The East Coast.

Taken near Bruny Island.

If you had told me that I was going to visit every single Eastern Australian Coast Capital in 2022, I would have told you to sod off because I don’t have time for such nonsense.

Yet that is precisely what I did.

It has been quite the experience to rate, compare and rank each Australian capital to each other.

Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney.

I visited them all and if you think that is the rank from best to worst, then you are absolutely correct, with a small caveat … Sydney is far, far, far worse than Hobart than what that tiny list suggests.

I would like to start this whole blog with a tiny writing exercise, in which I will attempt to capture the essence of each city in under 25 words or less.

Melbourne – The gilded metropolis, with an emphasis on contemporary aesthetics, whilst subtly weaving history and privilege into every aspect of urban planning. Attractive and convenient.

Brisbane – The River and Sun city. Picturesque, a little bit unassuming, but delightfully warm and relaxed. Far more urban, than one would expect from Queensland.

Hobart – Australian Gothic. A small city ruled by water, mountain, and fog. Scenic in the extreme, it has a dark side that creeps in via roadkill.

Sydney – The Janus town. Ugly and pretty, developed yet unkempt. Famous yet derided by all. A poorly designed mess that truly does not represent Australia well.

Melbourne – The Perfect City Design.

Obviously being born and raised in Melbourne, I have an overwhelming affection for my home town (to the point I actually visualise her as a woman, like the comic character The Spirit) but I also like to think objectively that is undeniably true that Melbourne reigns supreme over all other capitals in Australia, purely because of its brilliant urban design and planning.

It is a city that has too much money to spend on itself, and so engages in self-care constantly as well opening its doors to the world, in a way that is thought provoking. Unlike other cities in Australia, Melbourne is obnoxiously snobbish, daring every tourist and traveller to truly explore her depths whilst sneering at those who just go to the boring tourist traps.

Amusingly, even Melbourne’s tourist traps are actually well designed to ensnare people further into exploring what they have to offer. Federation Square is a good example of this philosophy … it’s not just a horrible contemporary eye-sore, it’s also host to a cinema, a gallery and several excellent restaurants and is the most popular meeting spot before an adventure into the CBD.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Melbourne though are her outer suburbs like Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond and St Kilda. Each of these unique environments boast restaurants that rival anything in the city, in fact, quite a few of them surpasses the high standards of the CBD. To have such developed and sophisticated outer suburbs is almost uniquely Melburnian, which I believe is only made possible by her extensive tram network, which allows incredible access to Victoria as a whole.

Imagine a foreign Formula 1 fan coming to Victoria, to watch the Albert Park Grand Prix. With just one tram, they can get access to the famous St. Kilda Beaches, the South Melbourne Market, Melbourne Museum and Crown Casino and if they are going from Albert Park, all they have to do is wait 10 minutes to enter the CBD itself.

If, for some reason, they continue on that 96 tram, they can go all the way to Brunswick, a hip suburb with incredible Middle Eastern food.

Melbourne’s thriving diversity, interconnectivity and sheer abundance is all due to the cleverness of her urban design. Everything is future-proofed, to ensure maximum comfort for all who live in her borders. Even the overall architecture of Melbourne is a stunning cityscape of modern and historical, with real care and respect given to the bigger picture of what Melbourne should look like and does look like.

So if Melbourne is a sweeping, expensive and carefully curated town, what does that mean for my second favourite city, Brisbane?

Brisbane – Relax by the River and Sun.

If I have one slight complaint with Melbourne, it is almost too convenient. Everything is laid out in a grid, the most sensible urban planning decision on the Eastern Coast. You don’t quite get that sense of awe for the waterway as you do in other cities because the CBD is so tucked away and neatly organised.

Brisbane though, owns her waterway like no other city. The Brisbane river is a stunning feature that perks up the cityscape the moment you cross Brisbane’s multiple bridges. Just like Melbourne, the Arts centre/entertainment complex is on the “Southbank” however it is a lot more like an attractive, expensive island, compared to Melbourne’s version.

Brisbane’s urban design is a lot like the sunny disposition the entire state of Queensland is known for; sprawling, a little bit lazy and infinitely open. The streets really allow for the sun to shine down, and the capital’s slightly hilly nature really helps you capture the sense of how big, yet approachable the city is to walk. There are a lot more open spaces in Brisbane, such as the Brisbane City Hall or the Queen Street Mall.

These design choices, really accentuate the fact that Brisbane moves as a different pace to Melbourne. There isn’t a strong sense of urgency, nor does the city have that focus on corporate culture that is so iconic to Melbourne. The buildings don’t try to scrape the sky, there are more fun and homely pop ups like a trash/treasure bargain market in front of the library and in a lot of ways, the streets encourage you to slow down, because they stretch longer without interruptions.

However, Brisbane’s buildings are also a lot older. They have this worn feeling to them, that they have existed for many years, clinging onto an older, more quaint Australia. Their arcades and strips are older, less well maintained and are actually in use more than the more ones in Melbourne, who in contrast emphasizes the gimmicky nature of them, with more niche stores like divination shops or bric-a-bracs.

The trees also overhang the street more, casting a darker shade over the streets, to offer solace from the sun. Perhaps the most telling feature of all the cities I’ve visited, is that they don’t seem willing to give up old, ill maintained shop fronts, a stark contrast to Melbourne, where the city always encourages a rapid turnover in order to keep up appearances.

By far my favourite feature of Brisbane though is the Streets Beach, which is an absolutely stunning idyllic Australian summer urban beach landscape. An actual urban beach, Street Beach overlooks the Brisbane River and the CBD, and is perfectly designed with a small tropical garden nearby, plenty of shop fronts and restaurants nearby and more important, it is the perfect location for an event, large or small.

When I walked the area of Streets Beach, I was blown away by the intuitive design and genuinely wished I could host a festival of some sort in the space.

It also made me insanely jealous that Melbourne hadn’t thought of this feature yet.

To sum up, Brisbane is the perfect getaway city. Urban enough to make you feel the city vibes, but slow enough to differentiate it from your home town.

Hobart – The dark harbour town.

Hobart is easily the smallest city out of the four. But like a small dog, it barks very loudly. It makes up for its’ size with its sheer audacity. I’ve never been to a city where there is a theme to everything. Much like her Nordic counterparts, Hobart is dictated to and by water. To experience’s Hobart magnificence is to literally see a city appear out of the fog, nestled along hills and facing the open ocean.

Driving around Hobart is a pleasure, with plenty of eye-catching moments of nature doing her best to awe you with her beauty. The snow-capped mountains are always a delight to see above the the city, clouds so close, that you can almost fool yourself into thinking you can touch them.

Back to the idea of a themed city, Hobart’s biggest focus is on the nautical. There is a Museum dedicated to all things maritime, restaurants really lean into the marine themes with riggings, pirate ships and other paraphernalia scattered everywhere as decoration and the actual heart of the city is actually based right on the waterfront.

By all appearances, entering Hobart is a lot like venturing onshore for the first time after a long voyage at sea. It is Australia’s Harbour town, small and welcoming to tourists but because of Tasmania’s isolated nature and harsher conditions, there is a chill to the friendliness.

Throughout the trip, I sensed a slight arrogance amongst those who have lived there their whole lives, knowing that they’ve managed to carve a piece of paradise for themselves and I can sense that they are a little bit unhappy to share it, despite knowing tourists like myself sustain them.

It doesn’t take long to cover the entirety of the island of Tasmania, just a three hour drive from Devonport to Hobart, but everywhere you go, you can sense the almost Nordic loneliness that permeates the island, despite its’ beauty.

And on brand with her more famous cooler Northern European counterparts, Hobart’s food is excellent, no doubt spoilt by the freshness of all her ingredients. To add further comparison, many of the residents are dressed practically with typical winter colours of dark orange, greens and similar earth tones, there are hundreds of houses that stretch up mountains and there is a strong communal sense about the city.

Everyone seemed to know each other and thus I definitely could sense how my, more fashionable choices in clothes, such as a long coat or a military outer jacket stood out from the more common down jackets and vests.

Architecture wise, Hobart captures the feeling of an older Australia, a snapshot into the past with her diverse styles all colliding together, that barely feature any modern aesthetics, a far cry from Melbourne’s ultra modern choices. This is a town proud of herself and her heritage, pushing back against change and desperately clinging onto fonder memories.

I mean, there isn’t a single 7-Eleven in Tasmania, as far as I could tell.

That itself is evidence that Tasmania, is proud to Tasmanian. It will resist globalism as much as it can, proud of its home grown nature and bounty.

Yet for all her beauty, this is the capital with the most roadkill in the nation, and houses the most singularly repellent Museum I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is actually the perfect summary of Hobart’s strangeness. Compelling in a dark sinister way, you are drawn like a moth to her weird seductive ways.

It leaves you feeling hollow, like something sucked something vital out of your soul. Museums are an important indicator of the town’s taste and values. Hobart, for all her external appeal, is far too edgy, nihilistic and repellent for me to be attracted to her any more than a surface level.

Whilst I could see myself living in Brisbane, I can only ever visit Hobart. As for Sydney … I’d do neither.

Sydney – The random rival.

Sydney disgusts me to the core. This isn’t even an objective outlook to the town, I’m just far too Melburnian to acknowledge anything good to come out of that town.

The rivalry between these two sisters east coast capital is so fierce that the government decided to compromise and create Canberra to mollify both of them.

But there is no arguing that the late development and the Gold Rush blessed Melbourne for decades to come. Sydney may be the older city, but it’s urban planning left a lot to be desired.

Arguably the most distinctive element of Sydney is just how many juxtapositions it is characterised by.

It has some of the most attractive buildings on the East Coast, yet also simultaneously the ugliest. The best example I can give of this, is the Downing Centre Local & District Court building, which has gorgeous gold accents on its classical style and is immediately eye-catching.

And the reason why it is so arresting because every single building around it, looks plain in comparison and does not complement the Downing Centre at all.

This bizarre aesthetic and design choice, is prevalent everywhere throughout the whole town. Traffic is genuinely awful because of its many one-way streets and the fact that Sydney is bisected down the middle by the Darling Harbour, thus making the layout of the city even more confusing to tourists.

To travel from one side of the CBD to the other, involves a long trip down and then up and the tram system is incredibly poor designed, with multiple lines that rarely connect with one another.

It isn’t really the fault of the town herself, but the sheer inefficiency of getting around, and essentially forcing people to take public transport to get from one end to the other, means that you don’t really get a good sense of the city and her flow.

There is a genuine arterial flow to Brisbane, Hobart and Melbourne. All of their major stations and traffic can be sensed whilst on foot.

Sydney lacks that flow, because it is simultaneously too damn big and yet curiously too small. This is a town that doesn’t know what it is. Is it beautiful or ugly? Big or small? Rich or poor?

Unlike Melbourne, where you can sense the wealth with the breadth of the street and her high level of maintenance, Sydney doesn’t possess such evidence. Too many buildings are under construction, grass growing along the road is unkempt and wild, and the trains could be a lot cleaner.

There isn’t that sense of differentiation when you get closer to the city, as you see with Brisbane, Hobart or Melbourne. Instead the same sense of inefficiency and mess still resides in the city’s centre and all you’ve really done is swap a poor neighbourhood for a poor city.

Throw in lockdown laws and a town where rent is enough to cripple you financially forever, and you got a town that you couldn’t pay me to live in, let alone stay for a night.

There aren’t really enough words to describe why I despise Sydney, but you know it is bad, when I question the aesthetic and design of some of their traffic lights.

Overall …. Melbourne is still the Queen of the East Coast.

The best overall food, bars, entertainment and culture still belongs to Melbourne. There is no city quite like her in Australia. The sheer efficiency and design behind her streets are a huge part of what makes her attractive. Melbourne is sensible, simple and deceptively smart in how she allows her visitors to explore her secrets and attractions.

She is a truly modern city, with an emphasis on elevating the CBD to a higher standard to the rest of the suburbs. To enter the city of Melbourne itself to put aside the charming bohemian atmosphere of Fitzroy or Collingwood and truly engage in business, pleasure and arts to a higher degree.

Convenience is everywhere, from free trams to catch, to hidden cafes and alleyways, everywhere you go in Melbourne, it’s easy to get lost and find your way again.

This sense of curiosity is only further bolstered by the fact that Melbourne is ever changing with the times. She will always be at the forefront of what is trending and even set the trend, because she can afford to do so.

That is why she remains the fashion capital. That is why she is the sporting capital. That is why she keeps winning the most liveable city in the world. Melbourne encapsulates the best modern Australia has to offer to the world.

That said, I enjoyed my visits to Brisbane and Hobart. Brisbane is the perfect getaway town. It is uniquely attractive because of its’ slower pace and focus on really showcasing what Queensland is all about … chill beach vibes and a less pretentious attitude. There is less snobbery in Brisbane than there are in the rest of the cities.

Brisbane doesn’t have to boast about how cool it is, the people who live there already know. They chose Brisbane as their home, because they didn’t want the hectic lifestyle of a Melburnian or a Sydney-sider, but they didn’t want to be as weird as a Hobartian.

Brisbane is the idyllic Australia. The one that is promised by all of our tourism ads. Go to Brisbane if you really want to believe in our beach advertisements.

Hobart is the forgotten small town, and it’s happy to be erased from memory. But because it’s been neglected, it has gotten a little strange in its isolation. It’s dabbling in the occult, the bizarre and the downright depraved. It’s why a festival like Dark Mofo can exist. The art depicted in Dark Mofo is definitely the worst form of creativity humanity has to offer.

