NaNoWriMo Debrief

Well, I finished. Fifty-thousand words in twenty-nine days; I finished a little early on the 29th.

I don’t know why I didn’t attempt this earlier, and I owe a special thanks to my friend Lauren (herself a longtime veteran) for spurring me to participate this year.

What I found is that it was easier to get my words in every day than I’d first thought. That’s good, because fifty-thousand words isn’t even half of my novel.

What did I end up with at the end of the month? What I’d consider a more complex plot outline–I’m not sure that I’d really even call it a partial first draft. Maybe this is me being too hard on myself; there are parts I feel very good about. But I also think I’m going to have to go through and rewrite almost everything–perhaps several times.

My plan is to finish this rough draft, use that to rework plot gaps and what I like to think of as “narrative circles”–those plot lines, events or references to things that come back around by the end of the novel to make the reader think, “Oh, that’s why that was in there.” I’ve been reading Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies when I’m not writing (expect a review soon), he’s an absolute expert at this.

Once I’ve finalized the plot where I’m happy with it, I’ll do a rewrite for quality of writing and “style.” I spent two months plotting the novel (not the full thing either, but more than I’ve written in fifty-thousand words).

That provided one of the interesting experiences in the writing–those places where the plot morphed and mutated on its own in my hands. I’d start writing and realize, “Nope, that’s not how that should happen, let’s do it this way,” or “Wouldn’t this be even better if this character was responsible for this event; everything holds together better that way.”

I’d heard about this phenomenon in reading the advice books of other authors, but (mostly because I’d never plotted before writing–I always will from now own) I’d never experienced this joy of writing before. It is exceptionally rewarding when something you’ve been working on begins to come alive–even for you.

I’ll likely be taking a short writing break from the novel (maybe a week or so) and then trying to continue the momentum into finishing the first draft. I’m nowhere near happy with it at this point, but I’m also confident that it will become something I can publish.

In the meantime, my hiatus on this blog is at an end; export more posts shortly. Hopefully fast and furious!

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Wilderlands

The blog has been dormant for a few weeks, and for that I apologize.

I’ve been working on plotting the first part of the novel I’m working on ahead of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’ve been challenged by a good friend and talented writer to see who can get to 50,000 words faster during the event. I’ve never participated before; she’s successfully completed the challenge eight years running.

So, I’ve been diligently working my outline and characters in the hopes that this will allow for smooth writing with a minimum of writer’s block. I haven’t written anything that will be in the novel yet (that would be unfair), but I am trying to detail scenes with specificity and to get faults in the plot out of the way from the outset.

This, I hope, explains the lack of posting on the blog. A few things have come up that I’d like to write about, but everything is likely on hold until the end of November. Once I’m done with the competition, I’ll go on to plotting the rest of the novel and return to writing blog posts more regularly.

I’m (very) tentatively calling the novel Wilderlands

Expeditions in the Western Wilderness

The first of the two novels I’m currently working on—and the one I think I’ll write first, as it is in its nature the narratively simpler of the two (though I wouldn’t call it narratively simple)—is about an expedition into the Wilderness of the West in Avar Narn (I’m going to ask you in advance to forgive the seeming randomness of some of my capitalization—I blame this on too much time studying texts written before orthography, punctuation and capitalization were standardized). I thought I’d share some information about the background of the novel to see if anyone would like to offer feedback.

These notes are tentative and potentially subject to change.

The Background

Long ago, the Aenyr people came to the known world from the West (legend says from an island). The Aenyr were powerful thaumaturges and magi; this power made their dominance over the peoples of the Avar all but assured. They founded great cities of wondrous artifice and thaumaturgical genius, but their ascendency was built on the backs of enslaved humans. The Aenyr Empire expanded as far as the Altaenin island in the Central Sea before internal conflict and abuse of their sorcerous powers caused civil war, rebellion and eventually collapse. The Aenyr retreated from the Avar for over a thousand years. Though they have returned in small numbers more recently, they are no longer the masters of thaumaturgy they once were, no longer interested in dominating the Avar (at least most of them are not), and they have forgotten most if not all of the secret knowledges they had once discovered.

When the Aenyr abandoned the Avar (a story for another time), they left their magnificent cities to rot and crumble. Farther east, many of the current great cities (each of the Seven Sisters, like Ilessa, for instance) are built upon the ruins and remains of those ancient dwellings. In the West, though, these cities—some of the greatest built by the Aenyr—were abandoned fully by civilized folk.

But there is much coin to be made in the realm of thaumaturgical advancements and Artificial devices (those powered by arcane energies). While some research to innovate on their own, the Artificer Houses, the universities, and those looking to make a name for themselves (or just put coin in their pouches) look to these forgotten places to rediscover secrets of the past—to monetize them.

Elderyn

From the town of Elderyn, venture companies form to search the Wilderness of the West for ancient ruins to be looted for their knowledge (and gold).

The town started small but has grown to great proportions to harbor the trade that spawned it. Once merely a last stop before the Wild, now Elderyn caters to the every need of venturers and expeditions. Tradesmen and craftsman make the weapons and tools for surviving the Wild; brothels and taverns provide respite from the weariness of travel and adventure for those who return successful.

At the edge of the Western Wild, Elderyn is beyond the reach of the lordlings who rule elsewhere. A Governor rules Elderyn, one elected by a combination of the town’s landowners, “registered” members of venture companies and expedition patrons. The Governor’s primary role is providing some rule of law for the business of expeditions bound for Aenyr ruins—a buffer against the might of the Artificer Houses, cheats and swindlers. Of course, the Governor himself is amenable to the occasional bribe, and skullduggery remains the status quo except for the vilest of offenses. Petty crimes—minor thievery, murder and the like—are handled by popular justice.

Venture Companies

The men and women of venture companies are no shining heroes—they are a desperate lot who find themselves unfit—by history or by inclination—for life in civilization. They are cutthroats, murderers and oddballs willing or forced by circumstance to risk their lives for gold and glory. Mercenaries, thugs, thieves and assassins, many came to Elderyn to avoid their deserved justice.

And these are just the type of people that sponsors of expeditions west want in their employ—rough men and women who have few qualms about doing what it takes to return from the Wild with something to show for themselves.

The typical arrangement between an expedition patron and a venture company is a contractual one—the Governor’s foremost role is to enforce these contracts once written. The customary arrangement is that the patron is entitled to all discoveries of written goods and Artifice, for which the company will be compensated at a rate determined by a neutral appraiser. Valuable objects that are not significant vehicles of lost knowledge are loot kept by the company—after they are studied and logged by the group’s scholars.

Venture companies are no small affair. A company needs wilderness scouts and trackers; barber-surgeons to tend to the inevitable injury and disease; scholars and scribes to understand and document any finds; cartographers to preserve the way for the company’s future expeditions; thaumaturges to protect the company and assist in finding valuable ruins; handlers for the expedition’s pack animals, etc.

To somewhat reduce the number of people required for an expedition (and thus increase each company member’s share), there is an “everyone works, everyone fights” mentality. No one in the company is dedicated to only one task, no one is exempt from the heavy labor required in the field, and no one may refuse to fight when necessary.

Some expected occupations among the company are lacking. No company brings a member on to be a cook, though a venturer who can prepare tasty meals rarely lacks for employment. Unlike mercenary companies, which venture companies superficially resemble, no camp followers are brought on expedition. Company members are expected to satisfy such needs “catch as catch can,” though such issues are not infrequently the causes of jealousies and fights between company members.

The average size of the venture company is sixty souls.

A venture company is perhaps one of the most egalitarian organizations in the Avar. Members are judged on merit, not on gender or appearance—remember that they’re all outcasts together. Women are as valuable as men if they pull their own weight. As important, venture companies are democratic—they elect their captain and vote on major decisions. Only when the company is in crisis or under direct threat is the rule of the captain absolute and infallible.

Despite the possibility of new elections at any time the company is not threatened, most captains maintain their positions solidly, resting on the reputation of past successes and trust built in the crucible of conflict.

The Great Game

Thaumaturgical know-how and the secrets of Artifice are perhaps the most valuable commodities in the Avar at present, so it should be no surprise that those involved in expeditions to discover lost secrets in Aenyr ruins are willing to resort to unsavory ends to increase their profit margins.

In the Wild, the only rule of law is the steel you bring with you; armed and violent conflicts between rival venture companies are not uncommon when one has made a discovery. Some companies—under patronage or not—attempt to make their fortune by following other companies and poaching their finds by force. If discovered, such companies face harsh retribution from the Governor and the security forces of Elderyn (undoubtedly supplemented by angry fellow venturers). Few, though, leave witnesses to their crimes.

Espionage also is a constant threat. A company’s maps and experience are its prized possessions in securing patronage for ventures West, and rare is the company wealthy (or foresighted) enough to be able to fund its own expedition. Both the theft of company secrets and espionage are punished in almost unthinkable ways. Yet, the lure of gold still outweighs such deterrents for some.

As might be suspected, the Artificer Houses are the most to be feared when it comes to poaching and espionage. Though they can fund the best equipped and supplied venture companies, they are always looking for ways to maximize profits while minimizing costs, and any opportunity to limit knowledge of Artifice to their own makers has a value of its own. Their airships allow them to send men into the Wild to steal another company’s find with alacrity, though the ancient wards of Aenyr cities make them impossible to spot from the air and the limitations of such craft make them unfit to deliver whole expeditions into the great wilderness, they are useful for suddenly overtaking an unwary venture company that’s made a find—the House men delivered by airship may then appropriate the slain company’s equipment to bring back their treasures to Elderyn.

What does it all mean? 

The idea for a novel based in this commerce is manifold. Some of these ideas arose out of the worldbuilding for Avar Narn itself—the commerce in Artifice is fundamental to many of the setting’s inherent conflicts.

But I’ve also always wanted to write a more modern take on the classic fantasy quest. Here, hard and desperate men and women are cogs in a machine of commerce—not valiant heroes saving the world. Though there is much wonder in the Wild, the life of an adventurer is more commonly one of suffering, labor and boredom punctuated by moments of terror. At its heart, I just love fantasy fiction that is gritty and “realistic.”

Don’t mistake my stated goals here for pure cynicism. Classic fantasy quests are morally instructive tales—look to the Grail Quest, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. But I believe that both moral instruction and fantasy that are more mature are able to provide morality and ethics in a more complicated world—one of pragmatism and expedience, ambiguity in righteousness, competing needs. A world in some ways more like our own. I think that the novel (still without a working title) based on these ideas has a chance of doing just that. We shall see.

The Aenyr Language

What follows is some of the work I’ve done (plus notes) on the language of the Aenyr people.

As a preparatory note, I’ll be using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for description of phonemes but will later shift to other symbols (with a guide) to depict how I intend to write the language within stories in Avar Narn. The language will have its own alphabet, but currently does not.

I’ve been using a combination of Mark Rosenfelder’s The Language Construction Kit and my own linguistic research to inform the choices made below. I highly recommend the book. I have a few similar ones on my shelf, but his is the one I usually start and end with.

A little bit of introduction–the language of the Aenyr is an ancient one, seldom used in the Avar except in remaining place names and its influence on subsequent languages (such as the Altaenin tongue). As I post more about the history of the Avar and of the Aenyr people, you’ll see this fleshed out.

To begin, I needed to decide on the sound of the language. I found the following quotation on the Wikipedia page for “cellar-door”: “it at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals and open syllables with vowel nuclei–the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkien turned into a staple of fantasy fiction.”

I used the quotation as something of a guide in selecting phonemes for the Aenyr language. Following Tolkien, I first looked at Welsh and Finnish, but I also looked to Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian and a few other Earth languages in the process.

First, I satisfied the guidepost of the above-written quote by adding the liquids: /r/, /l/, /ɹ/, /ʎ/ and the nasals: /m/, /n/, /ɲ/, /ɳ/ (the latter two being influenced by Sanskrit). I added in the other consonants mostly based on some of the words that I already had that I’d decided came from the Aenyr language. The same with the vowels.

Aenyri Phonography

Here’s where, for me at least, things got interesting. I had made a decision (mostly for ease of vocabulary building) to use the agglutinative aspect of Finnish (suffixes may be added to a noun core by standardized rules to create a number of other nouns). I had also decided long ago the meaning of “Avar Narn,” Aenyr words approximating the “the world reborn.”

So, it was time to engage in a little reverse engineering–I needed to make those words mean what I wanted them to mean, and this provided the start of the language.

Before I get too far into this, a note on (current) pronunciation. Here is a little chart of my current pronunciation notes for vowels:

Aenyr Vowel Sounds

Our starting place, with some pronunciation guidance: Ävär Närn.

I took “är” as the core word and made “Äv-“, “n-” and “-n” prefixes and suffixes in agglutinative style.

To get where I needed to go, I decided that “är” means “to be born, to come into being.”

“Äv-“, then, became a prefix to create a noun from a verb, specifically a noun meaning “the place where [verb] happens.” This gives us “Ävär” = “birthplace.”

“n-” then became a prefix for a verb equivalent to English “re-“, while “-n” became a suffix to form a past participle/adjective, making “Närn” = “reborn, resurrected.”

Breaking down the prefixes and suffixes, and adding some more, yielded the following list:

n-           “to do again”, “re-”                                                                   När = “to be reborn”
-n            to create past participle/adjective from infinitive           Ärn = “born”
-tälё       “an agent, one who does [verb]”                                          Ärtälё = lit. “birther,
mother”
Närtälё = “necromancer”,
“resurrectionist”
-ёnyn     creates adjective from verb                                                  Ärёnyn = “fertile, arable,                                                                                                                      productive”
-vё         creates noun meaning a master of the verb                       Ärvё = “midwife” or
“matron”
-tön        “without, lacking”                                                                    Ärtön = “unborn,
inanimate”
Ärtälёtön = “motherless”,
“orphan”
-ys         an instrument or tool used with the verb                          Ärys = “birthing chair”
-yr         a (general) collection or group                                              Aenyr = “the Aen people”
Äryr = “the born, the
living”
Ärtälyr = “mothers
(general/abstract)”
-ёn        to pluralize a noun                                                                  Ärtälёn = “(the) mothers”

That’s a lot of mileage from two original words! There’s a lot to be continued here (declension of nouns, verb conjugation, grammar, regular/irregular words, etc.) and I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes that will have to be corrected, but I feel like it’s a good start.

Here’s one particular issue I’m trying to wrap my head around: I’ve already used some words with vowel clusters in them (“Aenyr”, for one) where the vowels elide together (that should have a long “a” sound at the beginning) and others (“Ellembaё”) where the vowels are pronounced separately. Not sure what I’m going to do here, but there are a few possibilities: it may be that the orthography of the language solves the problem (when written in its own script the “Ae” is a single letter corresponding to the “(aɪ)” phoneme) or it may be that I have to go back and start respelling that word to fit in with a coherent pronunciation scheme for readers.

I don’t intend to go so far as to create complete working languages–I have neither time nor skill for that. Instead, the languages of Avar Narn will be used to create names for places, people and things with consistency and immersion.
 

 

The Siege of Uthcaire

Tirasi stared down at the miniature walled town on the table, hands resting as they often did on the sword and the warhammer suspended from her belt, face dour. I watched as she searched, not the maps or crude tokens marking units and positions, but the battlefield itself, her mind stretching over all that she had surveyed as the siege had begun. On the other side of the collection of intelligence, charts and equipment ledgers paced Lord Doraen, awaiting some answer from the woman.

I stood silently in a corner of the tent, nestled between two of Doraen’s servants. Together, we had become part of the furniture.

The tent flap opened and in blew the screams of men and the deep bellow of intermittent cannon fire. Along with that gust of life and death entered a soldier; he doffed his sallet in respect and inclined his head to Doraen.

“M’lord; ma’am—“ the soldier began.

“Do not ‘ma’am’ me; I kill people for a living,” Tirasi spat back, her Altaenin accent slightly coloring the Ealthebad words. I could not see her eyes as she turned to face the man, but I knew her expression well: hard, but not aggressive, sure and unchangeable as mathematics and just as disheartening.

The soldier’s eyes widened briefly. He was a boy, perhaps eighteen, hastily thrown into armor when Lord Doraen mustered his troops. His sword hung loosely at his side, the scabbard’s metal chape scratched with the evidence of bouncing along the ground as he walked. His cuirass already showed signs of rust; the journey to Uthcaire had been mostly in the rain. Even now, a light drizzle could be heard during lulls in the shouting and shooting.

The boy continued to stand dumbfounded in the presence of a mercenary captain of the Seven Sisters. His eyes moved across Tirasi, from her blackened demi-plate to the stubble of close-shorn hair atop her head and the scars on her face. He might have thought of the Aenyr as he looked upon her, her visage at once beautiful and terrifying. I had thought that when I first saw her.

“Well, what is it?” Doraen asked, ceasing only momentarily from his pacing.

“M’lord, our scouts ‘ave returned. House Meradhvor’s coming to relieve Uthcaire. Lord Koradh leads them, sir, and they’re ‘bout a day’s ride out and as many as four thousand souls.”

Doraen slammed his gauntleted fist on the table, the model of Uthcaire bouncing and the unit markers toppling from their positions. He looked to Tirasi, anger in his brow but fear concealed within the corners of his eyes. “So, mercenary. I hired you to advise. Advise,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal of the soldier as he spoke.

“Abandon the siege and fall back to favorable terrain on which to meet Koradh’s forces. Meradhvor is an Artificer House; they will bring mechanica with their soldiers, perhaps even an airship.”

“We have mechanica.”

“You have two drudges, one clipper and one siegeman which had to be carried here in a wagon because you lack sufficient power for it. Do you know who does not lack power? Meradhvor. Abandon the siege.”

“I will not.”

“You’ll be outnumbered and beset on both sides. If you break Uthcaire, you’ll have to massacre its defenders to have any surety of position. Do you want that reputation?”

“That was already my intent, Tirasi. Uthcaire has violated its charter by building a standing army. A violation of the charter means the town is mine by right.”

Something welled up within me, and I had to fight to keep it down. Uthcaire’s “standing army” consisted of about two-hundred men raised only when an influx of bandits and predatory creatures had made the countryside too dangerous for travelers and merchants.

