Shaking and Straining – Of Circumstances and Art

My favorite band of all time is Five Iron Frenzy, a little known third wave ska band of the mid ’90s and early ’00s. I was introduced to the band when I was eleven or twelve and just starting to form my own tastes in music and it was also the first band I won a convert for, introducing a fellow Boy Scout named James to their music a few years later. When the band went into retirement in 2003 it was the end of an era of my life. I still have all their albums save their first, and listen to them on a semi regular basis. Thanks to poor messaging I missed the opportunity to back the Kickstarter for FIF’s first reunion album, Engine of a Million Plots. But I did catch the campaign for their latest album, Until This Shakes Apart.

The contrasts are quiet interesting. Where Million Plots is one of the strongest albums in FIF’s discography, Until This Shakes Apart is… not.

The music of Five Iron Frenzy evolved a lot during their roughly decade long absence from the scene. It became a bit more melancholy, a bit less recklessly optimistic. That’s understandable, given the changes in outlook age can bring, but even with the change in tone Million Plots featured the same irrepressible energy I’ve always associated with the band and added a kind of seasoned wisdom to them that was pleasing and wholesome. Lyrically outside of the disappointing “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” the band’s songs kept focused on the kind of big picture storytelling I’ve always associated the band with. The songs are about the human condition, how it leads us astray, and, to a lesser extent, how we escape our worse natures and strive for our better.

Engine of a Million Plots plays much like a story. Many of the tracks roll into one another and tell us about the dangers of hubris and blind escapism, while reminding us that holding out for the good things does eventually pay the biggest dividends, even if it isn’t always fun.

Shakes Apart is much more focused in the here and now. The music is almost lethargic, it feels like a slog to listen to sometimes. The lyrics are also very based in the present moment. Where Million Plots talks about the timeless parts of the human condition, Until This Shakes Apart is focused on the unique circumstances surrounding its creation. There’s a place for that in art, no doubt. But that place was rarely the music of Five Iron Frenzy.

It’s true, tracks like “Giants”, “Goodbye, Goodnight” and “The Untimely Death of Brad” had points that ring true even now, some twenty years after originally written, but even those, while based on immediate events, drew out timeless truths about the human experience. On the other hand, tracks from Shakes Apart like “In Through the Out Door”, “Lonesome for Her Heroes”, “Renegades”, “Tyrannis” and “While Supplies Last” share the dull, unpleasant, scolding tone of “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”, displaying a disdain and lack of empathy for their targets that is ugly and frankly laughable. Granted, third wave ska was heavily influence by punk, a truly dreary, scolding, self important genre of music, but for the most part FIF had avoided punk’s worst tendencies until now.

Shakes Apart does manage to hit some highs, with “So We Sing” bringing a little of FIFs old optimism back and “Auld Lanxiety” is a very potent reminder of the power of music to bring comfort. “Homelessly Devoted to You” is a wonderful, sweet love song and “One Heart Hypnosis” lampoons our addictions to social media brilliantly. “Like Something I Missed” and “Huerfano” are wonderful, fun tracks to listen to. But all told, that leaves about half the album below par and much of that steeped in a very offputting shroud of self-righteous lecturing.

Most notably, the silly, irreverent, purely humorous songs that were Five Iron’s strongest brand for decades are entirely absent from this disk. Even Million Plots had “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter.” Perhaps over the years something has been lost.

And perhaps it was merely circumstance. Million Plots was written and released during the Obama administration, when many of the social and political goals FIF advocated for were coming to fruition. Shakes Apart was primarily written during the Trump administration, a dark time for the self styled progressives that fill the bands ranks. It was disappointing and trying for those progressives I know in my personal life, even though I found little changed for me personally from the administrations of 44 and 45. It wasn’t uncommon for them to become bitter, preachy and caustic. Most art became that way as well. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Five Iron was caught in the flow.

Perhaps they can turn things around with their next album, if one arrives. We’ll have to wait and see. Still, it was an interesting outcome, and I felt strongly enough about it to add this review to my scheduled essays. I hope you got something out of this. See you next week.

Downfall of the Imperial Hollywood Media

A lot is made of the fall of Rome and the dissolution of the Roman empire. A cultural touchstone that stood for hundreds of years was unseated, after all. But a closer study of what happened in the aftermath of the sack of Rome and the waning influence of its empire reveals the true horror. Monks in Christain enclaves had copied and stockpiled the most important cultural works. Scientific innovation skyrocketed as isolated regions began jockeying for position once again, rather than pretending to play nice so the Legions would leave them alone. And as for Italy itself? Truly tragic! It remained the center of wealth and culture for centuries to come, with Venice, Florence and Rome itself commanding huge amounts of trade and pilgrimages. 

The dominance of Italy only began to wane, ironically enough, because of an Italian man hired by the Portuguese. And he had to discover an entire unknown continent to trigger the shift. 

American media today is very much run like an empire. Where there used to be a great deal of small, local media companies running radio stations, newspapers and television, now a handful of major media conglomerates basically control everything.  

There are only five publishing houses for books, six if you count Amazon as the independent publisher. About four studios remain to make movies. Sony owns a large majority of music and music studios in the nation. TV was very stagnant under the three or four networks on the airwaves until cable came along and broke up the types of programming available but now almost all cable channels are as centralized as the three major networks were in the 50s and 60s. Even streaming boils down to Netflix and Disney, and one of those companies is also one of the only existing movie studios. 

And if you go up the ladder a few steps, many of these various branches of media are ultimately owned and run by even larger media conglomerates. 

The Internet has offered some freedom in media, but as it opened the door to new creators the old guard got very jealous and started pushing the businesses that managed Internet communication and commerce to join them as gatekeepers. So far, old media has largely succeeded in transforming places like Amazon and Facebook into extensions of their gatekeeping agenda, ensuring that the growing conglomerates of media hegemony will continue to corner the market. 

The direct result of this is stagnant media. Comic books keep pasting a new set of faces on top of the same trite, boring, cookie cutter plots. Disney spends more and more of its time remaking old films rather than telling new stories, to mixed or poor receptions (plus some occasional mockery, as with Mulan (2020)). Neither network or cable television has launched a truly significant TV show in the last decade. (Well, almost. A quick check reveals that, as of this posting, Game of Thrones is not quite a decade old yet.) 

The thing about empires is they grow stagnant very quickly. The various imperial dynasties of Asia severely slowed growth and progress in the region, in spite of their fairly widespread access to the technology and innovations of Europe and the Middle East. It’s certainly reassuring to see a large, imposing cultural edifice but the problem with edifices is they tend to stay the same until they crumble. And our media landscape is crumbling before our eyes. 

Five years ago everyone agreed that Netflix and Hulu were all you were going to need to keep up with TV and movies. It was just a matter of time until everyone agreed to share their stuff with one of the two service and we’d be living in a media golden age. Then the Netflix Original jokes started. 

Sure, some Netflix shows were good. Great, even. But a lot of it was mindless, repetitive drivel going over the same tired cultural and political points in new packaging with new faces. Movies started on a fast downward slide about the same time. Where the early 2010s were full of great movies like Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Edge of Tomorrow, and John Wick, few films of comparable appeal have landed since then. Even the Kingsmen and John Wick sequels have felt like noticeable steps down, or even outright failures when compared to their originals. Imperial media is failing. 