Disgusting sex machines with angel wings, nihilistic pseudo art pieces, ovaries being sold as NFTs … it’s all been approved by Hobartians, as an acceptable form of expression. The constant sight of death from roadkill is getting to them. They’re getting stranger and stranger, more detached from the mainland and they’re seemingly proud of it.

Hobart is Australia’s gothic centre. It’s freezing, dark and a little disturbing.Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) fits perfectly within the atmosphere of Hobart.

To walk the streets of Hobart is to stroll the streets of one of the most attractive cities in Australia, but for some odd reason, you keep wanting to check your back, because when night falls, it gives you an eerie feeling on the back of your neck.

The less said about Sydney’s sins, the better. It will defeat Melbourne, because at its core, it’s a little bit rotten from all the lies it’s told the world.

The Opera House and the Bridge? Overrated attractions.

A city that needs to be locked down after a certain hour, cannot be her true self. She’s forever trapped in a cage. Even tiny Hobart gets to express how weird it is after dark. Sydney will never get that opportunity to be herself, until they remove those laws.

So this was my big analysis on all the major capitals of Australia’s East Coast.

I’ve chosen to ignore Canberra, because it doesn’t really count as a tourist attraction on any level, with its snake-pit of civil/public servants and politicians.

And if you haven’t guessed it yet, Melbourne is the best girl.

Always will be.

~ Damocles.

If Trouble Was Money

Numb – Gary Clark Jr.

Life was good for Daniel.

He was in the zone.

The beat was hitting just right, there was just the right amount of alcohol in his system to enjoy himself, without losing control and the girl in front of him was smoking hot.

One of his boys, a charming Scouser with a cockney accent came up to him and passed him another beer, as they continued to dance.

Daniel grinned at his friend and as the chorus swelled up, they both yelled in unison.

Beautiful, Beautiful Is Boring!
Beautiful, Beautiful Is Boring!
Beautiful, Beautiful Is Boring!
Beautiful, Beautiful Is Boring
!

Then the band, a dark edgy pair of female punk rockers, known as BONES UK, shredded their guitars and both men banged their heads away, lost in the musical moment.

Just as the music peaked, Daniel’s phone rang and he could feel it vibrate away inside his coat.

Frowning, he pulled it out and stared at the screen.

“Ahhhhh bollocks!!” cursed Daniel as he realised who it was and in an instant was sobered up.

“Harry, mate! I got to go bruv. I’m sorry man. It’s Abby.” apologised Daniel, as he pulled Harry close.

“What?! Did you say Abby? Ah sorry bruv. Yeah I get it. Go!” yelled Harry over the din of the concert.

Daniel gave his mate a hug. “I’ll catch you soon yeah? Fill you in on the tea soon bruv.”

“No worries man. You mind if I chirps your peng ting though?”

Daniel laughed and cuffed Harry around the head. “Tosser! Yeah go for it, ya numpty.”

Harry grinned at Daniel’s consent and immediately forgot his best mate, as he focused his attention on the girl who Daniel was hitting on for the entirety of the concert.

As Daniel started to make his way through a raucous crowd, he looked down at his hand and realised that Harry had stolen the beer from his hand and was now offering to the attractive blonde.

Laughing to himself, Daniel grabbed his coat from the check out chick at the front desk and made his way back out into London.

At a tall, lean, 185 centimetres tall, with dark ebony skin and a magnetic smile, Daniel Abara’s model looks were only accentuated by his grey tweed coat and tortoiseshell glasses that made him look younger. He was the iconic British upper class schoolboy. Confident, polite, always up for a good time and impeccably dressed for any shenanigans, illegal or otherwise.

Women and men would stare at him, as he walked down the street, entranced by his natural cocky swagger. Daniel Abara was truly on top of the world.

Except for this one girl.

Hunching himself into his coat to protect himself from the iconic English weather, Daniel pulled out his phone and rang back Abby.

“Abby? Hi! Where are you?” asked Daniel urgently.

“Oh Danny, I’m a mess right now. Please help me. I’m at St. James Square. Please hurry.”

Looking down at his dress shoes, Daniel swore inwardly and began to break into a jog. Replying back to Abby calmly over the phone, Daniel said “OK Abby. Hang on. I’ll be there in a jiffy.”

From the Wigmore Hall to St. James Square, was a solid mile, in the direction of the Thames. As his feet pounded the pavement, Daniel wondered to himself, how many times it was now, that Abby would call him up in the middle of a night and ask for help.

Probably a solid dozen by now thought Daniel as he ran down New Bond St, ignoring the horns that blared at him angrily from behind.

Why I keep helping this chick is beyond me. Before he could query his own statement further, he saw the picturesque garden of St. James Square.

Running through the gate, Daniel scanned the small garden anxiously, before his brown eyes settled on a lonely girl, her long legs up to her chin, her pale arms around herself, as she rocked silently on the bench.

“Abby…” whispered Daniel as he moved towards her. This situation looked different to the previous rescues. There was something haunted in the way how one of his oldest friends moved.

Keeping his hands in front of him, Daniel moved slowly towards Abby, concern suffusing his handsome dark features.

Up close, Abigail Robinson was your definition of a stunning attractive British blonde. Svelte, elegant, refined and almost too good looking. No matter the angle, Abigail presented flawlessness and seduction. Full lips, a straight nose, large blue eyes and a strong, sharp pair of eyebrows. A slender body that had enough curves to draw attention, without sacrificing fashion appeal.

When she smiled, dimples graced her cheeks that would stop traffic. But it was when she was crying, Abby’s true magnetism shone through. Her big blue eyes would hold your attention and melt everything away, until only her problems existed in the world.

It was her melancholy that made her an overnight sensation.

Abigail was one of England’s most in-demand It girls, gracing both magazine covers and nightclubs with equal abandon. Her star was rising and it seemed to Daniel, that his friend of 10 years was soon going to outgrow him.

To see her here, all alone, without an entourage to look after her was something extremely bizarre. Especially with the way how Abigail was dressed, a golden low-cut shimmering dress that shone under the amber lights of London.

Daniel walked up to her, unsure if it was really his friend.

“Abby?” asked Daniel in a half whisper.

The girl looked up, tears running down her cheeks, and sobbed in relief.

“Danny! Oh, thank God you’ve come.”

Daniel instinctively took off his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. Sitting down next to her, he placed his hand across her shoulders and brought her in close.

“Abby, what the hell is going on? What are you doing out here alone?”

Abigail looked at his gentle expression and unable to control herself, burst into tears. Daniel recoiled slightly in shock, before bringing her in even closer, her arms wrapping themselves around his torso.

“It’s alright Abby. It’s OK. I’m here.” whispered Daniel soothingly. He rubbed her back tenderly, confused and concerned as one of his oldest friends continued to cry into his chest.

“What happened Abby?” asked Daniel in between her sobs. But she remained mute. Sighing, Daniel looked around at the desolate park and winced. Pulling out his phone, he called for an Uber before nodding seriously to himself, considering his options as he noted the 4 minute wait.

OK, first thing first. Just like any Abby rescue mission. Let’s look for her kit. thought Daniel, as he looked around for any of Abby’s possessions, as she clung to him desperately.

“Take it easy, darling. Did you bring anything else out here, other than your phone?”

Abby merely shook her head in his chest. “OK. I just called an Uber. We’re going to your place OK?”

Abby violently shook her head.

“OK, OK. We’ll go to mine then.”

Abby nodded silently.

“Christ Abby …you’ve really outdone yourself this time.” as Daniel settled back and continued to rub her back comfortingly.

The shudders started again. Daniel sighed again, in as many minutes.

They stayed together for a few minutes, with only the sounds of the city and her sobs to accompany their lonely comfort. Just as Abby began to relax in his chest, the lights of Daniel’s Uber flashed through the trees of St. James Park. Daniel shook Abby gently, however she refused to move.

Wrapping his arms under her legs, Daniel effortlessly lifted one of Britain’s top models and carried her to the car, where the considerate Uber driver recognised the situation immediately and hopped out to get the back door. Daniel nodded his thanks and placed her down gently in the backseat, before doing up her seatbelt and climbing in himself.

“Sorry bruv, but slight change. Instead of Camden, can we go here instead?” Daniel punched in the new coordinates for his apartment in Greenwich to the app.

“Yeah, all good, guv. She alright?” asked the driver, concerned.

“Yeah, she’ll be OK.” said Daniel curtly, shutting down the conversation.

The ride to his apartment took less time than he anticipated and Daniel left a 5 pound tip for the driver, when he opened the door again, as Daniel carried the wreck of an Abigail Robinson into his apartment complex, where he flashed the security guard with his ID dangling from his mouth.

By now, Abby was almost asleep, her consciousness fading in and out of her emotional state.

The guard raised an eyebrow but buzzed him through, calling the elevator to the 7th floor. Daniel nodded politely in gratitude. The whole night was only going smoothly due to the kindness of strangers.

As Daniel stumbled out of the elevator, his arms burning, he set her down on the floor before swiping open his apartment and holding the door open with a foot, whilst he bought her in, before placing her on his bed.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Daniel wrapped his blanket over Abigail, before heading into the bathroom to change.

As he shoved his dirty clothes in the laundry, Daniel caught a glimpse of himself in his hallway full length mirror. The tired, stressed Daniel that looked back, was a far cry from the easy going version only an hour earlier, and a lot less impeccably dressed, with tracksuit pants and a worn dark grey shirt with the words of his favourite band, MUSE written across it in block letters.

Shaking his head, Daniel walked into his kitchen and put the kettle on, pleased that at least his apartment was clean. It was large, even by London standards, spacious enough to fit a small home gym, and a walk-in wardrobe. A spare bedroom operated as his study, which was filled with custom military jet models that he had painted and collected over the years.

Glancing at the antique clock that hung on the wall, he sighed at the sight of the hands reaching out to 1am and walked back into his room, to check that Abby was fast asleep.

Grabbing a spare blanket and pillow, and smiling forlornly at his friend, Daniel walked out into his kitchen, switched off the kettle just before it was about to whistle and made a comfortable makeshift bed on his couch.

Flicking on the TV, Daniel settled himself in with a cup of hot chocolate, some digestives and surfed the channels, until he came across a relaxing music channel that only played progressive rock.

In what seemed like only moments later, Daniel woke up, bleary eyed, to feel a weight on his shoulder. Abby had woken up, changed and was now only wearing one of his large T-shirts, another one from his rock collection, a white print of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Her bare legs were stretched out next to his, her blue eyes were closed, as her long blonde hair flowed down his chest.

How many times has this happened and I’ve done nothing about it. wondered Daniel. Sitting up, Daniel heard Abby sleepily moan, as his comforting warmth faded away from her and she also began to wake up.

As Abby stretched, Daniel looked up at his clock again and winced. 3am in the morning. Still, no time like the present to have a deep and meaningful conversation.

Shrugging internally to himself, he put on the kettle again and waited in the kitchen, whilst Abby covered herself with a blanket to keep the chill away.

Pouring out hot chocolates again, Daniel handed one to Abby, who nodded her thanks gratefully.

Sitting at the end of the couch, their legs touching mid way across the leather, Daniel raised a suggestive eyebrow over the lip of his coffee mug.

Abby licked her lips nervously and sighed heavily.

“I fucked up big time Danny and I’m paying the price for it.”

Daniel looked at her concerned. “How did you fuck up Abby? What happened tonight? Where was everyone? I mean, where’s Topher, your manager? He’s always by your side.”

“That’s the thing Danny, Topher is the problem. He … He …” Abby’s tears began to flow as she struggled to get the words out. “He …” Abby began to gag as the memories came flooding back.

Sensing the coming eruption, Daniel reacted quickly, slid his hot chocolate onto the coffee table, grabbed the nearest waste bin with liner and placed it under her mouth, whilst holding her mug with his free hand.

Abby vomited. Desperate, emotional and traumatic dry heaving. Her whole body was convulsing with shame, fear and disgust.

Daniel knew deep down what had happened, but he was too shocked to truly grasp what had happened to his beautiful friend.

Handing her a tissue to wipe her mouth, Daniel got up and grabbed an diffuser, to waft away the smell of bile.

This time though, Daniel sat down next to her and put his arms around her. Her body was still shaking, but it calmed down slightly when he softly stroked her head.

“He raped you didn’t he …” said Daniel with a terrible finality.

Abby nodded. She didn’t have the strength to say it. To say it aloud, would be to acknowledge that everything inside she was feeling was true.

“Oh Abby … I’m so sorry.” whispered Daniel. There was nothing more he could say. He didn’t know what the hell to do.

Normally, when Abby was in trouble, it was literally as simple as picking her up, taking her home, tucking her into bed and sticking around, until they both woke up in the morning and she would rant about her wild night over mugs of hot chocolate and left over sourdough.

Daniel knew then, that there wasn’t going to be any sleep. So he stayed beside the broken British model, softly stroking her hair, and her shoulder, silently trying to inject some strength back into her, as his long time friend clung onto him, despairing and trying to forget, but unable to remove the pain she felt in her heart and in her stomach.

It was around 7am, when Abby finally found the strength to be more herself. She took a ragged breath and tried again. Daniel squeezed her shoulders encouragingly.

“That’s it Abby. There’s only one way through this, girl.” Daniel paused and lifted her chin, so that she could look at his earnest brown eyes. “Tell me what happened and we’ll sort it out together, I promise.”

“I feel so disgusting Danny.” said Abby sadly. “I can still feel him inside of me and I can’t get rid of him. I hate myself so much right now.”

Tears streaked down her cheeks, but this time the convulsions weren’t as strong. She was slowly coming to terms with her trauma.

