Free Book Promotion Is Live

Well, here it goes. The free book promotion on Amazon is live! Now through the 28th you can get Clockwork & Old Gods for free.

 

Want a free book?

Hey folks, I’ve got an announcement for you. My book will be available absolutely free on Amazon from Friday the 24th through Tuesday the 28th. If you’d like a copy, or know somebody who might like a free (and DRM free!) epic fantasy/steampunk mashup, let them know! Linky links:

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Short Fiction: Oh… hello

Art by Alexander Forssberg

Art by Alexander Forssberg

 

Dragon lairs were notoriously hard to get to. Mostly they nested in the mountains, but every once in a while they’d choose to take over the remains of an abandoned castle or an island in the middle of a lake somewhere. The one Cara was after had chosen, by all the signs she could find, to settle into a series of maze-like canyons the locals called Garth’s Folley. She had no idea who Garth was or why the canyons were named after him, and she honestly hadn’t cared enough to delve into it. All that mattered was she’d found her dragon.

Finding it was, of course, the easy part. Those dragon hunters that lived long enough to develop a strategy usually preferred a slow, careful approach. The longer you stayed hidden, the closer you could get, the better your odds. Rushing in with sword drawn and hollering a battle cry was a sure way to crispy, crunchy death. So it was with some trepidation that Cara simply walked into Garth’s Folley with little preparation and no real plan.

Oh, she wasn’t completely unprepared. She had armor… sort of. Second hand shoulder pauldrons, a beaten up breastplate under a threadbare tabard, and there were a few square pieces of metal that might generously be called bracers strapped to her forearms. Her leather pants were more suited to travel by horseback than combat, but she told herself it would be better than simple cloth. She did have a sword, though it hadn’t come with a shield. In hindsight, a shield seemed rather important when it came to facing down fire breathing dragons. Well, live and learn. Hopefully.

Most importantly, the dragon she’d tracked down was a young one. She hoped its relative inexperience in eating dragon hunters would give her the opportunity she needed. Otherwise… she tried not to dwell on whether it would be crunchy or crispy, because neither sounded particularly appealing.

Cara had been wandering the canyon for almost three days, and was starting to worry she hadn’t brought enough food, when she first caught sight of her quarry. At first it was a shadow moving across the canyon floor, something she mistook as a cloud moving across the sun. But clouds didn’t let out bowl clenching shrieks like the one that came a second later. Startled, she turned her gaze skyward.

Up above the great winged beast lazily circled overhead, giving Cara the impression of a hawk with its eye on a field mouse. The mouse, of course, was probably her. She pushed back against the rough rock of the canyon wall, hoping it hadn’t seen her after all. If it decided to swoop down on her there wouldn’t be any chance of self defense.

Luckily it either hadn’t seen her, or had its eye on a different mouse, for when it tucked its wings and dove it disappeared into another part of the canyon. She saw it several times after that, always in the sky, and from those brief glimpses she guessed at what must be the direction of its lair.

Even then, finding her way towards it through the labyrinth of rock was a difficult task. At last, with food dangerously low, she found signs that she was on the right track. First was a bone from an animal she couldn’t place, cracked and pitted with teeth marks. The further she went the more bones there were, scattered carelessly across the canyon floor, occasionally in small piles. More telling were the scales. She’d heard about how dragons molted, and knew good condition scales could sell for a nice price in some places.

But now wasn’t the time for treasure hunting. The real prize was close. If this was where the dragon ate, where it kept its hoard would be close by. And if the dragon was home it would be with its hoard.

Creeping slowly through the bones she heard a deep, rumbling snort, and froze in her tracks. It had come from a turn in the canyon just up ahead. It was here, just like she wanted. Brandishing the sword in front of her, Cara swallowed hard and continued on, using the sound of what she now believed to the dragon’s snores to mask her footsteps. She took one more steadying breath, clenched her teeth, and turned the corner to see… nothing.

No dragon. No hoard, even. The canyon simply ended in a dusty, empty dead end. And yet the sound had definitely come from here, she was sure of it. She walked further in, curiously looking around for somewhere the dragon could be hiding. A hidden cave entrance maybe, or… or maybe this was a trap. The realization hit her like a punch in the gut. The dragon noises had stopped. If it had been here – she looked up to the sky, wondering if it was above her, waiting to pounce.

“Shit,” she breathed. “Where are you? You had to have gone somewhere!”

“Looking for me?” A low, thickly accented voice rumbled from behind her.

Cara spun to face the dragon, sword raised in a token gesture of defense. How had it gotten behind her, and without making a noise? “Oh,” she croaked weakly, “Hello…”

It stalked slowly forward, a menacing growl issuing from the back of its throat. She retreated until there was nowhere left to go, and pressed her back into the wall. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Not at all. The dragon’s nose was almost close enough to touch the tip of her sword. It was not impressed. Not at all. But she wasn’t dead yet, and that gave her an opportunity.

“Wait!” she plead. “Don’t eat me yet! I’m not here to kill you or steal your hoard, I swear!”

“Good thing,” the dragon snorted, blowing a gust of hot, fetid breath across her face. “You wouldn’t have succeeded at either. So why are you here, soft one? I’ve been watching you for days as you wandered these canyons. You’re no warrior. You don’t even have a shield. I’ve eaten better warriors than you with one eye closed.”

“Right, I knew I should have gotten a shield. I mean, um…” Cara looked at her sword, then back at the dragon. She only had one chance to get this right. She dropped the sword and tried to stand up straight. “I need your help.”

This, at least, seemed to take the dragon by surprise. “Oh?” it drolled. “How unusual. What could I possibly help you with?”

