Firespinner Chapter Six – Thunderbird

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A lively stream cut through the ridge on the opposite side, ran down into the heart of the valley and turned, following the valley out of sight. It was a picturesque sight, except for the crackling amorphous creature flying back and forth over the stream occasionally shedding a lightning bolt from its wings. In truth only the core of the creature was protean, the rest of the body – head, beak, wings and talons – were well defined, if given to bending or distorting in odd ways when they moved as if the creature had no bones or joints. Which it didn’t.

“Ignis Fatuus, we’re lucky it didn’t see us,” Roy muttered, watching the thunderbird warily over the crest of the hill. “We might be able to get the drop on it.”

“Do we really have to fight that thing?” Nora asked, looking askance at the beast. “It looks like more trouble than it’s worth.”

“A fine question.” Roy looked to Grunt. “How long to go around?”

“If we want to keep going north east?” The big man thought about it for a moment. “‘At least six hours, maybe as long as a day. Depends on the route we take and if we run into anything there. Mountain lions are pretty common up here but they’re not as big a deal as a Sasquatch. Those’ll bury you with rock slides before you ever see ’em.”

“Are they hostile?” Roy asked.

“Just hungry,” Grunt replied. “Always hungry.”

“But also rare this far south,” Reeds added. “I don’t think we’ll see one until winter takes hold. Either way we don’t have time to go around. It’s about a day and a half from here to Mete’s Grave, we can’t afford a side trip.”

“Are we sure the thunderbird wants to fight us?” O’Hara asked. “It looks almost totally elemental. Those kinds of creatures rarely take note of humans.”

“Thunderbirds aren’t natural creatures,” Roy said. “They’re created via Tetzlanii blood rituals and given a purpose during their creation. Traditionally they’re used as guards. Add in the fact that blood rituals are almost always malevolent and yeah, I think it’s pretty likely the thing will fight us if it sees us.”

“It’s Tetzlanii?” O’Hara frowned. “What kind of wards did they use to contain them? I have most of the major ones with my tile board.”

“As I understand it the blood ties it back to the ritualist somehow, no wards, charms or geas needed to control it,” Roy said. “Besides, tile magic is earth and fire, thunderbirds are air and water. Magics without a common elemental factor tend to mix poorly.”

“And I’m afraid water can’t hold any kind of pattern for long so it’s not used in the Teutonic tradition at all,” Reeds said. “I don’t suppose any of you are hiding secret talents as a stone singer?”

Marshall puffed himself up, spread his arms theatrically and exhaled in dramatic fashion.

“That’s a no,” Grunt said. He glanced at Roy and took note of the way he was fingering his necklace. “Why don’t you just do your freezing trick to it, Roy?”

The wendingo bone beads were cool to the touch, free from the malice of their old owner but still so very, very hungry. “We’ll keep that as a court of last resort. But I do think focusing on the water half of a thunderbird is the best bet. It’s easier to disperse the vessel of a spell than counter its driving force anyways. Here’s what we’re going to do.”


Grunt and Roy scrambled down the side of the valley. In spite of Grunt’s extra hundred pounds of size and two handed weapon he made the descent far more gracefully than Roy did. He easily slid down patches of grass, leapt over stretches of loose stones and levered himself around small trees, where Roy seemed to get caught on every unseen root or hidden rock outcropping. But the army taught Roy years ago that he was a city slicker through and through so he was used to it. The goal was to make sure the thunderbird didn’t notice them and in that he succeeded.

Climbing up the other side of the gorge was more difficult.

For starters he’d removed the buckler from his belt and drawn his sword. Like many things in his life, Roy’s weapons were custom built to mesh with his powers. The buckler had a large eight stone crystal set in the center giving him a lot of raw firepower to draw from, a nice option to improve on the defensive qualities of the light shield or a midrange offense as needed. The sword was a falcata, a heavy chopping weapon for close combat and an effective platform for catapulting fireballs long distances. They gave him plenty of options for fighting at all ranges, the first concern of a firespinner at work. Terrible gear for a soldier in the bush, trying to move quietly and communicate via hand signals.

Worse, Grunt kept picking his way up using one hand to climb, the other all that he needed to balance his sword over his shoulder, blazing a path that Roy, with only half of one hand free, had a hard time following. Roy was pretty sure Grunt kept juggling his sword from one hand to the other just to rub it in. Still, for all the problems of climbing the gorge they made it almost all the way to the second ridge line without drawing the thunderbird’s attention.

