Firespinner Chapter Twelve – Farewells at Last Light

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

“Not a problem, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not even an old Lakeshire officer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, thank you,” Oldfathers said.

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

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

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

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

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

Felt something solid there.

And pulled out Pellinore’s Journal.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy muttered.

Grunt burst out laughing.

“This isn’t funny.”

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

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

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

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

Firespinner Chapter Eleven – The Day in Balance

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In unison both of them said, “Ket!”

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

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

He grunted noncomittally. “Easier said than done.”

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

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

One shattered into splinters.

The others lurched back into motion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lifted into the air on Grunt’s shoulders.

And flew towards Andrew at speed.

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Roy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepped in to slash at the relic.

And got shocked in the leg before he got close.

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

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

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

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

And that was when Roy had it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firespinner Chapter Eight – The Oath

Previous Chapter

It was the same face, but different.

The lines matched the drawing from the war, but their course over his face ran deeper and broader than in the picture. The eyes reflecting the firelight were dulled with clouds, not cold as the winter sky. Whiskers overran their proper places on lip and chin, clawing up cheeks and over ears enough to hide most of his face from casual view.

But Roy knew.

He remembered that day on Briarheart Ridge. When a single officer in the uniform of the Lakeshire militia crested the breastworks at the top of the ridge, the branches of countless maple trees waving behind him. Roy had seen the man’s face through the blood spattered telescope lens he’d take from Captain Colbert’s body. He’d watched the general start down the ridge, walking as one with the forest. And ordered his men to run like death itself chased them.

“Hezekiah Oldfathers,” Roy whispered.

The camp exploded into motion, Reeds bringing his hands together in a charm as his brother put his body and mace between Oldfathers and the rest. Grunt loomed up behind the brothers, fumbling a fresh sulfurite crystal into his sword. O’Hara pulled Nora down partway behind a large rock for cover.

Roy opened himself to the fire.

The branches and logs flash burned, leaving nothing but ash in the space of a breath, and the flames leapt upwards. Roy shaped them into a burning T shape that towered nearly to the top of the overhang, arms spread wide to react to any threat the old druid might offer.

But Oldfathers did nothing.

He just stood there, half shadowed in the night, and watched them with something between amusement and resignation. For a moment the tableau held. Finally he said, “I’m old, son, but if you think a Columbian regular can kill me with one of those shoddy swords that won’t even lock in sulfurite anymore, you’ve another thing coming. Which would be a pity, I’m not here to fight you.”

That might even be true. He didn’t stand before a massive tree line that had crept up on them in the dark. A glance up confirmed no ivy or tree roots dug through the stone overhang to strangle them, no bushes waited to topple over the edge on their heads. The druid had caught them unawares but brought none of his traditional weapons.

It would be reassuring if they weren’t camped in the middle of a forest.

Roy reminded himself that this was more than a chance encounter with a wanted man. This was a master of the craft standing on the cusp of a legend made manifest. Nothing was as it seemed. But whatever goals the general brought to the table they didn’t seem to involve fighting with Roy or his group. At least not at the moment. The fire lapsed back down to its original shape, Roy pushing the extra energy he’d forcibly extracted from the kindling into the small pile of sulfurite crystals half buried in the ash of the firepit. But he never took his eyes from the man just outside the circle of firelight.

“What brings you here, General Oldfathers?” Roy asked.

“Courtesy and compassion,” the druid answered without hesitation. “I’ve just come from Yellowstone and I heard things there you’ll want to know.”

Grunt gave Roy a look, lowered his sword when the other nodded and moved to push a few new logs into the fire with his foot. Roy let the flames take hold on the new fuel source and let them go from his mind, ignoring their lonely whispers. With the magic no longer weighing on him Roy found himself exhausted. But he refused to let Oldfathers see it. “Why should I believe anything you say?”

“Why doubt me?” Oldfathers stepped into the circle of firelight. Something shifted as he did so, as if a watchful presence had relaxed. “Are we enemies?”