“Let us say that you do take Uthcaire and slaughter its defenders to a man,” Tirasi began, “Meradhvor is still set against you, and we have been unable to breach the Uthcaire wall these past days because the local guild of thaumaturgy has devoted itself to the town’s defense. These are not enemies it is wise to have. Even if you win this battle, can you win the war?”

“You think me a fool? I’ve a compact in place with the other lords. All of them want to see the Artificer Houses put in their place. If we take back the chartered towns and cities, the Houses will be forced to deal with us on better terms. We’ll control the venture companies and the Houses will have to go through us to get any recovered Artifice.”

Understanding washed over me, and I clenched my fists. This siege had never been about charters and feudal rights. I knew now that Doraen could not be convinced to abandon the siege. He saw his very livelihood at stake, and better to gamble it on one glorious endeavor than to watch it be consumed by the passage of time. I hoped that Tirasi had realized this, too.

She had. “Fine, but I am ending my contract after the siege is complete. I have no desire to remain in a conflict with the Houses. That you can do on your own.”

“You can’t walk away from your contract!” Doraen growled, again pounding his fist on the table, bouncing the figurines farther from where they had fallen.

“Nyssë,” Tirasi said, snapping me from my reverie.

I searched momentarily her purpose. When I thought I’d discovered it, I began, “Contract clause twenty-three: ‘If the scope of conflict changes unexpectedly or new parties are added to the conflict, Captain may give one day’s notice of withdrawal from the Contract and shall be entitled to compensation for all services performed thereunder. If an engagement is imminent or exigent circumstances exist, the notice period shall be abated and shall begin to run only at the cessation of an immediate threat.’”

Doraen glowered at me, and I tried to fade into the canvas of the tent wall. Still looking at me rather than my captain, he said, “We’ll talk about that after. In the meantime, advise on how to proceed.”

Tirasi unsheathed her dagger, its bare blade glinting in the flicker of the torchlight that illumined the table. With the dagger’s tip, she traced an irregular semi-circle around the siegeworks, adroitly navigating around the figurines that had fallen in the path of her line. “We build another line of defense here, facing outward. Motte-and-bailey style. We will shift the majority of your soldiers to the outer defense.”

“You really think that’ll work?”

“The tactic is described in military memoirs from the Ealthen Empire and has been used to great effect. It is the best option under the circumstances. You have two repeating ballistae—they are of little use against the town’s walls compared to the cannons, but they will prove helpful against troops advancing in the open. I will lead my company to break the siege, supported by a few units of your troops—”

“So that you get the best plunder.”

“Naturally. Nyssë.”

“Contract clause twenty-eight: ‘When—“

“Okay, okay,” Doraen muttered waving me off as he had the reporting soldier. “Continue,” he said, turning to Tirasi.

My captain moved her dagger along the map, crossing over intervening terrain and figurines without attention, until it arrived at a forested area outside of the defensive line she had earlier traced. “You will withdraw your bodyguard and cavalry to here. No fires, no signals, no unnecessary talking. If you are discovered you will be enveloped and overrun. However, from this position, you will have the opportunity to withdraw if things go poorly for us. Otherwise, once Meradhvor commits its forces to the attack of our defenses, your cavalry will attack them from the rear, specifically pushing toward Koradh and his thaumaturges—the last thing we need is a large-scale thaumaturgical attack. You have an elderly court thaumaturge and two journeymen newly minted from university. They will not stand against hardened House war-thaumaturges.”

“It will take some time to arrange our attack. What if thaumaturges attack before then?”

“Nyssë.” Tirasi stated, as if my name itself were answer enough.

I stepped forward, timidity in my stomach but confidence in my voice, for this was my area of expertise. “The town’s thaumaturges have been maintaining their protection against our cannons for days now. They’ll lack the resolve and focus for any significant attack. House thaumaturges are indeed another matter, my lord. They should be considered additional artillery: they will require time and preparation before they unleash their attack, but it will be devastating if completed.

“It is unlikely we shall see such a thing in the vanguard. Meradhvor battle doctrine advises sending in the mechanica first and resorting to thaumaturgy only once mechanica has failed. To use both at once risks too much flux, and that can be as disastrous for them as for us.”

Doraen turned back to Tirasi, his face expectant.

“Koradh is cautious, Doraen,” she said. “I do not think that he will break with standard doctrine.”

“And what happens after our charge? We’ll be stuck in and the horses will be no good.”

Tirasi looked back to the map, focusing upon it, seeing the men and women arrayed in battle colors moving across it in scale, visualizing the battle as she spoke. “In the chaos that follows an attack to the rearguard, our outer defenders will sally forth to meet the Meradhvor soldiers in the field. We will be an advancing anvil and you shall be the hammer.”

His face relaxing, Doraen turned away as he spoke, indicating the conclusion of the conference. “Very good, Tirasi. I will summon my commanders and give them their orders.”

With the slightest nod of the head, Tirasi excused herself. I quickly curtsied and followed. We pushed our way past the tent flap and into an unexpected calm. No screams of dying men, no thundering cannons, no clamor of battle; only the acrid, hellish perfume of gunpowder and the heavy artificial fog that accompanied it, clinging to the earth like a desperate lover. A lull had come in the siege while everyone attempted to catch his breath. And not choke on the fumes.

Doraen’s command tent lay outside the range of the town’s defenses. Tirasi knew the layout of the siegeworks intimately; she navigated them without the need for sight through the smoke of battle. Despite her armor, my captain stepped lightly on the muddy fields while the foul quagmire stuck to my boots until I had balls of wet avar for boots.

Before long, we came to the encampment of the company, distinguished by the black of the tents, the lack of Doraen’s livery, and the symbol of the red skull on the black banners. As usual, the men and women of the company had a relaxed air about them despite the conditions. Some threw tattered playing cards on an overturned barrel, laughing and jostling one another as money changed hands from round to round. Malten, a large Rukh and one of Tirasi’s sergeants, harassed the newest recruits as they cleaned harquebus locks, polished barrels, measured matchcord and filled powder horns. Despite my youth and inexperience in battle, my status as the company’s only thaumaturge spared me such abuse.

Only six months before, I had graduated from thaumaturgical studies at the University of Ilessa. The day after completing my studies I had signed on with the Company, fully cognizant that thaumaturges not subject to the Conclave and willing to serve in a mercenary outfit were few and far between and that Tirasi would not—could not—turn me away.

I had enjoyed participation in the privy meetings of the officers, as Tirasi had made me her adjutant in addition to my other duties. This gave me insight into the personalities of the Company leaders beyond the stern demeanors they wore for the newer soldiers, simultaneously an honest attempt to prepare them for the stress of war and Company hazing ritual.

For this reason, I knew that Malten had two selves. When at drill or—as we were now—at war, he was hard, his muscled physique accentuated by his laconic style of speech, readiness to dole out criticism to his charges, and reluctance to give praise that made those in his command so willing to strive for it. Away from the men, however, a different man came forward: a lover of poetry, a great jokester, a philosopher amused by his own cynicism but unwilling to let it go.

Malten’s appearance hid his second self well. He towered over the human men and women, at least a head taller, face angular, nose aquiline as if an arrow pointing to his pronounced canines—the lower of which protruded just slightly over his upper lip, ears pointed, long grey-white hair and beard a mane to frame and accentuate the leathery hue of his flesh. Together, he had the demeanor of perpetual snarler, the man who wished to speak often with deeds and rarely with words.

Just as Tirasi’s foot crossed the invisible barrier between the Company camp and the rest of the siegeworks, her soldiers jumped to attention, saluting with the combination of practiced discipline and graceful nonchalance earned only by hardened veterans. She waived them to ease.

“Shovels and shoulders, axes and asses. We’re building a trench and a wall. Malten, get Doraen’s officers to round up infantry to assist. Nyssë, gather the engineers and requisition the Lord’s mechanica for the heavy labor. Bring water and leave your armor; we’ve got a day and a night to build an outer defense. Make ready the harquebuses. We’ll work in shifts and those resting will stand watch.”

Months of drill outside of campaign season obviated the need for additional commands. The mercenaries collected the necessary gear and formed up around their corporals. Within minutes, they were on our way to the site of the would-be barricades, having stripped down to the bare necessities of clothing, wrapped their legs as additional—though futile—protection against the mud, and gathered weapons and tools. The digging of a ditch and the felling of nearby trees commenced in short order.

I was delayed by nearly an hour as I waded through the muddy sludge that had become our home in search of Doraen’s engineers, followed by twenty minutes of bartering that earned me only a single drudge.

The mechanicum and its handler followed me to where I found that Tirasi, too, had removed her armor and stripped down to her breeches and shirt to dig with the soldiers. She tossed me a loaded harquebus and an ammunition pouch, ordering me to keep watch while she worked. I took my position on the small ridge of packed avar that slowly grew on the inside border of the ditch, a quantifiable measure of progress. Up and down the line on either side of me stood those of my brethren awaiting their own turn to work.

As the drudge stepped into the shallow ditch alongside my captain, some of the men began to sing a bawdy marching song, timing the action of digging with the lyrical rhythm. The whirring and thud of the mechanicum’s digging nearly drowned out their voices; Tirasi and I soon gave up on trying to join in.

The drudge beside her was built for hard labor, not for war. The first of its kind had been employed in the loading and unloading of ships, speeding the process over the usage of muscle, ropes and pulleys. The machine stood over six feet high, broad and squat in proportions and covered with shaped metal plates crudely approximating the human body. Under this whirred the cables, winches, pulleys and other Artifice that made the thing move.

Occasionally, a small blast of warm air would jettison from the mechanicum’s arm servos, conveniently buffeting Tirasi about the face. She glared at the device’s sculpted visage, possibly searching for some intelligence within the glow from the faceplate’s eyeslits that might recognize her consternation. Whatever animated the mechanicum focused only on the movements of the shovel and stood oblivious to all else around it.

I tried on several occasions to take Tirasi’s place and work a while, but she would not allow it, telling me that she needed me fresh for as long as possible. So, I provided what conversation I could, which mostly meant telling Tirasi about my youth in the Seven Sisters—she remained reticent about her own. All the while I cradled Tirasi’s harquebus in my arms, shifting it nervously from side to side but trying to maintain an illusion of nonchalance. Thaumaturgical or not, illusion has never been my strong suit.

A few hours after the digging began, Doraen and his horsemen galloped by—or rather over and between—jumping the trench between diggers and throwing soft mud indiscriminately. The air displaced by a horse passing only inches from my side disheveled my hair and caused me to wince. The riders moved swiftly toward the forest, where other soldiers were cutting logs for the barricade. Closer to the town walls, the cannons resumed firing, the leaden projectiles still crashing themselves against thaumaturgical abjurations, unable to touch the ring of stone that defended the city.

“How long until their thaumaturges break?” Tirasi asked.

“Depends on how many there are and the shifts that they’re working. They’re generating Flux faster than they can dissipate it, so it’s only a matter of time before they make a mistake in the working or the Flux itself gets them. They’re desperate to be using so much thaumaturgy at once.”

As if on cue, a sound like ice breaking could be heard even over the din of the cannons. A surge of hoarfrost rushed from the town walls and covered the ground.  The dirt, which had softened under the recent rains, now took on a light but definitive crunch when the shovel hit. This lasted for only a moment before the ice melted, adding just enough moisture to the trench that puddles collected in its nadir. Tirasi could hear groans from her soldiers as they fought with the mud, suction now fighting against each pull of earth. The singing had stopped as the work dragged on. Tirasi looked up, expecting an answer from me.

“Flux.” I said, “They won’t be able to hold their thaumaturgical protections in place much longer. This is why Doraen should have brought more than an elderly crone of a court advisor and a couple of babes; he should have hired a dozen thaumaturges and he’d be able to do something about this defense.”

“He hired us. He couldn’t afford both and he made a decision. And it was not so long ago that you yourself were in your infancy, so to speak.” I blushed slightly at this, scanning the horizon watchfully to avoid meeting Tirasi’s gaze. I had joined during a long stint between contracts for the company and this siege would be my trial by fire. I remained as yet untested, possessed of a mercenary’s bravado but not having earned it.

I called the first alarm. “Captain,” I expelled suddenly, my body suddenly coming alive with the tingling of nerves. I raised my hand to point toward the horizon, where, just between the rain clouds and the tree tops, an airship gracefully floated, its blue and strangely-shaped sails being drawn up as it descended.

Meradhvor must have taken Doraen’s attack quite seriously to have sent an airship. We knew that the enemy would not risk the ship’s loss by bringing it within the range of cannons or gonnes. This meant only one thing: the delivery of troops for an early attack.

Tirasi pulled herself out of the ditch—by now waist deep—and climbed the mound and half-built barricade to join me where I stood. With a quick command, she summoned Malten and the other sergeants. She sent the officers to take those who had been working the ditch back to the camp to don armor and gather weapons while those who had been resting and watching now occupied what defensive positions there were.

The ditch remained shallower and thinner than it should be, and large gaps perforated the defensive structures. The repeating ballistae had been moved to makeshift redoubts in the line, but it would not be enough.

My captain waived for me to follow her and we made our way down the muddy line of the trench to where Doraen’s own soldiers had been working. There we encountered Craith, one of Doraen’s lieutenants, and Tirasi hailed her.

The dour woman approached slowly and deliberately, never taking her gaze off Tirasi as she did. A soldier in the stereotypical sense, Craith was purpose and determination, fire and fury without subtlety or finesse; she made no effort to conceal her displeasure at having to treat with mercenaries.

The fighting men and women around them continued to work in the ditch, hardly looking up. They had made greater progress than in Tirasi’s section of the line, but the men had been working in their kit and neared the point of collapse. They would be of little help in the fight to come.

Doraen’s lieutenant spoke first, as if in hopes of heading off a conversation altogether. “Captain. I have seen the airship and I’ve spoken with the other officers. We’ll be ready by the time they arrive.”

“With all respect, lieutenant, I need your men to stop working. Your men will need rest if they are to be of any use to us.”

Craith’s frown filled the entire opening of her barbute. “Very well, Captain.” She turned slightly, what light that pierced the clouds above glancing off her polished cuirass, and passed some signals to her sergeants down the line. Shouts and insults pulled the men out of the ditch; some only made it far enough to sit on the cusp of the trench before loosening armor straps and searching for waterskins. When the orders had died down, only the occasional percussion of artillery fire punctuated the silence of men exhausted.

Tirasi turned momentarily in the direction of the cannons before locking eyes once again with Craith. “I unfortunately do not share your optimism, Lieutenant. If Meradhvor has dedicated an airship to their campaign here, we must assume that they have spared no expense in the other aspects of Koradh’s force. We should expect that we will not have an easy time of it when his advance party arrives. I need you to have some of Doraen’s cannons repositioned so that we may use them against our attackers.”

“I cannot do that, Captain,” the lieutenant replied. Was there the hint of a curl at the edge of her mouth, a satisfaction at defying Tirasi’s request?

“Why not?”

“My lord’s orders, ma’am. We are not to delay or interfere with the bombardment of Uthcaire under any circumstances.”

“That airship has a limited cargo capacity. They could have dropped no more than a hundred men, and an infantry assault of that size could not hope to succeed against us.”

“You argue against your own request, Captain.”

Tirasi now felt a wave of anger wash over her. Anger at the foreseen result of this argument, anger at the shortsightedness of Doraen’s officer. “I do not,” she said slowly, deliberately. The words fell like hammer on anvil, and Craith struggled not to reveal her surprise at the aggressiveness of the tone. Apparently, the lieutenant did not often have her pronouncements questioned.

She continued. “Koradh is a fine commander. He will not commit his troops to certain death except in the direst of circumstances, and not for the slight benefit a small infantry assault would buy him as the rest of his force advances. Therefore, it stands to reason that he has not sent his infantry. He has sent artillery. A few cannons battering us in the hours before his arrival will put him in far better stead than a handful of infantry. If we can answer in kind, we may be able to turn back his assault.”

“The cannons remain where they are,” Craith said bluntly.

“Then our best option is to send a force to meet them before they arrive and unlimber their artillery. May I borrow some of your soldiers?” The tone of Tirasi’s voice had changed; this had been a true request given in the manner of someone without the authority to simply command. I had never heard her speak in such a way before. It made no difference; the tactic had come too late.

“We have our orders,” the lieutenant stated to no one in particular. She had already turned away from Tirasi and toward her men. “My lord has given us his command and we will not disobey.” There would be no further discussion.

We made our way back to our camp hurriedly. “What’s that about?” I asked as we slogged through the mud.

“This is not the Sisters, Nyssë. Mercenaries are not held in high regard in the Tatters. The people here believe there is only honor in obeying the bonds of an oppressive nobility; they miss the importance of choosing to serve.” Clearly, my captain had seen this behavior before.

“But why did Doraen not tell his forces to heed your commands?”

“Because he thinks his blood makes him smarter than he is. Even he does not fully trust us because he pays us for our service. He struggles to hold on to a dying tradition of right and prowess by birth, even as it slips through his clutching fingers. Have you not seen that that is the reason that he sends his own men to die and condemns the people of Uthcaire?”

We walked the rest of the way in silence. Tirasi had no use for my commentary on the matter. For all my studies at the university, I could add nothing to Tirasi’s understanding she had not already gleaned from experience. A recitation of the schema of the brightest of scholars on recent changes in the societies and economies of the Avar had no place here in the mud and blood of battle, where the reality of such things actually mattered. Anyway, it was not long before we arrived back at the camp.

The soldiers left off their tasks and gathered before Tirasi, ready to receive their orders.

“House Meradhvor has sent four-thousand men against us, due to arrive tomorrow. Our defenses are half-built, and an airship arrives for a first assault. We are outnumbered and unready. But what is our motto?”

“The Dead do not fear!” came the response.

“In their wisdom, Doraen’s officers will not reposition the cannons to resist an outward attack. This means we must assault the newly-arrived ourselves. We will bring none of Doraen’s men with us, for those who love their lives will lose them. But as for us, brothers and sisters—”

“The Dead do not fear!”