“I went out alone tonight. It was just Topher and me, going out to Luv, the nightclub. After the week I had, fucking 3 shoots in a row, I just wanted to let loose tonight.”

“I wasn’t thinking straight Danny. I really wasn’t. By the time I got changed, I was already a bit tired. I actually thought about cancelling and staying at home, but Topher insisted … he told me that this was the perfect way to relax.”

“God, I’m so stupid. My whole life, I’ve always let other people tell me what is good for me. Like they know me better than I do. I wasn’t feeling it at all last night. I thought Topher understood that, so about an hour in, I asked him to get me a glass of water.”

“I honestly don’t know what happened after that. I think he roofied me … because the next thing I remember, I’m inside a cab and he’s touching me everywhere and I can’t control my body.”

Abby dry-heaved again as her body relived the sensations. Daniel hugged her tighter, horrified.

Wiping her mouth with a wet tissue, Abby took a ragged breath.

“Next thing I know, I’m in my apartment and he’s lifting my dress and he … he fucking RAPED me Danny.”

Painful sobs wracked Abby’s slim frame and she began to bawl her eyes out in earnest at her confession.

“Oh God … Oh my fucking God … I …think I …”

“No, No, No.” whispered Daniel. “Let’s not go there. I’ve heard enough. It’s OK. We’ll get through this, I promise.”

Abby nodded slowly. “Thank you Danny. God … you’ve always been here for me, but I’ve treated you like shit. I’m so sorry. Oh my God, I didn’t even ask you what you were doing before you came for me … I’m the worst. I’m so sorry Danny. I really am. I’m such a fucking toxic mess …”

“Oh for the love of God, it’s OK Abby.” smiled Daniel ironically. “An abandoned Bones concert is skint to what you went through tonight. Come on, we got to get you cleaned up. You want something to eat?”

Abby nodded vigorously. “Please.”

“OK, well, jump into the bathroom and take a hot shower. Trust me, it’ll make you feel a lot better. I’ll get some bacon, eggs and toast going out here.”

For the first time, since the fateful phone call, Abby could stand on her own. Daniel nodded approvingly at her, proud. “That’s it. You got this, girl. Brekkie will be waiting for you when you come out”

As the sounds of the shower running and the crackle of bacon mixed together, Daniel looked over at his stereo and put on a slow song: Sway as sung by Anita Kelsey.

Laying out two plates and piling a generous serving of eggs and waiting for the shower to stop, before toasting the bread, Daniel poured out two glasses of orange juice and smiled at Abby, who came out, rubbing her long blonde hair with a towel, still dressed the same way.

“Thank you Danny.” said Abby gratefully as she sat cross legged on the kitchen chair.

Daniel nodded silently as he leaned back on the kitchen counter, drinking his orange juice thoughtfully.

Abby ate gratefully, the food slowly restoring some sanity to her fractured mind. A question suddenly burned in her mind and she looked at Daniel with a slight panic, as a realisation struck her.

“Can I ask you something Danny?” queried Abby with a hint of trepidation in her voice.

“Yeah, course you can, what is it?” replied Daniel.

“This is going to sound really dumb, but I just realised that whenever I’ve needed you, you’ve always dropped everything for me. Can I ask why?”

Daniel felt his breath catch, as he beheld the girl who he had fallen for a long time ago, but could never quite articulate how he truly felt.

He looked away from her blue eyes, unable to really express himself.

“You know why Abby. I think you’ve always known. But I guess the timing was never quite right between us.”

Abby looked away from Daniel. “I’m sorry, Daniel. I truly am. But I don’t see you that way …”

Daniel took a deep breath. “I know Abby. I’ve known that for a long time too. I’ve gotten over you in a lot of ways, but not enough to stop helping you when you need it. We’ve been friends for a long time, and that hasn’t changed.”

“I’m a toxic mess Danny. You don’t need me in your life. You need a woman who got her shit together. I mean look at me … I honestly don’t deserve any better. I ..”

“Hey!” interrupted Daniel. “You didn’t deserve what happened to you last night. What Topher did to you was fucked. And I sure as shit, ain’t gonna let him get away with it. Who knows who else he’s done this to? No, Abby, we’re going to get that bastard. You definitely did not deserve what happened.”

Daniel moved closer to Abby, holding her hands.

“What happened to you Abby? You’ve changed so much over the years. You’re not the same girl I remembered when we first met. Do you remember what happened?”

“I kicked your bully in the head.”

“That’s fucking right. You stood up for me, when I was being bullied at school. No one else did that for me. What happened to that feisty, hellraiser? You need to be that girl again.”

Abby looked away from Daniel’s brown eyes and stared at their entwined hands.

“I’m not sure I can be that girl again Danny. I don’t even know if she still exists.”

“You got to find her again Abby. Because at least that girl knew what she wanted to do with her life. The one before me … she’s on a bad track and it doesn’t look like she knows how to get off.”

Abby sighed heavily. “I know Danny. I know.”

She looked up at Daniel, transfixing him with her blue, melancholy eyes again. Every time, Daniel always fell for them. They were too mesmerising to ignore, too deep to not fall for and far too expressive to dismiss.

“But seriously, Danny. Thank you. I don’t know where I’ll be without you.” Abby squeezed his hands and kissed him gently on the cheek.

“Any time.” said Daniel with a smile.

Author’s Note

It’s been a while since I last wrote something and I can already sense the rust when I was writing this story. It’s a bit meandering in places and arguably, I’m not too happy with the conclusion.

This is a shame, because I actually had a really strong idea on where this was headed, but then my holiday came and put everything on hiatus and thus I lost track of the pulse.

I was inspired to write this, because I’ve been recently thinking about my new lifestyle and how much easier it is for me to be supporting friend, than what I used to be. Whether its a new-found confidence or better perception into people, I’m a bit more abuzz with the ability to comfort and reassure people that things will be alright.

Anyway, whilst I wasn’t super happy with this one, even bad drafts get published on this blog, so hope it wasn’t to terrible to read!

Until the next one

~ Damocles.

Being the Firstborn

When I compare you to other guys, I just think to myself, Damocles wouldn’t have done that. He would have taken care of that differently. It’s strange … none of the guys I know just help people, because they want to. But you do.

When I look back at my own life, all I see is a boy who became a man extremely quickly, because he truly believed that you were never too young to die.

There was almost zero hesitation, in how much I wanted to transform myself into an adult. I had no particular illusions about the “romance” behind childhood. I didn’t want to be babied or treated like some naive child.

I wanted to be a man.

Part of that mantle, meant that I had to grasp the concept of “responsibility” early on. I had to learn how to deal with the stress, the commitment and the rigours of accepting tasks. I couldn’t fail in doing things, because they were now in my charge.

I was beholden to my word.

And the only difference between me and a child, is that I am answerable to something greater. People are counting on me to do right by them, and I can’t let them down. Nor will I ever let my standard slip.

I’m stressing this, because recently, I’ve come to realised that I’ve always behaved like the oldest sibling in any scenario. It doesn’t matter whether the person is a stranger or a close friend, I’m always going to default back to the big brother act.

This means that I can’t drink as much if at all. I’m not allowed to let people out of my sight. I’m always watching for trouble. Cleaning up after people. Making sure everything is going smoothly. Checking up on whether people are OK. Driving people home.

I literally can’t relax properly. Perhaps, I never really will. There’s always some kind of duty I have to fulfill wherever I go.

If I could describe this feeling, it would be one similar to a military or police officer, who happens to be off-duty. You can’t switch off your situational awareness or the mantle of responsibility that you carry on your shoulders.

You just have to embrace the fact that you are always going to be more conscientious, more alert and more dutiful than the average person out there.

I’m not bitter about it either.

I think I learned that about myself ever since I was a teenager and my indecisive friends couldn’t find a spot to eat. I would take charge and literally march all ten of us into a restaurant that actually had space for us and help them order their food.

Even then, at the dumb age of 17, I was looking after people. Solving problems for them, that seemed easy to me to break down into logical conclusions and steps.

Do you feel like chicken? OK. You don’t like sauce right? OK, so avoid that dish. Yeah, yes. You want to eat that one. Hi, waiter, yeah this table is going to have ….

It’s come to the point now, where the menu is automatically handed to me and I’m ordering for the table.

But it’s not just that either. Having worked years in hospitality and now retail, these industries have left an undeniable mark on my personality and attitude.

Beyond my no-bullshit outlook to life and my favouritism to people who have thankless jobs, I am always conscientious about how I treat staff.

I clean up after myself in food courts, placing my tray at the bins, instead of leaving them at the table and am always trying to be as friendly as I can be and make staff jobs as easy as possible.

I don’t even like doing refunds, because I know it affects people’s KPIs and so I make an effort to get my size right, the first time. It’s the least I can bloody do.

I know how rough it is, and I will never try to make life more difficult for the staff than it has to be. Because hospitality was my first real job, I’m always thinking about how tough it is for the workers, and the shit they deal with. I’ve been there and done that and been disgusted by some of the thoughtlessness that people espouse at workers.

I never want to be that customer that ruins some poor, humble employee’s day. I do my best to assist, from stacking plates, delivering dirty glasses, eating neatly and tidily and reading the room when they clearly want us to leave.

Even when it comes to the humble cleaners, I make an effort to smile and nod at them, to show some appreciation. It is these unrewarding jobs that always tug at me constantly. At work, in the big shopping centre, I’m always trying to make an effort to acknowledge these poor guys, for all the walking and invisible work they do.

Picking up rubbish is another big proponent of my life, that started way back when I was in primary school and participated in my first ever Clean Up Australia Day. I found it immensely gratifying to clean up areas that have been littered and even though I am not as conscientious as I should be nowadays, I still make an effort to pick up rubbish if it is near me and near a bin.

Some people would call it being ridiculously Japanese about it all, but I really just see it as “if I can do it, then do it.”

All these examples were listed to me by my partner, whose quote I used above.

Which honestly, pleased but also puzzled me.

Because when I look at my behaviour, I don’t really have a proper answer as to why I do what I do, except … something incredibly lame called duty.

I hear that call of duty constantly in my head. I can probably track it back to my obsession with the military and always feeling the need to be ready to serve the greater good.

But if I look further than that, I suppose I resonate strongly with the mythology behind America’s Greatest Generation, men and women who responded to the call of duty, honour and country without hesitation. They put their health, lives and livelihood on the line, because it was the right thing to do.

Nothing lesser or greater.

Just doing something, because it’s the right thing to do. No reward, no praise, no bragging, just doing a good deed because it should be done.

It explains why I love the modern comic book myth behind Steve Rogers, and if I was to dive even deeper than that, I can probably thank my Christian upbringing for a lot of my moral compass’ decisions.

Whilst I’m more or less atheist, with a teenage obsession for Christian mythology (not religion) and an appreciation for Zen Buddhism, my upbringing was relatively devout.

I am baptised and confirmed, my younger self being quite into the religion, to the point where I was rereading my favourite stories from the Bible, out of sheer joy of reading an exciting story.

I suppose I’ve never really acknowledged just how much of an impact Christianity had on me growing up. It was always something I’ve dismissed, because of my current attitude towards religions and in a way, I am faintly embarrassed about the whole thing.

There is no mistaking though, the effect of being a Christian had on me though. I’m tougher on myself than most people are, more aware of my actions having a significant impact and more guilt-prone than the average person.

Guilt … it’s something that always weighs heavily on my mind. I despise the concept of Original Sin as much as anyone, it’s stupid, unnecessarily harsh and overbearing.

I still can’t deny the fact though, that I always feel like I am doing good things to secure some mythical spot up there. It’s foolish and I’ve often said with plenty of bravado that I’d rather go to Hell, than obey some phony God who thinks he can dictate what I can and can’t do.

Still, the fact that it plays on my mind, all the time, is an indication that at some fundamental level, I can’t shake that belief away.

I think that hidden fear, is what drives so much of my good intentions. I always care about people who are below me, work hard to make my friends happy and do my best not to burden them too much with my own problems.

I pick up rubbish, clean up after myself, eat neatly to avoid creating additional mess and am constantly greeting people in thankless jobs.

Hell, I even have this habit of giving a thoughtful salute to every single first responder I see blitz past me with their blue and reds flashing.

It all comes so naturally to me, that I didn’t even realise what a Boy Scout I am, until it was pointed out to me.

In a lot of ways, I treat my elder brother status almost too seriously. I should really just turn off this side of me and learn to loosen up, but it’s so deeply ingrained that I can’t help it.

I find myself rearranging empty plates, tidying up napkins, and serving water to my friends, when I don’t have to. It’s autopilot now, a role that I’ve accepted with both hands.

Sacrificing my fun for others, but not in any way where I expect thanks. I just enjoy it now, being the sober, responsible one and I know how to unlock the fun side of me, so that I can put people at ease around me.

After all, no-one really likes the guy who is the only sober one, when everyone else is blasted.

But that’s part of the role I inhabit. I’m always going to be one that makes sure you get home safe, the one who is always in control of any situation, the guy you know you can depend on, to have your back and make sure nothing happen to you.

You can start the fights, but I’ll be the one that will come in and finish them for you.

I used to wonder what it must feel like, to know that someone has your back always, that there is a warm reassuring presence by your side any time, anywhere, until one day I realised, that there was no-one who would ever provide that feeling for me, because I filled that void for them.

So I just had to fend for myself, and be the self-sufficient, tough sonvuabitch I was born to play.

Being the firstborn taught me the power of responsibility. I had to look after people under me, age, experience or rank wise. I had to grow up faster, smarter and deadlier than everyone beneath me.