Now that may seem odd, given how powerful companies like Time-Warner and Disney appear. And as I noted before, when empires fall the remains tend to be quite powerful and influential for a long time to come so it isn’t like we’re looking at a total reinvention of the media landscape in the next five years or something. But shifts are coming and the stagnant nature of the modern establishment is a major part of why we’re seeing them. The other two elements come from the dissent in the ranks and the barbarians at the gates. 

Roman generals were always one of the biggest threats to the stability of the Republic, and later the Empire. They could gain too much popularity and too much influence for Rome to control, eventually getting aspirations of their own. By the same token outside forces, though not as disciplined, well equipped or numerous as the Roman Legions, could still take advantage of the size and fractured nature of Rome to do significant damage to Roman territory. These challenges are mirrored in modern media in the form of Gina Carano and The Daily Wire. 

As I noted last week, The Daily Wire has released an entertaining, though imperfect, independent action film by the name of Run, Hide, Fight which has received good reviews from audiences and promises further entertaining work to come. Meanwhile Gina Carano grew quite popular in her role as Cara Dune in Disney+’s The Mandalorian only to run afoul of a Twitter mob and get fired. Now, Gina is working with The Daily Wire to produce and star in a new, as of yet unannounced film. This is a major crack in the wall of the imperial media. 

So what can we expect? Well, actually… not a whole lot, not at first. Carano’s next film will take a while to get made; we probably won’t see it for another year at a minimum. These things take time, after all, even if they find a script that works and start production in a week there’s still a lot to do. But more than that, a handful of films won’t drastically alter the media landscape. 

However, there is a shift underway. People rarely notice the fall of empires unless they’re in the capitol as it burns. They just change the faces on the coins and continue working on the foundations already in place, with a little less oversight and little more freedom to experiment. My hope is that, as rogue agents like Carano break away from the existing media monoliths and join with new, vital media groups like The Daily Wire, we’ll see a sea change that drags talent away from the mainstream into smaller, more agile and experimental media. I doubt the organizations that currently make up the imperial media will vanish, but hopefully they will join with the culture change in due time. 

In the meantime, for solo creators like myself, there’s only one thing to do. Keep creating, little by little, for a better world, one story at a time. 

Run, Hide, Fight – A Well Made Film Is Its Own Reward

Run, Hide, Fight is a film written and directed by Kyle Rankin about Zoe Hull (Isabel May), a girl who gets caught up in a school shooting. 

I know what you’re thinking – “How did a film like that ever get made in Hollywood? Who thought it was a good idea?” 

To answer your questions, it didn’t and Dallas Sonnier. More to the point, films get made about every touchy subject imaginable. Or have you never heard of Schindler’s List? One of the jobs of an artist is to dig into the deepest, most uncomfortable aspects of our lives and help us reflect on them. Movies are made about rape, suicide and murder, perennial evils that touch many people you know and live with. A school shooting combines the last two and sensationalizes them, to be sure. But they’re not exempt from that artistic examination simply because they are sensational. 

Especially if the sensational nature of the event is one of the things the film wants us to reflect on. 

I’ll admit to being very, very skeptical of this film when I first heard of the premise. But, as it represents a new front in the ongoing disintegration of Hollywood (more on this in another post) I felt I should take a look at it, to see whether it was worthy of becoming a beachhead in the war against gatekeepers and censorship. As someone who watches movies critically – an occupational hazard – I find it hard to sit back and say, “I agree with this movie’s message so it’s okay.” 

First off, I’m not sure Run, Hide, Fight really has a message, per se, other than, perhaps, “Stick up for yourself.” 

But beyond that, I found that Run, Hide, Fight has a lot of technical and artistic merit to it. The premise of the film is simple. Zoe Hull’s mother recently died of cancer and she must reconcile her sense of loss and grief with her thoughts about the future. No, I didn’t expect this to be the premise of the film, either, but there it is. Run, Hide, Fight is as much about Zoe and her grief as it is about the physical threat she faces from Tristan and his merry band of murderers. As it turns out, Zoe needs to learn how to put aside her grief and move forward before she can help anyone in her school during their darkest hours. 

This emotional conflict really works every time it comes up in the film, due in large part to strong performances by May and Rahda Mitchell, who portrays Zoe’s mother, Jennifer. Zoe clearly has some level of survivor’s guilt and she’s not getting much help from her father, Todd (Thomas Jane), an ex-Special Forces soldier and generally stoic individual. Rather than put her in therapy or try and help her through the grieving process himself, Todd teaches Zoe to hunt. 

That brings us to the other half of Run, Hide, Fight, the part where bad things happen. 

I actually found the buildup to Zoe’s fateful day at school really effective. It shows us the many layers of the morning in judicious, well timed cuts, taking us from Zoe’s morning routine to various events happening around town, events carefully calculated to slow police response to upcoming events. Finally, Zoe gets to school, struggles through the morning and breaks for lunch. She’s in the rest room when four deranged students lead by Tristan Voy (Eli Brown) drive a van into the cafeteria and everything goes south. 

This physical conflict pleases me on many levels. First, the mechanics of it are well thought out. From the build up through the morning to Tristan’s final exit from the cafeteria, every decision made by Zoe, Tristan, the teachers and law enforcement is well justified by the narrative, the characters, the situation and some measure of good sense (or bad sense in the case of the villains). Beyond that, it lets us see Zoe achieve different kinds of victories over the villains. She wins a physical victory in a direct confrontation, a moral victory when she convinces one of the people involved to give up on the murder plot and a victory of faith when she carries on in the face of seeming defeat. Finally, the whole situation is portrayed without much melodrama. Certainly there’s a lot of emotion in the situation and we get a good look at a good deal of it. But it’s never rubbed in our face nor does it overstay its welcome. This aspect of the film could have gone very badly. But it was handled quite well, for the most part. 

We’ll get to the part that wasn’t in a sec. 

But I also want to praise the portrayal of Tristan. Brown delivers a masterful performance, oozing a creepy kind of charisma as he manipulates and intimidates, taunts and pontificates his way through his plot. No attempt is made to turn him into a victim of circumstance or a martyr for some kind of cause he ultimately betrays by his foolish actions. Tristan sees the world as a numbers game. But it isn’t money that matters to him. It’s prestige, it’s attention, it’s clout. Tristan is young, savvy and knows his social media. He’s here to bring about a landmark shift, to put his mark on history in ways no one else will ever be able to touch. His name will be immortal. He’s changing everything and the revolution will be televised

Like all great villains, his own character destroys him. He goes from strutting for the cellphone cameras that broadcast his rants on every platform imaginable to juggling his own phones as he tries to keep in touch with his minions, all the while giving Zoe a perfect window into everything he’s doing. Ultimately that hubris gives Zoe the opportunity to overwhelm the legend he’s aiming to build and replace it with her own. This is the kind of carefully calculated poetic justice that I’ve found sadly lacking in entertainment of late. I definitely savored the moment when it came. 

Run, Hide, Fight is not a perfect movie. There are a lot of tiny flaws in it, but only one that I found really egregious. That was the final resolution. In many ways the film slightly overstays its welcome, tacking on about five minutes of extra runtime that attempt to bookend the story but wind up feeling forced and melodramatic. In addition, they create one major plot issue I just can’t overlook, a moment of painful incompetence on the part of the police that is particularly disappointing given how carefully all the other decisions by authority figures are handled.  