“Well,” Cara took a breath and made a squinting, sheepish face. “I need you to kidnap a princess…”

The dragon was silent for several seconds. Cara began to worry it would just eat her anyway, but eventually it settled onto its belly on the floor, legs folded underneath, and snapped those terrifying teeth together several times. “How wonderfully cliche,” it said, snapping teeth again. Cara began to suspect this was the dragon version of a laugh. “Why?” it asked.

So she laid it all out. How she had been hired as a tutor to teach the king’s daughter. How they’d fallen in love, how the king had found out and banished her, and how the princess had become betrothed to the prince of another land.

“If we ran,” Cara explained, “The king would know. He’d come after us, chase us to the end of the world to get his daughter back. And to punish me. But if she were taken by a dragon…”

“Ah,” the dragon nodded. “He would think she’d been eaten, or whatever it is dragons are supposed to do with kidnapped princesses.”

“Right,” Cara agreed. “At the very least he wouldn’t think to come after us. I know dragons don’t usually help people… but will you? If you told me what you hoard, I’m sure I could find something to pay you with.”

“Do you know why dragons never help anyone?” it asked, slitted yellow eyes narrowed. “It’s because no one ever asks. And this… this is so wonderfully out of the ordinary I’ll do it for free. Tell me more about this princess of yours…”

 

Random Thought

Earlier today I thought Sneezus would be a great name for a god of allergies. Then I thought, maybe Sneezus is just the earthly envoy of the god Histamine, spreading around handfuls of pollen like some weird, itchy, wheezing Johnny Appleseed. This is how my mind works.

News!

So, news! I’ve finally gotten around to enrolling my book (Clockwork & Old Gods) in Amazon’s KDP Select. In order to make that happen I had to remove it from everywhere else – Smashwords, B&N, etc. I wasn’t getting much in the way of sales elsewhere anyway, so hopefully this move helps some.

KDP Select also gives the option to run a five day promotion during which the book is free, and I’ll be setting one of those up soon to try and bump my Amazon sales rank a bit.

For anyone interested, and for anyone who wants to maybe help spread word around, you can find the book here:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BAW4MYW

Short Fiction: The Skull

Det' by Streycat on Deviantart

Det’ by Streycat on Deviantart

 

It was a dark night, but not an  unpleasant one. The cool temperature only warranted her favorite striped hoodie. Though there was no moon the sky was clear, and the stars provided some light to see by. Klair knew the way through the woods by heart these days, and as she clambered over fallen trees or pushed through underbrush she made sure to keep a firm hold on the bundle she carried.

It was truly precious cargo. After all she’d gone through to get it Klair wasn’t about to lose it in the dark of the woods. She was almost to her destination – a low hill covered in trees, brush, and tall weeds. If you didn’t know where to look you never would have found the small hole that served as an entrance.

When she was younger Klair would have been able to shimmy through it with no trouble at all. Now, year after year, she found she had to keep widening it. Little by little it was becoming a proper door, and harder to hide. Not that anybody came out here if they could help it, but you never knew when somebody might go wandering the deep woods.

The hill was a barrow, an ancient tomb of stone covered over in countless years of dirt. She crawled through the hole into the barrow, bundle pushed ahead of her. Once inside she dusted herself off. A soft glow lit the space, welcoming and inviting as it always was when she visited. Three stone sarcophagi filled the center of the space, and a small altar took up the far wall.

Klair carefully removed the linen wrapping of her package. It fell away to reveal the gleaming white of ancient bone, round and smooth.

“I found your skull,” she said. The words echoed through the crypt, careening from damp wall to damp wall before settling into the dirt floor.

“Ah,” the answer was a gurgling sigh, as if the breath that fed it was drawn through lungs thick with mucus. But there was no mucus. There were no lungs. There was no breath. Klair wondered if her mentor affected the sound because it was the way he sounded when last he could remember, or if there was some other reason.

She set the skull atop the center sarcophagus, next to a collection of other bones. So far she’d managed to recover a full left leg (toes and all), part of a right arm (with assorted fingers), and eight ribs. Because The Enemy couldn’t have just kept the torso all in one place. No, that would have been too easy.

There was a moment of profound silence, as if the very possibility of sound had been sucked from the air. Her ears popped, and all was back to normal.

“Good,” the voice gurgled. It came from everywhere at once, as if it had soaked into the very stones that made the walls. “It is correct. Thank you, Klair. You did well. The jaw?”

“Separated from the skull, of course,” she sighed. “And I’m probably going to have to track down each individual tooth. They did want to make it as hard as possible, didn’t they?”

“Indeed they did. Whatever else their sins, you cannot fault them for their diligence.”

“Not so diligent these days.” Klair ran a hand through her raven hair and rolled her amber eyes. “The clues they left themselves are so buried in dogma and allegory they don’t even know what I’m after when I steal a tome or relic. They know they’re protecting something, but the what and why?” She shook her head sadly. “It makes me wonder. If they knew, would they even agree with their ancestors? Or would they help me? Sometimes I’m tempted to try and explain it to them. You could do so much for the world, if only they weren’t so afraid. If only they knew you like I do.”

“As much as I applaud the sentiment, I must disagree. While they are oblivious we have the advantage. Explain to them their true purpose and they may blindly move to protect those parts of my body that remain unclaimed. More than making your task more difficult it could place you in further danger, and I will not have that.”

“Pfft.” Klair sat down with her back against a sarcophagus and looked up at the ceiling. “You worry too much.”

“What is that you’re wearing?”

Klair touched the ring of thorny vines that wrapped around her right wrist. A matching tangle encircled her neck, like some ancient necklace. She’d almost forgotten they were there. “Druidic charms,” she explained. “Would you believe there was a cursed forest between your noggin and the rest of the world?”

