Depths and Heights: a tiny anthology

Playing Machines
Slow-Cooker Epic Fantasy
Hell Sweet Home

Another selection of flash fiction: from tragic to humorous and back again.

{ Tranquility }

Jack stood atop a hollow skyscraper, eyes closed. One small step: all variables calculated for the long fall. Travelers from afar may find him someday, sealed in this archival suit like a mummy.

He cleared his throat, began recording. “Hi. I may be the last survivor. We bred mosquitoes to vaccinate the world—you can fill in the rest. Honest, it seemed a good choice at the time.”

He stepped over the edge.

The gravitronic cannon flung him skyward, a reverse meteor through atmosphere.

The body kicked up dust in Mare Tranquillitatis, to lie forever safe from Earth’s raving hordes.

{ Playing Machines }

KORVELLI UPRISING (810 Rg). One of many such incidents—few successful, and none so costly until the later SEETHING WAR—in the insular STATE OF JEN during its long decline. The lordly class of Jen was composed of ensouled machines that ruled over the human creatures by divine right. Among the lords, there was one called the Master of Games, who directed ritual contests between human and machine.

State religion stressed the frailty of humanity and the perfection of machinery. Select commoners could earn a place of luxury and refinement near the lords, at the land known as Low Paradise. A peculiar and oft-studied feature of Jen society was the strict limitation of human movement. Human athletes were exempt while in the games, but restrained by collars outside the arena. Few humans became athletes. The remainder were inflicted with paralysis almost from birth and strapped to machine “muscles” that allowed them to perform assigned functions. If a human acted out, the muscles punished them. Only machines were given total freedom to walk, leap, or dance.

Chosen priests cut a human child’s spinal cord in ritual, a ceremony known as the DEVOLITION. Sometimes the surgery caused premature death or unintended consequences. On one such occasion, the priest killed a full cohort of seventeen children in the town of KORVELLI—whether by choice or ineptitude is unclear. The community howled for blood. They seized the priest and cracked it open before their artificial muscles froze and left them helpless. Yet they were shocked to find a person inhabiting the machine shell.

The lordly class considered machine impersonation a crime most heinous. Per law, the priest should be flayed alive and his skin draped over a metal frame, in revenge for his mockery. But for reasons unknown, the machine lords spared the false priest’s life. Their leniency fomented the first rebellion.

Unbeknownst to the players, the Master of Games was also human, disguised by a gaudy arrangement of machine parts. Over time, a series of humans served in this position for short tenures, replaced without the players’ knowledge. The Master was granted more autonomy but lived in constant fear of failure to please the lords.

The games had three purposes that scholars have discerned. One, divert the people from rebellion. Two, prove the superiority of machine over human. Three, condition the people to believe in reincarnation. In-game “deaths” were simulated by a period of unconsciousness, followed by “rebirth,” a mere awakening. Lack of valor triggered longer sleeping and long-lasting pain. Perhaps the intent was to induce greater courage in actual battle, soldiers expecting to resume their lives after a brief death.

The Korvelli uprising may have faltered without a certain Master of Games (her name lost to historical record) who fell in love with one of the players, visited him by night in disguise, and soon after became pregnant. She concealed her shape until the child was born, and then contrived to swap it into the community, as a twin to another baby born to that man at the same time. It is from this incident that she first became known as the TWINNER.

The Twinner sided with the revolters in her heart. Her child and its false twin both died under the false priest’s hand.

Though instrumental to the uprising, the Twinner’s motives are uncertain. She may have sensed fear gripping the nascent uprising. She may have wished to test the limits of her overseers or pursue a personal vendetta. Whatever the intent, she arranged for a machine contestant to fall before a human player in a contest of balance and strength, a joust atop high pillars. The human athlete’s victory inspired the commoners who were watching.