Marshall stepped forward, touching the head of his club to the General’s chest. Both men paused, studying one another, and Oldfathers held his hands out, palms up, a cane dangling from the thumb of his left hand.

Roy stepped forward and moved Marshall gently to one side. Oldfathers raised one eyebrow but didn’t say anything as Roy started looking him over. The cane was a solid piece of living silver. At first Roy had thought it was just tin swift with a single sulfurite setting, handy for a little extra oomph when walking about. But on closer inspection it had the sheen of silver and the crystal set in the handle was big enough that the druid could easily reshape it into anything he wanted. There was nothing in the brim or band of his plain, brown cap. He wore a neckerchief in a hunter’s knot. His worn, green jacket was damp from the rain but, as it had slowed to a drizzle, wasn’t soaking and was otherwise unremarkable. There was a pocket watch in his vest pocket but no weapons in his belt unless you counted the three glowing fulminite crystals in the loops over his right hip.

There were four loops in the belt, Roy noticed. One was empty.

He grunted and filed that away then turned out the general’s pockets. Just a few coins there. Last he checked the boots – or, rather, boot as Oldfathers had lost his right leg at the knee at some point and now it was just a hickory peg. The boot contained a lot of leg and nothing else. There was nothing at all untoward on his person, which was almost more suspicious than the druid showing up with his pockets full of incense and a belt full of weapons.

Unsatisfied but curious, Roy moved out of the way and gestured to the fire. “Take a seat, General?”

“A man after my own heart,” Oldfathers said with a rueful grin as he straightened his clothes. “I applaud your sense of caution.”

Roy just glared at him. O’Hara cleared her throat and asked, “Why do you make it sound as if you came looking for us?”

“Because I did. Or, at least, I did if you’re the group I think you are.” Nora had returned to her previous seat and Oldfathers sat by her, saying, “You are Mrs. Blythe, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The widow studied him with surprising innocence. “I can’t imagine what business you have with me, General.”

“Well, I’m afraid your older son has slipped out of town this afternoon.” Oldfathers took one of her hands gently in both of his. “Now I want you to stay calm. The situation is probably not what you think it is.”

If the general was trying to get Nora’s anger to override her fear then he was succeeding. She jerked her hands away from him, saying, “Calm? My sons are entrapped by ancient Sanna bedtime stories and I’m just supposed to stay calm?”

Oldfathers blinked once. “Perhaps the situation is what you think it is.” He glanced at Marshall and Reeds. “Perhaps that’s not surprising.”

Roy settled on a nearby rock that gave him a direct line to the druid. “Why is this any concern of yours?”

“Why?” His eyebrows shot up. “A child goes missing and I’m not supposed to be concerned? You clearly know about Yose and Mete and you think the stirring of such an ancient power wouldn’t worry any practitioner of the craft worth his implements?”

Roy scowled at Oldfathers over the fire, looking downright hostile in the shadows. “Why should it matter? These legends often stir the local elementals a bit and they can cause problems. But why would a druid – trained by and in line to inherit a stone circle – come all this way because of one local legend?”

Oldfathers’ gaze sild over to Reeds for a moment, then back again. “They haven’t told you, have they?”

Roy also glanced at Reeds, who was looking uncomfortable. But he also looked past Reeds to Marshall, who nodded. “What haven’t they told me? That Yose’s spirit sleeps in the lake by Yellowstone? That his brother sleeps here on the mountain, by the nawonota-“

He froze, mind jumping forward a dozen steps then backtracking to examine each step in the logic. A nawonota was a talisman that defended against evil spirits. None of the Noble Metals could effect a spirit so those kinds of defenses weren’t part of Vulcanic magic, the tradition he knew the most about, but Tetzlanii magic worried about spirits a great deal and they didn’t repel spirits, like a druid might use incense to repel trees. Instead the Tetzlanii trapped them for use in other rituals. If the Sanna used the same method the nawonota might be some kind of spiritual pit trap.

