Pewter and Iron

(Pewter and Iron is my second foray into the world of Nerona. I wanted to make the world bigger than a single character or plot thread and so I deliberately pivoted to a new character rather than try to stick with either of the protagonists from The Lady of Marble. Lenneth and Ghiarelli aren’t gone but for the moment we’re looking elsewhere. Hopefully you enjoy Fabian as much as those two!)

“Zalt – it’s the Blacklegs all right. The whole company of them, by the looks of it.” I slid back down below the stone wall and handed my partner the spyglass. Sergio and I had spent the last hour picking our way through the ruins of Troas towards the Dragon’s Orb that floated just above it only to discover signs of other encampments as we went. Now we knew who’d left them. It wasn’t all that surprising.

Most of the old cities around the Gulf of Lum were abandoned after Hannibal Fulminate fought Old Lum around a hundred and fifty years ago. However fishermen still plied the waters of the Gulf and doubtless they’d brought the word back to more settled regions. I’m sure that’s how the Prince of Torrence heard about the pewter and sapphire colored Orb in the ruins. Whoever had sent the Blacklegs probably followed a similar route.

“I don’t see any banners. Are you sure it’s the Blacklegs?” Sergio asked.

“Let’s see. They’re all carrying swordstaves, wearing thigh high black boots and at least half a dozen of them are hopping around like crickets. If they’re not the Blacklegs they’re doing a pretty good job of pretending they are.” I leaned back against the wall, pulled off my left glove and took my rondel dagger in my right. Then I closed my eyes and reached for my Gift.

You feel an incredible number of sensations every second of every day but you’ve learned to ignore them so you can actually live your life. I have learned to feel them again, so that I can share them with others and feel what they feel in turn. In many circumstances this isn’t very fun. It can be very useful. Back on the outskirts of Troas a man sat on a particularly uncomfortable wooden stool. I could feel it digging into his thighs from half a mile away. Then I focused on my left thumb and very deliberately pricked that thumb with the point of my dagger, sending that sensation back to that man on the stool until the feeling of sitting vanished. Then I opened my eyes again. “They’re on their way.”

“We need to hurry,” Sergio hissed. “They’re going to get away with the Orb!”

“Get away?” I peeked back over the wall just to make sure we were both looking at the same thing. “It’s floating fifteen feet in the air, Sergio.”

“Have you forgotten what the defining trait of a Blackleg is, Fabian?”

Not for the first time I cursed the Prince for pairing me with this child who thought everyone and everything in the world found it as new as he did. “Yes, Sergio, anyone without the Gift of Leaping is automatically disqualified from joining. Just because they can get up on top of the Orb doesn’t mean they can move it. Have you ever seen the one the Conte Compani gifted to the Prince when he came of age eight years ago? It’s enormous, and made of solid granite. I don’t see a team of oxen or a cart to haul it with so how do they intend to move it?”

“Could be what the extras are for.” I followed Sergio’s finger to the two people not wearing the Blackleg’s distinctive boots or carrying their trademark weapon. One was a man with a strange, blue-green arm and the other a woman in an obscenely tight corset and men’s stockings and hose. There wasn’t a scrap of armor on her. Neither did she carry a weapon or even bother with anything on her arms or a cloak to keep off the night’s dew. In contrast, the man kept his strange arm free of clothing but otherwise was swathed in the usual cloak, surcoat and pantaloons you’d expect of a bravo at work. An interesting addition to a company of condottieri like the Blacklegs.

Large companies of mercenaries rarely worked with outside individuals or teams like Sergio and I. The point of condottieri is to fight battles. Outside of campaigns they drill, maintain equipment and move about looking for work. We bravos rarely take to battlefields. Instead we focus on smaller problems and generally work to be more discreet, working on behalf of a handful of reliable patrons. Our remit is the slaying of monsters, checking on wayward caravans, retrieving stole property or kidnapped nobles. In our off time I usually just try to get Sergio drunk enough that he’ll leave me alone then go to Torrence Grande Square to listen to the troubadours.

My point is, it’s rare to see the two breeds of hirelings work together. On anything. “The woman is either a thunderheart or flameheart,” I said. “She wouldn’t be dressed like that in a crowd of men if she couldn’t do something to keep them at arm’s length.”

Sergio spent a moment studying her. I had to admit that her high cheekbones, flawless skin, pronounced curves and long, wild black hair were well worth the time to look at. “I don’t know,” Sergio finally muttered. “It might be worth making a grab for her even if you wind up getting burned.”

“Worth sacrificing a hand for? Maybe. But worth loosing your manhood to living flame or lightning? No thank you.”

My partner grimaced. “Right, I forgot you pick up some sensations whether you want them or not so I guess you’d know, wouldn’t you?”

Actually I wouldn’t. I’ve vicariously lived through some truly horrible things but getting the figs burnt off isn’t one of them. Telling Sergio that just seemed like a way to get further off the topic. “I’ve never met him in person but I’d bet anything the man with the strange arm is Benicio Gale, from the eastern peninsula. He’s supposed to be the most powerful Blowhard alive.”

Sergio frowned. “Okay, that’s a useful Gift to have but if Dragon Orbs are as heavy as they say-”

“They are.”

“-then he’s not going to be able to blow it all the way back to wherever they’re planning to take it.” He gave me a skeptical look. “Or do you think they’re not here to claim it like we are? Could they be after something else here and just happened on the Orb by accident?”

“Not a chance.” I took the glass back from Sergio and looked at the Orb again. “Look at that. That’s not just any Dragon Orb that’s the first intact one I’ve ever heard of.”

“You mean they’re all smashed open like the Prince’s?”

I lowered the spyglass and gently thumped my forehead against the cool stone. “King of Stars, save us from ignorant children. Yes, every Orb ever found has a hole smashed in one side of it regardless of what it is made out of and how powerful the Dragon that keeps it.”

“That’s the other thing,” Sergio said, slipping a bolt into his crankbow. “Dragon Orbs are supposed to belong to dragons. So where is it?”

“Maybe none of them have shown up to claim it yet,” I said.

Sergio grinned. “Maybe this is our chance to break one open and find out why dragons care so much about the zalted things.”

“I don’t think the Blacklegs will take kindly to us just walking up and tampering with their prize.”

He didn’t reply, just picked up his bow and stood in a low crouch, hustling through the ruins with the stock of the bow clamped to his shoulder. I sighed, cursed the impetuosity of youth and hurried after him. As we moved closer I felt the telltale prickling sensation of Sergio’s Gift crawl over my scalp like spider feet. “Really, Fabian? Annoyance? Couldn’t you appreciate my initiative?”

“No. What’s their status?”

“They’re a little tired but alert and confident.” He came to a stop and turned to peek over the wall again, looking confused. “Weird. There’s something else out there. Something big.”

Sergio’s ability to sense and share emotions was useful in a lot of situations but when stretched further than thirty or forty feet it became quite vague. The Blacklegs were about sixty feet away, the Orb just beyond them. “Big how? Lots of feelings or strong emotion? Or both?”

“Watchful. Just one set of emotions I think, but very pronounced and very watchful. It knows we’re here…” His eyes widened. “Zalt. I think I know what that Orb is.”


“An egg.”

The side of the Orb shattered, sending gray and blue shards raining down on the surprised Blacklegs. They scattered, shouting in alarm, as a newborn dragon emerged and dropped to the ground. It had six legs and a thin, serpentine body. The belly and eyes gleamed sapphire while the heavy scales that armored most of its body were a silvery pewter color, just like the orb. The snakelike head and four toed claws flashed sapphire teeth and claws at us. It was perhaps eight feet from snout to tail.

There were fifty four men looking at it and we all stared in disbelief for just a moment. That was our first mistake.

The dragon snatched up one of the Blacklegs, faster than thought, and tore its head off between its jaws, crushing the skull and gulping it down in a single gruesome movement. It’s claws dug into the body beneath the armor and it darted away from the condottieri dragging the body with it. Pieces of armor were torn away and the body within devoured in great, bloody gulps.

The Blacklegs didn’t take kindly to this. They jumped forward, their Gift turning a small jump of two or three feet into a dizzying leap that covered nearly fifty. Their captain sent them into the air in groups of ten. It was a sight to see them leave the ground in waves, flying through the air like stones from a catapult, then smashing into the ground unhurt in clouds of dust at the end of their brief flight. Two groups cut off the dragon’s retreat, leveling the points of their weapons at their quarry. A third wave of Blacklegs targeted the creature itself.

The maneuver took less than ten seconds, in which time the dragon devoured the last of their friend’s corpse. It had already grown two feet longer. Perhaps the only thing more frightening than the rage of a grown dragon is the hunger and growth of an newborn one. The only consolation I found in the whole scene was that the man died without feeling pain.

The same was not true of the Blacklegs who lept to kill the dragon. The first had his arm ripped off and bled to death in agony. The creature grabbed the second’s swordstave by the blade and swung him around into the third before either one landed. Apparently the dragon didn’t know the Leaping Gift made all landings painless for those who had it since it ignored those two even though they felt almost no pain when they tumbled to the ground.

The moment they collided in the air probably broke some ribs, though.

I staggered to my feet, fighting off the waves of outside pain, and dragged Sergio up after me. “We need to get out of here.”

He balanced his crankbow on the wall in front of us and waited for a shot. “Are you crazy? We have a chance to be dragon slayers! It’s a child, sure, but-”

“But it’s making mincemeat of some of the best mercenaries in Nerona, Sergio. And we’re not fighters, we’re scouts. Leave this to the professionals.”

Already the Blacklegs were switching tactics. They’d brought a huge net, probably to wrangle the floating Orb with, and now four of them lept over the dragon’s head carrying one edge of it while four more anchored the other side. While the net was just rope it was woven densely enough that the dragon couldn’t easily tear through with its claws and they brought it down for the moment. A gout of flame sprang up within the net but the dragon was young and the net was damp with dew. It didn’t burn quickly.

Sergio gave me a hard look. “What, it’s bad to give up a Dragon Orb to whoever they’re working for but giving them a dragon or it’s corpse is fine?”

“Do you really think they’re going to kill it?”

In response a wave of confidence and resolve washed over me, channeled to me through Sergio from the minds of the men in front of us. Sergio crouched down and started forward again, leaving the most important thing unspoken. Even if it didn’t prey on men a newborn dragon could cause famines across counties and provinces as its absurd growth and insatiable appetite brought it to adulthood.

The lands around Torrence just couldn’t support their human populace and a growing dragon. The lizard had to die.

