Original Art: Helix Is Unhappy

It’s been a while since the last Original Art section but hopefully this makes up for it! It’s a shot of Helix on his way to the high point of the Heat Wave storyline! Can’t say much more than that if I want to avoid spoilers for the new readers, so enjoy:

HelixDescends0001

He’s not happy, Bob. Not. Happy.

As always, click to enlarge. Cheers!

Shadow and Brightmoor (Part Two)

It was dark, and many of the streetlights were burnt out. That was just one of many basic services that Brightmoor had to learn to live without. The people in the part of the neighborhood that called itself the Farmway typically pestered the city enough to get them replaced in a reasonable timeframe, but out here the streets were poorly lit after night fell. On the other hand, even in the dark the cheery sounds of small farm animals, chickens and the occasional goat, could be heard bringing a little cheer to the night. Technically that was against some city ordinances, but with the loosened city presence had come a sort of tacit permission to ignore some city zoning laws, as well.

On his pass through the block earlier that afternoon, Marcus had taken note of the six houses that he guessed belonged to the man Xayvion called “old Freddie”. From the sound of things, Freddie was one of the people who had come to, or lived in, Detroit when the economy tanked and still had enough resources to grab up suddenly cheap real estate. Most of them had done creative things with it. The Farmway got it’s name because there was a lot of urban farming going on there. It wasn’t making a whole lot of money yet, but the people living there were in no danger of starving. More than a few people bought or “borrowed” abandoned lots for farm space. From the looks of things, Freddie had been one of the people who had caught the vision.

Poking around the property that afternoon he’d found a small pile of rotting lumber and signs that someone had started building a raised bed behind the house at one end of street. A look inside the house had shown that most of the furnishings and doors had been pulled out, either by the property owner or by scrappers it was impossible to tell.

He’s also seen signs that bothered him, and gotten the feeling he was being watched, which confirmed the suspicions he’d had when Xayvion had described Freddie’s behavior. That was what had taken him out to see Lord Caledonensis. And that was what led him to attempt something profoundly unwise that evening.

The string of houses Marcus had identified as of interest were a mess. Not just in the literal sense of being run down and partly overgrown with weeds, although they were that, too. But on top of that they were a tangled mess of criss-crossed, misaligned threads that tangled up the greater Weave around them. Half the street was quivering with the tension the threads were creating. Marcus ran a finger across one particularly bad tangle of threads as he approached the house at the center of the snarl. Untangling the mess was the kind of thing that could take days for a skilled weaver, or months if he allowed it to unravel naturally. In the mean time, it could cause all kinds of problems. And that was assuming no one was actively making it worse.

Marcus pulled out his phone and made a quick call, then slapped his thighs lightly and let himself in the house, carefully reaching back and drawing his sword. It was a three foot long, broad bladed weapon forged out of silver and cold iron that was itself a knot of carefully woven magic that represented the great Weave and the Pattern it tried to follow. It was the only weaver related thing he had taken with him when he left Fort Wayne and he was glad to have it with him now. He made a mental promise to himself that he would stop using it against thugs and scrappers. Not only did it get the neighbors upset with him, not only was it a disgrace to the purposes that the sword embodied, it drastically raised the odds he could get arrested or see it confiscated. And then he’d be up a creek for real, especially if he intended to do something this harebrained again.

The inside of Freddie’s house was littered with the corpses of the kind of small rodents you saw a lot in urban and suburban areas. Rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, even a raccoon or two. They all looked like they had been caught and strangled. Where they weren’t rotting it looked they had been gutted in a very messy way. Marcus suspected that knives hadn’t been involved so much as teeth. Foul smelling gunk caked the floor in the entrance hall and the rooms on either side. It didn’t really bear thinking about what it might be.

With sword in one hand and the other dipping in and out of his pocket, Marcus proceeded deeper into the tangle of out of place threads that ran towards the back of the house. He found himself wishing that he had come in through the back window or something. The whole back wall of the house turned out to be full of paraphernalia – the kinds of stuff popular culture had come to associate with magic and that still got used in a lot of the rituals many who tinkered with it performed.

If Marcus had any doubts that old Freddie had Invoked something before, they were gone as soon as the “magic” rubbish started popping up. The first piece he found was a large, wrought iron candlestick, a perennial favorite. It was at one point of a pentagram drawn in chalk on the floor. Marcus snorted. If Invoking didn’t drive the people who did it insane, the clichés involved would be almost funny.

With a few quick strokes of his sword he split the candlestick in half and carved a pair of parallel lines through the pentagram, the blade effortlessly severing both the objects and breaking the mess of tangled threads that had been anchored to them. The Weave convulsed slightly as the anchors that were holding the snarled threads in place disappeared and the Weave began to repair itself.

