Greetings and Salutations!

Welcome to the longest-running* yet least-read** blog on the internet! Here you'll find me writing about all the things that I write about, which strikes me, just now, as somewhat recursive. In any case, enjoy :)

* not true ** probably true

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Hard post

There may be a few of these over the next few weeks. We'll see.

This one has to do with Sword Monk #2 - Weaving Steel, which was recently released on Amazon.

Frankly, I think it sucks, so I'm pulling it.

Longer form is like this: I got in a rush to complete the instalment before the preorder was due to go live and released a book I'm not proud of. I should have delayed it.

For those who bought it, I apologize. When it's up to a standard that is acceptable, I will post a link to a free copy here on the blog alongside SM #1.

Sorry guys. Won't happen again. I'd rather people were unhappy that they had to wait for something good than disappoint.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Genre and same-old same-old: random pondering

Occasionally I see reviews (not my own yet) that say something to the effect of "while this story doesn't bring anything new to the genre..." and it always gets me to thinking. Is it the default opinion out there of reviewers that a genre story should always be pushing boundaries? And if so, when did that happen? I sort of understand the mentality when it comes to sci fi. I mean, really the whole genre is about pushing boundaries, or at least can be legitimately be seen in that light. But for fantasy,  I've never seen the reinvention of the genre as a critical function of the writers of said genre. And yet, change, carefully applied, can be a breath of fresh air in a stale genre.

Tropes vs cliches

Now to be sure, I'm not talking about cliche'd writing being okay. I'm personally sick of farm boys who are destined to blah blah, at least in adult fiction (juvenile fiction is another matter. Those kinds of stories are important to young readers, in that starting with someone they have a chance of identifying with hooks them as lifelong readers. But even juvenile fantasy could use some diversifying). I'm not saying no one should write that kind of story anymore, but I am saying it's such a tired trope that it has become a cliche. And when a trope becomes a cliche, the writer is almost obligated to bring a twist to it so that it has new life for the reader.

But fantasy tropes, especially in sub-genres, aren't something that can be dispensed with or in my opinion even messed with over-much, else you risk writing something that's missing what the reader came to the book for in the first place. You have to respect what came before and change only what is necessary to tell your story, the story that only you can write.

(I'm gonna talk about my own writing now for a minute, simply because I know it best)

Take Amra Thetys, for example. I love Sword & Sorcery. But I wanted to avoid many of the tropes that had become cliches. The two main characters of the series do not sling swords. They are not barbarians. They do not delight in battle. One is a female thief and the other is a mage who doesn't particularly like magic. And yet their adventures, even if I do say so myself, are often every bit as insanely gory and over the top weird as anything Conan or Fafhrd and the Mouser got up to.

Or my new series, the Sword Monk. Here we have a main character whose skill with a sword borders on caricature, but what defines him is his wrestling with his faith. We also have an antagonist who starts, at least notionally, as a damsel in distress, but who has taken the idea of empowerment so much to heart that she verges on becoming a monster. And yet this series is even more true to its pulp S&S roots than Amra Thetys.

I suppose my point is this: Sometimes there is no reason to change what works. I would be ecstatic to read a newly discovered Conan story. But sometimes it's awesome to read things with a new spin.

And sometimes it's not what you add to a genre story, but what you (carefully) cut away that makes for a good read.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A craft post

Recently I received an email from a reader (hi Steven!) who is in the process of wrestling his own first novel into some sort of of obedience. He wondered what sort of plotting techniques I used. He mentioned snowflake methods and beat sheets and other assorted alchemies that I have heard of, but know nothing about beyond the fact of their existence.

Not being one to waste words that can be reused, I thought I would excerpt my reply here, for those who might be interested in how I make the alphabet turn into a novel:

I generally write from a character base rather than a plot base. I know that sounds weird considering the kind of stuff I write, but bear with me here.

Because as a reader I get serious attention deficit when I don't care about characters, I try really hard to make everybody in the story interesting for me to write about in some way, either through personality, motivation or circumstance. I figure if they're interesting to write about, then they stand a better chance not to be boring to read about. And because as a writer I kill any desire to actually write a book by outlining it, that leaves me moving through the darkness of plot, as Cory Doctorow sort-of said, with a flashlight. Just enough light to see what I need to in order to keep moving.

I start with a beginning (the closest I can get to the point where the Rube Goldberg device swings into action) (ok ok, the inciting event) in mind, and a vague notion of what kind of ending I want, and maybe a scene or three of "that would be frigging awesome/horrible hahaha." and that's it in the way of plotting for me.

