was time to start putting my house in order and relaunching some of these old titles with properly designed covers.  I began with a horror novel titled Earth Mother, which had never sold well at all, but which attracted raving reviews from the few people who did read it, so I knew the problem wasn’t with the writing.  Boris produced the above image based upon my description of the book, using the dark green colour tones I requested together with a bright green font and matching eyes for the Elemental horror, which really stand out and make a striking thumbnail image.  The results?  This cover only cost me £15, but in the three weeks since the book was relaunched it has sold more copies than in the previous three years!  Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?  Spending just a few quid on a decent cover can make that much difference!

I had been continuing to write new titles in the Damsels series in the meantime, and a couple of the middle titles in the range definitely need new covers now too, a job I’ll be getting round to.  But when I came to write the most recent, Damsels and the Dark Arts, I decided that it really needed a decent cover, something which would do it justice.  So I decided to commission an artist once again.  Some books just need original artwork and can’t be served by stock images and that’s just the way it is.  Once again, I wanted to find an artist who could really capture the look and feel of the characters and the books’ humour.  I scoured hundreds of fantasy artists on Deviantart before commissioning Kelsey Bigelow to produce the cover, pictured below.  She used the original Rampant Damsels cover as reference for the two main characters, but updated their clothing at my request, she included other elements I requested, such as the important skeleton key, she used the Tarot card ‘The Devil’ as a template for the image as suggested and gave the whole image a range of beautiful blue tones as I had specified.  Sheer perfection, probably my very favourite book cover ever!  The cost?  About $200.  Artists (and good ones) can be got for less, of course, but I was very choosy about getting an artist with a specific style.

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Damsels and the Dark Arts, cover art by Kelsey Bigelow

Most recently, I had another old novel recovered, this time my contemporary Celtic fantasy, The Wave Sweeper.  This one was done for me by Rachel McGrath, herself an exceptionally talented author and illustrator, who really succeeded in producing the goods here, as pictured below.  This was the first time I have opted for a cover image which wraps around the whole cover, and it’s extremely effective.  The imagery, fonts and colour tones are all illustrative of the book’s blend of warm melancholy.

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These days, it’s not a struggle to find a highly capable cover artist and you don’t have to pay a fortune for it any more.  But it’s certainly not optional:  your book needs a decent cover if it’s to have any hope of selling.  My own experiences of the jump in sales after upgrading Earth Mother and The Wave Sweeper have proved just what a huge difference it makes.  Make sure it’s what you want, make sure it conveys the mood, and make sure it makes a good thumbnail!

A Little Bit of Damsels

Ever fancied dipping into the weird, deviant and frankly disgusting world of the Damsels series, but not been sure if it’s quite for you?  Well, here’s a treat:  a whole chapter from the first novel in the series, Rampant Damsels.  This chapter contains a little, self-contained story which kicks off the main plotline of the novel.  So it can be read as a standalone, whilst also introducing you to the delights which are still to come.

I hope you enjoy this little mystery set in a monastery, entitled ‘The Shame of the Rose’.  And if you DO like it, all five current titles in the series (Rampant Damsels, Damsels in Arms, Damsels Go Down, Auld Bobby Bob’s Campfire Tales For Kiddywinks, and Damsels and the Dark Arts) are available in sumptuous print editions from Amazon.  If you prefer a Kindle version, that’s even easier, because they’re available for Kindle at a measly 99p / 99c each.  You don’t even need a Kindle to read them, as you can download free software from Amazon to read Kindle titles on your PC, Mac, Tablet or phone!  And if you subscribe to the Kindle Unlimited service, you’ve really got it made, because then you’ll be able to read them all for free as part of your subscription!

For now, please enjoy this delve into depravity.  WARNING:  contains very strong language and vulgarity!

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THE SHAME OF THE ROSE

Brother Bibble hitched his robes above his ankles as he trod cautiously through the deepest cellar that lay beneath the heart of Lurke’s temple complex. As one of the monks with responsibility for the clerics’ wines and ales, his was a vitally important role. He was a devotee of Ssseshh, the eternally urinating newt god, and his particular duty was to shuffle around the cellars in broad sandals, kicking the carpet of rich rat droppings into a fine dust. This would then settle and form a sediment in the open vats that were maturing in these dim vaults. The ultimate flavour of Lurkan communion wine was out of this world and Brother Bibble took great pride in his work.

Tonight, though, something was worrying him. The very deepest cellars were seldom visited, as they were reserved for those casks which would take generations to reach maturity. But Bibble, who knew every square inch of his territory, had spied a very strange set of prints in the dirt that should definitely not have been there. He had crawled around in the rodent droppings on his hands and knees, following a barely discernible trail that had obviously been left by a person or thing trying to be very cautious and sneaky indeed. The trail would never have been noticed by any observer less familiar with the disturbances in the fractal patterns of decades-old rat shit. His brow furrowed in worry, he followed the trail to its conclusion at a featureless wall of cold, dank stone, where it simply vanished. Bibble scratched his head in puzzlement; he would have to let the abbot know about this.

Abbot Snoo was giving his evening lecture to the novice monks in the Titchy Cloisters of Ssseshh when Bibble scurried in. He dusted the powdered crap off his sandals and sat at the back, awaiting his opportunity to speak with his master.

“And so you must understand,” Snoo droned in his haughty tones, “that the members of the Lurkan priesthoods take upon themselves the burden of the sins of the populace. Thus the priests pass their days in tireless performance of wicked deeds, attending endless tedious orgies in the commission of their duties. Thus, when you address a member of the priesthood, you shall call him Reviled Brother So-and-so, or Reviled Sister Such-and-such, as the case may be. In the case of the priests of Tuchtavay, the cross-dressing budgerigar god of finance, you shall address them as Reviled Deviant. Now, are there any questions?”

A scrawny lad with a dripping nose put his hand up. His robe was several sizes too large for him and the sleeve — glistening with snail trails caused by constant wiping of the aforementioned nose — slipped down to his shoulder.

“Yes, Horace, what is it?” asked Snoo.

“Excuse me, Mr Abbot, sir,” squeaked the mucousy youth, “but do we also call the Masters ‘Reviled Brother’?”

“Hmm, a good question,” said the abbot. He considered for a moment, then said, “Best not to speak with them at all if you can help it. Their minds are focused on such spiritual things and their bodies express themselves in the most utter depravity, that you would undoubtedly fail to comprehend their enlightened utterances, confusing them for vulgar debauched rants. However, should you find it absolutely necessary to speak with them, they may be addressed by the title of Most Foully Depraved Father, or Mother, as the case may be. Although, since the Masters take upon themselves the supreme spiritual burden of literally embodying the sins of the people, it has become customary to honour them with the simpler but more profound title of ‘Sin’, added as a suffix to their name. Thus the renowned sage Goronwy, who sits daily upon the temple steps and dispenses his wisdom to the masses, may be most briefly and respectfully addressed as Goronwy-Sin. Does this clarify matters for you?”

“Yes, ta,” snivelled Horace as he wiped his nose on his sleeve, leaving more slug trails.

“Yes, ta, what?” demanded Snoo.

“Yes, ta, Reviled Brother Snoo,” amended Horace.

“Very good, Horace,” approved Snoo. “Now, I believe Brother Bibble wishes to speak with me, so you may leave early.” There was an excited rumble as the novices vacated desks and began to stampede for the door. “Just a moment!” Snoo called, halting them in their tracks. “I would remind you that you are required to put in an hour’s self-flagellation as homework tonight. I shall be inspecting your weals in the morning and woe betide anyone who I find to have been shirking.”

Brother Bibble approached the abbot as the grumbling novices filed out. “A masterful lecture, Abbot,” he fawned.

“Thank you, Brother Bibble. How goes it with the cellars? Are the vats maturing nicely?”

“Oh, Abbot, there are some truly wondrous odours developing. The mould is thick and furry and the rat poo is like powdered cheese. We’ll have a fine strong wine this summer and the longer term fermentations will be unbelievable. However, something has occurred which worries me greatly.”

“What is it, Brother?” asked Snoo, his brow furrowing in concern. Bibble was a renowned dullard, a placid great ox, and if something had managed to penetrate the murky veils of his consciousness sufficiently to worry him, then Snoo wanted to know what it was.

“I think I’d better show you, Abbot,” said Bibble, scratching his tonsure. “It’s got me right baffled, I have to confess.”