There was enough paraphernalia in the house to make Marcus think that it might have been as long as a year since Freddie Invoked whatever nonsense was now stuck in his head. He went through two rooms with at least a dozen items each, before he felt the impact. Something was trying to go out the back door.

He glanced back, intending to send one of the other Templars to check it out. But he was alone on this run, really he’d been alone since he left home. There was nothing to do but fish a pair of quarters out of his pocket and follow it up himself.

He found a dirty, unkempt man still trying to force his hand through the back door to pick up the small, silvery disk sitting on the step. “You must be Freddie,” Marcus said. “Or should I call you Fredrick?”

Freddie spun around, a snarl crossing his face. “Who are you?” He snapped. “This is private property.”

“No use playing dumb, Freddie Ruin,” Marcus said, holding up the quarters in his off hand and twirling them so the other man could see that they were just like those on the step, with George Washington’s head visible on both sides. “These doors are mine. One way or another, you’re not leaving this room until I’m done with you.”

Something intangible changed about the man and he suddenly seemed less human and more alien. He jerked to his feet as if pulled up by puppet strings, banging one shoulder on the doorframe in the process but giving no signs of actually feeling the impact. “So you’re supposed to be a Janus of some kind?” Freddie slammed his fist into the wall and the whole building shook slightly. “That name is ours!”

Marcus grinned. “Sorry, but your kind have misused it, just like you misuse pretty much anything you set your hand to. And once you mistreat something you forfeit any right to claim it – that makes it mine now.”

He let the two quarters fall to the ground and, instead of bouncing the stuck fast there, completing a web of threads that wouldn’t let anyone pass through the door until he removed them. Then he took the hilt of his broadsword in both hands and waded in.

Practically since the Round Table was organized, back in the misty days of yore, one of the responsibilities of those weavers who were trained in arms was to find and do battle with people who had Invoked sinister creatures. The records called them different things and mentioned various abilities, but they all agreed that no two were alike and, whatever they might be, they took over the mind and body of whoever had called on them and drove them mad.

Even if Freddie hadn’t recognized the two-headed symbol for the Greek god of doors, or left his home scattered with the usual dead animals and asorted paraphrenalia, the dense knot of distorted reality that was tied to him would have tipped Marcus to the fact that he had Invoked something. Time and space weren’t functioning in quite the normal way around old Fred, and that meant pretty much anything was possible.

But still, Freddie grabbing the wall and flinging himself up to the ceiling, which he dangled from using nothing but his fingertips, was way outside Marcus’ normal experience. He barely had time to turn to the side for a decent shoulder block before Freddie’s swinging feet caught him and sent him staggering back to the door.

Freddie dropped to the ground, ripping the ceiling joist he’d been clinging too down along with him. It made for a classic board-and-nail bludgeon and he came after Marcus swinging. The most prudent thing to do was step back through the door and let Freddie slam to a stop when he tried to cross the threshold.

This time it wasn’t a casual step or an exploratory poke, Freddie was out for blood and he slammed into Marcus’ weaving with all the weight of the Invoked presence riding his back. When he hit the threshold the entire doorframe seemed to flex and the pair of quarters that anchored the ward to the door actually skipped back an inch or two. Marcus ignored that and swung his sword in a diagonal cut, sheering through the joist Freddie held, leaving hims with about six inchest of board in one hand, and a good part of the door frame as well. Then he flipped his blade so the silver edge faced out and pressed the attack.

Whatever it was in the old man’s body, and by the dim light of the back windows Marcus could see that “old Freddie” was at least in his late fifties, thus truly ancient by Brightmoor standards, knew better than to let that sword too close to it. So it took the two by four end and flung it at Marcus and backedpedaled. Marcus followed at a brisk walk, point of his sword aimed down and across his body. They came to a stop when Freddie ran out of room to back up through.

With a sudden twist of the hips, Freddie dove low and to Marcus’ left, taking advantage of the fact that Marcus’ current stance made it hard to connect with anything other than a jab. Whatever was in Freddie knew that he would try not to hurt Freddie if at all possible and that meant cutting with the silver edge of the blade and nothing else, certainly no stabbing.

Marcus hissed and kicked his foot out to try and stomp the old man to the ground, but Freddie suddenly planted a hand and skidded to a stop, grabbed Marcus’ leg and tossed him onto his backside. Freddie reared up over him, his hands clasped together to make an all natural club that nearly smashed his head in. Marcus managed to roll out of the way just in time and Freddie left a small dent in the floor instead. The sound of breaking bone followed, but like most Invokers he seemed immune to the pain.