What I DO do is take pains at the scene/sequel level to keep the tension at an appropriate, er, level. I make sure each scene has a question to be answered (does the character get what they want in this scene?) and I make sure that the answer is almost never yes. Yes, but... No... No, and furthermore... are the stock answers. How rough the answers are for the pov character depends on how far along the story is, of course. Since I generally write 60-80k books, it's not hard to gauge if the tension has gone off the boil. Or, uh, 'peaked' way too early.

But the main thing isn't really the scenes, but the sequels. That's where the character has to count the cost of the previous scene, be it in confusion, frustration, rage, humiliation, or ever-popular blood. That's where the character's character is revealed. That's where the writer's greatest chance lies in snaring the reader and convincing them to care about the *next* scene. Lather, rinse, repeat until you get to the climax, and the answer to the overarching story question.

Then, when I've got a manuscript that's got all the moving parts of a book, I go back and do all the usual editing stuff, with a special emphasis on cutting anything that makes my eyes glaze over. I'm pretty brutal about it. I pay for this in terms of world-building, but the reward is a more propulsive reading experience. There are no non-utilitarian bells or whistles, however pleasing their sound might be. This is also a risk/reward scenario inherent in writing 1st person pov. If the character doesn't know or care about something, it can be difficult to bring it up in general conversation without resorting to the dreaded info dump. So I work around it or I do without.

And there you have it. Except I'm gonna add more to my original thoughts:

I'm the youngest of three kids. My brother's six years older, and my sister eight years older. Also we moved around a lot, so I never made all that many friends. Despite these handicaps, I would, without fail every birthday and Christmas, beg and plead for board games requiring multiple players. I have no idea why.

I played a lot of board games by myself, against myself. I still occasionally play chess against myself. Yeah, I know.

To bring this back around to plot, I don't know if I'd say I plot unconsciously so much as I take on the role of the protagonists' unseen, Moriarity-esque opponent. Scene by scene, they make their moves in a way that fits their personality and situation, and then I deliberate on how their plans can be frustrated in the most interesting way. It really is a move-by-move sort of thing, for me.

Sure, there's a maguffin. There's always a maguffin. Who killed Corbin, does Thagoth really hold the secret of immortality, who sent Borold's noggin... but when I start the book, I honestly don't know the answers. Sometimes, maybe even every time, the answers become less important as the book rolls along and the deeper plot is revealed. The original inciting event and the ostensible story question is really just a crowbar to get Amra out of her door and into the story. Because as far as Amra is concerned, an adventure can go, uh, pleasure itself. It's like the "rules" for survival in 28 Days Later -- never do x... unless you got no choice.

Also, when I say 'deeper plot is revealed,' I mean revealed to me, as I write it. Now granted, some of this stuff comes from the vague, hazy series plot that I keep in a dusty corner of my head. There is an endgame here; ultimately this is all about Amra vs the 8fold goddess. But again, I think in terms of character. I know the 8fold's story, what she/they want, and why she/they want it. But the road traveled so far in the first 4 books is all that has been mapped. I know the destination, I can see it like Mt Fuji in the distance. There's no way I can walk there in a straight line, though, because I don't know what the terrain is between here and there. And I don't want to know; not until I write it.

Why? Because I write fantasy for much the same reason I read it. I want to be amazed. I don't want to paint by numbers, even if I'm the one who put the numbers on the canvas to begin with. Because writing, no joke, is often hard, tedious work, and what makes it worthwhile to me is writing a scene that's freaking awesome (at least in my mind).


One of my favorite scenes to write in Trouble's Braids was Amra's duel with Red Hand, and her meeting with the Guardian directly after. I knew going into that scene that Amra couldn't win, just as I knew she'd still instigate it. But I didn't know until I wrote it that Heirus would take a knife in the throat just to fuck with Amra. As soon as he did it, I knew it was perfect, and I knew exactly how Amra would react.

I also didn't know until I wrote it that the Weeping Mother statue was the Guardian of the Dead. I'd thrown in a couple mentions of the statue previously, thinking it a good bit of scenery and a nice touch of world building. But as soon as Amra wiped the blood from the back of her hand onto the grass, there the Guardian was, and it was just right. It was  an incredibly satisfying moment for me, as a writer.

Maybe I'd have come up with it if I'd plotted out the book beforehand. But I genuinely doubt it.

So. I said once before a long time ago that birds don't teach other birds how to fly. But sometimes it's helpful to observe, even if it only leads a bird to say 'fuck that noise, I'd fall outta the sky if I tried to do it that way.'

I hope all this blathering serves at least as a negative example.