I loosed my dagger in its sheath and unslung my shield, although from what I’d seen those weapons weren’t worth much against a dragon, and followed after Sergio. He kept broadcasting the confidence and purpose of the Blacklegs as we approached. It didn’t do much for me but I could tell that the mercenaries were less tentative with Sergio bolstering their courage – even if he was using their own feelings to do it.

The Blackleg captain was no fool, although most of his attention was on the dragon clawing its way out of the net he did cast a quick glance around the area as Sergio’s wave of encouragement washed over him. I sighed and stood up straight, waving for his attention.

“What are you doing?” Sergio hissed.

“The smart thing, unlike you.” The captain waved me over and we closed the thirty feet between us in a few seconds. “Fabian Sensate, captain, and my partner Sergio Empath.”

“Bartolomaeus Leaper,” he snapped, “commanding the Blacklegs under contract to retrieve the Dragon Orb. Same for you?”

“Originally. I think we have a bigger problem on hand right now, captain, and I’ll be happy to just kill the beast and live to tell it.”

“Between you, me and the Four Kings I’d settle for that, too. My employer wouldn’t be so understanding.” He glanced up at the sky but it was overcast and the twilight hidden from us. “The King of Stars keeps his own counsel tonight so we’re on our own, I’m afraid. Say we kill the dragon and argue over the Orb later?”

“Fine.” I gave Sergio a sharp look and he closed his mouth, objection unvoiced. I took the crankbow from his hands. “Sergio will help you keep your men together. What should I do?”

Bartolomaeus glanced at the dragon, which had burned its way out of the net and killed another Blackleg but now bled from a dozen shallow stab wounds. The woman in the corset waded through the burning rope, her own body practically one with the flames. A fire heart indeed. She threw her arms around the dragon’s neck and climbed for its head only to burst into a pillar of flame as the dragon swatted her with a claw. Her body reassembled itself from the fire a moment later and she made another grab for the lizard.

“Can you hurt that thing without endangering my men?”

“No. I can feel what others feel and share the sensations but I can only target an individual if I know them well, otherwise the sensations effect anyone near me.” I patted a few potions at my waist. “I can make them feel some terrible things that will lay them flat but I can’t guarantee it will work on the dragon.”

“Then hold your peace while we try something. Benicio!” The captain waved his hand in some kind of signal to the green armed man. Then he yelled to the men around the dragon. “Ola! Ohle-ohlay-ohlay-la-la!”

Benicio Gale came by his name honestly. He took a breath so deep I thought he would swell up and burst then pursed his lips and blew a hurricane through the middle of the ruins. The Blacklegs around the dragon lept up and over the wall of wind, landing near their captain in near perfect formation no doubt indicated by the ridiculous cry Bartolomaeus had just given. The dragon and woman were picked up and slammed into a set of stone pillars that once held up a long vanished roof. The woman dissolved into fire then was swept away by the wind. I think I saw her laughing as she vanished and bid her good riddance. A dangerous one, that, whoever she was.

The dragon was left pinned in place by Benicio’s titanic breath, clawing at the stone but unable to find purchase with its emerald talons. It had grown more in the few minutes that passed. Now its length was twenty feet if it was an inch and it had begun to sprout wings like a bee. I felt a sudden, grinding pain between my shoulder blades and realized I could feel the dragon’s discomfort. It braced itself against the foundation of the ruined building and I felt it draw in a deep breath.

“Your ears! Captain, have your men plug their ears!”

It was too late. The dragon’s roar shattered old stone and cracked the earth, even overpowering the sound of Benicio’s howling wind. The waves of courage Sergio sent out faltered. I saw most of the men behind Bartolomaeus turn white as death but a few stood strong, not the least of them the captain himself. Sergio’s brow furrowed as he grasped the few remaining strands of resolve and wove them into a blanket to keep the Blacklegs from panicking.

It was an incredible feat. The terror of a dragon’s roar is supposed to break the will of all but the most hardened veterans. This dragon was young, true. But Sergio turned the remaining scraps of courage into an ironclad bulwark against its terrifying rage. I can honestly say I have never seen an Empath achieve anything remotely comparable before or since. For just a moment, Sergio stood on the level of Hannibal’s Paladins.

Then Benicio ran out of breath.

I should have seen it coming. He could only exhale for so long and the force of the dragon’s roar had to have taken some toll on him. Even I felt a chill from it and I have felt what it’s like to die countless times in my life. So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when Benicio coughed once then doubled over, gasping, and the wind vanished.

The dragon was the only one who was ready for it.

It flung itself off one of the pillars behind it, covering most of the twenty feet between us between Benicio’s first and second gasps. I loosed my crankbow, hitting it on the shoulder of its second left leg. The arrowhead bounced off with only a twinge of pain. Bartolomaeus raised his swordstave and held it in a cross guard, opening space between the dragon and his men. He stepped forward to ward the dragon back. Behind him, half a dozen of his men scrambled to form a skirmish line. Their discipline was remarkable.

Sergio scrambled to one side, fumbling his rapier out of its sheath as he tried to give them space to work. For just a moment he stepped too far away from the Blackleg formation.

Like a whip, the dragon’s head swept out and around Bartolomaeus, its teeth latched on to Sergio’s shoulder and then he was yanked forward into the monster’s waiting claws. A splash of blood and the unnatural courage that flooded us vanished. Sergio was dead. The dragon tore its mouthful away, taking shoulder and arm off of Sergio’s body and swallowed it down. Already I could see panic spreading through the Blacklegs. Even Bartolomaeus’ eyes were wide with shock.

Another roar and they would break.

I threw aside the crankbow and drank the first potion on my belt. For a moment the foul brew stuck my eyes and the back of my nose, then it hit my stomach and the world spun for a moment. I gathered myself and put the full force of my Gift behind the sensation. Then I vomited.

The Blacklegs followed suit to the man, most of them collapsing as the nausea overpowered their sense of balance as well. The dragon spat out Sergio’s arm and flopped flat, writhing on the ground, leaking bile and blood from its lips. Only Benicio kept his stomach although not his feet.

For just a moment I was the only one standing. It takes more than a little puke for me to take a seat. With the last of Sergio’s borrowed feelings purged with the remains of my dinner I felt something quite unexpected filling its place. Anger burned in me. I stalked towards the dragon, taking my dagger in one hand and the next potion in the other. I pried the cork out and let the eye watering smell of spices sting my nose. The dragon looked up at me as approached.

“What is this?” The creature gathered its wits about it and pulled upright.

“Oh? You can talk now, can you?” I sucked in a deep breath through my nose, the burning spices in the potion clawing through my skull at my brain and eyes. The dragon reared backwards. “You couldn’t have tried that first?”

“Humans are not the only ones who can peer through minds, Fabian Sensate,” the dragon snapped, shaking its head clear of the pain. “I know you came to steal my cradle from me. Why speak to thieves who will take the one treasure granted to a child such as I?”

“I’m no richer than you, little lizard. I don’t have many people I’d call friends and you just ate one of them, so you may be willing to call it even.” I took a sip of the potion and its spice scalded my tongue. “Turns out I am not.”

The dragon pulled itself up until its head was even with mine, spitting bile and coughing flame as I shared the torture in my mouth with it. But the creature’s attention wasn’t on its mouth. It was staring intently at me, its head weaving back and forth as if it was one of those charmed snakes charlatans from the East mesmerized with a flute. Then the dragon changed.

It didn’t get bigger, not this time, nor did it stretch is nascent wings to their full extent. Rather, it shrank until it was barely taller than I am. Its proportions changed, too, head pulling in to its torso, tail and middle set of legs disappearing inward as well, its extra shoulders melting away like snow in sunlight. Faster than it took to describe, the dragon changed from a lizard to a human woman. She stood there, six feet of pewter skin, her nudity robbed of eroticism by its sheer alien nature, still armed with wicked sapphire claws and teeth, her hair a bundle of waving, jewel like fibers. Then she leaned in close to me.

Her breath smelled like a burning cook pot.

“How lovely,” she whispered.


She stretched a deadly, taloned finger towards my eyes. “The most lovely jewels I have ever seen lie just here, more brilliant than any sapphire, quartz, diamond or topaz my parents placed in my cradle.”

I looked down at my potions, wondering if I had one that would do more to her than the fire pepper brew. She grabbed my hand and tilted my face back up towards her. “They’re gone. Why?”

“There are worse questions for your last words, I suppose.” Switching tactics, I jammed my dagger into the sapphire scales over her belly. To my amazement, it broke.

The dragon scowled at me. “That was rude. Almost as rude as trying to steal my cradle while I was still in it. I’ll forgive you if-”

I took the shards of the dagger and stabbed them into my thigh. It was a risky move, but there was a Mender among the men I’d signaled with the thumb prick and I was confident I could survive. However as I worked the metal slivers into my flesh even my own tolerance for pain failed and I crumbled to the ground. I landed almost on top of the dragon, who’s tolerance wasn’t any better than mine. In fact, I could tell that these sensations were quite new to her, rapidly spreading through her body and triggering sympathetic pains elsewhere.

She rallied and pushed up, causing me to roll off her. I deliberately landed on my wounded leg, causing her to howl in agony. Using a contortionist trick I’d picked up from a tiny man from the East I yanked my thumb out of socket then popped it back it. Black spots swam before my eyes.

The dragon pulled herself up and roared, the sound doubly terrifying coming from a creature that looked so uncannily human. In response, a horn sounded nearby. A gust of wind nearly took the dragon off its feet as Benicio began to get his breath back. I picked up the fire pepper potion I had dropped. It was still half full. I dumped it all over my face and mouth, triggering horrible burning on my skin and tears from my eyes.

A Blackleg – I couldn’t tell who – crashed into her with the point of his weapon and she howled. Her body melted back into her full draconic form, now almost twenty five feet long with wings fully grown, and she clawed for the sky. A few bolts of lighting from a thunder hand sparked off her pewter skin but the creature kept climbing and climbing until I could no longer pick it out from the night sky. All I could see through the tears and pain was the glimmering curve of the Orb, slowly settling to the ground as the magic within it faded, its mistress gone.

I, too, collapsed onto the ground. The tension left my body as it became clear the danger was past and all that was left was arguing over who would ultimately lay claim to the treasure the dragon left. I closed my eyes, trying to sooth the burning there, content to let others bicker over such things. Then I heard a voice speaking to me with the faraway tone of a Telepath. “Keep my cradle with you, my lovely,” the dragon sent. “One day I will come back for it as surely as I will find you again. Although it may be ages before fate brights us together once more I will always count your eyes as the first treasure of my hoard…”

“Think that if you like,” I muttered, opening my eyes to look up into the cloudy night. “But I swear this by the King of Stars, lizard. One day I will kill you.”