“The cursed forest is no surprise. My enemies would go to any length to keep my remains isolated. But Druids… I didn’t expect any would remain.”

“That’s a yes, no, sort of, tricky kinda question,” Klair replied. “They weren’t exactly alive. In fact, they were kind of the curse. But we worked it out.”

“And you came to no harm?”

“A few scrapes and bruises, that’s all. Hey, I’ve got a line on your other leg. Well, part of it. The upper bit. Think I’ll head out in a couple days. This one might take a while.”

“There is no need to rush. I’ve waited this long already, and impatience was never in my nature.”

“Maybe not yours,” Klair muttered. “The sooner I put you back together, the sooner you can come back and make things right.”

Goyle Country Update: dogs ain’t people

Hey, here’s a new Goyle Country update (at 2489 words, no less). In which dogs aren’t people, even though some people think they think they are (and that wasn’t a typo). And a plan is put in motion!

 

<A temple indeed,> Hevak intoned, the deep rumble of his words translated once again by the Spirits. <A temple to the hubris and arrogance of the ones who came before.>

Katherine took a moment to look around at all that was displayed on the walls. “I’m surprised you keep it around.”

The Speaker turned to face her, head tilted slightly. <Whatever else they did, whatever else they were, we cannot forget they created us. We keep this to remind ourselves of the good they did, and of all the good they could have done. And above all, to ensure we do not become like them. The last is a lesson some of my people have sadly forgotten.>

“Why bring us here?” Lonesome asked. It was that he didn’t see it as interesting. Far from it, in fact. Once things died down he hoped the goyles would let him in here to study everything in more detail. But what they needed now wasn’t a history lesson, it was a way to stop a demigod.

<Because here is where you will find the weapon you need to fight the Returned.> Hevak held forth one hand. <Open the vault, please. I have need of its contents.>

For a moment Katherine was confused. She saw no vault in the large chamber. But Hevak had not been talking to her. His words had been directed elsewhere, and merely translated with all the rest. Moments after his request, the floor began to shift. Katherine and Lonesome stepped back in surprise as a circular portion of the room seemed to drop away beneath their feet, collapsing down into a spiral staircase that led down into the bowels of the earth.

Hevak thanked the Spirits and motioned for his guests to follow as he led the way down. Katherine half expected it to be dark and foreboding, but the vault was just as well lit as the chamber above. Short columns sporting fist sized crystals were spaced at even intervals, and here and there was a statue like the ones above, if somewhat smaller. But here there were no murals. Instead, shelves lined the walls of the space, and expansive stone tables that seemed to have grown from the living rock occupied the center.

“What sort of weapon are we talking, Hevak?” Katherine asked. She gave the room a thorough looking over, but failed to see anything weaponlike. “Personally I’d settle for a ton or two of dynamite.”

Hevak loomed over one of the tables, it’s surface covered in what must have been truly ancient books and parchments. <The weapon I speak of is knowledge, Arbiter. The Returned is vulnerable, as his people were when they attempted their blasphemy to make themselves Spirits. And it was my people, the Gargoyles, who created their weakness.>

“You betrayed your own creators?” Lonesome asked, surprise ringing clear in his voice.

<Indeed, Lonely One. My people knew the true cost of their ascension, and could not let it come to pass. Here, in this vault, is the secret to that weakness.>

“I don’t mean to ruin the moment of revelation,” Katherine said cautiously, “But if you already have what you need to stop this, why do you need us?”

<An astute question, Arbiter. We are still our maker’s creation, and some things even time cannot undo. We cannot assail them ourselves, only serve. But you… you are free to act against the Returned as needed. We may act through you, as we acted in concert with the Spirits so long ago.>

“Is that why you couldn’t fight the other goyles?” she asked. “Because you’re somehow prevented from it?”

<Our hesitation to harm our brethren was a purely philosophical choice, Arbiter. Now that they have chosen their path, we must do what must be done. When the time comes, we will keep them at bay. By whatever means necessary. Shall we begin?>

 

**********

 

Clem sat beside Clayton, watching as a Gargoyle loomed over him, poking and prodding and muttering to the Spirits. The questions it asked were many and varied, and some of them she had no frame of reference for. She wished she could hear how the Spirits replied, but such was the way of Talking – only those the Spirits spoke to could hear them, even if you did have the talent.

<How’s he look?> she asked.

The goyle, who’d introduced itself as Kasik the Healer, snorted. <He is wrong.>

Clem let her gaze rest on Clayton, once again unconscious. “Yeah, we guessed. Wrong how?”

<He is not what he should be. There is something else there, something wrong. It writhes and squirms within him, evading the Spirits that seek to cleanse it.>

<We ran into something out there, in the ruins of the city. One of the people who came before, now returned. It took part of Clayton’s arm. Could whatever’s in him have something to do with that?>

<Gravik the Longspear explained this to me,> Kasik told her. It looked down at Clayton, studying him thoughtfully. <This is not what I would expect the Returned to feel like. The Spirits agree. This is something else. Something from beyond, where they imprisoned those who came before.>

<Great,> Clem sighed. <As if we didn’t have enough to worry about. Do you think the Spirits can heal him?>

<They are trying,> Kasik shrugged. <All we can do is wait for them to do their work.>

Both Spirit Talker and Gargoyle jumped in surprise as Clayton sat bolt upright. Though his eyes were open they showed only the whites, and it was clear by the way he waved his arms around that he wasn’t really awake. Kasik was faster to recover than Clem, and quickly pushed him onto his back with one massive hand. The impact seemed to rouse him from whatever strange dream he’d been having. His eyes went back to normal and focused on Clem, wide with fright.

“Don’t let them take me,” he whispered, speaking normally.