This Master of Games fled before she could be questioned. The lords accepted the player into Low Paradise as a servant to the lord he had beaten, where the lord abused him to the point of death. Meanwhile, new Masters were appointed and a war fabricated. Korvelli’s false priest, the lords announced, belonged to a larger movement. Korvelli would be emptied to serve in battle against the enemy who slaughtered children. Only a few guessed that the war was a ruse to exterminate the townspeople.

The Twinner gathered these likeminded humans, revealed herself, and outlined a plan for actual liberation. They would take machine scraps from the assembly and make shells to disguise themselves as machine lords, infiltrate the lords’ sector, and expose the war for its artificiality. She taught them how to comport themselves and speak like lords.

The infiltration failed. They were quickly recognized and captured. In this, the Twinner has been accused of betrayal. We can only conjecture whose agent she was, if anyone’s.

Defeated, the rebels awaited execution.

Yet to their surprise, the machine lords received them into a splendid garden and pardoned their actions. Greater shock, the machine lords shed their own shells and showed that they too were humans. The lords then offered to receive the rebels into their ranks. Most did, eagerly. One or two chose to join their neighbors on the front line of the extermination war.

Thus we designate the Korvelli incident as an uprising in two senses: rising up to protest, and consequently rising in rank.

At this point, the Twinner disappears from the record. If she joined the machine lords, she concealed her identity from all who knew her before. Or the lords might have disposed of her discreetly. Several traditions claim that she brought secrets of metalworking into the region where the EBHIS DOMINION would later arise, although historians dispute the reality behind these myths.

{ Slow-Cooker Epic Fantasy }

Make your own epic fantasy adventure. (It’s easy! And fun!) A familiar, hearty stew with bold heroic flavor, rich worldbuilding texture and pockets of melt-your-heart character romance. The secret to this recipe is all the fresh clichés! Pick them while in season. The cooking process is divided into two parts: setting and plot.

Category: Epic
Course: Entree
Cuisine: European?
Prep: 6 years. Cook: 2 years. Total: unknown.
Yields: 1 tome (out of 15)


  • village dumpling who’s secretly descended from heroic lineage
  • posse of cabbage friends, also destined for greatness—one of them pickled for comic relief
  • humble salt, as mentor to the dumpling (more potent than he appears, meddles in all politics)
  • sweet and spicy peppers, as love interests with a kick
  • sage fool
  • weather-beaten swordfish in exile
  • virtuous royalty, to taste
  • traitorous royalty, to taste
  • paragons of virtue who are rotten eggs
  • zest of various token nonhumans
  • friendly fey creature, softened
  • evil hermit creature, chilled
  • formidable fowl servants of the Dark Lord
  • hordes of Dark Lord’s bestial brussel sprouts
  • Dark Lord Himself, aged for ten thousand years in the deepest cellar of the world
  • 1000 named extras