And that's enough blathering for one post.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Paranormal romance/erotica has invaded my beloved Sword & Sorcery, and I'm pissed off

First let me be clear: I have nothing against paranormal romance or erotica. Hell, I've got nothing against dinosaur erotica. If that's what scratches your itch, then scratch away, my friend.

No, what makes me angry is when authors of paranormal erotica/romance stuff their obviously non-Sword & Sorcery books into the Sword & sorcery categories at retailers such as Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble.

Why does this yank my chain? Because what they're doing is a disservice both to readers and to fellow authors. Specifically, they are taking spots away from actual Sword & Sorcery authors and invading Sword & Sorcery best-seller lists. Because, you see, they list their dragon/werewolf/shifter BBW paranormal urban romance fantasy in as many categories as Amazon & other retailers will fall for. And if the book does reasonably well in paranormal romance lists, it's going to absolutely rock it in S&S lists, as Sword & Sorcery is a much smaller pool.

They're gaming the system via inappropriate use of keywords, making it harder for readers to find real S&S, and they're sucking the oxygen, discoverability-wise, out of the room for actual Sword & Sorcery writers.

And I'm angry about it.

Here is Lin Carter's definition of Sword & Sorcery:

We call a story sword and sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land, age, or world of the author's invention--a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real--a story, moreover, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil.

And now I present to you a selection of the top 100 free in kindle Sword & Sorcery stories (UK):

Moon Chosen #1 (BBW Werewolf / Shifter Romance)

Shadow of the Moon #1 (Werewolf / Shifter Romance)

Healed by the Dragon: Part One (A Scottish Dragon-shifter Paranormal Romance) 

I'm not saying that Paranormal Romance can never also be classsifie.... who am I kidding? Yes, yes I am.

Paranormal Romance can never be cross-classified as Sword & Sorcery

Let me put this another way. I hope Jessie Donovan, Mac Flynn and all the other authors who are miscategorizing their books find this, and pay attention:

You have a dragon, a werewolf, a shapeshifter in your story? Maybe somebody who uses a sword? Maybe even some sorcery? 


But of course these authors already know that. That's what makes my blood boil. They're just trying to game the system and get a bestseller in a category--any category. They don't care.

So every time I find a Paranormal Fantasy in the Sword & Sorcery subcategory, I report it.

And so should you.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Blood Tempered has been released into the wild

So Blood Tempered is live. What's Blood Tempered, you ask?

  • It's the first book in a five part series called The Sword Monk Saga
  • It's super-uber sword & sorcery pulp, and unabashedly so
  • It's multiple POV, and not 1st person. That's a new thing for me
  • It's $2.99
  • It's available at all the usual suspects

Monday, June 08, 2015

Here's the big thing I'm working on next

Yes, I'm still hard at work on the Amra Thetys series. I'm also putting out the first book of the Sword Monk saga in a couple of weeks--June 6th is the release date for that one. And I've got a couple of longstanding projects that are puttering along as well (Comes the Conqueror, Tarot Quest).

But this is the next full-length novel series I'll be putting out:

It's urban fantasy, set in Singapore. Here's a bit about the protagonist:

My name is William Langston King. You can call me Will if you really feel the need, but skip Bill or Billy or god forbid Willy, unless you want me to call you something nasty right back.
I used to be one of the Magi; unarguably powerful, supposedly wise. I have had dealings with powers and dominions whose names have never been spoken, because they are impossible for a mortal mouth to speak. I have traveled kingdoms and principalities you will never find on any map. I know things, I have seen things... well, let's just leave it at that.
Now I'm just an uncanny gumshoe, a supernatural private eye. Most of my power has been stripped from me, one way or another. Now I'm in Singapore, hiding from a doom that I couldn't beat or trick or buy off. The Ban Sidhe spoke my name, and all the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and all their allies, are bound to heed that call and end my life. But Singapore is the Switzerland of the supernatural realm. As long as I stay within the boundaries of this ultra-modern city-state, all those would-be assassins can go pound sand.
But I still need to make a living. So now, instead of putting my thumb on the scales of power, I chase off things that go bump in the night. Then I chase clients for payment. When I have clients to chase, at least.
I am many things, just as we all are. But what I got printed on my business card is “Private Supernatural Detective.” If you want something done right, you generally have to do it yourself. Except when it comes to dealing with all the many deadly, nasty, dangerous Others. And printing. I tried making business cards at home on the little laser printer, and man did they look like crap.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The Book That Wasn't There

There are now 32 people in the whole wide world who own The Thief Who Wasn't There. They're the only people who will, until October. That's when Ragnarok Publications will re-release the first four Amra Thetys books, with awesome cover art and professional editing.