The Company of the Valorous Dead was a small company by most standards, with about three-hundred souls. Upon taking command, Tirasi had cultivated her outfit as a band of well-trained, well-experienced and well-equipped soldiers best suited to special actions, raids, skirmishes and deployments of extreme tactical significance. She had served in large companies destined for the meat-grinder of large battle, where soldiers were disposable commodities and the whole affair a simple business transaction in which ledger spaces tracked lives against coin. She would have none of it.

Half of her soldiers stood arrayed before us, and my captain looked to her corporals. “Fisella, swords and shields. Emdir and Eldo: Halberds. Asham and Rellen: gonnes, sword and buckler. Gather your kit and form up. Nyssë, on me.”

I checked the short blade at my side, traded the harquebus for staff and wand and other sundry tools of my practice, and fell into step with my captain, as did the others. Tirasi left Malten in command of the half of the Company that remained behind the lines, needing no orders to guide him. She trusted him, and that was enough.

 

*          *          *

We passed over the defensive line, between the stakes that had been erected and through the half-dug ditch. Once we hit open ground between the barricades and the forest, we broke into a run rather than a march, entering the cover of the tress as quickly as possible.

Our soldiers swept through the forest deliberately in loosely-spaced squads, moving fast enough to make good time but carefully enough to keep as quiet as possible. The Company had trained well in maneuvers of this sort and even I found myself well prepared—armor burnished, oiled and muffled, my waterskin full, and anything that might bang or clatter wrapped in spare rags. Communication came through hand signals passed up and down the line.

In the early spring, stealth in a wooded area becomes far easier. The crunch of dead and dry leaves has faded away and only the hazards of twigs and branches blown down by the wind remain. Still, the precarious movement proved taxing as the we traversed miles of forest to close with the enemy.

House Meradhvor’s forces moved without concern for silence; they could not have managed stealth if they had intended to. Drudges pulled sakers, demi-culverin and gunpowder wagons, their clanking apprising the Company of mechanica in the field well before they could be seen. Two heavier Clippers and nearly one hundred soldiers accompanied the guns.

Tirasi signaled us to array ourselves for ambush. The gunners readied weapons, waiting until receiving the signal to light their matchcord, lest the tell-tale glow give them away.

One of the Meradhvor corporals had a keen eye, but not keen enough. He yelled “Ambush!” just before the first volley of harquebus fire slammed into their ranks. Many forces would have fallen into disarray at such an attack, but the Artificer Guilds trained their soldiers from youth. There were no further shouts, no sounds of panic, just the mechanical response of soldiers closing ranks and going about the tasks which had been long-drilled into them. They casually stepped aside the bodies of fallen brothers-in-arms without attention.

As the Company’s gunners reloaded for another salvo, we were struck by incoming fire. Not the loud and smoke-belching retort of more firearms but the quiet, fearsome twang of crossbow strings. This twang, however, came in too-rapid succession for the number of men wielding the weapons. Repeater crossbows, self-loading through the mysteries of Artifice. Their thin, sharp bolts could penetrate even plate at such a close range, and the volume of projectiles easily outmatched the barrage we had given.

Our gunners had taken some cover amongst the trees in preparation for the ambush, but their truest defense had been the artificial fog disbursed by angry gonnes, though even this proved of little use against the sheer mass of incoming fire. Early in the fight we had already taken severe casualties.

Outmatched though we might have been, we would not be routed by such a show of force; my brothers- and sisters-in-arms had encountered Guild forces before, knew the power of the repeater crossbow and had drilled their response.

After the first exchange of fire, the battlefield came alive with noise. Shouts of orders, the screams of the wounded, and the rumbling and hissing of the mechanica became a world unto itself, an easy place to lose oneself. Tirasi glanced regularly to me, keeping close watch as I wrestled with a fear for which I had not been—could not have been—adequately prepared.

My captain yelled a single word in the Company’s battle-tongue. Only the officers knew the secret language, so they in turn issued their squad commands in Altaenin.

Fisella ordered her soldiers to close ranks; they formed a shield wall and began a slow advance. Tirasi and I fell in close behind them. The soldiers parted just enough to pass around trees like a river moving gracefully around rocks. They had locked step, the squad becoming a single entity, now massive and dreadful.

By now the surviving gunners had unleashed their second volley, searching out where they could the men who had sent their brothers and sisters to an early—but not unexpected—grave. Between receiving this fire and exhausting the last of their quarrels before needing to reload themselves, the House infantry left an opening.

We exploited that opening immediately. The soldiers in front of me broke into a charge, barreling full force into the enemy line. I tried to remain at pace with them, colliding into Tirasi’s back as the lines impacted the enemy and stopped. She turned to me, her face as I had never seen it before, fierce and predatory, eyes glazed over with battle-fury, possessed of a violent spirit. “Stay behind me,” she said, her voice terse and gravelly. I did as I was told.

Guildsmen armed for the press of close combat stepped forward from the mass of crossbowman to meet the charge, and now the battle began in earnest.

I clutched my staff in one hand and drew my short sword, to no avail. Tirasi or Fisella had assigned several of the company soldiers to defend me in close formation; there was naught I could do but watch. I had seen Tirasi spar with others before, saw her practice with blade and other steel, but I had never seen her in true violence. She lost herself to her training and experience, ceasing for a time to be my captain and becoming a living weapon.

She directed her strikes, feinting high so that a swordsman raised his shield to cover his face and reversing to strike him in the now-exposed calf. Her dagger followed as the man dropped his guard, its hardened point missing his heart but puncturing the thin breastplate and sliding between the ribs into his right lung. With the recovery of the strike, the man’s breath became ragged; he dropped his armaments and collapsed.

She slid her right foot back and to the left, pivoting herself out of the line of attack of an assaulting spearman. By now, the first crush of the lines had devolved into a mass skirmish, with foes alternately having room for grand swings or being pressed too close for anything but daggerwork.

The spear’s initial thrust narrowly missed my captain, striking again with a serpent’s speed. Tirasi moved backwards, passing her front leg behind the other in each movement to alternate her forward hand, the rotation of her body adding power to her warding strikes. The spearman followed, coveting the boast of felling the enemy’s leader. He failed to measure his distance to the enemy as he closed with her.

After avoiding three more strikes, my captain reversed her motion, moving forward as she parried instead of backward. This put her too close to the spearman for him to recover his weapon and thrust again. He had time just enough to realize his mistake before he died, looking down to the sword in his neck and the dagger pushed against his spear.

My protectors had pushed me backwards and away from the fray. My hand twitched with the anticipating of swinging the blade I had spent so much time learning to use—not well, perhaps, but passably. Yet I remained thankful that my first experience of battle allowed me to do what I do best: to learn.

In an instant of respite, Tirasi surveyed the field as I surveyed her. The battle had become a large arrangement of individual melees, an ad-hoc tournament where the survivors of each duel sought one another out to fight the next round.

Something caught my eye and snapped me from my thoughts, the battlefield coming back into focus in a rush of sound and color. The hulking thing, too large to be a single soldier, reflected what light penetrated the green canopy above us, clanking and grunting as it moved, gaining momentum, shapes of the rebounding light changing more rapidly as it approached. A House clipper, the true Artifice of war in all its dread glory, charging straight for Tirasi.

There was a shout: “Captain!” The voice came from without, not within, but was nevertheless my own. Tirasi had time enough only to brace herself against the imminent blow.

The strike lifted her off her feet, throwing her into the air and against a nearby tree. She slumped to the ground, unmoving, and I feared her dead. I pushed against my protectors, raising my sword, but a strong and steady arm held me back with little effort. Then I remembered that I am a thaumaturge; my will is a weapon.

But thaumaturgy would not suffice in a situation such as this, when there is no time to carefully weave a working. I resigned myself to base sorcery, drawing power through myself and shaping the working in my mind’s eye. My choices were limited: I could not see the pulleys and wires animating the mechanicum to snap them and nothing too complex could be safely achieved with a sorcery.

I selected a working I had told myself I would never use. It seemed, well…trite. A spear of lightning shot from my fingers, forking into the mechanicum’s head and legs, branching from both in search of other nearby objects to which it could attach itself. If the experience were unpleasant for the clipper—and who knows what they experience—it was little better for me. I could feel the lightning coursing through my body before exiting my fingertips, doing no damage to me but leaving an upsetting tingling in my bones that lasted well beyond the working itself. Perhaps once was enough for that trick.

In an instant, the lightning disappeared again, its afterglow stinging the eyes of anyone who had been unfortunate enough to be looking anywhere between me and the clipper. The mechanicum stuttered momentarily, little bubbles of briefly-molten metal forming in the plates struck by the sorcerous attack, smoke wafting from its oversized frame. Enough to get its attention, perhaps enough to slow it some, but far too little to take it out of the fight. With a malicious glow from its eye sockets, the machine turned to face me and my defenders.

“Sorry! Sorry!” I yelled, fully expecting us to be thrown about like so many jacks at bowls. My companions closed ranks into a shield wall. But three of our brave halberdiers had partnered to corral the clipper, alternating their thrusts and positions to keep the mechanicum from being able to focus on any one of them.

Behind them, Tirasi began to stir. Her breastplate had been dented into concavity with the blow. She groped for a small knife in her boot, her eyes wild and unfocused as she loomed on the precipice of consciousness. Her fingers pulled the blade lightly from the sheath…and dropped it. Fumbling fingers foraged to find the blade before the clipper renewed its interest in her. Her breaths became ever more ragged, and I feared that she would suffocate while I watched helplessly. Finally, she tore the breastplate free, deep gasps allowing her to step back from the ledge.

My captain looked for her bastard sword, finding it broken from the fall. Her parrying dagger had disappeared. As she hobbled to her feet, she pulled the warhammer from its ring on her belt, reentering the fray at a meager lope, an awkward yawp passing from her lips where a war cry should have been.

The mechanicum had already crushed two of the halberdiers before Tirasi rejoined the fight. The last one standing, an Aen named Ithladen, cloaked and masked per the etiquette of his kind, had resorted to his sword after the clipper had casually snapped the haft of his polearm in two. Ithladen ducked and weaved, feinting and striking tentatively to create an opening for our captain.

Tirasi struck the mechanicum in its calf-plate as she moved past, bowing herself to avoid the backhand strike of the clipper’s attempted retaliation. Her blow had left only a slight dent in the clipper’s plate; though slow, the machine had been armored for thick fighting and—as it had done—could easily outmatch a number of fleshly soldiers.

The clipper awkwardly pivoted toward Tirasi, who struck a blow to the mechanicum’s knee as it repositioned itself. Now Ithladen seized the opening, gripping the blade of his sword with his off-hand, guiding its point between the clipper’s armored plates, just as he might with an armored knight. A gout of blue fire escaped from between the plates as Ithladen’s blade caught between gears and shattered. The mechanicum dragged its left foot as it turned.

Seizing the clipper’s hesitation, Tirasi attempted a blow to its head. She had to jump to reach it, flinching in pain at the exertion. The blow only worsened things; the hammer rang off the clipper’s head with a visible vibration in the weapon’s haft. Tirasi grimaced.

The mechanicum had recovered as she landed and fought to stay balanced. The clipper seized my captain with one hand, lifting her several feet off the ground. Ithladen frustratedly slashed against the clipper’s backplate with the broken remnant of his sword, all the while clutching his left hand to his side to staunch the bleeding where the splintering blade had scratched him.

My sorcery had proved too weak to be of much use, so I fumbled through my mind for some thaumaturgy that might turn the tide. Useless fragments of workings from my early studies bubbled to the surface: a working for the growth of plants, one for the levitation of small objects, one for the abjuration of rain. All the while a voice within me prodded, reminding that I had no time for a thaumaturgical working anyway. My captain would have the life crushed out of her long before I could run through the mental constructs necessary to bring a working into being. In my frustration and fear, I mindlessly seized upon the first full thaumaturgy I could remember and began shouting the incantations that brought structure to my thoughts as I drew and shaped the Power into a tangible thing.

Fortunately, Tirasi’s life was not in my hands; the incantation I’d been reciting belonged to working for the cleaning of kitchen pots. I’d failed the first true test of my battle-mettle, though my companions would be none the wiser for it.

Before I could stop myself from completing the working, there came a bark that overpowered my own voice. I blinked as the clipper’s left arm—thankfully the one not grasping my captain—tore itself from the rest of the machine and flew for a distance before coming to rest on the ground. Ithladen rolled aside with almost-preternatural reflexes.

The clipper dropped Tirasi to the ground as it turned slowly, searching out its assailant. A second cannonball smashed into the machine’s chestplate, driving it back a step before it collapsed, the glow from its eye sockets fading to darkness.

The sight had stopped my mouth when I couldn’t through my own volition. Another sign perhaps that I’d chosen the wrong profession. When I, too scanned for the cannoneers, a wave of relief washed over me. Eldo and some of his soldiers had seized the enemy’s artillery and turned it against them.

I rushed to Tirasi’s side. She moved cautiously, first opening and closing her fingers before trying her limbs. Satisfied she’d not broken her spine, though nursing a few broken ribs, she sat up with a pained exhalation. I extended my hand to her and Tirasi swung her arm in a haphazard arc; she groaned as I hauled her to her feet.

“What happened?” she asked in voice reduced to a ghost of its usual self.

Around us, the sounds of battle had quieted to the soft cries of the slowly dying and a few distant exchanges reaching their end. The men were checking casualties, both theirs and their enemies. Those enemies found alive they finished. They took more time with their own, examining their injuries to determine which could be helped and who had slipped beyond return. Those mortally wounded they comforted as best they could before giving them the dagger of mercy. From the dead of both sides they looted freely.

Fisella, Asham and Eldo approached, each of them battered and beaten. The corporals not

among them lay dead or dying.

“Report,” Tirasi managed in her gravelly whisper.

The three looked at one another and Asham stepped forward. “Captain, the enemy is defeated, with about a dozen surrendering and the rest in the embrace of death. As far as we can tell, there were no thaumaturges among our foes.”

“Koradh would not have risked them here,” Tirasi interjected. “Continue.”

“We’ve sustained heavy losses, perhaps as many as one half of our contingent.”

“Any good news?”

“Yes, Captain. We’ve destroyed two clippers and captured the enemy’s cannons. Four of them. The Meradhvor drudges do not seem to differentiate between our men and theirs; they’re obeying our commands.”

In the distance, Doraen’s cannons again roared to life. Now, artillery from the city answered the barks of besieging gonnes with retorts of their own.

“The city’s thaumaturges have fallen,” I commented.

“Let us return to the siege, then,” Tirasi managed, holding a hand to her chest. “Kill those who surrendered; we do not have the resources to guard them. Do it mercifully, for they have fought bravely. Get our soldiers rallied up and ready to move.”

A few moments passed before the looters could be pulled away from their hunt and mustered. We lacked time to reorder our squads, so ragged bands of men and women, uneven in ranks, made their way back to the siegeworks. The drudges and cannons, loosely attended by those who had captured them, lagged slightly behind.

Despite our minor victory, morale was flagging. We’d lost many brothers- and sisters-in-arms in the past few hours, without time to properly attend to the rites of the dead, much less to honor them in true warrior fashion. How long would it take us to recover from these losses? How many campaign seasons? I knew not, and wondered how the defeat of Meradhvor’s advance forces would influence the future of the siege.

Beside me, Tirasi drew in a deep breath, grimacing, and burst forth in a marching song. The corporals joined in by the second line, and we had all lent our voices by the fourth. We sang:

 

Lift your swords and march to war,

            Matters not if rich or poor,

            Join your brethren in the field.

            Meet your foe and meet your fear,

            Come to where Death draweth near,

            Seek to die before ye yield!

            See the sunlight on helms dance,

            Behold glittr’ing of the lance,

            Steel without and steel within.

            Hear the call of trumpets loud,

            Earn the price of bearing proud,

            Bleed with us, your newfound kin.

           

            Trade your blood for gold and fame,

            Lose your life but gain a Name.

            Fight ye on through hurt and pain,

            Fight ye on through sun or rain.

            Bellow ye with the cannons’ roar;

            This it is to go to war!

 

                        Gather’d up for stories grand,

                        Take this earth and make your stand,

                        Live forever in mighty tales!

                        Leave lover and home behind,

                        Embrace Death, mistress unkind,

                        Cross the Sea whereon she sails.

                        If dawn fails to break ‘pon thee,

                        You’ll lie under old ash tree,

                        With no marker for your grave.

                        But if you live glory follows,

                        Leave others to their sorrows,

                        And join the ranks of the brave!

 

Trade your blood for gold and fame,

            Lose your life but gain a Name.

            Fight ye on through hurt and pain,

            Fight ye on through sun or rain.

            Bellow ye with the cannons’ roar;

            This it is to go to war!

 

Before the song could end, some of us added the spur of another verse formed in times forgotten, likely in the stupor of celebratory drinking:

 

See the foes a-gathered round,

            Time to put them in the ground!

 

Tirasi’s singing voice did not charm even at the peak of health, but she growled on just the same. After the first song, Ithladen began another, an ancient and beautiful song of the Aenyr, sad and hopeful and moving all the while. It fit our mood perfectly, though few of us understood the words.

As we neared the siegeworks, the culverins and sakers swallowed up our songs. Joined by those who had stayed behind, we formed teams to pull the cannons, the ball and the powder into positions across the half-formed trench we’d had dug. The ground remained soft and muddy from the rain and much time and many expletives were expended before we could form the artillery pieces into a battery. Even then, the crews needed time to check the weapons, arrange the ammunition, make the first adjustments to aim and otherwise ready to fire.

Many of the men and women of the Company had been trained to crew artillery, but none could boast that she was a master artillerist. The teams proved capable but slow, and the purchase of time had grown costly with the town’s few demi-culverin unleashing a steady rain of grapeshotte in response to Doraen’s siege guns.

The shotte fell upon some of us, dropping those who were not killed immediately to their knees. I rushed forward, raising my staff high to expand my zone of influence, already drawing Power as I moved, my right hand forming spastic hand signs, mumbling spilling from my lips as I formed the progression of thoughts and mental structures to shape the sorcery. The Power for the working coursed through my mind and body, tugging at the fabric of my being, gently at first but more insistent as I continued to draw upon it. My muscles twitched; my mind pulsed. The very potentiality of the Power became tangible, its unpredictability reminding me that if I lost control over it, it could become anything.