The Lady of Marble

Nerona began as a bizarre jumble of different ideas. A fantasy world based on Renaissance Italy. An attempt to coopt the class abilities of the Final Fantasy series into a coherent world with somewhat predictable laws. A story about a character who is a hardcore antiauthoritarian. I have a story that drove much of the worldbuilding for Nerona but as I began to work on understanding that world many, many other ideas for what could happen in that lively little nation came to me. Here I share some of them with you, beginning with one of the first ideas that came to me and the first that I committed to paper.

The birds brought her tidings, as always. At first it was just a few songbirds rising above the treetops in twos and threes in panic. Then they came in waves. They became birds of all kinds, songbirds, raptors and even a handful of waterfowl rising from the mountainside.

Lenneth moved from the round seat at the center of the lookout tower towards the eastern windows. Something unusual was on the mountainside. Her father and brothers were down in the Round Lake Valley, beyond the Hall, taking in a few ducks for the guest they were expecting tomorrow. Lenneth was tempted to ignore the birds, since there were no other signs of something amiss. Only large predators or humans spooked the birds that way and neither was uniquely remarkable.

But it was possible their guest had arrived early. Leaving him to wander the mountainside for the night wouldn’t be hospitable. She reached out and took up the tower’s padded, metal striker and rang the eastern bell twice. The bell’s clear, silvery tone echoed over the mountainside. Then Lenneth collected her short spears and spear sling and hurried over to the spiral stairway that led down from the overlook’s platform. The rough wooden steps that wound around the outlook’s central support beam had no interest for her. Instead she lept up on the railing and allowed her Gift to carry her down in a single sweeping movement.

She kept her legs tucked up under her body as she shifted back and forth to maintain her balance, her boots barely touching the wooden bar as they slid along without resistance. Her Gift of Grace turned the bar into a thoroughfare and propelled her along without resistance. Her sense of balanced, honed from a lifetime of similar stunts, kept her on course. She lept off the railing at the end of the bar and landed lightly on the dirt path below.

The mountain was as familiar to her as her family Hall. The Wingbreaker Clan had kept the paths on the Griffon’s Mounts for two hundred years with each path, tree and clearing very deliberately maintained. The Gift of Grace wasn’t integral to the way they kept the mountains. But many of the Clan had been blessed in that way over the years and they had found all the small shortcuts – rock outcroppings, convenient trees and dried creek beds – where their Gift would allow them to effortlessly slide down the side of the mountain.

From the appearance of waterfowl she’d spotted earlier Lenneth concluded their guest was crossing Hildur’s Creek at the upper ford. At a normal march it was perhaps twenty minutes from the outlook. However an avalanche on the eastern ridges had left a wide channel open and smooth enough for gliding so Lenneth was able to sweep down two hundred feet of mountainside in less than a minute and finish the overall trip in less than five.

She walked out of the brush along the river to find their guest seated on a rock beside the ford, pulling his boots back on. His appearance was immediately striking. He was tall but wiry in the way of a man who was used to an active life but not a laborious one. His skin was the olive tone of the Neronan people. The boots he was pulling on were shod with nails in the same way her own were, giving them more grip on the mountainous terrain. However that was the only concession he’d made to the wild. Unlike many visitors who came from that southern nation he had not adopted the dress of the Isenkinder but instead wore a wine red doublet and pantaloons in the Neronan style. He’d tied down the extra fabric around his arms with leather straps, presumably to keep them out of the way in the brush.

Lenneth found herself frowning at that. Many who came from Nerona bound themselves in tightly and shrank away from others. It was a very unnatural, city-like idea. The visitor’s back was to her when she arrived so she made her way around to his front, grabbing the edge of her cloak and giving it a gentle tug. It rippled gently around her body, the roc feathers stitched to it it rustling with the motion. Some of her disapproval faded as the stranger immediately took note of the sound.

He stood, bracing himself on the stock of a crankbow he’d leaned against the rock he sat on. Lenneth tensed for a moment but he made no move to raise the bow once he was standing. Instead he turned around and removed his cloth cap, a gesture of greeting and respect in Nerona.

Lenneth also turned, straightening her robe and cloak so they fell correctly about her, and presented her bare right shoulder, arm and side to their guest in openness and greeting. “Welcome to the Griffon’s Mounts, honored guest,” she said, raising her right hand in greeting. “I am Lenneth Wingbreaker, of the Wingbreaker Clan. You are earlier than we expected but you are still most welcome here.”

“My thanks.” The stranger bowed from his waist then straightened, putting his cap back on his head. In the same motion he adjusted a strange piece of wire holding two disks of glass in front of his eyes. Then he took a solid look at her. For a moment he locked in place as his eyes focused on her bare arm and the narrow strip of exposed skin running down the side of her body to the top of her boots. Only the straps of her robe broke up the skin there.

Neronans dressed as if they feared any other person glimpsing their flesh. Their paranoid sometimes bordered on the obscene. Still, in many cases it was easier to close oneself off some to help others open up. She tightened the straps until the opening on her right side was little more than a finger wide. “May I know your name, honored guest?”

The man cleared his throat and pulled his eyes up to her face. “Of course. I am Ghiarelli Glasseye, of Verdemonde Province in Nerona. I came at the behest of the Marquis Verdemonde and bear letters of introduction but, alas, time was precious and no message proceeded me. I fear I am not the guest you were expecting.”

“You are welcome regardless.” Lenneth studied him a little closer, wondering what kind of man travelled to far foreign lands with nothing to warn of his coming. Such behavior spoke of extreme need. Yet if Ghiarelli was a desperate man, little about him bore testimony to it. His eyes were a bright, clear brown like the bottom of a clear river with no signs of exhaustion beyond what was normal for a traveler far from home. Likewise his clothes were worn but not tattered or uncared for.

Most of all, a bemused smile kept playing at his lips. Ghiarelli snatched up a pack by his feet, a rough, brown sack with straps for the arms and a buckler and long, thin sword strapped down within easy reach. “Thank you for your hospitality, lady of marble,” he said. “My hope is to trespass on your kindness for only two or three days.”

Lenneth arched an eyebrow. “Lady of marble?”

“Am I not allowed to address you by title, as you have me?”

“There is a difference between calling you an honored guest and me a lady of marble, Sir Ghiarelli. Whether you are the one we expected or not you are our guest but I am not a creature of stone.” Lenneth turned and gestured towards the mountaintop. “Regardless of whether we expected you or not I ask you to come back to Wingbreaker Hall with me to enjoy our hospitality.”

He lifted his crankbow and slung it over one shoulder. “My thanks, lady Wingbreaker. Lead on.”

The worst part of heading back up the mountain was having to restrain her Gift so that her guest could keep pace. The Neronan man was content to walk in silence for a time. But as they turned away from the river he said, “Tell me, lady Wingbreaker, do you have many visitors from Nerona?”

“A few,” she said, casting her mind through the long line of faces that had come to the ancestral Hall over the years. “Perhaps half a dozen a year. Usually in pairs or families although some come alone like you. Why? Do you miss your contrymen’s company already?”

“Not at all. I saw plenty of them in the journey north. Verdemonde is at the furthest southern limits of the western peninsula so I’m afraid I’ve seen half the country in the last three weeks. I was just surprised that no one has ever commented on your skin before.”

Lenneth laughed. “On the contrary, many of them do so. In fact, few if any Neronans fail to remark on the amount of skin they see; almost as if none of you have seen skin before.”

“We have, but never skin as beautiful as polished marble.”

A flush worked its way up her cheeks. It was no lie to say every visitor from the south had commented on the pallor of the Isenkinder’s skin. This was the first to embarrass her over it. “Perhaps that’s because they don’t come from cities full of nothing but dust and stone.”

Ghiarelli chuckled. “Perhaps so. I didn’t realize it was that obvious where I came from. What gave me away?”

“There are no leaves or brambles in your clothes,” Lenneth said. “You’ve bound yourself up to avoid all contact. When something does brush against you, you take note and clean away the detritus. Only someone unused to the wilds would bother with such a futile endeavor.”

“I see! That’s very astute of you,” he said, shielding his eyes as they stepped out into the clearing left by last winter’s avalanche. “What other insights-”

He stopped short, grabbed her by the right arm and dragged her back into the tree line less than a second before a roc swept by. Wind from the great raptor’s wings buffeted the branches of the trees. The tips of its claws scraped furrows through the dirt and stones where they had just stood. Then the mighty bird climbed up and away, banking away from the treeline and climbed upwards, screeching its frustration at the sky.

As the wagon sized bird dwindled into the distance Lenneth fitted one of her spears into the pocket of her sling. “The roc has seen us. It won’t leave now until the sun sets and there is no path we can take back to the Hall that won’t expose us to another attack. I’ll try to lure it down and dispatch it, you head up the-”

Ghiarreli lightly grasped her sling hand and she looked over, startled. He was looking up into the air with one eye squinted and the other stretched open wide. Glimmers of light shot through his pupils. A chill ran down Lenneth’s spine. “Wait,” he whispered. “Let it go a bit further…”

She looked back at the roc, now quickly shrinking into the sky. Then a spear shot out of the trees. It was little more than a sliver of black wood at that distance but even then Lenneth recognized the way it flew. It arced out of the trees at a brisk clip, destined to fall far short of the roc. Then her father’s Gift added an extra push to it and the spear jumped forward again. The great bird banked to avoid it but a second and final push corrected for the roc’s maneuver and drove the weapon home. The roc dropped from the sky and disappeared among the trees.

Ghiarelli grunted and stood up, dusting himself off. “Impressive throw. Even with the Gift of Impulse to drive the weapon it’s difficult to guide it at that distance in a way that will hit an evading target.” He started as four high pitched notes sounded from the distant, unseen overlook. “What was that? I heard something similar earlier.”

“A signal bell. Probably my brother, sounding the all clear so we know there aren’t any other rocs in the area.”

“Ah. That’s a useful system.”

“You’re a clairvoyant,” Lenneth said. She immediately wanted to kick herself for saying something so obvious when you stopped to think about it.

“Is that a problem?”

“No, I suppose not.” She studied his gleaming glasses. “I’ve just never met one. Clairvoyants are supposed to stay cloistered in safe places, lost in the future and dead to the present, not wander around mountainsides.”

“Only the most powerful of us have that problem,” Ghiarelli said. “Most of us can only see a few seconds forward without great effort – or in our dreams.” He touched the wire and glass over his eyes. “With the help of a skilled Artificer we can see further or limit ourselves to the present and in general exercise more control over our Gift. Well, except for the dreams.”

