Things Unseen (Working Title) Excerpt, Chapter 18

Friday, I posted some of my thoughts on the UMC “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” My position has apparently ruffled some feathers, called some trolls out of the woodwork and brought a number of unexpected readers to my little blog. None of that is unexpected nor terribly troubling–although I find little value in spending time debating those who feel a need to start (and then try to “win”) an argument with me. More important, I very much appreciate the thoughts of anyone who’s taken the time to read my take on the subject, whether or not they agree with it (given the situation that has given rise to the Protocol in the first place, it would be foolish indeed for me to expect everyone to share my point of view, nor do I expect to convince everyone of it). I have more to share on the subject, particularly as events continue to unfold in the march toward the UMC 2020 General Conference, but there will be time enough for that and I feel that something altogether different is in order in the meantime.

So, I’m posting an excerpt of a (long) chapter from my novel-in-progress (tentatively called Things Unseen) for your enjoyment (I hope). As I’m continuing to push forward on the novel to complete a first draft before beginning the long process of revision, this excerpt is almost entirely unedited, so pardon my typos and infelicities of language in advance. Without further ado:

Things Unseen, First Draft, Chapter 18

I startled awake as the door to my room swung open, rebounding from the stone wall of my chamber it had been pushed so hard. Aryden, fully dressed and armed, flanked by Savlo and Gamven, entered imperiously.
“Get dressed,” the lord said.
I looked to the window. Dark. The faintest tinge of light peeking around the far edge of the Avar with the promise of a morning still distant in the coming. “Huh?” I managed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
“We’re going hunting.” For his sudden energy, the lord looked like he hadn’t slept during the night, his hair wild and only cursorily brushed into something approximating a tuft of wild weed, wet with dew. He wore a breastplate and tassets, just as Gamven did.  Savlo, though, wore only a simple hunting jerkin, long knife in his belt and a linpiped hood pulled over his head and shoulders.
“Hunting?” I repeated slowly, still in the daze of dreams not yet forgotten.
“Disposing of the people in the Close didn’t work, lord thaumaturge,” Aryden said,the dubiousness of my title fully evident, “so we go to the next possibility, yes?”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Good. Get ready and meet us in the stables.”
As suddenly as they’d entered, the three departed, the door rattling as it slammed home in its frame. Only then did I remember the missing woodsman and the reason for the extemporaneous hunt.
I took little time to ready myself, splashing enough water over my face to gain some modicum of wakefulness, arming myself much as I had for the Close the day previous, but leaving my pistols empty of charge and shot. Before I left, I pulled the drawstring bag of runeshot from my backpack and secured it on my belt. The other foresters had claimed to have seen some unnatural beast, and I thought the shot might prove useful.          The light at the horizon seemed to have moved only imperceptibly as I left the keep for the stables. Outside the building, Aryden and his two trusted retainers sat astride their horses already, not proud and haughty warhorses, but lean and nimble palfreys, suited to the hunt. A recurve bow occupied a wide sheath set against Savlo’s horse’s flank, forward of the saddle. Aryden leaned a wheelock musket over his right shoulder, reins held loosely in the left. Gamven held a light lance aloft, a banner with Aryden’s crest on it flapping in an early breeze. Varro, astride his own mount, waited patiently at the edge of our group, looking the mounts up and down to ensure his satisfaction with them.
Vitella amn Esto stood nearby, back turned to me and dressed in a tight-fitting riding jacket with impressive decolletage and flared at the waist, the tails drawing attention to her hips. A cigarello hung from her lips, the end of it blooming into reddish-orange life whenever she drew upon it, which was frequently as she checked that her horse’s girth and stirrups had been properly configured and tightened. No servant assisted her, which might have been a point of pride or a matter of her family’s diminished wealth—an issue soon to be rectified if the amn Vaini and Valladyni had their way. Like Aryden, she had brought both a single-edged, curved hunting sword and a wheelock musket, the sword hanging from her side and the musket in a sheath near the saddle.
Behind her, Edanu mounted his horse, a jet black destrier he must have brought with him from elsewhere—the kind one might find in the Ealthen Empire or the Tatters but only rarely in Altaena. He had traded his Artificial crossbow for a matchlock musket, perhaps Medryn’s—we’d decided as a group that he ought not recover those bolts expended in the Close, just for good measure. He sat a good deal higher than the others on his beast of a mount, the thing stamping the avar impatiently and snorting derisively at its company.
Part of me had feared that I’d be riding behind on Windborne, chagrined at the poor choice of name and eating dust all day. Fortunately, one of the grooms led another palfrey to me, a brown beauty of Altaenin stock, perhaps not powerful but with a comfortable gait that made long riding tolerable to the ass.
“Iphadrex,” the young man told me, handing me the reins.
A name from a forgotten kingdom, dead and gone long before the rise and fall of Ealthen imperialism. And I thought I could be pretentious.
I mounted the horse, who shifted easily under me, ready but not impetuous, and neither so sluggish as the horse I’d rode in on. With a click of his tongue, Aryden started his mount moving. The rest of us exchanged looks with one another, trying to calculate who had rights to follow closest to our host lord. I motioned for Vitella to pass before me once she’d mounted; she directed her palfrey to a position behind amn Vaina and angled his right, waiving for me to come alongside her on the left. The others formed up behind us so that we made a wedge, like some gallant charge in ages past. Gallant and foolhardy, no doubt. And much slower.
We processed thus through the courtyard, those servants already set to work in the wee hours abandoning their tasks momentarily to watch us pass by with a mix of awe and fear. They’d already heard tales of our misadventures in the Close and certainly some of them would be mourning the absence of Errys and Medryn. Myself, I tried to push them out of my mind for the present, lest distractedness send some of my present company to join them.
Our handsome wedge condensed into a small clot of horses and riders as we passed under the gateway from the inner courtyard to Old Vaina, Edanu falling behind to avoid his horse biting one of the others. Warhorses and their knights have far too much in common—both full of violence and without sense enough to know when it isn’t warranted. That Edanu pretended to such a status surprised me, given his preference for foppish dress and feigned nonchalance—and yet didn’t. There’s not a member of an Artificer House I’ve ever met who wasn’t cold, calculating and ruthless, ambitious at any cost. Subtler on the whole than men-at-arms, but equally deadly and uncaring.
Although the craftsmen bustled about, already setting to their daily tasks, and the merchants had already begun to open the windows to their storefronts and set out their prized wares, the townsfolk of Old Vaina paid little attention to our hunting party, and I enjoyed the lack of wary looks cast in my direction followed by the sign of the Tree or apotropaic spitting—not that either had any effect.
The gates to New Vaina had not yet been opened, and the night watch, perhaps only moments from a changing of the guard, scrambled to pull the winches to raise the portcullis and open the doors before they forced us to stop and wait. The constable Daedys waited for us on the other side, atop a working horse arrayed in simple but well-made tack. A matchlock musket occupied a sheath next to the saddle in the same fashion as Vitella’s and he carried a boar spear in his hand, a heftier companion to Gamven’s light lance.
“My lords,” the constable nodded, letting go the reins for a moment to remove his flat cap in deference.
Amn Vaina nodded back, barely, without breaking stride, leaving Daedys to fall into the last row and sort out a position for himself.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your men,” I could hear Daedys tell Gamven behind me.
“It was a close thing.” the master-of-arms returned. I fought a smile as cold and bitter as a new tomb.
“Anything you can tell us about the creature the woodsmen claim to have seen?” I asked, turning in my saddle to look at the constable and straining in the effort.
“Only that they agree that it’s an unnatural thing. Everyone’s story is different, and I’m inclined to believe that they are just that—stories.”
“Then what of the missing man?”
“Kalvor, his name. As I said before, most likely wolves or some other natural predator. It’s not unknown for them to take a stray woodsman who’s wandered too far from his fellows. Hasn’t happened in several years—until now, I suppose—but it happens ever so often. If he’s dead at all. Timbering is hard work, and there’s always some who find they haven’t the mettle for an honest living.”
“And you think Kalvor was such a one?”
“Perhaps. He was young, hadn’t been at the work for too long, no wife, no children. Nothing to hold him down if he decided to leave.”
“That’s the same story I’ve heard of your nephew Orren, Master Daedys.”
He harrumphed.
Savlo joined in. “I spent the day yesterday looking for tracks in the area Kalvor supposedly went missing in. No wolves.”
“What did you find?” I asked.
“Nothing unusual.”
“So what are we fucking looking for?” Gamven growled.
“Whatever there is,” Aryden spat without turning, an equal amount of gravel in his voice.
“Of course, my lord,” Gamven corrected.
We took a side path through New Vaina that led along the hillside to the stream running parallel to the town, providing running water to the larger homes in Old Vaina and supplying the New Vaina wells at the base of the hill. But before they did either of those things, the flowing water supplied a trio of mills, the fast flow steadily turning wooden wheels and the gears connected to them. This flow had evidently been diverted after a stone channel,complete with sluice gates to control the water had been built into the hillside with a drop above each waterwheel, making them more powerful pitchback mills. The lowest of the three, most accessible to the townsfolk, was a gristmill for the products of the many surrounding farms. The second mill emitted the steady rhythm of blade against wood while the highest sang with the bass thump thump of pounding. Industrial music, of a sort.
We made for the timber mill in the middle of the trio, where men already stripped to bare chests in the heat of the summer morning and of exertion worked in teams to remove branches and bark from felled trees before carrying them to the mill’s hungry mouth. A foreman, less sweaty than his fellows, bowed to his knee upon seeing our approach. The gesture, somehow both overwrought and embarrassingly amateur, made me uneasy, though Aryden and Vitella both nodded with satisfaction.
“My lord,” the foreman began, “I had not expected you to come personally to see to the loss of our man. We were thankful that you sent your master of hunt to search yesterday, especially since Master Daedys’…inquiry…turned up nothing but tales from the men and, I presume, no indication of where to search for Kalvor, since he made no effort to do so.”
Daedys shifted uncomfortably in his saddle while Vitella grinned at the man’s brazenness to speak so poorly of his landlord before their mutual liege lord. Aryden remained stonefaced.
“My brother had just been put in the Close, my lord, and I had to make sense of his papers to step into his place as the head of our family,” Daedys offered, driving his boar spear into the ground next to his horse so that he could push his hair back under his cap, looking away from amn Vaina as he did.
“We’re here now,” Aryden said simply, “and, as you see, with capable assistance.”
Turning to me, he continued, “Well, lord thaumaturge?”
I dismounted and handed the reigns to Savlo before approaching the foreman. “This man, Kalvor, do you have anything that belongs to him?”
“Hmm, let me see.” The man wondered off to talk to those in his charge.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Gamven asked. Behind him, Edanu smiled knowingly.
I ignored them both. “Savlo, how far did you range from here in search of the missing man?”
“A mile or two in every direction from the farthest reaches the woodsman work at.”
“And you found no sign of Kalvor?”
“None.”
“No prints, no broken boughs, no blood?”
“No.”
“It’s been too long since his disappearance to expect much of that, hasn’t it?”
“Yes.”
“And animals?”
“Nothing unusual.”
“Predators?”
“No.”
“Has anyone seen a dragon or drake in these parts in recent memory?”
“Only closer to the mountains, days from here, and even then only rarely. Why?” Aryden interjected.
“No griffins, anything like that?”
“No. No signs of flying predators, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“It is,” I affirmed. “Doesn’t give us much to go on.”
At this point, the foreman returned, holding his closed fist out to drop something into my hand. I held it out for him and two knucklebones fell onto my palm, blackened pips delicately marked on each of the faces. “Kalvor’s lucky dice,” the foreman said.
“Not that lucky,” Vitella remarked, Edanu smiling along with her.
“Why didn’t he have them?” I asked.
“Lost them in game a few days before he went missing.”
“Perhaps lucky is too strong a word,” Vitella continued.
“How long had he owned them?” I pressed.
“Long time, I guess,” the foreman said. “Talked about ‘em a lot. Big on games that one. When he won a decent haul from the others, he’d not show up for days after, spending it all on drink and women in Vaina. He’d always come crawling back when the drink went dry and the whores turned him away.”
“How do we know that he’s not somewhere drinking and cavorting?” Daedys asked.
“Because he lost his dice,” I said flatly. “He hadn’t won anything before he disappeared. And I imagine that no one’s seen him in town for some time, or he wouldn’t be called ‘missing.’”
“Hmph,” the constable responded.
I continued my interrogation of the foreman. “You’re sure that he owned these for a long time?”
“Yes, what of it?”
Rather than respond, I took the bones, smooth on the edges from long use or from nervous rubbing, and moved away from the mill’s activity, my companions and the foreman all following behind. Where I found a flat- and large-enough stone in the ground, I placed the dice down upon it, procuring the chalk from my belt pouch and drawing a set of circles around the objects followed by glyphs at the edges. I heard the foreman spit behind me and turn away, but I continued unperturbed. Once I’d drawn the symbols for my working, a bastardized hybrid between a theurgy and a thaumaturgy, I returned the chalk to its pouch and pulled my wand from its small sheath. Touching the tip of the wand to the dice, I closed my eyes and focused, muttering soft words to guide my mind through the structure of the working.