And Reeds said Yose and Mete were equals. The older brother was vulna, an avatar of the First Elements, and no longer strictly human. That implied the younger was vulna as well. That was a powerful thing to trap, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. And an avatar was already part spirit so the journey all the way there was easier than normal, as Yose’s fate proved. “Mete’s spirit is trapped in the nawonota, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Reeds said. “I thought you understood.”

He really should have. All the pieces were there but he hadn’t put them together because he’d focused on Oldfathers instead. “Okay, he’s in the nawonota. I don’t know anything about how those work, so what does it mean that he’s trapped there?”

“Nawonota are not designed to destroy or cleanse,” Reeds said. “They contain until a medicine man can prepare the rites to cleanse the spirits and send them to rest.”

“Based on stories the Stone Circle collected in the early days of the Columbian settlement I have reason to believe Mete is the avatar for the Bones of Enkidu,” Oldfathers said. “That alone is enough to make him dangerous even in death. But there’s also evidence to suggest the legend of his battle with his brother has played out at least twice a century since they fought.”

“How long ago was that?” O’Hara asked.

“The Sanna don’t keep time quite like we do,” the druid said.

But Reeds interrupted him before he could continue. “The Brothers cycle has played out at least a dozen times, perhaps as many as twenty. The tribes in this part of the land have kept the stories and agree on that.”

Oldfathers nodded. “That roughly matches the Stone Circle’s count, which is either fifteen or sixteen iterations. And each time a pair of powerful brothers fights, the younger dies and his spirit is taken into the nawonota.”

“So there’s more than one iteration of the story trapped there?” Grunt asked. “Or have they all fused into one super spirit?”

“We can’t know until we see it,” Reeds said, “but whatever the outcome I doubt we will find a rational, human spirit left. The Bones of Enkidu will be all that is there.”

“Sorry,” Nora put it, “but what’s the significance of these bones?”

“Enkidu was the first wild man,” Oldfathers said. “He rejected civilization and destroyed cities wherever he found them. As an avatar of the Unshakeable Foundation he represents the earth in general and humanity’s origins in the wild state of nature in particular. My understanding was that, in the original legends, Mete was balanced by his brother who was avatar for the Spark of Creation, though it’s unclear which. But Yose hasn’t had any way to fuse with his successive iterations like Mete has. If they meet again they’re not going to be in any way equal. Yose will face generations of powerful warriors alone.”

“That is not an issue so long as the nawonota contains Mete,” Reeds said. “But nawonota are not meant to stand alone. They’re meant as part of a household’s defenses, and a household is intended as part of a tribe. Without the support of these greater patterns of power any nawonota, no matter how well made, will fail and release its prisoners on the world. Mete must be cleansed and sent on before that happens.”

Roy’s attention flicked to Marshall, who looked uncharacteristically grave, and decided it was best they leave that line of discussion for the time being. “So let me see if I follow your plan, General Oldfathers. You learned the Brothers legend was waking and came here to do something about it before Mete got out of his prison.”

“Protecting Arthur’s legacy is one of my duties, yes,” he confirmed. “Can’t do that if a wild man tears the civilization he founded apart, can I?”

“Fair enough. You clearly had some plan in place to do that. Want to share it with us?”

He hesitated for a moment but Nora leaned forward, hands clasped, and said, “Please, General.”

“Very well. I deployed various methods to slow your son’s progress up the mountain along the most likely routes Thomas could take, although with the aid of Yose there’s little chance they will endanger him. With the time that buys me I intend to confront and purify Mete and end the cycle before your sons meet in battle.” Oldfathers gestured vaguely down the ridges. “I tracked Thomas a little ways out of Yellowstone and it’s likely that he’s following the same route you did, so he’s going to run into a powerful elemental I conjured a couple of ridges down. You probably saw it overhead this morning.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence around the campfire. “About that,” Roy said. “We certainly saw it.”

Oldfathers studied him for a second. “And after seeing it?”