Lenneth absently brushed her hand across the chain link belt she wore, an Artifact her grandfather had made to give more control and force to her own gift. “I see. That must be a great help to you. I know the Gift of Artifice is common in Nerona, such things must be plentiful there.”

“Is it rare among the Isenkinder?” The stranger asked as they resumed the climb to the summit.

“In comparison to the Talisman Gift, yes. I’m not sure why it should be so much easier for our people to amplify the residual magic of other creatures to make talismans, rather than channeling the magic of men into artifacts but so it is. If it were not the case the Wingbreaker Clan would not exist.” She ran her fingers over the feathers of her cloak. “If we were not here to mind the mountains all the rocs and griffons would be dead and their bodies turned to wards and trinkets. What brings you to our mountain, Ghiarelli Glasseye? Do you think the creatures we tend can serve to create you a talisman to help control your dreams?”

“I doubt the King of Dreams would allow me control of them,” he said with a wry smile. “The Kings at the Corners are so possessive of their omens, after all. Perhaps a talisman could add some clarity but even that’s a stretch. No, I’ve never heard of any talisman or artifact that can affect a clairvoyant’s dreams so your griffons are safe from me.”

“Not the rocs?”

“There is an appeal to a cloak that keeps me from ever getting cold.” He glanced at her roc feathers. “If I had such a thing I might be as bold as others are.”

Lenneth started pinking up again. “I thought clairvoyants saw things as they are about to happen. What clarity could you need? Are your dreams different from other visions?”

“They are much further in the future so what is likely to happen is less certain and the images become more symbollic.”

She gave him a questioning look. “What do you mean?”

“Well, let me give you an example. Just now I watched that roc tear your arm off and wiped your blood off my glass eyes.” He mimed a wiping motion with one hand. Lenneth shuddered. “It looked as real as if it actually happened. On the other hand, three days ago I dreamed that a block of marble tumbled to the ground blocking my path and transformed into the statues of two lords and a lady. Clearly a meeting that was important to my task but no idea of when or where we would meet. Until today, of course.”

Her father and brother flitted through her mind. “I see. And your dream got some of the details wrong, since I was alone when we first met.”

“Perhaps. And perhaps the moment that dream symbolized hasn’t come to pass yet. Not everything we see ever does.” He flashed a charming smile. “I certainly hope I will never see you maimed before my eyes.”

“How kind of you. I’m sure my father will be impressed by your chivalry.”

“You may not remain on Wingbreaker land, Ghiarelli Glasseye,” Ulfar intoned, his face set in stone. “You must depart our land before the sun sets.”

Lenneth struggled but failed to keep her mouth from dropping open in astonishment. She hadn’t actually expected overflowing gratitude from her father but she hadn’t expected him to immediately send a guest away without even listening to him or the daughter who had brought him to their threshold.

“Lord Wingbreaker,” Ghiarelli said, producing a sheaf of paper folded in thirds and sealed with wax from his pack. “I assure you I come with no ill will to you or yours. I have here letters from the Marquis de Verdemonde stating his good will and offering -”

“On this I cannot be persuaded, no matter what inducement your Lord offers or how inconsequential you believe your presence to be.” Ulfar folded his arms over his chest and settled in place. “I am sorry but it must be so.”

For a moment Ghiarelli stared at her father, eyes narrow then slowly growing wider. Then he sighed and tucked away his papers. “Very well.”

“Father!” The word exploded out of her before she realized she was going to speak.

Ulfar’s light brown eyebrows knitted together as he cut her off with a raised hand. “I will not be moved on this, Daughter. What binds the Isenkinder to Nerona? Or why should the Wingbreakers bow to the Verdemonde?”

“It is a question of honor, Father.”

“You question my honor, Daughter?”

Lenneth raised her chin a fraction. “No, Father, you threaten mine.”

Her father studied her face for a moment then gestured back towards the overlook behind him. “Tyroc,” he said to her brother who waited patiently at the head of the path to the Hall, “stay with our guest. I will speak with your sister in private.”

Lenneth followed her father up the stairs. Climbing was slower than she was used to but she knew her father wouldn’t want her sweeping past him on the railing. Not in front of a stranger, certainly. They emerged looking out over the valley that held the family Hall. The highest peak rose behind it. The slate eaves and fitted stone walls of the Wingbreaker’s ancestral seat almost seemed a part of the landscape from that distance.

Her father stared at the building for a long moment before he spoke. “Tell me, Lenneth, what mark would stain your honor if we sent this man away?”

She joined him on the northern window. “Father, I have already offered him our shelter and hospitality.”

Ulfar relaxed imperceptibly. “Is that all? Then I hold you blameless for a promise that was not yours to make. I have already made pledges to the guest we expect tomorrow. He will have our assistance in tracking down and securing a valuable quarry and we will do all in our power to prevent others from stealing it from him. He warned us of several who might rob him by name. Ghiarelli was one of those. So you see, my Daughter, you have made a promise I cannot honor lest I break my own word.”

Lenneth cast her eyes down. “Forgive me, Father. I did not know.”

“And I am not angry with you for it,” he said kindly, “but my own honor demands the boy be sent away. I can see from his eyes he understands our situation. Sometimes this is the way things must be. Do not trouble yourself over this.”

“I see.” Lenneth worried a feather between her fingers. “Still, wouldn’t it be better to keep him here for the night, at least?”

Ulfar’s gaze became sharp again. “How so?”

“If he’s a rival to the guest we are expecting we must watch him to make sure he makes no trouble. It’s growing late and we will need to escort him to the edge of our territory and return. It would be best to wait tomorrow to do it.” She met her father’s gaze. “And I do owe him some consideration since he prevented the roc you killed this afternoon from snatching my arm off.”

“Did he.” Ulfar snorted in surprise. “He doesn’t look like he would have better woodcraft than you, Daughter, how did he achieve such a thing?”

“He is clairvoyant, Father.”

This time her father was quiet for a long time. Then he said, “That explains a great deal. Very well, Daughter, I will extend him the hospitality of the Hall for tonight and send him out of our territory with my cousin Geirmund. He deserves that much for sparing you harm.”

With that Ulfar turned and strode back down out of the overlook. Ghiarelli waited patiently for them at the base with her brother and faced her father for a long moment as they stared at each other. “You have kept blood from being spilled on our mountains, Ghiarelli Glasseye, and not just any blood but my Daughter’s. The Wingbreakers offer you hospitality for the night, and the night only.”

The Neronan man nodded. “Thank you, Lord Wingbreaker, that is generous of you.”

“I ask only that you refrain from spilling blood yourself. If you make me this pledge of peace then Wingbreaker hall is open to you.”

“Of course.” Ghiarelli removed his cap and bowed.

It wasn’t quite the outcome Lenneth had hoped for but it was something, at least.

Lenneth stepped out of the Hall in the early morning light, unsure of what roused her from bed before the sun was even risen. She pulled her roc’s cloak more firmly around her body against the early spring chill. It was a minute’s walk from the Hall to the overlook where she was sure she could find some hint of what was amiss. The Wingbreakers weren’t clairvoyant but they knew the mountains like no other and Lenneth had always been taught to trust her instincts.

They were right on the money, although not in the way she expected. When she got up to the top of the outlook she found Ghiarelli there at the north window, his back to her, looking out towards the summit of the mountains with his arms wrapped around himself. “Is something wrong, Glasseye?”

He turned and she saw that today he wasn’t wearing the artifact he took his name from. His cap was also missing. While not notable in and of itself, these changes in accessories made it easy to notice his sunken eyes and the way sweat plastered his hair to his skull. It was a stark contrast to his controlled, confident appearance the day before.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “The King of Dreams visited me again last night.”

“I take it this one wasn’t pleasant?”

He turned back to the valley and let out a deep breath. “I saw a man of iron, burning like a furnace, scattering leaves in a shower of sparks and ash as he tears through ranks of trees.”

“That doesn’t sound particularly nightmarish.”

“It is when you’re one of the trees.”

“Oh.” Lenneth sat down on the bench behind Ghiarelli. “Are all your dreams that disturbing?”

“Does it matter?”

“I’d hate to think that I was a part of something that upset someone so badly, even unintentionally.”

He gave her a thin smile and joined her on the bench. From that lower vantage little of the mountains were visible for it was placed in a way to draw the eye to the skies; watching for the great flying beasts the Wingbreakers governed. However this morning only the clear, honey streaked skies of dawn were visible. One single grayish green speck wobbled unsteadily through the skies to the north.

“Look,” he said, voice gaining strength, “even if Dreams do not favor me the King of Dawn sends me favorable portents.”

“How so?” Lenneth asked in amusement.

“Do the Isenkinder not believe the thing you see just before the sun rises will be yours before the next daybreak?”

Lenneth scoffed. “What a strang thing to say. What would you do with a bird from Isenlund anyway?”

His voice pitched down. “Who said I was looking at the bird?”

Risking a quick glance from the corner of her eye Lenneth caught him grinning at her and forced down her embarrassment. “The question stands.”

Ghiarelli chuckled. “I see why your father was so prickly towards me last night. He must find you to be a mighty trial.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I don’t understand was what he meant by not spilling blood,” Ghiarreli continued, acting as if she hadn’t spoken. “Surely the Wingbreakers sometimes fail when hunting the dangerous game you keep. How can blood not be spilt?”

Lenneth glared at him for a moment then said, “It does happen. But it is our disgrace when it does, for we were entrusted these mountains because we could best learn, track and husband the strength of the creatures here. It falls to us to keep the peace between roc and Griffon, between beast and man and between fellow men. Der Isenkoenig granted us authority over it all.”

“But don’t you hunt rocs and griffons?”

“It’s a delicate balance but in the past their numbers have grown to the point where they became a menace to the flatlands and river country. All Isenkinder are in danger if the menace of the skies is not kept in check. Yet we also find great benefit in hunting them and if we were to simply wipe them out our talisman makers would soon follow and Isenlund would quickly pass to others. When one of us dies in the hunt it is a sign that the balance we maintain is in peril.” She pointed at him then back at herself. “It is different for you or I. The Wingbreaker’s mandate is not served by duels or grudges, so they are forbidden here.”

“Oh?” Without the glass over his eyes the way his eyes widened in surprise was more subdued but still quite pronounced. “I heard that your people are famous for your grudges.”

“Not here.” Lenneth gestured out at the mountains below them. “The dangers of the mountain are enough and fighting in the ranks here not only weakens or position against them it attracts the attention of the most powerful of the creatures on the mountain. Thus no man may shed another’s blood here save on my father’s orders or that man will face the Wingbreaker’s justice.”

