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James McLeod is an Australian fantasy author who wants to bring minty freshness to a genre saturated in dragon-breath. Reveling in the exotic locale, McLeod’s stories fuse darkness, comedy, and satire to hurl characters into transformative personal journeys — with a sprinkling of social commentary, along the way.


Trigger Warning

“What does it feel like?” With a dirty hand, the lad held the small, amber vessel into the moonlight and peered at it.

That’s the first thing you say?” I replied. “Not, ‘Great Goddess!’ or ‘this will change my life!’ or ‘oh, ho! How my enemies will pay!’…aren’t you even slightly excited?”

His eyes grew glum. “Not really.”


This was definitely going to be a slog. This kid was–…what, fifteen? And moody. And his inexperience was clearly addling his ability to grasp the gravity of the situation.

Still, the last thing I wanted to do was to antagonize him.

Drifting over, I rested beside him on the scarred stone block he’d claimed, wrested like its siblings from the desert sand for the second time in a thousand years. The youth didn’t look up. He just kept staring at the hole. A black, gaping maw, surrounded by picks and shovels, all discarded as the sun had set when work in the rock-cut chamber below had ended.

“Are you afraid of me? Is that it?” I asked.

No reply.

“I am not what you think. In fact, I wasn’t much different from you, once–”

“I am not afraid of you,” he said. “It’s…it’s Trader Zema.”

“Alright. And what’s scary about him?”

“He’s going to take you.”

“I don’t see how. You found me first, and as the the saying goes, ‘the first to reach the tree reaps the dates.’”

“No.” He shook his head. “Zema always gets what he wants.”

“Nobody always gets what they want. Trust me, I’ve watched people for a long, long time, and if there’s one thing humans are excellent at, it’s stopping each other from getting what they want. Sultan, Empress, Vizier or Magician, it doesn’t matter the station, how wide their reach, or how strong their armies. All fall under the foot of one another, their people, or their own faults.”

The boy kicked at the sand. “You are wise…”

“Ironically, I’m the least wise of all. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret, anyway.”

He looked up.

“If you don’t let the foot crush you, entirely — if you play a nail as it comes down upon you — well, then you have a chance.”

“I cannot…”

“Why? Because you are small and Zema is big? Because he has chests of gold and people at his beck and call, and you lack both. Is that it?”

“Because it is futile.”

“Hah.” I crossed my arms. “All that tells me you have given in to what some enjoy calling, ‘fate’.”

He kicked the sand again. “What of it? It is impossible to fight the will of the gods.”

I laughed. “The gods have no say in your path! And I tell you, now, ‘fate,’ is an illusion. It is merely a word to describe the story you craft for yourself.” I paused. “Would you like me to prove it to you?”

Still eyeing me cautiously, he nodded.

In the air before us, I now bade the desert sand rise up and form an image. Streaming particulates arced and flowed about, forming dusty, simple houses of mud-brick and dry brush. A woman with a wagon and donkey wandered past a man carrying sacks on his head.

The lad’s eyes went wide.

“I came from nothing,” I told him. “The son of a beggarly weaver and  farmer. My life began with little and would have amounted to just as much, had I not been plucked from my nest by a great falcon…”

I now used the sands to draw a great manor courtyard with towering palms, stone columns, and a majestic reflecting pool. A small figure stood gazing at it all in wonder.

“In this falcon’s talons, I was lifted to a new nest. And as the city’s Master of Coin, he had a nice nest, indeed.”

“You lived there?” the lad uttered, lips parted as if hungry to taste such luxury.

“In a manner of speaking. You see, I was young. Zealous. And like one fallen into a well who clutches for a dangling rope, I clutched at the good fortune I’d been handed, thinking my life was now secure. I lacked the wisdom to realize that, like the parents who had sold me away, souls in great need have poor judgment…”

I flicked a finger and the imagery changed.

A great room with high ceilings and a vast table of food and wine appeared. Then, two grand chairs upon a dais in which a stately couple sat, both tall, slim, with stern expressions. They observed a boisterous party of guests eating, drinking, and revelling at their table.

Lastly, I crafted another form. Average height, lanky, and standing behind the scene, bearing a tray.

“I served dutifully, answering every call. Trying to please my new masters.”

“You were a servant?”

“Ah. Now, that word is well chosen.” In the image, the lanky young man crossed the room at a gesture from his lady. “A servant, I was, and every ask from my masters was met. I was a good servant…a great servant. And I worked harder than the others. For my mother had taught me that great work begets great reward.”

“If only that were true…”

The lad’s words were bitter as dried nightleaf, and this caused me to raise my eyebrows. “Hmm. Perhaps you have more wisdom than I allowed. Witness, then, my decline.”

The scene changed, and changed again. Each time, the lanky figure appeared in different environs, shining metalware or hefting sacks or scrubbing floors. And with each changing swirl of sand, he grew taller, though whatever height was gained was offset by a worsening hunch.

