Chapter Four – The Guild Agenda

Pervious Chapter

“I’ll be honest, Mr. Harper, the Woodsmen’s Guild isn’t happy with how Mr. Grunwald has handled this.” Hanna O’Hara had a face well suited to showing that displeasure. In spite of being slightly shorter than Roy she still contrived to look down her nose at him. And an impressive nose it was. Sharp and patrician, it blended well with the rest of her features. Not even her two long braids and quite feminine blouse softened her overall stern impression.

“I take it you expected to be in charge of this little expedition?” Roy asked.

O’Hara laughed an unconvincing little laugh. “No. We expected Mr. Grunwald to take the lead, as he is both an expert on the local woods and a representative of the Guild. You are neither.”

“Very true.”

“However Mr. Grunwald has flatly refused our request that he take charge of the situation.” The purse of her lips spoke volumes about O’Hara’s opinions on that. “I understand you didn’t originally want to take part in this business at all.”

“Correct.”

“In which case, whether it was my original goal or not, I think it best if I took the leadership role in-“

“No.” Her indignation at being interrupted was priceless, satisfying and not at all helpful. Roy waved a hand around at the luxurious, hickory paneled room they were seated in on the second floor of the Guildhouse. “I understand why the Woodsmen’s Guild would need to protect its reputation and investments in Yellowstone. But the fact is, I am your best bet to do both of those things.”

If Roy thought O’Hara was displeased before, she moved to a whole new level after hearing that. “You think you know the Guild’s interests better than Mr. Grunwald? Or myself?”

“Not at all.”

“And you certainly do not know the land better than someone who’s worked it for two years, as Mr. Grunwald has.”

“Correct. Are you familiar with his service?”

The rapid change in topic was supposed to unsettle her but to Roy’s surprise she answered without missing a beat. “Enlisted in ’60 as a Private, assigned to D Company, 43rd Columbian Infantry Regiment. Fought in every action that unit took part in from Mishawaka to Palmyra. Discharged as a Corporal after the Battle of Five Ridges and the Final Truce in ’64.”

Not the most thorough summary but still more than Roy had expected. “Grunt’s role in the 43rd was on the skirmishing line. Scouting and reporting back was what he did.” Roy rested his hands over his stomach and leaned back in his chair. “And he made those reports to me.”

“Are you suggesting the only possible relationship that can exist between the two of you is officer and soldier?”

“Don’t presume to know anything about how old soldiers relate to each other Ms. O’Hara. But no, we could find any number of other command dynamics for field work, with time.” Roy let an edge into his voice. “Which we don’t have.”

“You’re saying the Guild’ first choice for leader is going to look to you for orders by dint of old habits you don’t have time to undo. So you might as well just lead the whole thing anyway.” She steepled her fingers and glared at him. “So why shouldn’t their second choice take over?”

Roy gently pulled his bone necklace off and set it down on the desk between them, just beside the small, potted willow tree. “Because I killed a wendigo during the Summer of Snow.”

O’Hara tentatively reached out for the long, finger bone beads of the necklace. “This could be anyth-“

She stopped as her fingers rested on the necklace. Roy raised an eyebrow in challenge. After a moment’s silence O’Hara swallowed hard and drew her hand back. He took the beads back and wound them back around his neck in their customary double loop. “Ms. O’Hara, I don’t know this mountain, but I know how to get the most out of people who do. I don’t know the legend of the Brothers, but I’ve fought legends before. I know how terrifying their power is, I know that they can still be killed, and better yet, I know why they can die. I know how often legends are untrue and I know that sometimes the truth of a legend is less important than its power. I’ve lived all of it before, and more than once. You have a druid, an expert in magic, trying to wield a legend against you. You need me.”

“Not a bad bit of boasting. But can you back it up?” It was a good bluff, made with a clear expression and steady voice. But O’Hara’s eyes were fixed on the necklace.

“Why don’t we make a little demonstration.” Roy leaned back in his chair, rested one ankle on the other knee and folded his hands in front of him. “Make me leave the room.”

She blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I’m no druid or warlock,” Roy said, “But I can see that you’ve set a number of wards in this office for your own protection. Surely they’re enough to get me to leave, if you really think you’re fit to-“

He gave O’Hara credit for taking the initiative. The legs of his chair spasmed in an attempt to pitch him backwards towards the door, a simple, harmless magical trap. A logical opening to a game with someone you hoped to keep around to work for you. Logical enough to be predictable.

As soon as he felt the chair flex Roy tapped his necklace, activating the charm he’d laid down while putting the beads back on, freezing the chair to the ground in blocks of ice. Every battle of spells was founded on preparation and Roy knew he was a step or three behind on that score, so he was willing to play a few tricks to catch up. He snapped his fingers and small jets of flame flew from his cufflinks into the wards hidden in the rosettes engrave on the corner of the desk. The fire power hidden there burst free in a flash of light and smoke.

O’Hara clapped her hands and the willow on her desk stretched its branches up and out, roots cracking through the pot and grasping greedily. He hadn’t expected her to play such a valuable card so easily but he’d picked a counter already. He slammed his iron dagger into the desk by its roots, between himself and the tree, and the willow recoiled in fear.

A panel on the front of the desk popped open, revealing a three crystal sulfurite array that belched fire at him. Roy glanced at the flames.

Demanded they stop.

And smiled.

He held his hands to the sheet of fire that hung like a hungry curtain, as if he was just warming them by a campfire. “That’s very pleasant, Ms. O’Hara. Anything else?”

Her eyes boggled. “What kind of ward is that?”

“It’s not.” Roy took a moment to study the vulcanic spells inside the desk. It looked like the central crystals fueled the wards he’d destroyed on the desk corners, the lamp on one corner of the writing surface and probably fed magic to the willow somehow, too. When it popped open the magic channels shifted course and discharged everything forward instead. He pushed the panel half closed with one toe then fed the flames through the crack and back into the sulfurite within. “I’m a dolmen burner. When I ask, fire answers.”

O’Hara watched the process, wary. “I’m not familiar with that term.”

“We’re the scrawny, bad tempered cousins to dolmen breakers like Grunt.” Roy closed up the panel the rest of the way and removed his necklace again. A quick rap of the beads to the side of the chair broke the charm and the ice vanished as fast as it appeared. “We’re not strong or tough like they are but we can sense the magic of fire and manipulate it. To an extent.”

O’Hara dug around under her desk for a moment then came up with a new pot for her willow. It wriggled in discomfort as she coaxed it into the container. “I’ll admit I’m impressed, even if it is just an extent.”

Roy allowed a small smile. “Then I hope you’ll-“

“But that demonstration, while impressive, doesn’t answer any of the questions I have.”

“Such as?”

She stood to scoop the soil off of her desk and dumped it into the pot, then started packing the willow’s roots down. “Such as why you’re here.” A quick look cut off Roy’s objection. “I know it’s a job and an old friend asked you to come. But Roy Harper is one of the best known mercenary firespinners in Winchester County. You could go anywhere in Winchester, Pyrenees or Death Valley Counties and not find another person with a reputation like yours, whether you deserve it or not. So why are you charging the Guild a pittance of a fee?”

“A hundred silver marks is not exactly cheap, Miss O’Hara.”

“But any average firespinner could charge twice that. The Reeds brothers are taking two hundred and fifty apiece. You could take a fee equal to both of theirs and no one would question it.” She shook her hands off and sat back down. “So what do you get out of this? And don’t say it’s for an old friend. I know what you charged your pal Van Der Klien during the Summer of Snow.”

Roy scowled, he hadn’t expected the Woodsmen’s Guild to know that much about his activities. “What do I get out of this? Well, if by some black curse it turns out we are dealing with Hezekiah Oldfathers, and by some unsought miracle we beat him, I expect to walk away with all his instruments of the craft.”

O’Hara huffed a short laugh. “You just said you weren’t a druid.”

“You’ve clearly learned the craft to an extent,” Roy said, gesturing to the willow. “But did you train under a true initiate of the Stone Circle?”

“No, by the time I was old enough to start my studies the Lakeshire War was already well underway and Morainhenge wasn’t taking new students. Not from outside of Lakeshire County, anyways.” She shrugged. “Even if it was, the Stone Circle was always a gentlemen’s club.”

Roy smiled a wistful little smile. “Yes, I used to be like that.”

“Oh? How’s that?”

“Bitter. The whole war was because of the druids, you know,” Roy said, his mind drifting back through the years. “Because we hated them. Because we thought they horded the purest magic for themselves in those dolmens of theirs. Do you remember the things the papers said, back when Columbia took sides with Vulcanus?”

“I was born here in Pyrenees County,” she said. “It was just a territory at the time, hadn’t gotten its charter as a county yet, so they didn’t hold recruiting drives in these parts. I don’t remember much of what was said in the papers, I was too young to take an interest.”

“No drives? That’s surprising, I met at least two people from Winchester when I was in the Regulars and it wasn’t chartered yet, either.” Roy stretched his mind back. “Fat Stu was from Leondale, died at Strickland Marsh, and old Drake was from Allentown. Lost him at Briarheart Ridge.”

O’Hara shrugged. “You could cross from Winchester or Pyrenees to Bancroft County and enlist there. But the recruiters didn’t come to us.”

“Well. We all hated those smug, sanctimonious, condescending druids. Funny, that, considering we’d never met one. Fat Stu died years before he’d get the chance.” Roy laughed a humorless laugh. “I first saw a druid in action at Coal Creek, right after we crossed the border into Lakeshire County. Fifty men with the same face, all happy to kill you stone dead but they just turned to smoke if you cut them back. A literal one man army.”

“I’ve heard of that trick,” O’Hara said, looking confused. “But I thought it was impractical for things like fighting.”

“Not for a druid,” Roy said. “They truly are a different breed, those Knights of the Stone Circle. The Smoke Company was just the start. Every unit we faced in Lakeshire had at least one druid in it, raising trees and spying on us through bushes. But the worst of it was the Battle of Five Ridges.”

“That was the end, wasn’t it?”