“I see.” Ghiarelli’s expression returned to normal as he watched the sun peek over the horizon. “Well. If that is how it is there’s little I can do about it. Thank you for ensuring I received your family’s hospitality, Lenneth Wingbreaker. I will not forget your kindness.”

She nodded gravely. “I hope you will not hold this outcome against our clan or people.”

“No, and certainly not against you. But now I think it’s time I departed. I think I heard the doors to your Hall open again and no doubt your Uncle is looking for me…”

The man who came the day Ghiarelli left was named Remigio Bladebearer and he was hunting a rare creature called the emerald heron. He brought a rough sketch and a description of the bird’s migratory path. According to Remigio the bird followed a two decade long circuit across unknown continents and it’s eyes were a powerful talisman for seeing across incredible distances. The Neronan had pledge to share one eye with the Wingbreakers if they would help him capture the bird.

Unfortunately the map of the creatures migration pattern wasn’t very precise and covered most of the Wingbreaker peaks. Remigio arrived near mid morning and insisted they immediately begin the hunt for the heron. The birds would only be passing over the mountain for a week, he said, perhaps ten days and he was anxious to begin the hunt.

Lenneth found the whole affair odd. She’d never heard of an emerald heron, nor had her brother, father or uncles and aunts. She wasn’t sure how a Neronan had learned of it, especially since Remigio looked as much a city dweller as Ghiarelli did. Still, the best way to answer those questions was to stick with Remigio. So they set out hunting.

The creature was just as much a waterfowl as any other heron so at least they didn’t have to search every inch of the mountain. However the sun rose to full height and sank towards the western horizon and they found no sign of the creature. After a long, humid day slinking along river banks, Ulfar proposed that they head back to the Hall via Round Lake Valley. Reluctantly, their guest agreed.

It was there, among the drooping pine branches and clear waves of Round Lake that they finally spotted their quarry. The emerald heron was not as striking as its name implied. The creature’s plumage was a dull green, well suited to blending in with the pine trees. It stood on the bank of the lake not in the water so its gangly legs and were on full display and it’s head constantly swiveled about on its snaking neck as if the creature was nervous. The bird’s long, predatory beak clacked constantly, as if it was talking to itself.

Remigio instantly became excited, working the lever of his crankbow as he prepared for a shot. Ulfar put a hand on the weapon’s stock. “Patience,” he whispered. “Let us take precautions. Lenneth, cross the water and sweep around it’s opposite side. You will flush it to us. Tyroc, stand ready with your Gift to strike it if all else fails. But gently! Try not to destroy its eyes in the process.”

“Easier said than done,” her brother grumbled.

Her father ignored him. “Honored guest, you and I will proceed forward once Lenneth rings her bell,” he touched the bell at his own waist for reference, “and loose our darts at the bird together.”

“How will she ring the bell?” Remigio looked puzzled. “There are not strikers in your bells.”

“Of course not,” Tyroc said, “else we would constantly ring them by accident as we moved about. We strike them with our spear hafts.”

“Oh. That’s sensible.” The Neronan finished loading his bow and hefted the weapon. “Then let’s not waste time, shall we?”

“Indeed. With this luck and another week to search we might even take two or three more of these creatures.” Ulfar gestured to Lenneth and she took of at a slow jog.

In many cases the Gift of Grace only allowed one to drift atop a surface almost as if one was skating across ice. However, on lakes and rivers a special element of the Gift came to light. Lenneth was almost weightless while gliding, at least in regards to the surface she glided along for she herself still felt her own weight and that of what she carried. Still, it made slipping over top of the water of the lake to the far shore a simple task.

What she hadn’t expected was for the heron to look at her as she crossed from its place hundreds of feet away, squawk in panic and clumsily take to the sky. Before she could process it the bird swept by perhaps six feet over her head and kept climbing. She threw her whole weight backwards, slipping down ankle deep into the water before she could reestablish her glide, and tried to reverse course. In the process she heard a confused shout from her brother, a grunt and the snap of Remigio’s crankbow.

Then there was a crack of wood and another surprised shout. Lenneth got entirely turned around and scrambled back onto shore. Remigio was working to reload his crankbow, her father was stomping towards something by the treeline and the heron had landed behind them. Tyroc was holding two sticks in one hand and his other crackled with the thunder of his Gift.

Not sticks, she realized. Two darts from a crankbow. One dart had actually pierced the other through the shaft. At first that was unbelievable but once she took in the full scene it actually made a kind of sense. Standing beside the heron at the treeline was Ghiarelli Glasseye, his own crankbow leaning against his pack at his side. She wondered if all he needed to do to achieve such a feat was look to the future as he aimed and release the arrow when he saw the future he wanted.

Ghiarelli drew his sword and buckler and stood between them and the heron. “Remigio Bladebearer. I should have known Father Borgia’s right hand would be here, kidnapping and Fair magic have Gregorio’s fingerprints all over it.”

“Glasseye.” Remigio tossed his crankbow aside. “They said they sent you down the mountain.”

“They did. And I left the mountains in truth!” Ghiarelli pulled a vial of liquid off his belt with his buckler hand, uncorked it with his teeth and dumped it over his forehead and face. The whole time he never blinked. Lenneth realized he was staring wide eyed and, even at a distance of twenty feet behind glass, she could see his eyes were bloodshot. From the damp, stained front of his doublet she assumed this was not the first such potion he’d used, another thing to help his Gift along like the glass eyes. “But you know there’s always a back way wherever you want to go, Remigio. You just have to look for it.”

The other Neronan drew his own sword, a sturdy montante with an elaborate guard and a sizable, two handed grip. As he flourished the weapon its edge glowed with a pale gold light. “All you’ve found is a way to your grave site, Glasseye.”

“Not today.” Ghiarelli glanced at Ulfar and smirked. “Not anymore.”

Ulfar came to a stop just outside the circle of the two men’s weapons. “Ghiarelli Glasseye. Do not think you can still rely on my hospitality to keep you safe. As you say, you left the mountain. By returning you trespassed on my lands and my goodwill. If your blood spills it will be as if by your own hand.”

Remigio lept forward at those words, his weapon’s blade held high and parallel to the ground. Ghiarelli casually lifted his buckler to catch the blade, keeping his weapon hand just behind the shield with the point of his sword pointed down to try and prick his opponent’s weapon hand as he lunged under Remigio’s cut. The montante twisted with a flourish and deflected the thrust then extended in a cross cut which Ghiarelli pushed down and away with the buckler. High thrust to the face and Remigio withdrew a step. Both men relaxed into a normal stance, the status quo restored.

The entire exchange took less than two seconds.

“It’s not my blood that concerns me,” Ghiarelli said, not even winded. Then he glanced at his buckler. Remigio’s glowing sword had left two deep groves in the center of the metal and taken about an inch off the right side of the shield. “Well, it concerns me a little.”

“Only a little?” Remigio demanded.

“You may be Father Borgia’s favorite bravo, with the blood of a hundred duelists on your sword, but you can’t kill me today, my dear Blade Bearer.” Ghiarelli’s grin turned toothy. “You had a chance, but today I dreamed of death by fire and you, Remigio, cannot bring me low that way. No one here can.”

“What does he mean?” Tyroc demanded. Her brother’s Gift of the Thunder Hand didn’t truly burn things but it made a close approximation and Lenneth could see he was willing to try to kill Ghiarelli that way if no one else wanted a shot at it.

“He’s a clairvoyant,” Remigio growled. “When they dream they see the way they are going to die. Unless they somehow prevent it.”

Lenneth’s mind jumped back to their conversation that morning. Then it went back even further, to their meeting the day before and his casual mention of seeing her and her family in a dream. Her jaw dropped open. “You were going to die today.”

“And now I’m not.” Ghiarelli produced a small leather bag from his belt. On second thought, perhaps not a bag, it looked more like a wineskin. “You see, I know something that you of the Wingbreaker clan do not.”

“That does not make you terribly special,” Ulfar growled. So far her father had watched the scene unfold with dispassion but now he reached up and pulled Remigio’s sword down to a neutral position. “We are simple people of the mountains, after all. But if you think I do not know that this man serves Gregorio Borgia, Nerona’s famed Merchant of Plunder, then I must disappoint you.”

“Not at all. Father Borgia believes he is a cunning man of intrigue and perhaps he is but he has reached the point where anonymity is not something even he can expect. That is something you lose when you become the most wicked man in Nerona. Still, he is every bit as cunning as he thinks he is. And he is more than unscrupulous enough barter with the Fair Folk for a curse to be placed on the children of those he seeks to bend to his will.” Ghiarelli glanced at the heron behind him. “Tell me, Ulfar Wingbreaker. Is it truly your judgment that Remigio may spill the blood of an innocent child simply because inhuman magic has changed his form to that of a bird?”

Her father’s face turned stormy but otherwise he remained calm. “You can prove this accusation?”

“The child was cursed through poisoned food. As with all their magic, curses of the Fair Folk must be fair, although I have always thought that whoever determines fair must be quite the lunatic. In the case of magic that revolves around food, the counterspell is almost always the first food a person ate in their lives, save for their mother’s milk.” Ghiarelli hefted the bag in one hand. “In this case, goat’s milk.”

“You brought that all the way here from Verdemonde?” Remigio wrinkled his nose in disgust. “It’s more likely cheese at this point.”

“The Marquis knows a few Folk of his own, they’ve ensured it will keep quite well.” Ghiarelli offered the bag to Ulfar. “If you want to know the truth of my words, offer this to the bird.”

Ulfar took the bag, then glanced at Remigio. Thinking better of taking his hand off the Neronan’s sword arm he sought out Lenneth’s eyes and nodded to her. Then, with a flick of his fingers he tossed her the bag and said, “Do as he says, Daughter.”

If nothing else the way the heron looked at her as she approached and docilely allowed her to guide its beak into the bag would have convinced her of the truth in what Ghiarelli said. When the heron’s feathers melted together into a tunic and trousers and the tall, awkward bird shrunk down into a boy perhaps seven years old it was just a confirmation of what her heart already told her was true. The child looked up at her, astonishment and gratitude written on his face, then he sat down on the grass and burst in to tears.

The storm on Ulfar’s face broke out in full force and he shook Remigio violently by his arm. “You have lied to me, servant of Borgia. No treasure or talisman your master can offer is worth the stain on my honor you have nearly tricked me into perpetrating. If you were not the messenger of a foreign lord, who’s good will is valued by Der Isenkoenig, I would set your head upon the eaves of my roof in warning. Be gone from my lands at once.”