That didn’t mean Marcus could relax, though. The old man might be empowered by a supernatural force but that didn’t mean he stopped being an old man. The shock from the broken bones could very well be shorting out his nervous system, all the activity was a strain on his heart that it might not be able to take, there were a dozen other problems healthy Invokers could run into, and Freddie didn’t look like he’d been healthy back when he first Invoked – he certainly wasn’t after months under the influence.

Under normal circumstances, Marcus reflected grimly, this would have been over already. As soon as an Invoker focused on one Knight he was generally toast, because the Knight’s friends would hack the Invoked power off it’s host before it quite understood the situation. Group tactics wasn’t something they seemed to grasp very well. Without backup, things would take longer.

Marcus kicked his legs up and scissored them around Freddie’s waist, then threw his weight to one side and rolled his opponent down to the ground. Freddie grunted and started to push himself back up but Marcus lost no time chopping his sword down onto the other man’s back. The silver half of the sword chopped into his shoulders and slid back out like a knife through butter.

Freddie convulsed as the silver edge cut the ties the Invoked presence maintained with it’s host, sending it spinning back into wherever it came from, and forcing it to spend long minutes or even hours pulling itself back along the anchor lines it had created in the various pieces of magic junk Freddie had been creating for the last who knows how long. Of course, Marcus didn’t plan on giving it that time. Just like the silver edge could cut through any kind of magic bond he’d encountered in his life, he’d never found anything the iron side couldn’t cut either.

It looked like most of the paraphernalia in the house was gone, he didn’t see that many stray threads left in the house and most of them tied back  to him, not Freddie. But every Invoker had at least one prime object, something that was a part of the original Invocation and that was the nexus of the anchor lines that kept the presumptive magician chained to the thing that rode him. Nine times out of ten, it was a book of some sort and Janus hadn’t found anything like that so far.

A quick check of old Fred himself didn’t reveal anything like that, so Marcus figured it must be in the room somewhere. As he looked around he spotted a dark, squarish lump sitting by the door where he’d first found Freddie. Of course that made sense, neither Freddie or his ride-along would want to leave that behind. Marcus took a step in the book’s direction only to stop short when Freddie’s hand grabbed him around the ankle.

He lacked the manic, supernatural strength he’d had a moment ago. This was the old man, not the supernatural malevolence he’d summoned. Marcus tried to pull free but Freddie was surprisingly determined. “Stop…” He coughed once. “This is… best shot. Not going…”

With a growl, Marcus knelt down and pried Fred’s hand off his ankle and shook his head. “You’ve caused enough mischief already, friend.”

Freddie made another frantic grab but with only one hand and the strength of a man in his late fifties to work with, Marcus was able to get out of his reach easily. Unlike most of the paraphernalia, the book had to be handled carefully. It took a few minutes to strip off most of the out of place threads and pull a little slack into them so there wouldn’t be a backlash when he destroyed their anchor point. That could lead to all sorts of problems.

Then he set fire to the pages and left it to burn itself out on the concrete back step of the house. Then he slung Freddie over one shoulder and carried him to the front door. His cargo made little noises as he bounced along but Marcus wasn’t feeling particularly charitable. It was true, Freddie’s Invocation hadn’t run loose and killed anyone, but the sheer negligence involved in doing such a thing certainly biased Marcus against the man. There were hundreds of cautionary legends about deals with otherworldly forces for a reason – it was almost always a bad idea.

On reaching the door Freddie panicked. It appeared that Marcus’ earlier diagnosis had been right. Destroying his environment, killing most small animals he found and now agoraphobia, all symptoms of what was commonly known as the “Ruin” type of Invocation. While Invoked powers didn’t have any pattern in what they could do, what the did to people did fit into broad categories. Other than his new found dread of open places Freddie would probably recover mentally. Physically, it was another story.

Marcus left him just inside the door and took a post on the front step where he could watch the street and Freddie at the same time. Other than the quiet sounds of Freddie Ruin muttering to himself it was a quiet night. Marcus smiled slightly to himself, wondering how he had managed to find himself doing this kind of thing again. He had left home thinking he wanted to get away from his work as a Templar. Apparently he was wrong.

On the other hand, Templars were dedicated to the defense and growth of a particular place. Maybe he just hadn’t been in the right place back in Fort Wayne. He’d originally planned to leave town after Freddie was taken care of. But winter was coming on and at least he had a place to stay here. In the doorway Freddie moaned softly, almost but not quite enough to cover the sound of ambulance sirens drawing closer, finally responding to the call he’d placed before heading into the house. “Relax, Fred,” Marcus said. “Nights’ almost over.”