I respect what the film is trying to do with this sequence. Zoe is taking away the last sliver of hope Tristan had of succeeding at some part of his plan, cementing a total victory and confirming that she is, in fact, a survivor in control of her own future once again. I just don’t think the last few minutes of the film succeed on either a mechanical or emotional level. That’s a pretty big shortcoming in my book, but not enough of one to outweigh the very competent work the film does with the rest of its run time. If you enjoy good films that combine action with deep emotional moments, and you can look past the fact that the backdrop for the action is a school shooting, I would strongly recommend watching Run, Hide, Fight. 

But because Hollywood wouldn’t touch this movie with a 20ft pole you can only watch it streaming on somewhat controversial conservative media site The Daily Wire. We’re back to the whole bit about beachheads against Hollywood again. I think that’s something to look at next week. See you then. 


Reminder that I have an ongoing comic crowdfunding project for Hexwood: Dust and Ashes, a weird western comic set in the same world as Firespinner. Give it a look here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Ori and the Specters in the Dark

Metroid was a platforming adventure game for the Nintendo Entertainment System that pioneered a genre. Games in that family followed a pretty straightforward formula – a lone hero journeys through a vast world filled with hazards and obstacles with no clearly defined “level breaks” and no set path. The genre also focuses entirely on a 2D side scrolling graphical presentation. The player is free to explore and overcome obstacles using their own wits, observation skills and the various movement mechanics, backtracking to old areas of the world map as new forms of movement mechanics become available, and finally clearing the game. 

The Metroid franchise added a heavy dose of combat to these games, as did successors like Castlevania, but other games in the genre like Cave Story and Owlboy greatly reduce the importance of direct confrontation as a part of the gameplay, focusing more on exploration and fun movement mechanics like jumping, rolling, swinging and flying. As someone who’s first video game was Super Mario Brothers, the Metroid (or Metroidvania or Castleroid) genre holds a special place in my heart. When I first saw the trailer for Ori in the Blind Forest I suspected I was looking at a game I would really enjoy. 

Unfortunately for me, I don’t have a whole lot of time for games these days. I have a lot of things I want to do and not a lot of time to do them in, and at the end of the day the simple upsides of a video game, teaching coordination, focus, and basic puzzle solving, are things that have few returns left for me. I can only justify them as stress relief and there are other forms of entertainment I enjoy just as much so… not a lot of gaming happens in my typical week. When Blind Forest came out in 2016 I never got around to it. Then Studio Moon released Ori and the Will of the Wisps in 2020 and the chorus of high praise the game received caught my attention. I was able to pick up both games for the price of one over Christmas and finally got around to finishing them this spring. 

I was right to wait. 

Ori in the Blind Forest is a very halfbaked game. It has some of the charm of the Metroid genre, with a big, beautiful map full of dangers and horrors around every corner, tons of neat things to find and some very satisfying takes on jumping and dashing. However the game also suffers from very clunky takes on the air jump, a genre staple, and climbing. It’s also got a very bizarre save system, where you can save most anywhere you want except the times when it really matters and you have a save rationing system that runs on the energy resource, which sounds like you’d have to be careful how you use it except saving is the only thing you really spend energy on and I never felt like I was in danger of running out. Worse, with most of the advanced movement abilities being context depended I frequently found myself sticking to a wall when I wanted to drift slowly in the air. 

On top of that, Blind Forest has extremely lackluster combat, leaning more to the Owlboy end of the spectrum in terms of dealing with enemies while crossing the map. There are no boss battles and no notable standouts among the generic monsters that populate Ori’s world. The game tries to make up for this by ending each major chapter of the game with a frantic chases or hectic escapes through a section of the game world where small mistakes cost the player dearly. These sections are a lot of fun at first, coming off as creative and harrowing, but they get a little stale by the end with nothing to contrast them against. Worse, as the more advanced powers like wall running and “bashing” are introduced the context controls can sometimes slip you up through no fault of your own, leaving you to restart an entire chase sequence from the beginning. There are no places to set check points in these sprinting sections and they only get longer as things go on. The last two or three of these were incredibly frustrating. 

But I stuck with Blind Forest because Moon Studios achieved a triumph of storytelling in their game. 

Now video games in general and Metroid style games in particular are a poor storytelling medium. They need to focus more on the feel of playing them than on the story and the narrative almost always suffers for this. But the Ori franchise escapes this curse through two savvy choices. First, they keep the story very simple. Second, they tell it entirely visually. 

Ori in the Blind Forest is a tale about an orphaned spirit named Ori who must restore the damage done to its home forest and the Spirit Tree that created it by undoing the decay caused by the giant owl, Kuro. Simple and to the point. The game uses short cutscenes to introduce and give insight into our main characters, but it also uses the foreground and background of the game to build them up over time. Gumo is the first example of this, his long, gangly limbs coming into view in the out of focus foreground of early areas, his gleaming yellow eyes shining in the background elsewhere. And, once we figure out Gumo and make our peace with him there’s still the matter of Kuro, who begins as a pair of wings whooshing past in the distance and evolves into a menacing force of nature who stalks Ori through the skies, swamps and mountains of the game’s second half. 

What’s more, Kuro reaches the full extent of a great villain, her wrath at Ori and the spirits driving her to more and more extreme actions that eventually threaten the very thing she sought to protect. Kuro perishes not in a direct confrontation with Ori but rather when she returns the light she stole to the Spirit Tree to end the peril that threatens her last egg. This is not the kind of thing that happens in most video games, which seek to give players the satisfaction of overcoming their antagonist in the game itself. And I’ll admit, not having a direct part to play in Kuro’s downfall was a bit annoying to me, as a player, even though I found it very satisfying as the audience. 

However, when I switched off Blind Forest I seriously considered not continuing with Will of the Wisps. The mechanics in Blind Forest were pretty mediocre, and represent by far the biggest part of the game. Sure, the presentation of the story in the game was excellent but I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest another six to ten hours in a game if 95% of that time was going to be aggressively meh. I decided I would give Will of the Wisps fifteen minutes to win me over. 

Within ten I had Ori running through a forest with a torch in hand, the Howler chasing me under logs and over stones in a familiar and frantic chase sequence that ended with something quite new – a boss battle, and a very satisfying one. Will of the Wisps had won me over. In fact, Will of the Wisps feels like the full, complete version of Blind Forest, possibly a complete realization of what Moon Studios had hoped for. The controls are tighter and there’s much less chance of context dependency costing you a fight or a running sequence, although it can still happen. 

There’s also much more control over what Ori can do – players get a slew of abilities from a glowing sword and bow to a nimbus of light and an explosive superjump, all of which can be swapped in and out of your primary action buttons at will. Energy is no longer part of the save system but rather powers most of Ori’s high powered attacks, making rationing energy pretty important for most of the game (though by the end that was much less important). Rather than requiring active saving the game autosaves your progress at fixed waypoints, which are quite plentiful and actually exist in the middle of some of the longer escape sequences. Everything about playing the game is tighter, more responsive and more intuitive. 

And nothing about the story in Will of the Wisps suffers for it. Ori and its new friend, Ku, find themselves stranded in Niwen, another land who’s Spirit Tree has gone dark and now suffers from decay. But Ori and Ku are quickly separated and Ori must find and save its friend before evil befalls her. This story is again set up and told through heartfelt cutscenes. But now, more than ever, evil pursues you through the shadows of the world. 