“Probably looked that way from the outside and it was close enough as to make no difference.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It was the end for the 43rd, at least. I never saw anything that horrible in my life, before or since. Not even in the charnel houses of Allentown. One minute we were working up the ridge line. The next minute the Folger brothers were gone.”

“What happened to them?”

“Closest brothers I ever met. Marched halfway up the country together, side by side in the line of battle, watching each other’s backs all the way.” Roy shook his head. “We were rounding the second switchback and watching the top of the ridge for hostiles when they just drew swords and killed each other. Never found out the why or how of that one but every couple of minutes it would happen again, somewhere up or down the line.”

“You were killing each other?” O’Hara put a hand over her mouth. “That’s horrible.”

“That was a distraction, a minor hex meant to break morale and sow dissent in the ranks, make it impossible to work together.” Roy passed a hand over his eyes, working to keep his mind in the here and now. Those days were long since passed. “Terrifying at the time but nothing compared to what some of the other units faced on other Ridges. The vines on Ivybrook Ridge strangled the Eighth Cavalry, horses and all. On Pinecrest Ridge the 28th Infantry ran into an honest to goodness hero who killed most of their A and C companies single handed. And all that was before the main body of druids awoke the forest and sent the trees at us, hundreds strong. They wiped the 43rd off Briarcrest like it was nothing. Took the 28th, the 17th and about a dozen others along for the ride. It took a week for the Regulars to effect the breach at Slatetop Ridge, flank the Lakeshire boys and push them back to Palmyra proper and by the time they did it we’d lost three divisions.”

“And General Oldfathers led the rites to awaken the trees?”

“I don’t know, they didn’t invite us to watch. But he was the one who commanded them in battle. A whole division of trees answering to one man. Could you do that?”

O’Hara blanched. “No one can. You must have missed the other druids handling the trees in all the chaos. Not even a true master of the craft can command more than three, perhaps four trees at a time.”

“There was a man in the 43rd who would have agreed with you.” He laughed. “Roy Harper was his name. He didn’t believe any of that foolishness about how the Knights of the Stone Circle stretched back in an unbroken line to Arthur Phoenixborn and his retainers. Didn’t think there were truly any magics so powerful they mustn’t pass into the hands of the unworthy. Didn’t believe magic had a living will and that it would test you, sift you like flour and destroy even the least of impurities. But that man died on Briarheart Ridge.”

Roy leaned forward over the desk between himself and O’Hara. “Michelangelo Vulcanii taught that magic was simple. Build a form out of one of the five Noble Metals, fill it with the power of fire and you have a construct. Stack those forms and add more power and you can construct a magical solution to almost any problem you face. Easy, right? But like many legends it’s true but it isn’t the whole truth. Vulcan magic is simple and straightforward because humans are simple, straightforward people. But magic at its heart is neither of those things. It is a trial and a test, it takes the measure of a man and amplifies it, and if that old Roy Harper had ever found any of the secrets the druids showed him at the Five Ridges he would have failed that test and turned himself and everything he touched into ruin.”

Roy reached out and plucked his dagger out of the desk, then settled back into his chair. “So if Hezekiah Oldfathers is here, and the Lord in Raging Skies favors us enough to let us beat him, then his secrets must pass back to the druids when things are done. I won’t risk them falling into the hands of the unworthy. That is the price of my cooperation.”

O’Hara thought for a minute, then nodded once and said, “I understand. Or, I think I do. And nothing you’ve said sounds like it would go against Guild interests so I suppose we can agree to the terms Mr. Grunwald has offered you along with the addendum you’ve proposed.”

“Good.” Roy ran his handkerchief along the edge of the dagger, checking for imperfections. “And one other thing.”

O’Hara tensed. “Yes?”

“I fought four years of war because Columbia and Vulcanus lied to us about the druids. They never had mountains of sulfurite hidden in their dolmen, they were never planning to sweep into Hancock and crown a new king once Columbian supplies of sulfurite ran low. They never needed any of that when they had the secrets of the Stone Circle at their disposal. If they wanted to destroy us at any moment before we raised an army against them they could have. In exchange we believed the slander, smashed their order and scattered the ashes to the winds.” He looked up from the dagger’s edge. “If those four years taught me one thing it’s that I hate being lied to. I hate fighting for liars even more. And while I hate the idea of fighting Hezekiah Oldfathers if it turns out he’s not here, and you’ve lied to me…”

Roy got up, ignored the twinge in his ribs, and sheathed his dagger. “There will be consequences.”

“I understand.” O’Hara’s tense silence followed him out of the Guild.

Firespinner Chapter Three: The Widow’s Gambit

Previous Chapter

The Argentum Express departed the next morning at eight. But Roy was tempted to wait until mid-morning and catch the local Highland train so he could cut across Pyrenees County to Trapperhorn Station and check on things there. But the local was more of an investment – the H&O Rail Company wouldn’t let him on for free like Argentum would. He was looking over his rail schedules at a table in The Singing Jack and picking at a passable meatloaf sandwich when Reeds asked, “Is the food not to your taste?”

Roy brought his gaze up from the railway tables to find the Sanna man and his brother standing there. “Do you two ever make any coalstoking noise?”

“Silence is a habit that is difficult to cultivate and easy to discard.” Marshall laughed his silent laugh and slapped his brother on the arm. “Marshall, of course, is better at it than I am.”

“Of course. You both prefer to cultivate this habit rather than discard it, I take it.”

“It’s something we’re used to, at least.” The two brothers helped themselves to chairs and Roy began gathering up his papers.

“At least you get to talk for him.” Roy snorted. “My sisters never did me that courtesy.”

Marshall opened his mouth wide and stuck his tongue out. Or what was left of it. The Sanna’s tongue ended in a stump of angry scar tissue, the rest cut out long ago from the looks of things. “It is not a choice on his part, you see,” Reeds said. “But neither is it a burden on mine.”

“Very considerate of you.” Roy piled his plate and sandwich on top of the papers and folded his hands in front of him. “All right, gentlemen, I can tell this isn’t a simple courtesy call. What’s it all about?”

“There is someone we would like you to meet, Mr. Harper.”

The signal was clearly prearranged as the woman at the next table over, who sat down about five minutes before the brothers appeared, stood up and moved over to join them. She was tall, fair skinned, with coils of dark hair barely contained under the black kerchief on her head. That and the black dress she wore were a good clue to her identity. “You must be the Widow Blythe.”

She sat down beside Marshall in a single smooth motion that spoke of grace and self-control. A quick study of her face revealed bags under the eyes and lines around the mouth, small sings of recent grief. But there was resolve there as well. She studied him with equal intensity. “And you’re Roy Harper. The Giant Killer.”

“Only Giant Killer I know was the First King of Avalon. But yeah, I’m Roy Harper.” He studied the woman for a moment longer but he didn’t see anything beyond the ordinary there. She was a strong woman, to be sure, and ordinary strength was more than sufficient for most purposes. It’d won the war, after all.

But the war hadn’t killed Hezekiah Oldfathers.

“I hear you’re wanting to help Grunt with his job.”

Confusion replaced quiet exhaustion. “Who?”

“He means Mr. Grunwald,” Reeds interjected.

“Oh.” The widow’s face returned to normal, or at least tired. “That’s right. I was told I had to convince you in order to come along.”

“Me?” Roy’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. This was Grunt trying to make a point to him, he was sure of that. He wasn’t sure what the point was and didn’t like Grunt using a widow to do it. “Did he mention that I’ve decided not to take this job?”

“Yes, but Mr. Grunwald also said he intended to ask you to serve as leader. And since you were still here in town he’d like your input on whether I stay or go, which I take to mean you have to say I can go before he’ll allow it.”

Roy took a large bite out of his sandwich and chewed, mulling over the situation and trying to figure out what Grunt’s agenda was. Finally he swallowed and said, “You shouldn’t go.”

She scowled. “You didn’t even listen to my story.”

“Don’t have to. Try something for me. Drink every bottle in this saloon dry. You know what you’ll have accomplished?”

“Nothing.”

“Nonsense. You’ll have made every whiskey and beer brewer from here to Hancock City a little richer, and that’s more good than you’ll do traipsing into the mountains after Hezekiah Oldfathers.” He tore another bite out of the sandwich, intending to end the conversation.

But Marshall nudged his brother and Reeds shifted in discomfort. Marshall made pushing motions. Reeds sighed. “Mr. Harper, you should understand that there is more in play here than personal feelings. There are obligations of great import that Mrs. Blythe must fulfill.”

Roy washed his sandwich down with tangy, metallic well water and a disgusted grimace. “Did the trees kill your husband, Mrs. Blythe?”

The blunt question took her aback. “Yes,” she said with a hitch in her voice. “But their real purpose at the time was kidnapping my son.”

His resolve wavered. “The trees are taking children?”

“Just Andrew,” the widow replied. “Harvey tried to stop them when they tried to leave with our boy and that was when they… they…”

“I understand, ma’am.” Soothing widows in these situations was something Roy was more than familiar with and his tone turned gentle without conscious thought. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

A silence settled over their group for a moment. Then Reeds broke it. “This brings us to the Brothers.”

Roy kept his attention on the widow and did his best to hide his exasperation. “Mrs. Blythe, the more of your family that is involved in this situation, the less I think you should go.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, a tinge of desperation working into her voice. “Thomas is fine, he’s still here at home. The problem is that they’re twins.”

“Of course.” Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why does it matter that they’re twins?”

Marshall held up a fist. Then raised one finger, a second, and a third. Reeds nodded. “If you would allow me to start at the beginning and go in order?”

A groan set the worst of his frustration free of his stomach so Roy could sit more comfortably in his seat. “Fine. Go ahead.”

“In the high past there were two Sanna Wahnumpun brothers, twins that shared a face. As we do.” Reeds gestured to his brother. “And as Thomas and Andrew Blythe do. The names of these brothers were Yose and Mete.”

“Yose?” Roy frowned. “Like the geyser in the lake outside of town?”