Once there they settled in to watch. Roy did his best to contain his impatience. They’d already lost the better part of an hour crossing the valley and he was very aware of how little time they had overall. But as they said in the army, serenity was akin to alacrity. So they waited and watched.

After ten minutes it was clear the thunderbird was circling over the cleft in the ridge where the small river cut through on its way down the mountain. It never veered off into the valleys on either side of the ridge or went further along the rise in either direction. Reeds said they should follow the river to reach Mete’s Grave.

The thunderbird being there couldn’t be a coincidence. They needed to get rid of it.

Roy signaled Grunt to get ready then started to work his way along the ridge towards the river. After a minute or so the thunderbird took note and swept over him, circling in predatory fashion. Grunt leapt to his feet and his sword roared to life, bronze blade gleaming, flame pouring from its fuller.

The thunderbird shrieked. The earsplitting noise started higher than a train whistle and dropped down to a bone rattling boom. As the tone dropped the creature swooped down out of the air towards Grunt. He raised his sword point towards the elemental and the weapon spat a stream of fire at the thunderbird. The thunderbird jerked away from the assault but towards Roy, who was already pulling fire from the sulfurite in his shield, forming it into a wall to block the elemental from retreating. Caught between the two men’s attacks the body of the thunderbird began rippling with steam. It crackled in pain.

Roy and Grunt moved forward, pressing the creature between their fiery weapons. But the creature wasn’t stupid. It dodged and weaved with frightening speed, skirting the stream of flame from Grunt’s direction and swooping away across the valley in a flash of barely perceptible movement. It stopped in a crack of thunder right before colliding with the faint shimmer that marked O’Hara’s spell walls. Maybe it knew the wall was there, in spite of its near invisibility, maybe that was as far as it could go and maybe it just noticed the rest of the group waiting there, behind O’Hara’s wards.

Grunt turned and made to start down the slope, as if he had a chance of getting back to that side of the valley in time to do anything. “Wait here!” Roy yelled. Grunt shot him a questioning look. “Lighting falls and returns! Reeds can handle it, we’ll catch it on the return stroke!”

But Roy had made one mistake. It was a natural one, but a mistake none the less. Grunt told him one of the brothers worked magic and later Roy learned that brother was Reeds. He was also the brother who could talk. And at some point Roy had just started thinking Reeds was the active one of the pair, that when push came to shove Reeds did what needed doing and his brother was some kind of moral or spiritual support. He realized how wrong that assumption was when Marshall leapt up on top of the spellwall, meeting the thunderbird as it started to cross over the barrier.

One of the elemental’s talons lashed out at him, raking crackling gashes into the spellwall. Marshall met the blow with the obsidian head of his warclub, the simple but brutally effective weapon of Sanna braves. Man and beast strained against each other for a split second, an ominous energy building between them, then erupted into an exchange of a dozen sizzling attacks, deflections, blocks and counters, all in the space of a single breath.

It was so fast Roy only caught glimpses of the exchange in afterimages. Looking away was unthinkable. But Roy forced himself to do it anyway, swapping his sword and shield hands with practiced efficiency. Then he tossed the shield to his partner saying, “Grunt, discus!”

Grunt shifted his greatsword to his offhand and caught the buckler then turned the motion into a spinning throw that send the shield arcing across the valley. It wouldn’t quite make it to the spellwall but got close before it started to drop. When it did Roy reached out to the sulfurite set in it and asked the fire there to come out.

The fire power within burst out in a massive wave of flame and heat that washed over the thunderbird with a violent hiss. The blast almost pulled the creature apart in a cloud of steam but its wings beat the air and it gained enough altitude to get far enough away from the dissipating fireball to pull itself back together.

Sensing weakness Marshall threw his club at the struggling elemental and it flashed away again. But as Roy had told Grunt, the creature was forced to return to where it had been a moment ago, just as a lightning bolt that falls from the sky must return to the clouds.

As soon as the thunderbird vanished Roy’s iron dagger left its sheath. Once it reappeared in the air just over his head he threw it before he heard the clap heralding the creature’s return. The point of the dagger buried itself into the creatures body just below the wing. The thunderbird let out an electrical shriek then burst with an incredible sound that Roy felt more than heard. He and Grunt were thrown to the ground as water driven by the creatures sudden death lashed against them like knives.