From the moment the Howler’s many eyes fixed on Ori during the introduction I knew Moon Studios had taken the lessons of Kuro and expanded on them. Almost every area of Niwen has some kind of ominous portent hidden in the middle distance, visible from most places as you explore. The predatory grace of the Howler, undulating through the forests. The twitching legs of Mora poking around the trunks of the Mouldwood. The alien specter of Shriek stalking the Silent Woods. The decay of Niwen is everywhere in evidence. 

But it’s not just the twisted and evil we see in this game. There’s also Baur, slumbering as he waits for spring, and the massive wheels of the Wellspring, caked with grime and sludge at first, then slowly turning to new life and purpose as you cleanse them and set them to motion again, portents of the good you can do and are doing as you work to find and save your friend. The story of Will of the Wisps is the obvious continuation of Blind Forest, but that’s really a mark in its favor. In Blind Forest Ori is young and a bit naïve, and too green to directly confront the massive dangers of the world. 

In Will of the Wisps that changes. Ori has grown up, it has an adopted younger sister to look out for, and it’s much more confident and skilled. Ori is a torch bearer, both literally (however briefly) and figuratively, relighting the land of Niwen and showing its inhabitants kindness and compassion even as the search for Ku consumes most of its attention. In the end, when Ori unites with the Will of the Wisps, we see how far the character has come and it’s an incredibly satisfying experience. 

So on the whole, while I did find navigating the first half of the story intensely frustrating at times, I’m not sorry I went on the journey with the little light spirit. Ori’s saga was fun, heartfelt and even moving. It harkened back to good memories from the past and left the door open a crack for future things. And it reminded us that even the most towering specters of the dark cannot prevail against even a spark of light, a message that rings true no matter what.


A reminder that I am still running a crowdfunder for my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes. Check out the Indiegogo for more details on the story and preview pages!

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Hexwood: Dust and Ashes – A Foray into Different Mediums

Hello folks! This post is coming to you a bit off schedule, I know. Back before I started on Firespinner I mentioned my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes and said I would be bringing you more on that subject in due time. Well, the time is now! The Indiegogo for Hexwood is now live and ready for your consideration. Curious? Check out this short trailer I put together for the campaign!

Here’s a few more details: Hexwood is a comic with 85 pages of story, illustrated in black and white in a painterly style. It tells a complete story, although one with plenty of promises of things to come. It’s set in an alternate Earth with a much different history and metaphysic than ours, but more details on that are included in the worldbuilding post. (Haven’t read it? Seriously, check it out!)

We follow the sheriff of the town of Hexwood as he investigates the murder of a local miner and slowly gets pulled into a much deeper and darker plot. We meet fun characters, escape surprising situations and get embroiled in some fantastical action along the way. If you read Firespinner and were intrigued by the world, you just love weird westerns in general or you love comics please consider supporting the book! You can find the campaign by following this link:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Spy x Family – Too Full to Work, Yet It Does

Tatsuya Endo’s Spy x Family is a fascinating stew of ideas, crammed into one place in a dizzying Jenga tower of contradictions and potential. The basic premise is thus – a superspy, codenamed Twilight, cover identity Loid Forger, must contribute to maintaining the balance of power during a cold war in a city clearly inspired by Berlin in the 1950s. His current assignment is to get close to the reclusive Minister Desmond by infiltrating his son Damian’s prestigious private school. 

Rather than join the staff, Twilight rapidly builds a family from scratch, creating a paper marriage with a woman named Yor Briar and adopting a girl the same age as Damian Desmond. Anya, Loid’s adopted daughter, will be tutored until she has excellent grades and the Forger family is invited to attend school social functions with the Desmonds. Convoluted? Sure. But we’re just getting started. 

You see, Loid has accidentally married the Queen of Thorns, who was approaching thirty and single and thought that getting married would decrease her risk of being discovered as Berlint’s most dangerous assassin. Yor has also married Loid as part of a cover, although for far less noble purposes than upholding the fragile peace between major world governments. Lots of potential dramatic tension there, as they could wind up working many of the same situations but on opposite sides, then come home after and not even realize they’d been in conflict. A bit cliché? Sure. But it could be executed well, provided nothing else comes- 

Oh. I forgot. Anya is a six year old with telepathic powers, the result of clandestine experiments performed on her before she escaped from captivity. This means she knows both of her adoptive parents secrets, even as the adults hide them from her and each other. She is also the only one capable of understanding the visions of the household pet, Bond, who is a dog that can see the future. 

There is so much going on in this family it seems like the whole thing should just come apart. However, Endo’s firm sense of comedy, clean art and heartwarming touch take these ingredients and blend them into something far beyond the sum of their parts. There’s a strong desire in some storytellers, myself included, to look at the elements of a story and allow them to take over. The spy and the assassin must be in conflict. The psychic girl must be burdened by knowledge. The struggle between spy mission and family integrity must be ever present. But Endo does something a little different, allowing the two elements named in the title of his work – spycraft and family – to orbit one another in a constant dance, informing each other but never fully overriding each other. Everything else, the weird powers, the geopolitical conflict, the school drama, all boils down to fodder to emphasize the symbiotic relationship between the Folgers as a family and their secret lives. 

At the heart of the story is Twilight, a man who works for world peace as an ideal but never had any stake in it himself. He’s alone and always has been. But in striving to create something to benefit the world he finds the people he needs to complete himself. In many ways the Forger family, although originally a forgery, become a united family, dedicated to protecting one another and, at the same time, protecting the peace of the world. It’s a heartwarming tale about how doing small things is a necessary building block towards greater things, and how no truly great thing is done alone. 

It’s also funny, full of wacky characters and situational hijinks. Anya is one of the best written young child characters I’ve seen since Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. Loid and Yor are both full of contrasting strengths and weaknesses that can be both humorous and endearing. Berlint itself is a nostalgic look at a world of romantic secrets and adventures that never really existed, but we all kind of wish had. By the same token, by all rights Loid’s family of secrets should inevitably end with broken hearts and broken lives. But even so, based on everything I’ve seen, I’m almost certain everything will turn out all right in the end. 

Stargate SG-1 – A Retrospective

When I was in college the most discussed scifi series was Stargate SG-1. Based on a film that spun into a franchise, Stargate was a great intersection of conspiracy theory and old school science fiction. It was also on cable. My family never subscribed to cable, so while I heard a lot about Stargate back in the day I never watched it. Then there was Netflix. 

Stargate SG-1 ran for ten season. Ten seasons. That is a lot of TV. Catching up on it all was a bit of an endeavor and I’ll confess I wasn’t always paying the strictest attention to it, playing it on my tablet while I was cooking dinner or sketching. As such I can’t really say I know it as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation, where I’ve watched most of the episodes more than once and discussed with my family on a semi regular basis. That said, I have watched it all over the course of the last year or so and I have thoughts. Many thoughts. 

Let’s start with a quick overview of what the premise of the Stargate franchise is. 

Archaeologists discover a giant ring with odd symbols on it near the pyramids at Giza in the 1920s. In the 1990s archaeologist Daniel Jackson decodes the symbols and concludes the ring is a Stargate, a piece of alien technology that creates stable wormholes between one another. By “dialing” a set of seven symbols on the gate and pumping electricity (lots and lots of electricity) into it humanity can travel to other worlds and explore space. 