“We will get there,” Reeds said. “Now Yose and Mete were loving brothers, more so than normal. But one day they hunted a stag and could not decide which of them would take the antlers. So they gave them to their mother, who fashioned them into a nawonota-“

“A what?”

“A ceremonial defense against ill spirits.” As his brother answered Marshall’s hands were sketching a complicated octagonal pattern on the table top. “Alone it has no remarkable properties but as part of a household’s mystic defenses it has considerable power. And because of the beauty of the stag’s antlers, both boys desired it.”

“Sibling rivalry can appear over anything, I suppose.”

“As you say. The brothers vied for their mother’s favor but she knew that giving either brother the nawonota would poison the affections of the other.”

Roy grunted. “A wise woman.”

“And yet even wisdom has its limits.” Reeds sighed. “Mete stole the treasure. His brother became furious and hunted Mete to this very mountain. They climbed to the top and struggled there. Finally Mete seized the nawonota from his brother and, in the process, fell from the mountain top to his death. Struck by grief but still burning with rage, Yose was transformed. We would say he became Vulna.”

Roy sucked in a deep breath. “An avatar. I’ve never heard of the Primordial Fire offering its blessings in circumstances like that.”

“Perhaps Yose was already one. There are other stories of the Brothers that tell of their great hunts. In some of the tales they already bore the blessings of the Vulna.” Reeds shrugged. “It is not a thing I know much about. Regardless, after his brother’s death Yose lost some part of himself. In despair he threw himself into the lake in an attempt to quench the flames but to this day he has not succeeded.”

That explained the geyser. Unlike blessings from the Lord in Raging Skies and Lady in Burning Stone, which were tools in the hands of the faithful and functioned only when called for, the powers given to avatars of the First Elements were wild and barely under human control, often actively working towards their own ends when not carrying out the duties the avatars set for them. And where the guardian deities of Avalon were creatures dedicated to building civilization the First Elements didn’t have any understanding of the concept, which was why so many in Avalon and Columbia viewed their avatars as quasi blasphemous. Roy knew the Sanna didn’t see things quite that way so he kept that thought to himself. “So you believe that Andrew Blythe’s kidnapping and this legend are tied in some way?”

“I don’t think it, I know it,” the widow said. “I’ve been to the Hearthfire and petitioned the Lady to cast Shadows. The result was clear and the Hearth Mother agreed with me. My boys have been tied to something ancient and powerful.”

Roy massaged his temples, dreading where this was going. He’d been around too long and seen too much to discount old legends out of hand. It was rare they were the way people remembered them, it was rarer still for them to contain no truth at all. And true or false, they were always powerful. “Far be it from me to doubt the Hearth Keepers,” Roy said. “I take it you’ve confirmed this outcome by your own means, Reeds?”

He held up the divining tool he’d shown in Grunt’s office. “I have.”

“And you,” he looked back to the widow, “think you have to go on this expedition because the mother was the peacekeeper between Yose and Mete.”

She made the Sign of the Hearth, saying, “The shadows ended with a vision of the creche. Clearly Our Lady in Burning Stone has appointed a mother to end this.”

That kind of clarity was precious rare in Roy’s experience, dangerous to those who had it and those who thought they had it in equal measure. “Have you ever gone to war, Mrs. Blythe?”

“I met my husband on the Palmyra Campaign, Mr. Harper.” She had the gall to look proud of that fact. “I was a Hearth Keeper traveling with the Columbian Regular Infantry’s Third Division.”

Which explained some of it. Most of the Third Division stopped on the Mukwonago river, holding the bridges open. They hadn’t seen the Five Ridges.

“You don’t wear the Keeper’s Veil. Why is that?”

To his surprise she blushed at the question. “Well, Harvey Blythe was an army captain, not from the Storm’s Watch.”

“Ah…” Roy understood the problem at once but he could see from the confused looks on Reeds and Marshall’s faces that they did not. “The Lord and Lady each have their own clergy, or spirit talkers as I think you would call them. The Storm’s Watch takes only men and they serve the Lord in Raging Skies, the Hearth Keepers are all women and serve the Lady in Burning Stone.”

Reeds leaned forward, looking skeptical. “And they are not allowed to take a husband or a wife?”

“Only if it’s from the opposite order,” Mrs. Blythe said with a tinge of regret. “Otherwise it’s a breach of the vows and we – they – can no longer serve.”

“There are many aspects to any sacred vow,” Roy murmured. “And at times you must choose which you will keep and which you will break. That’s a given when any creature as profane as a human being touches on anything as sacred as an oath.”

“You speak from experience?” Reeds asked.

Roy thought back to his oaths of enlistment. To his election as officer. To the many promises made to friends during dark days on the battlefield. To a fearsome covenant, sworn on a frigid morning in Leondale, during the Summer of Snow. “Yes. Very much so.”

The table was quiet as each of the four turned to their own thoughts. All of Roy’s instincts told him not to take a woman on what amounted to a suicide mission, particularly a woman with little arcane prowess and a deep seated grief on top of all of it. He wasn’t much of a learned man but he could tell that the circumstances on the other side of things balanced out that reluctance. Which left him with only his own judgment to rely on.

And with magic, particularly magic on the scale of a legend, it was better to be prepared than not. “Very well, Mrs. Blythe. If all you’ve told me is true I suppose we have no choice but to take you with us.” Marshall laughed his disconcerting, silent laugh and slapped Roy on the arm, then pointed at him emphatically. “Yes, Marshall, us. All things considered I suppose I’ll have to come along, too. So long as your son remains here in town and out of danger I’ll have to do my part to make sure Oldfathers keeps living up to his reputation as Orphanfree. Your sons won’t be orphans as long as I have a say.”

“We’re glad to have you, Mr. Harper,” Mrs. Blythe said.

“Don’t be.” Roy stood up gingerly, still favoring his right side, and straightened his jacket. “If Grunt’s serious about letting me run this show you’ll find I don’t play favorites and I don’t plan on making allowances for you just because you’re a woman.”

“I was under the impression Columbians were supposed to defer to ladies,” Reeds said.

“And we do. Lady is a behavior, not a state of being, and hunting wanted men through the mountains is not ladylike.” Roy started for the saloon door, then hesitated. “Which reminds me. Do any of you know where I can find Agent O’Hara?”

Firespinner Chapter Two – Orphanfree

Previous Chapter

Roy expected to wind up in the Woodsmen’s Guildhall, or maybe the back room of a local saloon. He hadn’t expected the offices of Nolan and Grunwald, Solicitors General. “I could see you with a bearded ax,” Roy said. “But Corporal Grunwald as an officer of the Court? Now that is truly shocking.”

“Anyone can slice trees,” Grunt said. “But there’s more to the business than that. And there’s more of a future to clerking, even in a place like this, than just cutting lumber day in and day out.”

The chair in front of Ben’s desk was plush and comfortable, cradling Roy’s abused back and sides in velvety softness. “This is mighty nice, Grunt. You done good for yourself.”

Grunt sat down in his chair and fished through the drawers of the desk. “That calls for a celebration. Still a whiskey man?”

“Gave it up years ago.”

He froze, looking like a child stealing sweets. “Oh?”

“Long story. I’d rather hear about why ensorcelled trees are attacking town on the regular. Based on how fast the guild responded this isn’t an isolated incident, is it?”

“It’s not.” Ben switched drawers but kept rummaging. “Give it five minutes? The Sanna boys are supposed to join us and I figured I could fill all of you in at once.”

Roy pondered that for a moment. He’d heard feelings about the Sanna were pretty strong up north, almost as strong as people felt about the Tetzlani down by the southern border. But Grunt didn’t seem concerned about two of them butting into Guild business. Either they were well known in town… or the situation was just that bad.

Maybe both.

“You know these two?”

“Not personally but the Guild Captain seems to think they’re trustworthy.” Ben shrugged. “He’s a good judge of people and I’ve never had any problems with the Sanna personally so I’m not that worried. Plus they live in town, not across the border in the Treaty Lands, so they can’t be that close to the local tribes.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Really? We’re a good day’s horse ride from the border, aren’t we?”

“Closer to two,” said a voice behind him.

Roy jerked up and out of the chair, yanking a bead of fire out of his cufflink and rolling it ready between finger and thumb of his right hand. Two tall, thin Sanna men stood in the doorway of the office, dressed in the tanned leather pants common to their people but wearing the collared denim shirts favored by most frontier Columbians. Neither one carried weapons. Roy blew a breath out, waited for his side to stop spasming and slipped the fire back into its home. “Hearthfires, you two give a man the frights.”

The Sanna in the lead inclined his head to one side, studying Roy with open curiosity. “You must be the man Mr. Grunwald was expecting today. Our counterpart in this task. Allow me to introduce my brother, Marsh Reeds, and myself, River Reeds.” Marsh held his hand palm out with all fingers pointed upwards in the traditional Sanna gesture of greeting. “He prefers to be called Marshall.”

“Does he now?” Roy studied the brothers a little closer and noted that, at a glance, the beaded belts they wore were the only way to tell them apart, for otherwise they were as alike as a man and his doppelganger. Although Marshall was most likely not a magical duplicate of his brother. “Does he speak for himself?”

“No.” Marshall laughed silently and his brother continued. “Please call me Reeds.”

“Roy Harper.” Roy folded his thumb over his first and last fingers, holding the middle two up to form a chimney and making the Sign of the Hearth. “Warm hearthfires, Mr. Reeds.”

Grunt cleared this throat. “Reeds is part of his given name, Roy, not a family name. Sanna names don’t work that way.”

“My mistake.” Roy lowered himself back into the chair, barely hiding a wince in the process. “We’re all here now, Grunt. Unless you want your Guild fixer here for the speech, too.”

“Not necessary. This is just so you three know what you’re up against.” Ben drew a wrinkled, tattered sheet of paper out of his desk and handed it to Reeds. “This man came through town five weeks ago. We think he’s been binding trees and sending them against the walls for the last month or so.”

Reeds handed the paper to his brother. “The land here is disturbed. The trees may be moving on their own, in response to it. Such is the way of the forest.”