“It’s alright Clayton,” she said as soothingly as possible. “I’m here.”

“I don’t want to be light enough,” he all but whined, one hand grabbing desperately at her arm. “I saw it. I saw where they take you. I don’t want to go, Clem. Don’t let them take me. It’s full of…” he groaned and relaxed, hand barely clinging to Clem’s arm. “It’s all full of them,” he whispered, eyes unfocused. With one last shuddering breath he was unconscious again.

Clem  held his hand in hers and felt an incredible sense of unease. <That didn’t sound good,> she told Kasik. <Not good at all.>

 

**********

 

“This is insane,” Carter groused, pacing irritably along the length of the room.

“Oh?” Hawkins asked, arching an eyebrow. “Which part? The one where an ancient evil got summoned back to the world and ate Clayton’s arm as an appetizer before grabbing Dorean as the main course, or the one where we’re going to try and kill it?”

“All of it,” Carter grumbled. “Every damn bit of it.”

“Good to know where we stand, then.”

Walsh watched the two of them from where he sat idly holding his rifle. The goyles had let him keep it, and it provided a much needed sense of security. He still couldn’t get used to the fact that they were in the middle of a Gargoyle hive. Everytime he saw one walk past he tensed up.

“Are you not in the least bit worried about this?” Carter demanded, turning on Hawkins angrily.

Hawkins frowned at the other man’s tone. “Of course I’m worried. And of course this is all gods damned insane. Merciful mother, we’re working with Gargoyles! But what the hell are we going to do about it? We can’t just run away and let that thing do whatever it wants. Not after seeing what it did to Dorean. And that means we’ve got to work with the goyles, no matter how much it makes my head spin.”

“That’s where you’re wrong! We can just run away. Now that the goyles aren’t trying to kill us anymore we can just hightail it back to civilization. If we go fast enough we might outrun that thing, maybe get somewhere far enough away that someone else’ll stop it before it gets to us.”

“And how many people will die in the meantime?” Walsh joined in.

“As long as it ain’t us, who cares?”

“I do!”

“Yeah?” Carter asked. “Well, he don’t.” He jerked a thumb at Hawkins. “And don’t you try to tell me you’re doing this out of some kind of do good heroism.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hawkins demanded.

“It means you’re on Haversham and Bloody Black’s payroll,” Carter accused with a sneer. “You boys don’t do anything without the head office’s say so, ain’t it?”

“I think the circumstances are out of the ordinary,” Hawkins said defensively. “Besides, if this thing gets loose it’ll only hurt the company. And you’re only out here because you were willing to take Haversham & Black money as a reward anyway, so I’d watch where you’re throwing accusations.”

“Look, let’s all just calm down a bit,” Walsh tried to inject some reason into the situation. “Carter… if you want to leave, no one’s going to stop you. We can’t make you fight that thing. But just because these goyles don’t want to kill you right now doesn’t mean the others will hold to that if they find you. And, I hate to say it, but once you’re not helping them they might decided you’re fair game again.”

Carter opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again with a vicious frown. Without looking at the other two he sat against the wall and stared at the floor. “I ain’t gonna let that thing eat me,” he muttered.

“Don’t let him get to you,” the deputy added in a soft aside to Hawkins. “I know you care if innocent people die in this. The company didn’t order you out here. Lonesome told me you insisted on coming along.”

“Yeah.” Hawkins drummed up a friendly smile. “Thanks, Aaron.”

 

**********

 

The posse met outside the butte the next morning. After spending time in the tunnels they all needed fresh air, sky above their heads, and a lack of goyles looking over their shoulders. Katherine presided over the meeting. She perched on a boulder, more kneeling than sitting, letting the breeze tug at her hair as she held her hat in hand. Lonesome stood beside her, looking tired.

“The goyles think they’ve got themselves a plan,” Katherine told the group. “When the old people planned their transformation into gods they meant for it to be just like Spirits – no messy physical bodies to deal with. I won’t bore you with the details, but it turns out the only way for the one that came back to get out of prison was to put itself back into just such a body. That’s why it needed the bones, why it took Clayton’s arm, and why it… did what it did… to Dorean. This presents us with an opportunity. Lonesome?”

“Right now that thing is more or less a Spirit living in a great big chunk of meat and bone,” the Spirit Talker explained. “Being a Spirit requires it to follow certain rules. One of those, we hope, is that it’ll have to listen to the language of command the old people used. It’s like First Words, but… different. The goyles are willing to teach us certain phrases that might be helpful. Phrases we can use to weaken that thing, maybe even bind it. What it won’t do is let us destroy it, but that’s where the second part of their plan comes in.”

“We can send it back where it came from,” Katherine told them.

“The goyles think the ritual the old people used before could work again. If we can force this thing to make the transition, the Spirits can step in like they did the first time. They can capture it and put it back in the hole they’re keeping all the rest of them in. The ritual isn’t easy, but it’s doable.”

“And, unfortunately, it has a significant drawback,” Katherine said grimly. “The ritual has to take place at a fixed location, and that thing has got to be there when we do it.”

“We’re going to have to lure it in,” Hawkins guessed.

“And keep the not so friendly goyles from screwing it up,” Clem added.

Katherine nodded. “Right on both. If we can get that thing where we want we might be able to bind it in place until the ritual is finished. Gravik and those goyles willing to help us will keep their fellows busy until it’s done. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. Now,” she shifted the focus to Clem, “I hear you’ve got something to tell us about Clayton.”