Great stuff. It unites longstanding conspiracy theories about ancient aliens and pyramids with a solid scifi premise into an engine for perpetual scifi adventure. SG-1 featured a quartet of very solid central characters, a stellar recurring cast and some very memorable villains. On top of that, while I’m not sure how solid any of the science on the show was, the mechanics of the universe are clear, easy to understand and incredibly consistent. 

One of the central elements of SG-1 is how far behind Earth is, technologically speaking, compared to the people who build wormhole gates and starships. The Stargate allows them to poke around the galaxy, find friendlies and slowly collect technology to even the score. While it takes a while for them to acquire significant tech, SG-1 does slowly build up an arsenal of fancy alien gadgets, eventually giving way to starships and hyperdrives of their own. 

Watching the slowly expanding capacities of the Stargate team is one of the great pleasures of the show, and the writers clearly enjoyed it too. While they never allow technology to become a magic “out” from bad situations; there’s very few to no cases where they “forget” about a piece of technology that could have solved a problem for them. There is one case where every chance they have to acquire a useful device fails for one reason or another, but that’s because the tech in question made people incredibly difficult to kill, which would remove a lot of the narrative stakes. Eventually healing sarcophagi were revealed to drive humans insane, effectively ending their utility to the cast and allowing the focus to fall elsewhere. 

Of course, while the consistency of the mechanics is great that’s only part of the equation, the people who inhabit stories need to be entertaining as well. Here, too, SG-1 delivers. While the most entertaining character in the cast is doubtless the team lead, Col. Jack O’Neil, and the character I most resemble was probably Dr. Daniel Jackson, my personal favorite was Teal’c. The stoic warrior alien is a trope that is well mined, but Christopher Judge brings a charisma to him that lends a tired trope a depth and nuance found in few others of his stripe. We see Teal’c as a father and a son, a leader and a follower, a dependable hero and a wounded warrior. Part of this is facilitated by the length of time spent developing him, part of it is Judge’s excellent instincts as a performer, relying on physical acting as much as voice and expression to convey his character’s thoughts. 

Major, later Lt. Col, Samantha Carter rounds out the team, and is the show’s science guru. Like Teal’c, Sam, Jack and Daniel are all stock tropes given life and considerable depth by the skill and talent of their actors and the considerable time spent developing them. While Richard Dean Anderson left the show in the eighth season, and Jack wound up replaced with Cameron Mitchell for the last two seasons, O’Neil would serve as the heart of the show for as long as he remained with it and was probably the best developed character in the cast, with Dr. Jackson coming second and Sam and Teal’c tied for third. All are well rendered and their characters remain consistent as established over the course of the show, with any major shifts in personality well choreographed and expounded on over the show’s run. 

In addition to a well handled central cast, a number of fantastic supporting characters give flavor to much of the show’s run, with Doctor Janet Frasier and General George Hammond as standouts, along with the villains Apophis and Anubis. But before we get to the latter two, let’s talk about the structure of a Stargate season. 

One of the great challenges of long form storytelling in a medium such as television is that episodes are released over time and need to be self-contained to some degree. On the other hand, you need some unifying threads to keep people coming back over time. Some shows function on a Netflix model, where every episode pours over into the next, which is fine but doesn’t work well on a weekly broadcasting schedule. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Deep Space Nine model, where almost every episode is a self-contained story with ties to a greater whole. Stargate SG-1 is very much in the DS9 model, although it executes on it with more skill than any other take on that model I’ve seen, including DS9 itself. 

Every season of SG-1 follows a basic formula. The first episode pulls together the loose threads from the proceeding season or, in the case of the first season, the movie. Near the end of that episode or the beginning of the second episode at the latest the season’s primary antagonist is introduced. Over the course of the next ten episodes Stargate Command collects intel on the antagonist and the technological, biological and philosophical threads of the conflict are established. Secondary conflicts on Earth are also established, usually from other elements of the government trying to move in on the Stargate program. After these threads are set up serious skirmishes build over a series of four to six episodes until matters come to a head and the season ends with two to four episodes revolving around a significant confrontation that sets up the first episode of the next season. 

While the formula is clear it works for a number of reasons. First and foremost, SG-1 doesn’t always win at the end of a season, something that makes these climactic confrontations surprisingly nail biting. Beyond that, they seriously consider the outcomes of more than just technology (which, as I said before, they think about more thoroughly than many other scifi properties). They also consider the societal implications of the alien cultures and technology they encounter. Many episodes I watched felt eerily similar to actual problems we struggle with today, problems that SG-1 handles with far more grace than we have I’m sad to say. 

But another thing that makes this formula work is the villains. For the most part. Apophis is a classic pulp villain, chewing scenery and never quite staying as dead as you’d like. Anubis is far more subtle, manipulating the many egos around him into a dance that always manages to favor him in ways that are impressive to watch. The Y’shen are the mundane face of evil, quietly destroying everything they touch all while wrapped in a seemingly benign and charitable shroud. The Replicators are a slightly on the nose take on gluttony and overindulgence. 

These were all strong villains, give or take the Replicators, but towards the end of the series it felt like the writers were running out of steam. The Ori felt like a bad attempt to clone the conflict created by Guaold like Apophis. The Ori have many of the same dynamics with their followers as the Guaold had with the Jaffa and I would’ve liked to see a new take on this dynamic as late in the series as they were introduced. 

It would’ve been nice to have a degree of uncertainty added to the mix. The Guaold were pulpy, scenery chewing villains. The Ori were immaterial beings, much like their opposites, the Ancients, and there was little to no objective way to measure their claims about each other and it would have been nice if the conflict between them was less straight forward, to reflect the less tangible nature of the evils at work. It was a disappointing finish to a show that handled most of its villains, big and small, with deftness and skill. 

All in all, Stargate SG-1 was a great show that pushed episodic, weekly storytelling about as far as it could go before binge watching became a phenomenon. It owes a lot to a dedicated writer’s room, who really put in the work to keep things consistent, good casting and actors who believed in the project enough to stay with it for years at a time. I now understand why so many people were so heavily invested in it when it was airing. If you’re looking for a scifi show to watch that takes its characters and cultures as seriously as Star Trek but plays with its toys like Star Wars, Stargate SG-1 might be the thing for you. 

Firespinner Afterwords: Roy Harper and The Gospel of Earth

We’ve reached the end of another tale, one I truly enjoyed writing and I hope you enjoyed reading! As always, here are a few closing thoughts. 

As of late I’ve been exploring points of view in my fiction. This wasn’t intentional, it largely came about accidentally as I worked on the Triad World novels, themselves a kind of flash of inspiration that turned into a much larger project than I had expected. However, as I worked on Schrodinger’s Book and Martian Scriptures I found that my desire to use points of view to comment on each other was growing. This theme kind of made it into my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes, in the way the modern and traditional takes on magic fought a war over different visions of the future. However that story proved to be a bad forum for that discussion – comics don’t handle nuanced philosophical differences very well – and most of that debate got cut out. 

Then I decided to write the novella Firespinner  to run concurrent to Hexwood’s crowd funding campaign. Several missteps took place in that process but one thing that did happen, without my really intending it to, was that many of the themes cut from Hexwood started to appear as hints and suggestions in Firespinner. As I worked on that story, several new ways to approach those points of view, in both plot elements and narrative techniques, occurred to me. At this point I have ideas for several more stories focused on Roy Harper that I want to work on in the near future. 