Part One
Fiction Index

Author’s Note:

Shadow and Brightmoor is a work of fiction and, like most works of fiction, most of the people and places are a not real. But, while the most of the specifics I’ve mentioned in this story are not real, Brightmoor is an actual part of the city of Detroit and the Farmway is likewise an unofficial subset of the neighborhood where people are taking new and innovative steps to fight urban blight and experiment with new urban lifestyles.

The people there are fighting a real, difficult battle against forces just as oppressive, if not more so, as what Marcus faces in this story. If you wish to know more about Neighbors Building Brightmoor (the neighborhood association Marcus mentions in Part One) and the Farmway, there’s an excellent article about them here.

The Long and Short of It (Where It is Writing)

One of the many things I’m currently juggling is completing the outline for Water Fall. It’s actually mostly finished, but my method of outlining has it’s own idiosyncrasies, which will undoubtedly be the subject of their own post some day soon. But today’s subject is more straightforward: Length. 

When you sit down with an eighty to hundred point beat outline in front of you the thought that you’re going to try and turn all that into a fully fleshed out novel/script/screenplay/whatever can be more than a little daunting. Water Fall is my third crack at writing a novel and the scope of the project is still intimidating, doubly so because it has to keep in mind, expand on and complete things started in Heat Wave. It’s a lot to keep in the air and I have a feeling that I’m going to wind up doing a lot more correcting and rewriting, just in the first draft, than I had to do with Heat Wave. That’s not a bad thing, but it can sometimes be overwhelming. 

But there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction when a long project is finished, and you can sit back (for about ten seconds, at least) and say, “Yes! I have accomplished something.” 

On the other hand, you might expect short stories to be much simpler to write. You just sit down and toss off a couple of thousand words and make sure you don’t contradict yourself in that short span of time, right? 

Well, not so much. For one thing, keeping a short story short is more difficult than it might seem at first glance. Two of the short stories I planned for this summer wound up far exceeding the length I expected of them – both #63 and Shadows and Brightmoor were supposed to be one installment. However, I really don’t want to publish anything too much over 5000 words in a single post, not only because I don’t want to overload people with the Wall of Text o’ Doom but because I simply cannot write that much, plus two other posts for a week, and get it out in good time with good quality. 

For another thing, short stories have little to no time to be leisurely. You can’t putter around when introducing your characters, setting or conflict. Things have to go from minute one or you’re going to wind up with a novella rather than a short story. Finding places to squeeze in all the detail you might want (or need) in your story can be daunting. 

Somewhere in the middle of that is the novella. I might try writing one of those sometime soon, but currently have no plans to work on one before the end of Water Fall sometime next year. But I suspect if you were to try it you’d find it to be somewhere between full novel and short story – just long enough to be intimidating, but short enough that you’ll still feel pressed for space. Fun, no? 

Writing is the use of words. You have to know them, use them sparingly and with maximum impact and keep with them until the job is done. No matter what the scope of your story, your building blocks are the same. There’s a saying among management circles at the library where I work: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” 

The same is true of all stories: They’re written one word a time. 

Keep that in mind, love your words and no matter what kind of story you’re working on, at least the work will be a joy. 

Cool Things: Doomed by Cartoon

In many ways it seemed like William Tweed had it made. He was the boss of one of the most powerful political machines in the history of New York, and possibly the United States. He and his political underlings had arranged to keep large swaths of the public coffers at their personal disposal through graft and patronage. Their takings are estimated at a minimum of $1 billion in today’s money. Some estimates go as high as $8 billion.

Although Tweed would hold only a handful of high profile offices in his life, as an alderman and later as a commissioner he would engineer massive overpayments to contractors and companies that he owned or were owned by his friends and allies. Tammany Hall seemed to be in an unassailable position astride the New York City economy, gorging itself on public money and keeping many dependent on the money they doled out. But in the space of just a year or two a coalition of city fathers, turncoats and one unlikely character artist would break Tammany Hall’s power and leave it flailing for relevance in the new political landscape.

Doomed by Cartoon, by John Adler, tells the tale of Harper’s Weekly and Thomas Nast as they set out to call out and bring down Tweed and his ring.

Thomas Nast is not a well known name today, but many aspects of his work are now irrevocable parts of the American consciousness. Among other things, he created the modern image of Santa Clause and the association of the Republican Party with the elephant. He also helped to popularize the images of Columbia (America personified as statuesque Greco-Roman woman bearing sword and shield), Uncle Sam (Nast is credited with adding the goatee) and the Democratic donkey.