A shimmering shield sprang to life in a sphere encompassing me and as many of the cannon crews as I could manage. An irony, perhaps; the thaumaturges defending the town had used the same sort of sorcery for so many days. We immediately became an even more splendid target for the enemy artillerists, and soon the heavy splatter of loose shotte against the shield became a heavy hail, a torrent, a deluge.

Some of the shotte began to penetrate the shield, slowed enough on its way through to patter harmlessly off the ground or the soldiers within. I leaned into the working, moving my foot forward into a fighting stance, my incantations became ever louder, drowning out the sound of the cannons and coming from somewhere outside me. My vision narrowed and darkened, reduced to a narrow tunnel through which I could only dimly view the battlefield before me.

As the iron rain continued, sweat gathered on my forehead, in my armpits and at the top of my buttocks, soon joined by a trickle of blood from my nose, staining the clothing under my armor and forming rivulets on my breastplate.

I heard a voice, tiny and distant, at the edge of my fading consciousness. Tirasi. She ordered the artillerists to move faster. The quickened pace proved costly: I could vaguely hear the shouted curses of the soldiers as they stopped to retrace their steps to ensure that they hadn’t missed a vital part of the loading and readying procedure.

The air became thick about me, heavy with the smell of ozone as some of the Power bled off from the working, manifesting Flux. Short bursts of lightning stretched from empty places in the air to the ground, the crack of accompanying thunder deafening. Clods of avar began to float above the ground, some of them even reaching eye level and passing into my limited field of vision, little gatherings of grass and mud that might have been picturesque in different circumstances.

Another distant voice, Malten’s, yelling to the crews, “Get back you fools! Powder is explosive!” As if they had not realized, the men suddenly backed away. My knees began to buckle under me and what little vision remained retreated to a pinpoint. I fell backward, caught by pairs of hands that dragged me to the relative safety of the nearby earthworks. As my vision slowly returned, I watched shotte fly through the area my shield had recently protected, felling several of the retreating soldiers. My heart sank for it, but the still-crackling miniature thunderstorm distracted me. How much Power had I drawn?

An arc of white-hot energy reached out from empty sky and danced along the cannon battery, delicately alighting on each. The pieces fired in quick succession, rolling back on their trunions and vomiting fire and death. They had not yet been aimed and sent the balls pell-mell against the town wall, gouging rough craters out of the stone but accomplishing little else.

I was left leaning against the side of the ditch where most of the Company had taken cover, Ithladen delicately setting me down after carrying me the last stretch of the way to safety. I remained in a daze, left only to observe my companion’s continued efforts.

Asham and his reassembled squad arose from the trench behind the cannons where most of the Company had taken cover. Those under his command leveled their harquebuses and fired a volley toward the top of the wall. As they ducked back down to reload, Fisella’s squad, now armed with gonnes, took their place and fired a second volley. In well-drilled time, Eldo’s squad took its place on the line and fired its own shotte at the town’s defenders.

One of the newer recruits, a young man still without a beard, crawled down the trench toward Tirasi and Malten. “We c-can’t t-take the city,” he blubbered, tears forming at the corners of his eyes and running down his dirty face. His sallet had come loose and drifted to the back of his head, more a bonnet than a helm.

Malten seized the recruit, driving his fingers under the top of the man’s breastplate and pulling him close by the straps. When they were nearly nose-to-nose and the soldier could see the crags and scars in his sergeant’s battle-worn face, Malten spoke to him. “Do you remember the words you spoke when you first joined?”

“Wh-what?” the recruit responded.

“The words, recruit, do you remember them?”

“Y-yes.”

“Say them.”

“I-I-I…” he began.

“Say them!”

“I, Ethem of Ansyr, do hereby pronounce myself dead to the world. Today I join the

Company of the Valorous Dead; I acknowledge my life forfeit in service to those who hold our contract. Should I complete my term of service, I may one day return to the world of the living, but I know that that day may never come, and so I shall live as one already dead. Being dead, fear cannot touch me. Cowardice shall not hold me. Injury cannot delay me. Blood shall not trouble me. Being dead, I have already crossed the most fearful threshold in existence; I shall not be moved.”

“Good,” Malten said, his deep voice carrying something of both approval and taunt within it. “Now, does it matter whether we win?”

“N-no.”

“Good. Why?”

“B-Because soldiers fight…. The fighting is the important part…Nothing can take the fight from us.”

“Good. The fight is who we are. And because of that, we may lose the field, but we are never defeated.”

The boy nodded, the sallet sliding back and forth with movement of his head and the chinstrap tugging on his throat.

“Then get on that cannon and let’s bring down that wall!”

Still visibly trembling, Ethem pulled the helm upright on his head, and stood to join the artillery crews. As he stood, the sallet again fell into bonnet position.

Ethem reached up to his chinstrap, but before he could right the helm, the ball of an harquebus struck him in the face. A loud metallic ping sounded from where the projectile exited his skull and dented the inside of the sallet.

Malten laughed, a riotous laugh better suited to a night of heavy drinking than the battlefield. Nevertheless, Tirasi found herself smiling, too. There was nothing for it; they could laugh at the young man’s misfortune and move on or they could give into fear themselves.

“Bad Wyrgeas on that one,” Malten said as he looked to Tirasi, still chuckling. His face suddenly turned serious and he bellowed again to the troops. “This is not a one-sided argument! Get those cannons firing and we make our clever retort!”

With the fire of the Company’s harquebuses forcing the town’s defenders to take cover, the artillery crews returned to the cannons. Uthcaire continued to exchange fire with its besiegers for another bloody hour of attrition and contested will. Our soldiers continued to fall, but death had become an occasional visitor rather than constant companion. Between Doraen’s own cannons and the added punch of those seized from House Meradhvor, Uthcaire could only buy itself time; it could not resist indefinitely.

Thus, surprise took none in the Company when—buffeted by extended barrage—a section of the town’s stone wall began to collapse. The destruction was anti-climactic; rather than crumbling into dust, the stones began to roll off the wall, pouring dirt from the earthworks between stone encasements like a torn sack. Some time ago, the citizens of Uthcaire had fortified their walls against modern artillery by building a second stone wall behind the first and packing the center with dirt. This conflict had been a long time coming.

The erupting avalanche of sandy earth created an improvised ramp by which the besiegers could now reach the top of the wall. A final volley of fire burst from the walls before the gonnes of both sides fell silent.

Tirasi and Malten stood up simultaneously from their positions of cover, and the soldiers they led followed in kind. I watched Tirasi try to shake dizziness from her head as she stood, attempting to hide the affliction from her men. She looked to her sergeant. “Ready the men for assault, but do not charge in just yet; let us give Doraen’s men the glory of the forlorn hope.”

Malten called the squad to order while Tirasi made her way down the line. She half-sprinted, half-hobbled over the craters and debris of the ravaged siegeworks in the search of Doraen’s officers. I had recovered enough to stagger after her, the others in the Company too busy attending more immediate matters to stop me.

She found Craith, still huddled with her men behind pavises and makeshift fortifications. Wild-eyed, she removed her barbute and threw it at Doraen’s lieutenant, disturbing the silence that had fallen over the soldiers with the clang of metal on metal as one helm struck another.

Craith had been crouched on her haunches; the unexpected blow rolled her to her side. As she struggled to right herself and return to her feet, Tirasi grabbed her by her shoulder-straps and hauled her to standing. Without averting her gaze from the officer, Tirasi barked, “Stand up, all of you,” the gravelly harshness of her voice lending the command the smoldering heat of a coal just beginning to glow.

The lieutenant’s face turned hard; her hand slid to the rondel on her belt. Before she could pull it, my captain brought the muzzle of a wheelock pistol to Craith’s chin. If she looked down her nose, she could see into the barrel.

“No.” Tirasi said quietly. Craith’s hand moved away from the dagger’s hilt.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Craith asked, somewhere between fury and incredulity.

“What are you doing, lieutenant? The wall has fallen and you are cowering behind barrels and sacks like a game of seekers. My men have been bleeding and dying, fighting to bring down that wall, and you—“

“We’ve been doing the same thing. Look around, Captain.” The lieutenant pushed her words through clenched teeth.

They had been fighting and dying—the cannons still distorted the air with escaping heat and soldiers in Doraen’s colors littered the ground, some caught by shotte from the walls but more laid low by wooden shrapnel from the defensive works. Farther afield, Doraen’s soldiers had similarly hesitated, unsure of what to do now that the defenses had fallen. We could faintly hear the cries of sergeants berating their men to ready themselves for a fight.

“It is not enough,” she spoke softly. “I have lost far too many good men because you refused to aid me. I will not give you a chance to do the same again.” But as she spoke, she looked to Craith’s soldiers and let the pistol’s barrel fall to her side, still maintaining a hold on the lieutenant with her left hand.

My captain gathered herself and attempted to speak with grace and authority, but her voice came as the sharp rasp of a sword leaving the scabbard, the harsh clatter of armor on the march.

“You men have left your homes to fight for your lord, and many of your brothers now lie in the mud. War is not the heroic endeavor you thought it would be, and you are afraid that the worst is yet to come because you do not know what awaits inside those walls once you scale them.

“I understand that. That fear is not a bad thing—it will keep you alive. But do not let it be a roar that causes you to tremble and cling to the earth. Make of it a whisper that guides without ruling. Gather yourselves and take up your arms. Your foe is more afraid than you, and with good cause.

“They have less experience than you. Their weapons are the tools and implements they have at hand, not the fine steel your lord has given you. They are outnumbered two to one, those who know how to fight ten to one.

“Now is the time for pillage and plunder, the time for recompense for what you have suffered. The town is yours. Let us go and take it!”

Fewer than half the words were Tirasi’s own. Most were lines from plays we had seen during the winter while she courted employers. A monologue from a history performed by a traveling troupe whose lord’s name I had forgotten provided the fodder for her rallying speech.

Their artifice showing through, the words fell short. The soldiers stared at her blankly, as if they struggled to find the reason for the sound of her voice. They’d undoubtedly noticed her lack of a breastplate and thought her mad. Her appearance had likely only reinforced the idea of her they had by reputation anyway. Tirasi’s shoulders fell, exhausted and resigned.

Craith had placed a hand on Tirasi’s back. Not in resistance or anticipation of attack, but in support. Where Tirasi had gripped the lieutenant’s shoulder, she now found herself leaning against it.

The lieutenant pulled Tirasi close. “Our mercenary sister is correct. The treachery of Uthcaire’s citizens has called us from our homes to prove our vows to our lord. We have marched in rain and mud, fought in smoke and tumult, died in bands and droves to show our loyalty. And the One looks down upon us with favor in our righteousness; They smile upon us and grant us a path to victory. Look,” she said, pointing to the breach, “there lies our path. Follow me into it, and let us show these turncoats the wrathful vengeance of the virtuous!”

Tirasi threw a sidelong glance at Craith, an expression of respect passing across her face. The soldiers stood in response to their lieutenant’s words, raising their weapons and voices as a unit. Craith drew her own sword and pointed it to the broken wall, a war cry rising from deep within her.

As Craith began to move, Tirasi pushed her lightly on the shoulder, signaling to her to lead the attack on her own and to leave the mercenary captain behind. Without looking back, Craith took the message. The soldiers fell into rough ranks, neither sprinting nor walking as they navigated the rough craters to the breach.

We made our way back to our own troops as Craith’s assault began. The hale and uninjured had formed ranks; at their master’s arrival Malten signaled them to a determined march to the wall. Unlike the return from their forested skirmish, they raised no voices in song as they marched, nor even to speak. They worked together in silence, their ranks orderly and precise, their determination palpable in the quietude that surrounded them.

Again, we joined the rear of the formation. Despite her silent protestations, Malten succeeded in keeping Tirasi behind her men. Still lacking a cuirass, too beaten and exhausted to put up a real fight, her presence in the front rank would only prove a liability to herself and to her brothers-in-arms.

Tirasi silently observed the onslaught, giving occasional hand signals to be sent down the lines to the corporals. Even this lasted only a short time before the combatants became too scattered for any semblance of organized command. From then on, Tirasi could only observe.

The front ranks scaled the breach and crossed into the town’s interior, where the fighting remained desperate, spread throughout streets and passageways splayed outward from the wound in the settlement’s defenses. The defenders had prepared ambushes, holing up in homes and business buildings to launch sudden volleys of harquebus fire into their attackers at close range. Others had formed gangs armed with hammers, axes, sickles and any other tool that could be turned to war, rushing groups of the assaulting soldiers as they struggled to navigate a tangled web of unfamiliar alleys and sidestreets.

We watched as the men and women of the Company began the brutal task of kicking in doors, hacking and stabbing at any who resisted them and quietly warning any unresisting townsfolk to remain in their homes on penalty of death. As we slowly followed in the macabre wake of the forward soldiers, I could not help but take in sights and sensations that would never leave me, and I once again doubted that I was strong enough to live the life of adventure I had chosen for myself.

A woman, crazed with grief, turned an alleyway and charged headlong for us, the mad townswoman’s only weapon a stub of a knife useful only in the kitchen. Tirasi shot the woman down without emotion or sound other than the impassioned cry of her pistol. Not much farther, we crossed into an alley littered with dead soldiers liveried in Doraen’s colors. Bullet holes in the bodies and the walls of adjacent buildings told the entire story in a single image. Craith lay among them, her pale face now twisted in surprise and agony.

We left Doraen’s officers to round up the town’s survivors. Tirasi allowed the Company’s troops a short bout of looting while she and her officers selected a command center within the town’s walls.

We settled on the local thaumaturgical guildhouse, both for the spoils of war it would offer and its strategic value. Inside, the Company’s officers found themselves forced to pay homage to the dead; the bodies of the town’s thaumaturges lay in the midst of a large ritual space hastily prepared in the house’s great hall. Eight in all, they had each sustained their protective working over the town until all had died, sacrificing themselves for the hope of holding out until help arrived. Tirasi ordered that the bodies be shown the utmost respect and that, once time permitted, they be given their last rites with full honors.

But at present, time did not permit, and as soon as the space had been repurposed, Tirasi commanded her officers to gather the Company to prepare for Koradh’s impending assault. They formed teams, commandeered Doraen’s troops, and went about the arduous task of relocating their cannons and supplies to the interior of the town wall.

The important pieces of materiel recovered, the soldiers hastily broke down the defenses in the earthworks outside of the town and brought what handiwork they could salvage to construct a barricade over the collapsed portion of the wall. Then began the long vigil for the arrival of Koradh’s forces, when the erstwhile attackers would themselves become desperate defenders.

Gathered together on the town walls, clustered around artillery batteries and behind crenellations and stoneworks, our Company now numbered less than one hundred souls able to fight, with over half killed in the fighting and many others under the care of Company medics in the buildings near the guildhouse, too grievously hurt to continue fighting that day or perhaps any other.

The night passed roughly; we took shifts on the watch and struggled for some modicum of sleep amongst the rustling of those awake and several false alarms. Only when the morning broke and light again pierced the clouds did Koradh’s army array themselves at the edge of the forest, outside of cannon range.

Even at that distance, we could see the colorful House banners fluttering in the wind. That same wind carried distant voices to us from the far side of the field, audible but too indistinct to make out. We readied ourselves, lighting matchcord and loading the artillery pieces, but Tirasi raised both her hands in sign to cease. We set aside our tasks and watched the enemy.

A light flashed in the House battleline and Tirasi called for her spyglass. After a long look, she passed it to me. When I brought it to my eye, I could make out Koradh immediately, identifiable by the extravagance of his dress and armor. He stared back at me through his own device.

The House general’s armor could not but captivate. Bulkier and thicker than even tournament plate, it resembled a miniature clipper or siegeman as much as harness; it, too, was festooned with wires and cables as if a marionette. Runic inscriptions inlaid in gold accented the blackened armor, and I thought that I could make out a faint glow from the symbols. From beneath Koradh’s green silk cloak bulged a protrusion from the backplate that gave the general a hunchbacked appearance. Without seeing beneath the cloak, I knew what would be found there—the Artifice that powered the armor, that allowed Koradh to move faster than a normal man in armor heavier than any man should be able to move in, that gave him the strength of a mechanicum unburdened by its low intelligence.

Koradh’s army indeed appeared to number four-thousand, and I could identify heavy artillery, thaumaturges and other specialists within his ranks. Fortunately, most of our own force remained hidden by the wall itself; Koradh would be forced to rely upon any intelligence he had received to guess at numbers.

The general turned to speak with a fat balding man, arrayed not in the vestments of war but those of court. The man held a leather-bound book in one hand and a quill in the other; he leaned forward to show Koradh the pages of the tome. I tried to read the man’s lips as he spoke to the general, but he spoke in a tongue I could not understand.

Koradh only looked at the pages in the book and nodded, stoic and stonefaced. When the fat man had finished speaking, Koradh again held the spyglass to his left eye to survey the enemy. His mouth moved as he swept the eyepiece across the town wall, as if he were calculating or reading to himself. Beside him, his soldiers stood in perfect discipline.

Tirasi quietly gave the order for the cannon to be made ready. Her expression told me that she expected this to be the end of us. A lump came to my throat and my hands sweated. She was right, of course. Against the House Meradhvor army arrayed against us, the only questions would be how long the fighting would take and how many we could take with us. Even Doraen’s hidden cavalry would do little against such a well-arrayed and -equipped force.

My stomach turned, and I wondered why I had come here in the first place, why I’d been so foolhardy as to think that I could be a mercenary and adventurer. I’d only wanted to avoid a settled life. This was my reward: death at the hands of some cold blade or some arcane working, the ball of an harquebus or the unfeeling arms of some mechanicum. It took all that I had just to stand there on that wall; everything within me told me to run and my legs twitched with the impulse.

As those around me wearily readied their weapons, battered and bruised and exhausted from yesterday’s exertions and a sleepless night just as I was, I remained frozen, fighting with all that I had to remain still. It was a losing battle, and I could feel the fear washing over me in waves, warming me with its intensity, drowning out my thoughts until I was entirely submerged.