Five minutes later, Abbot Snoo had become so engrossed in the mystery that he had even forgotten to preserve his dignity and was kneeling on the thick layer of rodent droppings while he examined the clues pointed out to him by Brother Bibble.

“So there you have it, Abbot,” said Bibble, spreading his hands wide in an expression of bewilderment. “The tracks are very slight, so someone’s been trying to be sneaky. I’d never have noticed if I didn’t know every crust of every turd down here like the back of my hand. At first I thought it must be one of the novices or the nuns sneaking down here for a quick swig, but the tracks don’t really look like footprints and the trail just ends here at this brick wall. I can’t fathom it for the life of me.”

“Oh dear,” muttered Snoo. “This is very serious indeed, Bibble. I’m afraid it may go much further than a little furtive slurping. This is a very worrying situation.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Abbot,” admitted the baffled Bibble.

“Need to know, Brother, need to know,” said Snoo, taping the side of his prodigious nose in a sign of secrecy. “I must go and consult with His Holy Pomposity, Grand Ranter Scoffer, at once. In the meantime, Bibble, I want you to remain here and keep a close eye on this cellar. Be vigilant, Brother, no dozing off.”

“Never fear, Abbot,” said Bibble fiercely. “You can rely on me.”

“Good man,” said Snoo. “I’ll return with assistance as soon as I can. This cellar needs to be kept under surveillance at all times until we discover what’s going on here.” He tried desperately to brush the worst of the droppings off his knees, then rushed off to seek an audience with the Grand Ranter.

Grand Ranter Scoffer the First, spiritual leader of the Free City of Lurke, was a large and very smelly orc. Normally a cheerful, happy-go-lucky fellow with a strong liking for practical jokes (especially the sort involving whoopee cushions and farty noises — the more subtle forms of orcish humour), he was now uncharacteristically subdued as he listened to Abbot Snoo’s report.

“Whoops,” he said at last, waving his feather of holy tickling in the air and putting the fright up a pair of attendant nuns. “This is a right balls-up and no mistake. Someone has obviously found out our little secret.”

“Yes,” agreed Snoo. “But what are they planning to do with the knowledge? That’s what worries me.”

Scoffer stood up, ignoring his throne as it raspberried loudly at his back. “Fetch my best clown shoes!” he called to one of his slaves. But his expression was serious as he caught Snoo’s eye. “We’d better go over to the cellars so I can inspect the locks and seals for myself,” he muttered.

Scoffer brought two slaves with him, so that they could carry him through the cellars in a chair. It wouldn’t do to get the holy feet grubby, after all, especially not when he was wearing his best clown shoes. The two sweating minions puffed and panted as they manoeuvred his warty bulk into the deepest vault, preceded by Abbot Snoo.

“Brother Bibble?” called Snoo. “Prostrate yourself, His Holy Pomposity is here in person…” His voice faded as he saw Bibble’s body stretched out on the floor of the cellar. The monk’s eyes were practically bulging out of their sockets and his tongue poked rigidly out of his mouth. “Bibble,” said Snoo nervously, “if you’re pissed…”

“Cut the cackle,” snapped Grand Ranter Scoffer. “He’s not pissed, he’s fucking croaked!”

Several hours later, after Scoffer had bullied Sven Wastus, the sun god, into rising over the Lurkan horizon at the onset of a new day, Abbot Snoo presented himself once again at the Grand Ranter’s office for a secret meeting. He knew it was a secret meeting as the door had a notice on it which read, ‘SECRET MEETING IN PROGRESS. DO NOT ENTER. BUGGER OFF.’ Snoo entered.

“Oh, it’s you, Abbot,” said Scoffer, lowering the crossbow he had leveled between Snoo’s eyes in case he was an eavesdropping intruder. “Come in and pull up a pew. Have a nun if you like, they’re rather nice. But do try not to brush up against anything, there’s a good fellow; you’ve still got rat shit on your robes.”

Snoo sat on a hard wooden seat opposite the Grand Ranter’s plush cushioned chair, which sported a special comfort ring for the ease of the holy haemhorroids. He looked around and saw that they were not alone. A small, nondescript figure, so average and unassuming in appearance as to be almost invisible, was sitting in another pew to his right, a nun upon his knee. Snoo noted with resentment that the stranger’s seat had a cushion on it.

Scoffer followed the direction of Snoo’s gaze and said, “Ah, Abbot, allow me to introduce Dr Wott.”

“Good morning, Reviled Brother Snoo,” said Wott in a voice which was as subdued as his appearance.

“Wott-Sin is a bishop from the chapel of Gonk the Suspicious, the god of violent sheep and amateur sleuths,” explained Scoffer. “He’s the nearest thing to an investigative brain we have in this joint, which isn’t saying much.”

“Ta, chief,” whispered Wott. Scoffer let the flippancy go; devotees of violent sheep are not known for using respectful terms of address.

“All right, Wott-Sin,” growled Scoffer, “we’re about to let you into a bloody big secret.” He bared his orcish tusks to show the investigator that he meant business and that the secret was to be guarded with his life. “As you might know, the city’s beloved ruler, Duke Blusterguff, is mighty fond of his tipple. Being a man of great taste and discernment, the Duke is particularly enamoured of the unique wines made here in the temple complex by the initiates of Ssseshh, of whom Abbot Snoo is the hierophant. To make things easier for the delivery of the wine, and also to keep the Duke’s boozing as discreet as possible, a tunnel was constructed from the temple’s wine cellars direct to the basements of the palace. Last night, one of the abbot’s acolytes found odd tracks leading up to the wall where the concealed entrance to the tunnel is located. That acolyte was left on watch while the abbot fetched me. By the time we returned he had been murdered.” Scoffer paused for a moment, then farted violently with a satisfied grunt. “Now what do you make of that?” he demanded.

“I think you’ve been eating eggs,” murmured Wott, wrinkling his nose and wafting his hand in front of his face.

“I meant what do you make of the crime, not my sacred gaseous emissions!” roared Scoffer, waving his great green fists in the air.

“Well,” began Wott. “Whoever has discovered the secret passage obviously ran into the abbot’s watchman and was desperate enough to kill the man to protect his own identity. This suggests that we are dealing with a culprit with some specific nefarious purpose rather than a case of simple nosiness. Do we know if the passage has actually been opened?”

“I checked that,” said the abbot. “All of the magical wards and seals are still in place. It seems that our murderer has an idea of where the passage is, but has not yet managed to discover the precise location of the concealed door or the mechanism to open it.”

“Then how do you explain the fact that the tracks end abruptly at the wall?” asked Wott, stroking his nondescript moustache, deep in thought.

“We can’t,” said Scoffer. “That’s what we want you to investigate. There’s a naughty mystery here and I want it solved. If someone is trying to gain sneaky entrance to the palace, there’s trouble brewing. I don’t want any more murders either. It’s a right pain in the arse having to spend hours petitioning at the gates of the afterlife when one of our clerics snuffs it: you know they don’t like to let religious types in. You’ll be working with Goronwy-Sin, he’s the cleverest sage in the temple. You’ll have to do all the leg work yourself, though, since he won’t get off that fat arse of his.”

“Righto, guv,” said Wott, rising to his feet and shuffling off in his grey robe.

“As for you, Snoo, double the guard on that cellar and obtain vows of silence from all acolytes involved. I don’t want any whispers getting back to the palace to suggest a breach of security here. Tell them that keeping their mouths shut forms part of their terms and conditions of employment and may be enforced by tongue removal where necessary… best not send any union members down there, they tend to get a bit tetchy when threatened with bodily mutilation.”

The abbot sighed, made his obeisance and left, mentally listing his most discreet (i.e. stupid) acolytes.

When Wott arrived at Goronwy-Sin’s little pavilion, the renowned sage was instructing one of his students. The rotund master was a mountain of jolly blubber, wearing only a grubby loincloth so that his flesh could wobble joyously for the delight of all. His student, on the other hand, was slender, wiry and extremely pretty, an effect slightly marred by her crest of dyed green hair and the chains she wore.

“Well, Polly,” the sage was saying. “I am pleased to inform you that you have now completed my preliminary training course, ‘Tantra For Beginners’. You are no longer a novice, you are now an apprentice temple prostitute and you will now only be required to donate half of your earnings to the coffers of the goddess Paipan instead of the nine tenths you have been paying to date. From now on, you will be trained in more advanced erotic techniques by Master Miggley. But before you go, how about a good hard shag as a final thank you to your old teacher?”