  1. For your milieu, there are two options: northwestern or southern Europe, thinly disguised. You might mix in some marauders from wintry lands and, if you’re feeling really spicy, toss in some turbaned folks with curved swords.
  2. In itself, the map is a vital ingredient.
  3. The whole world may be threatened, but there’s only one continent of note. This is it. In order to emphasize that it’s really big, crop close into one section of it; readers won’t wonder why the map stops at arbitrary boundaries, or what’s beyond the horizon.
  4. It’s customary, if not necessary, to have the saltwater bounding on the west and south. You’ll need other barriers to keep your heroes from wandering off the map, so make sure the edges of the rectangle are boring wastelands or impassable mountains. Then, it’s fashionable to take the characters on a comprehensive tour of their world. Your adoring readership will boost tourism in those areas.
  5. If you’d like extra coastline, look for inspiration from the Mediterranean. Pinch, twist, and stretch to just barely disguise the shapes of familiar continents.
  6. Drop a big island or archipelago just offshore somewhere. It’s more ornamental than functional. Maybe we’ll see some island sailors selling exotic goods in a port city.
  7. Place names need careful consideration. You can’t stray too far from convention, but you can’t outright steal a name from one of your forebears. The most important place names should start with ‘A,’ or include some variation of ‘-or’/‘-ar,’ or end with ‘-el.’ For example, Andariel. Indeed, the majority of place names should end with ‘l,’ ‘r,’ ‘s,’ or ’n’ sounds. Examples: Shianumar, Athelos, Irvalon. Stir in rhythms and alliterations. Splash it with poetry (also known as essence of Elvish).
  8. Place the Enemy on one of the cardinal points of the compass, behind an impenetrable Wall of artificial or natural origin. You could try a box of mountains. Likewise, the Enemy’s actual name should be screened by a wall of epithets: Dark Lord/One, Shadow in the East/North/etc. It’s ideal to name Evil places on the pattern of “murder,” “ghoul,” “morgue,” “shadow,” and so forth.
  9. The bad place must be baked until desolate. Ash, smoke, dust, and fire are excellent seasonings for an exquisite bleak flavor. As an alternative, you can chill until freezer-burnt.
  10. The first epic fantasy was built as context for a fictional language. Therefore you must invent at least one language. If you can’t make your own, storebought is fine. Fold in occasional lines from that language, translation optional. Your readers will be awed by your linguistic prowess no matter your real understanding of language mechanics.
  11. However, the cosmopolitan hero’s party must interact amongst themselves and with the world. Just use a dash of dialect here and there to convey the language differences. Create imitation profanity by fermenting thematic elements of the world.
  12. Keep flavors pure. Every nationality or ethnicity will be a stereotype; every character must be faithful to their homeland with distinct appearance and behavior. To simplify this, you’ll often include just one character per nation in the hero’s party. However, you may introduce a culture by means of a character who perfectly defies the stereotype—a note of contrast for more sophisticated palates.
  13. Make sure you Capitalize the Important terms, as with your Magic Systems, so the reader Knows when someone is flying across the room and when they’re Flying through the sky.
  14. The epic style of cooking is based on “medieval” history (we all know just what that means). Don’t bog down the process with historical research, except to learn about cool weapons and war strategy from a thousand-year period of European history which is, rest assured, all homogenous. Society didn’t change. And certainly there was no Civilization outside the Known World.
  15. No guns. Guns appeared full-formed one day in the 16th century (probably delivered by aliens—that’s a different genre), instantly replacing swords and bows. Earlier weapons require real effort to wield and thus ensure long training sequences during the plot which nevertheless fail to justify the hero’s rapid and breathtaking mastery. Embed a magnificent, physics-defying Weapon somewhere for the hero to collect as emblem of his mastery.
  16. Dragons. Everybody loves dragons, so be sure to plop in at least one. Sometimes just the word Dragon is sufficient.
  17. Gold and silver coins. This was the only viable form of currency in the Western world before the invention of paper bills (for Westerns, different genre again).
  18. Since we’re in medieval Europe, the default spiritual tradition derives from Christianity or at least an Abrahamic faith. Water down the theology: don’t indulge any of the paradoxes or disputes that give real texture to faith. Polytheize. If in doubt, omit religion. It’s not like it’s ever been a basic element of society.
  19. Preheat the conflict to cosmic temperatures. Marinate the setting for 12 years in your heart.