Just at the point when I could no longer keep myself still, a shout from the Meradhvor lines shook me from my reverie. As one, the House soldiers turned in place and began to march away. Nervous laughter spilled from my mouth as the waves of terror swept away.

Within minutes, the army had abandoned the field and left us standing on the walls with nothing to do but watch, dumbfounded. Malten busied himself keeping the soldiers alert and ready lest the withdrawal prove a ruse, but the time revealed no turnabout, no hidden plot or scheme, no clever tactic.

Finally, Doraen and his cavalry trotted triumphantly out of the forest in loose groupings, nonchalantly making their way to the Uthcaire gates, their voices in song traveling before them.

“Bastards,” Malten spat. “They have a picnic while we’re in the mud and blood and then they come out of their hiding place like they’ve won the battle by themselves.”

“So we’ve won, then?” I smiled. He frowned in response and I could feel the elation drain from my face. When he gave no answer, I looked expectantly to Tirasi. She pointed behind me. In a square not too far from the wall where we stood, our brethren lit fires, stacking the bodies of our fallen in neat rows, splashes rising from the blood-covered streets as the corpses hit the ground, the stench of death and despair reaching us even where we stood. Too far to make faces, the posture and movements of the living nevertheless betrayed their brokenness as they stripped equipment and baubles from the bodies, the stacks growing higher.

“No.” Tirasi said behind me, her voice a ghost only half heard. “Doraen has won. We have lost.”

 

Avar Narn: An Introduction to Magic

In this post, I want to talk about the place of magic in fiction in general and in my own fantasy setting, Avar Narn, in particular.

First, the general. What does magic represent in fiction? Many things are possible: a convenient plot device or deus ex machina; the power of words (ref. Earthsea and Dresden Files for examples); a dualistic or non-material worldview; the power of the mind and/or will; and, quite simply, the fantastic.

When I studied medieval and renaissance literature at the University of Texas for my master’s degree, one of my areas of interest was in cultural ideas and constructs about magic and the occult. While the age of serious witch-hunting was later than the period on which I focused, there were nevertheless plenty of opportunities for the study of both folk beliefs and scholarly beliefs in the efficacy of magic. One of my favorite books on the subject is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. Thomas convincingly argues that people increasingly turned to folk magic as the Reformation deprived them of Catholic apotropaic rituals and  miraculous healings that had formed a key part of their worldview served fundamental psychological needs.

In my own studies, what occurred to me in the study of real-world attitudes toward magic in the medieval and early modern periods was that magic represented a threat to traditional forms of power. Qabbalistic and Hermetic systems of magic represented the belief that “knowledge is power” stripped down to its barest form, challenging ideas of power through land ownership, military might and birthright. This aspect of beliefs in supernatural powers fascinated me and has undoubtedly informed in part my own approach to magic in Avar Narn.

I do not intend to spend much time talking about how to build a magic “system” for fictional settings–there are plenty of well-written articles, blog posts and other resources on this subject. Instead, I want to examine why a setting might have magic at all.

As you know, good magic systems have a cost associated with them–think of the blood magic of A Song of Ice and Fire or the sanity-sapping occult knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos. Thus, integral to a magic system is dramatic conflict of a type recognizable to any reader–what price are we willing to pay to get what we want? There are few conflicts more visceral or primal than that. In fact, we might consider that conflict to be a core part of any conflict whatsoever.

If willingness to pay the cost of magic is an archetypal dramatic conflict, the ability to pay the cost is also a prime ground for the kinds of conflict that drives stories–think of the destruction of the One Ring or the quest for the Grail. When certain conditions or materials are required for the successful use of magic, this itself can be a primary plot around which to build a story. This, I think is more commonly used in role-playing games than novels, but has a place in both.

In addition to providing ready conflicts to write about, magic tells us something (often much) about the nature of the setting. Magic with a high cost usually results in dark fantasy (think the Warhammer Fantasy universe, for instance), while magic with a low cost might become what we’d call “epic” or “high fantasy” but (in my opinion) more often looks more like a superhero story. In at least most cases, a magic system alone is insufficient to readily categorize the genre of a story (to the extent that such categories are really helpful anyway), but it is nevertheless a great contributor to the atmosphere of a setting. Where magic is rare a reader will take note when it occurs; when plentiful it will have far-reaching effects on economics, politics and the like. If your magic system doesn’t influence the way your world works in some way, it will feel “stuck-on” or compartmentalized and that does not contribute to the willing suspension of disbelief.

What is more interesting to me about what magic tells us about a setting is that the definition of magic is, essentially, a cosmological task. The why, what, how, when and where of magic tells you something about how the very fabric–the “reality”–of a setting works. Magic as a latent force to be manipulated and studied scientifically is quite different from a mysterious magic that cannot be fully understood and is used only tenuously.

With these thoughts in mind, let me tell you about “magic” in Avar Narn.

First, I try to avoid using the word “magic” within the setting. For semiotic ease, I don’t mind talking about that aspect of the system as “magic,” but the characters in the world don’t think of it with that word–it’s got too much fantasy baggage. Instead, the force of magic in Avar Narn is usually referred to metaphorically as “the Power” and its use as “the Gift” or “the Art.” Likewise, Avar Narn stories do not talk about “spells,” they speak instead of “workings.”

Is this a cheap trick? Is an elf by any other name still really an elf? More important, do readers balk when your story has stereotypical elves but you call them something else? I don’t know the answer for sure, but I definitely see this risk here. So, does playing games with the nomenclature of magic hurt or help in the long-run? I’ve made my choice and I’ll live with the consequences.

With all of that in mind, here’s some description of magic in Avar Narn:

Meaning: All of the details of the arcane in Avar Narn flow from the meaning I’ve set for this aspect of the setting. Magic, in this world, is about the power of the will writ large–the ways in which we use our freedom of will for good or for evil (or, as is more often the case in Avar Narn, some gray area quite in-between). Not just the details about how the arcane works, but the very history of its use show how mortals typically twist the good gifts they’ve been give to selfish and self-destructive purposes.

Source: The Power, the source of arcane workings of any sort in Avar Narn, is the stuff of Creation itself, raw possibility that The One (or whichever divine power a person happens to believe in) has made available to some.

Availability: Not everyone has access to the Power, and even among those who do the ability to shape the Power into an actual working is limited for most. Why this is the case is a mystery to scholars–to a certain extent, differences in the effectiveness of practitioners can be explained by the thoroughness of their studies and discipline. Nevertheless, the question of why some have the Gift at all and others do not remains open. Some say that those who wield the Gift have returned to this world in a higher state of being after gaining some modicum of enlightenment in past lives, but the tendency of so many practitioners to fall to corruption through their use of the Power undercuts this idea. Regardless, I’m not willing to explicitly explain this–nor do I need to, as having multiple theories and no concrete answer feels more realistic.

Difficulty: Magic in Avar Narn is difficult to perform properly, even under the most favorable of conditions. Scholars of the arcane believe that this is because the natural state of Creation resists mortal attempts to reshape it through the Power of raw possibility–the more radically a desired effect differs from expectations of natural law and causation, the more difficult it is to achieve.

This means that magic is more often subtle than flashy, more often a component of a larger undertaking rather than a replacement for mundane action. Yes, truly fantastic effects are possible, but often they are simply achievable through other means. Magi with the right training and preparation may make for devastating battlefield artillery, but cannon are cheaper and easier to replace. It is the flexibility of arcane workings that makes magi a force to be reckoned with more than the Art’s raw force.

The Cost: Like any good magic system, the use of the Power is fraught with costs–some minor, some significant. At perhaps the most minor level, the use of the Power is fatiguing on mind and body–sometimes to the point of lasting physical injury. As important, controlling the Power to form a working is difficult at best, and uncontrolled raw possibility bleeding into the world is anything but safe. Not only do practitioners have to worry about losing control of their intended working, but even successful workings may have unintended side effects. Even without immediate side effects, small amounts of the Power bleed into the world from even the most tightly-controlled workings. This is called Flux. If Flux accumulates before it naturally dissipates, it can cause random and unlikely events to occur. From this comes the stories of a magus’s presence spoiling milk or turning candles blue; this reality has done much to generate fear and persecution of practitioners over time.

Additionally, there is what I’m currently calling “the Practitioner’s Dialectic.” The Dialectic is the observation that the emotional and mental state of a practitioner when performing a working will affect the nature of the working, and the types of workings wrought will subtly influence the mind and emotions of the practitioner. One who uses the Power for malicious ends may find himself corrupted into a “natural” state of maliciousness, even if the first steps down such a path were intended to ultimately be for good. In other words, practitioners who use the Power under the idea that the end justifies the means often find that the means become the end. Remember, the use of the Art is symbolic of the use of free will writ large, and the use of free will is recursive–every choice we make sets us on a new path and changes or affirms (if ever so slightly) who we are.

These costs are known in the Avar as the “Fourfold Curse” of the Art–the risk of physical injury, the difficulty of controlling workings and their side effects, Flux and the Practitioner’s Dialectic. In Avar Narn, magic is capable of truly wondrous and miraculous things (although its use is not so wanton or commonplace as, say, a Dungeons & Dragons setting), but the narrative conflict of magic is whether it is worth the cost.

The Practices: There are five Practices of magic in Avar Narn–at least according to the widely used Ealthen system of categorization. These are:

Sorceries: Sorceries are brute force workings, the quick summoning of the Power combined with a raw exertion of the will. They do not create long-lasting effects, are relatively weak compared to other Practices and are messy in application. On the other hand, they are the fastest possible applications of the Power and some individuals (known as “Sorcerers” and “Sorceresses”) are able to wield sorceries without formal training. Other Practitioners view Sorcerers as especially dangerous given their unpredictability and the heightened influence of the Practitioner’s Dialectic on sorceries.

Thaumaturgies: Thaumaturgies are what most people think of when they think of “spells.” A thaumaturgy is the careful formation of the Power into an intended effect. This requires time, focus and skill–thaumaturgies typically employ incantations, hand gestures and at least a whole minute to complete. Rather than simply directing the Power with the will as in a sorcery, a thaumaturgy involves creating mental structures and sequences of thoughts to deliberately and cautiously create a desired effect. These effects are typically relatively short-lived; while noticeably more powerful than sorceries, the wonders created by thaumaturgies often pale in comparison to the power of ritual workings.

Ritual: The most powerful and lasting “immediate” effects are achieved through rituals. Rituals make use of arcane diagrams and occult sympathies to create the structure for a working (rather than requiring the practitioner to form everything in her mind). It takes time to set up a ritual–a magic circle is necessary and the items and ingredients for such an undertaking are usually not readily available. Further, the Flux of a ritual working adheres to the place of the working rather than the worker–this has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the most important aspect of ritual workings is that their effects may be created so as to be longer-lasting, persisting for days, weeks or months. Powering such persistence can be quite costly, however, and any effect meant to be permanent–such a Fleshcrafting–requires permanent sacrifice of some sort or another.

Alchemy: Alchemy is the use of occult sympathies, proto-science and the Art to store effects in consumable items. This allows the practitioner to pay the cost of a working in advance and to delay the use of the working until situationally appropriate. Alchemical effects are typically on par in power with sorceries or thaumaturgies but not rituals.

Artifice: Artifice is the set of closely-guarded secrets that involve using the Power as a source of energy for driving mechanical creations. The practice requires magical skill, engineering talent, competency in alchemy and many other esoteric knowledges to perform. Artifice plays an important historical, social and economic role in the Avar, as you’ll see in upcoming stories.

 

This really only scratches the surface of the details of arcane power in Avar Narn–I’ve found working on magic within the setting deeply fascinating and rewarding so it has developed what I hope is dramatic nuance and complexity that properly limits the effectiveness of magic while making it capable of wondrous things in ways that will be narratively exciting. More to come, on the subject, I’m sure.

 

 

Poetics of Parting

The short short story below was submitted for the latest Writer’s Digest Short Short Story competition. It didn’t win anything (boo!) but that means I’m free to post it here for you (yay!):

Poetics of Parting

Shaping a working is an act of poetry—if poetry were also to use strict self-discipline and mathematic precision. Maybe you’d argue that it does; I’d reply by saying that you have no experience with the arcane and therefore cannot make a reasonable comparison.

I shook uncontrollably. Only moments before, I’d killed a man for the first time, the thin blade of my dueling sword sliding sickeningly into him, his eyes wide in shock and sudden fear, the crimson blossom of his spent lifesblood quickly dying his white shirt.

Where I come from, we don’t duel to the death, or even to first blood; we duel to maneuver our opponent into a position from which he cannot easily escape, demonstrating both prowess and restraint, bravery coupled with a recklessness that risks injury to self for the chance to outwit another. Here in Ealthe, life is cheap and only blood will settle a dispute of ever-ephemeral honor.

In my haughtiness, I’d thought that my skill at arms would allow me to embarrass Ridley without harm to either of us. Once blows were struck, only then did I understand my old tutor’s meaning when he told me to beware those with great anger and little skill. Ridley’s broad, clumsy swings might have been easy to counter if he hadn’t so overexerted himself in his rage. I wanted to wait for him to tire before moving to the offensive, but the shear fury of his attacks would have overwhelmed me before he relented, and I could do nothing but strike to kill if I was to survive. A fool I am, sometimes.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t blame him. He’d caught me red-handed with his red-headed paramour, loud as we were in an otherwise quiet and forgotten corner of the college grounds. How he had come upon that spot in the first place, I didn’t know. Not that it mattered.

I hadn’t cared that Ridley and Synne had been known lovers for some time. I hadn’t cared that she intended to use me only as revenge against Ridley for some perceived sleight; the untowardness of it all made it somehow the sweeter. I hadn’t cared that the university might expel me for dueling, or that Ealthen law forbade such violence. We’d had swords close at hand, and the heady rush so common to both sex and fighting makes it easy for one to lead to the other.

I did care once I’d killed him, though. He had been my friend at the university, a gifted scholar and sure to become a talented magus one day. My own recklessness had destroyed all of that.

At the time, though, I’d had no time for mourning or I’d soon have been mourning my own passing. Some of Ridley’s friends had been with him, you see, and when hot words became cold steel they had quickly decided the hero and the villain. The villain’s victory had upset their sensibilities; before Ridley had even fallen to the ground and died they had readied their own weapons or sorceries against me.

Had Synne not intervened—why she did, I’ll never know—I might have been responsible for even more death. Not by my own hand, of course, but had one of our fellow scholars killed by sorcery, death would have been the only penalty permissible under the law.

She had intervened, though, thrown up a barrier against which their initial assaults crashed without effect, sparks springing to life at random and rain beginning to fall from a clear blue sky in a small radius around us, manifesting Flux bleeding away from the Power summoned by those present.

Though the strain of such a sorcery on Synne must have been immense, I did not linger to see to her. Like a rabbit who knows the dogs have smelled him, I bolted. Immediately, my new attackers gave chase.

I am not a runner. I do not find pleasure in it as some, nor am I very good at it. But I am agile enough, and I weaved carefully ably through the afternoon crowds on Asterfaen’s streets, jinking and suddenly changing direction to prevent my pursuers from overtaking me by sheer speed. I’d spent many a night looking for trouble in the city proper, so I knew the streets well. My companions, better students than I, had not and did not.

Even so, the tension of pursuit and the fear of what might happen if caught shrink perception and thought into a narrow tunnel, one through which I could not adequately view the mental cartography of the city I had crafted over time. Thus it was that I took a wrong turn, moving left at a crossroads when I should’ve gone right, and soon found myself facing an old stone wall at the end of Boggart Close. I had gained enough distance from my pursuers that they had stopped at my last turn to determine where I had passed; their arguing voices carried down the street like a herald of their impending arrival.

I looked back down the alley to determine if I might be able to fight my way out—this thought was quickly discarded when I realized that, somewhere along the way, I’d dropped my sword. Empty handed, I turned back to the wall. I’m even less a climber than a runner, and the passage of time had worn the wall’s stones too smooth to find any purchase.

Only one option remained to me, it seemed. I closed my eyes and began to draw upon the Power. As I said, my hands were shaking uncontrollably as the shock of the past moments caught up to me, so I performed the gestures and hand-symbols only with great difficulty. Words spilled softly from my mouth, in a halting mumble at first as I fought to center myself and assemble the thoughts and mental images I would need to form the Power into a working.

As I prepared, the Power enveloped me, a comforting embrace at first that quickly became an oppressive force, as if I’d swum too deep into the sea. I focused my consciousness and intent on the stony barrier, stringing sentences of commanding words together.

The words and the gestures bear no power to shape a working in and of themselves; they are only aids to the practitioner, attempts to focus his mind. A working is shaped through sequences of thoughts and imaginative images formed in the mind’s eye—this is why it is poetry and not natural philosophy. A wrong mental impression inserted into the process could unravel the whole working. What we call “the Power” is the raw stuff of Creation, unadulterated possibility itself, and such a thing is dangerous to unleash into the Avar uncontrolled. Even the small amounts that bleed from well controlled workings as Flux can be dangerous if allowed to accumulate.

After a moment, the gestures and words took effect, all else fading away to leave me with the working. I struggled to shape the Power into my desired form. I formed first an image of a grand stone, a rocky outcropping, the clouds flying past at high speed until time and wind and water reduced the stone to dirt. Next, I imagined the stones of the wall being laid upon one another, mortar slapped haphazardly between them; this image I then reversed, the wall being taken apart and the mortar scraped away as each stone leapt away from the others. The thought of a breaking chain followed, the snapping links shattering into tiny shards propelled away by an invisible force.

Even as I formed the images, I could feel the Power struggling against me, writhing against the bonds I had placed on it, seeking its own freedom. Given the nature of my working, this proved especially distracting; I could feel other thoughts and ideas lurking at the edge of my consciousness, threatening to intrude and destroy the meanings I had so carefully developed in my mind. No longer did I speak softly; my words now were yelled as the Power swirled into shape. I could hear the footfalls of my pursuers quickening behind me.