But few of his accomplishments equal the significance of his stand against Tammany Hall (although he is credited with being a deciding factor in the election of Grover Cleveland as well). The contrast between Tweed and Nast is stark. One was a big man, the other small. One was a wealthy man of far reaching influence in business, the other was a very poor business man and had little influence beyond beyond being a goad in public policy. In many ways, it was a bit of an American David and Goliath battle.

But Nast did far surpass Tweed in one respect, and that was his ability to influence people. While Tweed’s methods were usually straight forward bribes and blatant corruption that couldn’t be proved only because he was holding all the cards, Nast leveraged humor, cultural touchstones and memorable images into a platform that goaded his opponents to distraction.

While it’s fair to say that there were far more factors at work in Tweed’s downfall than Nast – inside information, a timely riot, news exposes in other papers – it was Nast’s constant attacks in Harper’s Weekly that kept the issue before the people. Tweed himself acknowledged Nast’s influence when he said, “I don’t give a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”

In fact, attempts would be made to bribe Nast into leaving the country for a while, with offers of half a million dollars (worth considerably more then than now) being made. But in the end Nast stayed in New York Tweed went to jail. In an ironic coda, when Tweed escaped a few years later and made his way to Spain by boat, the Spanish police would identify and arrest him using a Nast cartoon as a reference.

It’s actually a rather straightforward political story, in as much as political stories can be straightforward, but what makes Doomed by Cartoon unique is that it includes over 160 Nast illustrations, giving them context and pointing out the ways many of them tie into the events of the Tweed era. As an amateur artist and a student of politics I found it very interesting. Maybe you will too.

Shadow and Brightmoor (Part One)

“Okay, so now we got apple trees.” Xayvion gave one of them a rap with his knuckles. “And you spent the last six weeks harping on this why? They don’t look like much.”

“Apple trees have been doing good for the American people for centuries. Since before we even counted as a country. Besides, these are Harrison apple trees, express delivered by my cousin as a personal favor.” Marcus Harrison handed his shovel to the eight year old boy who had been helping him plant the last tree on Benton Harbor Boulevard. He used the motion to hide his other hand as it looped an invisible pair of half hitches around the trunk of the tree, weaving it into the larger pattern connecting the two dozen apple trees he’d managed to convince his cousin to send him on short notice. The connection sent the tree and it’s branches swaying lightly, as if a wind  was blowing in it’s branches. Marcus smiled. “See? They’re special.”

Xayvion snorted. “More like I’m strong enough to have ’em shaking scared.

Marcus’ attempt to think up a good comeback stalled out when he noticed a beat up old truck slowly rolling down the street. It wouldn’t have looked out of place most places in America, in fact, he’d owned one a lot like it once. It was a dingy green, with a heavy steel toolbox across the back bed. Two men sat in the cab, pretending to pay no attention to anything around them. One of them saw Marcus had noticed them and gave him a hard look.

“We’ve got scrappers,” Marcus said under his breath.

“Yeah, well most of them know better than to hang around Brightmoor,” Xayvion said with a grin. “And after last time? Word will get around. You can go anywhere you want in Detroit and steal scrap out of houses. Only here does someone pull a sword on you for it.”

“He had it coming,” Marcus pointed out, his feet taking him slowly after the truck. “Get on your phone and call your mother. We may have to run them off.” He’d learned much to his chagrin that the police rarely showed up in time to deal with minor vandals in Brightmoor – when they came at all. But he’d also gotten a stern lecture about letting the locals deal with it their own way, and while they didn’t shy away form confrontation, the threat of violence was not an accepted part of their modus operandi. Not that he would have actually bothered to cut them with his sword.

Well, maybe a little.

“It’s okay,” Xayvion said. “They’re probably just headed to old Freddy’s empty houses.” He waved vaguely in the direction of St. Joe, the cross street about a half a block away. “He’s always tearing stuff out of there and tossing it by the road. The scrappers come by and pick through it about once a week, take whatever and leave.”

“And you put up with that?” Marcus asked. In his experience, the people left in Brightmoor didn’t really like it when their neighborhood got messed up.

“They’re his houses,” Xayvion said with a shrug. “We can’t make him not mess them up. Mom says he’s got more right to do that than some.”

Marcus gave him a sly look out of the corner of his eye. “She wouldn’t be referring to a band of mischievous vandals who leave murals on abandoned houses, would she?”

“I don’t even know what you just said,” Xayvion said. “She’s talking about the way we paint the run down shacks so the place doesn’t look like crap.”