“Fuck off, fatty.”

When Goronwy-Sin had been briefed by Wott, he spent a few minutes rocking back and forth with a look of intense concentration on his face. He then fixed Wott with the full stare of his hypnotic gaze and said, “So you say that the unfortunate Brother Bibble was killed by strangulation?”

“I believe so,” replied Wott.

“Ah, but you have not seen the body?” asked Goronwy-Sin.

“Not as yet,” said Wott, “but I intend to do so.”

“That would be very wise,” said Goronwy-Sin. “We need to learn as much as possible about our intruder. We must search for clues, Wott-Sin. We need facts, not suppositions.”

“What a revolutionary notion,” breathed Wott in awe. “Deducing facts from clues? Truly you are the wisest sage of our generation.”

“That I am,” said Goronwy-Sin with a grim smile, “but alas, none of my wisdom avails to get me into Sister Polly’s pants. Now bugger off and collect the evidence while I sit here and sulk splendidly.”

“At once, Most Foully Depraved Father,” said Wott as he bowed low and hurried out the door. Wott’s mind was working furiously. He had never considered the possible role of actual physical evidence in the investigation of a crime before, having previously resorted to drawing lots to determine whodunnit. But although Wott-Sin could be a little slow on the uptake, once an idea finally lodged in his mind he was a total convert to it. He eagerly collected a magnifying glass from the temple libraries, then went to the compost heap where the body of Brother Bibble had been dumped after the funeral rites had been completed. It took him ten minutes to locate the corpse. He had in fact spotted it as soon as he had approached the smelly pile of rotting matter, but he had insisted upon making a full methodical search in any case so that he could be certain that he had in fact found the correct body and not a forgery, nor a strangely shaped vegetable. Facts, not suppositions, Goronwy-Sin had said, and Wott was going to make damn sure of it.

Wott studied Bibble through his magnifying glass, which gave him quite a shock when he glanced at the deceased’s private parts. Composing himself, he turned his attention back to the neck. The marks were clear indicators that the unfortunate monk had indeed been strangled, but they were certainly not consistent with strangulation by hand. The lines etched in the flesh were far too thin and there were strange lacerations where sharp objects had evidently torn the skin; not deeply enough to be fatal in and of themselves, but a very curious additional injury nonetheless. Wott wondered if the killer had perhaps used a garotte — perhaps even a garotte of barbed wire — which might explain the marks and torn skin.

Wott-Sin was on a roll now, so he made his way down to the wine cellars. He was just stepping through into the vault which contained the sealed door when a half brick in a sock swung out of the gloom and thudded into his cranium. Wott sighed in pain and irritation and decided that the best option open to him was to lose consciousness for a bit, which he promptly did.

When he recovered, he wished he hadn’t as it felt as though a troll was having sex with his sinuses. The agony gradually faded to a dull throbbing emanating from a sizeable lump on the top of his head. As his vision gradually refocused, he saw two worried round faces looking down at him. Both were robed in brown habits and had tonsured heads. Abbot Snoo’s watchmen, evidently. Wott groaned in annoyance.

“Sorry, Most Foully Depraved Father Wott,” said one of the monks, “but we were told that if any intruders came in we were to wallop them first and ask questions later.”

“Brother, I have been at the temple for the past forty years,” said Wott wearily. “What made you think I might be an intruder all of a sudden?”

“We just got a little over-excited,” explained the monk. “We’ve been down here for a few hours now and we’re getting a little bit jumpy. So when you walked in we panicked and hit you… Sorry.”

“That’s all right, Brothers, it’s good to be vigilant,” said Wott, reflecting that it was occasionally a disadvantage to be so undistinguished in appearance. If he had a large scar, or was an exotic orc like the Grand Ranter, then he would have been instantly recognisable. But no, he had no distinguishing features and may well have been a stranger walking through the door. By the time the Brothers had recognised him, he was already taking his enforced nap on the floor. He eased his aching body up, brushing off the rat droppings that had at least cushioned his fall. What a bloody state he was in now: a bump on his head and shit all down his back.

“Anyway,” said Brother Boffus, who was the more garrulous of the two homicidal cretins (his companion having been suitably frightened into silence by the hints of tongue extraction), “now that we’re all friends again, how can we be of service to you, Most Foully Depraved Father?”

“I am in charge of the murder investigation,” declared Wott with all due self-importance. He was determined to drill his authority into this pair’s thick skulls in case a return visit proved necessary; he didn’t fancy a second clout on the head. “I have come here to gather clues and I am going to examine the killer’s tracks as evidence.” He put great stress on the words ‘clues’ and ‘evidence’ to show off his newfound investigative techniques; Goronwy-Sin surely wouldn’t mind him taking the credit.

“Ooh, can we watch?” asked Boffus, clapping his hands together in glee. His companion still said nothing, he just gave Wott a miserable look. Wott was left in no doubt that it had indeed been the more hyperactive of the pair who had swung the sock containing the offending half-brick. “Can we be deputies?”

“Sure,” said Wott. “But first you need to be measured for boots.”

“Boots?” said Boffus. “Oh great! I didn’t realise we’d get boots. Are they free?”

“No charge at all,” said Wott drily. “Now turn around and touch your toes and I’ll measure you up.”

Boffus did as he was told, shuffling excitedly on the spot, his backside sticking out behind him. His quiet companion, a little quicker on the uptake, sniggered behind his hand. Wott took careful aim, then swung his foot solidly between Boffus’ buttocks, bruising his piles in a terrible fashion. Boffus pitched forward, his shriek cut off as he slammed face first into the dirt, getting a mouthful of rat shit.

“Yes,” said Wott. “That boot seemed to fit perfectly.”

Ignoring the writhing Boffus and his giggling mute companion, Wott stooped down to examine the tracks on the ground. According to Snoo’s report, they were very sparse and hard to spot. Wott discovered that this was not actually the case. Instead, the tracks were in a very wide swathe, a series of broad but very light dragging marks. The problem was that they bore very little, if any, resemblance to footprints. He could quite understand why Snoo and Bibble had struggled to recognise them; they probably hadn’t even realised that some of the scrapings were part of the trail.

Wott scratched his head in bafflement, realising as he did so that this was in danger of becoming a habitual action. This business of gathering evidence and making deductions was more confusing than it first appeared. What if the evidence didn’t lead to any deductions, but only further confusion? He was frankly stumped and suppoed that he really ought to consult with Goronwy-Sin once again.

The sage was in a disagreeable mood, however. He listened to Wott’s account, chuckled at the report of him getting clonked on the head, then screwed his face into a determined grimace. “I am fairly certain that we can decode this mystery, Wott-Sin,” he announced, “but I regret that I am feeling cantankerous at present. I am most dissatisfied that my wisdom has thus far failed to bring me the little perks that I desire. You must therefore buy my information by accomplishing a task for me. There is, you see, a price to pay.”

“What price?” demanded Wott incredulously.

“You must obtain a pair of Polly’s used unwashed panties for me,” declared Goronwy. “Thus I may satisfy my cravings in private with deep inhalations of her intimate odours even though she refuses my advances.”

“You must be joking!” shouted Wott. “This is outrageous! You are hindering my investigations for the sake of a pair of dirty knickers? What if I was to inform the Grand Ranter that you are refusing to cooperate?”

“Ah, but I am cooperating,” insisted Goronwy. “The gentleman you need to speak to about these tracks is Most Foully Depraved Father Miggley, who at this very moment is training Sister Polly in the techniques of advanced tantra. You should make your way to Sister Polly’s room in the Halls of the Holy Whores right away to fetch Miggley-Sin. While you are there, I would request as a personal favour that you indulge me by kindly pocketing a whiffy pair of the good Sister’s smalls.”

Wott sighed in resigned disbelief. “Very well,” he conceded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Splendid!” smiled Goronwy-Sin, rubbing his hands together in glee. “And if there’s a little streak of poo in them, so much the better.”