Just as the proximity of my assailants’ steps shattered my concentration, the working took effect, the stone wall softening into a thick mud. I forced my way through without hesitation, unable to see as the muck clung to my face and body. As soon as I reckoned that I had passed entirely beyond the wall, I let the working collapse, mud become stone once again. The mud that clung to me dropped away as pebbles, and I could hear the clank of a sword against stone as heavy rock enveloped a weapon that had been swung at me as I fled.

A doorway opened and closed, both literally and metaphorically. That seemed fitting, as I knew that my footsteps must now carry me away from Asterfaen and the university, never to return.

Collections

Putnam nearly jumped out of his chair as the door burst open, the bubbling elixirs and preparations in the alembics and retorts arrayed before him sloshing and spilling onto the table, some harmless but others hissing and spitting in their upset. He fumbled to stand, twisting the high-backed chair behind him awkwardly and almost falling over it, catching himself on the ornate backrest and hauling himself to his feet with some effort.

In the doorway stood a silhouetted figure, hulking and garbed with malice, idly grinding underfoot one of the splinters from the broken door frame. “Putnam,” he growled.

“Who—Who are you?”

The intruder stepped forward into the light, casually throwing the open door back toward its frame; it bounced off of the remnants of the door jamb but settled in a mostly-closed position, open only a crack. As the light of the everlamps illuminated the man’s face, Putnam gasped, “Taelainë’s balls!”

“Taelainë doesn’t have balls, old man.” He was Blooded of the Rukhosi, easily seven feet tall as he raised himself to full height upon entering, clothed in pure muscle, enlarged incisors peeking from his lower jaw, giving him something of an underbite.

“No…no, of course she doesn’t. You’re one of Berem’s men, yes?” Putnam attempted a smile as he spoke, but his face resembled more of a Temple grotesque with its mouth lopsidedly open in a look of confusion.

“That’s Blind-Eye to you. You’re two weeks late on your payments. We take our debts very seriously in the Sisters.”

“I have…no—no doubt.” Putnam stuttered. He took a deep breath and steadied himself, brushing the crumbs of his last meal from the front of his robes. “But perhaps we can come to some arrangement. Some collateral?”

“You’re a second-rate alchemist at best, Putnam. Otherwise you’d have turned some lead into gold or somesuch instead of taking a loan from Blind-Eye. What do you have to offer?”

Putnam looked past the kneebreaker then, caught in a personal reverie. “You are correct, of course. Even at university, my poorest performances were alchemical.” Shaking his head as if to clear it of old memories, he turned his gaze to the Rukhosi-Blooded thug. “Still, I’m so close to the end of my experiments! And, as you said, alchemy is the least of my talents. I’m an accomplished shaper. A sword! Yes, how about that? An enchanted sword. Seems enough to by me a week, at least.”

“I have a sword,” the man told him, his left hand fingering the grip of the weapon at his hip—a longsword to most men, but Putnam had no doubt that the man could wield it effectively in a single hand if he desired.

“Yes, but what about a sword you don’t have to sharpen? One that will not break? There are many effective enchantments to be placed on a weapon.”

“Have you ever used a sword, alchemist?”

“I’ve had the good fortune that it’s never been necessary.”

“Then you have no business making swords. Your thaumaturgy means little in a fight—it is the balance of the weapon, the way it feels and plays in your hand that matters. It’s not easy to find one that fits, and not much makes it worth getting used to a new one if you don’t have to.”

“Perhaps your sword, then? I could enchant it and you’d not need to acquaint yourself with a new weapon. If you’d just hand it over…”

The enforcer smiled. “Clever, old man.” He raised his hands, opening them with palms toward Putnam so their massive size became evident. “But don’t you think that, even if you had my sword—a weapon you’ve admitted to never having used—I couldn’t easily beat you to death with my bare hands?”

Putnam’s shoulders fell. “Yes,” he said, almost a whisper, the reluctant apology of a child who only regrets being caught. Then, he lifted his head with realization and actually smiled. “But you haven’t said ‘no’ outright, have you?”

The large man shrugged. “It doesn’t hurt to listen. Actually goes a long way in my line of work, believe it or not.”

“Then what might you want?”

When the enforcer looked to his shoes, Putnam knew he’d found an in with the man. “It’s about a woman, isn’t it?” The large man’s fierce visage as he raised his eyes from his footwear confirmed the alchemist’s suspicions. “You want a love potion, then? A simple matter, really.”

“Is it, now?” The growling voice dripped with suspicion. Clearly, the thug had never become accustomed to being vulnerable, which Putnam mused might very well be the cause of his amorous failings. “I am no fool, nor do I wish to steal affection through guile.”

But coin is another matter, now, isn’t it? Putnam thought to himself. “What then?” he asked.

“It’s…how I look.” The enforcer admitted.

“I am no back-alley fleshcrafter!”

“Putnam, I came here to take some fingers. If you’re going to buy yourself some time, you might consider being what I want you to be.”

The alchemist looked back at the man, a hardness in his eyes. “It is a left-handed practice.”

“But it is something that you could do, is it not?”

“If I wanted to be hunted by the Vigil.”

“Come now, you know that the Vigil holds no authority here. Besides, they’d have to find you first. I already have.” The Rukhosi-Blooded thug cracked his knuckles for emphasis, the sound almost echoing within Putnam’s apartment laboratory.

“You want to look more like the rest of us? Fine. Come back tomorrow and—”

“No. Tonight or not at all.”

“You’ll need a sacrifice.”

“What, like a person?”

“God, no! Well, I mean, yes, that would work, but there’s no need to be so macabre. Something of great personal value to you will suffice. A longtime keepsake, something you acquired at great cost, a symbol of your greatest achievements, something with meaning.”

“Why?”

“We don’t have time for the explanation. I apprenticed under a magus and then spent years at university trying to understand, and even the scholars and professors have only theories and conjectures, though they call them Laws.”

“What if I don’t have anything like that?”

Putnam frowned. “Flesh for flesh then. A finger or two should do.”

The enforcer glared, apparently not a fan of irony. “I need my fingers.”

“Toes?”

“Balance.”

“Ears? Nose?”

“Defeats the purpose, don’t you think?”

“Umm, yes, well…”

“Blood?”

Putnam smiled faintly. “Yes, that will do, but you’ll need a bit of it.”

The thug pulled a wicked dagger from his belt, blade curved and serrated. “Why not yours?” He growled.

“That would work, um, yes, but then I wouldn’t have the wherewithal to perform the working.” Putnam wrung his hands.

“Fine,” the man said, moving the blade over his forearm.

“Wait!” Putnam objected. “Not yet, you fool!” The alchemist sorted through the multifarious miscellany that cluttered a nearby set of shelves, returning with an empty wide-mouthed bottle and a small vial filled with ochre fluid. “You’ll bleed into this,” the magus said, setting the bottle at the man’s feet. Indicating the ochre liquid, he continued, “When you get the signal from me that you’ve bled enough, you’ll put this on the wound to close it.”

Without additional words, Putnam began to sketch out a rough set of circles and symbols in chalk on the wooden floor surrounding the large man. The designs complete, he started to shuffle through the apartment on seemingly-random errands—collecting a book and opening it upon a nearby lectern, burning some fragrant herb in a small bowl he set at the edge of the circle, mumbling to himself as he gathered a short wand and a clay talisman.

When Putnam looked ready to begin, the man warned him. “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to kill you.”

The enforcer was met by a look of silent confidence on the magus’s face. “There will be no need for that.”

The alchemist began, the words becoming a frenetic rhythm of unfamiliar sounds, the air becoming heavy with the weight of possibility. With a motion, Putnam signaled to the man. He gritted his teeth, incisors sinking into his upper lip, and drew the blade across his left forearm, crimson trickling neatly into the waiting bottle at his feet.

He bled for what seemed a long time, his vision beginning to close in to a tunnel shape, sounds the sound of Putnam’s voice beginning to distort slightly. Just as he turned the dagger in his hand to use it on his quarry, Putnam signaled to use the elixir. The thug pulled the vial from where he’d stuck it in his belt, tore the cork away and poured the contents onto the cut in his arm.

The wound did not begin to knit itself closed as the enforcer had expected. The flow of blood from the severed veins instead increased in volume. He moved the dagger back to his good hand and began to move toward the alchemist, wrath burning hot in his eyes. He stopped when he came to the interior edge of the circles drawn on the floor and found that he could not leave the circumscribed space. Passionate wrath turned to cold anger at being outwitted, turned to panic and desperation. On the outside of the circle, Putnam smiled as he continued to intone the words that held the arcane cage in place.

When Blind Eye’s agent had finally collapsed into a pool of his own blood, Putnam let the working collapse. Stepping delicately over the body and attempting to avoid tracking bloody footprints through the apartment, he gathered his research notes and most important books and placed them delicately into a leather satchel. He gathered his staff and his broad-brimmed traveling hat before going to the drawers in a humble study desk in the corner of the apartment’s single room. Sliding the drawer open, he pulled out a heavy linen bag about the size of his fist, tied at the top and clinking with coin. Stuffing this into his bag, he sidestepped the body once more and swung open the broken door.

A moment later he had exited the tenement building and walked under a starlit sky, both Nyrynë  and Iamor visible overhead. He whistled to himself softly as he made his way toward Ilessa’s western gate, only a short jaunt from the The Scraps, the beggar’s quarter where he’d set up his humble laboratory only a few weeks before.

He tipped his hat at the night watch as they passed, smiling.

Rites of Passage

[The short story below has perhaps not been edited as thoroughly as it should be, but I’m anxious to get a real sample of my fiction on the site, so here it is. As is suggested by it’s location, this is a short story set in Avar Narn.]

Emryn looked conspiratorially across the large and ancient table that dominated the center of the apprentices’ study, the candlelight shadowing her face in a way that struck Amaric as both erotic and sinister, like one of the Aenyr. “But don’t you think we could?”

“We could, maybe, but that doesn’t make it a good idea,” Amaric said, his quill scratching an idle doodle on the parchment where he had been taking notes from a mildew-scented copy of Délathë’s Thaumaturgical Theorems and Postulates.

“It’s simply a matter of doing it right. If we’re careful and we do the research, where’s the danger?” She closed the heavy tome before her as she spoke, a cloud of dust rising from between the pages.

“Remember what the archmagus says? ‘Fates worse than death.’ I like my soul in my body, thank you.”

“Amaric,” she began, looking to ensure that the door was closed before she reached across the table and grasped his hand, “you’re being over-dramatic. We could do this. We’ve been studying under Magus Albrith for two years and we’ve never seen a summoning! How are we going to learn conjury if he doesn’t teach us? I don’t think they let apprentices who don’t know their conjury into university.”

He wasn’t listening. When Emryn leaned over, Amaric found himself staring down the front of her dress now that her breasts had become suddenly more apparent. The smell of almonds wafted over him and his fingers warmed in the remembrance of her skin. At the edge of his vision, he noticed her looking down, her nose an arrow to the cleavage that had captured his imagination. As she looked back up, he followed the movement of her face until their eyes met. He blushed, first for gawking, then for blushing. A coy smile passed across Emryn’s lips as she returned herself to her chair, kindly removing the distraction.

After collecting himself, Amaric struggled to return to the conversation. Unable to recall what Emryn had just said, he started afresh. “This is going to be like our first attempts at evocation all over again,” he muttered.

“Psh. First, it was only a small fire. Second, that one was your idea. This is completely different.”

They both laughed at that. She twirled her auburn hair in her finger, a gesture that always managed to stir Amaric’s heart, though he never quite understood why.

“Well, we might learn something from a spirit that’s more useful than the nonsense in this book,” Amaric said, wiping the quill and his fingers with a vaguely damp and ink-stained cloth before returning the writing instrument to its rest. “But we’ve got to choose carefully. Something safe. Maybe one of the Ninvenai or the Qalenëdhai…”

“Or the Unëdhai,” Emryn said, her eyes twinkling with innuendo.

Despite himself, Amaric laughed softly. “Okay, we’ll see, but we’re not doing anything until we have more information about what all is involved.

“Deal.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“We’ll need to know about the theory and practice of conjury—I’ve got that covered,” she said, standing and walking into her adjoining room without a further word. Rather than questioning her, Amaric simply watched the crewel-work dolphins—her family’s symbol—on her dress swim back and forth with her hips as she walked. She returned with a small stack of books, some of them in terrible condition. “I’ve been collecting these for the past few weeks while in the library. Doesn’t seem that Magus Albrith thinks much of them, but they’re what I could find.”

“Busy girl,” Amaric said, his mouth a thin slit of tension between amusement at her resourcefulness and unease about how real the thought of performing a summoning had suddenly become. “So, do you have a formula for a specific spirit in any of that? We’ll need a true name to make sure that whatever we summon is really under our control.”

“Unfortunately, no. These are guidebooks to the Practice, but they either never had any lists of spirits or what they had has been lost to time and decay.”

“So, step two, find the true name and instructions for a particular spirit.”

“Right. After we make sure that we understand these,” she said, passing one of the books to Amaric.

“Studying, sure,” he said, making eyes at her.

“Yes, studying—for now, at least.” The corner of her mouth turned up with the hint of suggestion.

They had grown close over the past two years, whether by real attraction to one another or simply because there were no other adolescents to be found in Albrith’s manse neither knew. Learning the arcane necessarily meant their seclusion from broader society, and the manse occupied an isolated valley in the foothills of the Engmaic Amisnoth north of Asterfaen.

Emryn had always been kind to Amaric despite his low birth; she treated him as an equal. She had been plain when she arrived, and Amaric had first grown fond of her wit and unabashed playfulness. About a year ago, Emryn emerged from her rooms one morning recognizable but made beautiful; reshaped by some arcane working.

Amaric had heard rumors that all arcanists became beautiful like the Aenyr, but mostly the Temple priest had told the village children this as a warning against the corruption of thaumaturges. Later experience told Amaric both that this was not entirely true and that a working of that kind of permanency required sacrifice—symbolic or literal. What Emryn had sacrificed for her beauty he knew not and dared not ask.

Both apprentices steadily approached adulthood during their studies, and thus it was perhaps inevitable that their friendship might accrue some amount of the romantic and erotic in the midst of adolescence. Albrith either did not care or pretended not to notice the attraction between them—he revealed little in his demeanor.

The two apprentices spent weeks in furtive preparation, studying the tomes Emryn had collected in the late evenings between the work their master had assigned them and the trysts that often occupy young lovers. Finally, they felt ready to move forward and agreed one night that Amaric would make his way to the library to find the name of a suitable spirit while Emryn collected the sympathetic components necessary to the working.

 

*          *          *

 

The library lay within a broad and squat tower at the corner of Albrith’s manse, a base floor ringed with shelves full of books menacingly surrounding a few ornate desks, the shadows of light from the smokeless everlamps playing the dance macabre across the reading space while their smoky essence mingled with the smells of mold and material entropy. Three balconies of tomes, scrolls, stone tablets and other questionable pieces claiming to be writings looked down upon that central area, pronouncing the judgment of wisdom lost and the thoughts of long dead men upon those who stood below.

Throld, Magus Albrith’s librarian and scribe, perched upon a high stool before a scrivener’s desk near the first story’s wall, where he busied himself with the copying of a tome fully intent on crumbling to dust without notice, his seat creaking in protestation as his weight shifted back and forth in scratching out each line of text.

When the magus had first shown his new apprentices the library, Emryn had matter-of-factly informed her master that the printing press could make far more copies of his books in far less time, and without all the cramped hands. Albrith had turned her suddenly to face him, his cold eyes looking deep into hers; she had feared he would work a sorcery upon her in angry response. Instead, with a subtle smile and a voice stern but not unkind, Albrith had merely stated, “There are some books that ought to be difficult to share.”

As he entered, Amaric made no sound but nodded respectfully to his master’s servant, receiving a warm smile in return as Throld emerged for a brief respite before diving back into his work.

From a pouch at his belt Amaric drew a piece of folded parchment, stretching it open for review. Upon the skin he and Emryn had listed the names of known conjurers whose notes, journals or publications might contain a specific formula for the conjuration of a spirit. He searched, aimlessly at first, for texts written by someone on his list. Many of the works had no information on their spines or covers, forcing him to search book by book, pulling each delicately from its place, careful not to disturb is neighbors, blowing free the accumulated dust and slowly opening each in hope of success. Only the smell of old vellum and leather, sneezes and the brief excitement of opening old tomes that threatened to crumble in his hands rewarded him.

Amaric had often wondered why Albrith had not organized his library like those in Asterfaen; this search brought him understanding: the chaos provided a defense against something the master wished to remain occulted. No locks, no chains, only the more effective defense of drudgery protected the most important works. Unless some enchantment lay upon the library. Amaric dared not test this possibility—the magus had told them of protective ensorcelments that alerted their creator when prodded with the slightest amount of thaumaturgical Power.

After several hours of searching the shelves and cabinets, the deep, rich scent of hawthorn and wine indicated the presence of someone behind Amaric just before a hand fell upon his shoulder, firm but not aggressive. He turned to see Throld smiling at him. “On one of Albrith’s goose chases, eh? You’re not the first set of apprentices he’s condemned to such.”

“Yep,” Amaric replied, staring bashfully at his toes, his hand slightly outstretched and holding his list. “We’re to find anything by any of these people.”

Throld looked over the list, adjusting the hinged spectacles that clung to his broad nose. “Hmm. Yes, this one.” He pointed to a name on the list, one “Cadessia eld Caithra”. “I seem to remember copying something out of this one a few months ago, but—” he dropped off.

Amaric cocked his head to the side by way of response, the way a curious puppy might.

“Not a book for apprentices, I’m afraid.”

“What does that mean, Throld?”

“Young master Amaric—”

“Please don’t call me ‘master’, Throld.”

“Yes, sorry, Amaric. What I mean to say is that this particular tome is full of what the Magus would call ‘dangerous knowledge.’”

“Can you elaborate?”

“Suffice to say that Lady eld Caithra met an unfortunate end.”

“How unfortunate?”

“Fates worse than death.” It was a favorite of Albrith’s phrases when warning his students about the dangers of well-practiced thaumaturgy, much less careless sorcery or magic. Albrith never offered specific examples of fates worse than death, but the nature of their discussions of metaphysics gave Amaric much to imagine, none of it remotely pleasant.