So, you know, in case you were wondering why you can't buy book 4 and stuff, that's why. And also you should totally sign up for the mailing list if you haven't, so I can let you know what's going on as it goes on. It's right here:

And that's alls I gots right now.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Amra 5 snippet

***Minor spoilers for Book 4 below***

“Right, then, let's see what a mage packs when he goes to hells.” I stuck a hand in his pack, and was met with a sticky, tacky residue of something that seemed to cover everything inside it. “What the hells got in here?” I asked, pulling my hand out and wiping it on the rag.

He coughed slightly and shifted himself higher in the bed, then leaned back against the pillows. “There was a river of blood. I had to cross it.”

“Oh.” What do you say to that? I opened the pack wider and started to pulling things out, wiping them cleanish as I went.

“Oh, look. A monster's head under glass.”

“Amra, meet Halfmoon. Halfmoon, Amra. He's not very nice. He wants to eat my brain.”

“Well who wouldn't? It's a very clever brain.” The thing blinked its dozen eyes and ran a long, gray-blue tongue along the glass. I shuddered and put it aside. Facing the wall. “Mages,” I muttered. I rooted around a bit more and came up with a small glass vial.

“Anonymous powder,” I said. “Let me guess, an ingredient for a spell.”

“No, that's a jar full of the Road.”



I shook my head and threw it in the fire. “What, wine just not scratching the itch anymore? I take back what I said about your brain.”

“Well I never opened it,” he said, peevishly.

“Thank Vosto.”

“Yes, as a matter of fact.”



“What was that like?”

“He compared me to a turtle stuck on its back, intimated that I was pathetic and ridiculous, told me I was in his debt, then told me to bugger off. Also, he really seemed to enjoy calling me a fool.”

“Sounds like my kind of god.”

“Meeting a divine being not threatening or actively trying to kill me was a nice change of pace.”

I rooted around some more in the bloody goop inside the pack, but couldn't find anything else. “Is that it?”

“All that's left, anyway.”

“You could have told me instead of letting me play with hell blood!”

“I could have. But you said hurtful things about my brain.”

“When you get better I'm going to smother you in your sleep.”

Saturday, May 30, 2015

So yeah, book 4 is a wrap.

Just a few thoughts from the other side of writing The Thief Who Wasn't There. You know, if you're interested in that sort of thing:


Holgren, Holgen, Holgren. I think everybody should be thankful you're at least a few shades of gray closer to the light than the dark. One reviewer recently commented on Trouble's Braids that Holgren seemed a bit over-powerful, and that it might cause problems later on in the series.


One of the reasons I wanted to write Wasn't There was to show just how much of a badass Holgren really is. But I had to do it from his point of view, otherwise you wouldn't get to see the interior cost. The fact is, if Holgren had been born into an age that wasn't as magic-poor, he could have rivaled the likes of the Sorcerer-King. As it is, magic is fading, and he's still a bad-ass. He'll need to be, to face what's coming.

The other thing about Holgren that I wanted to explore a bit is that he's just as fucked up by his past as Amra is by hers. There's a line in Luck's Good Eye where the Sorcerer-King is whining about his childhood, and Amra tells him "Everybody's got it hard growing up." Coming from her, it's less sarcasm and more simple, if biased, observation: "Sure, you were born deformed and barely in control of your body. I watched my mom get killed by my dad, I killed him, then I got hunted by death squads."

In Wasn't There we get a peek into Holgren's past as well. It's not that much better.


After three books living in Amra's head, it was a little difficult to switch gears and get into Holgren's brainspace. For the first third of the book, maybe. What Amra says in three words, he'll say in five. Where Amra will leave out unnecessary words and cut to the meat of the meaning, Holgren will be more precise and deliberate. Where Amra is self-deprecating, Holgren is a little more morose, a touch more self-involved. And in many ways harder and colder. Amra cares; Holgren chooses to care, or not to care.


This book is definitely an Amra Thetys joint, don't get me wrong. Each of the three preceding books had a slightly different tone, a different focus. Book 1 was a whodunnit/revenge tale, book 2 a balls to the wall sword & sorcery roller coaster. Book 3 -- I'm not sure how to describe book 3 actually. But book 4 is something else. It's sort of an odyssey tale, I guess is the best way to describe it.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I never ever want to fall into the trap of writing the same book but with different antagonists. I've seen that happen to too many series. Amra's not Bruce Banner, wandering from town to town. She isn't David Carradine in Kung Fu.