I also want to write a third, and probably final, Triad Worlds novel, The Gospel According to Earth, which will wrap up several of the major outstanding plot threads of the first two and put something of bow on the whole project. While I have some ideas what Gospel will be about, along with some ideas of what will drive the conflict and characters of the story, many, many of the particulars are foggy and I’m not confident I can execute on all of the characters correctly. I also have a short list of short stories I’d like to write at some point, but none of them tickle my fancy right now. 

So while I work to sort out The Gospel According to Earth I’ve decided to continue with Roy’s story. I’m currently working on Night Train to Hardwick, a direct sequel to Firespinner. Since a lot of the flavor of Roy’s world is already built Hardwick is a story that will let me move some of the time I would normally spend on world building and establishing a setting over to doing those things for Gospel. I’m sure long time readers and new readers alike are wondering if stories featuring Roy have an overarching arc or are designed to stand alone. The answer is a little bit of both. 

The Roy Harper Adventures (for lack of a better name) represent my making a foray into pulp formatting, creating a series of lighter, fast paced adventure stories with recurring themes and characters that one can pick up and put down in pretty much any order and still enjoy. Yes, there will be a chronological order to these tales, and sticklers can certainly go to the beginning and read them in order, but my hope is that the common threads will only serve to offer small payoffs and satisfaction for long time readers. They are not going to build in the same way the chapters of a book or the books in a tightly written series would. Hopefully that fits with your expectations, dear reader, because as I’ve written in this style I’ve found that I like it very much. 

As is my wont, I’ll be taking a week off now that Firespinner is done, then there will be a month of essays between installments of fiction. After that month is over we’ll move on to Night Train to Hardwick and the further adventures of everyone’s favorite pyrokinetic Westerner. See you in two weeks! 

Firespinner Chapter Twelve – Farewells at Last Light

Previous Chapter

Roy gently took Andrew Blythe from his seat on O’Hara’s bushwalker and set the boy on the ground, sleepy and unsteady but otherwise fine. He’d spent most of the trip asleep, like his brother. The ordeal the Blythe boys had gone through had taken a lot out of them but didn’t seem to have done any serious harm. There was one curious side effect, though.

Roy watched as Andrew and River Reeds walked into the Blythe house in perfect synchronization. “I’m pretty sure that will wear off in another few days,” he said to Nora. “But if it doesn’t Grunt can put the word out and we’ll see if we can find a true blue medicine man to look at it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Harper,” Nora said. “You’ve been very kind. This wasn’t part of what you were hired for.”

“Not a problem, ma’am.”

“But not necessary either,” Oldfathers put in. Roy couldn’t help but note that he’d linked arms with the widow. “I’ll be travelling for a few days to gather up some loose ends, but I plan to come back once I’m done. I’m thinking of settling down here. I’m getting too old to sleep in the open for weeks on end.”

Grunt and O’Hara looked surprised at that but Roy took it in stride. There were consequences to tampering with magic on the scale they had and Oldfathers had assumed duties that bore significant consequences, whether he’d realized it at the time or not. The old druid knew magic and its costs better than any of them and Roy had confidence Oldfathers would see them out.

“Sounds like you’ll be well looked after, Mrs. Blythe,” Roy said with a warm smile. “Hopefully you never need my services again.”

Nora laughed. “Getting involved with one legend of the west would be enough for a lifetime and I’ve already seen two. I got no appetite for a third.”

Roy chuckled. “Hopefully if you do it will be more benign than the Yose and Mete twins or General Oldfathers.”

She glanced at the general out of the corner of her eye. “Who, him? He belongs to the east.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Then what’s the second? Or are you counting the Brothers separately?”

Nora smiled and shook her head. “Take care of yourself out there, Mr. Harper. If you ever visit Mr. Grunwald here in town be sure to stop in, you hear?”

It sounded like a dodge but Roy couldn’t figure out why she would so he let it go. “Of course.”

Roy waited as a few more quiet words passed between her and the general then they set out for Grunt’s house. O’Hara parted ways when the passed the main street in order to take her bushwalker back outside the walls, leaving Grunt with a whispered promise to visit later. That left Roy with Grunt and the general. The three men walked in silence for a while, then Oldfathers said, “I appreciate your not taking me in.”

“I’m not an officer of the law,” Roy said. “I don’t have an obligation to bring in bounties.”

“Not even an old Lakeshire officer?”

Roy shrugged. “It’s been a long time, General. I’m not saying I would’ve done what you did in your situation but you’ve earned a little grace, at least. And…” His glance drifted up towards the mountain top. “I’m not sure how Yose and Mete would react if their new father left so soon.”

The general grunted something that might have been a laugh. “As you say. Well, I suppose I can take the pieces of that nawonota off your hands, if you want. I have a stash where I can bury them for a few decades at least.”

“It’s all right. The Packards have an Iron Room for dangerous magic items set up in Hardwick. It’s a day’s travel each way and that’s easy enough to work into my route back to Leondale. I’d rather the pieces of that thing sit on iron until all the magic’s leached out of them than just bury them out in the wilderness.”

Oldfathers chuckled. “And the Railway Detectives will just take an unknown artifact – or the pieces of one – off your hands because you say so?”

“And because I work for them from time to time.”

“And Allen Packard is his uncle,” Grunt added.

“And that.” Roy hefted the bundle holding the nawonota’s pieces. “Don’t worry, General. This will be well taken care of. And I’ll get that fulminite crystal out of the slag you made of my falcatta and send it back to you.”

“Keep it,” the General said. “I think you’ve earned it and you never know when it may come in handy out there. You’re going to have more chances to use it than me anyway.”

They rounded the corner to Grunt’s house and the big man ducked in the door to retrieve Roy’s travel bag. “Tell me something, General,” Roy said as they waited. “How are you going to pass on that journal of yours if you’re settling down here? Do you think someone will just come through and take it off your hands? It doesn’t seem like the best strategy, this being the end of the rail line and all.”

Oldfathers tapped his hexwood staff on the ground once which set it to unfolding in to its full sized tree form. “The journal will tell its owner when and where to find the next person in line. I’m not worried about passing it on. Never was.”

Grunt returned and handed Roy his bag. “Half an hour before the last train leaves,” he said. “Anyone up for a last drink?”

“No, thank you,” Oldfathers said.

“Gave it up, remember?” Roy tipped his hat in the general’s direction. “General Oldfathers, as much as it surprises me to say it, it’s been a pleasure.”

“Likewise. Take care of yourselves, Mr. Harper. Mr. Grunwald. Stay true to the Quest and it will bear fruit, in time.” The hexwood was unfolded to its full twelve foot height and its branches gathered Oldfathers up, allowing him to partially recline against its trunk.

“May Our Lady guide you to warm hearthfires,” Grunt said.

“Hearthfires, gentlemen. And Roy.” Oldfathers tapped his jacket’s left breast twice, winked and then whisked away on the frantic churning of the hexwood’s roots.

Confused, Roy patted his jacket in the place Oldfathers indicated.

Felt something solid there.

And pulled out Pellinore’s Journal.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy muttered.

Grunt burst out laughing.

“This isn’t funny.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s serious as dead iron, Roy.” Grunt got control of himself. “But you have to admit it’s at least a little funny, too.”