For the second time in as many days Roy found himself staring up at the sky and getting wet with no clear notion how he got there. Apparently the thunderbird’s death had prompted the clouds to start raining. Rather than sit there and get water in his eyes he got back to his feet again. The ringing in his ears pulsed for a moment or two, eventually settling into time with the throbbing in his ribs to remind him that working as a professional violent man had steep costs associated with it.

He was gratified to see that O’Hara’s group was making their way across the valley. The brothers were currently helping Nora and O’Hara get their mounts across the river. Roy tried to get Grunt’s attention but couldn’t hear himself over the ringing and assumed it was the same for his friend. So he started searching the top of the ridge on his own.

After about five minutes of looking he heard a distant voice saying, “What are you doing? We need to keep moving.”

It was O’Hara, getting down from her bushwalker with a jar of something in one hand. Roy shook his head, trying to clear the ringing a little, then said, “First we need to bury the heart. If we don’t there are complications.”

“Heart?” She gestured Grunt over and applied some kind of salve to his ears. “What heart? Elementals don’t have hearts, Mr. Harper. They’re just blobs of power and medium.”

“It’s a human heart, O’Hara.” He tapped his chest for emphasis. “Blood ritual, remember? The only way I’ve seen to make a thunderbird involves taking a beating heart from a living person. That kind of thing was why the Esperians burned all the blood ritual records they could find.”

“What happens if we don’t bury this heart?” Reeds asked.

“Hauntings. People drown in their sleep even if they’re nowhere near water. Eventually people get struck by lightning on clear days. Nasty stuff.” Roy pulled a small flame from one cufflink and used it to illuminate the ground beneath a thick clump of bushes. “You should be able to find it by smell, they’re not exactly fresh. Even if they are still beating.”

He glanced up in time to see Marshall holding his nose and shaking his head. “He says the creature did not smell when he was near it,” Reeds clarified. “Or at least he didn’t notice it. Neither did I.”

“I didn’t notice anything either,” Grunt added, scooping the gunk back out of his ears. “You gotta try this stuff, Harp.”

“Later.” Roy smelled his clothes in a few places, searching for the telltale stench of the bloodwater that made up the bodies of thunderbirds. To his surprise he found nothing. “Right, that is strange. It’s not a mild scent, it should still be obvious even with the thing dead.”

Roy pulled his light back and tucked it away in his cufflink again. “I don’t know what happened here but I want to find out.”

“You said these things aren’t natural,” Nora said. “Could the druid you mentioned have conjured the creature? Maybe he blended the Tetzlanii ritual with some kind of druidic magic?”

“That’s exactly what worries me,” he admitted.

“In that case maybe this was part of it?” O’Hara held up an odd crystalline sliver about as thick as one of her fingers. A gold band ran around the circumference about a third of the way up its length. “We found it on the way across the valley.

The crystal was a dark, smokey gray shot through with faint sky blue streaks. Roy took it and turned it over in his hands. The hair on the back of them stood out straight. “Well, well, well, someone found a chunk of fulminite.”

“What’s fulminite?” Nora asked.

“It’s like sulfurite,” O’Hara said, “except it holds the power of the air rather than fire. And no one knows an easy way to recharge it. Or any way short of standing in a storm and hoping you get struck by lightning. I’ve never heard of anyone pulling it off.”

“If it functions like sulfurite the crystal glows brighter the more power that’s in it,” Roy said, peering into the crystal’s depths. “So it must be pretty well spent.”

“Could this take the place of the heart in the blood ritual?” Reeds asked.

“I don’t know.” Roy tucked the crystal into the inside pocket of his jacket. “But it could.”

“Sounds like a very druidic thing to do,” Grunt said. “They like messing with power sources and plugging them into new mediums. That’s how they found so many different kinds of trees they could manipulate.”

“So you think this creature was created by General Oldfathers?” Reeds asked.

“It’s not simple or easy magic to do,” Roy said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of people in the frontier counties that could do it but he’s the only one we know of nearby.”

O’Hara studied Roy for a moment. “How do you know so much about these thunderbirds anyways? Could you make one?”

“I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of work for a lot of different people,” he said. “But I couldn’t make a thunderbird. Even if I could predict a lightning strike and had an alter carved and ready to take the blood, I don’t think I could bring myself to rip someone’s heart out just to make one of the foul tempered things.”

“And on that reassuring note,” Ben said, “let’s get out of this coalstoking rain.”

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.