“Thunderbirds are not exactly benevolent creatures, General. We dispersed it.”

The general huffed in annoyance. “Well. I can’t blame you for that, I suppose, they are typically hostile and dangerous.”

“How did you not notice?” O’Hara demanded.

“I spent most of this afternoon collecting the measures I placed on other parts of the mountain, so they wouldn’t pose a danger to anyone else later.” Oldfathers crossed his arms and stared into the fire in a fit of pique. “I’ll have to set up something else tomorrow.”

“I think not, General,” Roy said.

When he didn’t continue, O’Hara leaned in to say something but Grunt put a hand on her arm and gently moved her back. Roy got to his feet and moved to the edge of the overhang, turning his back to the fire, and looked out at the rain, which had come back for a second showing. But he wasn’t really paying attention to it.

When he’d gotten on the Express a few days ago he’d been expecting to help an old friend take care of something simple, like chasing off squatters, rounding up some bandits or maybe hunting a griffon or two. Running down a bounty, even a big one like Hezekiah Oldfathers, was a step up from that but not a drastic one. Until that moment he’d kept hold of the hope that they could catch or kill Oldfathers and be done with the matter. Ever since he’d had his first brush with the raw power of the First Elements back in Tetzlan he’d been trying to avoid them and their avatars, with only middling success. Clearly this trip was going to go into the failure column of that reckoning.

On the one hand he could walk off the mountain the next morning and let the general try whatever he wanted, regardless of the consequences. On the other hand, Grunt and Mrs. Blythe would be right there on ground zero and Roy couldn’t see anything good coming of that regardless of whether Oldfathers succeeded or failed. No matter how he sliced it, ignoring the presence of a wanted man about to acquire a legendary spirit that equaled or surpassed him in malevolence wasn’t an option. Which left only one good alternative that Roy could think of.

He turned and moved back to his seat. Grunt handed him a cup of coffee as he got settled, which Roy took with an appreciative nod. “So,” Grunt said. “How bad is it? Clay Creek? The Wilderness? Five Ridges?”

Roy blew on the coffee for a moment, contemplating. “I’d say somewhere between Five Ridges and the Summer of Snow.”

That got a low whistle. “Not good, Harp.”

“No, it ain’t.” Roy took a gulp of coffee and turned his attention to Oldfathers. “You’ve been very upfront with me, General. I’ll do you the same courtesy. I don’t believe you.”

“On what front?” The druid didn’t seem upset, only curious.

“Oh, I trust your assessment of the magical implications of the situation on the mountain,” Roy said. “You’re easily the most accomplished arcanist on this mountain, possibly in Pyrenes County. I just don’t believe that the man who should stand within Morainhenge, who has more reason to hate Columbia than any person living, who refused to appear at the peace signing, who actually ran from Columbian law with some of the most powerful relics in the nation in hand, will just cleanse an ancient and malevolent legend because he happened to take a passing interest in it. So why should I believe that’s really why you came here, and not to add that legend to the long list of powerful magics at your disposal?”

Oldfathers studied Roy for a long moment, the dancing flames setting shadows flickering across his face and giving the momentary impression he was smiling. Then the general’s cane began to twist and writhe, the crystal in its grip glowing softly, and the silver changed from a walking tool to a long, narrow bladed sword. His left hand rested on the quillons of the crosspiece. He raised his right hand, palm out, and spoke in a deep, sonorous voice. “My name is Hezekiah Oldfathers, commander of the Knights of the Stone Circle.”

Roy felt as if the world around him was falling away as the general continued. “I serve at the pleasure of Arthur, First and Forever King of Avalon.”

In the far distance something ancient and awesome turned to regard that small and insignificant campfire. Roy felt its attention fall on him, as heavy and oppressive as the air before rain. “In storm and sunshine I walk among the stone circle and steward its legacy for the coming generations.”

The fire leapt and danced at Oldfather’s words, the wind and rain whispered wordless replies and the stone wall behind them echoed it all back for the world to hear. “And I swear on the grave of Pellinore, the Hunter, that all I have said concerning my goals and intentions are true.”