Perhaps I learned this lesson so early on, I’m not afraid of leadership or being the responsible figure in people’s chaotic lives. I didn’t mind being different to my peers. Yes, I was duller than your fun-loving type, but infinitely more capable and dependable and eventually that would shine through.

When you’re the oldest child, duty is thrust upon you, whether you want it or not.

It’s up to you whether you listen to that call of duty.

I made it my mission to always answer, no matter how big or small the task is.

Because at the end of the day, you’re only ever going to answer to the standard that you walk past.

And despite being a civilian, I’ll always try to uphold the highest echelon and standards of military service members.

Because that is the kind of human being I want to emulate.

~ Damocles.

Just Surrender

Still one of my favourite fight scenes ever.

I can taste blood.

Metallic, tangy and weirdly addicting.

Running a finger along my mouth, I can feel the sharp prick of a split lip and I lick at it, relishing the pain, to sharpen my focus.

A big right hook sweeps in towards to my eye and I lean back, allowing the knuckles of the Turk to brush across my chest.

His back was now to me. The worst position for any fighter.

Stepping in close, I softened his torso with a right handed blow to his ribcage, before scything my left elbow towards his face.

The fight should have ended there.

Instead, the Turk saw the move coming and he ducked his chin, allowing the brunt of my elbow’s force to dissipate against his strong forehead.

Grimacing, I keep my momentum going, to break free of the close quarters we were in, and we both glared as each other, as we stood on opposite ends of the fighting square.

Our chests heaving from physical exertion, I decided to take quick stock of the situation I was in.

The iconic smell of sawdust mixed with centuries of beer and blood perfumed the air and set the scene for exactly what this fight was: a pub bash, with 70-ish people crammed in a small space, baying for more blood.

The ring wasn’t exactly circular, more a square that was commonly used to herd in fresh cattle on market days. Straw matted the floor, making our fight perilously slippery and it didn’t help that spilled beer sploshed constantly, as the crowd cheered on the Turk who came stumbling forward, his dark face twisted in a fierce scowl.

The cheers turned to boos, as I dodged out of the way and tripped him with my feet, causing him to crash into the wall and knock over 3 over enthusiastic men, their coats and beer mugs flying into the air, as they stumbled back into a less than happy crowd.

For a man so large, the Turk was extremely nimble. He was sheer muscle, a former strongman that worked at a circus, lifting heavy items and astonishing people with his muscle mass.

Which, to me, meant that he was a tiny bit slower than the fighters I was used to, but also a lot damn harder to take down.

Hitting his body, was like punching a wall.

But I had to persevere. I could tell that the last punch to his torso hurt him, more than he was anticipating. And that was because, this entire fight, I was just aiming at that one spot, dodging and dancing, counter-attacking at that single spot, just underneath his ribcage.

Already I could see that his dark complexion was even darker in that spot, ugly purple bruising mottling the skin. His right arm wasn’t as quick anymore, and the recovery move to protect himself was now significantly slower.

Despite these percieved disadvantages though, I was getting thoroughly trashed.

My knuckles bled from hitting such hard muscle all the time. I couldn’t feel the right side of my face properly, and there was a gash above my left temple, where his fist had nearly split my head open.

Blood was dripping constantly from my left brow, causing me to wipe at it constantly and I was now favouring my left side, after a monstrous blow nearly split my kidney in two.

I was losing.

The Turk though, was still hesitant to finish me off. He was still wary of me, my counter-punches that had slowed him down, enough to cause doubts in his mind.

I had also worked out a simple trick. Every time I wiped my bloody brow, he would advance and try to get into my blind side. Then he would feint to my strong side, before coming at me from my bleeding left side, eager to give me another trashing.

I knew that this was his favoured strategy, but I had to apply my knowledge carefully. It had to be for the final blow. I was recovering still, gathering my wits, will and fists for a final attack.

Both he and I had been here for too long, the match that was supposed to be over in seconds, now dragging out the minute hand of the grandfather clock, where the pub owner stood with everyone’s bets.

Our breathing was getting heavier and heavier, the Turk’s grunts as he threw punches louder and more savage, and my feet were starting to drag sawdust, straw and blood along the ground, instead of nimbly dancing above them.

The next hit, rocked me to the floor. The Turk had feinted with his right shoulder, before coiling his left hand into a fist and sending a massive sternum punch that launched me backwards and left me kneeling on the floor, coughing.

The Turk, sensing my weakness, charged forwards, eager to deliver a final king hit that would win the fight once and for all. His huge dark body, glistening with sweat, his face contorted into a viciously smug scowl, bared down on me.

The crowd screamed and cheered as they sensed the fight ending. Flecks of beer foam rained down on the fighting square.

I wiped my bloody brow.

The Turk just went straight for my blind side, coming in hard and fast towards my “unseeing” left side.

Just as the Turk pumped the brakes, and raised his right leg to kick me square in the face, I swiftly moved my head out of the way, allowing his leg to rest on my left shoulder and uppercutted the bastard right in the nuts.

The crowd instantly fell silent.

The Turk’s face went purple from the pain, and before he could even reach down and cup his balls, I placed both of my hands on his knee that was outstretched in front of me, and chopped down brutally, nearly breaking the joint.

The Turk toppled backwards as I released him. He screamed in pain, tears streaking down his face. Incredibly he was still standing, his breathing coming hard and ragged, his damaged right leg, hobbling behind him.

The Turk hissed in intense pain as he glared at me pitifully.

It was time to end this.

I feinted to the spot that I had been hammering away for the entirety of the fight, and the Turk dropped his arm to protect himself. However, as his head drooped down, I stepped in and chopped an overhead elbow, right into the side of his head.

The Turk barely had any time to react, as his head was promptly met by my rising knee that sent his neck cracking back up the other way.

I cut my elbow across his face for good measure, and the Turk spun around.

The poor bastard was now stunned, defenceless and barely conscious.

Discombobulated.

But still, he was standing.

Taking a step back, to the deafening silence of a stunned crowd, I ran forward, like the Turk had done to me, but this time, I knew that he was truly done.

Jumping up, I raised my knee and slammed it, right into the spot just underneath his ribcage, where his kidneys were.

A sickening crack could be heard, as I broke two of his ribs and an even louder crash swiftly followed, as the Turk smashed onto the floor, completely unconscious.

I landed on my feet, and gasping for air, I raised my right fist in silent triumph, before wiping bloody spittle from my mouth, and spitting in the corner.

No one could believe what had just happened. Looking over at the pub owner, who nodded in respect, I opened the door to the fighting square, and grabbed a spare towel, from a stunned patron, wiping myself off before collapsing into a chair.

The pub owner grabbed a bottle of whiskey and threw it underhanded at me. I barely caught it in time, but the moment I ripped off the cork with my mouth and chugged a good portion of it, I could feel a hint of pride in still being able to function adequately, despite the immense damage to my body.

The stunned crowd then cheered raucously and clapped loudly, as the pub owner broke the spell by yelling “Alright lads, show’s bloody over. Come and get your winnings!”

Random men came up to congratulate me, clapping me on the shoulder, shaking my hands and throwing me respectful nods.

As the bar attendants cleared the ring and carried away the Turk upstairs, I sighed and took stock of my injuries, gratefully dousing my bloody knuckles into a pitcher of cold water that one of the bar’s local prostitutes bought over.

She was pretty too, with blonde hair, green eyes and porcelain skin that whipped at the senses, when you noticed her plunging decolletage.

Always after a dollar, I thought to myself as she came up and gently stroked my shoulders, sitting astride me with a naughty tempting smile playing across her red lips.

“Good fight out there lad. Need some help loosening up?” whispered the girl into my ears, she gently massaged a knot in my shoulder.

“I’m not sure I qualify as a very attractive client right now, lass” I replied as I close my eyes, enjoying the way how she is digging into my back.

That’s never stopped me before, has it now, Jack?” said the girl teasingly.

“No Lucy, it certainly hasn’t.” I smiled at her.

“Come on then, let’s get you upstairs and cleaned up. Otherwise some of the other girls might get the wrong idea.”

Lucy pointed looked at the other girls, who were glaring enviously at us. No doubt they were angry that Lucy and I had a long term understanding, thus she would get the first pick. After all, I was a man who had just made a lot money in a fight and all these girls wanted a piece of me, no matter how badly I looked.

Lucy was still continuing her ministrations as I sighed and swallowed the rest of the whiskey.

“You’re insatiable Lucy. I don’t know what is worse, not knowing whether you’re after me or my winnings.”

Lucy pouted prettily at me as she allowed me to wrap my arms around her shoulders and we slowly climbed the stairs to one of the spare rooms above the pub.

Looking back, I could already seeing the next fight about to commence, this time a young aristocratic looking boxer taking on an wiry Indian. The crowded bayed once again, and I shook my head before looking ahead and wondering if my body was even going to perform for the next strenuous exercise.

Lucy, sensing my trepidation, gave me a cheeky smile.

“It’s OK, Jack. I promise you own’t have to fight much. Just surrender to me darling.”

~

Author’s Note:

This one was astonishingly easy to write and it was all because of an tennis injury I sustained recently. Going for a forehand, I misjudged the timing, and complete with the sun in my eye, ended up smashing my racquet into my lip, cutting the inside and leaving me with a split lip.

So inspired by the strange new look I had to sport for a few days, I wrote this and was very happy that everything was quite smooth to write. I obviously based it off the Sherlock Holmes slow motion fight scene in the pub but made my guy a bit more of a dirty fighter and tried to pay more homage to the setting with the inclusion of different ethnicities being forced to fight for money.

Hope it was as fun to read as it was to write!

~ Damocles.

Earlwood (Fantasy Draft Chapter One)

Reign of Fire (2002). An underrated gem.

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.

Cold sleet rain bracketed the moorland as pools of water slowly gathered in depth, rising with each rivulet that ran down the slopes of the Valley of Earls.

Running equally as fast as the water across the Valley, was the terrifying shadow of a dragon.

Terrifying, awe-inspiring and legendary, the recent accidental re-discovery of dragons could be attributed to man’s constant pursuit of technological advancement.

The project known as the Albion’s Underground, was a complex and ambitious transport project that was going to transform the rail network across the country. Tunnels were to appear all across the entire nation, creating a super network of trains that would connect every citizen to every major and minor city.

But as the projected advanced, strange stories began to emerge.

Strange tremors spooked the workers early. Then came the discovery of large stones that resembled eggs. It wasn’t until the stories of huge caverns that were not made by man that the public began to fear.

Then came the first death. A simple man, Robert Mayor, father of two sons, a loving husband, a dedicated miner, accidentally struck what seemed like a spiky wall.

Within moments, superheated flames spewed viciously from an open cave mouth, and extinguished Robert Mayor in seconds.

From that moment on, the age of Man bowed before the Era of Dragons.

The dragon that flew over the shallow pools of water, was atypical of its species. Males were smaller than female dragons, and more brightly coloured, despite their stony complexion. It wasn’t uncommon for males to have a more reddish tinge to their dark, granite skins, with different eyes. Their fire was also more amber, than bright red.

These biological differences mattered little, when dragons could fly in speeds of 300km/h, boasted an average wingspan of 60 metres, weighed 30 tons, had nearly impenetrable scaly spiky armoured skin and whose breath could melt anything it touched at a scorching 200 degrees Celsius.

But this was the scientific view of dragons. What they represented to the survivors of humanity, to the final, dwindling population that once ruled the world, was extremely potent. These dragons were once the stuff of mythical legend, now a horrific reality. They were monstrously terrifying. Within 3 years, humanity lost almost everything, dominion of the water and earth, superseded by air power, something they hadn’t quite mastered yet, nor would ever do so now.

There was a nonchalant arrogance, to how the dragons toyed with humanity, how they would casually swipe away armies of men with a slow, lazy flick of their huge clawed legs. How the sound of a dragon’s dive from kilometres above petrified people into standing still becoming easy “ash” prey.

To see a dragon, was to acknowledge a creature far superior to yourself. The huge dark golden eyes that emanated ancient intelligence. The scaly and muscular reptilian body that radiated heat when breathing fire could be felt metres away. And the wings, ancient and beautiful, when splayed out for take-off, would buffet and send humans flying with their powerful updraft, bullets bouncing off them with impunity.

The population that scorched the Earth, only numbered less than a hundred. They were slow to adulthood, but once fully matured, an unstoppable, almost celestial force.

The simple rule was, if you saw a dragon, you prayed to the lords of the sky, the deliverers of ash.

Fortunately, there was no sign of life in the valley. It was as desolate as any area in Albion was. So the dragon kept flying onwards, searching for any survivors, rolling lazily in the sky, a King casually surveying his kingdom.

Situated on the coast of Albion, the Valley of Earls was noted for its’ tunnel tombs, in which laid the ancestors of the Blackmouth clan. These ancient tombs were numerous in their numbers, sorted by generation and accessible only via humble grassy mounds that protected large burrow entrances.

Despite their humble appearance, the Valley of Earls’ tombs were sophisticated. Water that drained down the slopes of the Valley, were actually directed into the tombs, to fuel huge water wheels that powered much of the underground city, that now existed in existential fear of dragons.

Named Earlwood, the underground city was carved into the sheer cliff-side of the Albion coastline, accessible only by submersible or by boat when the tide was sufficiently low enough.

Earlwood was constantly under construction, a testament to its newly created status. Silence did not exist in this noisy cavern, with the sound of people’s chatter and machinery, a constant hum that created its’ own special type of headache, nicknamed by the locals as “earlesome.”