*

Wott wandered down the pink-carpeted corridor that housed the Order of Sisters of Holy Whoredom, the priestesses and novitiates of the wanton goddess Paipan. Each door had a red candle outside, which was lit if the priestess was available for ministering to the spiritual needs of worshippers. He soon found a door with a nameplate which read ‘Sister P. Panzerfaust’. The candle was unlit, but judging by the frantic squeaking and squealing coming from within, there was certainly somebody with her. Wott took a few moments to compose himself, straightening his holy medallion and smoothing out his thinning hair. Then he rapped sharply on the door.

There was a moment’s silence, then a mutter of “Who the fuck is that?”. It was a female voice, but more aggressive than any male. A deeper, more masculine voice urged, “Shh, be quiet and they might go away.”

Resigned to his fate, Wott raised his hand and knocked again, calling out, “Excuse me, miss, sir. It’s Wott-Sin, special investigator appointed by Grand Ranter Scoffer.”

The door swung violently open, revealing the very angry figure of Polly Panzerfaust. “Investigating what, Wott?”

Given her tone, Wott considered it imprudent to draw attention to her impolite neglect of his -Sin suffix. Instead, he mildly said, “I do beg your pardon, Sister Polly. I am investigating an incident of a highly confidential nature and I urgently need to speak with Miggley-Sin.”

“Be quiet, man!” snapped a voice from inside the room. “I am an undercover inquisitor and using my priestly title in public could blow my cover. Come inside quickly and close the door behind you!”

Wott entered the little red-lit room, trying to ignore Polly’s skimpy nightie as he squeezed past her. The girl was still smouldering at the intrusion and he smiled tightly as he walked by. It was no good. He could see in her eyes that the ice wasn’t for breaking.

“Pardon me for intruding, Miggley-Sin,” said Wott. “I didn’t realise that you were working undercover.”

“Well, technically, at the moment I’m not,” said Miggley, a short and extremely grubby man with a selection of dubious skin diseases and rotting teeth. The odour that filled the temple harlot’s boudoir suggested that he also had a less than amicable relationship with soap. “My day job is to work as a gardener in the grounds of the Wizards’ Guild,” he explained. “They believe me to be a harmless yokel, never suspecting my true identity as an inquisitor, spying on their ungodly magicks. But at present I am, so to speak, working under the covers rather than undercover, teaching this honoured Sister advanced techniques of meditation whilst shafting her sideways.” The tent he was forming in the bedclothes was testament to his diligence in his duties.

“I am afraid this is a matter of some urgency, Most Foully Depraved Father,” Wott whispered in a voice that he hoped would be low enough to prevent Polly from overhearing. “There has been a murder and Grand Ranter Scoffer requires immediate results in the investigation. Goronwy-Sin believes your interpretation of the evidence will be invaluable.”

“Drat!” exclaimed Miggley. “And I was really immersed in my work here too. Alas, Polly, my dear, I must leave you for a while. But keep yourself hot because I’ll be back as soon as I’ve helped this chappy out.”

Wott watched in some embarrassment as Miggley hauled his scabby, naked carcase out of bed and seized Polly in his arms, whereupon they spent a full couple of minutes swapping tongues and sucking each others’ faces with loud squelchy noises. But it occurred to him that he might now seize his chance to fulfil Goronwy-Sin’s request while they were both so engrossed with each others’ tonsils. Keeping a close eye on the snogging pair, Wott quickly scanned the floor, sidling across to where the detritus of their passion was strewn in wanton disarray. There at the foot of the bed lay a discarded pair of scarlet briefs, all rolled into a ball where they had been hurriedly peeled off and cast aside. Wott crept sneakily over to them, dipped and snatched, popping them quickly into his pocket all in a single movement. He felt a sordid thrill pass through him; they were still warm and tantalisingly moist to his touch.

Miggley eventually disentangled himself from Polly, who was snarling with desire, a passion that Wott found unfathomable as he surveyed the flaking specimen of humanity she had been embracing.

“I’ll be back soon, babe,” Miggley declared, “when I’ll teach you how to invoke the heavenly messengers whilst taking it up the jacksy.”

To Wott’s great relief, Miggley pulled his clothes on – a pair of rough sacking trousers and a smelly old coat with an incongruous silk cravat – and they left Polly’s room, heading for the cellars.

Miggley showed no aversion to crawling around on his hands and knees amid the unmentionable organic refuse on the floor of the vault. If anything, the accretions of rat droppings actually improved the general aspect and odour of his clothing. Wott supposed that the man’s grotty appearance was all part of his yokel disguise whilst spying on the wizards. In reality, he grudgingly had to admit that Miggley-Sin was proving to be cultured and erudite, not to mention utterly depraved if his training regimen was anything to judge by.

“Hmm,” said Miggley. “I can see why Goronwy-Sin sent you to fetch me. These marks are very familiar to me, very familiar indeed. In my capacity as a gardener, I often uproot old bushes…”

He was certainly rooting up Polly’s bush, thought Wott.

“… and shrubs and drag them to the furnaces beneath the Wizards’ Guild. I can say with absolute certainty that these marks were caused by a bush dragging along.” He reached down and carefully extracted something from a mouldering mound of rodent excrement, holding it aloft so that Wott could see it. Between his finger and thumb was a large thorn. “It seems we can be quite specific,” Miggley murmured in the soft tones that were such a contrast to his phlegm-wracked physique. “The marks were evidently made by a rose bush.”

Wott boggled his eyes in response. “A rose bush? What in the nine hundred and ninety nine hells was someone doing sneaking around down here with a rose bush? Were they hiding flowers destined to be a surprise for their wife, perhaps? Or maybe they were staging an illicit meeting with a mistress, which was witnessed by the unfortunate Brother Bibble, whose silence was ensured by his brutal murder, thus concealing the adulterous identities?”

“Sarcasm does not become you, Wott-Sin,” said Miggley in his quiet tones. “Besides, you ought to remember the lacerations on the neck of the departed Brother’s corpse. I think we can now presume that those were caused by rose thorns.”

“Oh, I see,” sneered Wott. “So the intruder brought a rose bush down here to use as a potential murder weapon? Less conspicuous than a dagger or an axe, I suppose. Oh yes, it all makes sense to me now.” Miggley was not rising to the bait, but merely stared at Wott with an expression of insufferable condescending patience. Wott sighed and shook his head in defeat. “All right, I give in! Tell me what the hell’s going on. I’m stuck.”

Miggley tutted softly in disapproval of Wott’s lack of insight. “Elemental, my dear Wott-Sin. I mean that quite literally. The intruder — and the killer — was an Elemental.”

“Enlighten me,” said Wott weakly.

“An Elemental is a nature spirit,” explained Miggley. “They are conjured up by wizards and manifest themselves in our world as animated pieces of foliage, earth or stone. This present one evidently took shape as a rose bush. Its tracks appear to vanish into thin air because that is precisely what it did. When it failed to find what it was looking for …” Miggley gave Wott a surreptitious wink to indicate that he was in on the secret of the hidden door, “… its master banished it back to its home plane.”

“I see,” breathed Wott. “So what do we do now?”

“I think we need to organise some very subtle surveillance,” said Miggley thoughtfully, “both here and at the Wizards’ Guild. We’d better organise a meeting with the Grand Ranter in the morning to discuss it. If they tried once, they’ll be sure to try again.”

They stood up to leave. As they stepped through into the adjacent vault, a shovel swung through the air with a swishing sound, concluding in a ghastly splat as it impacted with Miggley’s face. He dropped like a stone.

“Hello, lads,” said Wott. “Still at it, I see.”

“Hello, Most Foully Depraved Father,” beamed Boffus, putting down his shovel. “Yes, we’re still keeping watch. We didn’t twat you one this time, though, we just got the intruder.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, boys, but this is …” He tailed off as he recalled Miggley’s undercover status. “… Er, this is the smelly old gardener from the Wizards’ Guild, who I was just escorting off the premises. Chuck him out, would you?”

“Sure thing,” said Boffus genially. “Sorry we weren’t here to help you earlier, but I just nipped out to get a sandwich. Would you like a bite?” He offered a soggy egg sandwich, sprinkled with the omnipresent rat droppings.

“No thanks,” said Wott with a queasy smile. “Where was your friend when you went to get your sandwich? This cellar is supposed to be kept under continuous guard.”

The quieter monk looked shamefaced and tried to hide behind Boffus.

“Ah, well, poor Brother Sniffis was so alarmed at the thought of being left here on his own while I went for my sandwich that he shat himself and had to go and change his robes,” explained Boffus.

Wott decided not to press the matter.