I know not how my fellows reacted to this, my concentration drowning out all sense of the world around me. My use of the Art complete, I opened my eyes, swept up the dice into my left hand and clutched the want lightly in my right. I waited for a moment before feeling the first subtle twitch in the wood, its pull turning my hand, the wand now pointing as a compass arrow, straight into the woods to the east. To be sure, I deliberately turned the wand away from the direction it had indicated and felt it pull back to true.
I began to walk, not fast, but steadily, waiving with my free hand for the rest of the hunters to follow. We proceeded in this manner for at least an hour, passing near the old road I’d followed previously to Falla’s cottage, buried amidst the ruins of a that forgotten Aenyr outpost. No one spoke as they followed, or if they did I could not hear them, but as we neared that maligned practitioner’s abode I heard amn Vaina and amn Esto pull the hammers of their wheelocks to a ready position, the snick of the retaining pin snapping into place unmistakable. The sound of a friction striker followed as Edanu lit his matchcord.
Still convinced that Falla had nothing to do with the Vaina castle haunting, or the disappearance of Kalvor for that matter, I cringed at those sounds. The wand tugged us along a path that soon diverged from the Aenyr road and Falla’s cottage, and I breathed a little easier at that. For several more miles I walked, my mounted companions followed behind but leaving an increasing berth between me and them. The forest became thicker the farther we progressed, the hills leaving the ground broken and treacherous, forcing everyone to dismount.
“Iaren,” Aryden said softly, the hunter’s concern for noise having taken him at some point along our journey. I turned with my torso and head, leaving my feet still aligned with the wand and careful not to move it from the direction it currently pointed. “Should we leave the horses?” Lord amn Vaina asked.
“They’re not my horses,” I returned. “You do as you think best.”
“What are we going to find in these woods?” Savlo asked.
“Hell if I know,” I told him. “I’m just following the direction the wand points. It should lead us to Kalvor, but I have no idea what we’ll find along with him.”
“What if he’s gone a great distance away?” Vitella asked, not so amused now.
“Then it’s going to be a very long walk,” I smiled. The suns had by now risen in the sky, the morning growing warm with customary summer heat. But it was early in the day yet, and I was willing to walk a good distance more before calling my working a failed effort.
“Varro,” amn Vaina began. “Stay here with the horses. If we’re not back within a few hours, make a camp for us. If we don’t return by tomorrow, go home and seek for more soldiers to come after us.”
We paused for a moment as each member of the party transfered weapons and other useful belongings from saddlebags or sheaths to their persons. Those of us with arquebuses carried them at the ready now, silent smoke trailing from Edanu’s match, the chemical sent sure to give us away. Savlo must have had this thought, too, for he continually threw disapproving glances to the Meradhvor dignitary, but decided not to verbalize his complaint.
Once everyone had satisfied themselves with their gear, we set out again. We took heavy steps, the dry grasses crunching softly underneath our feet, that cloud of sulfurous miasma preceding us. Our journey continued until the suns had reached the apex of their daily circuit, their rays piercing the canopy above us like spearpoints that illumined small pockets of the forest with the full light of day, leaving the rest in a twilight liminality.
Suddenly, there came a tap on my shoulder, and I turned to find Savlo motioning for the entire band to freeze in place. We did so, leaving only the tension (and that damnable sulfur stench) hanging in the air. For a moment, I stared blankly at the hunter, waiting for some explanation of our brief respite. Seeing my lack of understanding, he silently tapped his ear and pointed upward. Then I realized his intent: only the tension and smell of burning matches lingered. The birdsong had gone silent, as had the incessant clicking of the cicadas, the occasional tumble and creak of branches from fleeing or pursuing fauna, any of the customary sounds of forest life.
“A predator is close,” Savlo whispered to me, his voice barely the suggestion of speech.
“They’re not reacting to us?” I asked quietly.
“No. This silence just started.”
I took a few steps back to the rest of the party, my feet harsh upon the forest floor, a reminder of my lack of serious experience in the wilds. Savlo followed behind, his presence felt more than heard, another stalking thing in the shadows under the canopy of the old trees.
We huddled together, faces shining now with summer sweat, the clanks and clicks of Gamven’s armor audaciously loud in the relative silence. “Savlo and I will move forward and scout ahead; there’s something up there. Something dangerous.”
“We can’t go around it?” Aryden asked.
“Kalvor is close. I’m guessing we’ve found the creature the woodsmen were complaining of,” I told him.
“When you say, ‘creature,’ what exactly do you mean?” Edanu followed.
“You can’t feel that?” I asked him. “That’s no child of Avarienne. It’s something from beyond the Avar, intruding here.”
“You mean the spawn of the forbidden ones?”
“The get of Sedhwe or Daea, most likely, yes.” Faces sank all around, and our day in the Crimson Close seemed a relaxing stroll through town in comparison.
“How?” Vitella asked.
“Like other spirits, they can sometimes cross the Verge and pierce the Veil,” I told her. “When they do, they tend to stay here. Whether by choice or by necessity is anyone’s guess. Some are left from dark times past, hidden and biding their time.”
“For what?”
I shrugged. “And, of course, sometimes they are brought to the Avar Narn purposefully.”
“Who would do such a thing?” Gamven asked.
“The power-hungry, the desperate, the mad, the curious, the arrogant. There is a reason the Vigil exists, after all, even if it is not recognized in the Sisters.”
“Is this the source of the haunting, then?” Aryden asked, hopeful.
“Doubtful. At least not directly. If it has killed Kalvor, then I suppose the likelihood that his spirit is haunting your home is increased, but these sorts of creatures are not typically known for subtle action.”
“But if we’re nearing its home—or lair—or whatever you want to call it,” Savlo said, “Then it ranged quite a ways to seize upon poor Kalvor.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Assuming it is such a creature, how do we defeat it?” Gamven asked.
“Such things are difficult to kill, it is true. But anything that has physically manifested in the Avar may be defeated through force of arms.”
“Good,” Gamven responded. “But how?”
“That depends on what it is, particularly. Until we know that, I cannot say. If things are as I suspect, though, you will find that your weapons are far less effective than against other foes. Still useful, but far less effective. The foe will be a truly dangerous one. We will need to be careful and cunning to defeat it.”
“Have you done this before?” Edanu asked.
“No. Of course not,” I told him. The group let out a collective sigh of trepidation.
“Must we do this?” the Meradhvor emissary challenged?
“We’ve come all this way. We know that the creature is a threat to Vaina and will continue to be so, and there is still the possibility that it is Kalvor’s spirit haunting Vaina castle and that we might put him—and this whole affair—to rest by recovering his body and properly honoring it.”
“Alright, then,” Savlo resolved. “Let’s get to it. I’d rather have this done by dark if we can.”
“Agreed,” Gamven said grimly.
Savlo and I moved forward cautiously in the direction the wand pulled; I tried to follow behind him precisely, stepping where he had stepped and matching his movements in avoidance of obstructing branches or brush. My lack of skill proved plain, and Savlo shot me constant looks of silent frustration combined with exasperated hand signals I did not understand. The undergrowth complained with nearly ever step I took, and the heavy feeling of being watched by an unseen predator fell upon me.
Even at the height of summer, the foliage over which we passed had become brown and dead despite the regular rains. The trees bore no leaves and showed signs of dry rot, bark cracked and peeling with decay. The very life of the woods had been sucked away here, a sure sign of some malevolent presence manifested across that dark divide of the Abyss. I noticed that my knuckles had become white over the grip of my wand, the fingers of my free hand nervously contorted, stretching in anticipation of urgent need of them. The pallor of corruption filled the air, and as we continued onward the trees became not only bare and lifeless, but twisted into unnatural forms, bulbous knots protruding from unexpected locations, the tips of dry branches sharply pointed.
Savlo noticed this, too, of course, and his hands quietly slid an arrow from his quiver and knocked it against the string of his bow. He never stopped or looked down as he did this, working by practiced instinct as he continued to sneak quietly forward, scanning the gaps between the now-sparse trees for threats.
We moved forward like this for several moments, the dead grasses and shrubs under our feet giving way to dry dirt. Only then did my feet agree to silence as we moved. Presently, we reached a rocky clearing at the base of a rising hill topped by a copse of thick trees. The wand trembled in my hand in indication of immediate proximity; Savlo pointed to a cave opening in the side of the hill’s ascent before returning the hand to its position just behind the arrow’s flights.
We stood at the edge of those final trees that had not yet been corrupted to oblivion by the monster’s presence, neither of us ready to move into the clearing itself, despite the fact that we had no concealment where we stood nor any to be found in the vicinity.
Only a short time passed before a shadow moved within the darkness of the cave’s mouth. For a moment I remembered the dream I’d had when I’d arrived in Vaina; the thought that such an unrequested divination seemed to have foreshadowed present circumstances steeled me somehwat—or at least kept my feet from turning and moving despite my will to stay.
A long, snakelike neck emerged from the obscured interior of the cavern, scaly and tipped by a sharp beak not unlike the kind you’d find on a falcon or some other bird of prey. Above that daunting protrusion sat two clusters of eyes, spider-like, their dark pupils searching independently of one another briefly. When the thing had spotted us, all of the interior eyes shot into formation, piercingly focused on we intruders. Those eyes on the outer edge of each cluster continued to sweep about, searching the thing’s peripheral vision for hidden dangers.
Satisfied that only the two of us had come, the monster emerged fully from its lair. Scales became dark feathers of a shadowbending sheen where the protruding neck met the corpulent and misshapen body, seven legs, some like those of a wolf and some like those of a chicken—each tipped in deadly claws—moved the thing along in a waddling gait of unnatural speed. A long, leathery tail, like a newly-shorn sheepskin, trailed from the darkness of the cave, ending in a set of bony, mace-like protuberances. A creature out of some fever-dream, sharply defiant of the natural order of Avarienne’s children, and one that I would not soon forget.
We thought that the thing’s size might allow us some protection amongst the more closely-spaced trees, though in retrospect their rotting and dying condition would have left them crumbling and broken with even the slightest force. But this mattered not, for the monster squeezed and contorted itself in its pursuit of us, body bulging at one end and then the other as it effortlessly moved between obstacles without disturbing them.
I dropped my wand and drew my sword; it had decided to kill me first. I waived to Savlo to make use of the distraction; he dodged back and withdrew, dropping his bow and arrow as he did. At first, I thought he’d lost his nerve and run, but I had no time to revel in anger or despair over that—the monster struck at me with withering fury, neck weaving between and around trees with unnatural celerity to strike first from my left and then my right, unrelenting in the assault. I warded with blade and dodged as best I could, the sword’s edge having little effect on the beast’s scales but at least knocking that striking neck enough to purchase a short space between that beak (which I now noticed was lined with a predator’s teeth within) and my flesh. My saving grace was that it was a duel of sorts, the kind of fight to which I was most accustomed, and my feet proved agile and steady enough to keep injury, if not the monster itself, at bay.
A horn sounded, loud and nearby; Savlo had chosen to sound the alarm and call our fellows to our aid rather than to take a shot of unknown efficacy with his weapon. A wise choice, though it called the attention of our otherworldy foe to him. As it turned its neck I struck a blow, one that left a shallow line across its scaly neck. It turned and snapped at me, with annoyance rather than fear or anger, and then turned to Savlo, strange form waddling and yet passing gracefully between the trees again.
Freed from immediate danger, I sheathed my sword and pulled free the pouch of runescribed shot from my belt, pouring the metal balls into an open palm. I searched for those with runes effective against either the spawn of Sedhwe or the get of Daea, dropping the rest onto the dusty ground, for there was no time to return them gently to the pouch nor were they of any use to me at present.
Which was it? A child of that demoness of deceit and damnation, or a corrupted creation of the archenemy? I struggled to remember my days of instruction at the hands of my first master, the piles of dusty tomes I’d read as a student at the university, separating the thoughts that arose into their proper categories—or so I hoped. They are so closely related, Daea being a creation of Sedhwe and his intended spouse, she the fallen spirit of the direst of fallen spirits. But Sedhwe learnt his craft from the One, or from watching the other Firstborn work; he wrought his spawn first from the darker side of imagination and later from the nightmares of the naming peoples. Daea had inherited some skill from her creator and would-be husband, but had stolen more from the secret arts of the other Firstborn, twisting them and grafting them together like some primordial fleshcrafter to create her progeny, for she could bear no child herself. This creature, then, an amalgam of parts taken from Avarienne’s children, must have belonged to that archdemoness. How it came to dwell here was anyone’s guess, but I had neither time nor care for the answer.
In his precarious flight from the snapping beak of the monster, Savlo had abandoned his bow, pulling his hunting sword from its sheath and hacking wildly to hold the beast at bay, much as I had done only a moment before. Daea’s child showed no sign of fatigue, no indication that it might offer any respite or quarter, while Savlo breathed heavily and took steps of failing soundness, rolling on his ankle painfully and hobbling thereafter, carried only by the adrenaline that no doubt crashed over him like an angry tide.