Clem nodded and gave Clayton, who sat next to her, a sympathetic look. “The goyles worked through the night to figure out what was wrong with him. Best they can figure, he’s got something inside him that won’t come out. It’s like…” she grasped for words, one hand waving in the air as if she could fish out or catch an appropriate explanation. “It’s a Spirit, but not,” she settled on. “I think the best way to describe the difference is like comparing a dog to a person. They’re both smart, in their way, and we’re both living things, but you know a dog ain’t a person. The Spirits tried their best to fish it out of him but it sounds like they only drove it to cling harder. It isn’t causing him any purposeful harm, and we know it ain’t the work of the Returned. Best the goyles and Spirits can figure, it’s some low kind of Spirit that lives in the prison and came out alongside the Returned. By accident or purpose they don’t know.”

“So we can’t get it out?” Katherine asked.

Clem shrugged. “We might, but there’s no way to tell how much harm it would do to Clayton, and right now we just don’t have the time.”

“I feel alright,” Clayton spoke up. “I’ve stopped talking in First Words, and all I did was try to wander off. I want to help.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Clem promised.

Katherine considered for a moment, then nodded. “We’re not so flush with manpower I can afford to turn down someone who wants to help,” she said. “Even if he is a little off. You just do me a favor, Clayton. The moment something seems wrong you go to Clem or Lonesome, you hear?”

“I will,” he promised.

“Good. Now let’s all make sure we’re ready to head out. We’ve got a little more planning to do with the goyles, but they think they’ve found us a location. As soon as we’re finished with them we’re heading out.”

 

Short Fiction: Geruth the Debt Collector

Art by Anton Marrast

Art by Anton Marrast

 

“Come downstairs, Marie.”

“I’m not coming down, Geruth. Go away.”

“You can’t stay up there forever. I, on the other hand, can stay down here indefinitely.”

“You’ll get bored and go away.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe I’ll pretend to go away. Maybe I’ll just go a little way down the street and hide. You’ll come down eventually. When you think it’s safe.”

“Hide?” Marie laughed, and the high pitched sound echoed down the stairs at Geruth. “Then you’ll really get bored. I bet you’ll get bored faster than if you stayed standing there.”

“Perhaps you’ll run out of food before I get bored.”

“Perhaps,” she mocked Geruth’s use of the word, “I’ll get someone else to bring me food. Or maybe I squirreled away enough that I can outlast you. If you want me so badly why don’t you just come up and get me?” she teased.

“Funny,” Geruth replied dryly. “The ward on the building was a good idea, I’ll give you that. But you must know you can’t stay in there forever. You have debts that need paying. It won’t be all that bad, you know.”

There followed a silence that stretched from seconds into minutes, and when Geruth had counted ten of them he huffed a little. “I know you’re still there, Marie. I can smell you.”

“Had you worried, didn’t I? I bet you thought I’d snuck out somehow. What if I’d taken a shower and left a bunch of dirty, smelly clothes up here? Then you’d smell them and not me. I’d smell shower fresh!”

“You know it doesn’t work that way. It’s your soul I smell, not your body odor. Besides, even when you smell bad you still smell like flowers. The bodywash you use lingers.”

“Flatterer. Sweet talking won’t get me down there any faster, you know.”

“I lose nothing by being polite. Marie, why do I smell nightsbane? Are you working magic up there?”

“I’m a practitioner, Geruth. Of course I’m working magic.”

“To what end?”

She laughed at him again, a playful mocking sound. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I would, actually. That’s why I asked. Hmm. Cinnabar? And… was that a Harpy feather?”

“Oh, you’re good. Yes on both.”

“Where on earth did you get a Harpy feather?”

“A Harpy,” Marie answered coyly.

“I seriously doubt you could deprive a Harpy of even a single feather.”

“How do you know? Maybe I made friends with one and she gave it to me as a gift?”

“I… suppose that’s technically possible,” he said skeptically. “Did you?”

“Don’t be silly, Harpies hate everyone. Now be silent, I have to chant.”

Geruth waited patiently until the even tempo of her chant had ended. “I think you missed a couple of syllables and mispronounced eigzath.”

“Don’t you start, I did not!”

“It’s pronounced eye-guh-zath, not eeg-zath.”

“It is not.” Geruth waited patiently to the sound of pages furiously turning. A book thumped shut. “Shit. You’re right.”

“I hope that wasn’t your only Harpy feather.”

“Heavens no, I have a whole bucket.”

“Ready to come downstairs yet?”

At last Marie appeared at the top of the stairs, breath puffed petulantly into one cheek. She blew it out between her lips to produce a purposefully obnoxious noise and sat looking down at Geruth. “I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve, you know.”

“Craftily hidden under the sleeves your tank top does not have, I see.”

Marie narrowed her eyes. “Hush, it’s an expression.”

“My apologies,” Geruth smirked. “Please, proceed.”

Marie chewed her lip and looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve still got plenty of juice in a couple of crystals. A bit short on ingredients, but… I could maybe swing a teleport.”

“I’ve got a counterspell going,” Geruth shot down the idea. “First thing I did, actually. Besides, where would you go? You know I’d just catch up eventually.”

“Hmm. I could try to dispell you.”

“There’s a reason it’s dispell and not destroy. I’d come back. I always do. And when I did you’d be at the top of my list. And not my regular list, either. My very special list. The one you really don’t want to be on.”

Marie leaned forward and smiled a wicked smile. “Maybe I’ll trap you, then. Bind you to something horrible – like a toilet!”

“I’d make it so terrifying no one would dare use it,” Geruth countered. “And once word of that got out you know they’d be by to unbind me in short order. Now quit stalling. You and I both know there’s only one way this is going to end.”

“You’ve never let anyone go?” Marie asked. “No one at all, in the untold eons you’ve been around?”

“For one, I’m not that old. For another, no. I take my duty very seriously. You have debts, I collect. No matter how much I like the one who owes them. It’s what I do.”