“Praise the Lord and pass the paintbrush.” Marcus snorted and shook his head. He’d been to one of those church outreaches and it had to be one of the ten strangest thing’s he’d ever lived through. Still, he didn’t think that the borders of the part of Brightmoor unofficially known as the Farmway extended along St. Joe in that direction. “This Freddie guy a part of the NBB?”

“I don’t think so,” Xayvion said slowly. “He moved in a couple years ago, I know he talked about tearing down some houses and putting in something there. But people just stopped talking about him much last fall and the scrappers started coming.”

Marcus walked back to the place where they’d planted the apple trees. Finding buyers for them and getting them delivered had been his first contribution to Brightmoor, and of all the different aspects of the family business he had expected to find a use for in Brightmoor, orchard keeper had not been high on the list. In fact, avoiding the family business entirely had been the major reason he had come to Detroit in the first place. Ironically, he was about to put his hand back into yet another aspect of it.

He hefted his backpack and dug his phone out of it, pausing long enough to check that his sword was still tucked along one side, the hilt poking out of the top for easy access. It always paid to be careful.

“You’re not planning on looking for trouble, are you?” Xayvion asked.

“Just going to make sure they really leave,” Janus said, slinging the pack onto his back and thumbing his phone to life. “You’d better go and let your mom know there were scrappers in the area, so she can get the word out. If they come back and want to top off their load, people can be on the lookout.”

“All right,” Xayvion said doubtfully. “But don’t go starting nothing. Monique says you got a temper and we can’t have you running loose and scaring people. The city ignores us right now, we don’t want them to change their mind.”

“No swordplay, I promise.” Marcus started down the street, then paused and glanced back at Xayvion. “By the way, is there a bank around here?”

“A bank?” The kid asked, clearly thrown by the sudden change in subject.

“Yeah, you know, places full of suits and money? I need to get a roll of quarters…”

——–

Marcus had met a lot of different kinds of weavers in his life, but Detroit’s Lord Caledonensis was the first one who managed to claim leadership of the local Order of Merlin and run an art gallery. There were similarities between art and weaving, he supposed, but he’d never expected a person who specialized in highly theoretical magic weaving to take an interest in those aspects of it.

Then again, it was the nature of research and development to prize creativity, so maybe it wasn’t so surprising.

Either way, he felt a bit like a bull in a china shop as he walked in, his jeans and T-shirt still dirty from the morning’s work, and loomed over the saleswoman. Looming wasn’t what he intended, of course, but he’d inherited the famous Harrison build that had made his family natural farmers since time immemorial. He did his best to slouch in a non-threatening fashion and asked for the owner. It took twenty minutes of wheedling before he finally got her to page the weaver Lord and tell him it was Council business. From the way the woman acted when he’d first told her that it was clear she wasn’t a part of any local weaver’s Order, so Marcus was just grateful she’d passed the message on and he settled in to wait.

It turned out he didn’t have to wait long. About five minutes after his message was passed, a short, round man with paint on his fingers made his way out of the back of the gallery and shook hands. Marcus couldn’t help studying the man with a critical eye. He’d only known two other men who had held the title Caledonensis in his life but they had both been somewhat more, well, wizardly. He wasn’t sure exactly what he had been expecting from Detroit’s leading theoretical weaver, but it hadn’t been someone who looked like he taught middle school art classes.

Not that there was anything wrong with middle school art classes, or teaching them.

“Well, this is something of a surprise,” the weaver lord said, pumping Marcus’ hand up and down enthusiastically. “I haven’t met an out-of-towner in some time.”

“Pleasure is likewise, m’lord,” Marcus said quietly, old habits slipping back into place almost, but not quite, without any effort at all. “A little business in town I was hoping you could help me with.”

“Of course.” Lord Caledonensis glanced at his receptionist then said, “Well, business is best conducted in the office. If you’d follow me?”

The shorter man escorted Marcus back into a room that qualified as an office only in that it did contain a desk and was probably the place Caledonensis managed his business from. But the desk and pair of guest chairs by it were mostly a sideshow, the bulk of the room was dedicated to hanging canvases and a large easel set up in the center of the floor. The other man had apparently been working on one of those lovely abstract art things before Marcus had called him away.

Rather than giving him a chair, Lord Caledonensis took Marcus on a slow but purposeful tour of the canvases on the walls. Most of it was the kind of thing that didn’t make much sense to a man who hadn’t taken art classes for half his life, so Marcus kept most of his attention on the conversation, although he tried to be rude about it. After introductions, the Merlinite got straight down to business.

“I have to confess I wasn’t sure I was going to see a new weaver come into Detroit in my lifetime,” the portly weaver said. “I am a bit curious as to what brought you to us.”