There came the crack of an arquebus, the thud of its projectile smashing into the feathery torso of the unnatural predator with little effect. “Fuck me!” I heard Edanu’s voice. “The thing shrugged it off like I’d spit at it!”
It had. The ball had rebounded from the leathery hide or bony plate or whatever foul armor lie beneath the coat of feathers, which now raised up somewhat, like the spines of a porcupine, their iridescence a visible sign of the thing’s rising ire. The beast turned to glare at our oncoming fellows, outer eyes still watching Savlo and I from the corners of their bulbous windows.
A deafening screech bellowed from the creature’s elongated throat, stopping all of us in our tracks as we vainly attempted to stop up our hearing. I let fall the runic shot from my hand as I covered my ears, the little balls rolling this way or that according to the whim of the dirt at my feet where they mingled anonymously with the ones I’d dropped before in hopes of efficiently sorting out what I needed. Now I’d have to search out each in turn and check its rune—if I could find the right ones at all. I dropped to my knees in the search.
Occupied as I was, I did not watch the battle unfold around me. I’ve pieced together what follows from the scraps of my recollection and the tales told by my companions after the fact.
Aryden, Gamven, Vitella and Daedys drove the assault, splitting apart from one another and each darting in and out of engagement from various angles to confuse and harry the beast. Their attacks did little more than distract the creature as it snapped back and forth between them, always just too late to catch one. They bought Savlo enough time to limp away from the fray; he circled back around at a safe distance to join me as I crawled along the ground searching for shiny objects.
“Shouldn’t I be the one crawling around?” He said flatly.
I smirked, though he couldn’t see it. Daedys flew past us suddenly, picked up and tossed through the air with a violent snap of the creature’s neck. He took a moment to recover the wind that’d been knocked out of him and then rejoined the fight.
Savlo must have picked up the arquebus his lord had dropped when charging in, for he held the ornate wheelock delicately. The dogleg rested tight against the flashpan; Savlo had no intention of firing the weapon at present.
Edanu joined the two of us, planting his feet and muttering to himself before he began the long course of actions to reload his own arquebus and being especially careful not to bring his powder horn close to the waiting match.
“Wait,” I whispered to him, more than a little nervous that the three of us standing together and moving but little might draw the attention of the creature to easy prey.               “You’re going to need something better than regular shot to stand a chance of seriously injuring that thing, and it looks that we’ll tire long before it does if we try to do things the hard way.”
I’d been grasping at the metal balls one by one during all of this, checking each rune and tossing hard and far those with markings unhelpful to the present struggle. So far, that had been all I’d inspected. Now, though, I chanced upon the first projectile bearing the proper marks. I held it up over my shoulder to Edanu and said, “load this one.” I could hear him pulling the ramrod free of his weapon to tamp down the powder and wadding before loading the ball I’d given him.
The grunts and shouts of our companions provided a constant harmony as I searched, Edanu loaded and Savlo waited.
“What the hell are you three doing over there?” came Aryden’s voice, thunderous and imperious.
“Looking for our balls!” Edanu shouted back with a smile.
“When you find them, we could use some help!” the lord returned. A grunt and a scraping sound followed his words as the creature’s beak slid across Aryden’s breastplate, a bite than might otherwise have proved fatal.
At that time, I’d found a second ball of the proper marking, which I handed to Savlo.
“I’m already loaded,” he objected.
I opened my mouth to answer the hunter, but Edanu had finished loading and brought the caliver to his shoulder.
“Wait!” I said, louder than I’d meant to. “Wait until we’re all loaded!”
“They’re running out of time,” Edanu replied, his voice firm but trembling with anxiety at its edges.
“A single shot won’t fix that. Savlo, you’re going to have to fire your piece and reload.”
The hunter grunted in response. We all knew that his doing so would bring us unwanted attention; I was thankful he held the ball tight in one hand and bided his time.
While I continued to search, our fighting companions were taking a beating. The monster had struck no life-threatening blow as of yet, but Gamven had been injured sorely enough to be forced to withdraw. Repeated bludgeoning with its strong neck and many close calls with its razor beak had taken a toll on both the vigor and morale of the others. Daedys’ thrusts with his boar spear became ever more cursory and obviously intended to gain the creature’s focus rather than to do real harm. As it realized this, it had begun to ignore him, turning its attention toward Aryden and Vitella.
Where they had begun by distracting the beast and forcing it to maneuver back and forth between them, now the creature had seized the initiative, forcing the pair to suddenly change direction to avoid snapping jaws and to step lively to avoid colliding with one another as they continuously repositioned, Daedys trailing behind in an effort to remain relevant to the fight at all.
Again the monster issued its bloodcurdling screech, driving the combatants back and almost to their knees as the sound pierced their ears and plunged cold and sharp into their very minds. Even somewhat removed from the monster’s presence the shriek filled the three of us with pain, our own cries drowned amidst the sea of sound the beast had created. It was as if the sound pushed my spirit from my body and I looked down momentarily on the scene, unable to act or to think with clarity while the echoes of the sonorous attack coursed through me.
I felt rather than heard the concussion of Savlo’s arquebus firing into the air, emptying itself of its contents to be filled afresh. When only the ringing in our ears remained of that scream, Savlo motioned to Edanu for his powder horn. The emissary passed the container to the hunter without words—or if there were any I could not hear them—and Savlo set to his task more assuredly than Edanu had done with his own piece.
For wadding, Savlo tore a piece from the end of his cloak, already worn and threadbare, stuffing some down the barrel to hold the tamped powder in place and wrapping the ball in a bit before ramming it home, too. As he recovered the ramrod from the barrel he glared at me, nudged me with his foot. I realized I’d been watching him work rather than continuing with my own task, which I returned to anon.
As hearing returned, the shouts of our companions grew louder, more desperate. I’m told that Vitella and Aryden saved each other’s lives more than once, that Daedys’ efforts in spite of exhaustion proved vital. All I heard, though, was the growing doom in their voices and the sighing sounds of the beast as it attacked without ceasing.
Finally, I found a third ball marked against Daea’s brood. I wiped the dirt from it by rubbing it against my vest before popping it into my mouth—the best place I could devise to safely hold it while I loaded one of my pistols. The monster passed close by and I froze, its tail mindlessly swinging near my face as the beast turned in pursuit of one of my companions. Fingers trembling, I fumbled for one of my chargers, pulling it from the string on which it hanged and turning it over the barrel of my piece, held upright in my left hand. Some of the powder spilt around the mouth of the barrel, landing softly on the webbing between thumb and forefinger at the pistol’s grip. Tossing the charger aside, I brushed the grains I could from hand to ignition pan, hoping it would be enough.
After tamping the powder with the ramrod, I pulled a thin patch of cloth from one of my belt pouches and spit the ball into it, pulling the cloth around the shot before pushing both into the waiting barrel and ramming these home, too. Forgetting my own advice and tossing the ramrod aside in my haste, I rose with the pistol to take aim at the beast.
I tracked it with my arm, waiting until I felt I had a proper lead on the moving target, willing a flame at the tip of my index finger, which lay in the pan. A flare burst from the ignition hole, but the pistol failed to recoil in my hand; it had not fired. An agonizing second passed, the pistol’s aim lagging behind the location of the beast, before the powder finally decided to ignite, the shot spinning wild in my unpreparedness and wasted.
Not entirely wasted-the blast had captured the beast’s attention. The monster turned abruptly and charged me. In an act of will not entirely born of conscious thought, I threw up a shield of arcane force, enough to keep me from significant injury but far too little to stop the charge. Without ever touching me directly, acting only through the invisible bindings between my outstretched hand, the shield and the creature’s downturned forehead, it flung me as easily as if I’d been picked up and tossed carelessly aside by the hand of the One.
I hit the ground sprawled on my back, the wind knocked from my lungs. The creature pursued after its charge and forced me to roll away from its lunging beak. The hilt of my sword pushed into my side as I spun, bruising my hip bone but reminding me of its existence.
With another roll augmented by a quick sorcery, I recovered my feet, sword in hand and already slashing at the beast’s face as it turned to strike again. My light blade recoiled from the thing’s scales, the hilt ringing painfully in my hand as if I’d struck a wall. I felt a warm damp on my upper lip and tasted copper, whether a side effect of my sorceries or an injury from being flung, I could not tell—not that it really mattered.
A second shot rang out—I would later learn that this was Savlo’s—connecting with the creature with a wet sound not unlike the sound of stumbling into a deep and muddy puddle. Black ichor sprayed from the monster in response, thick and sticky, accompanied by another of those otherworldly screams that seemed to drive an icicle into mind and soul. I lashed out feebly with my sword in response, what might have been a deadly thrust in another fight in spite of the lack of full intent, again glanced off the creature.
Savlo’s shot had injured the creature but not slowed it much. I narrowly sidestepped the monster’s riposte, beak snapping close enough that I felt the rush of air around it. It turned now in Savlo’s direction, reaching him in three strides of its unnatural feet.
He tried to dodge, but his ankle betrayed him and he bought dear what little distance he acquired. The creature’s beak, both fast and precise, snatched a chunk of flesh from the hunter, leaving a ragged gap between neck and shoulder, having stolen flesh and bone alike from the poor man. He had only started to turn his head to the wound when he slumped over, falling face-first in the dirt, twitching his death-throes.
Anger washed over me, overwhelming my fear. I took umbrage at the creature’s fortitude, the injustice of its resistance to us, the impunity with which it assaulted us. Without thinking, I flung my sword at the thing’s side, overhand, yelling my frustration as I did.
I expected the weapon to bounce aside, casually and pathetically, but the sword instead penetrated halfway to the hilt, which bobbed up and down happily as the blade flexed with the force of the blow. My shout had not just been some exasperated expletive—it had accompanied a further sorcery, one that had empowered the weapon to do its work. I had no time to recall how I’d extemporized such a fortunate working; the creature returned to press me.
Willingly disarmed, I drew my parrying dagger as a desperate last line of defense; it did me little good. By now, Aryden, Vitella and Daedys had caught up to me, their tired attacks at least pulling some attention away from me.
But the monster had been enraged now, too, and the desperation of its injuries only seemed to have strengthened it. It feinted with its head toward Vitella but kicked Aryden viciously instead, claws screeching as they left long dents in the lord’s breastplate and sprawling him.
In dividing my attention to my companions I had failed to maintain a safe distance from the creature; it knocked me to the ground with a casual turn of its head and neck, not the devastating blow from its previous charge but enough to put me on my ass again. With another flick of its neck it seized Daedys’ spear in its beak, ripping it from his grasp and pulling him prostrate as he attempted to hold onto it. The weapon snapped into two halves and fell to the avar.
Only Vitella stood in defiance of the beast now, it seemed, for I could not see Edanu. I presumed he’d lost his nerve and ran. Like mine, the Lady Vitella’s blade left only light scratches—minor annoyances—in the monster’s hide. But cold determination had replaced the aloof amusedness in her expression and I wondered to myself—inappropriately given the situation, I realize—at a sort of beauty that existed in such a frank display of willfulness.
The monster turned its neck to look at her, and I knew that hers would be the next life taken by the beast if nothing could be done. Still driven more by rage than hope, I grabbed the metal-tipped end of Daedys’ hunting spear and drove its point into the base of the creature’s neck. It didn’t penetrate, instead cutting only a shallow groove where scales met with leathery, feather-covered hide. If only I’d had been conscious of what I’d done to injure the creature with my sword!
The monster turned again, pulling its neck up into an “S”-like curve so that it could look down at me, its spider eyes intently focused upon me. It opened its beak slowly, pointed teeth within glistening with slavering spit. Slowly, it extended its neck, beak and tearing teeth coming ever closer to my face. I pushed against its neck with my hands, but even hale I’d not have had the strength to resist the force with which it approached.
Just as I’d resolved to look it in the eyes as it killed me, to defy it in that one meaningless way left to me, a shot rang out and a black fog exploded from the side of the thing’s head. As it fell on its side, lifeless, I saw Edanu standing there, still holding his caliver at the ready, close enough he must have almost pressed the muzzle to the monster’s face as he pulled the trigger.
I guffawed with surprise that he’d have bothered to save me; I would have expected him to wait until I, too had a massive chunk of flesh liberated from my body before he made that mortal shot. The emotion that followed, irrational as it might have been, was chagrin. I hated that I owed him something, the kind of debt not easily repaid.
My thoughts must have been plain on my face, for Edanu only shrugged. “You gave up your balls for this fight,” he smiled. “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything else.”
Despite myself, I smiled, too.