“So you won’t help me find it?”

“No, my friend. I cannot. I would suffer a fate worse than death at the Magus’ hands if I did,” Throld said, no exaggeration in his voice, only the statement of fact.

“I understand, Throld. Thanks for the warning.”

Throld made a face that was as much a frown as a smile before returning to his copyist’s table—the kind of expression that desperately wanted to be one thing but could not help but be something entirely different.

Amaric smirked slyly at Throld’s back; he had just what he needed. Within the hour, he held in his hands a copy of Cadessia eld Caithra’s A Practical Guide to Deep Conjury, including detailed descriptions of many spirits. Not merely a casual and oblique reference to her conjury, a textbook.

Flipping through the pages made his head throb and spin. Complex diagrams and charts surrounded by tightly scribbled text danced before his vision as the pages spun from front to back. As they turned, they revealed unpleasant pictures of many things, things to which Albrith had alluded in his lessons or things about which Amaric had heard songs, legends and rumors back in his village.

He closed the book decisively, the thump of the pages slamming together echoing loudly through the library; Amaric cringed. He looked over the railing of the balcony toward the scrivener’s station and found Throld dutifully scribbling away. He held the book in one hand and began to make small gestures with the other, whispering words as he drew Power and formed the working. In a short moment, the book disappeared—in its place, a bundle of loose papers. So disguised, he walked nonchalantly past the scribe and through the door.

 

*          *          *

 

Amaric set the book down on the grand table. Within seconds, Emryn’s fingers were on both his shoulders, her cheek pressed against his, the wisps of her loose hairs tickling the back of his neck, her body swelling against his back with each breath, almond perfume in his nostrils.

“What’d you find?”

“Cadessia eld Caithra’s Practical Guide to Deep Conjury.”

“Oooh, how’d you find that?”

“Throld told me he’d made a copy not long back, so I just looked for books without so much dust on them. Came across it eventually. But, Emryn, this isn’t a good idea.”

“Explain.”

“There are true names and seals in here to be sure, but for nothing good. There’s nothing remotely safe in this book. Only beings from the Abyss.”

“Hmmm,” she said, to herself more than him. “Could we find something else, maybe?”

“I’m not sure there is anything else.”

“You don’t think the magus has more books with the names and seals of spirits? Surely he does.”

“I don’t doubt that, but I don’t think they’re in the library.”

“You think he has a secret library?”

“Seems fitting, I suppose. But, even if he does, there’s no way we’re getting into it. It’s gotta have wards and abjurations beyond anything we’ve seen so far.”

“True,” she frowned, conceding the point. “Mind if I spend some time looking in the library? Just in case there is something else?” She pecked his cheek as punctuation, an indication she meant no offense.

“I don’t mind. What did you end up with?”

“Salt, chalk, sage, athad dust, summerbride, beggar’s buttons.”

“All useful things for conjury. So, what’s the plan now?”

“I’ll check the library for alternatives; you study Lady eld Caithra’s book here to determine whether there is anything in there that we could reasonably summon. I know you’re concerned, so I’ll leave that judgment to you.”

 

*          *          *

 

Archmagus Albrith sat tentatively against one of the stone planters in the garden as he spoke softly and gracefully, his voice lilting as he expounded upon the arcane, the only indication of his passion and excitement for the subject emanating from his wizened and tired frame. A long wild beard masked the many creases and folds of the lower half of his face, drawing Amaric and Emryn to look him in the eyes as he spoke. Those eyes. They flashed with acuity, twinkled with delight in instruction, but also maintained a somberness that belied the serious demeanor with which Albrith always lectured.

“And so, today, my apprentices, we discuss the Law of the Soul and its pertinence to the magus. I trust you have finished chapter fourteen of Decambion’s Essence and Ephemera: A Book of the Law. Amaric, tell me, what is the Law of the Soul?”

“Yes, archmagus,” he said, the formality meant more to purchase time to formulate his answer than to show respect. “Um, the Law of the Soul postulates that no working can ultimately change the soul of any creature; that is, it’s True Self.”

“And from whence does the Law derive?”

“It’s a consequence of the Law of Essence, archmagus, which states that, though the existential aspects of a thing might be altered through an arcane working, the essence of that thing may not be.”

“Why, then, has your fellow apprentice Emryn proved able to change her appearance permanently, as I find you so often noticing?”

“I, uh—the appearance of her body is an existential aspect and not an essential aspect of her being.”

“Is it? Are her body and soul the same? The practice of conjury would prove otherwise, would it not?” An unfair question—Albrith had rarely mentioned conjury before, much less taught them anything of it.

“It would, archmagus.”

“Would it? Why?”

Emryn stepped in to assist. “Because the existence of disembodied spirits indicates that a material body and a spiritual self are not the same.”

Albrith’s eyes flashed as he turned his gaze to her. Not with anger, but with a kind of joy at the game they played. “Are you the same thing as a spirit or a demon, that what is true of them might be true also of you?”

“Not necessarily,” Amaric interjected. The two apprentices had become accustomed to working together to navigate Albrith’s mysteries, one buying time for the other. “But a working like Emryn performed required a sacrifice of sorts to maintain it. This requirement seems to indicate a need for maintenance of the effect, so the essence of her body is resisting the existential change to its appearance. If her body has an essence separate from her soul, then the two must logically be separate entities.”

The archmagus smiled. “Why does this matter?”

Neither spoke. They fumbled for the answer he sought amongst so many possible responses. While waiting, the archmage drew a pipe from a pouch at his belt, tamped a pinch of pipegrass within it, and snapped his fingers near the bowl of the pipe to produce the first wisp of smoke. A faint glow emanated from the pipe as he drew his first breath from it, allowing the silence to expand and fill the entire void around them.

Dressed in modest robes, Albrith could have easily been mistaken for a village cunning man rather than a full archmagus of the Thaumaturgical Conclave. Even the lower-ranked magi of the Conclave tended to dress in a fashion that made clear the importance of their position and profession. Neither Amaric nor Emryn understood the point of Albrith’s sartorial humility, though they often speculated.

“First,” Ablrith said finally, “it means that all the Art in the Avar will not change a person’s soul from what it is, not for long at least. You may fool a person with illusions of perception, you may force their body to act against their will, you may even influence their emotions for a time, but you will not change who they are. Only a soul can change its own essence in any permanent manner, and this without the Art. The theological implications of this may be discussed with the learned men of the Temple some time; it is not my concern.

“Second—since we’re discussing conjury—the disembodied spirit, for purposes of this discussion, at least, is the same as a soul when it comes to the Laws of Soul and Essence. You may capture a spirit, you may bind it to your service, but you will not change what it is. You can no more change an elemental of water into an elemental of fire than you can yourself become either. A demon is always a demon, and it will seek to ruin you even as it serves you. Note well that I say ‘ruin’ and not ‘destroy’ as the common folk would suggest. The Law of the Soul prevents a demon from truly destroying you just as it prevents you from destroying it. But there are many things a demon may do with a soul in its thrall that do not infringe upon the Law of Essence. This. This is why I tell you that there are fates worse than death.

“When you understand this, only then are you ready to become a magus.”

 

*          *          *

 

Another week passed before they broached the subject again; Emryn spending her evenings methodically sweeping the library and Amaric comparing Deep Conjury to the works Emryn had first collected for them. When together during that time, they focused either on the work Albrith had assigned them or on their more amorous passions.

Emryn began the long-awaited conference. “Well, Amaric, what’d you find?”

“You first, Em.”

“I found…nothing. A lot of nothing. I think you’re right; whatever else Albrith has that might be of use to us isn’t in the library. Which makes it important what you’ve decided.”

“Have you ever read the Conclave laws?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“They have some pretty specific things to say about the summoning of Abyssal spirits. As in ‘Don’t. Or else.’”

“No, I haven’t read them.”

“The penalties severe, to say the least. They’re severe to prevent exactly the kind of thing we’re thinking about doing.”

“Lot of good they’re doing, huh?” she smiled mischievously. “Besides, we’re not subject to Conclave law. As apprentices, we’re not full thaumaturges subject to the Conclave, but neither are we unlicensed practitioners—we’re under the tutelage of a magus. Albrith is the complete authority over us, and the Conclave stands behind him. Whatever he says goes for us. He’s spent two years training us already, you think he’d just give that up because we did some experimenting? Especially given some of the things we’ve heard about his youth?”

Amaric looked to his feet, but they had no guidance for him. She was right, of course, but after hearing what Throld had said he lacked Emryn’s confidence in Albrith’s leniency. He pressed a new argument: “The stuff in this book, it makes my head spin just to look at it. We know a bit of theory and some parlor tricks; this is way beyond us.”

“You remember when I…changed?”

Amaric’s face indicated the foolishness of asking the question at all. “Of course I do. Albrith made you clean and organize the alchemy laboratory for months after that, made you read the dullest books and write about them for pages, made you spend all of your free time tending the plants in the garden.”

“But he didn’t make me change back,” she said, triumphant. “He was proud, I think, to have so apt a pupil. Our lessons became more complex after that.”

“Yes, Em, but—”

“You’re welcome. Maybe we ought to think of this the same way. Maybe Archmagus Albrith is waiting for us to prove that we’re ready for more.”

She had a point. Albrith had proved a demanding master, one who expected his apprentices to prove themselves without his holding their hands. They saw him only a few hours each morning, when he lectured them or asked them questions until he found the point at which they could no longer make reasonable answer. Assignments for reading or for practice followed. This routine was punctuated by the days on which Albrith guided them through the performance of workings, demanding strict adherence to his teachings and perfection of form—on these days they worked from sun-up until exhaustion. There had been few of days of practical exercises in the last month, far fewer than they had become accustomed, and it did seem that Albrith was waiting for something. For what, exactly, Amaric had no idea.

“So?” Emryn asked, expectantly.

His nerves welled up within him. He had something to prove now, to Albrith, to Emryn. There was no turning back.

“Balsephon,” he said, shocked himself that the name had come from his lips.

“Who, now?” Emryn blurted.

“Balsephon. Eld Caithra puts him low in the Abyssal hierarchy, so we have as good a chance of binding him as we’re going to get.”

“A demon? Whatever happened to a lesser spirit, an Avaradh or something like that? Something that’s not dangerous.”

“There’s nothing in here about them, it’s all about Abyssal beings. It is the Deep Conjury after all.”

“And it’s why Eld Caithra suffered a fate worse than death!”

“Emryn, you’re the one who wanted to do this in the first place!”

“But not a demon!”

“Did you find anything else we could try?”

“No. Apparently that’s the only grimoire in the whole library with information on specific spirits.”

“You said yourself you thought this was a test. That adds up, then.”

“You think Albrith wants us to conjure something from this book?”

Amaric paused. “I don’t know. It sounds crazy when you say it.”

“Well, what do you think?” Emryn said, resting her head on her hands as she leaned against the heavy table.

“What do you think?” Amaric repeated.

“I asked you first. Besides, this was supposed to be your decision, remember?”

“Let’s do it, then.”

“Really?”

“You don’t want to?”

“I didn’t say that. I just didn’t expect you to.”

 

*          *          *

 

Preparation began with the drawing of the ritual space, a set of circles within and around which were arranged arcane symbols of power and protection. Amaric had the steadier hand, so Emryn held the grimoire and guided his movements while he carefully applied chalk and vermillion to the stone floor in imitation of the patterns described by eld Caithra. On several occasions, Emryn caused him to stop, to erase what he had drawn and to start again, demanding an exact replication of the designs drawn by their guide.

When at last they completed the circle, they followed by preparing a ritual triangle in which to summon their spirit, proceeding in the same manner, inscribing the triangle with Balsephon’s sigil. Before they moved on, Amaric remembered a warding he had come across in their research; he had drawn the runes on scraps from the library and hung them on each wall and the study’s door, a final protection in case their working failed utterly—a protection not for the two of them, but for the rest of the world. They wanted to be responsible, at least. Amaric summoned and bound Power into the runes, leaving them dormant until they became necessary, which he hoped would not be the case at all.

The two added athad dust to the lamps, revealing the contours of the Veil without the use of the Sight, burnt sage in a brazier to dampen the spirit’s power, chewed summerbride to clear their minds. They sat for a time in silence with their eyes closed, holding hands, centering themselves. Or, trying at least, Amaric found himself distracted by the smell of her, the soft sound of her breathing, every ridge and valley of her hands. He thought of other nights when they had diverted themselves from study, of the fun they’d had together, when they’d talking about their lives before coming to Albrith’s manor or tangled themselves in the lustful passions of the young.

“Ready?” Emryn asked.

“Huh, um, yeah,” Amaric returned, shaking his head clear of its musings, feeling his center a little off-center.

She leaned forward and kissed him, a long kiss, meant to calm rather than to incite passion. Then she led him by the hand and they stepped into the circle delicately, taking great pains not to disturb any of the drawings. Together, they drew Power into the circle, slowly so as not to fumble their working with an excess of Flux from its very inception. When they could feel the comforting buzz of the protective circle, they set to the real task.

They moved about within the circle, incanting together the words of conjuration, feeling the air become heavy with Power, the room around them seeming to shift and bend, reluctantly flexing to make room for some foreign intrusion, the lamps flickering irregularly, as if the very air of the study had changed. They continued until memory threatened to fade, leaving one to misspeak a protective word or to forget a binding command. Time fled from all perception, or at least became irrelevant. Amaric began to wonder whether they had botched the whole thing.

Suddenly a noise echoed at the limits of consciousness, a sound like a curtain tearing. Within the triangle slowly rose an irregular mist, condensing into a fog before becoming a pillar of thick smoke, illuminated from within by sudden red flashes, as a storm cloud by lightning, revealing an obscured face in the midst of the plumes, malevolent and haughty; a demon.

Amaric thought he could make out shifting forms throughout the smog, miniature bodies twisting and writhing in agony as they flew tornado-like about the face within the smoke. The souls of those who had bargained with the thing or merely an illusion?

The demon did not speak. It waited, watching with unblinking eyes and a mouth that seemed to curl impossibly on both sides into a knowing and self-satisfied sneer. Amaric looked nervously to Emryn, hoping he had obfuscated his anxiety from the summoned spirit. Before either of them could say anything, a voice intruded upon Amaric’s mind, seeming to well up from within rather than spoken aloud. The voice whispered loudly, a sibilant and raspy sound that pulled at the nerves like a dull headache: Astavaten ghastoleem pertar. Saaberis tusumel.

“What?” Amaric asked in a voice too loud for the heavy silence within the room.

“I didn’t say anything,” Emryn responded.

“You don’t hear that?”

“What do you hear? Is it talking to you?”

“I think so.”

“What is it saying?”

“I don’t know, I can’t understand it.”

“Is it speaking Vessewar?”

“Probably.”

Pity, the whispering replied in Amaric’s head. I thought I might have been summoned by someone with real power to exchange for my services. Seems I’ve been called by too-clever children, hmm? Fortunately for you, I speak Ealthebad well enough.

Emryn’s face twitched, her eyes becoming large as she swung them back to the demon-smoke, pricking up her ears, her left hand tugging aimlessly at the braid in her dark hair. “It can’t hurt us while it’s in its space and we’re in ours,” she said in a whisper directed at no one.

The face in the smoke seemed to grin further, into absurdity, upon hearing her words.

“Normally,” it said, this time the voice coming from the manifestation before the apprentices and then echoing from within their minds, “I don’t like to be disturbed without getting something for my trouble. You’ve used the stick when you should have used the honey, hmm?”

After a pause to let the last syllable float in the air awhile, the demon continued. “I suppose I could make you decide between yourselves who I should take and who I should spare. That would be mildly entertaining, at least.” At this, the purgatorial spirits circulating the edges of the swirling cloud seemed to open their mouths at once, a cacophony of distant screams erupting from the multitude of orifices.

“You have no power over us,” Amaric said.

“No, young one? Would you care to wager on that?”

“You’re a liar.”

“Yes, I am. But not always. Do you think your drawings in the mud will protect you from the likes of me? You are my playthings; it cannot be the other way around, hmm?”

Emryn stepped forward within the circle, her face set in determination. “Balsephon, I bind you by the Name of the One, by Their servants the Eradhai, and by the Power of Creation. I call you by name and bind you to my service, that you may do no harm but only that which I command.”

The demon’s expression changed at the sound of the name. The cloud of red lightning condensed into the shape of a man, pale with dark hair, naked and handsome. The man’s face wore a mask of fear; he knelt within the triangle and clasped his hands together. “Please, no, mistress. Let me go back to my dwelling-place and I shall leave you in perfect peace. But do not bind me to service, do not make me your slave!”

A grin curled at the edge of Emryn’s mouth, her confidence complete. Amaric let out a sigh of relief and Emryn repeated the words of binding.

“Mistress, no! I can show you such wondrous secrets, give you such power, if you will but let me go!”

She spoke the binding a third time and there sounded a crack like thunder. The demon-man began to float in the air, arms and legs pulled back as if bound by invisible chains. He tried to cry out, but his voice was stopped by unseen force.

“Balsephon, I permit you to speak,” Emryn said.

“What shall I do for you, mistress?” the demon’s voice rasped. “Shall I show you the pleasures of the Beyond that are unknown in this world? Teach you thaumaturgies that have not been practiced in the Avar in centuries? Spy on your enemies?”

“No, Balsephon, you shall dance for me.”

Once she spoke the words, the spirit returned his feet to the floor, moving them with infernal speed in a jig of sorts, his face contorted with displeasure that made it clear he could do naught but obey. Emryn laughed. “You may stop,” she giggled. The spirit floated again, moored to the ground as a tethered airship.

“What shall we do next?” she asked Amaric.

“Let him go. We’ve done what set to do. Let’s not push our luck.”

“It’s perfectly fine, don’t you see.” She turned back to the demon. “If I let you go, do you promise that you will seek no revenge upon us, no matter the opportunity?”

“Yes,” the spirit let out in a long, soft groan.

“Do you swear it?”

“Yes.”