The general lowered his hand and in that moment it seemed as though some new, foundational law of the universe slammed into place. Everything returned to normal a second later, Grunt’s sharp intake of breath telling Roy he’d felt it, too.

Unphased by what had just transpired, O’Hara laughed and said, “You don’t expect any of us to believe you because of that, do you?”

“He does,” Roy whispered. “And we do.”

Firespinner Chapter Seven – Rain After Storm

Previous Chapter

“So how much further, Reeds?” Roy asked, accepting a tin mug full of hot soup from Mrs. Blythe. “We covered a fair stretch of ground today. We getting close?”

“We’re about two ridges from Mete’s Grave, Mr. Harper.” Reeds passed his brother a mug before keeping O’Hara’s second offering for himself. “We should be there by midday tomorrow.”

Roy grunted in acknowledgment. Grunt and Nora settled in on a log nearby, Grunt taking a moment to swing his end of the log further under the overhang they were using for shelter. Marshall emptied the cook pot and set it out in the rain to start soaking. For a moment the six of them just shared in companionable silence.

When he finished his soup Roy unclipped his buckler, removed its sulfurite from the setting and tossed it into the campfire to recharge. The heat from the flames dimmed just a bit as the stone started absorbing some of the power into itself. Grunt pulled his greatsword over and worked the lever in the blade to release the weapon’s sulfurite, which he also added to the fire. The rest of the group followed suit, except for Nora who hadn’t used her weapon that day.

She just watched them as they went through their maintenance rituals then glanced at Reeds and asked, “Why say Mete’s Grave, Reeds? The Sanna name is Mete Wahaka, isn’t it?”

Marshal and Reeds both smiled broadly. “That is correct,” Reeds said. “But the Sanna believe a thing only exists when it is heard and understood. If I selfishly speak in a language you do not understand I become less real. So I say Mete’s Grave, that you may understand and I may exist in truth.”

“So you speak our language to be more real to us?” Nora looked very pleased with that answer. “That’s a lovely thought.”

Grunt chuckled. “Your brother must be in a difficult place, then.”

Reeds turned stone faced in a single breath. “I speak for my brother. I assure you he is quite real.”

“Of course,” Roy murmured. “Marshall is quite fortunate to have such a considerate older brother.”

Reeds frowned. “I am the younger of us, Mr. Harper.”

“Ah. My mistake.” Roy brushed his pants off and got to his feet, pulled flame from the campfire into his cufflinks and grabbed the pot. “All right, people, drop your silverware here. Marshall, could you bring the cups?”

This time he was watching closely and he saw the byplay. Reeds glanced at Marshall, who raised a finger and tilted his head towards the campfire. Then he got up, gathered the cups and followed.

It was a short walk back to the stream, barely two minutes, and they walked in silence. The light drizzle still fell but neither man felt put out. When they reached the water Roy filled the pot and set it boiling with the power in his cufflinks. Marshall produced a rag from a pocket and began scrubbing the cups, dipping them in the boiling water to rinse.

Roy fished the silverware out of the pot with his free hand, the heat little more than an irritant. “So tell me something, Marshall.”

He laughed, a belly laugh that set his clothes flapping around his rail thin body, then pointed at his mouth.

“Oh, I heard what your brother said back there. But you can make yourself known, words or not, no matter what the Sanna think.” He leveled a spoon at Marshall, an accusation. “I’ve been thinking about you two and this Sanna legend since we talked at the saloon a couple of days ago. And I was wrong. You’re not here to play out the legend of Yose and Mete, you’re here to kill it.”

Marshall raised his eyebrows and pointed at himself.

“Yes, you. Yose is the older brother, that’s why he’s named first. I know about the ways Sanna speak, you see, although I’m not nearly as proficient as your brother is with Avalon’s tongue.” Roy let the pot stop boiling. “If you two played out the legend you would kill Reeds and then you’d be alone with no one to understand you. Meaning that in the eyes of the Sanna you no longer exist and the legend would disappear with you.”