  1. Open with the irresistible, the quintessential prologue. Feature tormented characters of the deep past, or interesting nobodies tangled in a wild situation—don’t involve any central characters, because the purpose here is to set up contrast. One prime way to achieve that is through a shocking, yet awesome, murder. The location should evoke wonder, despair, or both, but must be a place far removed from the heroes’ origins or anything we’ll see in the first eight hundred pages. Tantalize with a sample of the cosmic conflict.
  2. The zesty prologue lures the reader through the ambling pace of the early chapters. Welcome to a sleepy village free of secrets and trouble. Folks here be organic like the produce, lovers of peace and—oh no they’re all dead. Cue jaw-dropping revelations that we totally never saw coming: You are the Chosen Orphan. I am not your father. Only you can bring balance to the Power. The twisted creatures that destroyed your home were sent by the Dark Lord to end this war before it begins. But you and your friends survived, because we need to squeeze you for ten thousand plus pages of angst and cool magic stunts.
  3. Don’t forget the prophecy that certifies your hero. Whoever spoke this prophecy, and in what conditions, is lost to time.
  4. Begin the quest by simmering your characters, then gradually increase the heat until they’re deep-fried in the oven of a burning house falling into the Sun.
  5. Sweeten the Chosen Dumpling with romance. Skipping this step was another great disappointment of the first fantasy epic. Tease with the village girl who grew up with him until he develops more exotic taste. Then mix in several other potential lovers, one or two at a time, to compete for his interest. He can choose any or all of the top three.
  6. Cue angst (mostly) and cool magic stunts (rarely). Fill with pages upon pages of fascinating travel logistics, court intrigue, training sequences, philosophizing, character gossip, spats between friends, and intricate secrets that require a wiki to untangle.
  7. After a couple tomes full of arduous travel sequences, skim off the fat. Let the hero discover a long-forgotten, otherworldly method of travel to enable quick hops around the map.
  8. Linger on the battle sequences. Skimping on bloodshed was the only failing of the original recipe: blood is a rich source of iron and salt. Therefore, soldiers and innocents must be slaughtered. Drench the soil in blood.
  9. You may choose to emphasize artful or brutal violence, but always moralize about the tragedy of warfare even as you gleefully indulge it.
  10. Divide the fellowship and make all companions into leading heroes who will pursue rousing side quests to enrich the main course. Proven to feed hosts of hungry readers for decades.
  11. End with a battle featuring every character ever, overwhelming odds, natural disasters, genocide of the Enemy’s soldiers, and a duel between the Chosen Dumpling and the Enemy.
  12. Defeat evil forever (until next time).

Serve the cover garnished with oils.
To make it vegan and kosher, knock out your viewpoint character when the battle begins.
To make it gluten-free, replace the dumpling with taters (read: po-ta-toes).
For a keto version, limit the number of feasts. Instead, your characters will subsist on braces of coneys caught in the wilderness.

{ Hell Sweet Home }

“…And that’s how I came to dwell in this dazzling world of fire and ash,” said Frigg, bouncing one of the imps on her knee. She gave Nessus an exaggerated smile. “What about yourself?”

The drunken centaur flicked his tail at another imp trying to poke his underside. “I seduced a lady.” He waggled his bushy eyebrows at Frigg. “Her husband shot me for it, but I dragged him after me into the jaws of death.”

“How extraordinary,” she said, distracted by the low whistle of the kettle she’d rigged to signal breaches to her perimeter.

“I wrote a fine theatrical piece about it under a pseudonym,” Nessus said. “The Trachiniae. If you’d indulge this little story, the revenge is clever and the love sublime.”

Only because she expected an interruption, Frigg nodded. The little ones hanging off her long braids chirped at the motion. She didn’t know why she let so many infest the place. They were cute for a while, lashing with little whips and prodding with tiny forks. Yet some days she preferred solitude—that’s when she played golf. Still, they always found their way back.

Finally, a trio of masked mortals burst through the window. Nessus reared and fumbled with his bow. The mortals swiveled on him with their odd weapons. Frigg sighed, brushed the imp from her knee, and stepped between the bristling warmakers. “Enough,” she said. “You all noticed the sign at the gate? ‘No bloodshed.’”

She collected the near-empty tankard of chilled beer from Nessus and shooed him out, ignoring his protests.

“Came to break me out, did you?” she asked the intruders.

They dipped their heads. That was the limit of their obeisance, apparently. One of them stepped forward and slipped off the mask. Despite never meeting, she could read mortals; this one’s name was Christopher. “Fair goddess,” he said, “we learned you were wrongfully imprisoned in this foul world of Christian perdition. We’ve come to release you from obscurity and torment.”

Frigg shook her head. “Boys, boys. Don’t you know the damsel-in-distress trope is outmoded? I’m quite able to leave any time I choose. And as you can see, I have enough pests making havoc of my home without your presence.”