“We’ll just chuck this geezer out, then,” said Boffus, grabbing Miggley’s feet while Sniffis took the shoulders.

“Yes, please do that,” said Wott. “Oh, and give him a good kick in the balls before you leave him,” he added as an afterthought. That’ll teach you, you smarmy bastard, he smirked to himself. Little Miss Panzerfaust will just have to amuse herself for the rest of the night.

Wott paid Goronwy-Sin a visit before turning in for the night. The sage listened intently to all that he was told, then said, “Well done, Wott-Sin. The investigation is proceeding very well. Let me know what is said at the meeting in the morning; I shall stay here and meditate.”

“Righto,” said Wott.

“Um, before you go, Most Foully Depraved Father, did you manage to accomplish that little favour I requested of you?”

“What? Oh, yes.” Wott had almost forgotten he had them, but he reached tentatively into his pocket and drew forth the pair of knickers he had liberated from Polly’s floor. He placed them in Goronwy’s outstretched sweaty palm.

“Well done, Brother,” sighed Goronwy-Sin gratefully. “Hurry along now, don’t let me detain you.” He was already flexing his fingers and loosening his loincloth before Wott had even left the room. Trembling in anticipation, Goronwy raised the panties to his nose and took a deep sniff. He promptly vomited.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed. “They’re Miggley’s.”

When Wott arrived at Scoffer’s penthouse the following morning, Abbot Snoo and Miggley were already there. The latter was sporting two black eyes and was rubbing an ice pack on his aching testicles, his groin bruised black and blue after Boffus and Sniffis had dutifully carried out Wott’s instructions and laid the boot into his family jewels. Wott assumed that the black eyes were a result of his encounter with the shovel, but he later discovered that he was mistaken; these had been inflicted by Polly when Miggley’s aching crotch had caused him to fail to live up to his earlier promise.

There was one other man in the room, a stranger to Wott. He was a small, officious looking individual with wiry grey hair and a neatly trimmed moustache, wearing a fine blue velvet outfit.

Grand Ranter Scoffer was in a very crabby mood. “I am in a very crabby mood,” he declared. “This news is not good. If an Elemental is involved, it means that a wizardy mage must be behind the whole thing. I knew we were right to distrust that bunch of blasphemous old buggers over at the Wizards’ Guild. What have you got to say for yourself, Miggley-Sin?”

“With respect, Pops, most of the wizards are too far up their own arses to concern themselves with something like this,” said Miggley in a rather high voice (Boffus and Sniffis having accomplished their duties with commendable enthusiasm). “We’re probably dealing with a single rogue mage. But I agree that in all likelihood he’ll be hiding out at the Guild. There’s so much magic in the air there that it’s difficult to trace a rogue operator.”

“I want this wizardy mage caught and castrated!” roared Scoffer, thumping the arm of his throne. “I will not have thieves and saboteurs poking their rose bushes into my wine cellars! So what do you propose to do about it? Eh?”

“The intruder must have a reason for trying to discover the whereabouts of the secret passage,” Miggley insisted. “He hasn’t found it so far, so it stands to reason that he’ll try again.”

“You keep saying ‘he’,” pointed out Scoffer. “It could be a woman, you know. They’re deceitful creatures, they have bottoms on their fronts.”

Miggley decided to ignore this outburst and pressed on: “We need to stage covert surveillance, something more subtle than that pair of shovel-wielding cretins. Abbot Snoo, you’ll need to recall your men. We need to spy on that cellar without being seen. If the intruder thinks the coast is clear and it’s no longer being watched, he may well strike again.”

“Hmph!” snorted Scoffer. “And how the buggeration do you plan to see without being seen, eh? I’m not using magical means to spy, oh no, that would be sinking as low as the wizardy mage.”

“Gentlemen, I have it all planned out,” said Miggley with a flourish (at least, he flourished as best he could with goolies the size of grapefruit). He indicated the strange little man in the blue velvet suit and said, “Allow me to introduce Mr Fibulus Hatchity of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Hatchity held up a finger in protest and declared in a whiny voice, “Thank you for your kind introduction, Miggley-Sin. But as a point of fact there is no such organisation as a Thieves’ Guild. What is more, if any such organisation should by chance happen to exist, I can confidently assure you that I would certainly not be a part of it. However, I can also assure you that I am fully authorised by the Guildmaster to speak and act on behalf of the aforesaid non-existent organisation, the Thieves’ Guild.”

Scoffer scratched his head. “So you’re here on behalf of an organisation that doesn’t exist, but if they did exist then you’d be the man to speak to,” he struggled.

“Nicely put, your holy sacrality,” smiled Hatchity benignly. “What a wonderfully literal mind you have. I must file that away for future reference.”

Miggley cleared his throat loudly (albeit somewhat squeakily). “What our esteemed visitor is trying to say is that although he quite naturally denies any links to any potential criminal brotherhoods which may or may not exist, he and his fellows do possess certain skills which may be of use to us in the present situation.”

“Such as?” prompted Scoffer, who found conversations with hidden subtexts and implications to be particularly hard going.

“Well, such as moving completely silently and sneakily, with a knack for sticking to the shadows and not being seen,” explained Miggley. “Mr Hatchity’s associates will be able to keep a close watch on the cellar without our intruder ever being aware of the fact.”

Scoffer looked shifty for a moment, but Hatchity eased his fears by saying smoothly, “Don’t you worry, your magnificence. We already know all about the passage to the palace. It’s our business to know about such things, so your secret’s safe with us. In fact, the lads have used it many times — without ever breaking any of your wards and seals — in their humble duty of redistributing the Duke’s wealth among the needy.”

“Oh, that’s all right, then,” breathed Scoffer in relief. “I’ve no objection to giving to the needy, it’s a very pious and humble thing to do.”

“Quite right,” enthused Hatchity, contriving to appear as needy as his velvet finery would allow.

“That’s settled then,” said Miggley with satisfaction. “The abbot will recall his bruisers, leaving the cellars apparently unguarded. But our light-fingered friends will keep a close watch, liaising with Wott-Sin. In the meantime, I’ll be scouring the Wizards’ Guild, trying to catch the culprit in the act.”

“And what are we supposed to do if this Elemental puts in another appearance?” demanded Wott.

“Try to keep it occupied long enough for me to trace its conjuror,” said Miggley. “Don’t let it find the passage, whatever you do. Remember that as a bush-based lifeform it will be vulnerable to fire. Also, bear in mind that it is linked to its conjuror whilst in our world; you can attack him through it, but he may also be able to fire spells at you via the Elemental.”

“That wicked wizardy mage!” hissed Scoffer, baring his tusks. “He must be caught! Caught, I say!”

The meeting drew to a close as a couple of nuns led Scoffer away to his holy boudoir, foaming at the mouth and raving. The others went their separate ways to prepare for the evening’s surveillance.

As Wott left the room, he found Miggley waiting for him. “You bastard!” the undercover operative said. “You left me behind after those morons hit me.”

“Just keeping up your cover,” chirped Wott with a smarmy grin. “I had to let them think you were a low-level intruder who should be expelled from the premises.”

“They kicked me in the bollocks!”

“Oh dear, how unfortunate,” tutted Wott.

“They said that you told them to do it.”

“Well, as I say, it was all a matter of maintaining your cover…”

“Just watch yourself, Wott. I work with wizards, remember, and most of them aren’t too choosy about how they earn a little extra cash. Do you know about the latest innovation in the farming world?”

“Of course not,” scoffed Wott. “I’m a busy man, Miggley-Sin, and I have no time to ponder the problems of pigs and cows, though I do dabble in suspicious sheep, of course. My concern is with souls.”

“Pigs and cattle should concern you greatly, Wott,” warned Miggley. “Because if my nuts are still this sore next time I happen to be chatting to an agricultural wizard, I just might remember to ask them to demonstrate their new instant gelding spell.”

Wott swallowed hard as Miggley limped from the room with a malicious smile.

That night, at the darkest hour, Wott found himself sitting in a cramped little cell adjoining the cellars. Two of Hatchity’s ‘business associates’ were with him: small, wiry men clad in black wrappings which left only their eyes visible, each with a worrying number of knives concealed about their persons. Two more were concealed in the cellar with the hidden door, practically invisible as they crouched stock still in the darkness. Two of these gentlemen were telepaths, allowing the two teams to keep in constant touch by concentrating their minds. All that Wott’s mind was concentrated upon, however, was the worrying question of the future integrity of his testicles and how best to make amends with Miggley.