Marshall furrowed his brow and pointed at Roy.

“I know I said you can make yourself understood. The point is how other Sanna would perceive you, that usually has more import in these kinds of mystic events. So is it true? You were sent to kill the legend?”

For a long moment Marshall stared at Roy, the animation draining out of him. Or, at least, the overly exaggerated mannerisms he affected when dealing with people other than Reeds. Finally Marhsall nodded.

“They cut your tongue out just for this or did it happen earlier?”

He didn’t respond to that question.

“Fine then. I’m not sure why the Sanna chose to try killing a legend or why the two of you agreed to the idea, much less your family. But I got a warning for the two of you now.”

Marshall tilted his head, curious.

Roy dumped the cooling water back into the river and got to his feet. “Don’t try to play that stunt out with the Blythe boys or we are going to have a falling out. Do you understand me?”

The two men stared at each other. Then Marshall nodded, stacked his cups and started back towards camp. Roy snorted, not sure what to make of that, and followed after.

As they walked Roy said, “I saw what you did on the wall. I presume you’re some sort of hero? Or whatever the Sanna would call it?”

Marshall shrugged, an elegant gesture of casual indifference.

“Right. Neither of you are medicine men.” Roy sighed. Reeds would probably know but he was much cagier than his brother. Which made sense if Marshall was a genuine hero. Not much was known about them, beyond the fact that they were probably some kind of Earth magic made manifest, and their nature was entirely instinctual. So long as the hero had conviction in their cause they were almost unbeatable in combat.

That bit about conviction was really the key, the surest way to overcome a hero was to break their conviction. The best way to avoid people breaking your hero’s conviction was to keep the fact they were a hero secret. So it was something they rarely shared, even with allies. The worst bit about heroes was how little control they had over their own power; it was hard for anyone to control their own convictions and heroes were no exception. Maybe it was better if he didn’t bother asking Reeds anything and just proceeded on the notion that Marshall was one. It didn’t make a big difference in his plans going forward.

Roy was jolted out of his reverie when they came up on the campfire again. He quickly offered the Sign of the Hearth before taking his seat. He’d meant to face Mrs. Blythe as he did so, it was customary to present the sign to a Hearthkeeper when they were present, but at some point she’d offered her seat next to Grunt to O’Hara. To his greater surprise O’Hara offered the traditional response, making a zigzag with two fingers that she then held up in a V shape, creating the funnel cloud shaped Sign of the Storm.

Grunt laughed. “You’ve become a devout man in the last few years, Harp.”

“People change all the time, Grunt,” he said with a smile. “Or did you forget, Mr. Solicitor?”

“Fair enough.”

“Is devotion why you dislike people calling you Giant Killer?” Nora asked.

Roy scowled. “I don’t like it because it’s not true. There’s a grand total of three giants in the history of Avalon and only one of them was ever slain by mortal man. Assuming you accept Arthur started out human. A wendigo is a terrible creature, to be sure, but it ain’t got anything on Everest Walking.”

Reeds leaned forward, interested. “Indeed? I understand that wendigos grow in size equal to the amount they eat, and thus are never satisfied. During the Summer of Snow a group of them supposedly wiped out Tin Gulch, a town with over two hundred people. The creatures that did it must have been enormous afterwards.”

“Not as big as you’d think.” Roy held up the beads of his necklace, each about five inches long. “These are made from the finger bones of the wendigo I killed. It was about four times the size of a man. Big, but not a giant.”

Marshall laughed and Reed asked, “What would you call a giant then?”

“The smallest of the Brothers Walking was Shenandoah. You can still see his bones to the east.”

Reeds laughed this time. “The Shenandoah Mountains have existed for generations. We did not name them because of some Avalon tale.”