“The Guild hedge mages haven’t noted any changes in the land in the past two months but the trees are far more aggressive than in the past. Something specific is riling them up and he’s the most likely person to do it.” Grunt pulled another sheaf of papers out. “I have the surveyor’s records if you want to look.”

“Unnecessary.” Reeds pulled out an odd, heavily carved stick from a pouch on his belt. “The land has changed in the last two moons but not in the lay of rivers or stones. In the lines of the spirit, which your hedge mages do not trace.”

The carvings on the stick seemed to move and shift of their own volition. Reeds held it up for them to study. “We can cast the kennet, if you wish.”

“I don’t doubt your divinations, Reeds. It’s true there are things in these hills the Sanna understand better than us.” Marshall passed the paper to Roy. “But our guest could easily be why-“

“Dust and ashes!” Roy recognized the paper immediately. He probably still had his own copy of it, somewhere in a trunk left from his army days. The Vulcanus Militia had printed thousands of them at the start of the Lakeshire War and many Columbian Regulars like himself had gotten copies when they took a hand in the conflict. A glance at the face in the center of the page was all it took for him to remember who it was. Major General, Sir Hezekiah Oldfathers, First in Line to Lordship of the Stone Circle, Knight of the Phoenixborn, Druid Emeritus of Lakeshire County, Columbia. Commanding officer, First Lakeshire Druidic Division. Once the second most powerful druid in the nation. Wanted traitor. 2,000 silver mark reward, dead or alive.

Roy threw the paper back on Grunt’s desk. “Orphanfree is here? Really, Grunt? Any other surprises I should know about? You don’t need two or three of us, you need the whole company back if you plan to take him on. Then at least they can bury us all in one place.”

“Orphanfree?” Reeds asked.

“He’s guaranteed to bury you before your parents, so you never have to worry about being an orphan,” Grunt explained. “Old fathers, young sons. That’s the joke.”

“It’s a joke?”

“No.” Roy snorted. “What next? You got a fourth Brother Walking hidden up here, too?”

“No giants, just the druid.” Grunt’s lips formed a humorless smile. “But we have the right person here for that, too.”

Roy leveled a finger at him. “Don’t you start.”

“The two of you know this man?”

“Not personally, Reeds,” Grunt said. “Just by reputation. He made a nasty one for himself during the war.”

“And before. And after.” Roy scowled. “This isn’t some druidic initiate, Grunt. Oldfathers came up during the golden era of Columbian druidry. If Morainehenge still stood today he’d be running it. He’s probably the most powerful and skilled druid left on this continent. You think he’s trying to level this town so you propose we go after him with five men?”

“Four, actually. Guild Agent O’Hara is a woman,” Reeds pointed out. Marshall nudged his brother. “Yes, fine. My brother would also like to include Widow Blythe.”

“I’m not sure-“

“No.” Roy cut Grunt off definitively. “We are not feeding a sixth person into the carnage, it is simply not going to help.”

“Harp.” Grunt gave his old friend a patient look. “It’s been ten years. General Oldfathers doesn’t have an army anymore and he’s not getting any younger.”

“Age and magic don’t tie together like age and strength, Grunt.”

“Plus we’ve got you and O’Hara so it’s not like we’re helpless on that score.”

Reeds cleared his throat. “I have some skill in the arcane as well. And the Widow was once in the service of your Lady in Burning Stone.”

“Outside of the cants and rituals I don’t think Hearthkeepers practice a whole lot of magic.”

“We’re talking about Orphanfree, Grunt,” Roy snapped. “It doesn’t matter if we’re all master vulcanists on a mountain covered in pine trees!”

“Fine. We’ll even the odds,” Grunt said, refusing to match Roy’s intensity. “You know plenty of other firespinners for hire. Go to the semaphore tower and sent a message to a few. Call up the Strongest Man-“

Roy got out of his seat even faster the second time, the pain in his side an echo to the thud of his fist on the desk. “Don’t say it. Ignis fatuus, Grunt, I know magic isn’t your thing but you should know creatures like that hear when you name them. And they’re likely to answer. Going to one, hat in hand, never solves problems.”

“Not even a problem like Orphanfree?”

“Oldfathers is just a man, Grunt. That isn’t, no matter what it’s called.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Harp.” Grunt sighed. “Listen, I asked for your help but there’s no hard feelings if you don’t want to. We’re not soldiers anymore. No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this one out.”

Roy pushed away from the desk with a grunt and smoothed the front of his jacket. “Fine. If that’s how it is, then that’s how it is. It was good to see you, Grunt, circumstances notwithstanding.”

Ben nodded once then turned his attention to Reeds. “Tell me about these divinations of yours, and what they suggest is going on up on the mountains.”

It was a dismissal and Roy knew it. He collected his hat from the rack and showed himself out of Grunt’s office. Marshall stared at him the entire way.

Firespinner Chapter One – Malice in the Pines

The afternoon sun struck Roy’s eyes the moment he stepped off the Argentum Express.

“Dust and ashes,” he muttered, jamming his derby hat onto his head to block the light. “Mountain air will be the death of me.”

The metal monstrosity of the sky train shifted and creaked as its frame cooled. Roy did his best to ignore it. In the recesses of his mind he knew exactly how much magic had lifted the Express off the ground in Leondale, how many sulfurite crystals had exhausted their fire to push it over the mountains to the head of the Mi-Tzi river. He also knew exactly how much power now bled from the bottom of the train’s cars behind him in smoke and embers, wasted. The fire whispered in the back of his mind. Told him it would gather if he willed it, begged him for purpose, for form, swore if he only gave in to his desire, the fire would burn it into reality.

But Roy Harper’s thoughts were his own. The fire was welcome in them only when invited and he hadn’t travelled here to burn. He’d come to work.

Roy straightened his jacket and crossed the platform towards town. The station was a few hundred feet outside of Yellowstone, connected to the town by a gravel path winding alongside the shores a of wide lake that took up the northern half of the valley. From the air the water had looked like an alien eye, a ring of reddish brown oxide deposits around a bright cyan pool with unfathomable depths at the center. But from the path the lake itself was little more than a strip of bright, rippling liquid below a picturesque landscape with the town walls giving way to the rising ridges of the Yellowstone mountains. In spite of the clear day down below gathering clouds hid the upper peaks from view. For a moment Roy enjoyed the simple pleasures of the natural world.

“Hungry tree! Hungry tree!”

Roy’s head snapped around, scanning for danger. Deep in his gut he felt something was wrong, something beyond the obvious, which was a twenty foot pine tree that had lurched out of the tree line and was rapidly closing on the stream of passengers making their way to Yellowstone. The tree’s roots thumped and slithered over the ground like dozens of crazed snakes. Loose stones and uprooted grass flew behind it, kicked up by the fast moving appendages.

The crowd of passengers panicked.

Most of the crowd saw the tree and bolted for town. Yellowstone’s ten foot tall earthworks were enough to stop most trees and Leroy could see the guard patrols atop it to fend off anything the walls alone wouldn’t deter so heading for town was a sensible move. More foolhardy souls drew weapons and formed a ragged line between the tree and the rest of the crowd.

Roy saw the telltale flares of light as two spadroons and one sword cane ignited. The weapons were deadly enough, even in untrained hands, but only against human targets. Trees were another matter. They were too hard to cut or stab effectively, had no vitals to target and sap prevented their burning easily. If you really wanted to threaten them a heavy ax was the surest bet.

That, or a fire bordering on an inferno.

Roy glanced back at the train, a few dozen feet back, opened his mind and made the invitation. Every sulfurite crystal in the cars thrummed in response. Streams of fire burst from under the train, forming into a spiraling funnel until they merged into a single, serpentine torrent. Roy turned and dashed towards the tree, the fire trailing behind, eagerly responding to his thoughts of the winding river he’d flown over for the past several hours.

Ahead, the situation had gotten much worse. An arm in a gray sleeve stuck out from under a tangle of roots, a still burning cane sword lying on the ground a few feet away. One of the men with spadroons was trying to work his way around to the trapped man while the other was swinging frantically at the tree’s waving branches in an attempt to get its attention. Roy slowed and reevaluated his strategy. Flashburning the tree wasn’t an option now, in fact he’d pulled too much fire from the train to attack without hurting the trapped man.

A wave of the hand split the flames in half and Roy scattered what he didn’t need into the grass along the path. That would keep it going for a minute or two if he needed to come back for it. The man working around the side of the tree jumped away from the unexpected spray of flames. Seeing that, Roy tweaked the placement of the fires just enough to keep him separate from the tree. That gave him enough room to work. The rest of the fire got crushed down into a bead as small as Roy’s pinky joint that he wove through the flailing branches.

Touched against the trunk of the tree.

And let go.

The resulting explosion blew two of the lower branches off of the pine and sent it slowly toppling over. Through sheer force of will Roy shaped the explosion up and away from the trapped man and the effort left him winded. It wasn’t a simple matter for a downed tree to get upright again but it was possible and the pine immediately set about it, branches waving in erratic spasms that set the trunk undulating like a snake. Roy grabbed the grass fires back up, still advancing, and dumped the flame on the tree’s upper branches, spreading the pain out. Then one of the men still on their feet joined the effort, his spadroon tossing out angry gouts of fire in short, fat bursts.

But, while needles blackened and bark charred, the pine refused to burn.

Roy dashed past the downed man as the other spadroon wielder vented and sheathed his weapon, dragging the injured man out of the way. The pine’s roots dug into the ground and the massive tree nearly spasmed fully upright again. Fire wasn’t going to keep it down. For a moment Roy considered trying his bone bead necklace but decided that, given the circumstances, adding snow to the equation was counterproductive. So he finished pulling on his dueling gloves, the heavy leather supple and familiar in his hands, then drew his last card to play.

The dagger over his left hip came free with a soft rasp. Dead iron, cold wrought in the old style, forced into the shape of a weapon by naught but a hammer and human will.

Forged to kill magic in all it’s forms.

And life was the highest form of all.