Nano-Update 2

It’s 10:45 am on Sunday morning. I’m at home while K and little Marshal are at church; Hawkwood has been sick the past few days and is, thankfully, resting comfortably at present.

Writing has been good. I’m now at 27,293 words and beginning to focus more on my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the year than the fifty-thousand-word goal of NaNoWriMo, which now seems like it will not be any issue. This is nine-and-a-half chapters into a text that is plotted to forty-something chapters, so I’m also feeling pretty good about the likely end length.

Also, I have a (very early) working title: Things Unseen.

What’s more, I’m finding the writing easier. I’m averaging about 2,700 words in two hours of writing each day, and that feels very sustainable. The first time I did NaNoWriMo, I finished, and early, but I seem to remember having a tougher time dragging out the words and spilling them onto the page, spending more time in the writing altogether, and more of that time frustrated.

I’m still having the ups and downs of going from “I’m a brilliant writer!” to “This is crap, why am I spending my time on this!” but I’m more comfortable with the struggle than I have been. I’m learning to forgive myself (and my writing) a little bit more. The biggest part of that is rejecting the myth that brilliant writers get it right the first time, can write something down once and be done.

Some of the things I write do feel really good in the first draft (hence the highs), but I’m reminding myself that writing a novel is a long journey and there’ll be a lot to clean up, rewrite, rework and improve on subsequent passes through the manuscript. In some ways, it’s like a sculpture. At first, I’m getting the general shape of things, the suggestion of the lines and contours of what I’m chiseling away at. But there will be additional sessions necessary to bring all the details into focus and then to smooth the lines so that everything flows together as it should. I’m becoming comfortable with that idea. This is also helping to put me in the mindset that writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. Pacing myself is important, which is why I haven’t been pushing to write more faster given that I’m at a pace that is good, comfortable and sustainable.

Another influential factor is accepting the fact that I have to write. It’s just part of who I am. Yes, I very much want to write things that are good, that people want to read, that give me a way to send my voice, ideas and stories to thousands of people are more. I want to write things that would allow me to be a writer, full-time. But those desires are not the point. I write now because I must; because I’m not me–and I’m not happy–when I don’t. Even if it doesn’t turn out as well as I hope, it’s still mine, part of me in an essential way.

So far, so good, but we’re only ten days in. We’ll see if I still feel the same about the pace and sustainability next week.

Who else out there is participating in NaNoWriMo? I’m sure some of the people who read my blog are. Let me know how you’re doing! And, if you’re brave enough to read along with my first draft and want to give me some feedback, please reach out! You can email me at FaithFictionFatherhood@gmail.com.

Nano-Update 1

Three days in to NaNoWriMo 2019 and I have 10,443 words in the bag, which is almost my first four chapters done.  It’s been about 2 hours a day to hit that pace, which I’m extremely happy with. If I could find time to keep that pace and write three or more hours a day, I’d be very satisfied. Alas, so far I have not been able to achieve that.

I’m trying not to self-edit too much in this first-draft run through so that I can focus on getting the complete story to paper (or screen, as the case may be). I can clean it up after the first draft is done, and since that will be unavoidable, no sense trying to forestall it by editing as I go. Still, sometimes I can’t help myself.

If I can sustain this writing pace, then I can reasonably expect to finish the novel by the end of the year. It’s plotted at about fifty chapters, so I’m expecting somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000 words when finished. Any more than that, and I’ll have to seriously take the scissors to parts of it. Yes, A Game of Thrones is 298,000 words, but I’m not going to pretend I’m Martin on the first go-round. Not from a writing standpoint and not from a marketing standpoint.

Nevertheless, I’m finding relatively few moments when I’m stymied about what to write next, which is new for me. Hopefully it keeps up!

If you’d like to read the first chapter, click here. If you’d like to be a reader and journey along with me as I write, please be in touch!

NaNoWrimo 2019 – First Chapter

As a little taste of my NaNoWriMo 2019 project (still untitled), I’m posting the short introductory chapter (in first draft and unedited) here. Hope you enjoy!

 

One evening in the month of Tengas, by the Ealthen Calendar, when the nights remain hot even under the moons, I found myself on the road from my home in Ilessa to the castle-town of Vaina at the southwestern end of the Nysas Hills. Some acquaintances I’d made in the Old City had asked me to visit their brother Aryden, lord of their house, at their familial holding. Brother and sister—after several glasses of wine—whispered to me that their home had become haunted, that their brother’s wife in particular suffered greatly at the hands of some undiscovered spirit.

Knowing my profession—if it can truly be called that—they’d asked if I might see what I could do to remedy the situation. I proved reluctant until they assured me that my efforts would be well rewarded; I had heard that the amn Vaina family enjoys great wealth. Were it not for my habit, I could live simply and not hurdle headlong into the sort of otherworldly dangers to which my erstwhile friends had directed me. What habit is that, you ask? Books, of course. Even those from the printers are expensive enough, but the ones that hold the greatest interest for me cannot be found in print; they must be discovered and transcribed by hand.

And so, I held a minor incantation alive in my mind, softly illuminating the well-trod dirt path with preternatural light, nudging my borrowed horse along carefully, lest an injurious misstep cost me more than the value of the job before I’d even arrived. Windborne, my mount had been named. Once, perhaps, she had been fast enough to earn such a name. Now, though, only her ambling gait recommended her to me.
In the nearing distance, the firelights of the small castle-town of Vaina shone like a beacon, the fortress itself glowing on the hill above the nighttime fires of the town below. Food, though now only as hot as the air around me, waited for me there, and wine for the frustrations of the road.On these things I thought as Windborne plodded along only slightly faster than I could’ve walked, and I returned my eyes to the ground to watch her hooves.

In my reverie I’d not noticed the two men stepping onto the path before me until one of them cleared his throat, startling Windborne ever so slightly, I imagined that, dulled with age as her senses were, there was little she perceived clearly enough to find truly terrifying.

Men who greet a traveler in such a way have only one thing in mind, and I should’ve known to pay better attention on the road.

“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to travel the road alone?” asked the first man?

“Especially at night,” the second added.

Desperation marked every aspect of the mens’ appearance, from the travel-stained and road-worn clothes to the small patches of rust marring their drawn steel, poorly-crafted falchions better suited to chopping wood. But I’d seen men killed by far less, and the two carried themselves with confidence enough that I believe that they’d put their blades to nefarious use before.

A scraggly beard partially covered the pock-marked face of the first man, middle-aged and possessed of the sort of sinewy muscles that speak to service as a soldier or farmer, hard work with meager returns. Hard living had likewise ruddied the flower of the youth of the first man’s teenaged companion; dark circles around the boy’s eyes and cracks at the corner of his mouth told the all-too-common-tale of hornroot use.

“Highway robbery’s a pretty dangerous pursuit as well, I hear,” I told them, casually, hoping nonchalance covered over the disquiet in my mind. “You never know who you’re going to chance across. A wandering knight of legend, some noble’s assassin, bounty hunters, a thaumaturge.”

With the last words, recognition dawned upon the faces of the two bandits as they realized that they could not identify a natural source of the light that currently illuminated us. “Fucking witch,” the first one said.

“I think they call the menfolk ‘warlocks,’” the younger man corrected, earning a sidelong glance from his elder.

“Not in the Sisters,” I said.

“We ain’t in the Sisters, is we? We’re in the heartlands here, where the true and honest folk live. Those who fear the One as they should. Those who wouldn’t dream of doing the Evil One’s bidding with sorceries and mutterings and the like.” This from the older fellow.

“Two birds, one stone, innit?” The companion added. “Do a service for the One by killing us a warlock, and I bet he’s got some good shit to sell, too. And a horse.”

“Two birds with one stone? A trivial matter. Perhaps you’d like to see how two stones are killed with one bird?”

Almost simultaneously, they cocked their heads at me, like puppies trying to sort out something new. Given that precious-short pause, I split my mind between the effort of maintaining the thaumaturgic ball of light and weighing my options. With a quick sorcery, I could turn the illumination into a brief flare, blinding, or at least distracting, the men and galloping past them in their confusion, but the ensuing dark would leave me barreling blindly into the darkness at as least as much risk as standing still. I could draw the sword that hung languidly at my side: a thin, quick blade in the Altaenin style equally suited to cut and thrust, equally at home in the duel or on the battlefield. I have some skill in its use, to be sure, but two against one are never fair odds regardless of skill. Even if I managed to fell one of them quickly, his friend would likely injure me as I did so. Once cut, I’d have little chance of straight-on success with the survivor. I needed something better than violence.

So I released the incantation of light, letting its structure fall to nothingness in my mind, the ghostly illumination returning to darkness as I did. For a brief moment, we squinted at each other, waiting for our eyes to adjust; clouds had obscured the moons above and little light reached the darkened Avar through them. In that time, the darkness proved a friend.