“Hist!” hissed the telepath next to him. “I’m getting a message from the cellar. There’s something moving towards them, they can hear it scraping along the floor in the next vault. It’ll be with them any second now.”

The next few seconds passed with agonising slowness as Wott chewed his nails and watched the telepathic thief. Only the man’s eyes could be seen through his dark wrappings, but these were screwed tightly shut with the intensity of his concentration. A bead of sweat quivered on his taut eyebrow.

“Your pal was right,” he whispered. “It’s a bleedin’ rose bush, a big one, in full bloom. It’s making directly for the secret door.”

“They have to stop it!” snapped Wott. “Send a message to the guys with Miggley and tell that pair in the cellar to stop it!”

“Righto, boss,” said the thief. He concentrated for a moment, then said, “Okay, I’ve let the crew at the Wizards’ Guild know that it’s happening now, so they’re looking for the mage. The lads in the cellar are moving to intercept the Elemental.” A pause, then: “Oh shit, it’s lashing out with its thorns. One of the boys is down. They’re going to need our help.”

“Go! go! go!” shouted Wott, who had always wanted the opportunity to shout something like that. He opened the cell door and charged out, turning to see if the two professional gentlemen were following him. To his surprise, they were not there. In fact, they had already slipped swiftly past him like silent ghosts, nearly invisible in their dark garb as they hugged the walls but still moved with incredible speed.

When Wott tumbled into the cellar, panting for breath, (all of his go go go having gone gone gone), one of the four thieves was rolling on the floor, cursing. His tightly wound clothing had protected him from the worst of the lashing briars, but he was still bleeding profusely from a hundred deep scratches. The other three were whirling around a huge, mobile rose bush like wild cats, using their long knives to sever any whipping thorns that came too close. The scene was a blur of frenzied movement, but it was obvious that the three men were being slowly beaten back. One of them moved a fraction too late and was instantly lashed by a score of barbed tendrils, sending him to join his injured companion on the floor. One of the remaining pair of fighters cast a desperate glance at Wott and called, “Fire! Set it alight! It’s our only chance of stopping the bloody thing.”

“Righto! Fire!” yelled Wott. He sprinted back through the adjoining vaults into the little cell, where he grabbed one of the torches from the wall. He ran back to the frantic struggle and prepared himself to touch the tinder-dry body of the Elemental with the flames. But just at that moment there was an elasticky popping noise and Wott felt two spheres of gristle rolling down his legs to the accompaniment of a gut-wrenching aching sensation.

“Bollocks!” he screamed.

“Hurry up,” panted one of the thieves. “We’re just about done in here.”

“My poor bollocks,” moaned Wott in anguish. “Those are my fucking balls lying on the floor and all you callous bastards can think about is yourselves.” He started to sob and the burning torch dropped from his nerveless fingers to the floor below.

“Noooo!” yelled the thieves in unison. The two who were on the ground began crawling hastily for the exit. The pair who were still fighting suddenly broke away and were gone, vanished utterly as if they had never been there.

Wott and the Elemental looked at each other in confusion.

WHOOMPH!

The dry, dusty carpet of ancient rat droppings ignited in an explosive gust that removed Wott’s eyebrows and moustache, along with much of his exposed skin. The Elemental hissed and creaked, thrashing frantically about as its briars caught fire.

Wott was about to run from the inferno, now made worse by the concussive explosions of Scoffer’s store of brandy casks, but his hobbling totter reminded him of his recent loss. He turned on his heel and waddled desperately back into the savage heat, wailing, “My balls! Please, gods, don’t let my poor balls burn!”

The following morning, yet another meeting was convened in Scoffer’s office. Their contract fulfiled, Hatchity and his men were not in attendance. Scoffer and Snoo sat in smug splendour, trying not to snigger at the bacon-textured face of Wott, who had only narrowly managed to escape with his life after scooping a pair of tortuously toasted testicles off the floor. These had been reattached to his body by being sewn in place with wire in a most uncomfortable fashion and with any luck the healing invocations he had uttered at the altar of Drumcoolin the Paralytic might just restore them to normal function eventually. This reassuring thought did nothing to make Miggley’s sideways glances and wicked grins any more endurable.

Scoffer was in no mood for small talk. “So where’s the wizardy mage? Has he been interrogated?”

“Here he is,” said Miggley, emptying a few cinders out of his handkerchief. “We managed to track him down, but regrettably he was still linked to the Elemental he had conjured and he was incinerated just as it was. So that’s where the trail ends, I’m afraid.”

Scoffer poked at the cinders with his snout, then asked, “He’s not a relative of yours, is he, Wott-Sin? He seems to suffer from the same skin complaint.”

Wott tried to ignore the guffaws at his singed complexion and said with as much dignity as he could muster, “At least I managed to fulfil my part of the job. We kept the Elemental distracted and prevented it from finding the secret door. Moreover, all of this was accomplished whilst in a condition of extreme personal discomfort, I might add. What a pity that others failed to be as efficient and learned nothing from the opportunity we provided for them.”

“We have a name,” muttered Miggley defensively. “The mage responsible was registered on the Guild’s roster as Geronimo Gadzooks. Unfortunately, we have no clue as to where he came from. There are no further leads to follow up. It’s not my fault.”

“The name and the ashes may be enough,” growled Scoffer dangerously. “Now everyone except Snoo fuck off and leave me alone.”

There were only two participants in the dread ritual that night: Grand Ranter Scoffer and Abbot Snoo. They both swore solemn oaths that they would never speak to anyone of what transpired in that grim chamber. The ashes of Geronimo Gadzooks were placed in a solution of monkey blood and maple syrup, which was then spread thickly on pancakes which the pair consumed with gusto (Scoffer wolfing more than his fair share). Scoffer then belched a dreadful invocation to Gorrem, the god of dead things, compelling him to send the spirit of Geronimo Gadzooks back from the Hells for a brief time to answer the Grand Ranter’s interrogation.

Gorrem, to be perfectly honest, was more than a little pissed off at being spoken to in this tone of voice, but he grudgingly complied, since it is never a good idea for a god to get shirty with the man responsible for recruiting his worshippers. Thus it was that a shadowy figure gradually coalesced before the necromantic duo. It was an incredibly short and podgy man, with stubby fingers, large ears, a short-sighted squint, sparse hair and buck teeth. He looked rather like a large mouse.

“Oh bugger!” the apparition exclaimed. “It’s you pair of bastards. What do you want?”

“Aha!” exclaimed Scoffer. “We have you now, you wicked wizardy mage and you’re going to answer our questions!”

“Yes, I know all that,” protested the shade. “You’ve conjured my spirit out of the Pit, where I was busily being tortured between the bosoms of a pair of succubi and you’ve bound me inside this triangle of evocation, which compels me to answer your questions truthfully. So can we please get on with it so that I can get back to being tortured?”

“And that’s punishment, is it?” demanded an incredulous Snoo. “Getting pummelled by the ample chests of lady demons now qualifies as torment, does it?”

“Well, it can chafe a bit after a while,” said Geronimo Gadzooks defensively. “Anyway, it’s my afterlife and I can be tormented any way I choose. You go get your own.”

“Listen up, shorty,” growled Scoffer, flashing his tusks. “What’s your real name?”

“Geronimo Gadzooks,” said Geronimo Gadzooks.

“Nah, what’s your real name?” insisted Scoffer. “We checked the census forms and there’s no trace of a Geronimo Gadzooks. We don’t want your bleedin’ alias.”

“My alias — or codename, as I prefer to call it — is ‘The Rodent’,” said the spirit with a hint of injured pride, “on account of my unfortunate stature and facial appearance. Geronimo Gadzooks is my real name. Of course you won’t find it on your census forms, since I wasn’t born in Lurke or its environs. I was born in Durka.”

The hairs stood up on the back of Snoo’s neck. The back of Scoffer’s orcish bull-neck was so hairy that he looked like a porcupine when the fright took him. Durka was a city state beyond the mountains that bordered the northern edge of the Lurkan plains. It was a harsh land for harsh people, who were kept in a condition of perpetual paranoia and xenophobia by the Dark Elven Secret Police. The land was ruled by a tyrant named Falroch, whose hobbies included marshalling vast armies and disembowelling dissenters with a soup ladle.