Roy sighed and put the journal away. “Fine. Fine. Let’s go, the last train leaves in twenty five minutes and I need to stop by your local sundries supplier.”

“Sure.” Grunt locked his door and pocketed the keys. “What do you need?”

“Paper and ink. It seems there’s some writing in my future…”

Firespinner Chapter Eleven – The Day in Balance

Previous Chapter

As it turned out nothing happened for most of the day.

Roy was expecting Yose sometime between dawn and midmorning, the time when the sun was ascending, since he was supposedly tied to the Primeval Fire. But Thomas Blythe failed to appear. After midmorning they entered the time of balance, with the sun reaching apogee and slowly beginning its descent. Nothing happened then, either. As it turned out things began about an hour before full dusk when Thomas Blythe erupted out of the stream with no warning, flying over O’Hara’s rampart with a good three feet to spare. He landed with a sizzling thud, his features shrouded by a billowing cloud of steam and rippling waves of heat.

To his credit, in spite of the sudden arrival following a long wait, Reeds reacted instantly. A wall of shimmering red rectangles sprouted from a copper line on the ground, converging on a bronze talisman Reeds held aloft in his left hand. It was a crude ward and started crumbling almost as soon as Thomas collided with it. Reeds held a bronze wand in his other hand, quickly connecting a predrawn set of glyphs to finish a more effective ward that spat flames in a thicker, stronger barrier in front of the possessed boy.

O’Hara’s earthworks rumbled as the tiles on her board clacked, ensorcelled tiles and sulfurite crystals sliding across it as she reworked their formation and, in the same action, rearranged the land itself. The raised earth by the creek began to sink back into the ground as a new barrier of equal thickness but greater height formed behind Reeds.

But that wasn’t the loudest noise at hand. At the other end of the hill the massive trees at the foot of the cliff creaked to life and began to rip the cliffside apart. Rather than wait, Grunt and Marshall moved up to hack at the trees. The pines began to teeter and fall under their onslaught. But it ended almost as soon as it began when a surge of water burst from the opening in the cliff and swept both men back down towards the crater. A small figure appeared at the new entrance in the cliffside and started towards the crater, flanked by the trees.

Down in the center of the crater itself the stones began to shift. Overhead the clouds left from the previous day’s rain began to roil and churn.

“Nora!” Roy yelled. “Find the nawonota!”

That was their first gambit. If the Brothers had somehow co-opted Thomas and Andrew Blythe into playing out their old sibling rivalry perhaps the grudge could be undercut by introducing Nora into the role of peacekeeper, as Yose and Mete’s mother had been between them. Oldfathers considered it a long shot but it was simple and easy to try, so Roy lined it up first.

But it was anyone’s guess whether Yose and Mete would recognize Nora as their mother or not. So Grunt and Marshall moved to block Mete and Reeds started working on a third barrier, this one grounded in O’Hara’s earthwork itself. Or, at least, he started. Then he suddenly stopped and pivoted to look directly up the hill at the crater. Further up, Andrew Blythe did the same.

In unison both of them said, “Ket!”

The word echoed over the hillside with preternatural clarity. Roy spoke no Sanna but he knew the word “No” when he heard it. He wasn’t sure what circumstance made them say it but he did know who was saying it – they were both under the influence of Mete now. That was a lovely little wrinkle he hadn’t anticipated.

Roy tapped Oldfathers on the shoulder. “Stop those trees, General.”

He grunted noncomittally. “Easier said than done.”

But he raised his hexwood staff up, its branches unfolding into a complicated pattern, the sulfurite crystals twined in the ends of its branches pulsing with power. The general stretched his other hand towards the top of the hill in a clutching motion and the raging pines shuddered to a stop.

“Ket!” Andrew and Reeds screamed in unison once more, they reached towards the trees with their hands and made a dragging motion. The pines shuddered as if under great strain.

One shattered into splinters.

The others lurched back into motion.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy whispered. He hadn’t thought it possible Hezekiah Oldfathers could lose a contest of sheer power.

“Coalstoking Sanna ghosts!” Apparently the general hadn’t expected it either.

But he delayed the trees long enough for Marshall to get to his feet and charge back into the fray with surprising recklessness. His club whistled through the air and smashed into the trunk of one pine, which promptly shattered into flaming twigs. For a split second Roy panicked, thinking the debris would land on Nora. But as they arced through the air they were caught in the churning winds over the crater and went spinning away.

“That doesn’t look good, General,” Roy yelled over the noise. “Looks like Yose got to Marshall, too.”

“So the Brothers have all the brothers now,” Oldfathers replied, his gestures waking some of the smaller trees and sending them upslope as fast as the newly animated pines could go. Not that such little things posed much threat to the mature, sixty foot trees under Mete’s thumb. “Pull O’Hara out, she can’t be in there when Reeds and Thomas start fighting for the Brothers. I have something that will slow them down, you try and figure out what’s happening in the crater!”

“Ignis fatuus, man, I said tell me about all your tricks!” But Roy was doing as Oldfathers said, holding his fist aloft with thumb upwards then jerking it over his shoulder in the Columbian Army’s “fall back” signal.

O’Hara stepped away from the waist high board she’d set up by the river and kicked over a brazier she’d kept burning beside it all day. A cloud of viscous white smoke poured out of it and swept over the creek bed. Reeds and Thomas disappeared from view, though the fiery glow of Thomas’ presence was still clearly visible inching up the hillside.

Marshall just kept smashing trees with his club but couldn’t get anywhere near Andrew. For a moment Roy feared the boy would reach his mother before anyone else could. Then one of the huge rocks by the crater shifted.

Lifted into the air on Grunt’s shoulders.

And flew towards Andrew at speed.

Two of Andrew’s pines leaped into the path of the missile. One was smashed flat to the ground. Grunt was already hefting another one of the huge rocks, weighing it for another throw.

But Oldfathers was focused on the growing cyclone overhead. “Roy,” he yelled. “I was right, there’s something in that nawonota. I don’t know what part of the legend that is but I don’t think it’s going to let the story end that easy. You have to keep Nora away from it.”

Roy’s attention snapped back to the crater, where the widow Blythe was tugging at a larger rock near the bottom of the pit. Her hair and dress whipped in the air and her figure was half obscured by dirt and pine needles flying through the air. Roy gripped his buckler harder. “Agreed. Keep the brothers away from the crater but let them fight each other. I don’t think that’s the main show anymore.”

A brief flash of pale blue light caught Roy’s attention. Oldfathers had drawn one of his fulminite crystals, leaned against the rock and removed his peg leg. The top had a hollow just big enough for him to slip the crystal into. The general did so and held the peg back in place, vinelike tendrils around the top wrapping about the stump of his leg before he let his pants fall back into place. “I’ll take care of it.”

“What are you doing?” Roy asked.

“Cover your ears,” Oldfathers replied. “By the Breath of Mercury, I am carried upon the Primordial Whirlwind!”

Roy understood what was happening a half second before Oldfathers finished, barely getting his hands over his ears before a lightning bolt crashed down on the general. The world turned bright as day and Roy felt the sound in his sternum. The sound repeated in a frightening staccato that nearly brought him to his knees, flashes of lightning and blackened footprints tracking Oldfathers’ path uphill to Mete and his trees. The walking grove strobed with light and the trees were thrown in all directions, born on waves of crackling lightning. Within their trunks Roy saw after images of the general, his legs transformed into pillars of lightning, lashing out against the trees, the ground and the air itself.