“Yeah, well, we didn’t know the they existed nine hundred years ago either,” Roy said, smiling as well. These were mysteries he loved pondering in free moments himself. “Legends aren’t always true, and when they are they’re rarely the whole truth. But in this case… well, the tale said Our Lord in Raging Skies chased Shenandoah Walking in the direction of the Middle Kingdom and slew him somewhere there. It’s more likely Shenandoah only made it this far before he was killed, as it isn’t like we knew this place existed at the time.”

“And how were we to know the name of this dead giant?”

“A good question I can’t answer,” Roy admitted. “But Our Lord also pursued and slew Shenandoah’s brother, Kilimanjaro Walking, in a land to the south of Avalon. He smote Kilimanjaro so hard he was buried up to his neck in the dirt. And you know what we find, down there in Nubia?”

Reeds frowned. “A mountain named Kilimanjaro?”

“I’m surprised a Teutonic wizard wasn’t aware of that,” O’Hara said. “It was Johan von Heilman who mapped Kilimanjaro and noted the connection.”

“Most Teutonic wizards don’t think much about Avalon’s history,” Roy said. “I wouldn’t really expect them to.”

Reeds nodded. “The tradition is mostly theoretical, what history their books do teach are more interested in connecting things to the Forever Wars. Regardless, if a creature that leaves mountain sized bones is your standard for giants I can see why you wouldn’t think of a wendigo as one.”

Marshall nudged his brother’s arm and held up three fingers.

“The third giant was named Everest Walking,” Roy said. “He was killed by an alliance of Arthur, the Last Man of Wyrms, his mentor, Meryl of Linds and Our Lady in Burning Stone. His death was such a cataclysm that it carved the Everest Channel between Avalon and the Francs. That’s also how Arthur earned the favor of the Lord and Lady and became the Phoenixborn.”

“Sounds complicated,” Reeds said.

“It’s a famous story in Avalon,” O’Hara said. “And it’s particularly important to druids and hedge mages as Arthur learned a lot of the craft he used to form the Stone Circle and organize modern druidry from the Lady as part of his reward from her for aiding in the battle.”

“And, of course, that’s why the Mated Pair are the patron gods of Avalon,” Grunt added. O’Hara offered a vigorous nod of assent.

“In a manner of speaking,” Roy murmured.

“How so?” O’Hara demanded.

“Our Lord and Lady are guardian deities to the nation and they did offer special powers to Arthur because he aided them in special ways. Becoming the Phoenixborn. Walking as One With the Storm.” Roy shook his head, wondering of those titles of Arthur’s had any significance, or if they referred to aspects of his power and rule that were now long forgotten. “But much of the rest of what they offered him they offer to everyone. The Lord and Lady are intercessors between people and the raw elemental forces of magic. The First Elements are incredibly dangerous and don’t have any concept of humanity and what is good or bad for them and that makes any kind of understanding with them difficult, if not impossible. The Lord and Lady place less risky, more human magic in the reach of those who follow their teachings.”

“This is what you call druidry?” Reeds asked.

“No, druidry existed before Arthur. But he took it and organized it, made it safer and easier for people to get a handle on. It wasn’t exactly safe – still isn’t – but it’s better than what was. That’s why all the people we consider real druids now come out of the great Henges – Stonehenge, Ayershenge, the Dream Henge, Rajhenge and, until ten years ago, Morainehenge.”

“You’re very knowledgeable, Mr. Harper,” Nora said.

“After the Battle of Five Ridges I had a lot of time and motivation to learn. And I happened to be in the right place to get a start on it, too.” Roy shrugged. “I managed to learn a little from the Morainehenge druids but they weren’t exactly fond of people in Columbian uniforms at the time. The broad strokes of the story is all I know. I’m not sure what Arthur changed that made the Stone Circle a better way to produce druids or how he improved on their magic. If we find him and he doesn’t kill us all General Oldfathers could probably explain those things much better than I.”

“Yes. I believe I could.”

Firespinner Chapter Six – Thunderbird

Previous Chapter

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.”

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.