I squeezed my legs delicately to urge Windborne to step slowly backward, creating some distance against my would-be robbers in case my ruse failed. And then I began to chant loudly, my voice booming with feigned wrath as I shaped nonsense words bereft of the Power or any chance to effect change in the world outside of me. It was an idle threat, to be sure, but with the fatigue of the road upon me, not to mention my inability to see the foes in front of me, I dared not call upon some working lest it fail miserably and make a difficult situation worse. Even if successful, my inability to control the Flux bleeding off of the working might accomplish something I hadn’t imagined—and wouldn’t welcome.

I settled on the blind bluff, chanting louder and quickening my rhythm, allowing my own nervousness to interject a reckless passion into the manufactured syllables. A lack of confidence in my trick drove my hand to the hilt of the blade; useless as it might actually have been, it at least provided a false sense of comfort. When my eyes had finally adjusted to the dark of the night, I could not make out the robbers on the road.

The movement of two dark shapes, pushing through the tall grass on the left side of the road, caught my attention. Smiling to myself, I ceased my babbling, remaining still to listen as the men’s grunts and their rustling in the underbrush faded into imperception.

Thinking it best not to reignite my thaumaturgic lamp, I dismounted, leading Windborne the rest of the way by her bridle, testing each step along the way with my own feet, adjusting for the rises and falls of the trail, circumnavigating the rocks embedded in the path. This made for slow going, but Windborne didn’t seem to mind. I could feel the pulses of air from her nostrils on my hand, beating out our marching time like some invisible drum. The sensation might have annoyed me under other circumstances, but the draining of adrenaline from me left me giddy, the night smelling sweeter than before and my feet feeling light along the path.

Midnight must have come and gone by the time I reached the outermost buildings of Vaina, the limits of the newer portion of the town that had sprung up on the wrong side of the fortress’s wall. Judging by the age of some of the buildings, this “newer” part of the town might itself be several centuries old.

NaNoWriMo Eve

I’ve mentioned before that I have a (probably unrealistic) goal of finishing a first draft of a novel I’m working on by the end of the year. If you’ve been following the blog for a while, this is not the same novel I was working on the last time I did National Novel Writing Month (hence NaNoWriMo)–I will return and finish that novel, but not yet.

The novel I’m currently working on is, of course, set in my Avar Narn fantasy setting; it is a noir-ish story following a thaumaturge’s investigation of a haunting in the castle of the town of Vaina inland from the Seven Sisters (seven major cities on an island in the central sea famous for their independence, importance to trade, intrigue and “loose morals”). Our protagonist, Iaren, hails from one of the Sisters, Ilessa, and finds himself in a very different world in the noble estates that fill the interior of the island. He’s in a race against time before the haunting drives the Lady amn Vaina to death or insanity in a town where everyone has a secret to keep. It’s a little bit Dresden Files mixed with the grit of Joe Abercrombie or Glen Cook, some of the intrigue of Scott Lynch and a developed magic system much more “traditional” than Sanderson’s feruchemy and allomancy, but just as detailed.

I’m excited to write it and have high hopes that it will turn out to reveal that I’m a pretty skilled writer of fantasy fiction after all. Of course, it will surely need a good bit of work after the first draft, but I’m optimistic and that’s better than the alternative!

Practically speaking, here’s where I’m at: I’ve got a pretty detailed plot outline for the entirety of the novel, though there are still some details I haven’t fully resolved. I’m having to replot the last several chapters to adequately close what could be plot gaps and have the major issues tied up at the end (though I’m a believer that not everything should be satisfactorily concluded by the end of a novel–it never is in life). I’m currently importing my outline notes from Word into a fresh Scrivener project (after doing my initial work in a different Scrivener project and then using Word for the separate detailed outline; that’s not the most efficient way to do things, I know, but it kept me more in the flow).

So, my prep is not as complete as I’d like it to be (I let myself get distracted by other projects this month), but it’s good enough to instill confidence. We’ll see how it goes.

If there’s not much posted on the blog over the next month, it’s because I’ve got nose to grindstone on the novel; my apologies in advance. I further apologize that this means you’ll have to wait for the rest of my series on running piracy games in Fate Core (if that’s something you’re eagerly anticipating).

If, dear readers, you might be interested in reading along as I write and providing some continuing feedback, I could certainly use a few people to look over my shoulder and see things I might not. Send me a message and we’ll sort out logistics–it would mean a lot to me, and be exceptionally motivating, if some of you journey with me.

Update 6-18-19

The blog’s been quiet for a little over a week and, as usual, I like to explain myself a little bit when that happens.

The Writing
I had planned to wait until NaNoWriMo to start working on finishing a novel again, but those plans have been happily dashed. What started as a short-story ended up as a twenty-thousand-plus-word text, one that needed a lot of work on pacing and a lot of filling in of details. So it just made sense to turn it into a novel. That’s been the bulk of my writing time in the past few weeks, both in the original story and now in plotting out the novelization.

Plotting is almost complete and I’ll begin the writing (and re-writing) proper shortly. If posts to the blog are sporadic over the next short while, that’s what’s going on.

This novel does not yet have a name, but I’ve also already got broad-stroke plans for three sequels; two of which will likely be part of an initial trilogy and the last of which (which also started as a short-story that expanded out of hand) will likely be the start to a second trilogy. The story is set in Avar Narn (of course) and is something of a noir story. Saying it feels in some ways like a bastardized mix of noir fairy-tale and dark fantasy is pretty close to the mark, I think.

If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you may remember that, in 2017, I began work on a different Avar Narn novel, tentatively called Wilderlands. I fully intend to finish that novel, potentially as part of a trilogy between the two trilogies discussed above (the characters in the current novel and Wilderlands are entirely different), but it’s on the proverbial back burner for now.

Kiddos
Any day now, K and I could get the call that brings kids into our lives again. We’re going a little crazy with the wait, to be honest. But, when it happens, you’ll see the Fatherhood section of the blog come to life again.

Shadowrun
If you’ve been keeping a weather eye out for RPG news, you’ll know that a Sixth Edition of Shadowrun has been announced for release this summer, boasting a “streamlined” ruleset.

Shadowrun: Anarchy disappointed me greatly in its failure to translate some of the most fun things about the Shadowrun universe into a more narrative-focused design. As such, while I’m excited to see a new edition, I’m not sure that it’s going to provide what I think the rules need to really present a modernized and excellent take on the game’s design. So, look out for two things: (1) continued posts for my Cortex Plus/Prime hack of Shadowrun (which may end up remaining the sweet spot for me for playing games in the Shadowrun universe), and (2) a thorough review of the Shadowrun Sixth Edition Rulebook when I get my grubby hands on it.

Theology
More to come and soon.

Types of Evil (or at Least Antagonists)

This post could just about as easily be a theological one, but since I’ve come to these ideas in working on Avar Narn, I figured they’re better suited to being addressed to the writers out there–anyone who wants to extrapolate into the realms of spirituality and morality is welcome of course.

As an opening, let me first say that it is difficult to write an “evil” character, whether major antagonist or supporting character. It’s difficult because few things in the world are black and white, so a character that isn’t nuanced in his/her morality isn’t believable in stories that intend to maintain verisimilitude. On an obviously allegorical, mythological or moralistic tale, there’s a lot more leeway for capital “E” evil characters. But that has its own bag of tropes and expectations tht I’m not going to address here.

Instead, I’m going to try to put together a few general categories of character types we might describe as “evil.” I think we (myself included) are quick to use terms like “bad guys” when we mean “antagonist” in the more literary criticism sense of the term. That’s probably something we should all be careful of. That said, on to some gross oversimplification that I hope will nevertheless prove useful:

(1) Capital “E” Evil
This is the character who just wants to watch the world burn, who enjoys inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake, who exists to malign and misuse everything around him for the sake of just that.

As such, this should also be the rarest kind of evil in fiction, becuase it’s the hardest kind to get right. I think that there are two subtypes to be thought of here.

The first is cosmic evil–that kind of supernatural evil that is unknowable in its reasoning or motivation. Think Lovecraftian horror. We sidestep the major problem here by positing that we just can’t understand this evil. It just is. Particularly in fantasy, we can often get away with this, but it requires special suspension of disbelief or extra worldbuilding to swing. Even then, we’ve created a de facto villain that is really only interesting in an existential sense.

The second type is the corrupted individual. What we need, I think, to make this work is a believable backstory. Nobody begins that way, so we need an explanation as to what suffering the person has gone through to mold him into this type character.

This runs two ancillary risks, however. The first is that in describing said backstory, we humanize the character to the point that he no longer really fits into the Capital “E” Evil category. The second is that we turn our story into an analysis of the nature of evil. That can be an enthralling type of tale, particularly if the “evil” character is the protaganist of the story.

(2) Mistaken Beliefs
This subgroup belongs to those characters who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing while they commit atrocities the rest of us would find blatantly evil.

There are plenty of real-life examples to draw upon here to make the argument concisely. Take the Islamic State for example. Adherents to this would-be theocracy believe that they are practicing true Islam while murdering the innocent. This is an extreme case that can be attributed to any radical/fundamentalist religious group–Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. If you truly believe that God (or gods) demanded it and that makes it right, it’s easy to justify your actions.

Next, think of the person gripped by psychosis such that they are driven by an irrational belief that they cannot bring themselves to disavow. This is a particularly moving type of antagonist because they are driven by an affliction and not by their own agency–we can’t actually morally blame those who aren’t in control of themselves. This gives us a good opportunity to explore our “hero’s” approach to evil–is she only interested in ending threats or is she interested in redemption? What does she do when that redemption isn’t something she can achieve.

There are plenty of “lower magnitude” mistaken beliefs that make interesting villains. Les Miserables’ Javier is an excellent example–a man so overcommitted to his idea of “justice” that he cannot allow himself any mercy. This type of extremism in belief is all around us–just listen to how some people think we should fight the “War on Terror” or what we should do to criminals.

We can also extend this to what in the law we would consider a “mistake of fact.” When the antagonist believes that the protaganist is a villain who must be stopped, for instance. Yes, the antagonist’s belief is untrue, but if it were true would we think of the antagonist as a “good guy?”

A brief aside here: what if the protaganist is acting immorally? Watching a character spiral out of control is heck of a dramatic ride, and testing a character’s willingness to act as he says he believes is a classic conflict to explore.

Mistaken identity (along with the particular of being falsely accused) is one of the great archetypal plots, one which fits directly into the mistake of fact.

(3) The End Justifies the Means
This is a commonly-used type of antagonist, perhaps because it’s so relatable. The constant moral choice that faces all of us in life is whether we’ll sacrifice our values to get what we’re after. The only difference here is one of scale. For the sake of drama, the means to achieve the end must be dire–the determination of life and death, or the fates of many. For what profiteth it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

One of my favorite examples of this type of evil is the Operative from Serenity. The Operative is a man who accepts that he does evil things, but he is sincere in the belief that it will bring about a better galaxy (which perhaps makes him fall under (2) as well). In fact, he views his sins as a form of sacrifice–he does the unspeakable so that others don’t have to. There is a sort of nobility to his principles, even if they are ultimately wrong. And, for those of you who prefer your characters to wear capes rather than swords, Batman isn’t far off here, either. In fact, I’d say that Batman and the Operative have far more in common than we should be comfortable with if we’re going to call one “hero” and the other “villain.”

Speaking of Batman, most vigilantes fit into this category. Because we love it when the bad guys get theirs, even when they get it in a way that requires a sacrifice of our values, this can be a popular protagonist as well–think of the Punisher.

I would wager that most of our favorite anti-heroes fall into this category as well–it’s their beliefs and the willingness to risk for those beliefs that make them heroes, but the way they go about pursuing the fulfillment of those beliefs that adds the “anti-.”

(4) Honor and Identity
This is perhaps a subcategory of “Mistaken Beliefs,” but it’s a significant-enough subtype that it deserves its own treatment.

People do evil things in the name of maintaining honor all the time. As a student of history–and particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first examples that pop into my mind are the duel and the vendetta. I’ve recently read a book called Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli in the Renaissance, which reinforces the connection for me. But Renaissance Italy is not the only honor culture known for the tit-for-tat systemic murder that defines vendetta–the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind in slightly more recent history.