Remigio nodded once, not resisting but not terribly put out by her father’s rage either. If anything, it seemed like something the man was used to. The idea that someone could face the full censure of the Wingbreaker clan and act like it was normal, even trivial, disturbed her as much as anything else she had seen that day. Ultimately, Borgia’s bravo was taken off the mountain by her brother and two uncles before the sun was set.

Ghiarelli kept near the child but refused to tell his name, only saying that he was the son of someone important in the province of Verdemonde and he couldn’t reveal more. Ulfar was suspicious but Lenneth thought it was because he’d just been duped once and not because he had good grounding for his suspicions. The boy seemed to know Ghiarelli a little, and that ultimately calmed Ulfar somewhat.

“But why did the child come here?” Lenneth asked as she and her mother helped Ghiarelli make up a bed for the child in the Hall. “He could have flown home to his family.”

“That’s part of the curse,” he said. “If everyone cursed that way went straight home to family the curse would be too likely to come undone. So it forces the victim to wander for some period of time along a predetermined path. Father Borgia knew the path and sent someone to kill the child when his parents refused to submit to his demands. Certain connections the Marquis has learned where the child was as well and he ordered me to come and rescue him.”

“Connections? You mean you didn’t foresee his death in a dream?”

Ghiarelli turned very serious. “Sadly, I can only see my own death that way.”

“That must be a very hard thing to see, night after night.”

“Perhaps, although at least I do not dream every night.” Then the wry smile was back and he leaned in close to whisper in her ear. “But I haven’t seen a death I couldn’t beat so far. If you doubt it you’re welcome to turn up in my dreams again, lady of marble.”

Then he trotted off to find the child, leaving her there, blushing.

Lost Words

About four or five years ago I discovered the SCP Archives, a fascinating collection of short stories in the “creepy pasta” genre. The SCP Archives are “found document” stories, framed as a series of procedures, bureaucratic files and research notes that compose the history of a single paranormal or preternatural person, place or thing. They’re full of inventive ideas, people and terms. While the SCP Archives themselves were never something I really wanted to write in the idea of a set of found documents that contained the pieces of a story but unspooled them in a nontraditional way. It took a long time but eventually “Lost Words” became the first result.

We’ve been working on decoding the information on the artifact for the last sixteen years, since we pulled it out of Saturn’s rings. We’re not sure how long it was sitting there, playing dead among the debris and we may never be certain. Frankly, it’s a miracle it’s still in one piece.

What we do know for sure is that it is electronic and has something like an onboard computer although we haven’t been able to make much of it. Here’s what we’ve got, along with notes from the researchers.







The data retrieval and file repairs are things referenced in the artifact’s onboard memory, not something we did when we got it back to Earth. We find it unlikely we will ever be able to repair or replace any of the data lost.


REPORTIN[G OFFI]CER: Te[data lost]

STAR SYSTEM: [data lost] 5 Phase 2 Star

Coordinates: 322.[data lost] off Galactic Plane


Typology: Nickle-Iron Core

Oxygen-Ni[trogen] Atmosphere

2/1 Ocean/Landmass Ratio

Satellites: [data lost]

It’s unclear what kind of coordinate system the artifact uses, or what kind of Galactic Plane they’re referencing. Based on the information available, the logical conclusion is that they’re referring to Earth although we find that eventuality unlikely for reasons that will become clear.


Chronomark – 928.4482.4

Multiple settlements confirmed on each continent. Civilization’s power distribution network consistent with a Type 2 Industrial society. Multiple orbi[tal structures] detected, suggesting the native population has been making [data lost] for some time. Survey of outlying planets did not reveal signs of permanent settlements on outward planets. Conditions on [inward pl]anets do not appear hospitable to life. Further information in fu[ture surveys.]

We conclude that the native species is most likely confined to this planet at this time.

[data lost]

The onboard records suggest that the bulk of the lost data in the artifact’s files were lost here. Roughly 40% of the data the artifact was trying to receive was from this chunk of lost files, which suggests that they spent a lot of time surveying the planet. What’s particularly interesting is that the context around the missing data suggests the missing information was entirely about the population and civilization on the planet’s surface.

Unclear how many sapient species are native to the planet. Initial scans show no signs of coherent architectural [themes] computer analysis cannot determine if differences are wide enough to suggest a differences in species. Communications [data lost] have not yet been deciphered.

Planet shows typical biodiversity for a Type 2 or Type 3 Industrial society. Standard sapience development studies show they should have larger settlements in the oceans suggesting the entire population may be mildly thassalophobic. Further details will [require closing to] close orbit.

The idea that a civilization is thassalophobic just because they don’t settle their oceans is interesting, particularly given things we will see later.

Chronomark – 928.4482.6

I have submitted a request to remain in high orbit. The stories about first contact with Type 2 and Type 3 societies are nightmares. [data lost]

It would be nice to know what kinds of things the Sphere commander was worried about but whatever it was seems lost to time.



Issued: 4th Fleet [data lost]

Recipient: [data lost]

Chronomark – 928.4484.3


Your objections to further surveillance are n[oted and show a comm]endable consideration for your crew and ship. We hereby override them. Deploy a communications relay and keep it updated in accordance with Hazardous Contact Protocols then approach to a [data lost]

You’re out there to detect potential threats to the Commonwealth, Commander. Do you job.

It’s interesting that whatever Observational Command was, they had protocol for these kinds of situations but still managed to lose the artifact – which appears to be a communications relay based on what we’ve learned – in spite of the protocols they put in place. What happened here was apparently well outside their expectations.


Chronomark – 928.4484.5

Our sphere has begun braking orbit, we are [data lost] and proceeding under Hazardous Contact Protocols. Our attempts to break the native communication codec is still [underway]. Fortunately we’ve discovered a series of analog broad[casts that appear to be unfiltered] audio and we’re working on translating the language. So far it seems we’ve avoided detection by the natives.

Several of the major structures have been firmly identified as orbital telescopes.

[data lost]

This is another major section of lost data – it represents about 12% of the lost data and presumably describes more of the planet’s orbital technology.

We believe the largest to be some kind of orbital space station, although what purpose the station serves is unclear. It’s not attached to a space elevator nor do we see large space vessels under [construction.] We’re adjusting our approach to avoid visual dete[ction by these install]ations.

So far we only have one new significant piece of information. Our analysis of the audio from the planet suggests only a single species lives there as the phonemes we’re detecting are all similar enough to come from a single type of [vocalization organ.] Based on what we know of the galaxy, that suggests a single sapient species is producing them.

[data lost]

At this point most of the missing data is accounted for. From the corrupted data on hand my analysts suggest at least part of the analog audio the drop sphere recorded was stored here. It’s possible we can still make something out of that and learn something.

[Chronomark] – 928.4484.6

[data lost] approaching standard orbit, two tanks compromised.

Definitely not a space station. What we thought were [just] telescopes do double duty as gathering arrays that focus [data lost].

The station then serves as a focal point for the weapon. Primary habitation module was compromised. Casualty list is attached:

[data lost]

– and I doubt our hull will stand up to the strain. Against the better judgment of my officers, I’m ordering us to abandon ship. We’ll keep in touch with the comm relay in accordance with Hazardous [Contact Protocols] but [data lost]

May heaven have mercy on us.

The reference to heaven is heavily debated by the translators. Most of them think we’re projecting our own culture on the aliens and worry we’re dumping a lot of cultural baggage onto this part of the records where it’s inappropriate. I’ve chosen to leave it in place for reasons you’ll see shortly.

Chronomark – 928[data lost]

Drop Sphere 3 has been abandoned. Find rest in the silence of space, old friend.

We’ve launched both of the sphere’s life pods and are making for the [data lost]

Current crew compliment of this pod [data lost] for a total of five survivors.

Five survivors in one pod led to a lot of speculation on the sphere’s original crew count. Since it’s a very small data point to draw any kind of conclusion on I eventually stepped in to end the discussion and removed that debate. Interested parties can pull the detailed files from the project archive if they’re really dedicated to reopening the issue.

Chronomark – 928.4486.1

In spite of maneuvering at minimal thrust for the past thirty hours [data lost]

The telescope is im[possible to] shake. We’ve raised our acceleration to the maximum safe rate and are maneuvering towards the system’s fifth planet, a gas giant with [data lost]. Hopefully the [local sapiens] conclude we’re trying to shelter there. In truth, I just hope we distract them from [data lost]

We’re not sure what the sphere commander was hoping to distract them from but our consensus supposition is they were trying to keep the planet’s telescopes from picking up their communication relay.

Chronomark – 928.4486.4

It seems [data lost] and salvaged some of the data we’d collected before our Drop Sphere was destroyed. I’ve assigned my team to work on analyzing it to keep them busy while [data lost.] I’ve told them maybe we’ll learn something that will help us survive, although privately I’m not optimistic on that front.

Pretty industrious people in that pod.

Chronomark – 928.4487.3

They scrambled a pursuit ship incredibly quickly. As near as we can tell it’s a [chemically pro]pelled ballistic ship, which is shockingly primitive compared to [data lost]. Even so, it’s closing fast enough to be here in three days. Things have been tense. Morale is dropping quickly and I have to admit that I don’t think we have any way to avoid [capture].

Given how vicious the [data lost] avoided at all costs. We will continue to report what we learn from our scanning and analysis.

Chemically propelled ballistic ships are shockingly primitive compared to their drop sphere but somehow they still managed to destroy it. I’m not sure what bothers me more. That they think our level of technology is primitive, or that they still got destroyed somehow.

We’re still not sure what the artifact’s Chronomarking system means, but given the pretty clear timeline laid out in these last few entries we’re optimistic we can crack them eventually.

Chronomark – 928.4487.8

A potential breakthrough, although [data lost].

The value of that analytical method is questionable but I’m operating on the premise the results are reliable. It’s the only thing with the potential to improve our sit[uation] anyway. [data lost]

We’re monitoring their communications now. We hoped that would help us evade pursuit but the new codec isn’t helping us since we still haven’t translated their language. [data lost] … understanding of basic machine commands based on what we’re seeing but that’s it for now.

We’re not sure how they cracked a communication codec without knowing the language it contained. Perhaps in one of the lost data sets they translated an analog audio segment and used it as confirmation. We don’t know.

Chronomark – 928.4488.6

We’re testing the new codec against their voice transmissions. It’s interesting because, even though we can’t understand them, we’re all able to mimic all the sounds we’re hearing. I’m starting to think that [data lost]

I think at this point the people in that pod were starting to suspect. That’s why they’re testing all the language they were hearing.