With that, Emryn stepped through the protective circle, its power collapsing in on itself and leaving only the thrum of the demon’s presence as a disturbance in the still air.

As she moved toward the demon, it returned again to her feet. She hesitated for a moment, and the pale man grinned at her. “But I have bound you by name!” she said, terror rising in her voice.

Amaric opened his mouth to yell a warning, but it was too late. The demon moved to Emryn with devastating speed, wrapping her in his arms and pressing his mouth to hers in a lascivious and obscene kiss. As their lips met, the demon’s form began to blur, and then to shift, to become smoky again; her mouth drew the foul smoke into her until she was left standing alone. But it was not her.

“Yes,” said the demon’s voice from within Emryn’s body, her eyes now ablaze and no longer her own. “Let’s do play the game I mentioned.”

“But you swore,” Amaric pleaded.

“I told you I am a liar,” the demon sighed, Emryn’s face twisting with delight.

“What game?”

“The one where the two of you decide who lives and who dies, hmm?” At this, arcs of red lightning began to crackle at Emryn’s fingertips and she rose from the ground, her legs hanging limply beneath her.

Though he would regret it for the rest of his life, Amaric did what all sense within him told him to do; he ran. Quick as he could, he turned for the door to the study, opened it just wide enough to squeeze his thin body through, and pulled it shut behind him, uttering the words to activate the dormant warding. The sound of sizzling lightning and thunder crashed against the ward just as it formed; a thumping at the door followed.

“Amaric? Amaric help me!” came Emryn’s voice from within. The young apprentice put his hand back to the door but resolved himself not to open it and break the ward he had created.

 

*          *          *

 

He ran, sprinted, through the cold hallways of the manor to Albrith’s apartments. He shouldered into the door without knocking, finding it unlocked and barely latched; the wooden door slammed into the wall with a crash.

Albrith sat in a chair facing the door, smoking his pipe. His expression lacked all surprise; his eyes brimmed with expectation.

“It has not gone well, I take it,” Albrith inquired as if asking about the weather. The old archmagus stroked his short grey beard as he spoke.

“Y-you knew?” Amaric mumbled.

“Of course I knew, boy. What kind of negligent master do you think me to be?” There was no anger in his voice; he spoke calmly and flatly. Amaric would have preferred yelling. The soft voice threw him off his guard and made him fumble for understanding. “Your ward is holding; that is good. A fortunate thing you are clever. But now, how do we go about resolving this tragedy?”

“A lesson?” Amaric began, his face scrunched up in bewilderment. He flashed with anger. A LESSON!”

“Calm yourself, boy, you have much work to do and not much time to do it in. That ward will not hold forever.”

Amaric felt a wave pass over him and his rage subsided. The magus had used a subtle sorcery to calm him. He wanted to be angry about it but could not muster the emotion.

“Tell me what happened. Every detail. Leave nothing out,” Albrith commanded.

The apprentice did as bidden.

“So what went wrong, Amaric?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do. Think.”

“We made a mistake in drawing the circle,” the apprentice chanced.

“But the demon did not make his move until Emryn stepped out of the circle.”

“Then the binding failed?”

“Good. Why? Speak the words Emryn used, exactly as she used them.”

Amaric tried to match the intonation and rhythm of Emryn’s words as he uttered them: “Balsephon, I bind you by the Name of the One, by Their servants the Eradhai, and by the Power of Creation. I call you by name and bind you to my service, that you may do no harm but only that which I command.”

“The words are good. What went wrong?”

“Something about the name.”

“Yes, Amaric. Good. What about the name?”

“She said it wrong. It’s not enough to simply say the spirit’s name, it must be pronounced true.”

“That is true. But the name was said well.”

Amaric thought for a moment, his nerves calmed but the evening’s events still racing distractingly through his mind. He searched for some clue. Finally, he spoke.

“It’s not Balsephon.”

Albrith smiled and puffed from his pipe. “Very good. There is some hope for you yet. How can we know this for sure?”

“I don’t know.”

“The spirit is trapped within the warding of your study, yes?”

“Yes.”

“And a manifested spirit cannot be two places at once, yes?”

“Yes.”

“So?”

Amaric said the words slowly, buying time as he tried to think on them before saying them. “We try to summon Balsephon somewhere else. If the demon in the ward is Balsephon, he will not appear when summoned. If it is not Balsephon, then he will appear when properly conjured.”

“Precisely, boy. And now it is time you witness a proper conjuration. Come.” Albrith rose from his chair.

“But what about Emryn?”

“We will discuss Emryn when we know who we’re dealing with. Be patient.”

 

*          *          *

 

Albrith’s ritual room connected to his apartments, a large space with high-vaulted ceilings and a large two-story window at the far end of the room, pointed East. There were no chalk drawings here; Albrith’s protective circle had been inlaid into the stone, made of gold, copper, silver and other metals Amaric could not readily identify. A private library of grimoires occupied the room’s southwest corner, while the northern wall held shelves of reagents, magical tools, and shallow stone slabs inlaid similarly to those on the floor. Amaric looked again to the protective circle and saw that the tiles were interchangeable—a sort of arcane moveable type. Albrith had already laid out the tiles to match the designs that Amaric had drawn by hand.

Near the ritual circle stood a small lectern on which on open book displayed the pages of eld Caithra’s notes on Balsephon in young ink, the pages and binding still fresh and new. Everything lay ready.

“Step into the circle, boy.” Albrith ordered. “You will do nothing; you will say nothing. You will watch. And learn.”

He did exactly that. Albrith never even looked at the grimoire; he had committed the entirety of the ritual to memory. His movements were precise and subtle, his words exquisitely formed, intoxicating in their rhythm and timbre. Again Amaric lost track of time, but this time Albrith’s mastery of technique and not his own exertion caused the effect.

A form appeared in the summoning triangle, as if raised to the stage from a lift below. Amaric shuddered to look upon the thing before him, a blasphemous contortion of bodies both human and animal in an amorphous conglomerate. Briefly, Amaric pitied the creature, but his fury at Emryn’s condition quickly pushed aside any sympathy. As if sensing the emotions, Albrith held his hand behind him as if to silence Amaric before he even began.

Albrith said the words of binding in quick succession—still beautiful in their performance but marked by a cold efficiency that flows from dispassionate determination. There was no melodrama this time, the demon simply cocked its head in response to the words.

With a wave of his hand, Albrith released the power of the summoning triangle, but Amaric could still feel the protective circle like a warm blanket on a cold night. The spirit did not move; it stood blinking at Albrith in motionless expectation.

“Speak your name true, demon,” Albrith admonished.

“I am called Balsephon, magus. But you already know that, for you have bound me by that name.”

“Indeed. Now begone from me.” The old magus waived his hand dismissively as a king or a rich man might do. The demon shrank into nothingness and the circle of protection dissipated as well. “As we suspected…”

“Now what, master?”

“Since we do not know the spirit’s name, we cannot bind it. We must instead banish it.”

“How do we do that?”

“A demon who has the power possesses a mortal to gain protection from banishment—while the spirit occupies Emryn’s body, we cannot remove him from the Avar.”

“And how do we get him out of Emryn’s body?”

“We destroy it.”

“What? No!”

Albrith grabbed his apprentice by the shoulder and stared into his eyes. “There is no other way, boy. Emryn is already gone; a demon such as this will not share flesh with another spirit. Look at me, Amaric! What is done is done. You have made a mistake and it has cost Emryn dearly. You must do what you can to make it right. Who else might suffer if the demon is allowed to roam free?”

“You do it, master. I cannot.”

“You can and you will. This shall be done by the two of us together or not at all.” With that, Albrith walked to the northern wall and pulled a long, thin blade from one of the shelves. He pushed it into his apprentice’s hand, delicately seizing the blade with three fingers and pulling Amaric’s arm forward into a thrust. “Through the heart, boy. You will make it quick.”

 

*          *          *

 

Amaric rushed into the study behind Albrith, who entered with staff readied, a shimmering sorcerous shield raised before them. Emryn floated several feet above the ground, slinging ruby lightning and laughing as master and apprentice barged in.

The apprentice cringed behind the shield with each burst of energy that cracked against it; he had never witnessed such raw sorcery before. He quickly decided that he would not mind if he never did again.

Albrith went to the offensive, sending a long gout of blue fire at the Emryn’s body. The lights flickered and died, leaving the flames to illuminate the darkened room. The demon seemed to push the flames away from itself as if by raw will, but the magus slammed his staff to the floor and the apprentice’s body fell to the ground with a thud. “Go,” Albrith whispered to his apprentice.

Feeling again the dulling of his emotions by Albrith’s sorceries, Amaric pressed forward, the fear welling within his stomach but confined to a bodily discomfort rather than a mind-crushing force. As he neared Emryn her body lifted into the air again, not high, her toes dragging the ground.

A dull halo surrounded her now, pink or red. Amaric pulled back the blade, but when he met her eyes he found not the raging flames he had seen before but the deep blue pools in which he had so often lost himself. “Please…no…Amaric,” came Emryn’s voice, her eyes beginning to water, a tear running down her beautiful cheek.

He hesitated. “Destroy it!” came Albrith’s command from behind him. He loosened and tightened his fingers on the blade, wondering why the demon had not attacked him.

Emryn continued to stare at him through the flickering light of Albrith’s sorceries. She was in there, somewhere. Albrith was wrong; Amaric knew it. He turned to look at Albrith. “I—”

“Now!”

When he turned back to his companion of these two past years, he saw her true. Not as the young woman who had crafted herself with the Power, but the lovely plainness she had arrived with. Tears streamed down her cheeks now, and he found that they ran down his face as well.

“Please!” she sobbed.

But Amaric opened his eyes with the Sight, and he could see only the demon within Emryn’s body. He screamed in pain and rage and fear, thrusting the blade into her chest. It slid in with a sickening ease, as if he were only sheathing it. Red blossomed across her dress as he pushed the blade to the hilt. Still yelling, he pushed the body off of the sword with his left hand, watching Emryn’s eyes go wide and flash with red flames before her body crumpled, the demon rising out of it.

“Get out of the way!” shouted Albrith behind him.

Amaric leapt to the side as the spirit slashed at him with long talons. He hit the stone floor hard, knocking the breath out of him. Rolling over, he looked back to the demon and his master, now locked in deadly combat.

Albrith kept the pale man at bay with his staff, all the while speaking the harsh words of Vessewar. The demon tried to keep pace, incanting black words of his own, but Albrith was too precise, too focused, too practiced. The pale man changed back into the flashing, malevolent face within the dark cloud, surrounded by the miniature spirit-bodies caught within the storm. Just before it disappeared altogether, Amaric thought he saw Emryn among those pour souls, screaming and writhing alongside them. He screamed again, feeling the pain of the sight throughout his whole being.

And then it was over. Albrith, sweating and fatigued, came to his apprentice and offered his hand, helping him up from the stones. “What have you learned?”

Amaric wiped the tears from his face, but they did not stop. He stared blankly at his master, incredulous. “But, Emryn—”

“We will speak of Emryn no more. You will not have time to mourn her. Tomorrow our work begins in earnest. What have you learned?”

“I’ve learned that I don’t want to be a thaumaturge anymore,” the apprentice gasped between sobs.

“Then you are ready to be one. Now you respect the Power and what it means to meddle in things you do not understand. I can safely teach you what wielding the Power truly means. I am sorry the cost has proved so dear.”

“Bastard!” Amaric spat.

“I am, but the Power is a harsher master than I; I will not have you wielding it unprepared. I will have Throld bring you something to help you sleep. Give him Lady eld Caithra’s book when he comes. We begin at sunrise, which is not far off.” With that, Albrith left unceremoniously.

As long as he lived, this night would weigh heavy upon him, the guilt of it a thorn over which the skin had already healed and that could not be pulled free. But Emryn, he feared, would suffer far worse. For both of them, a fate worse than death.

 

Kenning

(So I’ve been promising for some time that I’d post some short stories set in Avar Narn on the blog. Well, I’ve been slow in the writing and even slower in the editing of those more “official” stories and they’re still likely a short ways off. So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to publish the short short story below, written rough and mostly to shake the dust off, edited only slightly, and on the lighter/sillier side of things. )

“Tardarse? Why do they call him that?” Hrogar asked.

Ranald grinned. “We took on Vix when he was just a lad. His parents had fallen on hard times and we got him cheap—mother needed to keep her forge going or some shite like that. Anyway, he’d done what growing up he’d done learning to pound steel, so he had a fair bit of muscle on his scrawny frame. The boys and I figured we needed a porter and someone to tend the campsite, polish the armor, do all the shite we’d grown tired of, yeah?

“He’d been with us about a year; must’ve been about fifteen or so, and he’d fallen in just fine with the Ravens. So there we were in the west of Eldane, just about to set out on an expedition for one of the Houses toward some place o’ death and fortune; I forget which.

“It was uncharacteristically hot for the start of the campaigning season, so we hadn’t made it too far trekking that day, loaded down with our baggage train as we were. Exhaustion fell on us all and we stumbled about like shamblers as we made camp. No one talks about what shite adventuring is, a lot of discomfort and boredom punctuated by sudden terror.

“In the small hours of the morning, a facking orcene wanders into the camp, stirred I guess by the warm night air and its own hunger. Filthy facker it was, skin grey and scabrous, hair matted and mottled, coated in a layer of shite and mud, fungus growing in the creases of its gluttonous form like it had been some boulder sitting in one of valleys of the hill-country. Half again as tall as a man, and its dark eyes flashed with hatred for all things civilized and human, hungry to destroy, defile and devour.

“Apparently Marten, who’d been supposed to be on watch at that time, had fallen asleep at his post. Only embers glowed in the fire pit we’d dug and we awoke to the sounds of the monster ripping apart one of our horses with its bare hands. It’s hard to think with the screams of a dying horse filling your ears, but me and the boys have been through worse shite than that and, groggy as we were, it weren’t long before we were unsheathing swords and yelling to each other in our battle-tongue, preparing a concerted counter-attack.

“So I take a peek out of the flap of my tent, and sure enough, there’s the facking thing starting to come into the camp proper, dragging Marten by the foot. Now he’s screaming along with the damned horse and it’s getting harder to hear me mates as we form a strategy. I see our patron look out of his tent. As soon as he sees the orcene he starts facking screaming, too, like he were a little girl and you’d just ripped his dolly from his hands.

“Course, this gets the beast’s attention and it wheels around, leaving Marten and moving towards the patron. I’m just about to call the boys to attack when out facking rushes Vix from his tent, naked as the day he was born, screaming at the top of his lungs. I guess he’d taken his clothes off to sleep in the heat, but he looked like one of the wild folk on a raid into a mountain village, on the warpath to rape and pillage.

“The only thing he’s got in his hands is a wooden practice sword we’d been training him with. Bravest, stupidest thing I ever saw. So now Vix is charging the orcene and it turns to face him with a look of shock and confusion. He brings the waster down on the beast’s knee, breaking the wooden weapon and sending splinters everywhere. I hear some of the boys start laughing, and can’t help but do the same—it’s the strangest thing, this naked boy screaming like some blood-crazed berserker, the monster yelling back in sheer disbelief and the sword-stick still coming up and down like an ax, like Vix is trying to chop down the tree of the monster’s leg. Only it’s not really that funny, because we’re about to watch this boy die.

“The orcene raises its hands to smash Vix, and I’m sure I’m about to watch the boy’s head explode like a jar of jam. But Vix takes the opening and facking swings the fragment of the wooden sword in a rising strike at the creature’s groin. There’s a sickening splunch as the stick connects with the beast’s stones. As one, the men of the Company grunted in sympathy; enemies though we were, no man wishes such a wound on another.

“Like he’s some facking dancer in a mummery, Vix rolls between the thing’s legs before it brings its hands down to its wounded manhood. Now it’s screaming louder than the horses or any of us, doubled over and clutching at itself as you or I would do in its place.

“And Vix, this look of grim determination on his face, like he’s never facking heard of that thing called fear, walks his way back around to the front of the beast while it’s distracted and proceeds to stab the facker in the face with the stub of the wooden sword, spraying blood and ichor across him as he destroys the thing’s eyes.

“The orcene’s unsure whether to protect its manhood or its face, and I swear the thing’s sobbing to itself. Now it’s the one who’s scared, and Vix is going about his business like he’s facking saddling the horses, taking his time and—ask the boys—humming to himself. He walks over to me tent and picks up a spear I’d leaned against a nearby tree. He’s still buck naked, mind you, and he looks up at me, surprised to see a human face. The shock of the recognition drains the calm from him and he starts to shake as his nerves take hold.

“‘Finish it, boy,’ I tell him.

“Still shaking, he readies the spear in both hands and charges the orcene, jumping at the last moment and bearing the spear in a downward arc that pierces the monster’s neck, driving the facker onto its back and pinning it to the Avar. There’s a fountain of blood spews up from the wound and covers the boy, and now he really looks like one of the wild folk all painted up on a raid from the mountains.

“The boys and I come out of the tents hooting and clapping and carrying on like we’d just seen a show in an Altaenin brothel. Apparently, this scares Vix and he lets out a shrill scream as he turns to see us. This scares him after he’s brutally and efficiently skewered a monster that by rights could have given us all a good fight. Now he’s trying to cover his manhood with his hands, like he’s some virginal maid we’ve come upon bathing. He’s got this stupid look on his face like he’s done something wrong and he’s about to get whipped for it.

“Marten wraps an old cloak around him and hands him a mug of ale. ‘Faaaaaack. Stupidest thing I ever saw,’ Marten’s telling him, ‘that thing could’ve smashed you to bits. What in the Abyss drove you to such a thing?’

“‘I—I thought you was all dead,’ Vix stutters. ‘I’s angry is all, I guess.’

“‘Tardarse,’ Greygan says, smiling. ‘But better stupid than good, I ‘spose.’

“And it stuck. We all called him Tardarse from that point on, and he was one of us. Not some porter or servant boy we brought along to ease the hardship of travel, but a man of the Company. A Raven. It wasn’t the last stupidly brave thing I’ve seen him do and survive, neither. There’s good Wyrgeas on that one. Got to be, as much trouble as he gets himself into and finds a way out again.”