At last Marie heaved a sigh of resignation. “Alright, alright.” She stood and threw her arms wide. “Take me Geruth, I’m yours!”

“You still need to leave the building, Marie.”

“Huh. You mean the ward actually worked? I thought you were just playing along.”

“Not this time, no. You did good.”

“I told you… nah, I’ve already given up. Flatter me all you like.” She grinned and skipped down the stairs. She paused deliberately in front of the door, then slid through with style.

Geruth turned into a cloud of darkness that enveloped her completely. A second later he was reforming, turning from cloud to large and shadowy and vaguely kanine. “I’ve brought Marie Veledar to settle her debt,” he said, addressing a stern faced old man who stood behind a mahogany desk.

The old man frowned at her. “Overdue library book,” he intoned. “One dollar.”

She dug into her pocket, produced the dollar, and handed it over. As she left the library she grinned back over her shoulder. “See you next week, Geruth!”

Goyle Country Update: In which secret chambers!

Hey. So. In (apparently) keeping with my putting things up late, here’s a Goyle Country update from last week. Well, and a little bit from tonight, because I could. It’s about 2k words, and weird things are happening because apparently the story has a mind of its own now. I’m… not really sure where this is going. Such is the joy of a first draft. At least I got almost to the end before things decided to go off the rails and wandering about.

 

“No need to worry about that,” Clem assured him. “They… oh. Arbiter, Spirits tell me we’ve got company coming.”

“What sort of company?”

“The goyles you wanted to talk to, if the Spirits did like I told ‘em.”

“Let’s hope they did, for all our sakes. Would it be possible for you to spell Lonesome there? No offense, but I’d rather he talk for me than you.”

“No offense taken,” Clem sighed. “I’ll see where he’s at. If I can, I’ll send him over.”

“Everyone get ready,” Katherine spoke loudly enough for all the others to hear, “There’s goyles coming, and I don’t want to get caught flat footed if they’re not the friendly sort.”

They didn’t have to wait long. Minutes after Clem had given her warning the first Goyle appeared from behind a rock formation, spear held almost lazily over one shoulder. If it wasn’t Gravik, Katherine would eat her hat. She holstered her pistol and walked forward with a friendly smile. Gravik swung the spear down and and planted the tip in the dirt, leaving the weapon behind. The goyle’s face split into a terrifying grimace. Katherine took it for a smile.

“Gravik,” she put her hands on her hips and, knowing full well the goyle couldn’t understand her, said, “We’re in a heap of shit here, friend.”

Lonesome translated the greeting from behind her, which was a bit of a surprise, but at least it wasn’t Clem. The Spirit Talker stood beside her, listening intently as Gravik spoke.

“They know something’s come back,” Lonesome interpreted. “The Spirits are all having a fit about it. Seems to have kicked off some sort of internal fighting. Some of their elders want to go to war and destroy it, some want to protect it, and others want to stay neutral. Gravik’s band want it stopped. Sounds like Hevak thought we were dead.”

“We just about were,” Katherine nodded. “Fill him in, Lonesome. Let him know we still want to help, but we can’t do it alone.”

He did, taking Gravik through the entire encounter with Dorean and the results of the meeting. Katherine could almost following along, marking when Lonesome got the part about Clayton losing his arm by the way the Goyle looked over at the former bandit.

“Our friend here says he can help,” Lonesome translated as Gravik began to speak again. “Hevak the Speaker has a plan.”

“Good,” Katherine was glad to hear it. “I like plans. Until they fall apart, anyway. So what is it?”

“We’ll have to meet with Hevak. He won’t say more than that.”

“Fair enough,” Katherine allowed. “But the more time we waste the less optimistic I am about us all living through this. Can Clayton get moved?”

“Not until the Spirits are finished.”

“How much longer?”

“Should be ready to go by tomorrow morning. I know it’s a while to wait, but…”

“We’ll risk it,” Katherine decided. “Is Gravik willing to stick around?”

“They’ll guard the perimeter,” Lonesome relayed after a quick exchange. “Make sure none of their wrong headed friends get too close.”

 

**********

 

Clayton woke in the middle of the night feeling parched and achy. The stars burned bright above him, undimmed by campfire or lanterns. A cool breeze swept through the Bandlands, and it carried soft whispers to Clayton’s ears. The rest of the posse lay around him, curled under blankets and lost in the embrace of sleep while they could.

The tree he was sitting against was incredibly uncomfortable. The bark bit into the skin of his back through his shirt, but that was nothing compared to the insanity inducing itchy fire that consumed his arm. Oh… his arm. He remembered seeing the flesh seemingly melt away from the bone, leaving the appendage stripped almost bare.

He raised his arm in front of his face in the dark, examining it closely. Everything seemed to be there, fleshy fingers and all. When he poked the palm with another finger he found the skin was as tender as if he’d scrubbed at it with lye and a bristle brush. But hey, it was there, and that was the important part.

He was halfway to standing before he realized that’s what the whispers were telling him to do. Stand up. Walk away. Go into the Badlands. Leave the others behind.

Only, that was a bad idea wasn’t it? The last time he’d heard those whispers they made him touch the bones in the box. He’d lost an arm… only, now it was back?

Others whispers joined in, asking him where he was going, why was he leaving, he should go back. Go back? Clayton stopped walking. He didn’t remember having started. He blinked and looked around. He was far from the tree, headed away from camp and out into the Badlands.

“Where are you going?” A solid voice, not a whispers, asked from the night.

“I don’t… I’m not sure. They told me to go?”

“Who told you?”

Clayton squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at the sides of his head. “The, uh. The whispers. Can you hear them?”

“I can. Don’t listen to them.”

“Erg. I don’t… I can’t…”

“Look at me.”