“You say you were born in Durka?” prompted Snoo nervously, hoping he may have misheard.

“That’s right,” said Geronimo’s spirit cheerily. “Lovely place, lots of lava and bracing mountain air.”

“So why were you at the Wizards’ Guild?” demanded Scoffer. “What was all that palaver with the Elemental in aid of?”

“I was at the Wizards’ Guild because I am a wizard, or at least I was before I croaked,” said the spirit bluntly. “Now I’m just a piece of ectoplasm destined to be prodded by pendulous breasts for all eternity. Which, now I come to think of it, is rather better than being a wizard. As for the Elemental, we knew there must be a back door between the wine cellars and Duke Blusterguff’s palace. My job was to locate it.”

“Why?” demanded Scoffer.

“To bump that old fart off, of course,” said the spirit. “Sneak in through the cellars, strangle the Duke, then launch an invasion during the confusion.”

“‘We’?” asked Snoo, who was pretty sharp on the uptake. “You said ‘we’ knew there must be a back door. Who’s ‘we’?”

The spirit wagged its finger at Snoo admonishingly. “Abbot, I’m surprised at you,” it said. “Your stranglehold on the gods’ testicles means that they can compel me to tell you the truth about myself, but you have no jurisdiction over souls who are still alive and evolving. So I think the identities of my co-conspirators will remain my little secret.”

“Bollocks!” snapped Scoffer. “Piss off back to Hell then, you annoying little twat.”

“Eat cheese, suckers,” chuckled The Rodent with a very rude gesture as he faded from view.

“This could be very serious, your Holy Obscenity,” said Snoo in hushed tones. “The implications are terrifying. If we lost the Duke, the Durkan military could indeed march straight into the city in the confusion.”

“Shut it, Snoo,” growled Scoffer. “We keep this to ourselves. If news of this episode ever got out, we’d look very silly. Nobody else must know. Just seal up that bloody tunnel once and for all, then no harm can come of it. No one’ll be any the wiser and the Durkans’ plans will be scuppered and there’s the end of the matter.”

“Yes, Grand Ranter, whatever you say,” said Snoo unhappily, sounding less than convinced. There were dark days ahead, he was sure of it.

Discounted Damsels

Following the recent publication of Damsels and the Dark Arts, there are now four main novels and one spin-off novel in the Damsels range, which means it’s reached that awkward age where it starts to be intimidating for new readers to come on board.  Which would be a terrible shame, as everybody needs some Damsels in their life!

To make things a little easier, I’ve decided to have a little promotion on Kindle, so that the earlier titles can be snapped up cheaply and easily, allowing the smut, filth and belly laughs to flow as they should.  So … Here’s the deal …

Rampant Damsels

Rampant Dames cover finish

The world’s first ever gutter fantasy novel, in which a group of lusty, violent, perverted women must uncover enemy spies and thwart a plot to assassinate the city’s Duke.  With booze, sordid sex, necromancy, demons, pixie flashers, inflating bottoms, disembowelments and a choose-your-own-adventure chapter to navigate a depraved dungeon and defeat a demon lord!  There’s a little trailer for Rampant Damsels on Youtube here.

From 8.00am on 7 November 2015 till 11.00pm on 10 November 2015, the Kindle edition of Rampant Damsels will be absolutely FREE.  Get it here.

Damsels in Arms

DAMSELS IN ARMS sr

Although the assassination plot has been thwarted, the city is under siege by an army intent upon rape and pillage.  All citizens, including the Damsels, are recruited to help with the defence.  Includes exploding lavatories, dirty old men in maids’ uniforms, sausages, hot pixie sex, and a Weapon of Ass Destruction.  Plus a choose-your-own-adventure chapter in which you must rescue a maiden from cruel kidnappers.  There’s a trailer for Damsels in Arms here.

Between 8.00am on 7 November 2015 and 11.00pm on 12 November 2015, Damsels in Arms is reduced in price to only 99p / 99c.  Get it here.

Damsels Go Down

Damsels go down cover kindle

Relocating to an idyllic country village where winter never happens sounds like a great idea.  Not when it involves goblins, zombies, giant hedgehogs, elder gods, tentacles,cannibals, tent show revivalists, wicker sacrifices and more anal fixation than you can shake a todger at!  But there are also dozens of hot elf girls and the obligatory choose-your-own-adventure chapter, which this time relives a day in the life of a temple prostitute!

Between 8.00am on 7 November 2015 and 11.00pm on 12 November 2015, Damsels Go Down is reduced in price to only 99p / 99c.  Get it here.

Auld Bobby Bob’s Campfire Tales For Kiddywinks

Auld_Bobby_Bob's_Cam_Cover_for_Kindle

In this spin-off, disgusting old boozer Auld Bobby Bob is given the task of keeping the children entertained.  He does this by telling them tales of his younger days, when he was a thieving, backstabbing towrag of an adventurer.  His tales include goblins, wizards, vampires, terrifying trousers, orc invasions, weregoats and sets more bad examples for kids than one man should be capable of.  Includes a choose-your-own-adventure chapter in which Bobby crosses the desert to locate an ancient, unplundered tomb.

Between 8.00am on 7 November 2015 and 11.00pm on 12 November 2015, Auld Bobby Bob’s Campfire Tales For Kiddywinks is reduced in price to only 99p / 99c.  Get it here.

Damsels and the Dark Arts

dames and the dark arts cover with titles

And if that isn’t enough, here’s the latest, freshest, most depraved and tasteless instalment yet for you!  The Damsels assist in the construction of a new city, only to be betrayed and catapulted through all manner of weird dimensions, meeting their alternate selves crewing a spaceship.  With wizards, bitch queens, testicles of various sizes, dildo manufacturers, brothels, necromancy and the total destruction of good taste.  The Damsels are back and have never been dirtier!

Damsels and the Dark Arts is not currently discounted, but it’s still a blistering good read at a cracking good price, only £1.99 / $3.02.  You can get it here.

But don’t forget that if you subscribe to KINDLE UNLIMITED, ALL the Damsels book are FREE to read PERMANENTLY!

To recap, here are the links to get the books at the reduced rates during the promotion dates:

Rampant Damsels

Damsels in Arms

Damsels Go Down

Auld Bobby Bob’s Campfire Tales For Kiddywinks

Damsels and the Dark Arts

Damsels on Display

This week saw the release of my latest novel in the Damsels series, the fourth book in the range (or the fifth if you count the side helping of short stories in Auld Bobby Bob’s Campfire Tales For Kiddywinks).  Titled Damsels and the Dark Arts, it elevates fantasy depravity to a high art.

I completed the writing of the novel about three months ago (indeed, I’ve written and published a whole other book since!), but delayed the publication because it was important to me to get the cover right.  Of all the books I write, the Damsels series is the one I love the most.  Ironically, it’s the series that sells the least, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the series that shows me as I really am.  The only readers of my books who truly ‘get’ me are the ones who ‘get’ the Damsels.  That’s not meant to be derogatory to my other books by any means, but the Damsels are what I put my heart and soul into.

So I wanted a really good cover this time around.  I spent a fortune on the cover art for Rampant Damsels, the first book, and the Damsels in Arms cover isn’t too bad.  But I was short of money for both Damsels Go Down and Auld Bobby Bob, so their covers – whilst not utterly dreadful – really aren’t as good as they should be.  So this time I was determined to wait until I could pay for decent art, because the Damsels deserve it!  It is highly likely that I will never sell anywhere near enough copies of this book to recover the cost of commissioning the artwork, but I did it for me and I love it.  After scouring artists’ sites online, I comissioned the cover art from Kelsey Bigelow and it is glorious!  And you know what?  As soon I can afford to, I’m going to commission better covers for Damsels Go Down and Auld Bobby Bob too, even though sales can never justify it.

Damsels and the Dark Arts, cover art by Kelsey Bigelow

Damsels and the Dark Arts, cover art by Kelsey Bigelow

This blog isn’t meant as a moan, by the way, but as an opportunity.  Many of my books sell really well, so that’s great.  But I’m a storyteller at heart and the Damsels are where that heart’s at, so I’ll take every opportunity to point and say, “Hey, if you like my books, these are what you should be reading!”