In addition to the silence, Earlwood denizens had to constantly deal with a crush of people. Despite it’s significant size, which was only growing day by day, due to constant work on the “Wall”, it was too small to accommodate all 250,000 survivors, with more coming in every week, as they searched for refuge.

As terrible the noise was and the constant crush of people that filled the narrow, claustrophobic streets of Earlwood, this was only one of two safe cities on Albion that offered decent protection from the dragon threat. The other city, similar in scope and design, was in the north, named Dukes.

Whilst Earlwood was rough and poor, Dukes was beautifully crafted, despite the apocalyptic nature of the world. Artisans and city folks had turned Dukes into a semi-paradise that despite its’ appearance was hiding extreme maintenance issues, whilst the more wretched and desperate had created a cavernous stronghold that was functional in the extreme.

It was in this dark cavern of a city, lived a young man of barely 17 named Will Ashburn.

An “ash orphan”, after his parents perished in an dragon attack, Will didn’t know any better about the world before the age of Dragons. He never knew how green the grass was, how humanity once lived above ground, paranoia-free and with their heads aimed at the ground, instead of the sky.

No, Will only heard these stories from the old men who talked too much at the King’s tavern, or second hand re-tellings of the exploits of the legendary Huntsmen, a special forces unit that was specifically tasked with hunting dragons and the only men allowed to venture surface-side.

It was every boy’s dream to join the hallowed ranks of the Huntsmen and don the iconic dark green uniform and cloak and take the fight to the dreaded dragons. Will had heard so many stories, that he could recite each mission with compelling accuracy.

His favourite story was of the legendary lone Huntsman, the infamous Black Huntsman.

Unlike other Huntsmen units, who worked in groups of 4 to take down dragons, the Black Huntsman was an anomaly. Taller than his brethren, stronger and quieter, the Black Huntsman was famed for his stealth kills, which flew against traditional operating methods of his comrades.

Normal dragon take-down procedures often involved elaborate use of bait, a pair of Huntsmen known as runners who would lure the dragons in, dousing themselves in water and flame retardant clothing. They would run for a limited stretch, before diving into prepared burrows that would protect them from dragon-flame.

As the runners sprinted for their lives, the other two Huntsmen, the snipers would position themselves on either side of the dragon, targeting the singular weak spot on these huge, terrifying behemoths …. the dragon’s golden eyes.

No one quite knew why only the dragon’s eyes were their only weakness, but it didn’t matter. This was where the snipers had to aim, and use their specialised Boys Anti-Tank Rifles, a huge 1.5m gun that fired the monstrously heavy .55 calibre bullet.

With only 5 rounds in the massive top-loading magazine, the snipers were under enormous pressure to ensure all 5 bullets would be aimed at a dragon’s head, moving at 250 km/h.

If at least 1 of the 5 bullets went in, the dragon would be blinded and lose motor control over it’s 30 ton body. Crashing into the ground, one of the runners would then approach it and apply the coup de grace with his Anti-tank rifle up close, aiming the weapon up through the eye socket and targeting the brain.

Numerous hunts, kills and deaths have gone into this dangerous and risky procedure. But it was the only one they had.

All except for the Black Huntsman, who had a custom Westley Richards’ Droplock Double Rifle, chambered in the awe inspiring .577 Nitro Express. Originally designed for elephant hunting, the Droplock Double Rifle was a two shot weapon that featured custom double triggers, one for each barrel.

His method was far more riskier. Slow movement, steady hands and sheer gutsy stealth, the Black Huntsman would sneak up on Dragons whilst they were feeding or asleep, and empty both of his barrels at close range, staring at the Dragons head-on.

A single misstep, a flawed shot, or even the tiniest fraction of hesitation, the Black Huntsman would be killed instantly, either by fire or claw.

But he never made such mistakes. He was the most elite Huntsman in the entire unit. Credited with over 25 Dragon kills.

For each Dragon he slayed, he would keep a claw, and use it to scratch the tally of kills into the butt of his rifle.

He was humanity’s shining hope, the sole reason why the Huntsmen’s ranks always swelled with recruits, ashen or not.

He was born of Earls, slayer of Dragons, wielder of the Double Rifle and conqueror of Ash.

The Black Huntsman.

~

Every ash orphan like Will Ashburn, when they came of age, 18, would automatically be recruited into the ranks of the Miners.

The Miners were the men who constantly worked on the “Wall”, the nickname given to the sheer rock face that surrounded the city.

No matter the hour, day or even during Dragon attacks, work on the Wall was constant. It was a necessity for the survival of Earlwood. The city had to keep growing ever larger. They could not build up, so instead they built further and further into the ground. Work on the Wall was chaotic, dangerous, claustrophobic and horrific.

Tunnels could collapse at any given moment, cascading down into further tunnels beneath them, killing men by the dozens in mere seconds. But such was the nature of mine work, that everyone merely carried on their digging and axing, ignoring the bodies that were carried out by shattered men.

Will dreaded the idea that within a year, he would be pressed into mine service. Which is why he was currently in line for the Earl’s Army recruitment line.

This was his only way out.

Will knew that there was little chance of getting in. The age for enlistment was the same as the Wall. But he had a bit of faith in himself.

Years of surviving on the dark streets of Earlwood had created a man who stood tall, muscular and brooding. His brown eyes were hardened by the continuous hardships of fighting every single day for his existence. Yet they were softened by a curious intelligence, which was fuelled by the dozens of books he had stolen over the years.

Will Ashburn didn’t know why he loved reading so much, but after a whore had taken him under his wing and taught him how to read letters and numbers, Will never ceased his education. He knew deep down, that he had to learn everything faster and more expertly than those around him.

So he would devour books after books. Fiction. Non-fiction. Adventure. Romance. Science. This was the early onset of the 1900s. Knowledge was becoming the more prolific. Humanity was finally on the cusp of conquering the world, and mastering the art of metallurgy and industrial revolution.

Only years ago, this was heralded as the new Golden Age. That is, until the Dragons were unearthed.

Will however had no such interest in what might have been. What course humanity would have taken, if an apex predator never challenged them.

He was only interested in the immediate future, whether his rapid maturity was enough to fool the Army recruiter to let him into the hallowed ranks of the Earl’s Army.

Even his very existence, proven by old records was splotchy. Will Ashburn wasn’t even his real name. He had named himself, having grown up without any guidance, his true name a complete mystery to him, like the nature of his parents.

It was only by a miracle, that he was adopted by the fallen women of the famous Covent Garden brothel. Despite their status and lack of means, it was these women who created the tough bastard that stood taller than his more wretched brethren in the line.

They taught him the power of harnessing his emotions, on how to defend himself and the truth of living on the streets. They showed him how to deescalate a situation, how to aggravate then nurture people. The power of emotional manipulation was in his grasp, as was using his darkly handsome looks to his advantage.

The Covent Garden women were fiercely loyal to Will, as was Will’s allegiance to them. It was at their behest that Will had chosen this particularly Army recruiting line, amongst all of the hundreds of others.

The Army recruiter was a well known client of a particular girl at the Covent Garden stable. If anyone was going to overlook Will’s age, it would be this particularly greasy individual.

As the line shuffled forwards, Will kept his gaze forward, biting his teeth in nervousness, as he watched the large, rotund Army recruiter in his olive green uniform and cape wave men through and shake his head in disapproval at some of the younger looking folk.

Will was so preoccupied, that he almost forgot to hand his fake papers to sergeant who was busy processing paperwork.

Name?

Will took a deep breath. This was his ticket out of here. To establish his own legend in a legendary unit. To finally take the fight to the beasts that have taken so much from him.

Just as he was about to announce his name, Earlwood shook with all the force of a dragon attack.

~

Author’s Note

This first chapter in a fantasy setting was written for the Vocal Media “The Fantasy Prologue” challenge.

I hope you enjoyed reading it!

~ Damocles.

Turning an I into an E

I don’t recognise myself any more.

What happened to the guy who was quieter, shy and unnecessarily complicated?

In the past few months, I’ve really transformed myself. Gone is the Damocles who would be unsure of what to say in a conversation, is social media shy and wouldn’t take a lot of risks.

Instead, I’ve become an entirely different person. I’m friendlier, my smile is easier to wear, I’m out more often, gathering energy from crowds, friends and meeting new people.

I’m generally looser. This is a new version of myself that I’ve always wanted to have, to experience and to generally live life.

I’ve also learnt very quickly, how dangerous this all is. Because …

Loose is relaxed.

And relaxed is fundamentally wrong, in my paranoid mind.

It’s strange this whole shift in personality.

I’ve eaten like a King off of it.

I’ve charmed everyone that I’ve met and cared about. I’m more energetic, charismatic and just a whole lot more attractive. Women have been noticing me more, in ways that they never used to. I can show people a good time, leave them with a great impression of me. Perhaps the strangest element is that I actually find myself enjoying myself, without any reservations.

I’ve never felt more confident and self-assured about my looks, my demeanour and my personality.

Looking back at these recent experiences, I’m reminded of a scene from Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, in which Bond asks for a slice of the easy high life, and coincidence immediately provides him with such an opportunity, eating a luxurious crab meal at the expense of a rich American who played poker against him in Casino Royale.

“I asked for the easy life, the rich life…How do I like it? Eating like a pig and hearing remarks like that?” thought Bond after entertaining the smug American,.

So …. how do I like this? Being popular, a good person to go on dates with, an attractive, cocky male completely at ease with himself?

Ironically, I find myself longing for some of the old Damocles back, the quiet, serious Damocles that hardly smiled, and rarely ever showed any vulnerabilities.

The ever focused sentinel that hardly let anyone in.

The more damaged version of myself.

In all honesty though, that is a very silly approach to life. The environment which has shaped this new version of me has turned a quiet introvert into a charming extrovert.

I also should have been more aware of the effects of the B30 challenge on my body. It is normal for me to express sheer confidence when I am feeling like I am at the peak of my physical health. Mirrors, which I used to dread looking at, are now positive reinforcement that I am on track to staying and being healthy. Scales are now used as benchmarks to see what I can fix or adjust today.

The original purpose of the B30 challenge was to be the best version of myself by the time I am 30.

I actually reached that point earlier this year and am now at this comfortable space where I can just improve on myself at a leisurely pace, setting a new benchmark every time.

It’s an incredible loop, because now I only compound positive sentiments, with even more glowing reviews of myself. There hasn’t really been a real moment where I’m not feeling good about myself.

Even now, as I vaguely long for something of the old me back, I can’t really bring myself to cave in to that nostalgia, because the new version of me, really is the culmination of all the work I’ve put in myself for at least 3 years.

This version of me is the result of 4 main factors:

  • A new attitude to my dreary retail work.
  • New experiences in the events industry.
  • The B30 Challenge
  • Constant self-reflection.

Whilst the B30 Challenge has been a fundamentally slow process, of losing weight, getting healthier and overall enjoying the new experience of pushing my physical limits, the same cannot be said for a new outlook to retail work.

It literally took me overnight to really transform my attitude to work, that was once incredibly draining and boring. I actually started giving a shit. I tried to smile more genuinely, greet people and actually start small conversations. I learned to employ my smile more strategically, how to crinkle my eyes and really just work on being more superficially charming.

It sounds disingenuous, but throughout the entire learning process, I know that I am still firmly in control of myself. I haven’t truly fallen that far in that respect. I can still sense the genuine nature of my smiles, the improved enthusiasm for life and chasing targets and going home knowing that I tried my best, regardless of the result.

With this new-found attitude to customer service and my own job, I’ve learned that wallowing in misery really is as counter-productive as it looks. I don’t need to be sad and angry all the time. Instead, my focus is on being as positive and cheerful as I can be. Appreciative of the things that are good about the job and working hard on fixing the negative aspects, such as my own performance.

I can’t control the number of people that walk in and out, but I can change how I approach them, greet them and improve their experience. With each smile, I can feel my confidence grow in my job and I like knowing that I was partly responsible for improving something about their day.

I have to credit my manager for telling me the truth, and really seeing through my poor attitude to work. Without her blunt assessment and critical feedback, I wouldn’t be a changed man. I would have remained the same sour-puss that ruined moods and provided lacklustre service.

So, it should come as no surprise, that the moment work improved, I also found myself more energetic after work. I could hang out longer, be more at ease with people I didn’t know so well and just be more at ease with myself, because I was satisfied with my work and that inner positivity radiated outwards to others.

Add to this, more regular event work every week, with new environments, challenges and people to meet, I have never experienced such an incredible lifestyle that is always allowing me to see something new every 7 days.

It really is the event work that I have been doing that has really turbo-charged the change in me. I love the energy I get from crowds, from talking to new people, joking with strangers and sharing random moments with hard-chargers. I am in awe of the patrons who will dance and party and drink for 12 hours straight, whereas I can barely move after an 11 hour shift of tossing crowd control barriers around, setting up umbrellas and patrolling the venue.

Which I suppose is where the biggest downside of this new version of me.

Because I have drunk more Red Bulls this year than the entirety of my adult life before.

I need more energy, more self care and just a whole lot more of giving a damn about everything.

It’s been a wonderful coincidence that my new-found fitness has now become an absolutely necessity to prepare for more insanely long hours and hard physical labour. I am actually astonished that I haven’t gotten sick at all this entire year, considering how much harder I have pushed myself to attend all sorts of events and friendly outings. I mean last week alone, I never got home before midnight and I was working 8 hour days, with some days even extending to 11 hour shifts and still going out with friends.

Yet I never really felt the exhaustion that I expected to hit me, especially for a guy approaching his 30s. Is it my mentality? My new-found health? In all honesty, it’s likely a combination of the two. It probably also has a lot to do with my new-found positivity.