Branches flailed wildly but Roy slipped past them and plunged the tip of the dagger down into the trunk of the tree with all his weight behind it. The tree bent almost double with a tortured groan, folding until up around the dagger like a book, then snapped straight, fast as a jumping spider. Its trunk smashed into Roy and sent him flying through the air. He didn’t remember landing.

As he lay staring up at the sky, feeling the waves of the lake lapping in his hair, he felt it again. Something about the tree was off. Or maybe it was just his ribs, which he felt throbbing with every heartbeat. Whatever the matter was, it would have to wait. He bolted back to his feet, viciously pushing his complaining ribs to the back of his mind, expecting to find the last two passengers at the mercy of the tree.

Instead he found the tree struggling to do anything with half its roots cut away. Two woodsmen were cleaving through its branches, their heavy bearded axes propelled in complex, lethal cutting patterns by gouts of fire blasting from the back of the ax heads. The gleaming bronze blades never stopped moving and, in the time it took Roy to stagger out of the lake and across the gravel path, the tree toppled to the ground a final time.

Twitched once.

And didn’t move again.

After a moment’s pause the woodsmen moved in and began hacking the tree to pieces, stripping the branches from the trunk with shocking speed. Roy swayed on his feet, caught his breath and wiped water out of his eyes. Turned out his hair was soaked. He took the handkerchief out of the breast pocket in his vest and ran it through his sopping locks then looked around for his hat. Found it in the grass beside the gravel pathway, dusted it off and put it back on. And went to talk to his employer.

“That you, Grunt?” He rasped out as he got close to the woodsmen.

The bigger of the two paused in hacking the tree to pieces just long enough to glance at Roy. “Up already, Harp? You need to learn to take it easy.”

Roy took a deep breath; quashed a wince as his ribs twinged extra hard. “Easy is for old men.”

A final swing of the ax cut the top third of the tree away. Ben Grunwald slung his weapon over his shoulder and grinned. “That’s what I’m trying to say, Harp.”

“Bite your tongue, kid.”

Grunt laughed and shouldered his ax. “You’re only a year older than me, Harp.”

Roy looked along the trunk and found his knife. One attempt was all it took to realize he couldn’t bend down and retrieve it.

Grunt’s companion reached down to grab it for him. “Gloves!” Grunt snapped. “That’s an iron dagger, Will. Put on gloves! Dust and ashes, man, look at the way it’s burned into the bark.”

Will hesitated, embarrassed. Roy resisted the urge to join in with Grunt. Yes, the the dagger had sapped the magic out of a two foot section of the trunk leaving it gray and lifeless but it was hard to pick the damage out of all the burns they’d left on the runaway plant.

The kid fished a pair of thick work gloves out of a pocket, yanked the implement free and handed it back to Roy with a sheepish look. He couldn’t have been more than half Roy’s age, probably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen, but even so he was big and strong, standing a full hand taller than Roy was. Most men were taller than Roy, of course, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t annoyed by it.

He snatched the dagger back from Will and put it back into its sheath then looked around for any further complications. Patches of fire still burned in the grass. A quick thought rounded all of them up into a small, angry red orb. Since it was a long walk back to the train and he couldn’t keep control of the flames over that long a distance Roy settled for channeling the remaining firepower into the sulfurite crystals in his cufflinks. They’d needed topping off after the long train ride anyways.

The three other passengers that fought with the tree looked like they were going to be okay, though the man in gray who got trapped under the pine’s roots had some nasty bruises and limped a bit. Then again, Roy was feeling much the same and he expected to make a full recovery. The rest of the passengers who’d run for it were out of sight, presumably safe inside Yellowstone’s earthworks.

“You some kind of wizard?” Will asked, watching Roy from the corner of his eyes.

Roy snorted. “Do I look like I’m coalstoking Dutch?”

Grunt laughed. “It’s the way you dress, Harp. The only people this far north who bother with those fancy suits of yours are the pompous types. ‘Course he thought you’re a wizard.” Grunt threw an arm over Roy’s shoulders and thumped him on the chest, which hurt but Roy ignored. It wasn’t as bad as the flannel of his bright red shirt scratching against Roy’s face. “But Harp’s just been touched by some druid nonsense, just like I was. Except it made me bigger and taller and it made him angry.”

“If I was as angry as all that you wouldn’t have that arm.” Roy shrugged Grunt’s arm off and straightened his suit. It was tailored but made of cotton and he didn’t think it was all that fancy.

“But what about…” Will waved his hands theatrically towards the scorch marks on the ground.

“Don’t worry about it,” Roy grumbled. “Grunt, you got some kind of druid or medicine man in town? That tree didn’t seem like it was running wild.”

Grunt glanced back towards town, where a larger party of woodsmen were coming out through the main gate to come meet them. Then he turned to his companion and gestured to the loose pile of wood that had once been a tree, still twitching but too small to move or think on its own anymore. “Will, lash up that lumber and help the boys get it back to town.”

The unspoken message came through loud and clear. Roy should ask again in private. “Am I the only one you invited to this little party?”

“The only one who said he was coming. We might see Van Der Klein or Cain, but they never said one way or another.”

“Klein ain’t coming. He just got married two months ago.”

Ben’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“Books tried to get ahold of you but you weren’t at your last three addresses.” Roy looked out at the scenic mountain peaks and the menacing forest line. “He didn’t know you put on the flannel and came up here to cut trees.”

“Ignis fatuus.” Grunt looked dejected. “Can’t believe I missed that.”

“Speaking of-” Roy began to reach into his jacket then gasped as pain shot through his side.

“Let’s get you back to town,” Grunt said. “The Woodsman’s Guild has someone to look at that for you.”

They started down the path to Yellowstone again. Roy managed to get the package out of his pocket after a moment. Thankfully it didn’t look damaged from the fight. “Books sent me your mail and asked me to bring it to you.”

Grunt took it with a grin. “He can’t stop with the sending things, can he? Natural born quartermaster. Seen him recently?”

“At the wedding.”

“Is he doing well?”

“He’s fatter than ever and still making money hand over fist.” Roy shook his head in disgust. “Who knew there was so much wealth in selling beans to the old continent.”

“Chocolate ain’t just any beans, Harp.”

“I suppose.” There was a gurgling, coughing noise then an enormous pillar of water shot up out of the lake. “Dust and ashes, what is that?”

“Yose’s Heartbeat,” Grunt said. “As the locals call it. It’s a geyser in the lake that erupts every morning, afternoon and witching hour.”

“Lovely.”

“Anyway, even if Cain doesn’t come-“

“Cain’s not coming.”

Grunt gave him an odd look. “Was he getting hitched, too?”

“There’s a price on his head. He’d be stupid to show his face around anyone from the unit.”

“A price…” Grunt sighed. “What’s he wanted for?”

“Killed a woman down in Winchester County.”

“So it finally came to that.” Grunt shook his head. “Well, you’re right, we probably won’t see him then.”

“We’d better not. If I see his worthless face I’ll cremate him myself.”

They walked in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. Then Grunt gathered himself and said, “Well, you were the only one who came but that’s all right. The Guild brought in a fixer and two of the local Sanna are pitching in. Five should be enough.”

“Let’s hope so.”

Grunt laughed. “You make it sound like you already know what the job is.”

Roy looked over his shoulder at the woodsmen gathering up the downed tree. He wasn’t an expert but he was fairly certain it was too small to be thinking and moving on its own in the first place. And even if it was big enough to move itself trees knew better than to stray too close to human habitation. There was no reason for it to get that close to Yellowstone unless it was ensorcelled. “I might have a guess or two at that…”

World Building: Hexwood

At the core of the idea of a Weird Western is the desire to translate a specific period of time and its attendant cultural norms into something comprehensible to modern audiences. That’s a challenge all historical fiction faces but by switching in fantasy elements you can both simplify the process and slip in direct analogs to the present day. I find these kinds of mental challenges fun and engaging and I’ve written about my approach to world building before so I thought I would share a few takes from the Weird Western I’ve been working on. 

Hexwood: Dust and Ashes started as a germ of an idea three years ago. I knew I wanted to tell a story about a gold rush but, instead of gold, I wanted people digging for magic. The initial pieces of the world fell into place quickly. The geography had the shape of the world of the late 1800s and the story would be set in what we know as North America but with different political boundaries. The culture would be dependent on digging up magic rocks to continue functioning. On top of the usual dangers of the Old West the ecosystem would be rife with supernatural monsters and killer trees. And there would be flying trains. 

The flying trains were very important. 

As is typical when I am working on the early stages of a story I found old ideas, some abandoned, some that I had intended to use in other ways, some that I intend to use again in much the same way, all falling into place as I solidified my ideas. Many ideas I had got cut and set aside for another time. And, in time, I had a complete tale to tell and a world to tell it in. While I can’t get too deep into all the things added and cut I thought I’d share a bit of my thought process as I addressed these issues in the hopes it will entertain you, and perhaps help you build a world of your own. 

Here are how a few of the ideas in Hexwood developed. 

Sulfurite 

The world of Hexwood started with the idea of magic rocks. Well, truthfully it started with the name but the first element of the story I thought of was magic rocks. I liked the idea of miners delving deep for the essence of magic but, as I began to flesh out the idea, I quickly had to decide what kind of magic I wanted them to dig for. That was a bit of a problem. 

A lot of things went out the window immediately. It couldn’t be fairy tale magic, which is mostly about transformations, illusions and curses. Those things are too immaterial to dig out of the ground. It also couldn’t be things like the magic of stars or lightning or the deep oceans. The stars and storms aren’t things you can find underground and the ocean, while terrible and mysterious, has its magical qualities whether it is underground or not. That basically left the elements of earth and fire or the powers of the Underworld. 

The Underworld is overdone, so it went off the list. 

That left earth and fire. After some deliberation I chose fire, in part because I thought it would be interesting to experiment with a mythos similar to that of Dark Souls. I won’t delve too deep into those ideas because the idea of setting Hexwood in a world after an Age of Fire got scrapped very early but it did push me to the core idea of most magic in Hexwood, which was Fire itself. 