Chronomark – 928.4489.1

The alien ship is getting very close, close enough that we can make visual contact with it. We expect it to match velocity with us in four hours. After some debate, I’ve issued sidearms to all survivors on board. There’s already joking about saving a bullet for ourselves, which is an accurate reflection on the current state of our morale.

[data lost] and transmitted it. If the alien ship has any idea what we said or that we were talking to them they haven’t given any sign of it.

Too bad we don’t have the other ship’s records to tell us how they reacted to this.

Chronomark – 928.4489.4

The alien ship has launched some kind of grapplers and drawn us into contact. I will try and record as much of our encounter with them [data lost]

… some kind of diamond tipped drill to pierce the hull before establishing a seal and moving their personnel over. We’re bracing for their entry.

[data lost]

… fallen back and are regrouping. I don’t think they were expecting resistance. Frankly I’m surprised, too. We’re scientists here, not fighters, but [data lost]

We’ve got just enough time to pull the helmet off one and – my god, they’re human. They’re human just like us. That’s not possible. If anyone reads these logs [data lost]


When we reached this point we were extremely confused. The translators went over this dozens of times, we’re almost 100% certain whoever created this log found creatures like themselves on a planet they were totally unfamiliar with. Whether they were actually a human civilization that discovered another human civilization where they shouldn’t have is open for debate.

Did the artifact arrive here through some method of time travel? Is it a very elaborate, very expensive hoax created by one of the billionaires playing with space flight? Did the artifact just drift into the solar system after it was lost countless eons ago? We don’t know.

I would love to be able to confirm one of those theories. It would remove the possibility that some other human civilization on Earth rose up, took to space and had an encounter with an even older, more advanced human civilization from far flung stars only to vanish for reasons unknown. What does that say about what’s waiting for us out there, if it’s true? And what will we do about it?

For now, I’m proposing we head back out to Saturn immediately and begin looking for other pieces of technology comparable to the artifact. Hopefully we can learn more before it’s too late.

Cold Iron – A Vince Porter Exorcism

Hello folks, Nate here! It’s the beginning of a short fiction extravaganza! Of late I’ve been contributing to on a semiregular basis. There’s little to no direct crossover between my audience here, which I built long before contributing there, and the readership of that website (although I strongly recommend giving it a look if you enjoy independent scifi and fantasy.) With that in mind, I want to share some of the stories I wrote for IAM with you!

We’ll be running through a bunch of stories over the next few weeks and I’ll do a short introduction before most of them. Vince Porter is a character that came out of nowhere in response to IAM’s weekly prompt. I’ve always found the way exorcists are portrayed in fiction kind of strange and I decided to boil down most of my ideas into a single story. This is the result. Will we seen Vince doing battle with supernatural evil ever again?

Maybe. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy this quick outing with a part-time exorcist.

“Run through it again, Porter,” the voice in his ear said.

Vince Porter worked his fingers into his thick gloves as he started. “Appearances began two years ago. The creature only appears in the winter months when the temperature is five degrees Celsius or less and always rides from the northern ridge down to the river before vanishing. I’ll intercept it along the embankment by the river and assess it.”

“Remember that we’re not sure it’s a demon.” Remi’s manicured nails clicking away on her keyboard were clearly audible over her headset pickups. “It could be a bunch of other things. If it isn’t a demon your involvement ends immediately.”

“Sure.” Vince worked his toes down into his boots while adjusting the double cuff on his snow pants so it sealed off the tops better. “I leave right away.”

“I’m serious, Vince, you’re a pastor and addiction counselor, not a paranormal expert. Leave the jackalopes to professionals.”

“The reports say its a man on a horse who seems to draw a snowstorm behind him, that’s a far cry from a jackalope.” He adjusted his utility belt, his fingers drifting along the wooden stakes and silver plated knife he’d brought along, just in case. Vince had never fought a vampire or werewolf. However all the things he’d heard from Remi and the others suggested they were out there and he liked to be prepared. “If the retreat wanted a full service exorcist they could’ve asked the Vatican.”

“The papists have their hands full with all the possessed Catholics, they don’t have time for us Protestant filth.” Remi said it lightly, although he knew she resented most of the Orthodox for her own reasons. “Besides, I don’t think they’d prioritize a creature that’s ignored people so far.”

The belt slipped awkwardly along the top of his parka and clothing. Vince had heard this was why layers of cotton or wool were preferable for cold weather exorcisms, rather than synthetic fabrics. Regardless of whether that was true he didn’t have the budget for a specific set of gear for every kind of weather. He’d have to make do with his skiing clothes. “If it is a demon I need to know the name of its victim. Any leads from missing persons cases in the area?”

“You’re in a ski resort, Vince, do you really think anyone could go missing there without it causing a multi week news blitz? Even you couldn’t miss that.”

“I don’t know, we don’t watch a whole lot of news at the recovery center. It pushes the guys back towards the drugs.” He finally reached the large, heavy sheath that was secured via a special set of metal rings to his belt. It held his sword, a nasty weapon with a forty inch blade made of solid iron. A wiggle of the hilt assured him it was loose in its sheath and ready to draw at a moment’s notice. “Are you saying no one went missing in the area two years ago?”

“No one was reported, at least.” Remi clicked her tongue once. “You know most of the people in the area who have gone missing or are most likely to go missing, did you ask any of them whether they knew people who went missing in the area?”

“Homeless people and addicts generally don’t live this far out of the city center,” Vince replied. “Too hard to get to services here. Come on, Remi, you’re supposed to be really good at connecting the right talent to with the right job, you have to have some kind of lead on who the demon’s possessing or you wouldn’t have called in an exorcist. You’d have gone straight to a paranormal researcher.”

“I haven’t had time to confirm anything…”

“I preemptively agree to all your caveats, Remi. Tell me what you got.”

“A cavalry patrol on a training exercise disappeared in a blizzard during World War One. For a couple of years after there were stories of a rider appearing in a cloud of sleet during the winter months but there were no sightings for decades after. It’s cropped up a few times in the past century, always just before an armed conflict, most recently Operation Desert Storm.” Remi recited the facts in a brisk, straightforward manner but there was a tinge of excitement underneath them, as if she reveled in knowing something he didn’t. “I think it’s possible your demon possessed one of the original cavalrymen.”

“Raises the question why it’s back now,” Vince mused. “We’re not at war.”


“Thanks for that lovely thought to haunt my dreams tonight.” He tugged his parka’s hood down over his head and pulled the laces so it fit snug around his face then climbed up to lay prone on the embankment, binoculars trained up the slope. “What were the names of the soldiers who went missing?”

“Lieutenant Braxton Thorton, Corporal Cole Emmery, Privates George Thurgood and Terrance Norton. I couldn’t find much more in the way of records, so you’ll have to try them all.”

“Thanks, Remi. That’s a big help.” A low cloud rising like steam over the mountainside drew Vince’s attention. “I have contact. Give me two second pings, please.”

A low tone began sounding softly in his earpiece. “Are there any cases of demons not disrupting phone calls?”

“Not that I’ve heard of.” Vince took a mallet and carefully drove an anchor stake into the river embankment below him then readied a heavily modified T-shirt launcher. “Unfortunately it’s not an ironclad diagnostic tool, either. Lots of supernatural stuff causes problems with phones and computers but it’s a simple enough starting point. If we lose contact wait an hour or so before you call in the cavalry.”

“An hour? That’s a long time for your dead ass to be freezing on the mountain.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Wait an hour, Remi, if it is a demon then my phone is shot and I’ll need to hike all the way back to the visitor’s center before I can contact you. I’d hate to have the cops get out here at just the moment I stagger back into the lodge.”

“Fine. You have sixty minutes from the moment I-”

Her voice cut off. Vince sighed and started counting minutes in his head while watching the strange cloud of snow as it closed at an unsettling speed. By his estimate the approaching storm cloud was about forty feet wide. However trailing along behind the unnaturally concentrated front was a larger wall of snow and wind working its way down the mountain. The whole of the foothills glittered with moonlight reflecting on the flakes.

Vince fumbled with his hood for a moment, cursing his gloves as he got the earpiece out and clumsily shoved it into a zippered pocket. By the time he was done with that he could hear the dim echoes of hoof beats over the muffling effect of the snow. Pulling ski goggles over his eyes with one hand, cradling the T-shirt gun in the other, he stepped into the storm.

The wall of white cut off the outside world immediately. Vince took a deep breath in through his nose but no smell of sulfur was on the wind. All he got for his trouble was a numbed nose. The air had abruptly gone from damp and cold to bitterly cold and dry as dust. Sleet and snow buffeted against his parka. The hoof beats grew closer and a strange trepidation built in him with each thundering footfall of the unseen horse.

Something evil was coming.

“Terrance Norton!” Vince called, his voice booming over the silencing snow and horrible hooves. “You did not choose me, but I have called you!”

Somewhere out in the storm the horse came to a sudden stop. Vince waited, hoping for a sign, but nothing else happened for a good fifteen seconds. Either he wasn’t actually dealing with a demon or the possessed person from the army patrol wasn’t Norton, else that challenge would have forced the fallen one to respond. Well, there was a response. The sense of supernatural danger grew stronger and that was nothing to sneeze at. But it wasn’t the response he should get if he’d properly challenged the demon, if it was actually a demon.

Not for the first time, Vince cursed all the unknowns that came with demon slaying for a side gig. It would be nice if demons had clear cut tendencies and typologies, like in movies. But eight years of experience had taught him that the supernatural had so many tools at their disposal a human, with all the attendant limits to awareness and agency, couldn’t really predict their actions. An exorcist had to counter the demon on the human level, not the supernatural one.

“George Thur-” A creature on horseback thundered out of the snow, a steel helmet pulled low on its brow, red eyes peering out from underneath, stringy white hair flying along behind it. It was wrapped in tattered old rags. If the creature had been in a uniform before it was long lost to time and wear and all that remained was its helmet. The horse had a touch of the uncanny about it as well. It’s mane was just as white as the creature’s hair and it’s hooves seemed to never touch the ground.

It appeared out of nowhere and bowled Vince off of his feet, sending him stumbling back into the embankment. For a brief moment he wondered if this wasn’t a demon after all. Perhaps he’d stumbled on a horse from a fairy world or a snow elemental who’s visits to the mountain just so happened to line up with the outbreaks of wars. Then the creature shrieked and a wave of brimstone scented air washed over him. Definitely a demon.