Extroversion has also created a series of complications in my life that I didn’t anticipate and was unprepared for.

It has made me a focal point of drama, an occurrence that I have never really been used to nor experienced properly. This drama has created a lot of puzzlingly new headaches and problems, that I secretly enjoy trying to solve. They’ve ranged from complicated relationship issues with new and old friends to discovering new information about organisations that I’ve worked with before.

Being the centre-point of anything is a completely bizarre sensation to me. All my life, I’ve purposefully dampened and smothered my brash and loud personality. I’ve tried to avoid the spotlight, but anyone who has ever met me, knows that, that is an impossibility.

My persona is just too dominant to hide.

Which is where my extroverted side comes in, the side I’ve labelled as the “American” side of me.

Whereas once, I got the fire extinguisher out and sprayed out the flames of the inner American, now I let it rage. I’m so comfortable and at ease with who I am … what I am and the effects I have on people, that I no longer hide my true nature.

I just let the inner American come out, enjoy himself and just have a good time being me.

And it feels damn good, believing like you’re on top of the world.

Finally, you might be wondering why do I call my extroverted side the American?

Because he’s brash, a little bit loud, unbearably cocky and warm and friendly.

All the traits that are associated with Americans who know they’re lucky and are willing to flaunt it.

I know I have a lot of luck, and I’m done trying to be ashamed about it.

It’s time to live it up a bit.

~ Damocles.

What If? Damocles was a Father.

Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.

There was always a strange question on my mind about fatherhood.

On one hand, it’s something I desperately want to avoid. Children are incessantly messy, costly and in most risk assessments, simply not worth the “potential” reward of being a “parent.”

I also would question what sort of terrible monster I would be, to bring a child into a century with some of the most bleak apocalyptic scenarios imaginable in human history. Nuclear winters, pandemics, massive food shortages, rising water levels, inept governments, higher cost of living and nearly 8 billion other people on the planet.

Still, this is a hypothetical scenario and it is a question I’ve asked myself many times, ever since I’ve re-read multiple times, the Roald Dahl’s classic: Danny, the Champion of the World.

What sort of father would I be?

I’ve run through so many scenarios and simulations in my head and most of them paint a rosy picture. It depicts me as a doting father and a dad who is probably too keen to push his passions on his kid.

But the main thrust of it all, is that I have a daughter.

I remember having this discussion with myself, all the way back in high school, when I was deliberating about this issue, whilst in the midst of writing my first ever story.

In the end, I preferred to have a daughter than a son, because of two factors: I like having more girls in my life and I had just finished reading Seven Ancient Wonders by Matthew Reilly, in which the main character had a sweet little troublesome girl named Lily.

Perhaps what is surprising about so many of these imagined scenarios, is the fact that I am actually a single father in most of them.

I’m not even sure why I chose this tragic scenario as the default setting, but in many of them, my partner died during childbirth and all I have left of her, is our daughter.

And I would love and look after her very much, all the love and grief I felt for my partner’s passing, would be dedicated to ensuring our daughter become the most capable and beautiful woman she can be.

I would learn how to do all the crucial feminine skills, from braiding hair, to dealing with periods. The right way how to contour, what colours of clothes would match together, how to do regular skin-care and neuter some of the worst aspects of being a much more emotional being.

Then it would be on to teaching her how to fight, how to defend herself, how to assert herself and be more than any stereotypes that might be thrust upon her. She would know strange skills like how to hotwire a car, how to spot someone following her, how to blend and disappear with the crowd.

No daughter of mine would ever leave the house without some form of EDC gear on her, regardless of what she is wearing.

In many ways, I really want to mould a very balanced individual. She will be tough and attractive, vulnerable and open, full of logical contradictions that make her capable and adaptable in any situations.

I’ve reasoned to myself, so many times, that having a daughter would be advantageous, because girls are just more attuned to their emotional needs and desires, which means that all I have to really do is teach her how be tough and survive scraps, whilst ensuring her mental health is self-reflective and inquisitive.

Already, I am sure you can picture what kind of kid I would be raising. A proper hellraiser.

But what about my own parenting style? Would I be demanding? Controlling? Always applying pressure to her achievements? Worse, would I be absent? Cold and aloof?

In all honesty, the way how I picture myself as a father is very much a strong, silent figure in my daughter’s life. I wouldn’t be the type to get into long arguments, just engage in civil discussion. I would actually copy my own upbringing and do my best to mature her mind as quickly as possible.

Hopefully, by the time she is 10, she’ll be as cynical as a Chandler protagonist.

But in all seriousness, my main attitude to my child would be simple: I am talking to another adult. I would let her learn from her mistakes, teach her to avoid more dangerous ones and really just let her mind advance the right way. Whatever she would be interested in, I will listen and carefully encourage it.

Whilst I am definitely taking her karting, if it isn’t her thing, then I won’t push it. I hate the pitfall of pushing your passions on your child, when you should be listening to what they really want. If it’s ballet, I will hold her up, and even learn how to stretch alongside her. If it’s air-rifle competitive shooting, I’ll be the Dad that cleans her gun for the 7th time before an important competition.

I’m not exactly one of those people that think kids are of a lesser intelligence than I am. In a lot of ways, their brains operate and see things clearer than I do. They just don’t have the same mental traps that I do at 28 years old. Kids don’t overthink, over analyse or second guess themselves. They just see things for they are. They are refreshingly free of judgement, stereotypes and other toxic mental weeds.

A big proponent of life is just accepting that you will always be a student. If my daughter can master an Arabesque in a week, I can do so as well, but will humbly admit that I might need a month to get even close.

But that is the type of father I want to be. I want to learn her skills, her passions and what she is good at, so that I too can see other worlds that I might not have been interested in before. I also think it’s just plain supportive. I see no reason why she can’t be my friend as well as my daughter and vice versa.

That is my promise to my daughter, if this hypothetical becomes real.

I will be her Dad, her friend and her cheerleader.

In a lot of ways, fatherhood to me is the ultimate test of whether you are a good teacher.

Whether you have the patience to deal with all the price of failure and success on behalf of your kid.

Whether you got what it takes to be attentive to your child’s needs and personaliy.

Whether you can make the right choices when it comes to shielding or allowing mistakes to befall your child.

Whether you are mature enough to understand the responsibility that now rests of your shoulders. You could have avoided this, prevented it, but now you are a parent. There cannot be any regret involved in that decision.

But most importantly, raising a child and seeing how they develop is the ultimate reflection on whether you have taught yourself well. Your morals, your lessons, your attitude and your personality are all magnified in a child’s blank slate and they are the ultimate proof whether you have mastered yourself or not.

Because if you haven’t mastered yourself and become truly at peace with who you are, you should not be anywhere near a child.

How do you teach a clueless child, if you are not a master of your own life? How do you expect to hand down life lessons, moral compasses, difficult decision making and maturity to a child when you are barely have or are any of those things?

Perhaps this is why I always get such strong phantom simulations of me being a father. Because I already feel like I have addressed most of these issues. I am ready to be a father, if somehow the situation demanded me to be one by tomorrow.

I would just prefer if I wasn’t one right now.

Deep down, I know I would be a good parent. I’ve always been seen as the responsible, serious but mischievous older brother in many different social settings and to upgrade that to responsible, serious but mischievous Dad isn’t a very long stretch of imagination.

There is something compelling about the idea, a strong belief in myself but the problem has always been my career. I can’t be a very good parent if I am constantly dragging my daughter to crazy events where she sees her father in the the worst, stressful and angry light.

There is also the very irrational fear that I might lose my partner to a child.

Which is illogical in the extreme, considering the advancement in medical sciences today, but I’m also not sure if I could ever truly live down the strange resentment that I would fester towards my child, because of her indirect involvement in the death of my partner.

This strange feeling of resentment to an innocent child is really the keystone of my argument against children and parents. I never understood how parents get angry at a child for being a child. It is like they’ve never realised that the child is an actual human being, capable of rational thought and thus should be treated like one.

Too many parents also have children far too early in their journey of self-mastery and thus suffer the consequences almost immediately. Their children end up inheriting the worst traits of their parents, and there is always this air of resentment to the child, because somehow the kid was responsible for all of the parents’ mistakes.

Your children are a reflection of you. If you are mature, responsible, and intelligent, emotionally and logically, then your child is going to turn out the same. If you are none of those adjectives or traits …. your child won’t inherit any of them either, unless they possess an incredible force of will to resist the toxic environment they live in.

Being a parent is a serious decision, not taken in haste. After all, you are sacrificing a lot of personal freedoms. Holidays, good sleep, sex with your partner, expensive hobbies, personal fitness, and even to an extent, personal happiness for the sake of raising a child.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be ready to take that step.

However, if push came to shove, I know I’ll be ready. I won’t be repeating the mistakes of my forebears.

My kid will be the very best version of themselves they can be.

That’s the only way they’ll survive this crazy world.

~ Damocles.

The Devil at 0300HRS

It’s goddamn 3.30 in the morning and I’m deprived of reality after 5 and a half hours of sleep.

It’s been a very long time, since I woke up this early and felt that familiar ache of tiredness and consciousness meld into one surreal experience.

It’s difficult to describe the sensation of craving sleep, yet be unwilling to submit. But that is what I’m currently going through now.

I know I should sleep, but I just can’t.

I don’t want to. I’m too busy thinking about something and nothing at all.

As time ticks on, and on and on … I keep thinking to myself: Why bother going back to sleep?

So the hours crawl by, time is omnipresent and completely ignored by me. I refuse to play to its’ tune. I’m too absorbed in my own existence to acknowledge it.

It’s always around this time, I feel these desperate urges.

I crave Food. Water. Sex. Music … all the darker, base instincts that I normally don’t indulge in are now rushing to the fore, and I can’t stop them washing over me.

I’ve been reduced to a less thinking state, and have become more primeval. All that remains of me, is my stubbornness to sleep.

I’m not going back to the realm of unconsciousness.

This is also the time where I really enjoy some of my darker music taste.

Ominous, rhythmic bands like HEALTH or Massive Attack really help me channel these primitive urges in a sensory manner, stopping me submitting too much.

No, I don’t need that drink.

No, I don’t need to watch porn.

No, I don’t need to go to the fridge.

No, I don’t want to punch everything in sight.

I’m OK, just staring off into the digital world, as these contradictory musical sensations blast at me from every angle.

I say they are contradictory, because they often have the most hauntingly beautiful voices, that clash with the crazy, angry, infernal melodies.

It’s the perfect way to describe how I feel at this very moment.

I want to fall into the depths of my carnal desires, but high above it all, is this perfect line of consciousness and reality that I refuse to let go of.

This rope of surreality is what makes this whole experience so interesting, so compelling that I am willing to sacrifice my health for.

I think more clearly than I have ever done before. I can remember the smallest details. I can genuinely create and envision ideas in my mind. It’s the path to a place of creativity that I often don’t get to access.

It doesn’t happen at 0330 in the morning.

No.

I can’t just wake up this early to be creative. That is artificially creating the sensation.

It has to happen organically.

I have to crave sleep, close my eyes occasionally, before snapping them awake again, the moment I feel the touch of sleep on my mind.

All I can hear right now, is the perfect song, Angel by Massive Attack.

It’s grunge, it’s slow, it’s disturbing and aches of something indescribable.

As I fight all the contradictions that fight inside of me, I can feel myself rebelling against everything outside.

It is bitterly cold, but I am warm.

It is lonely, but I am not alone.

The world is asleep, but I am awake.

I’m fighting against everything. I don’t care what it costs me. I just want to exist in this state for another few hours, deprived and thriving.

Even this very creative exercise, writing …. doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. My thoughts are sporadic, and random, but completely focused on how I am feeling right now, right here, as the sun rises, the darkness retreats and I slowly comes to term with the consequences of my rebellion.

This is self-induced deprivation, sensory and sense-wise.

You would think I would know better. I got a long day ahead of me, an active day.

But I just couldn’t sleep after those 5 hours. I didn’t want to.

I wanted to be alive, no matter how dead I felt.

Yawns are coming in hard and fast. My body doesn’t agree with this creative situation. It’s trying to shut my mind down, but music, digital lights and my stubbornness hold it back.

I can hear myself groan in weariness. My shoulders hurt viciously, from lying on my side for too long. Every time my mouth yawns open, tears of exhaustion streak down my cheeks.

I almost want to sleep now. It’s 0730 in the morning. I’ve been awake in this surrealist bubble for 4 hours now. But it’s getting harder to resist the arms of Morpheus. The ancient God needs to claim his slumber from me and the tears won’t stop pouring.

I think I’m done. I’m can’t stop resisting any more … I need just a tiny bit more slee-

~

It’s 0900 in the morning.

I ended up taking a nap, my body slumped in my chair, my headphones on, Massive Attack’s Love Me, Love Me … lyrics echoing in my head.

Not much sleep, just an extra hour, and even then it wasn’t even that deep, because my alarms were interrupting me throughout the entire thing.

Still consciousness wave-riding even when I need sleep.

Throughout that nap, I imagined all sorts of things. From messages that my friends would send to me in the future, to reading a passage from a book I’ve never seen before.

Lucidity was not on the table, as I went through so many strange scenarios and thoughts. Random memories would pop in, conversations that were intriguing, confessions that didn’t make sense, people that meant a lot to me, but were now lesser …

I’m fully awake now though. Back to my regular self, with my brain chemistry normalising with every minute. The clock has been switched back on, and is running at its normal rapid pace. I can sense time is slipping away from me, and I have to work hard to catch up.