Clayton turned, trying to see who was speaking to him. He saw nothing, until a shape moved in the night. A large, hulking shape. It took another step closer, and Clayton could clearly make out a Gargoyle.

“Look at me,” it told him. “You should go back. If they tell you to leave, do not listen. It is dangerous.”

“How?” Clayton asked, aghast. “Why can I understand you?”

“That,” Clementine spoke from behind him, “Is a very good question.” Clayton turned, and Clem’s fist put him back into quiet unconsciousness.

Katherine looked down at Clayton in the light of the morning sun. “He was what?”

“Talking to a goyle out there,” she repeated, gesturing to the open expanse of the Badlands. “One of yours, thankfully. Speaking perfect First Words.”

“First of all,” Katherine corrected her, “They’re not mine. They just happen to be on our side right now. Either of you ever hear of somebody just up and learning how to speak to Spirits like that?”

Lonesome raised his eyebrows. “Overnight? No, never.”

“It’s not like Spirit Talking is something you just know how to do,” Clem added. “It takes time to learn, and the Spirits are the ones doing the teaching.”

“Which makes this a might worrisome,” Katherine mused. “The goyle he was talking to said it was the Spirits calling Clayton out into the Badlands. What if, when they were fixing his arm, they did something else to him? Made it so he could hear and understand them?”

“Not saying it isn’t possible,” Lonesome told her, “But I just don’t see why they would. They’ve got two Talkers right here who can understand them.”

Hawkins ambled over to where the three of them stood in a small circle. “Arbiter? He’s awake. He tried to say something, but I don’t understand a bit of it.”

They were keeping Clayton under close watch now. Deputy Walsh sat across from him, rifle on his knees. The moment Clayton saw them he started babbling. Katherine had been around Lonesome long enough to recognize First Words when she heard them.

“Merciful Mother,” Lonesome breathed.

“He’s talking like he was born to it,” Clem added. “Sounds just like… aw hell.”

“What?” Katherine asked, frowning.

“Sounds just like a Spirit,” Lonesome provided.

“Worse than that,” Clem told him. “He sounds just like the thing that killed Dorean. When we talked to it in it’s prison it spoke First Words, but with an accent. One just like he’s got.”

“Yeah,” Lonesome nodded. “I hear it now.”

“Are you telling me,” Katherine asked, “That the thing we need to kill is talking through him?”

Lonesome and Clem shared a thoughtful look. “No,” Clem said at last. “I mean, I don’t think that’s what this is.”

“But who knows what sort of side effects there are for getting chewed on by some ascended evil God Spirit.”

Katherine looked to Clayton, who had stopped trying to talk to them while they had their discussion. “Is he dangerous?” she asked.

“In that he can ask the Spirits to do things, like we can,” Lonesome answered. “But there’s a difference between knowing the words and knowing how to use them. Just cause he can speak the language doesn’t mean he’s all that persuasive, and the Spirits can be particular about how they’re spoken to.”

“So we don’t need to gag him,” Katherine followed up.

“Wouldn’t call it necessary,” Lonesome decided. “Still two of us and one of him, after all.”

“All right then,” Katherine said. “So what’s he saying?”

“For starters it sounds like knows exactly know much trouble he’s in here,” Clem said. “And it sounds like he can still understand us just fine. Ain’t that right, Clayton?”

Clayton took his cue and rattled off some more words Katherine couldn’t understand.

“Yup,” Clem confirmed. “He just can’t talk in anything other than First Words.”

Katherine considered the situation. “All right, we’ve wasted too much time here as it is. If he’s no danger then let’s get moving. Lonesome, keep an eye on him. Don’t take any chances.”

Gravik took them to the cave filled butte where Hevak and so many other goyles lived. If the place had reminded Katherine of an insect hive before, it was more so now. Goyles were everywhere, many of them armed with spears and clubs. Word must have reached ahead of the group, though, since none of them looked twice at the group of humans in their midst.

Hevak met them at the entrance to the caves. The Speaker greeted them in goyle speak, this time forgoing whatever trick it had used to allow Katherine to understand last time. Lonesome handled all the speaking while Clem hung back and stayed next to Clayton.

“Don’t you worry,” she told him. “Whatever’s got into you, we can set it right. The goyles know what they’re about.” He just nodded morosely, having decided not to speak unless he needed to.

After introductions and an explanation of the situation Hevak led them all into the butte. They were split into groups and bidden to stay in separate spaces. Clem and Clayton were put into one. Hawkins, Walsh, and Carter were put into another. Lonesome and Katherine were taken together with Hevak. Like before the tunnels twisted and turned so much that Katherine was completely lost, and the only illumination was the soft glow of the strange mineral deposits in the walls.

The air got heavier the further they went, becoming dense and musty. They saw fewer and fewer goyles in the tunnels. Between that and the feel of the air Katherine got the feeling they were going somewhere deep inside the butte, a place even those living here had mostly forgotten about.

When they came to it the first thing Katherine noticed was the door. An actual square door, on hinges, moulded into the rock.The carvings on it reminded her of the door to Dorean’s great hall, and for the first time she wondered if the goyles weren’t the original inhabitants of the space. Hevak opened it for them by placing its formidable claws between the door and the frame and pulling. It was a feat Katherine was certain she could never manage on her own. Given a long enough crowbar, maybe, but definitely not with her bare hands.

She hadn’t thought it possible, but the air beyond the door was even more musty than that of the hallway outside. Air aside, the chamber beyond was simply amazing. The veins of glowing mineral that ran in traces across the walls converged at a single point on the ceiling above, and from that point hung an immense crystalline structure that served as a natural chandelier. Between it and the walls the room was brightly lit, with not a shadow cast.