The horse reared and tried to trample Vince beneath its hooves but he dragged himself out of the way by pulling on the cord he’d driven into the embankment. Then he leveled his T-shirt gun and fired a weighted net out of it at the creature. The horse snorted and charged at him again, riderless, but it was less an attack and more a senseless flailing. He watched as color returned to the creature’s mane in a matter of seconds. Vince sidestepped the horse and it wandered into the snow aimlessly leaving him with nothing to worry about but the demon.

The demon tore free of his net and howled, a nauseating wave of sulfur and terror radiating outwards from it. Vince forced himself to suck in a breath around it and said, “George Thurgood, you have not chosen me, but I have called you!”

Again, no result other than the demon lunging at him in spite of the net tangled around its legs. The creature wasn’t particularly elegant in its approach but it was strong enough to pull up the net’s anchoring pinion without breaking stride so it didn’t really need that much finesse to go with it. Vince sidestepped the attack, drawing his sword in one smooth motion and tripping the demon on its way past.

That was a mistake. The creature almost got a grip on his foot before he could dance away from where it fell. Once he’d opened some distance Vince leveled the point of his sword at the demon to discourage it from making another lunge like that. That hadn’t worked too well in the past but there was no harm in trying it again. On the bright side, passing behind the creature gave him a chance to look at the back of its helmet and see there was no lieutenant’s bar painted there. He wasn’t sure that had been the way in the early days but it was worth running with.

“Cole Emmery, you have not chosen me, but I have called you!”

The creature howled, staggering to its feet as it clawed at its head. “Silence! No one will choose you, Vince Porter! You are no savior, no redeemer, no minister to the down trodden. Men live their short, agonizing lives hungering for the release of oblivion and you spend your days dragging them away from the small scraps of death they find!”

Vince scowled. This was definitely a demon, then, since it finally responded to the challenge. It had the magical ability to get under his skin just like all the others he’d encountered and just like all the others he forced himself to ignore it. “In the name of Christ be freed, Cole!” He lifted the point of his sword to the sky. “There awaits for you a just and merciful Lord who will open the gates of paradise to you!”

“There is nothing after this!” The demon shrieked. “Nothing but oblivion before and oblivion after, between which is only the terrifying agony of life!”

The point of his sword came down and pointed at the possessed man. “All authority in heaven and earth is entrusted to the Sons and Daughters of God; that which we bind on earth will be bound in heaven! Your lord is Prince of the Earth. May you, also, be bound to the earth and Cole Emmery set loose to rise to heaven! In the name of Jesus!”

As Vince cut his blade upward the possessed man’s body shuddered and it let out a gasp. He saw a wisp of light slip upwards. An oily shadow pulled out in the opposite direction, leaving the body of the creature to collapse lifeless on the ground. The shadow tried to slip away but Vince lunged forward and drove his sword through it, pinning it in place. “You can wait there until Judgment Day.”

A final, whispered scream rose from the shadow and was carried away on the last gasps of the wind. The snow had stopped and left Vince standing in two inches of snow by the body of a hundred year old man. He huffed out a sigh and let go of the hilt of his sword. Blade and shadow were drawn into the earth to wait for the End of All Things and Vince started back towards the ski lodge to get warm and call Remi.

When Spoof isn’t Enough

From the title page Out of the Soylent Planet is utterly unrepentant about what it is. Robert Kroese has written a pretty fast moving and incredibly silly book about an intergalactic conman named Rex Nihilo and his long-suffering robot sidekick Sasha. It has lasguns. It has spaceships. It has lots and lots and lots of robots who are all forbidden from having any kind of original thoughts (Sasha included.) What it didn’t manage that well was laughs, at least not in my book.

Right off the bat I should note that humor is an extremely subjective topic and the fact that I didn’t find Kroese’s work funny doesn’t mean you’ll be equally unimpressed. I’ve heard several people say they thought it was hilarious. From a totally dispassionate point of view Kroese builds a number of jokes in very workmanlike fashion and executes on them well. That’s fine, but workmanlike humor kind of misses the point, at least in my opinion. Again, humor is hard to quantify.

All that said, I don’t intend to critique the humor in this review. I recommend reading a sample of one of the Rex Nihilo books and seeing if you laugh at it, since Kroese’s humor doesn’t change much in nature or tone over the course of the book. What you see is what you will get. You’ll probably get a better grasp of how much you’ll like his sense of humor firsthand rather than trying to see it through the lens of this review.

Instead, I’m going to recommend you avoid this book because the story and characters are very lackluster. I’m not a fan of negative reviews overall, mainly because poor quality media tends to fall into the same pitfalls over and over again. However, while I didn’t like Kroese’s humor and I thought his story had a lot of flaws, I can say it was original! In a way. Which is to say, I found its failures unique and refreshing in their own way.

As I said at the beginning, from the title onward Soylent Planet wears its idea on its sleeve. It is all about making fun of well known scifi ideas and properties. It begins with a chapter long sendup of Star Wars. The issue I have with it is that the Star Wars parody plays out along side the introduction of our characters rather than serving as the introduction to our characters. Rex and Sasha play no direct part in that parody they just watch it play out. It’s parody for the sake of parody, rather than a parody that also tells a story of its own. It’s more a distraction from the story than an enhancement for it and it had the side effect of making our protagonists less than the most interesting thing in the room.

If nothing else, this isn’t a running issue in the story. After this strange introductory chapter Rex and Sasha step up into center stage and their decisions do drive the story and are the major focus of the narrative, rather than being a sort of side show to a parody Kroese is running in parallel. However once Rex and Sasha are in the limelight we run into another problem. Rex is a character that borders on total incompetence who manages to stumble through things on luck. Again, this can work in a humorous story. The Pink Panther films comes to mind. The effectiveness of that is down to the quality of the humor in the story, which again is going to vary from reader to reader. I’ve already said all I have to say about that.

Sasha, on the other hand, is a robot who is forbidden to have original thoughts of her own. If she approaches such a thought, a safety mechanism reboots her. That’s an interesting idea, reminiscent of the narcoleptic character in the movie Rat Race, and seems like it should be the center of numerous gags. It’s not. Instead, it’s a plot device that allows Rex to escape the final danger he faces which is fine, in and of itself. I’m not saying that Kroese should have cut this plot device from the climax of the story, I think the two things could easily coexist. I just felt like neither character really had a central element that really held the story together.

Instead, Rex seems to bounce around from one scenario to another, spoofing on famous scifi ideas, and Sasha is dragged along in his wake. Both characters feel dragged by the plot, reacting rather than acting. Now, character agency is a tricky thing and I do think that passive or reactive characters are just as good as active ones, contrary to popular belief. But I like my reactive characters to have strong, well define core motivations that define their reactions. While Sasha is programmed to serve, that’s as close as either character gets to such a central motivation. I would’ve liked to see a stronger core to both characters to balance their passivity in this book.

What I can praise Kroese for is a good setup and payoff for the plot. He does a reasonable job of putting all the pieces in place for his climax before he gets there and he clearly enjoyed writing it. While many of the transitions in the story are clunky, the core idea is pretty polished. I want to enjoy this book. It’s just crammed full of things that make it hard for me. I wanted this story to have a point, to do something of its own with its characters and world. Kroese built it to spoof on scifi ideas and tropes instead. He executed on that idea pretty well in Soylent Planet. Whether you’ll enjoy that or not is a matter of taste.

Tales of Winter

The question of what makes a good man is a perennial one. Where the role of women as the nurturers and caregivers of society has always been a pretty solid baseline for individual women to accept or reject, as creatures who seek frontiers and challenges men have always had to find new things to define themselves. While intellectual pursuits have always been a venue for masculine success the form they take varies. In ancient Greece you could be a philosopher. As time wound forward intellectual men turned to art, although philosophy by no means lost its cachet during this time. By the time the 1800s rolled around, science largely usurped both philosophy and art as the realm of the successful thinking man. These days the masculine intellectual works in technology or mass media.

The same is true of the men who are most skilled in working with their hands or who make their living through physical activity (although admittedly it seems the life of the professional athlete has changed the least over time.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with change in the way things work. However very rapid change can result in men getting unmoored from every touchstone that makes it possible for them to navigate life. Very few artists are tackling the question of what it means to be a man in the modern era. Andrew Klavan is one of those few.

Klavan’s Cameron Winter novels are an interesting study in what it means to be a good man, presenting us with a protagonist who is not exactly an expert on the subject but possesses many of the basic qualities that have made manhood vital to the human experience. At the same time, we learn that for most of his life Winter had none of the role models that made it clear how to use them. There are many stories in the world today that create a strong dual narrative between a character’s formative years learning and growing contrasted against where they wind up after they are adults. What’s interesting is how Klavan uses this device.

Many of the worst parts of Winter’s history are now the impetus for him to set right wrongs in the world. That, in and of itself, is not unusual. However Winter isn’t bent on vengeance for the things he lost or trying to make up for his emotional shortcomings through action. Instead he’s trying to understand the virtues he didn’t learn in his youth by righting wrongs he finds in adulthood. That’s an interesting lens to use.

When Christmas Comes is the tale of a man who must make a judgment between good and evil at a moment when, for better or worse, he’s the only one who sees the situation with the clarity to weigh all the factors. This requires Cameron to confront his own biases and consider how appropriate they are. A Strange Habit of Mind takes this to the next step, forcing Winter to consider problems from more than one point of view and weight the outcomes of his decisions on a much bigger scale.

In the first story, the question of what is going on is just as important as the right thing to do. In the second, Winter must weigh what is going on against the various good and evil actions of a wide variety of people. That’s refreshing. Most, if not all stories of the modern day begin with a right course of action presumed based on social dynamics like status or race. They also usually leave the consequences of their protagonist’s decisions conspicuously absent from the end of the story, or present such wildly unbelievable outcomes as to make the entire story meaningless.

However, based on plot alone Klavan’s stories are not particularly notable. They don’t do anything new. It’s the execution of those plots where Klavan’s abilities really shine. Klavan is a very experienced crime writer who excels at sketching his characters and building an atmosphere of melancholy and anticipation. We know Winter isn’t in the best place. He is building a better world for himself and others, one step at a time. It is fascinating to watch the decisions Winter makes on that journey. He makes deliberate actions and his emotions follow well illustrated paths, facing opponents who are well calibrated to him as a character and as an investigator.

It’s hard to point to anything Klavan does badly. That alone isn’t enough to make a great story but when you have at least one standout skill – as with Klavan’s character writing – you do get very good ones. The Cameron Winter novels are definitely good stories. I recommend checking them out so you can be on the train when a great one arrives, because I have a feeling we’re not that far from the moment the definitive Cameron Winter story drops.