“Personal business, actually,” Marcus said with a shrug. “I left the Anthony Wayne chapter of the Knights Templar a couple of years ago and wandered into Detroit. It was my intention not to show my face before an Arbiter’s Council ever again.”

“A wandering Templar?” The other man looked honestly confused. “A bit of a contradiction, isn’t it?”

“As I said, m’lord, I resigned. It’s strictly coincidence I’m here, and I was only able to find you by pestering my cousin until he pulled in some favors and found out your name.”

“Well.” Caledonensis peered at him with an evaluating squint. It was a bit unnerving. “I’m afraid your stated intention of never appearing before a Council again will not be broken, at least not yet. You see, there is no Council in Detroit. At least, not any more.”

“What?” Marcus felt a little wind go out of his sails. “Why not?”

“Not enough membership,” Caledonensis said. “There are only three Orders left functioning in the city these days. The Order of Merlin, of course, along with The Order of the White Ash and the Watchers in the Howling Dark. That’s not enough for quorum, even if we had an aware non-weaver who was willing to sit on the Council with us, which we don’t. The local Council was officially dissolved ten months ago.”

“The Knight’s Hospitaller aren’t here any longer?” Marcus asked, a growing feeling of unease gnawing in his gut.

“No. The membership of the Motor City branch had been declining for the last four years. They officially disbanded and merged with the Crossroads of America chapter, which was actually what led to the Council folding.” Caledonensis’ voice took on a dissatisfied tone. “Tom Cross arranged for it.”

“That’s Tom,” Marcus murmured. “Expanding the borders by any means available.”

“Regardless, there’s no Council left in Detroit,” Caledonensis said, a bitter not creeping into his voice. “The Order of Merlin is also looking at the possibility of combining our section with-”

“Lord Caledonensis, forgive me but I’m not interested in the political details. Even in Fort Wayne I wasn’t seneschal.” Marcus waved his hand vaguely in the direction of Brightmoor. “What bothers me is I think I’ve found an Invoker and I’m trying to find enough war weavers to safely contain it.”

The shorter man sighed. “That’s very noble of you, Marcus, but there’s nothing I can do to help you. Sam Cross wants all Hospitaller activities routed through the Allen County Council in Fort Wayne. I don’t understand how he expects to manage a Knight chapter than covers four states from there but there’s not much I can do from here to change his mind.”

“That’s true.” Marcus rubbed his forehead. Like Lord Caledonensis, Samaritan Cross was the title given to the leader of a branch Order, in his case a chapter of the Knight’s Hospitaller. He’d worked with them in Fort Wayne but not Sam Cross directly. “Okay, I’ll try and work through some people I know, but Invokers just get worse as time goes by. Is there any chance that you-”

“No.” It was the Merlinite’s turn to cut him off. “Marcus, people are abandoning this city in record numbers and not even weavers have found a way to unravel that pattern yet. Until some kind of agreement can be restored about how to best serve both the weavers and the city as a whole, each Order must look to it’s own. I have no one I can spare to help you.”

Marcus felt his temper surge but firmly tamped it down. “Very well, m’lord.” He absently put one hand in his coat pocket and finered the roll of quarters there. “I figured that this was a possibility, though it’s upsetting. I’ve found creative solutions for this kind of thing in the past, I’ll do it again. I can find my own way out.”

“Wait a minute, Marcus,” Caledonensis called. “Don’t be rash. Even Mad Anthony’s Templars wouldn’t try and take on an Invoker alone!”

But the only person who could hear him was the receptionist. Marcus was long gone.

Small Picture, Big Picture

By now you’re probably not at all surprised to learn that I like to put big ideas in my stories. From Circuit’s love of large projects to Helix’s complex family tree to the question of whether we as a society can deal with outstanding people who are outstanding in ways we don’t like, big ideas are the bread and butter of this blog. The problem with big ideas is they tend to take us over.

Say you read a new book, one you really love. How often do you catch yourself measuring everything by that book? Let’s say you took my advice a few months back and read up on Girl Genius. Then you went out and read Whitechapel Gods right after that. I can almost guarantee that you like one of those stories much more than the other, and what’s more, you probably measured them against each other.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Measuring ideas is something humans are hardwired to do, and comparison is one of the key tools we have to do it with. But the problem with running into big ideas is they often become our standard for everything, at least for a short time, and that can throw our perspective out of whack, especially if we keep going from big idea to big idea. Eventually we wind up kind of aimless, just sort of wandering from fad to fad with no idea what we’re doing or what’s really going on at all.

Oddly enough, one of the easiest ways to pick out a person’s big picture is not to walk up to them and ask, “What do you think is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?”