And, of course, we could discuss “honor killings” in certain Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures (though, to be fair, the Napoleonic Code also permitted a husband to kill an unfaithful wife and her lover, and even in American law a murder is often considered manslaughter when a husband kills his spouse after finding her “in flagrante delicto.”)

Honor cultures and actions taken under the justification of defending one’s honor are typically about maintaining a sense of identity–either one of purity or of strength (or perhaps both). The ideology of the honor culture says that if one does not maintain honor, one will be viewed as weak and will be taken advantage of by the rest of the culture.

And defending one’s sense of identity is a strong motivator, one that can create fascinating internal conflict, because it can be the conflict between internal belief and external pressures of society. For instance, “I believe that I should show mercy, but my culture tells me that I am not a man if I do not take vengeance.” Powerful stuff.

Honor, of course, is not the only identity-related factor that can lead a character to become “evil” or antagonistic. The need to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human motivation, on that can lead to similar conflict between the will of the individual and the will of the group. Is there a story about gangs that doesn’t include this plotline? What about cults and religions (which takes us back to (2))?

(5) Cross-Purposes and Limited Resources
I don’t have to explain that characters don’t have to possess malicious intent to be antagonists. The world has a habit of pitting humans against each other by its very nature–or at least tempting us to work against instead of with one another.

The core of successful narrative is conflict, and all it takes is characters who want things that are opposed (or even better, mutually-exclusive) to create such.

This suits certain types of stories especially well–the noir and anything else that might be considered “gritty” immediately come to mind. The story doesn’t need to be one of moralistic pedantry, though one must be careful not to let ambivelence about morality become relativism (at least I’m going to moralize on that point).

The Game of Thrones novels come to mind, as does Abercrombie’s First Law books. The political intrigue inherent to both puts POV characters at odds with one another, certainly giving us occasional “villains,” but not as a central theme of the stories.

But this type of conflict does not just suit the morally-ambiguous; it plays well to analysis of morality. I’m going to turn here to my favorite atheist philosopher (and one of my favorite storytellers), Joss Whedon. He’s been quoted as saying, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.” As an existentialist theologian, this freedom to create meaning when meaning is not thrust upon us is a core concept to me (but not one we’ll discuss here). Likewise, when the there’s no clear “good and evil,” we must judge the morality of the characters by the choices that they make. This can, of course, be easily combined with all but (1) above.

The conflict within a character of wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps being unwilling to pay the cost to do so, is a conflict we can all relate to. I’m inclined to argue that there is nothing in the craft of fiction so real as this. If you want your writing to have that air of verisimilitude, readers will suspend disbelief for a lot of things when the characters seem lifelike and complex to them. That’s not an excuse to write fiction that is sloppy except for the characters.

That, I think, is why I’m personally drawn to “gritty” stories. They’re rich with meaning.

(6) Inanimate Evil

I include this mostly as a footnote becuase it needs little explanation. This is the classic “(wo)man versus nature” story, where an uncaring and unresponsive natural force (i.e. the elements) forces a struggle for the protagonist to survive.

Conclusion

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Each category has subcategories and nuances to be explored (and isn’t that one of the great joys of writing?). More general categories could be appended to this. When I think of them, I’ll post an update. I’m also inclined to write more about creating the types of characters that fit into (5), or at least stories of ambivalent morality–that is, dispassion on the part of the narration about moral judgment, leaving such a task to the reader. For now, this seems sufficient.

RPG Design Journal #2: ANRPG’s Core Mechanic

For the first post in this series, click here.

Previously, I pontificated on my prefered particulars for an RPG ruleset for Avar Narn. If it’s been a short while since that first post, that’s not because I haven’t been working on the system–it’s because (as intimated in that first post) I spent a good deal of time working on a 3d6 core mechanic. Before returning to a dice pool mechanic.

What I’ve chosen is a d10 dice pool system, not unlike (in several ways, at least) the Storyteller system. Here are the particulars:

(1) A pool will typically be between 1 and 10 dice, with both Attributes and Skills rated between 1 and 5.
(2) The size of the dice pool may be modified up or down, but only by factors inherent to the acting character, such as injury. Dice pools may only exceed 10 when supernatural effects are in play.
(3) The “standard” target number for each die is 8, but this may be modified to 9 for disadvantageous circumstances or to 7 for advantageous ones. Each die meeting or exceeding the target number will count as a “hit.”
(4) Any die that rolls a 10 will count as two “hits.”
(5) The amount of “hits” needed to succeed at a task is called (for now, at least), the Threshold. Threshold is always between 1 and 8, with 1 being easy and 8 being near (but not) impossible. Anything that would be “very easy” isn’t worth rolling for and anything that would be “impossible” shouldn’t be rolled either–as common sense would dictate.

I’ve selected the above rules for the core mechanic in part because I like how the statistics work out. There’s enough granularity for a step up or down in dice to be a palpable change, for advantage/disadvantage to be important but not overwhelming, and steps within Threshold seem to have the right about of change to percentage success as well. It took the addition of rule (4) above to make the statistics work like I wanted to (I think–see previous comments on the importance of the feel of the statistics over the actual statistics). I must credit that idea to the fact that I’ve been reading the Wrath & Glory RPG recently (review on that in the near future).

We need to add a few additional interpretive aspects to the core mechanic to round out its effectiveness.

Particularly, an approach to “failing forward” and “success at cost” as well as a “margin of success” or “failure” in general.

Before any playtesting or development of subsytems, I’m thinking the following: If the roll generates a number of hits that is three or lower than the threshold, the roll is either outright failure or success at a major cost (depending upon consequences and narrative necessities). If the number of hits generated is only one or two lower than the Threshold, this should probably be a success at a minor cost. Remember this must be subject to what makes sense in the narrative. Sometimes it’s good to fail outright. Note also that this means that rolls with a Threshold between one and three are not going to fall into the “success at major cost” under these guidelines. I like to think of this as the “aim small, miss small” principle from The Patriot.

This can be flipped around for degrees of success as well. Reaching the Threshold exactly is success without any additional effect and extra hits can be viewed “success and a side benefit.”

Of course, some subsystems (like combat) will use the hard number of hits generated to determine degree of success or failure.

I’d like to come up with a good way to have the dice give some additional information aside from success or failure–like the “boons” and “banes” of the FFG Warhammer 3rd Edition dice. Using 1’s for negative effects seems a no-brainer, but with 10’s already counting as two hits, I’m not yet sure what I would do to balance for positive happenstance.

One thought I’m toying with is to have some of the dice differently colored (one in the first color, two in the second color and the rest in the “standard” color). This could allow the use of those three dice to be interpreted for particular other information in the roll if appropriate. The set up also allows us always to roll those three dice–if your dice pool is only one or two, you just look to the dice of the appropriate color for counting hits. Not sure if this extra complexity will be worth it, but it’s somethign I’m thinking on.

I’m also heavily leaning toward the idea of “dice bidding.” This mechanic allows the player to sacrifice dice from her pool to be counted as extra degrees of success if she meets the Threshold. It’s a classic risk versus reward mechanic, which I think fits thematically in the grit of Avar Narn.

I’ll be adding a resource to allow characters to purchase successes on rolls when they really need it, more on this to come.

With this core development in place, the next thing I’ll be doing is running an analysis on what kind of developed subsystems I think are necessary to give the game the right focus and feel.

Wilda

For a PDF version of this short story, click here: JM Flint – Avar Narn – Wilda.

Knox pushed the door behind him closed with his foot, his arms too full of preparatory knickknacks and gewgaws to allow the use of his hands. The latch to his humble apartment clicked in obeisance. Slowly, carefully, he let his acquisitions splay gently across the wooden floor, a clickerclack accompanying their dispersal. He turned back to the door, opened it, stuck his head out, peered in both directions of the street below, retreated, threw the bolt, and turned to close the shutters on the windows.

“Damn,” he said to himself as darkness engulfed the room. He pushed the nearest set of shutters back open just long enough to retrieve an old candle from the rickety nightstand near his straw-filled bed, the vermin within it scattering quickly as darkness fled from returning light. For a moment, his eyes lingered on the bed, the one they’d shared. It seemed to him that the bugs that made their home in his rough mattress had only come once she had gone, but he knew this to be untrue. He could remember their shared complaints come morning.

The candle lit, Knox again closed the last of the shutters, the darkness of the single room now pierced by faint, flickering glow, the candle defiant in its radiance. He had just enough illumination to find the other half-spent candles and to light them, leaving their new cousins arrayed on the floor where they had come to rest.

Satisfied with the room’s glow, Knox removed his work clothes: the worn leather belt that held his coin purse (now empty), the robe that marked him as a freelance thaumaturge, the heavy boots still caked with the dust of Asterfaen’s back streets and alleyways, the wooden rings enchanted to glitter as silver and gold in a display of his worldly success. Down to his shirt and small clothes, he folded his removed belongings and placed them on the room’s single table, pushed up against the far wall away enough from the bed to discourage the fleas from infesting his daily attire.

He moved again to the shutters, double-checking that he had latched and secured each of them, squinting to peer downward through the slats at the streets below. Finding nothing particularly suspicious—at least as far as he could see—he now turned himself to the work at hand.

Kneeling, he swept the scattered items into a small pile in the center of the room. From a roughspun satchel he retrieved a small carving knife. This he carried first to the wall to the left of the apartment’s door, selecting a spot between the shuttered windows. He drew the knife lightly over the plaster on the wall, careful to make only a faint outline of a design without punching into the wattle below. He bit his lip, holding the knife by its blade for extra dexterity, as he sketched out the design: an intricate geometry of shapes and stray lines, runic symbols punctuating the empty space between. When he had traced the last angle, he stepped back from the wall, fetched a candle and returned to examine his work in detail. Satisfied, he returned the candle and brought blade to plaster once again, this time deepening the design, but still cautious with the drawing’s depth.

The sigil complete, Knox pressed his hand up against it, furrowing his brow in concentration as he softly but speedily recited an incantation, summoning the Power and drawing it into the arcane geometries of the design he had carved. A working of obfuscation and occultation, a shield for his work against the prying eyes of the Vigil. Damn them and their overzealous monopoly on the determination of permissible and impermissible workings. The thought nearly broke his concentration, but he caught himself and focused on the incantation, the formalization of his will. He spoke the final words and reached out his arcane senses to ensure that the sigil now contained the product of his work. It did.

He now repeated the process on the opposite wall. Midway through his etching, there came a knock at his door. Briefly startled, Knox collected himself with a curse, and glanced about the room. Plaster dust had collected on the floor beneath his sigils. The use of candlelight in the daytime looked suspicious at best. But there was nothing for it; he had no time to tidy up before answering the knock.

Knox unbolted the door and swung it open just wide enough to stick his face through the gap. He squinted at the profundity of the daylight, taking a moment before the face of his neighbor Beatrice came into focus. A pretty woman—or she had been before years of hard living had taken their toll—Knox remembered that she plied her own trade during the night. He had even considered visiting her himself after Wilda had gone, but his sense of loyalty prevented him.

“How do you think I’m supposed’a sleep with you scratchin’ at me walls like some monster in the night? You gonna take care a’ me if I can’t work tonight? Got some spare cuts to pay my time?”

“Well, no—” Knox began before she cut him off with the wave of her hand, sweeping her long blonde hair from her neck to her back, as if removing an obstacle to her impending assault.

“An’ another thing, why’s it so dark in there? And why aintcha workin’ today?”

Knox scrunched his face in a sudden bout of frustration and disgust. Disgust for her incessant and childish questions. Disgust for her profession. Disgust for his own attraction to her. Without even thinking about it, his left hand began to twitch behind his back, forming shifting shapes as an aid to his thaumaturgy.