“It looks like a temple of some kind,” Lonesome observed. Katherine agreed. But if it was a shrine, to what gods? Not any she knew of. Statues rose from floor to ceiling, depicting alien beings with strange proportions eerily similar to the thing she’d seen absorbing Dorean. Between statues the walls were inscribed with murals depicting what must have been what the goyles described as the people who came before. They were shown commanding spirits, using them to build their great city, destroying their enemies, and more. In one she could swear there was a scene that looked like they were creating large, blocky people that slowly became more refined until, at last, they looked like Gargoyles. And as she followed the murals around the room they culminated in what had to have been the ascension – an entire people attempting a jump to godhood. In the mural they succeeded. In reality she knew it had gone somewhat differently.

Short Fiction: Ironclads

Snow Attack by James Reekie

Snow Attack by James Reekie

 

In the good old days war tended to stop in the winter. Nobody liked dying in the cold and snow, especially when it was the elements that were killing you and instead of the enemy. These days, when trains could carry troops and supplies alike, it was a year round proposition. It was a much slower, more carefully considered proposition, and the people on the front lines still didn’t like it, but it was doable.

Today Cody was lucky enough to be headed away from the front lines. Unfortunately that didn’t mean he was headed away from the war. Instead he was just headed to a quieter part of it – Fort Piston. Piston was as close to secret as the Union could make it, nestled in the middle of mountainous nowhere and connected to the outside world by one lonely stretch of train tracks. Among those few who knew about Fort Piston, even fewer knew what actually went on there.

Cody and his men were about to have the dubious honor of finding out. They’d been on the train for nearly a week, slowly winding its way through the Rocky Mountains. Many of them were getting bored and restless, but Cody himself was enjoying the break. He sat in the dining car with Garrett, one of the technical personnel being transported to the fort.

“A lot of the men are on loan from the First Nation Army,” Cody was explaining. “They’re not actually Union soldiers, so they’re free to dress how they like. Unofficially that extends to all of us. Not much sense wearing a uniform when you’re crawling around behind Confederate lines, eh?”

“Makes sense,” Garrett nodded.

“Alright,” Cody sat back. “My turn. What’s up with the extra security? You don’t usually have the Special Irregulars ride this train back and forth. What’s so special about it this time?”

“You seen all those big boxes in the freight car?”

“Yeah, I saw them get loaded on.”

“Well,” Garrett leaned forward conspiratorially, “There’s a whole Ironclad in those boxes, in bits and pieces. We’re gonna put it all together at Piston and test it out. If it works like we hope the greybacks are in for a hell of a surprise come summer.”

There was a screech of brakes, and the entire car shifted. “The hell are we stopping for out here?” Cody wondered. A quick glance out the window told him the train was slowing down fast, not a single sign of civilization in sight.

“Might be rocks on the track,” Garrett suggested. “Or maybe an avalanche of snow.”

“Hmm,” Cody considered the possibility. “Could be. Excuse me, would you? I’m going to go have a look up front.”

He ran into Lone Hawk on the way to the locomotive. “Trouble?” the First Nation warrior asked.

“Isn’t it usually?”

Lone Hawk gave him a terse not. “Good thing I brought this,” he added, holding forth Cody’s rifle. “Should I get the others?”

“Not just yet. Let’s you and me go have a look up front.”

The snow was starting to pick up as they reached the engineer, heavy wet flakes driven by wind that threatened to turn into a righteous blizzard. A tight faced man in overalls was carefully wrapping a few pieces of dynamite together with string. He glanced up when they entered and shook his head to preempt their questions.

“Got a load of shit on the tracks ahead,” he told them. He spared a hand to tap the binoculars that hung around his neck. “Nothing a little bit of TNT can’t handle. Blow most of it away – mind the tracks – then slowly push ahead and let the plow do the rest. Done it before. Nothing to get worried over.”

“How long?” Cody asked.

“Not too long at all. You boys stay here and mind the engine for me if you like, I’ll be back in a bit.” He grabbed a heavy fur coat from one corner, tucked the dynamite under his arm, and clambered out of the cab into the snow.

“Maybe not trouble after all,” Lone Hawk commented. A minute later the crack of gunfire pierced the drifting snow.

“You just had to say it,” Cody growled. “We-”

A hail of bullets interrupted him, peppering the cab and engine. Seconds later gunfire issued forth from the passenger cars in response – the Special Irregulars, doing their job.

“This ain’t right,” Cody muttered. “We’re too close to Piston for a Confederate ambush.”

“Yet here they are,” Lone Hawk observed, peering carefully out a window. “Definitely greybacks.”

A heavy wud-wud-wud rose above the crackle of small arms fire. Starting from the furthest car back and slowly walking forward towards the engine, the wood and metal sides of the train began to splinter violently, as if they were being hit by small cannon balls rather than bullets. Cody’s eyes went wide. “Ironclad!” he shouted. “Move!”

Without hesitation he and Lone Hawk turned and jumped from the cab, putting the train between themselves and the Ironclad. The cab erupted into shrapnel as they leapt, and as they hit the snow the locomotive itself tore apart in a conflagration of steam and fire.

Cody tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t obey. Lone Hawk grabbed him around the shoulders and started dragging him away up the side of the mountain. He noted, in a detached sort of way, that there was an awful lot of blood in the snow where he’d landed.

“I think I’m hit,” he told Lone Hawk.

“Only a flesh wound,” the brave told him. There was a muted thump nearby, like a pile of wet snow falling off a roof, and Lone Hawk stopped pulling him. Cody rolled his head to one side and saw another Ironclad approaching through the blowing snow, coming right at them.

Without a word Lone Hawk dropped him in the snow and ran. Over the blowing snow, Cody heard a heavy wud-wud-wud.