Yes, I decided early on that the simple act of something burning would be an expression of magic and when that magic was used on metals you would get a basic effect. Silver shape itself like a living creature, tin would push away from the source of heat, aluminum would counteract gravity, and so on. To make using magic in this way practical people stored the magic of fire in a special kind of rock called sulfurite. With the basics of what I came to call volcanic magic in place, and the name of my magic rocks decided, it was time to move on. How did I build a West to put them in? 

Dolmenfall 

In my mind the first hurdle to creating a world that paralleled the Old West was the influence of the American Civil War. While the Gold Rush started in 1849 and marks the start of the Old West in many reckonings most Westerns are set after the Civil War and incorporate the resulting changes to weapons, warfare and culture into their narratives. If I wanted to evoke the West properly there needed to be a similar defining event not too far in Hexwood’s past. 

I’m not sure where the idea for Dolmenfall originally came from but I do know what I was avoiding when I decided on it. My goal with Dolmenfall was to create a devastating internal conflict in Columbia (the nation where Hexwood is located) without referring to slavery or race. Far too much time is spent in culture today dwelling on these topics, I wanted something different and fresh. But in order to really evoke the same kind of tensions as the Civil War it needed to have elements that provoked strong distrust on both sides, as well as a clear potential for power imbalances that needed to be reckoned with but ultimately wasn’t until violence forced the issue. 

After some thought I decided that the theme of this conflict should be Old versus New. In many ways the Civil War was also a conflict of old and new ways, with slavery being one of humanity’s oldest institutions and America’s economic and cultural ideas of freedom still one of the newest ideas in culture and governance. But again, to avoid making this too on the nose, I chose to make it a conflict between old magic and new. Mark Pendleton, the protagonist of the story, worked best if he fought on the losing side and so he wound up a representative of old magic. 

Sulfurite is a lot like coal, it’s something you dig out of the ground that makes fire. Granted, sulfurite is rechargeable and basically functions as a battery that holds fire rather than electricity but the general principle is actually not that different than coal and thus I’d been thinking of volcanic magic as a very industrial flavor of magic. New, a little untrustworthy but very powerful. Thus it didn’t make sense for Mark to use volcanic magic, or at least not exclusively, so he had to use a different flavor of magic that was preindustrial and at least somewhat philosophically opposed to mechanization. When developing my main character I decided I wanted his magic to feel more ecclesiastical, so Mark got incense and a dowsing rod. I knew he’d need more than that but the later changes to Mark’s magic powers had more to do with his character than the world building, and with two plant based magics as a starting place – Mark specifically burns mandrake roots to use his central power and dowsing rods are wooden – I found myself thinking of him as a druid. That perfectly fit the bill for a system of old magic that would oppose a more “industrial” magic so I settled on the “Civil War” conflict in the setting being a conflict between druidic and volcanic magics rather than a war over economies and slavery. 

With druids in the mix my mind immediately went to Stonehenge. Now that monument predates known druidic traditions but what I really needed was something that would emphasize the Anglo nature of the druidic tradition and Stonehenge is a truly iconic English megalith. So I made stone circles like Stonehenge an integral part of the druidic tradition. Mark trained at one, called Moraine Henge, fought to protect it during the Columbian Civil War (not a name that stuck), and watched it destroyed when his side lost. The individual stone formations – dolmen – were smashed and the druidic tradition ended, at least for a time. The only thing left was to give the conflict a name – or better yet, two. The American Civil War actually has two names, after all (the other is the War of Northern Aggression, and yes some people still refer to it as such) and each illustrates how one side thought of the conflict. So in Hexwood you may hear some people refer to the Lakeshire War – a reference to where the war was fought, certainly, but also the people blamed for starting the conflict. Other people refer to the war by its outcome – Dolmenfall, a reference to the destruction of a treasured and irreplaceable cultural touchstone. 

Raging Skies, Burning Stone and Arthur Phoenixborn 

For the last five or six years the idea of doing something with the mythology of King Arthur has percolated in the back of my mind. Ideas ran from the Once and Future King returning to aid modern day Britain, as the legends promised, to a clash between the Knights of the Round Table and other equally legendary figures, such as Greek heroes or Taoist Immortals. Nothing ever came of any of those ideas. 

So when I was trying to ground Mark’s druidic traditions back into a larger cultural context King Arthur came to mind quite naturally. It took a little massaging but I managed to work disparate parts of various Arthurian story ideas I had tinkered with into a unified system and installed it as the mythical framework for the nation of Avalon, the England of Mark’s world, replacing the increasingly incongruous Dark Souls style mythos. It also let me establish a cultural throughline that would otherwise have been very difficult to explain. 

You see, the English cultural heritage that underpins American culture, including the Old West, is distinctly Christian in nature, trading on ideas about Kings submitting to laws, mercy as a component of justice, and the imperfect nature of man that only the Western Christian tradition has ever seriously tried to put into practice. What’s interesting about Arthur is that much of his mythos seems to be an attempt to assimilate those Christian ideas into the culture of the old Angles, with Arthur himself serving as a clear Messianic figure. 

My original intent with importing Arthur into the world of Hexwood was just to give the nation of Avalon a suitably mystical feeling origin. But once I realized I needed to ground the philosophies of Avalon and Columbia in something substantial in order for them to ring true Avalon’s First and Forever King started to take on more significance. He died and came back, gaining the title of Pheonixborn (replacing our Arthur’s title of Pendragon, which sounded too much like Pendleton for me to use). He united the druids and founded the Knights of the Stone Circle to place their powers at the service of the people, rather than the other way around. And he picked up two guardian deities, the Lord in Raging Skies and Lady in Burning Stone, to emphasize the idea that even the King himself should submit to authority, law and other abstract truths in order to build a stronger nation. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a coherent religion it does go a long way to fleshing out the philosophical underpinnings of the world outside the town of Hexwood, where Mark and his friends live. 

And there you have it. These were the first three major steps in fleshing out a world around my simply story about magic rocks. It barely scratches the surface of all the different things I tinkered with while building Hexwood‘s world and I’m sure more things will be added and subtracted in the days to come. But hopefully you enjoyed this little glance into the process and how just one idea can quickly spiral out into many layers of complexity if you just think about it for a bit. 

What? You wanted to read a story in that world? Well, Hexwood is a comic, you see. It’s not quite done with production although I can share the cover art with you here: 

But I don’t plan on publishing the script here. Still. Maybe we can work something out. Come back next week. You may be pleasantly surprised. 

Genrely Speaking: Weird Western

Boy oh boy we have not done this in a while. Long time readers know that genres are a thing that fascinate me, they are at once an attempt to codify stories and make discussing them easier and, at the same time, somewhat arbitrary groupings that carry different connotations among different people. For whatever reason the standards, exceptions and idiosyncrasies of genre classification entice me to think about stories through new lenses as I try and narrow down exactly what defines a story and its thematic content. Now all genres are broad categories and they tend to spawn a bunch of subgenres that narrow the scope to an extent, which for the purpose of Genrely Speaking are counted as regular genres rather than some beast of their own. A subgenre is almost narrow enough to be a useful tool for analysis rather than just a section in the library. 

That is, when it’s not just two genres pasted one on top of the other. 

Enter: The Weird Western. 

As the name implies this genre is built on a base of the Western. It has all the open horizons, independent lives and harsh consequences as that genre but it layers something… extra on top of that. That extra usually comes in the form of some kind of Space Opera or Low Fantasy (or, on rare occasions, some other Fantasy genre). On the one hand a Space Western can serve as a look at technology or social trends when they’re boiled down to just one or a handful of people surviving in harsh places. On the other a Fantasy Western takes many of the superstitions and traditions of the West and makes them real, living forces that the protagonists have to deal with on a daily basis. 

Given the many facets this broad genre can take I’m going to confine “weird western” to the realm of the second half of the blend, the Western with Low Fantasy, and refer to the first half as a Space Western. Note that this doesn’t rule out the Weird Space Western for the truly ambitious writer (see: Jack Irons, the Steel Cowboy.) Given this context, what are the pillars of the Weird Western? 

  1. Personification of the forces of change. This can take many forms, from clashes between Native American and European figures of myth to the personifications of railways directing expansion west to some kind of magical disaster driving people across the plains, some form of the supernatural will be involved in humanity’s move westward. This is true even if the Weird Western is set in some fictional world with no historical ties to the United States. One interpretation of this theme that I found particularly interesting was Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century, where zombies started slowly overrunning the West in a metaphor for the creeping dehumanization of mechanization. 
  2. Magic as a treasure to acquire. The West was a place where people grabbed for a great many things. Land, water, livestock, transportation and precious metals to name a few. While all of those things still hold value in most Weird Westerns most of the players in the story are more interested in magic, which serves as a stand in that simplifies and streamlines the many different conflicts of a traditional Western into something a modern audience can easily understand. As modern culture has moved away from the kinds of work that defined the Old West fights over pasture or farm land and the relentless expansion of the railways have lost some of their immediate impact. Many Americans today don’t even own their own property, much less property that they use to sustain themselves. They are more used to wealth and prosperity in the abstract, in terms of bank balance, investment and the like. Magic in a Weird Western typically serves as an analogy to these more familiar landmarks of prosperity and survival and frames the characters’ desires in a format modern readers instantly resonate with. 
  3. A focus on outsiders. While the Western has always had its love for characters from ‘outside’ communities, from the traveling gunfighter to the displaced veteran, they still tend to focus heavily on specific communities. High Noon, Shane and Tombstone all feature very, very local stories with mostly local casts adding maybe one or two outsiders to provide prospective or an audience vantage point. This makes the narrative a bit more grounded and lends the tale an air of believability (roving gunslingers were by far the exception in the West, after all). In Weird Westerns outsiders are often a much bigger part of the narrative, with large numbers of them roving the West in search of the things that make them powerful and effective. Or, on the flip side, the story may feature people who have been displaced from a quiet town or camp and forced into bigger, more mystical environments that they must then learn to survive in. This lends the Weird Western Genre a tendency to build casts of hunter gatherers, rather than farmers or miners. If not balanced properly it can undercut the Western feel of a story (see the novel A Few Souls More for an example of this). 