He looked Beatrice straight in her doe-like eyes, green as summer ponds filled with algae and fallen moss. “You are interfering with my work, girl,” he spat, malevolence filling his speech. “I have no time for the likes of foolish whores too stupid to understand the vagaries of thaumaturgy. Who are you to question me, one who has studied at the universities, has touched secrets you shall never comprehend, has power at his beck and call the likes of which you cannot imagine?”

She stepped away from him on instinct, her back to the rail of the third-story balcony that connected the apartments. But her resolve returned quickly, joined by a fire Knox had not expected. His working had failed—he had been too subtle with it—and only his words had frightened her. Damn, he thought to himself.

“Who are you to speak to me that way? Aye, you may’ve been to a university, but you failed there, dincha? You’re a common street thaumaturge, no magus, and not even a good one at that. You wouldn’t be living next to honest whores and other common folk if you could work the Practice with any skill, wouldcha? The only secrets you know are how to drive off a good woman.”

Now, fury welled within Knox—because he knew she spoke true, at least except for her last insult. He had performed poorly during his time as a student; he’d tried several universities before he realized that he’d never be a magus, that his life as a thaumaturgic drudge performing minor workings for those who could afford him had been long before preordained. By the time he had come to the realization, though, the debt he had accrued in his attempt at greatness had forced him into the poverty of the rickety apartment building in the slums of Asterfaen—more so that his creditors could not find him than to save the money to pay them. He had attempted to find employ with the Artificer Houses, where he would have lived a grand life even as an arcane cog in the machines of Artificial production, but the Houses sneered at his modest skill.

He found some employ within the city, using thaumaturgy to enhance the parties of wealthy merchants with illusory spectacles, or to assist some black-thumbed wife of a minor noble with her gardening. But he was the one they summoned when more proficient freelance thaumaturges had already found employment; he lived off the scraps of his arcane superiors. The jobs were few and far between, and he had learned to ration his modest earnings to tide him until his next employment.

Almost he had come to terms with all of this. With a silent resignation, he had slumped defeatedly into the details of his life and his work. Until he met Wilda. A barmaid, sure, but her pleasure in the simple joys of life had simultaneously made him forget the rest and desire to rise above. She had inspired him in all things, supported him in all things, become all things to him. But she was gone now, and Beatrice’s last words stung too deep to not respond.

Throwing the door wide open, he produced the carving knife and held it to Beatrice’s face as he pushed her against the balcony’s railing, lifting her heels so that she rested on the tips of her toes and struggled to maintain balance. Knox found that he enjoyed the fear in her eyes more than he would have enjoyed an apology for her harshness.

He reached behind her and pulled her golden locks taut between their faces, lingering for a moment before sawing at the hairs with the blade to remove a tattered keepsake.

“You know what a thaumaturge can do to you with a piece of your body, yes?” he whispered to her, the lowered volume more malicious than shouting could have been.

“Y-yes,” she said, nodding slowly.

“Good. Then go back into your squalid pen and trouble me no more.”

When he stepped back from her she clutched at her hair as if sorely wounded, sobbing and shuffling away to her adjacent apartment, slamming the door shut and bolting it hurriedly. Knox smiled to himself, at least until he spied in the street below an old washerwoman, stopped in the middle of pouring out a tub of brackish water to mix with all the other refuse and offal slowly wending its way downhill. She glowered at him until his own hard stare forced her to finish her task and skitter back to whence she came.

Nosy neighbors driven off, he returned to the darkness of his apartment, letting the seized hair scatter to the wind before he did. He’d never been a competent theurgist anyway; the ritual with which he now concerned himself would have been unthinkable were it not for his desperation.

The door latched and bolted once again, his eyes slowly adjusting to the flickering firelight, he continued to etch out the sigil in the plaster on the wall he shared with Beatrice. He could hear her sobs, barely suppressed, between the strokes of his blade. Like the first, he imbued this arcane symbol with the Power before making similar designs in the door and the one wall that remained.

He paused for a minute now, trying to recall the next step. Sifting the thoughts racing through his mind proved of no avail, so he stepped delicately over the paraphernalia he’d left haphazardly strewn across the floor as he made his way to his bed. This he pushed aside, exposing the wood floor beneath. With the tip of his carving knife, he pried away the loose board and stuck his hand inside the revealed space, pulling forth a crumpled stack of parchment like some illusionist’s trick.

Held up to the candlelight, he reordered the pages until he believed he had set them right again; his nervousness about being discovered with such contraband prevented him from careful organization the last time he had retrieved and studied them. He mumbled the words softly to himself as he worked through the text, seeking his place among the myriad preparatory steps.

Only at great cost had he copied these pages from Cadessia eld Caithra’s A Practical Guide to Deep Conjury, a book forbidden by the Vigil to all but the most renowned of magisters. He had posed as a student at the University to gain access to the library, though by now his ability to pass for the age of students admitted to the study of the Practices stretched credulity. The dark of night had helped. Upon entry to the repository of arcane texts, he had followed memory to the location of those texts preserved for the most trusted of practitioners—usually vigilants investigating reports for evidence of occult malefice—but barred to general study or reference.

These texts, like those who might employ them, were kept in a dungeon built below the library proper, deprived of both light and regular visitation, with only each other to keep company. Only students of the Practices could enter the section of the library where the scrolls and codices of arcana were kept. The stone archway dividing the library’s mundane and arcane sections had been, since well before Knox’s time there, affectionately referred to as the Gargoyle’s Gate, flanked as it was by two examples of the alchemical prowess of the Old Aenyr (which had long since been quieted of course, though students often complained that the eyes of those stone beasts tracked them as they passed). Gargoyle’s Gate always had at least one student being groomed for the Vigil at guard. This, however, had proved a minor obstacle, as the young men and women posted there typically had not yet overcome their anxiety over confronting those who might enter the restricted area. There were always gawkers, mundane students and the like, attempting to enter that much-whispered-about section of the library through bluster, diversion or sheer bravado.

The texts available in the general repository of the arcane, while useful to those with the Gift, were quite useless to those without the long training and innate capabilities necessary to make sense of—much less employ—the information within. Access to this area, which Knox had visited so many times as a student himself, had been no true hindrance.

But that sunken dungeon where the idolatrous, heretical and blasphemous texts lay under lock and key, magical ward, and active guard by full members of the Vigil, that constituted a barrier to Knox’s goal. To access this sanctum had taken all of his cunning. And not cunning alone; he had called in every favor owed to him, spent every coin he could save, stretched his own Gift to the breaking point (and likely beyond) in the acquisition of the pages he held now, carefully cut from the tome that had held them in the few moments he had managed within the treasure house of knowledge.

He had bribed several students to distract the vigilants while he made his foray into the forbidden section, had solicited the help of outlaw practitioners to assault the vault’s wards and protections (he shuddered to think at the favors they would require of him in recompense for such assistance), had learned from thieves and burglars the art and craft of picking a lock.

The cost paid, he held within his hands those yellowed pages that he had cut from eld Caithra’s tome. Ordered, or at least he hoped he had organized them properly, he paced absentmindedly back to the center of the room, his toe stubbing against the heavy sack of his ritual materials.

This he picked up a stick of blue chalk, the result of an ultramarine pigment that would have been far too expensive for him had he purchased it from reputable sources, from next to the sack. His poverty allowed him no such luxury as to question the provenance of such goods.

Glancing back and forth to the stolen pages of eld Caithra’s manual, Knox turned his attention to drawing on the apartment’s floor, a large circle of Power, far more complex and intricate than the minor sigils he had affixed to the walls and empowered through his Will. Complex geometries met with runes the likes of which Knox had never seen—not even during his time at the universities. He quickly abandoned any attempt to make sense of the design with the poor amount of thaumaturgical theory he had retained; he simply hoped that his trust in eld Caithra had not been misplaced.

His circle complete and unbroken, he stood up to compare it against the diagram on eld Caithra’s stolen pages. If any discrepancy existed, he did not see it. A pang of doubt twisted in his stomach, eating away at him slowly, subtly. This drove him back to the bag of essentials, where he fished out a small earthenware bottle. In a well-practiced motion, he removed the cork and brought the lip of the bottle to his own parched lips, drawing a long swig of hard brandy. He returned the cork to the bottle and set it on the table; by the time this was done Knox could feel the liquor dulling the edges of his consciousness ever so delightfully.

Next came the fresh candles. One by one, Knox lit each with a minor sorcery, found its intended location on eld Caithra’s diagrams, dripped a small amount of wax onto the floor and pushed the bottom of the candle in, forming a semi-stable base as the dripped wax cooled. Thirteen candles in all, most of them set at the odd intersections of the lines of the circle of Power, but a few in places unexpected in and around the drawn symbols.

The new candles added their own flickering light to the old, changing the forms of the dancing shadows that adorned the walls, turning them into a churning ocean of dark shapes flowing back and forth tumultuously. These caught Knox’s attention for some time; he discerned shapes within the shadows that instinct told him were wrong. He had no explanation for it, too poor an understanding of natural philosophy to dress the feeling in words, but subconscious experience told him that something had changed, that the shadows no longer behaved as they ought. Despite the brandy, fear—not doubt, this time—surged within him, particularly as he guessed at the meaning of the wayward shadows.

For this working, however, the shadows were no mere side-effect of the Power, nor an indication of a mistake made along the way. Quite the opposite; the menacing and seemingly-autonomous forms of darkness occupying the corners of the apartment proved that he had followed his instructions properly. His preparation had worn the Veil thin here.

Another swig of the brandy, this one shorter than the first. He needed to quiet his mind just enough that he would not run screaming from the room once he began the ritual proper, but needed to retain his wits enough for the precise and delicate work of mind and hands that success required. He waited after the drink for a moment, letting the effects sink in, practicing the handforms he used as aids to his thaumaturgical workings to test the dexterity left to him, shaking his head slightly to test his balance, reciting bawdy songs from the taverns he frequented to check the agility of his unsober thoughts.

From this point onward, there could be no haphazard approach; no period for desultory preparation remained to him. Considering the state of his mind, he took one more tiny sip from the bottle, recorked it, and placed it near where he would be sitting for the ritual. He expected hours in the doing of this thing and did not doubt that he would need to refresh his courage from time to time.

He peered through the slats in the shutters one more time, listened for Beatrice’s sobbing at his apartment wall. Neither movement in the street below nor sound from the adjacent hovel met his attention. From the bag he pulled the remaining instruments: a small but ornate wooden knife, its edge sanded fine and sharp, occult symbols painstakingly carved along both handle and blade; a small bronze bowl, plain and utilitarian; a thin clay jar filled with charcoal mixed with the crushed leaves of the elder tree, petals of the bitter nightshade, bits of the weeping greycap; a vial of clear river water; a wide, shallow bowl carved from a single piece of wood; a clay talisman that had been buried beneath the gallows before an execution.

Laying out the items, he sat before the circle of Power. The charcoal mix he poured into the bronze bowl, the river water into the wooden. He set the athame and the talisman directly before his folded legs. Everything readied, the ritual commenced in earnest.

Knox spoke the opening words softly and in a circle, beginning again once he had completed the incantation. At first he read the lines from the page he held before him, but soon he closed his eyes and recited from memory, hoping that his pronunciation would be acceptable to whatever spirits controlled the ritual’s success—it had been some time indeed since he had read anything in Old Aenyr, much less spoken the tongue aloud.

Seven times seven repetitions he made, just as eld Caithra instructed him. His closed eyes prevented him from seeing the frenetic swaying of the living shadows that surrounded him, but he could feel on his skin the candles’ flames flickering, leaning and dancing with greater intensity, reaching out to caress his skin. Several times he felt he had been burned, but he dared not open his eyes to check, lest he misspeak the words of Power, or forget the number of times he had said them.

The initial incantation complete, he opened his eyes to again reference the pages of Deep Conjury. He shuffled the pages several times, doing his best to ignore the unnatural movements of both light and shadow around him, before he found his place again.