“We’re nothing like those disgusting critters!” said Magnus.

“Oh, now you’ve insulted them. Look how cute they are when they pout.” She reached down and pinched an imp’s cheek, lifting it into the air and shaking it back and forth. It squealed with delight as its face warped like taffy, the body flopping in tandem.

“That’s uncouth,” sniffed Christopher.

“Hurts my ears,” moaned Bart.

“Tickles mine,” said Frigg. The imp wriggled loose and toddled off. “Those windows aren’t easy to replace. The lava outside never cools without a lot of coaxing.” She could melt sand from the burning plain, but that was a long hike.

“You’ll get a whole penthouse!” said Magnus. “Much better than this drab little shack. We’ll put in whatever glass you could want: bulletproof, colored, diamond-sparkly.”

“I’ve explained to thirteen other teams like yours, I’m happy here.”

“This is a place of suffering,” said Christopher.

“And Midgard isn’t?”

Bart waved a finger. “She has a point there.”

“I’m immortal, children. Did you think you’d find me stretched over a rack? Frozen in a pit of everlasting night? No. This cottage is a pleasant home of my making. The ash feeds my garden. The fumes are incense and the flames chase away all memory of cold. Sometimes the mountain purrs under my feet as it weeps red gold. I don’t know if you admired the view while trying to sneak up on me.”

“What of these tormentors?” Christopher said, dodging a plate thrown by one imp. Frigg seized the little thing by the scruff. They knew they mustn’t attack guests without her permission.

“Their teeth and scourges are no trouble to me, only a massage. When they’re too rowdy…” She took down the stylized hammer on the wall and placed the little critter, curled in a ball, at the edge of her railless balcony. “I play games I learn from other immigrants.” Backswing, downswing, follow through. Hammer struck flesh, and the hapless imp sailed out screeching into the dark.

“Where’s the rest of your family?” said Magnus, twirling Frigg’s spindle in one hand.

“At first, we all lived in this…neighborhood,” she said. “I never much enjoyed their squabbles, so it’s really a relief that others like you already enticed them to leave.” The words came with more venom than intended. She forced a breezy tone. “Will you have a drink?”

“Please,” said Magnus. Frigg bustled past him and snatched her spindle from the fool.

But then a pair of manacles snapped over her wrists. She turned in shock at Christopher, who had flanked her while Magnus distracted. Christopher had the decency to cringe.

“Was that too easy?” Bart fretted. “That was too easy.”

Exultant, Magnus produced a wrinkled piece of paper and waved it around. “No, we have a certificate. These are genuine godcapture manacles. She’s helpless.”

“Please pardon our brashness,” Christopher said. “Since you’re unwilling…I’m afraid we’ll have to escort you ourselves.”

“Ah…kidnapping a goddess,” she said. “That’s a fatal error of some kind, I’m sure.”

“All for your happiness, lady goddess,” Bart said.

Frigg became demure. “You really mean that?” Then her features sagged with defeat. “I told you, I’ve met others of your ilk. You want me whoring for some little cult.”

“No, no, sweet lady, we’re not here to indulge silly mortal passions. We strive for higher art. We just want to bring back paganism and restore harmony to the universe.”

“Like I said.” She so hated unruly guests. Glancing at the imps crowding the room, she nodded. “Kids…”

The manacles unraveled into a pile of silver thread at her feet.

“…sic ’em.”

The imps chased three yowling mortals down the burning slopes while she sipped beer on her balcony.

{ Heartbreak }

A child slumps by the front door waiting for a package. Each heartbeat marks an hour, every minute scrapes infinity. She’ll die if it doesn’t come today. She will.

Bells toll.

Cars whir past.

Footsteps. Voices. Pizzas and toys on doorsteps, but not hers.

Tick, tock, ticky tocky ticker tock.





She springs to her feet, sleep-dizzy, and pries open the door.

Her quivering hands dissect the box. She digs through foam to find—car parts, not the new heart she needs.


Gears and pumps freeze in her chest, and the clockwork child falls inert.