No wonder Oldfathers had kept that trick to himself. Many Columbians thought avatars of the First Elements were blasphemous, after all, and this was a particularly terrifying blasphemy at that.

There was no time to watch the carnage. Oldfathers fought a delaying action only as the real battle took shape in the crater.

A true whirlwind was forming over it and Roy watched the sky with distrust as he approached Nora, unsure of what he was looking for. At this point they were past gambit two, where Nora tried to calm the boys once she had the nawonota in hand, and on to the part where he should just stick iron in the thing and see if that cancelled the magic at work. But Oldfathers was right – there was something in the nawonota and it didn’t seem to be either of the Brothers. That made everything less certain.

As Roy got up to the crater a towering pine tree loomed out of the chaos but before it could do more than send a few roots stretching towards him Grunt’s ax crashed into its trunk, drawing the tree’s attention. Roy scrambled down the crater, more than used to trusting Grunt to watch his back in these situations.

The widow was saying something to him as he approached but, after the lightning strike, Roy couldn’t hear much of anything. Once she realized he was partly deaf Nora motioned like she was lifting the stone at her feet, a block of stone easily two feet tall and twice as long.

Roy shook his head. “Never mind that,” he said. Or thought he said, he couldn’t even hear himself. “Something’s off, leave the coalstoking thing and we’ll move on to the next stage.”

Another series of flashes and rumbles, felt more than heard, drew Roy’s attention long enough for him to note Oldfathers descending the slope again. O’Hara’s fog had cleared and Thomas Blythe was coming up the hill again, only to stop short when he caught a crackling kick from the general.

Roy winced but focused on the task at hand. He grabbed Nora by the shoulder and tried to pull her out of the crater. The wind caught her hair and tangled it around his arm leaving it sopping wet. The day was overcast but not rainy. Roy looked up, then down, then finally back at Nora and realized that water was streaming from her hair in sheets.

He looked back up into the sky, a sinking feeling in his stomach. The clouds were spinning in angry circles. It could have been Roy’s imagination but he thought he saw a face forming there.

Nora – was it Nora? – was saying something but Roy still couldn’t hear her. But when he squatted down, put his shoulder into the rock and pushed Nora quickly joined him. A moment later the rock shifted and rolled halfway over.

Underneath was a simple octagonal frame of ivory and leather straps. Roy had never seen one but it was obviously the nawonota. He didn’t hesitate for a moment when it came into view, just pulled all the fire he could from his buckler’s sulfirite and blasted the old Sanna artifact with it. A screaming blast of wind, loud enough that even Roy’s ringing ears could hear it, tore down from the sky and plastered him flat. The blow left his head spinning and his ribs, which had been well behaved for the last day or so, throbbing once again.

For a moment Roy thought he saw something, superimposed over the chaos of the real world. A woman in the garb of a Sanna matron cowered, the nawonota held up in both hands like a shield. A Sanna man with cruel eyes loomed over her, hand raised to strike but a bewildered look on his face. A stone ax was buried in his side and a boy of no more than twelve, who’s face resembled the father he had just killed, held the weapon’s handle. His identical twin watched from the entrance of the tent, horrified. The father’s spirit was captured. As it strained against the nawonota the second brother went from horrified inaction to stealing the artifact and running away into the hills.

Not all legends were true. If they were true they were rarely the whole truth.

And the legend of Yose and Mete was apparently not one of the few that were the entire truth. No wonder Reeds and Marshall had never triggered the legend on their own, their father was already dead and it was clearly the death of the father of the family that started the story.

The vision passed almost as soon as it came, leaving Roy to get to his feet in spite of his pain, old and new. Pain he could ignore. The nawonota was another story.

And the Sanna artifact was on the move. The whirlwind that dispersed his fireblast also lifted the nawonota into the air, dirt and dust swirling around it in an ominous cloud. Roy’s buckler was mostly empty and adding the small reserves of his cufflinks and sword wasn’t going to give him more firepower than a full buckler so he changed tactics and drew his knife.

Stepped in to slash at the relic.

And got shocked in the leg before he got close.

Electricity crackled through the dust cloud now and, while dead iron would kill any magic it touched, it wasn’t a defense for his entire body. Every time he tried to get closer to the artifact the lightning snapped at him, leaving his limbs twitching and the distance the same. Roy backed away a step, growling in frustration. That was when he realized his hearing was coming back.

Not that it hand much to tell him. Nora was babbling in Sanna now, another surprise victim of the legend. He hadn’t expected it to be so all-encompassing but if the vision he’d seen was true, and not just a fever dream, then her susceptibility to the legend’s power wasn’t surprising.

A glance up and down the hill told him no one else was doing much better. Andrew Blythe was locked in battle with Marshall, much as their twin brothers fought down the slope. Nothing Grunt or O’Hara did fazed them and only the fact that the mismatched twins were fighting each other with Oldfathers poking them as a spoiler slowed their advance on the crater.

The power of the legend seemed to crackle all up and down the hillside like a living thing.

And that was when Roy had it.

All living things were a balance of four elements and, of course, as a living thing the legend was no exception. Mete was the element of earth, Yose fire, their mother water and their father air. Roy didn’t have to kill the whole legend to win. He just had to rewrite it. “Oldfathers!” His voice was barely audible over the din of battle. “New plan, get front and center!”

Hopefully the general could hear better than Roy could. All he could do now was try and pave the way for Oldfathers. Roy pulled in every last drop of firepower from the sulfurite on his body and blasted it into the crackling dust storm, burning much of the dust away and decreasing the static in the air considerably. With a sharp click Roy ejected the sulfurite from his falcatta and crammed Oldfathers’ fulminite crystal into the empty slot. It was a poor fit for the setting, not remotely the right size or shape, but with a little fumbling he got it to stay in place.

Roy gave the weapon an experimental snap, saw that the fulminite stayed in place and heaved the weapon at the nawonota. It spun through the dust storm, the bright bronze blade crackling with electricity and channeling it down into the fulminite, draining even more power away from the gathering whirlwind. Leaving a void in the legend. Roy looked around frantically. “General Oldfathers, get to the coalstok-“

The world went white and sound flew away once again. For a moment Roy saw the same family as before, now gathered around the fire. Save for the father, who was just entering the tent carrying a brace of rabbits over one shoulder. On closer inspection he wasn’t the same man as before. He was older, a little more world weary, but his eyes were kind. Kinder than the father from before. Kinder than the man who led the trees up Briarheart. But unmistakeable none the less.

Then the vision faded and the real world crept back in at the edges. Grunt was helping Marshall to his feet. Nora was struggling against the buffeting wind, which seemed to be fading but was still pretty strong. And Oldfathers was picking up the pieces of –

Of Roy’s sword. He was holding the nawonota in his other hand, still very much intact. Roy staggered over to him and held his hand out for the artifact. The general passed it to him, saying, “It looks inert, though I’m not sure that means it’s safe. What did you do?”

“That was all you, General.” He took the nawonota and carefully cut the leather that bound it together with his iron dagger. “I agree with you on the safety issue, though. I know a safe place to keep the pieces for a while. In the meantime, let’s get off this coalstoking mountain.”