The next part he had dreaded since first reading it. For a moment, he considered bullying Beatrice into joining him, using her blood to fulfill the ritual’s coming requirement. Shaking his head, he decided against it. She may have wounded him metaphorically, but he found himself unwilling to return the favor literally. Besides, he had committed many crimes simply to acquire the means to perform the ritual; he had to draw a line somewhere or risk losing himself completely.

He moved the bronze bowl into a smaller circle at the center of the ritual design he had created in chalk. Then he took the wooden knife in his right hand. With his left, he positioned the talisman in a convenient spot before him. With a deep breath, he opened his left hand and dragged the blade across his palm, leaving a crimson line that burned hot in its wake. Though Knox had prepared himself as best he could, he had doggedly remained a stranger to pain in his life, and this wound stung deep and sharp. He bit his lip to prevent a string of obscenities from spewing forth involuntarily.

He dropped the knife more than placed it on the floor, squeezing his cut palm against itself and letting the beads of blood that dripped from between his fingers fall onto the talisman. When the face of the talisman had become fully red, he tore a strip of cloth from the sack. This he wrapped tightly around his palm before taking another swig of the brandy, carefully gauging the amount—enough to dull the pain, not so much as to ruin the progress he’d made. Now, at least, he could blame the odd movements of flame and shadow on his own inebriation.

He delicately balanced the bloody talisman on top of the pile of charcoal and plant parts in the bronze bowl. Lifting the page containing the next incantation to his eyes, he began to chant again, this time slightly louder than before. Seven times seven repetitions of the words, spoken without ceasing, the pattern itself becoming a mesmerizing focus. Or perhaps that was simply the brandy catching up to him.

Knox did his best to silence his inner monologue, focusing on nothing but the recitation of the proper words. At this point, the ritual had become truly dangerous. Before, failure had simply meant failure: nothing, no discernable result. Now, though, a mistake carried the potential to call something across the Veil that should not be allowed across that threshold. For such a contingency, he knew he was unprepared. He had no margin for error.

As he chanted, he could feel hands drifting lightly across his back, fingers barely making contact with him in a way that chilled far more than any firmer touch. Without looking, he knew the source of the sensation; the shadows that had been waiting in the corners of the room reached for him, pushing through the Veil just enough to cause sensation, but not enough to truly manifest. Or so he hoped.

When he concluded this latest invocation of Power, the talisman cracked into two halves, somehow causing the bowl’s contents to ignite in a gout of blue flame accompanied by an acrid stench. The fire in the bowl, despite settling to a modest size, overpowered all other light in the room, bathing everything in its azure aura. The shadows’ touches came now with greater force behind them, as if poking and prodding at Knox to continue.

Continue he did. He moved the bowl of water in front of him, stared into it as he spoke the next words: “Alilvai, Wilda, tasnaqynar. Alilvai, Wilda, tasnqynar!” For some time he repeated the words to no effect. He began to wonder whether he had done something wrong, misspoken the words. This made him wonder whether, at any moment, some other spirit might pass through the thinness in the Veil he had created and destroy him. These thoughts together threatened to break all concentration. With a great effort of will, he pushed them aside. For now.

He had lost count of how many times he had repeated the phrase. Fortunately, this one stage in the ritual required persistence rather than precision. Finally, the water in the bowl began to ripple of its own accord, as if unseen droplets had fallen into the center of the pool and disturbed it. The wake of these invisible intrusions brought the water to the very lip of the bowl; for a brief instant, Knox wondered whether it would spill over.

When the water settled, a face appeared on its surface, as if it had become a mirror reflecting the visage of the one who looked into it. But it was not Knox’s face that appeared in the liquid.

Nevertheless, he recognized that face immediately; many times and in great detail had studied its lines, its movements, the freckles and creases, the ridge of the cheekbones and slightly crooked nose. Wilda stared back at him from within the bowl. But her face remained inanimate, unmoving, ignorant of his presence.

This was no mere séance, and Knox had begun with far more in mind than simply recalling her appearance to a bowl of water. This was a step along the way. A crucial step, after all the preparation he had done, but otherwise a relatively minor one. Even so, he could not stop his heart beating faster when he looked upon her face again. For a brief moment, he ignored the blue flame, the oddly moving shadow-forms, the scratching sound that incessantly scraped at the edge of his hearing. There was only Wilda, just as it had been when she had lived with him for that too-brief time.

Remembering his purpose, he took the bowl carefully in both hands and, attentive not to disturb the circle he had drawn in blue chalk, which, in the light of the flickering blue flame now seemed to emanate a light of its very own, he gently poured the water containing Wilda’s face into the fire.

A great gout of steam issued forth from the rapidly-evaporating water, though the fire remained unchanged in its form or intensity. Knox stepped back and stood watching as the steam resolved itself into a form, abstract at first but coalescing into an ever-denser structure until the shape of a human woman occupied the space that had been filled only with vapor. When the form became undeniably Wilda, Knox could not make out where the steam had gone, leaving only this person—fully colored though not entirely opaque—in the room with him. He gasped audibly.

Wilda looked around the room and then to Knox, her confusion plain on her face. “Why have you called me here?” she asked.

“Wilda, it’s me, Knox.”

She focused on him, her brow furrowing in concentration, as if she’d been farsighted and had forgotten to bring her spectacles. Recognition washed over her and her strain became a contented smile. “Knox, my dear. You should not have done this.” Her tone remained at once serious and yet tinged with playfulness. She had always been that way, able to call him out and keep him on the right path without scolding.

She brushed his cheek with the back of her hand; it felt as the slow rush of a heavy wind over his face. Intoxicating and yet ephemeral. “You’re sweet, my love,” she continued, “but you know you cannot keep me here. My time Between is nearing its end. I can feel it. Soon, I’ll be born into the Avar anew, to start a new life and continue on the Path.”

“I’ll find you.”

“Don’t be foolish, my love. Not even an archmagus of the Conclave could be sure of the past lives of any soul. And you are many things, many great things, my love. But you are not an archmagus.”

A tear ran down Knox’s face. “I can’t lose you.”

“Nothing is ever lost, my love. Not forever. We may not be together for some time, but in the end, when we have both walked out Paths to their conclusion, when we have ascended to the Promised Kingdom, we will be united. I know it.”

“I don’t know how I’ll make it that long,” Knox complained.

“But you will.”

He knew there was nothing more to say on the matter, nothing either of them could do. He changed the subject, if only in attempt to avoid collapsing further into despair. “What is it like Between?”

“How long have I been gone, my love?”

“About a year.”

“That long?”

“It took me that long to prepare for all of this,” he said.

“That’s not what I meant, dear. It feels like I’ve not been there long at all.”

“So it must be a pleasant place, then. Tell me about it.”

She opened her spectral mouth to speak, but a strange look crossed her face, as if the words simply would not come. “It is on the tip of my tongue, but I cannot describe it to you.” She paused for a moment, if feeling her way blindly through some force that barred free expression. “I can only say that I have been content there, but there is a growing sadness and fear in that place.”

Knox considered the words, let the existential angst of the revelation sink in. “Are you safe?”

She smiled. “As I said, I am leaving soon. You will see what it is like for yourself one day, as you have before and will many times again. But you will not remember everything until the end, when you are finally made whole. It is as we are taught—when in the Avar, it is hard to remember the Between; when Between, it is hard to remember the Avar.”

“Do you mean you’re leaving the Between soon or you’re leaving here soon?” he asked.

“Both, my love. I cannot stay forever. We are lucky that I could come at all. Perhaps it is a testament that we are meant to be together.”

“I—” he began, but a heavy crack against the apartment door stopped him cold. Both he and his paramour turned to look.

The door visibly buckled inward against the strain of the second strike and small cracks in the boards revealed themselves, but it did not break until the third strike. It splintered inward, shards striking Knox and scratching him, passing through Wilda’s phantom without resistance.

Immediately, two cloaked men stepped into the room, swords drawn. Night had long since fallen, but more men stood ready on the balcony, and in the wavering torchlight Knox thought he saw Beatrice, her jaw clenched in vengeful defiance.

A look of surprise briefly passed over the two men’s faces, but this quickly changed into hardened guardedness as they adopted fighting stances and divided their attention between Knox and the shadow-forms that seemed to have retreated into the darker corners of the room, still moving with an unnatural intelligence. Their swords had been engraved with runes that faintly glowed red, a response to the arcane Power that filled the space.

Under their cloaks the men wore a strange mix of gear. Breastplates over black brigandines protected their chests, with pistols tucked into the blue sashes over their waists. But the bandolier that ran over their breastplates held not charges for their firearms but small potion vials, miniature scrolls, and assorted talismans and arcane devices. Sheathed next to their sword scabbard they carried both wand and rod; the pouches on their sword belts were undoubtedly filled with other occult gewgaws. Knox knew them before they announced themselves, had half-expected their arrival despite his obfuscatory wards.

“In the name of the Vigil—” one began.

Before he could finish, Knox was already moving. Yelling, “I love you; I’m sorry,” he slid his foot back across the circle of Power, smearing chalk and breaking it. The shadows leapt from the corners of the room, unliving but animate, sufficiently manifested in the Avar to attack the vigilants physically.

Chaos broke out; the cloaked men attempted simultaneously to defend themselves with their blades—despite the small space in which to move—and to summon sorcerous power against the dark spirits that assaulted them. The vigilants outside on the balcony began incanting, preparing more powerful thaumaturgies of banishing to assist their brothers. Beatrice’s scream of terror pierced all other sounds.

In the pandemonium, Knox passed through the spirit form of his dead lover, again feeling the density of the air pass around him. He kicked the fiery bowl in the center of the circle hard, bouncing coals and container alike against the room’s back wall. Almost immediately, his bed caught fire, burning bright and blue.

He turned to look behind him and saw that Wilda had disappeared, likely as soon as the makeshift brazier moved from its ritual placement. The life-and-death struggle between the unclean spirits and the vigilants raged and, as Knox had hoped, he had created an opportunity. He moved to one of the windows in the apartment’s outer wall, threw open the shutters and began to scramble his way out of the hole. The crack of a pistol rang out and Knox could feel as much as hear the shotte zip past him and into the adjacent wall. He did not waste any time looking back.

Knox had not done much climbing since he was a child; even then he had not been as capable as the other boys, scrawny and somewhat sickly as he was in his youth. Worse, his head spun with brandy, clouding both judgment and sense of direction. But the adrenaline carried him far enough, and he scurried about halfway down the outside of the apartment building before he slipped and fell. His feet landed in the muddy de-facto gutter that ran alongside the street below, sliding out from under him and rocking him painfully onto his back.

But he hadn’t struck his head on a stone and his sliding across the mud had probably stopped him from breaking an ankle. He hurt, but not enough to stop him from picking himself up and clambering into the alleyways of the slums, into the darkness that surrounded him now like a comforting blanket.

As he walked briskly away, destination unknown, he could see the flames of his old apartment building rising into the night, excited yells and commands flying into the air like so many embers. It deserved to burn, he thought. Perhaps a whole world that would take his Wilda from him deserved to burn.

A Shameless Plug for my Fiction

It’s part of the name of the blog, so it should be easy to find, right? Recently, I’ve been working on some new short stories for my fantasy setting (Avar Narn), which will be posted to the site soon. I’m very excited about them, and I think you’ll enjoy them–particularly if you’re a fan of dark and gritty fantasy. I’ve also recently made some changes to the blog to make the existing Avar Narn fiction easier to find and read.

First, I’ve created a category on the blog that holds only Avar Narn fiction (with separate categories holding detail about the setting and notes on my experience writing fiction for Avar Narn). Second, I’ve added PDF copies of each of the short stories, so that you can download them for later and read them in (what I think, anyway) is a better format than the relatively-limited formatting of a blog post.

To make it even easier, especially if you’re coming to my blog for the first time, here are links to each of the currently-posted stories:

“Poetics of Parting”
“Collections”
“Kenning”
“The Siege of Uthcaire”
“Rites of Passage”