I’m me again, civilised, and in control. No longer a slave to baser instincts and dark desires. Devoid of that surrealist rope and arguably healthier for it.

Hell, even as I am writing all these thoughts out, there is a coherency to them, a natural self-reflectiveness that was lacking in the initial start of this ramble. I’m articulate again.

But it is definitely a strange, fascinating exercise, to be creative that early in the morning, where the angel wants you to sleep and the devil inside of you flat out refuses.

The things I do to feel creative …

~ Damocles.

Zero (Ninja)

Hideo looked over at the sleeping Yukie, caressing her dark hair softly, as he felt his body stir awake with the rise of the sun.

Gently pulling the blanket aside, he climbed out of bed and walked softly over wash basin, where he scooped up water and ran it over his face and neck, luxuriating in the cold, clean sensation.

Closing his eyes, Hideo stayed still for a moment, as he traced the sensation of water running down his neck and across his chest, calmly controlling his breathing. For Hideo, this meditative state allowed him to visualise the day ahead and everything he needed to achieve.

This was his daily morning routine, cleansing the body and mind, to prepare for the work ahead with a clear spirit, free of any distractions or lingering memories.

Achieving zero … maintaining zero. echoed Hideo in his mind, as his breathing steadied.

Opening his eyes, Hideo felt his spirit steady itself for the day and night ahead. Slipping on his dark grey kimono, he cinched the excess material tight around his lean frame, before stepping out of the bedroom and sliding the door silently, as to not wake Yukie.

~

The sparks from the flint scattered softly across the wood, before dancing upon paper. With soft blows, the paper caught alight, generating heat that soon engulfed the wood in flames. Stepping back, Hideo fanned the flames higher and higher, until they could sustain themselves.

Placing the paper fan aside, he walked over to the well that was just outside their home and cranked a bucket of water upwards, until he had enough to prepare the rice and tea.

Carrying the two buckets of water over, he felt something run between his legs and smiled gently at the sight of Hime, their domesticated chicken scurrying away, eager to be fed. Pouring the water into the kettle, he placed it gently over the flame, before walking back outside with a handful of feed.

Cooing softly for Hime to come over, Hideo smiled as she waddled up to him and began to peck at the feed on the ground. Stroking her back gently, Hideo walked over to Hime’s roost and plucked out the two eggs she had laid overnight.

As he prepared the breakfast, a simple omelette with miso soup, Hideo kept his mind empty still, allowing each task to be performed with a precision that could only come from a calm spirit.

The eggs were perfectly scrambled, curdled and rolled, before being spliced into 8 equal rolled rectangles. The green chives were expertly cut, and sprinkled gently atop each serving of egg, whilst his rice was beautifully fluffy and round in their wooden bowls.

Hideo’s miso soup was the perfect blend of cloudy soup and green seaweed, with little islands of tofu poking through the surface. A tiny dash of togarashi serve to create appetising colour and a hint of spice that would awaken the senses after sleep.

As Hideo finally put the finishing touches to the breakfast, Yukie sauntered out, dressed in a sky blue kimono, her long dark raven hair tousled over the front of her shoulder, highlighting the pale slender beauty of her neck and jawline. She smiled gratefully at her husband, washing her hands in the sink and giving him a lingering graze across his hand in affection.

They both sat down cross legged at the low table and clapped their hands together, before eating their food in silence. This was their custom, another way of maintaining harmony within themselves and each other.

The morning was a time of reflection, of preparedness for the rigours ahead. When they were so busy with life, especially in this difficult time, their morning meals was almost the only time they could take to relax, ponder and think.

They would clean up together, before Yukie would break away from Hideo’s side with the barest hint of sakura perfume.

Her day would always start with lunch preparation, invariably another simple, elegant meal that spoke of their humble yet fulfilling lifestyle, whilst Hideo would retreat to his room, where he would examine his tools of war.

~

Armed with the stalk of a bamboo cup, a bucket of water and a dark rag, Hideo would open the drawer of a large wooden cabinet and inspect his weapons.

Yukie would do likewise, inspecting her precious knives for any rust or impurities, before opening a door where they kept their smoked meats. For today, Yukie took out a smoked mackerel that Hideo had caught a few days before, as well walking into their garden and cutting some herbs and vegetables that had been grown weeks ago.

Laying them out in a semi circle, both Yukie and Hideo selected the first item to be washed, in Yukie’s case, a batch of spinach that would be simmered in soy sauce and sake, whilst for Hideo, it was his prized kusarigama, a unique weapon that consisted of a sickle and a chain, meant to immobilise swords. Then came the sharpening of radish and katana, the gentle cleaning of spring onions and quiet tabi shoes and the slow inspection of chicken stock and kunai knives.

They mirrored each other, absorbed in their meticulous tasks, focused on every step.

It would be midday, when Hideo and Yukie finally parted ways, Hideo heading into the fields to work on the local lord’s farm and Yukie making her way to the local market to shop and buy new equipment that would let her mend her husband’s clothes faster.

Before he left, Hideo softly stroked on Yukie’s cheek, before thanking her for the lunch and slinging the bag on his walking stick and setting off for the long 7 kilometre walk to work.

It would be a long day, of tending the fields and moving cattle. Like any work day, Hideo savoured his small break to enjoy the simple mackerel don that Yuki created for him, and reflect on what he would have to do that very night, rehearsing moves and routes, incorporating body stretches and martial arts movement into his field work.

~

It wouldn’t be until twilight when Hideo came home, to greet Yukie, busy at work at the fireplace, simmering a rich broth for their udon dinner. Placing a hand on her shoulder gently from behind, he squeezed fondly, before retiring back to his room, to prepare for the night.

Yukie sighed softly as she heard the door to Hideo’s room click shut. For months now, Hideo had been in the service of their lord as a shinobi, eliminating rivals to the clan. Tonight’s mission was going to be particularly difficult, but the lord had offered enough money to soothe their lives for 3 months.

Such an offer was almost worth the risk.

As she shook the excess water off the udon and laid the thick glossy noodles in a bowl, Yukie kept her mind focused on preparing the meal, ignoring the terror she felt at losing Hideo and the prospect of him being caught at a rival clan’s castle.

There was nothing they could realistically do.

There was only life in the moment. They had to live the best they could now.

Yukie poured the broth in, pleased with the amber colour, before slowly adding in fish cake, the same soy simmered spinach she had prepared for lunch and a luxurious slice of pork chashu she had bought from the market.

She had just finished adding half a egg and some thinly sliced spring onions when Hideo came through the kitchen, fully clad in his shinobi gear.

Even now, after many nights of seeing Hideo dressed up for war, Yukie felt an involuntary shiver run through her body, at the sight of a myth came sharply into the focus lens of reality.

From head to toe, Hideo was a shade of dark navy blue, with only his large bow creating a contrasting colour of amber-gold bands that ran across the dark cherry red lacquered wood and the white feathers of his arrows. His short sword was also another splash of colour, the wakizashi’s scabbard a similar cherry red wood to the bow, with a bright red fabric used to create the handle’s signature diamond knit.

It was tied on the left side of his body, whilst resting just above it, was the kusarigama, tucked securely into a thick fabric belt that also hid several throwing stars and knives. On his right, was a thin reed that served as his blowpipe and dangling on a strong knot was a pair of thin axes with loops that would help Hideo climb walls.

Placing his mask aside, Hideo sat down, side by side with Yukie, breaking the normal traditions. Blushing slightly, Yukie sidled closer to Hideo so that their arms were touching. Sipping the broth appreciately, Hideo gave a happy sigh.

Thank you. It’s delicious as always.

Yukie felt her hands tremble slightly. For Hideo to compliment her food, was uncharacteristic of the stoic persona he always held.

He’s nervous realised Yukie with a degree of shock. She felt an urge to ask him about how he felt, what he was thinking about … whether he was afraid. But she knew that such questions were not the way.

Instead Yukie simply replied Thank you. It means so much to me that you like my cooking.

Hideo reached over and tenderly squeezed her hand reassuringly. They continued to eat their dinner in silent companionship, with Hideo finishing first and looking at the still whole slice of chashu. Knowing that Yukie had bought this specially for him, despite their poor lifestyle, Hideo split the slice in half with his chopstick, and placed the precious, expensive cut into Yukie’s bowl.

Yukie looked up at him in shock but the protests died quickly, as Hideo wrapped his arms around her and held her tight against him.

Yukie returned the hug, tears beginning to form from the dread they both shared. But she kept them to herself, they had to be strong. Without her support, she knew that Hideo would not be able to find his focus at the most crucial of times.

So, calling upon her own spirit, she stayed strong for Hideo and returned the hug, without fear or dread, but with love and respect. Yukie closed her eyes in Hideo’s chest … her tears would come later, at a time of her own choosing, but not around him.

After a long solemn hug, communicating everything they ever wanted and couldn’t say, Hideo lifted her chin and kissed her goodbye.

The click of the sliding door closing shut, as Hideo disappeared into the darkness of the night echoed louder than it ever had, and Yukie finally allowed herself to weep for her husband.

~

Earlier that day, near the end of his shift, Hideo was summoned by one of the samurai retainers to see their lord. As Hideo bowed in greeting, the lord looked down upon his most prolific assassin and placed a hand on his shoulder.

Guiding Hideo to the balcony which overlooked the lord’s vast estate, the noble elder samurai pointed at the stables and whispered something courteous, before handing Hideo a pair of scrolls before dismissing him.

Hideo noted that only one of them had the lord’s official seal. Tucking the other one away in his robes, Hideo walked down to the stables and handed the official scroll to the stable-master who nodded and walked inside. Moments later, Hideo was riding one of the fastest and darkest stallions in Japan, a dark chestnut coloured horse that featured a plain saddle with no markings on it.

It’s name was Kaze. Wind.

Loyal and steadfast, Kaze was fond of Hideo, despite being one of the lord’s favourite steeds. They had been through several missions now and every time, Kaze bought Hideo home without fail, in the darkness of dusk and galloped back loyally to the lord’s stables.

As Kaze galloped along the road to the rival clan’s castle, Hideo kept his body flat along the dark horse’s torso, only looking up occasionally to see the castle of the Ashikaga clan slowly loom larger and larger in the horizon, until it was all he could see.

Why his lord, from a minor clan was tasked with the assassination of one of the top Ashikaga’s samurais, a man known only as Tadayoshi, was none of Hideo’s concern. All his focus was on feeding his beloved and ensuring their future would be easier than the present.

Touching a tiny jade pendant that Yukie had made for him on the night of their marriage, Hideo felt strengthened by her love and resilience, despite being kilometres away from her.

Slowing Kaze down, Hideo slowly cantered his way towards the camp, before stopping altogether, nearly 1 kilometre away and tying Kaze’s reins to a tree that was part of a large forest that surrounded the base of the Ashikaga castle.

As Ashikaga castles came, this particular one was spacious and well maintained. Situated on a hill that dominated the flat landscape around it, it rose above the tree lines of the curated forest that surrounded it and from the west end, it was easy to spot, as the forest had been cleared to make room for a large training and barracks area that employed the services of 30 samurai retainers.

Adorning the east face of the castle, was a large banner with the simple Ashikaga clan symbol, a black circle with two thick white lines running horizontally across it. The banner hung from the Ashikaga warlord Tadayoshi’s balcony, and was tightened on a lower balcony about halfway up the tall 5 storied building.

An attractive, if atypical castle, Tadayoshi’s personal residence to his small army of samurai retainers and his family was coloured in the typical style of the day, black accented roofs and white walls. A deep moat surrounded the castle, with 2 red drawbridges on the north and south end.

Tadayoshi’s wife, a renowned noblewoman from Kyoto, had done her best to soften the harsh military aesthetic, by hanging hundreds of lanterns that ran across the moat. At night, on special occasions, they were a spectacular light show that allowed many visitors to see the white bodies of wild carp that patrolled the moat.

From the moat, a straight footpath lead into the living areas of the samurai, which featured several long wooden cabins with square windows on the left side of the compound and a large stable with an ample courtyard for the horses to graze and wander.

Opposite the living quarters, was the training area, where bows, swords and spears were neatly lying in wait on racks and several dummies were propped up, awaiting abuse.

Towards the main gate, which was southwards, there was a large empty space with an Ashikaga vertical banner planted in the ground, no doubt, the staging area where Tadayoshi would give his men a speech and briefing before going on their sorties.

Hideo studied everything for a solid two hours, perched atop the tallest tree in the dark forest, trying to make out as much detail as possible.

The full moon that shone over the surroundings, helped enormously with his vision, a big reason why Hideo chose this night. It would also have an added bonus of drawing Tadayoshi out of his castle, as he was famous for creating haikus in honour of the moon, when it was a particularly auspicious occasion.

Using his thin axes to climb down again, Hideo set off towards his target, moving silently between trees. It was midnight now, and the night was going to be the darkest it would ever be.

~

The sole samurai that guarded the main gate would later swear before the Ashikaga’s head daimyo that he saw nothing, before committing ritual suicide for his failure.

This was the truth, because Hideo was never near the main gate. His long observation of the castle had revealed an even better route. On the eastern side of the castle compound, close to the living quarters of the samurai retainers, was where the forest was most dense. Indeed, upon closer inspection, Hideo actually found the secret door that Tadayoshi and his family would use in an emergency.

This door, was cleverly disguised to be a part of the wall, but for a small seam that denoted its status. Pushing it in, Hideo was astonished to see that it swung open and was just big enough for him to crawl through.