What are the weaknesses of the Weird Western? It combines two genres that have a limited appeal. The most popular flavors of fantasy are some kind of Modern or Urban Fantasy and High or Epic Fantasy while Western is a genre few people pay much attention to at all. The tropes and archetypes that define the genre just aren’t as immediate and appealing to most people as they used to be. 

The genre also runs a serious risk of doing too much to really excel at any one thing. Most Weird Westerns try to blend a magic system or two with building a realistic supernatural West, strong characters, historical events and real world cultures. They also need a good plot, the ability to write dialog that is at once snappy and somewhat archaic and a sense of the bittersweet nature of a vanishing frontier. The author needs to do all of these things while balancing them so neither half of the Weird/West balance overwhelms the other. It’s a hard genre to do well and not a lot of people will be excited even if you execute perfectly. 

What are the strengths of the Weird Western? Like many forms of fantasy it gives us the ability to examine difficult questions at a bit of a remove. But more than that, when done right it taps into a section of myth that is powerful and currently quite fresh and new to the modern mind. The West is also one of the best settings to juxtapose modern knowledge and understanding with the conflicts of might and right, civilization and nature. Many of the conflicts we face today are the same as were fought in the West, and with the supernatural to personify the clashing forces there’s much you can say quickly and easily in the Weird West. 

The biggest struggle in the Weird West is building a world that will hold both the supernatural and mundane human portions of the narrative. The West was a very specific place and time, as I’ve mentioned before, and you have to be careful how you introduce anything new to it if you wish to keep the defining elements of the Western present. It’s fun, for sure, but also a tricky challenge. There may be something to talk about there. Hm… maybe we’ll take a crack at that next week. 

Fantasy is Inescapable

One of the most common complaints a modern fantasist hears about his or her work is that fantasy stories are so incredibly trivial. By the same token every modern fantasist has written some kind of rebuttal to this notion. George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, each took up the standard in turn. Other authors, from bestsellers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King to lesser known talents like Bill Willingham and Larry Correia, have donned the mantel and defended the fantastical in turn. While I’ve looked at the question of why we love fantasy myself, years ago, I’ve never thought about how to defend the fantastical tale if I had to justify its existence. 

Even now I’m not sure why people question fantasy. We’re surrounded by things that evoke wonder every day. Sunrise and sunset, birth and death, history and nature, all hint at deeper truths that underpin the world as we know it. Humanity’s response to these deep truths has always been the fantastic. From the earliest days of recorded civilization we have had a very sophisticated and story driven way of grappling with the portions of the world beyond our comprehension. 

From the beginning of recorded history the fantastic has come and gone in the stories we read. Gilgamesh fought and befriended Enkidu, the wild man, and together they slew the Bull of Heaven. Then Enkidu died and his death drove Gilgamesh to seek immortality. In a nutshell we see the contest of man versus nature, the cost of building a civilization and how it drives men to memorialize these sacrifices in the fabric of their culture. A sociologist or anthropologist could discuss these concepts in terms of numbers, pressures or psychological drives and add a great deal to the overall picture. But in a single fantasy the basic concepts are expounded on and laid bare to the casual listener in a way no other kind of discussion can. 

The English language is no stranger to fantastic stories either. From the early days of King Arthur’s legends to the plays of Shakespeare, fantastic characters have given voice to such abstract forces as the legitimacy of rulers, the forces of nature and the human drive for vengeance. Edgar Allen Poe transformed the influence of a hostile and overprotective father into a garden of poison that would slowly kill or warp those who lived in it. George MacDonald transformed the battle between good and evil in the human heart into the slow, horrific distortion of the human body. All of these were serious stories for sober minded men attempting to understand the world as it is. They left their marks, great and small, in our own understanding of the world. But all pale before the king. 

The most influential novel in the English language is undoubtedly Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s been parodied or homaged in every long running TV show or, in the old days, radio play. It’s been adapted to stage and film more than any other story in the Western canon. Everyone from Sir Patrick Stewart to the Muppets has taken a crack at it. And on a very fundamental level, A Christmas Carol is a fantasy. 

Ebenezer Scrooge is surrounded by ghosts. These specters embody any and every idea about the human condition you could want – greed, generosity, family, loneliness, regret, past, present, future, death, redemption and second chances. All of these things have faces and voices – or a lack thereof – that makes their impact on Scrooge felt with greater strength than millions of pages of academic prattle about these concepts ever could. In fact, millions of pages of thoughts on A Christmas Carol undoubtedly exist, but none of it comes close to equaling the thing itself. 

And this is a truth paralleled in Dickens’ tale itself. Scrooge understands all the fundamentals of Christmas from the first word of the book. But that simple understanding is insufficient. Ebeneezer understands Christmas but he cannot live it until he meets with it. And he hasn’t met Christmas in such a long time that it will take something fantastic – or, in the book’s own words, wondrous – to effect that meeting. This is why the first words of the book remind us of a simple fact: Marley was dead, to begin with. And later on Dickens reiterates this theme with the following words: 

“There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” 

The meeting of Scrooge and Marley, seven years after Marley’s death, was a wonder that opened the door for Christmas to meet Scrooge as well. And it was this meeting that would turn the grasping, clutching covetous old sinner into a man who could live Christmas all the year round. A transformation easy to miss in the mundane world but obvious  to all when it speaks to us through fantasy. 

A Christmas Carol is one of the first stories I can clearly remember my mother reading to me. It was the first play I saw live on the stage. And, perhaps because of this, I have never once had an issue with abstract ideas like generosity or regret wearing a human face and speaking its own mind. Add in a lot of reading of myth in high school and I’ve always assumed fantasy is an integral part of human culture. We need to hear the voices of progress and nature, heroism and despair, judgement and redemption. We need these things to be more than abstracts, we need them to walk among us and talk to us before we can truly come to grips with them, as Ebeneezer Scrooge did. If giving voice to those concepts, if giving them the power to make their will known, somehow classifies my stories as fantasies then that is what they must be. That is how humans are best equipped to hear them and that is how I want to tell them. 

The Loss of Western Symbolism

So remember when I talked about the use of goblins as a metaphor for human frailty? Well I’ve been thinking a lot about modern failures to make effective use of traditional symbolism and I’ve reached an almost inevitable conclusion – many Western symbols have been undermined to the point where they are entirely useless as storytelling tools. Yes, a lot my thoughts of late have been returning to various themes and my essays will be reflecting this. So let’s talk about symbolism. 

Symbols are the bedrock of communication. Words are essentially symbols for abstract concepts. On a lower level, even letters are symbols for individual sounds. We string three letters together to write ‘cat’. Those symbols tell us to think of a specific series of sounds which in turn we connect to the concept of a domesticated animal that humans adopted for the purpose of shedding fur on all of our black clothing. Language is essentially symbolic. Imagine if I were to write a sentence where short grinder hammerhead portal normalize traffic wrangle. Nothing would make sense, right? I can’t just use a word and change the meaning it symbolizes to something else, that would strip all attempts at communication of meaning and purpose. 

Our larger scale cultural symbols are just as important and just as vital to cultural coherence as words are to coherent communication. So I’ve been thinking about them and mulling them over and asking myself – are we even trying to communicate the core of these symbols anymore? Or is one of the reasons our culture seems unable to cohere any longer because we’ve abandoned the language that’s supposed to be holding them together? 

As with many big questions of this nature I have few answers. But there are two interesting data points to look at: Monsters and Relics. Let’s break them down, shall we? 

Monsters 

I already talked some about the nature of monsters in fiction when I talked about Goblin Slayer but let’s look a little deeper. Beginning with the Greeks monsters were seen as symbols of the ills of the human condition. In fact, many monsters were a result of human misbehavior if not actual humans transformed for evil actions. As examples Arachne was transformed for her pride and Medusa for lust and adultery (and public fornication). 

Moving forward into medieval times we see interesting stories like Saint George and the Dragon, where a country is poisoned by the influence of an evil creature that is devouring their children. George captures and executes the beast and the country is converted to Christianity. It’s an interesting inversion of the Fisher King, where the ills of a country are personified rather than its health. But the material point is that the recovery of the land is tied to a new moral system, symbolized in George’s battle with the Dragon. 

A wonderful modern take on this symbolic application is George (not a dragon slayer) MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie, where a simple miner boy finds he has to fight an entire royal court that is slowly transforming into an army of monsters. Again, the transformation into monsters is driven by failings of character. 

But in modern tales there’s a strong resistance to allowing monsters to fill this symbolic purpose. Part of this comes from the creative desire to do something new, and rather than carve out new expressions of a symbolic theme many creators have chosen to just look at the symbols in a new light. Unfortunately that new light is almost entirely a literalistic one. Rather than look at monsters as metaphors almost all modern fantasies and fables try to grapple with monsters as stand-alone creatures that must be complete in and of themselves. 

Consider The Dragon Prince. The whole premise of this show is that there is an entire nation of exotic and fabled creatures brimming with magic and culture, and humans are locked in a struggle with them. There’s nothing wrong with that premise. But the story constantly invokes the symbology of dragons, complete with their hording, their vengefulness, their pride and their destructive temperament. And instead of overcoming them, the characters simply decide they must live with the dragons. 

And there’s a life lesson there, for sure. You will meet people like this, and you will have to live with them. But what this take on the symbolism of monsters misses is that, while classic monsters cannot exist without humanity, neither can humanity exist without monsters. 

The pat, easy answer of The Dragon Prince is that our difficulties are primarily external. They stem from misunderstandings or an unwillingness to compromise, not from flaws of character we must grapple with and overcome. But this kind of simplistic externalizing of internal struggles is far and away the norm these days, robbing a powerful symbol of its cultural impact. 