For starters, the cool people are all going to tell you, “42.” (So will anyone else who’s read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) But more than that, most people haven’t thought it over enough to actually give you a clear answer, or in some cases even realize that they have a big idea at all. (Note: In some circles, this blog included, not having a big idea counts as a big idea. It’s just not a great idea…)

No, the simplest way to work out a person’s big idea is to pay attention to their small ones. All ideas are interconnected, and your big idea defines how you look at all your smaller ones. With a lot of practice and a solid understanding of humanity you can start to extrapolate exactly what it is people are thinking about all the time based on what they’re thinking and talking about at any given minute. All the ideas are connected, even if the core idea is just, “Shiny!” (Actually, that one’s pretty easy to figure out.)

In the West, the study of ideas is called philosophy, and a lot of Western traditions think of philosophers as wise men and advisers, people who take a hand in advising their community and pointing out potential pitfalls and errors. They’re valuable men, but often rather mundane. In our fiction, they tend to be either well educated men who have devoted their whole life to learning; or people who have simply spent their whole life working, the people they meet and the tasks they carry out teaching them the value of some ideas and the weaknesses of others.

In the East, people who study ideas fall into a group best described as sages. They are men who live in isolation, taking part in community life only when it comes to them for advice or, at times, drags them forcibly back to civilization. Their ideas give them power, physical, political and often in fiction spiritual and supernatural. But the time, dedication, isolation and natural talent needed to develop a sage’s wisdom sets them irrevocably apart from other men. They tend to keep to themselves and associate primarily with other sages. A sage who steps into the world will change it in huge ways, at the risk of destroying one or both of them in the process.

The Weavers of the Heartlands are a group of people who live in the American Midwest. They are a collision of philosopher and sage, at once seeking to live in ways different from their community and shape it and nurture it.

Like the witches and wizards of fairy tales or the sages of Eastern traditions, they often eschew the stifling bustle of humanity that comes with cities, and that’s not surprising. Like those people, the Weavers have understanding and power that exceeds what most people strangely consider “normal”. However, these powers stem from the nature and depth of their thought, not from a natural talent or selective blessing. Rather it is the connection of things and ideas, and the careful analysis of those patterns of connections, that makes a Weaver powerful. And in turn, the ideas Weavers carry are carefully reasoned, vigorously defended and actively prosecuted, putting them in constant conflict with one another and with humanity at large.

Of course, the modern world looks poorly on direct conflict, and magic by any name has baggage of it’s own. So the conflicts between Weavers are a quieter thing these days.

But not gone. No, the Weaver’s magic is alive and well, and in the most unexpected of places…

Cool Things: Quintessence

Some books try to create a cleverly envisioned world that replaces the world we know with a something that is different from everything we know. History, geography and sometimes even physics are totally alien things. Some books replace only the tiniest possible things and painstakingly work to make everything else the same, so that we are struck by the ways the story is like coming home – except not. It’s the rare book that shoots for something in the middle. Quintessence is one of those books.

David Walton gives us the Europe that we know and love, with a history that is mostly the same, with one major caveat: The Earth is flat.

It’s been scientifically proven and everything.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Age of Exploration is playing out a little differently there  than it did here. But it is playing out, regardless. Explorers have discovered a land literally on the edge of the earth full of gold, gems, new plants and animals and a host of other wonders. The problem is, all the explorers who came back slowly sickened and died, most before they could even make it back to England.

Meanwhile, Europe is embroiled in the usual political, social and religious controversies that have defined that continent pretty much ever since the Romans decided it might be fun to conquer it (and perhaps even before.) Before our story is over, mad alchemists, royal surgeons, gentlemen scholars and Protestant leaders will all be involved in exploring the new land and the strange nature of quintessence, the alchemical substance that suffuses it. Also, the Spanish Inquisition makes an appearance (bet you weren’t expecting that.)

Quintessence has a strange charm to it. Most of the characters are ideologues, but perhaps that’s not surprising given the time they come from. A person had to be highly motivated in order to undertake the kind of exploratory journey that is at the heart of the tale, and even today it’s usually idealism that motivates that kind of behavior. And, of course, I have no problem with fiction that’s suffused with ideas.

What’s better is, most of the ideas are given fair hearing. Even Catholicism, which is something of the villain of the book, has sympathetic voices as well. On top of that, the characters are believable in their pursuit of their ideals, not simply cardboard cutouts that spew speeches. They struggle with their motives and make surprising choices from time to time.

At it’s core, Quintessence is a fun adventure story that delivers exactly what you want, strange sights and exciting times, but leaves you with a little extra to chew on and the promise of second helpings to come.