Lying flat against the grassy ground, Hideo noted that he was at the back of the living quarters, which thankfully featured no windows. Controlling his breathing, he silently shut the trapdoor and reached into one of his pouches, where he pulled out a bag of caltrops. Careful to not scatter them directly in front to the trapdoor, Hideo gave a solid metre gap before placing 5 of them down carefully.

Sneaking away, Hideo peered round the corner, noting two samurais who were talking softly to each other. Muttering quietly to himself, he looked up and noted the height of the roof above him.

Taking a couple of steps back, Hideo gave himself a running start and charged the wall, where with a silent press off his foot, he launched himself up, and grabbed the roof, hoisting himself up.

Choosing each step with care, Hideo crouched along the roof, staying as low as possible and waiting until the samurai had their backs turned to him.

Without hesitating, he launched himself from the roof and landed on the next adjoining roof, his feet scrabbling slightly for purchase on the sloped roof.

He froze, uncertain whether he made a lot of noise.

Nothing happened.

Sighing quietly in relief, he kept making his way along the rooftop, this time on a belly crawl. He was getting deeper and deeper into the compound, so the chances of him being spotted was exponentially growing.

Every couple of minutes, Hideo would pause and listen, smell or look for any sign of alarm. Fortunately and unfortunately for him, tonight was one of celebration, so Tadayoshi’s wife had requested every lantern and light in the compound to be lit up, for a gay and festive atmosphere.

It was beneficial, because up high, his silhouette would be darker and harder to spot against the roof, owning to how bright the lights were.

It also would make his ascent to the castle extremely difficult. Knocking lanterns into the moat along the way would immediately alert everyone.

But there was no other way.

To get to the line that strung all the lanterns up to the balcony of the castle, meant that Hideo had to risk a quick dash across 50 metres of open ground to the 4 metre tall wooden pole.

Patiently waiting and noting the routes of the guards, whose movements were relaxed and ambling, Hideo swore silently when he noted that one particular guard was constantly stopping by the pole to take breaks in his patrol.

With time running out, Hideo knew he had to make decision soon.

Reluctantly, he reached into his belt and pulled out the thin bamboo reed.

With gloved fingers, he took out one of his blow darts, whilst simultaneously pulling out a tiny bottle.

Dipping the tip into the bottle, he carefully placed it into the reed and aimed the blowpipe at the guard’s neck.

With barely a sound, the tiny dart flew out of the reed and pierced the nape of the guard who was making his way towards Hideo’s hiding spot on the roof.

Snatching at his neck with his hand, which inadvertently jabbed the dart in further, the guard look up with a look of horror as he saw a shadow move above him.

He tried to draw his sword, but the poison had already entered his bloodstream and was playing havoc with his nervous system.

Hideo jumped down noiselessly in front of the guard, his kusarigama drawn and without hesitation, flicked the chain over the man’s neck and began to tighten it, whilst dragging the struggling guard back towards the pole, where there were bushes nearby.

The guard’s struggles soon began to fade and Hideo loosened the knot, and checked the guard’s face, which was contorted grotesquely, his tongue a strange shade of grey, his eyes bloodshot and drool coming out of his mouth.

Careful to layer the bushes over the guard, Hideo paused for a second to check his surroundings, before taking out his thin axes and leaping onto the pole. Like a giant bug, Hideo slowly ascended the pole, before tucking the axes in his belt and reaching out for the wire that held all the lanterns.

Testing the strength, Hideo was relieved when it barely budged under his furiously yanking.

Crawling along the lantern wire was an exhausting task. His legs were wrapped right around the wire, whilst his hands slowly shimmied his torso along. Whenever he came across a lantern, he would relax his legs, looping his ankles and using his fingertips, allow the hot lantern to pass over his head, through the loops on his arms and legs.

It was a precarious climb, one that only got harder as the wire got higher and higher.

But Hideo made it. It took longer than he anticipated, but he was now hanging directly above the viewing balcony.

Inside, he could hear the sounds of music, the gay sounds of laughter. It sounded like Tadayoshi was hosting a moon party to celebrate the beauty of its full nature.

He waited patiently. Stealth was a waiting game. The process was not meant to be rushed.

Hearing or sensing nothing below him, Hideo loosened his grip and dropped to the balcony, noiselessly.

He immediately slid to the side of the door, staying crouched and peering through the open door.

The design of the Ashikaga Castle was striking. It was vertically oriented, with the 5 floors getting smaller and smaller as they neared the top. Staircases connected each floor, the “ground” itself, slabs of wood that were polished to a high sheen.

Banners, kimonos and swords adorned many of the walls, the colours of the Ashikaga clan prevalent amongst all the upholstery. The first two floors were actually the dining area, with an upper recess for private conversations, which was where the viewing balcony was.

The third floor was the training area, which was lined with hard reed mats, whilst above that was the private study of Tadayoshi, with scrolls neatly spaced on shelves and an ornate calligraphy table for his haikus.

The final space was the living quarters. Tatami mats lined the area luxuriously and there was a small window that opened out to the roof to allow natural light through.

Hideo crept out from the balcony, staying low. He peered over the lip of the recess and looked down at the party.

Around 25 people were in attendance. Most were samurai retainers with Tadayoshi’s wife entourage in tow, chatting amongst themselves. The men were seated cross-legged on tatami mats, bent at the waist, hunched over their small writing tables, doing their best to write haikus, espousing the beauty of the moon and how it shone on the castle.

As the men furiously wrote on their scrolls, the women would soothingly pour tea, before retreating and chatting quietly amongst themselves.

Tadayoshi’s wife, a classic city beauty, with ultra-pale skin and dark hair, lorded over the proceedings, her scarlet kimono shimmering under the lamp light. She teased the men who were struggling, whilst providing subtle encouragement, as she moved amongst the tables, judging the progress of the haikus.

So where is Tadayoshi then? thought Hideo.

Then he heard the the subtle sound of a brush being dropped above him.

Hideo felt his chest tighten in excitement.

This was too good to be true. Tadayoshi, alone, in his study, away from everyone, eager to create the best haiku out of all his retainers.

Silently making his way up the stairs, Hideo peered and breathed a sigh of relief at the empty space, the training room devoid of any movement or sound.

Placing each foot carefully in front of each other, Hideo crossed the open space and looked upwards, to see light shimmering through the cracks of the floor.

Tadayoshi was there. Hideo could see the Ashikaga’s warlord sitting at his ornate calligraphy desk, struggling over his haiku, his fierce face stretched into a scowl of intense concentration.

Only a solitary guard stood at the top of the staircase, waiting his lord with respectful admiration.

Looking behind him, Hideo winced slightly and crept back to the staircase he had climbed and placed the remainder of his caltrops on the steps and top of the stairs. He wasn’t taking any chances.

Taking a deep breath, Hideo walked towards the staircase that would bring him close to his target.

~

The samurai guard never heard Hideo climb up the stairs. Blinding pain wrapped itself around his throat and flung him down the stairs, where Hideo used the Kusarigama’s sickle to cut his throat.

Hideo charged up the stairs, and was just in time to see Tadayoshi look up in shock, his handsome featured contorted into a war-like scowl.

Hideo dodged to the side, as Tadayoshi flicked his calligraphy brush towards him. The brush whistled past and Hideo glared at Tadayoshi who now stood tall, his hands gripping his large katana.

Silence descended on the pair. Hideo unsheathed his smaller wakazashi short sword and moved towards the centre of the room.

The two men sized each other up.

Then their attention was broken by a plaintive call.

The loyal retainer was somehow still alive. His gurgling was now almost a yell.

Help … our lord! gasped the retainer to the party below, as he threw his sword down.

The loud crash the sword made as it clattered down the stairs and then into the haiku party shocked everyone.

Suddenly everyone blazed into action.

The men roared into action, their hands gripping their swords, upturning tables and charging up the stairs. Their war cries reverberated through the castle. Tadayoshi smiled smugly.

Hideo seized his chance. He leapt forwards and was immediately met with the steely defence of Tadayoshi. They danced around the private study, the floor barely enough for the two combatants.

Hideo would lunge, his wakazashi held high and sweeping down. Tadayoshi, knowing his men were coming, would defend, moving his legs away, an amused look on his face. For he had an distinct advantage, his longer katana ensuring Hideo had to commit further to his attacks, thus revealing his moves earlier.

They were barely 30 seconds into the fight, but Hideo felt desperation and tiredness start to creep into his arms. Then he made a mistake, he over-committed to an overhead cut. Tadayoshi smelled his opportunity and took it.

Without hesitating, Hideo leapt backwards as he saw Tadayoshi’s riposte come straight for his head. As the warlord’s blade came sweeping down, past his hips, Hideo grabbed one of his throwing knives, and with a flick of his wrist, slammed the kunai into the exposed warlord’s foot.

The warlord fell for his feint.

The big samurai roared in pain. Reversing his grip, he swung upwards with his katana, nearly taking Hideo’s head off, as he anxiously looked behind him at the staircase where heavy footfalls were increasing in intensity.

Gritting his teeth, as he turned his attention back at the warlord, Hideo slammed his wakazashi back into his scabbard, and simultaneously drew his kusarigama. Tadayoshi was too skilled a swordsman to keep this fight going.

He had to finish this now.

Hideo spun the kusarigama in a blur of steel, before flinging the curved sickle towards Tadayoshi. The warlord scowled, as he caught the vicious blade and chain combination with his sword.

The sickle wrapped itself around the blade, and Hideo made a vicious downward motion, causing Tadayoshi to loosen his grip on his katana.

For a second, the Ashikage warlord was exposed.

It was enough.

Hideo grabbed all of his throwing stars with a smooth practised motion off his belt, and with his left hand flicked them all.

Schwick, schwick, schwick!

The 7 bladed stars made a sickening sound as they embedded themselves into the warlord’s chest and face. 3 of them alone found his face, the fearsome, handsome scowl, disappearing under the onslaught of stars.

Blood splattered outwards, and Tadayoshi took his final breath as he toppled onto his back, the poison on the stars causing immediate asphyxiation. As the Ashikage’s warlord body dropped to the floor, the first screams of pain from the charging army of retainers echoed loudly as their feet were viciously cut open by Hideo’s caltrops.

Hideo, scanned his surroundings furiously and decided the only way out was up. He dashed up the stairs to Tadayoshi’s private room and just as he reached the top, the first overeager samurai came running, his crazed expressions, baying for blood.

Hideo, didn’t hesitate and threw a kunai right at the man, who stumbled backwards, stunned as the knife buried itself 3 inches into his forehead, causing the 4 men behind him to trip over as well.

Sprinting for the tiny window that allowed moonlight to spill into the private quarters, Hideo slammed his thin axes into the wood and climbed his way up to the open window and crawled through, barely fitting through.

Ignoring the frenzied cries of rage inside, Hideo was momentarily stunned to be standing atop the Ashikage castle. The view was spectacular, with the moon shining brightly on the lush green forest and the brightly lit lanterns.

Shaking off his awe, Hideo leapt down to the next parapet of the castle and kept repeating the motion, until he came to the bottom floor. Seeing the drawbridges had been drawn up, and that the lanterns were now too obvious an escape route, Hideo looked down at the moat.

Water swirled gently as Hideo could see huge carp moving the black depths.

But the walls of the moat could be scaled with his axes.

Taking a deep breath, Hideo braced himself and dove into the murky depths.

Immediately the shock of the cold water, nearly drove all the air out of his lungs, but Hideo steadied himself and kept diving before surfacing, making his way for the other side of the moat.

He stifled a scream of surprise, as a carp rubbed itself along his leg, its cold heavy body knocking him off his intended course.

Swimming faster now, Hideo reached into his belt and slammed his thin axes into the gaps of the stone moat wall, and fished himself out of the water, shivering and relieved to get away.

Taking a breather, Hideo climbed out of the moat, and peered over the edge.

The entire castle was now on high alert. Samurais were stationed everywhere, and there was a sense of rage and urgency suffusing the once festive atmosphere.

But there was no-one directly looking at Hideo, and the empty space between him and the emergency escape route.

Seizing his chance, Hideo rushed across the empty space, ignoring the wet footprints he left behind and stealthily avoiding the caltrops he left at the secret exit, he opened the door, clicked it shut before rushing through the forest.

He had gotten away.

~

The ride onboard Kaze was slow but uneventful. Hideo found himself hunched close to Kaze for warmth, as he tried to dry himself as quickly as possible after the cold waters of the moat.

Exhausted, Hideo whispered to Kaze encouragingly, but soon was asleep.

Hours later, Hideo awoke to vigorous shaking.

Opening his eyes, he was astonished to see Yukie staring at him, her brown eyes and pale face, haggard after a night of little sleep.

A soft blanket covered his bare chest, and he could feel the warmth of the fire nearby, restoring strength to his tired body.

Yukie? asked Hideo as he sat up. How …

The question died, as Yukie, unable to contain herself, hugged him tightly, tears of relief streaming down her cheeks.

Hideo felt a strange calm as he held Yukie tightly to his chest, and closed his eyes.

They would survive for another moment.

Hideo and Yukie stayed that way for the rest of the night, their silent relief slowly giving way to love by the fire.

Author’s note:

This story took me forever to finalise, simply because I had no real idea where I was going with it.

In addition, I was stuck on a very simple question: How do you write stealth in an exciting way that is tense and engaging?

As you can probably tell, I more or less gave up and ventured back into familiar “action” territory at the end. I also came to the conclusion that a fight between the target and main protagonist was much more fun to read than a silent kill.

No wonder there aren’t many stealth books out there …

Anyway, I’m glad to have put the finishing touches to this story and move onto the next one!

Until then!

~ Damocles.