Relics 

This isn’t really the best word for what I’m getting at, as a ‘relic’ generally refers an item of some kind of great cultural or spiritual significance whereas here I mainly refer to items that take the measure of a man. Again, in early myths we see relics as measures time and again. The most common measure these relics took was the worthiness of a ruler. That’s seen in early forms in things such as the Golden Fleece but probably most significantly in the swords of King Arthur. Both the Sword in the Stone and Excalibur (when they aren’t the same sword, your legend may vary) are weapons that only worthy men can acquire. This was kind of a theme in the British Isles, as the Dyrnwyn was another, lesser known British sword that supposedly burst into a flaming weapon in the hands of a worthy man. Additional British relics include a whetstone that would only give sharp weapons to brave men, a coat that only fit the brave, and a mantle that only reached the ground on a woman who had honored her marriage vows. 

We see this theme in legends of the Norse as well. Modern culture brings to mind Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, which only the thunder god was supposedly strong enough to lift – but in the ancient legends the weapon wasn’t limited in that way. In fact, it was stolen more than once. But Sigmund the Volsung also acquired a magic sword which only he could only pull free. The sword is as much a curse to Sigmund as a blessing but does serve as a mark of his exceptional nature as acknowledged by Odin. 

Of course the relic as measure of a man is a symbol we see in modern fiction as well. Even in the very recent examples of the MCU it’s everywhere. Not only is there the modern interpretation of Mjolnir but there’s Captain America’s shield, an item he receives in acknowledgement of his status as America’s greatest soldier and can only use effectively because of his skill and intelligence, and even Iron Man’s armor, which he wields by virtue of his scientific brilliance and character (such as it is). 

However, even the relic is beginning to fall from grace. In the MCU, Mjolnir was destroyed and Thor had to learn to do without it. In the Hard Magic novel series there are relics which serve to keep magic safe and usable but, eventually, are destroyed in favor of making magic more accessible. In fact, in many urban fantasy series relics that take the measure of their user get subverted into items that restrain their owner, a kind of shackle that keeps their owners on a preset path. In other cases they’re simply powerless items used to prop up shams or pretenders. 

Where the transformation of the monster is a somewhat understandable outgrowth of a more literal minded culture and the creative mind’s constant striving for new takes on old stories, the subversion of the relic strikes me as more an outgrowth of the dreaded postmodernism. A weapon like Excalibur cannot actually measure a person’s worthiness to rule so it has to be a prop intended to make people appear worthy to rule. The loss we suffer from this kind of perspective is pronounced. 

One of the things a relic as a symbol for worthiness can easily illustrate is why we must be cautious with those who are entrusted with power. All the British relics that measure worthiness inflict consequences on those who attempt to use them but are unworthy. Consider the cook pot – brave men can eat from it but cowards will starve. So be brave! Keep yourself and your community fed! Relics create an immediate sense of what the stakes are for having or not having the qualities they measure. Subverting them as a symbol for virtue internalizes something that should be external – if what we need comes from within ourselves or is just an idea we project onto the item to justify ourselves then, in almost paradoxical fashion, the consequences of falling short of that standard are no long our fault but the fault of our circumstances. Cowardice isn’t what led us to starve, there simply wasn’t a brave person here to get food and share it with us. Or perhaps we were just caught up in how society told us we should eat instead of considering new ways of thinking about meals (like food poisoning!) 

There are a lot of reasons to want to tweak things like symbolism in your storytelling. But every time this is done it’s like assigning a new meaning to a word. The more it’s done, the more overworn the word or symbol becomes and the harder it is to clearly convey the other concepts the word addresses. That’s a loss for communication, and it really needs to stop. Our symbolic language is part of our culture, part of how we share ideas, and if we lose it then art and culture become that much harder to propagate.

Five Betrayals of Alita’s Character in the Battle Angle Movie

A couple of years ago I wrote a breakdown on the failures of the movie Alita: Battle Angle to properly translate the villain of Yukito Kishiro’s manga (Gunmn in the Japanese, Battle Angle Alita for us English speakers). For a while I considered doing a full breakdown of that adaptation and all the many ways it failed but ultimately I didn’t want to spend any more money or time on a film that fell so short of what I wanted. So I forgot about it. 

Then they decided to rerelease the film in theaters.  

This could be a last ditch attempt to salvage the theater industry by pumping old films back into them. I know many fans of Alita hope this will lead to a sequel. What these people need to understand is that, even if they get a sequel, they will not get what they want. The Alita film does not understand the characters of its source material and it cannot develop them effectively. While Alita and her friends were not horribly betrayed like Nova was I don’t really believe James Cameron can effectively develop the story – this is the man who wrote Avatar after all. Beyond that, I don’t think he wants to develop the story of Alita, I think he is using the visuals Kishiro developed to try and tell his own story that, as I said before, is trite and overplayed these days. If my breakdown of Nova didn’t convince you of that, or you just don’t want to go back and read that post, here are five ways Cameron betrayed the heroine’s character in his film. 

  1. Movie Alita fails to learn. While manga Alita is not a genius like Nova or Ido she does learn and grow from the things she experiences. In fact she quickly picks up on Nova’s headgames and does her best to work around them. She rarely succeeds, as Nova is a truly formidable villain, but she does learn and grow. Movie Alita doesn’t seem to learn her enemies’ gambits at all. In fact, even though Vector’s deal to send Hugo to Zalem proves to be a flat out lie she immediately turns around and trusts that Motorball champions get to go to Zalem, even though this promise ultimately comes from the exact same place. Zalem itself. It makes her look incredibly stupid and shows that she’s not at all the same character as Kishiro’s heroine. 
  2. Movie Alita shows no compassion to her enemies. From the end of her encounter with Makaku, manga Alita showed the ability to form an understanding of her enemies and shows a deep sense of compassion for their circumstances and how they reached the place they did. She still defeats them but rarely does she fail to acknowledge their humanity. There are a few instances where Alita completely dismisses her opponents and just fights them senselessly and when she does it’s a moral failing on her part. Instead it is her acts of compassion, not her acts of violence, that have the biggest impact on the world and ultimately defeat Nova. Movie Alita never shows this connection with or sympathy for the evil people she must dispatch. She is far less humane than she should be. Worse, she executes Vector in cold blood when he poses no threat to her at all. This deprives Vector of his opportunity to grow and transform into a major pillar of society future as Kishiro’s Vector did. In spite of the many failures of the movie elsewhere Vector’s murder is what ultimately convinced me Cameron didn’t understand Alita. 
  3. Movie Alita cannot face the lessons of Motorball. The unfortunate truth is, by transforming Motorball into just another obstacle between Alita and Nova, the movie abandons the lesson Motorball teaches manga Alita. In the manga Motorball was one of the lowest points in Alita’s life. After losing Hugo she dives into Motorball so she can find a way to indulge her violent impulses without running into trouble. Except ultimately Alita does run in to trouble, and leaves the sport after a resounding defeat at the hands of Emperor Jashugan. She’s warned by her former teammate that she’s bad for the sport because she never came there for Motorball but just because she was seeking selfish fulfillment and that makes it impossible for her to be a true Motorball player. This rebuke was a decisive moment where Alita began to overcome her selfish impulses. Add in the low likelihood that Jashugan will decisively defeat Alita if he’s a barrier between movie Alita and Nova, thus depriving her of an insurmountable obstacle, there’s little chance movie Alita will get any of the value Motorball brought to manga Alita. 
  4. Movie Alita will never face her karma. In the manga Alita’s intervention between Zapan and Hugo was fundamentally unjust. Manga Zapan went looking for the spine thief by posing as a victim and trying to capture Hugo when Hugo tried to steal his spine. Manga Hugo never changed direction and thus earned his comeuppance from Zapan. Tearing Zapan’s face off was a grave injustice driven by Alita’s selfish blindness to Hugo’s evil actions. When Zapan and Alita fought again later on Alita was forced to face all the destruction her selfishness caused to both Zapan and her community. By allowing movie Hugo to turn over a new leaf and turning Zapan into a disgruntled rival who hunted Hugo as a sideways way to get back at Alita, the movie incarnation of Alita will not grow through facing the consequences of a significant selfish action. 

WARNING – SPOILERS FOR THE BATTLE ANGLE ALITA MANGA 

  1. Movie Alita cannot accept the Secret of Zalem. It’s a significant manga plot point that Zalem removes the biological brain of its citizens and replaces them with solid state computer chips. Zalemites are not told this substitution takes place. In typical cyberpunk fashion, once they learn this fact most Zalemites suffer mental breakdowns as they grapple with their sense of self and what this substitution might mean about what they are. Many Earth bound humans are also repulsed by this fact. There are three characters utterly unphased by this revelation – Lou (unimportant to this analysis), Alita and Nova. Nova’s sense of ego overrides any sense of humanity in the traditional sense, he’s far too monstrous to bother with the physical pieces that make up bodies, even his own, he’s lost in the intellectual challenges he wants to tackle. Conversely by the time Alita learns the secret of Zalem she’s developed such a sense of compassion for others that she treasures humanity no matter what physical parts make it up. Without the final secret of Zalem to bring out this part of her character Alita cannot reach the zenith of her character or show her ultimate contrast with her villain. And the hard reality is, movie Zalem does not use brain chips. Nova, Ido and the rest all have normal meat brains. How do I know this? Because we see Chiren after she’s been broken down for parts by Vector and her brain is clearly visible. Chiren is supposedly from Zalem. Thus brain chips are definitely off the table and with them the Secret of Zalem. 

SPOILERS END HERE 

Now I know, it’s possible to have two stories start in the same place and end in completely different places. Keep a hero the same and change the villain and you can still tell a compelling story, just with your hero growing in different and new ways. And I suppose that means an Alita sequel could be a decent film, even if it’s got nothing to do with Kishiro’s tale. But my core premise has and always will be, that Alita: Battle Angel should have been a retelling of Yukito Kishiro’s classic cyberpunk manga. Not Susan Collins’ dystopian YA novels. Not Cameron’s Avatar with cyborgs instead of blue people. But the latter two are closer to what we got. As far as I’m concerned Cameron can keep it.