But what are the Damsels all about?  They’re fantasy novels and they’re comedies.  The humour is smutty, depraved and perverted.  But I think they’re also heartwarming.  For all the sex, violence and perversion in this disgusting little fantasy world, you can’t help but care about these characters.  Each book has its own main plot, but the long-running stories of the various characters weave in and out of the plot and continue across the various volumes.  Also, each book has its own interactive, choose-your-own-adventure chapter, ranging from a dungeon crawl, a rescue mission, the secret diary of a temple prostitute, a desert exploration and – in this latest book – a desperate attempt to get back home when lost on the astral plane.  These adventure chapters can be read several times, following completely different routes, and are a nod to the series’ role-playing roots.

But look!  Here’s a trailer I recently prepared for Rampant Damsels, the first book in the series, that’ll tell you more if you give it a watch!  Just click on the name, go on, I dare you!

Seriously, though, I love my Damsels and now, with a new book, I have the excuse and the opportunity to big them up once more.  If you ever liked a fantasy novel or flick, if you ever valued laughter, my friend, trust me – these are for you!

Wearing the Editor’s Hat

It’s always a great feeling to finish writing a new book.  I’ve put the final words to the manuscript and am content with a story well told.  Now I want nothing more than to put it out there and start work on the next one.  But first, I have to put on my editing hat.

By editing, I don’t mean rewrites.  My non-fiction works never require rewrites, they’re all meticulously planned from the outset and I know exactly what ground I need to cover.  And I rewrite my fiction as I go along; if something needs tweaking or changing to suit developments later in the story, I’ll make those changes right there and then while they’re fresh in my mind.  I also have my wife Celeste to help me spot any loose ends, as she reads many of my stories while they’re being written.  I’m lucky in a way, I have a really good imagination and the characters I write really come alive in my mind and before long they’re making their own decisions without any conscious manipulation on my part.  By the time I get half way through writing a novel, all I need to be aware of are the broad shape of events and the ending I’m aiming for.  The characters then shape their own reactions and responses to those events and steer their own course through the book.  I’ve had plots completely reshape themselves as a consequence of character actions that were decided by ‘them’ rather than ‘me’.

The editing I’m referring to is the painstaking checking of spelling and grammar.  It’s a chore to do, but it’s an essential part of the job.

DSCN0450

I pride myself on my high standard of spelling and grammar (British spelling, of course, what on earth do you American folks do with all your ‘u’s anyway?), but when pounding out words on a keyboard at the kind of rate that has allowed me to write a 440 page book in just two months, errors and omissions will occur.  You can’t rely on a spellchecker either:  that only spots incorrectly spelled words, not incorrectly used words.  If I type “father and so” instead of “father and son”, missing a letter, the spellchecker will find no error, but the reader will be left scratching his / her head.  And it’s even more common to muddle up the word order in a sentence, to write “He didn’t know even what he was doing” instead of “He didn’t even know what he was doing”.  Sure, the meaning is still there, but it jars to read the first version and anything that jars the reader’s mind from the flow of the story is not a good thing.

I’m in the unusual situation at the moment of having not one, but two, books in preparation for publishing.  The first is Damsels and the Dark Arts, the latest novel in the Rampant Damsels Gutter Fantasy series:  all the vulgarity, depravity and perverse hilarity you could wish for between two covers.  This one is thankfully edited now.  The book interior is print ready, just waiting for the cover art to be completed and delivered.

The other title is The Sevenfold Mystery, the latest title in the Apophis Club’s range of Draconian titles, a study and curriculum of Work based around the Enochian system of Dr John Dee.  Now this one I have cover art for and am a third of the way through the painful process of checking and rechecking my spelling and grammar (an especial bind where Enochian is concerned!)

The thing is, with every single book I have published, no matter how many times and how carefully I have checked them, I have always found some little error after the event, some niggle that escaped me and made it into print.  I apologise for these and can only say that these things happen, in spite of my high standards and the many, many hours of work spent editing.  I can comfort myself by reflecting that in recent years, I have found just as many, if not more, errors in commercially published books by huge publishing companies as in my own modest titles.  One of the most poorly formatted and edited books I ever read was a writer’s guide which insisted strongly throughout on the necessity for professional editing.

This leads me to conclude by asking people to be kind in their comments to indie authors.  I’m not asking on my own account, my spelling and grammar are good and the few errors that creep through are small indeed.  But there are a lot of indie authors out there who also have to do their own editing.  They don’t have the money or resources of the big publishing companies, but you know what, their books often contain no more errors than the big boys’.  And yet, when you look at book reviews on Amazon, you’ll find the indie author gets ripped a new arsehole for spelling a few words wrong, while nobody blinks at the big boys.  Again, this doesn’t apply to me, and I agree that good spelling and grammar are really important and help a great deal with immersion in a good book.  But don’t let these things stand between you and a good story.  Indie publishing is one of the most exciting things to happen in years, books are being written by people with a real passion for their stories.  And bear in mind that these are people who will only make a few quid – if that – from what they’re doing, it’s done for the love of it.  So show them some love in return and you may find a new world of fresh and original stories opening up to you.  Give them enough encouragement and maybe they’ll be able to edit better in future.

It’s Scribbling Time

There are a lot of writing projects on the go at the moment and some pretty major life changes to follow in the next few weeks too.  So this week’s blog is just a few minutes taken to muse over these projects.

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished writing ‘Damsels and the Dark Arts’, the latest in the smutty comedy range of gutter fantasy novels.  ‘Dark Arts’ is the fourth book in the Damsels series, or the fifth if you count the short stories collected in ‘Auld Bobby Bob’s Campfire Tales For Kiddywinks’ (which you should, they’re some of my best work).  The book interior is now print ready and just awaiting the finished cover art.  Once I have that, it’ll be published in the blink of an eye and I’ll be blogging it up big time.  So watch this space.  The Damsels are my babies, my signature series.  My non-fiction is far more successful commercially, but no matter what they’ve read by me or think they know about me, people who haven’t read the Damsels haven’t a clue what makes me tick.  This series is more truly magical than anything else I may write, even though it may be less obvious.

But speaking of magic, I blogged last week about my progress with ‘The Sevenfold Mystery’, the Apophis Club’s Enochian handbook, which ties the Heptarchia Mystica, the Watchtowers, the Enochian Calls and the Aethyrs all into a single coherent system based around the Seven Heads of the Dragon.  I’m writing this at an incredible rate of knots.  I began at the start of July and reached page 350 today.  The book will be over 500 pages when complete.  It’s a real powerhouse and a very demanding curriculum of Work, not for the faint hearted at all.  It pulls no punches, but the rewards are worth it.  With the rate I’m writing, I hope to have it written before the end of September.  Preliminary editing and proof reading are being done for me as I go, so hopefully my own edits won’t take too long and the book will appear very soon.

After that, Orry Whitehand will be producing another ‘Apophis Club Practical Guide’, this one addressing the ways to influence people through the skills of suggestion, misdirection, stage magic and hypnosis.  The first volume in this ‘How to Influence People’ sub-series will address the question of how to obtain a new job or obtain a promotion in the job you already have.

Yup, scribbling...

Yup, scribbling…

Following that, I’m going to need to write another novel to refresh me after concentrating so furiously on ‘The Sevenfold Mystery’.  So I’ll be penning ‘Vicars and Tarts’, a sequel to my erotic … well, okay, porn … novel, ‘Water Into Whine’, about a randy vicar and his parishioners.  ‘Water Into Whine’ is my biggest selling and fastest selling work of fiction, it seems everybody loves a naughty vicar.  So it’ll be fun to write another story featuring the same characters, plus a few new ones.  In this, Rev Redders and his wife are in a little village church in Scotland using a false name.  When the Grace family go to visit, they discover that Redders is under fire from both the local pagans (who believe they should have the exclusive rights to nudity and naughtiness) and the hard-liners at the chapel on the hill (who hold that nudity and naughtiness are a no-no altogether and object to the Rev’s unconventional ministry).  It’ll be the same blend of humour and shameless sex scenes as before.

Looking beyond that, there’ll be another Apophis Club title, ‘Everything and Nothing’, not a practical manual this time, but a philosophical examination of all the BIG questions.  There are more Damsels on the horizon, more of Orry’s ‘How To’ books, and of course, my autotheography, ‘The Confessions of Michael Kelly’, is always bubbling away on the back burner.  It may be that I issue this in a series of volumes as ebooks initially, dealing first with the periods people most want to read about.