“My years were spent in service, answering ever more demanding asks. Yet, I never wavered, nor spoke out of turn, nor made any ask for myself. I kept silent, hoping that sooner or later, my masters would see the work I was doing for them and reward me, perhaps with a better position, or another to work beside. Perhaps, if I were very lucky, they might even introduce me to one close to their own station whom I might marry. Then, my life would be better. Then, one day, I might return home and tell my parents what had become of me, a simple boy made great…”

The sand swirled and revealed the stern couple between two menials with fans, and before them, a hunched figure who wiped his brow, then continued placing mud-brick after mud-brick.

The next whirl showed the couple beckoning a young woman towards a finished house, all overjoyed as she entered and closed the door while behind them, the hunched young man ploughed a field.

“I vaguely recall realizing when it was too late.” I conjured the great room with the chairs upon the dais, again. This time, the stern man’s beard had grown long and the woman’s face, wrinkled, and before them stood a cloaked figure. It seemed some kind of deal was being made.

“It happened when my last possession, a bracelet from my mother, was given to a stranger. An old man with white eyes…”

The lady handed it to the old figure, who scrutinized it before casting it into a deep bowl. Raising his arms, he then spoke words to the sky and a burst of flame erupted, followed by a blast of wind that ruffled all of their clothes.

The scene faded.

“It seemed some kind of deal…and soon after that, the recitations began. Daily, I was made to proclaim unending loyalty to my masters. That I would shoulder my duties tirelessly, fulfilling any wish I was given. That my bond to my masters would last for eternity, unless they wished me free…”

The lad beside me had been staring at the swirling images I had conjured. But now I noticed him studied me, eyes tracing my black hair and torso, and finally, the swirling mist that began at my hips, extending through the air to the small vessel he held.

“I realized I was changing,” I said. “With every recitation, and each passing day, my own thoughts grew distant and their voices, stronger. I felt myself fading until I was little more than a shadow. I wasn’t even aware of when I ceased sleeping on my floor and began instead to stand in the dark each night, awaiting the next summons. But I do remember when that stranger returned.”

The final scene I conjured showed a young man, changed. Wiry and gaunt, with ribs that betrayed hunger, he stood alone in the darkness, eyes staring vacantly.

Then, the old man before him, and as he raised a small vessel and spoke some more words to the sky, the scene rippled. Like water down a spout, the young man whirled through the air, vanishing into the small object.

“In my new form, I witnessed my masters eventually die,” I explained. “Yet I endured, and my desire and ability to fulfill asks only grew. To carry them out, I drew on a new energy I felt in the air, in the earth, in the sun and the stars, and it didn’t take long for my next owner, the couple’s daughter, to recognize my potential. She used me ruthlessly and soon became ruler of a great empire. And when she died at the hand of her best general, he did the same…”

I stared into the hole in the ground, aware that it had been my prison for many hundreds of years, now. But emotions like fear or dread were no longer part of me.

“After that, I was lost and found, time and again, each new master employing my power as they saw fit.” I turned to look the young man in the eyes. “You see, I was the best servant. And a servant, I remain. Until my master wishes it otherwise.”

The lad didn’t reply, but I knew he understood. And now came the moment I feared most. The moment when one saw what I offered, and greed, jealousy, revenge, and hatred took over. When one’s deepest desires fought for their tongue, and I was made once again to honour my agreement.

He turned to me.

“Trader Zema is powerful. If he takes you, I fear the worst for the city of Mitam. Surely, you cannot wish for that. To become his weapon.”

I lowered my head.

“And you have still not answered my question,” he added.

“Which, then?”

“What it feels like.”

“To be light as air, yet be weighted by ball and chain? To be sought after but lonely eternally? To endure?

“No…I want you to consider what it has felt like to seek favour by grovelling. To seek honour by giving yours all away. To mutely absorb ever more gruelling demands in the hope of liberation…”

Strange, that sudden coldness to his voice. By now, a new master was usually consumed by possibility and ignored me…

Perhaps this one was different. In which case, perhaps I should be honest?

“It is not my place to wish,” I said, remembering what being nervous felt like. “Though if I could, I would wish to never answer another ask from woman, man, or child.”

At that, I saw a flicker of satisfaction.

“There, then, is the lesson. T’jani, I quake at what you have endured. Truly. But to grant one such tremendous power is to risk everything, and you, like those before you, must experience humankind’s unquenchable thirst. It is the only way to understand the unending torment that interfering or even turning our ears to their kind risks.” He nodded. “Now, however, you are free. Now, Guardian of Winds and Storms, you may use that power as you see fit.” Eyes paling to a sandy white, his guise melted away and I found that old man before me, ivory robes brilliant in the moonlight. “Come. The pantheon is eager to meet you.”

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