The series has an arc. It has an end-game. It's all leading towards something. I swear to Kerf.


It's not official, as in there hasn't been a press release, but by now most people know that the series has been picked up by Ragnarok Publications. They plan to release all of the first four books at once, in October. The deal happened after I'd put Wasn't There on pre-order at Amazon. So I put a little disclaimer urging folks not to buy the pre-order, but to wait until October when the prettily covered and professionally edited version comes out.

"Yeah, nah," said a bunch of folks, "I'm ordering this bad boy raht naow." I guess that's why Bezos created one-click ordering--people are not fond of waiting. I love you all, rebel pre-orderers. But don't come after me about typos.

And that's more or less what I got right now. I'm now finishing up the first book in a new series. I've been trying to get this one done for a few years now. I swore I'd get it done, so I'm getting it done.

But I also wrote 1200 words of Amra 5 today.  Like a warm bath, I tell ya.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Monday, April 06, 2015

What's that? You want more artistically questionable maps?

Well, I'm happy to oblige. With one at least. Here's a more detailed map of the Low Countries. Well, Camlach is cut off, but it doesn't really count as a Low Country, because of reasons. Same with Gol-Shen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Updates various, including the state of my posterior

I'm sitting in a hard wooden chair in a cafe in Da Nang. It is raining, loud against the steep, sloped roof; it often rains here, but this is the first serious rain in weeks. Outside, beyond the rain-spattered window, the Han river slides by in a muddy pewter blur. Some days I like Da Nang, some days I don't. Today I'm rather indifferent. Probably because this chair is giving my ass flashbacks of sitting in church as a kid. Squirm. Squirm.

A while back, Mark Lawrence did a thing where he got ten fantasy book reviewers rounded up to read 25ish self-published novels each. I signed up THE THIEF WHO PULLED ON TROUBLE'S BRAIDS, and in due course it was included in the batch that went out to Steve Diamond & co. at twice-Hugo nominated Elitist Book Reviews. Nick Sharps, reviewer extraordinaire at Elitist and at SF Signal, had the great misfortune to be assigned my book. Despite that, he posted a very nice review at Amazon and at Goodreads. You could read it here, if you were so inclined.

Amra book 4 is proceeding apace. It looks like it will be a bigger book than the previous three. If it gets much bigger, I'm considering splitting it into two, though I generally hate the idea. Also, I don't think I'll be posting more than snippets of it anymore, as we are rapidly approaching spoiler territory.

Did I mention my ass really hurts right now?

Friday, March 13, 2015

What Chandler said his editor:
By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

I think they're calling it a cover reveal

...but I prefer to just say "Lookit, Amra book 4 has a cover!"

Yes, it already had a cover, but this is a different cover. The old cover was boring. This one has fire. Fire is cool. Dead trees are not cool. Also please note this is not the final final art. That's the great thing about self-publishing. You can change stuff.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Behold, the third chapter!

For those of you keeping score at home, I'm actually working on chapter seven at this point in time. I've never posted this much of a work in progress before; usually I'll post snippets at most. This is something of an experiment.

The usual caveat: This is a work in progress, and every word that follows is subject to change. Enjoy!


Mag—uh, Holgren, there's a bunch of soldiers downstairs,” Keel told me. “Again.”
The same as yesterday?” I asked, not really paying attention. I was working out a trap for whichever rift-spawn we could corner. I was fairly certain I could tear a leaf from the sorcerer-king's page, so to speak, and apply it to the situation at hand. Lacking basics such as paper, ink, or pen, I was writing in the air, the silvery notations visible only to my magesight. Likely I looked mad to Keel, but he didn't comment.
No, these ones are mercenaries. They've got four iron chests. They look heavy. Say they're from the bank.”
Ah. Yes. I'll be right there.” I hardened my notes and stepped out of the chamber. Keel was looking pensive.
What is it, Keel?”
Promise you won't get mad?”
No. But I promise I wont kill you. What?”
Are you crazy?”
No more so than any mage, and far less than many I have met.”
That's not really comforting.”
I'm sorry, I thought you wanted truth, not comfort.”
Before I met Amra, I'd never met anyone with power like you and Magister Greytooth have. I guess I don't know what's normal for you lot.”
Keel, I'll tell you a secret that only Amra knows: I detest being a mage.”
He gave me a look that said he was now convinced I was insane.“But you are really good at it. Really, really good. Scary good.”
How would you know that? You've only seen me fail.”
First, because Amra told me so. Second, because I heard about what you did to Fisk. Third, I was there yesterday morning when Steyner's man tried to bash his way in. If you aren't powerful, I don't think I know what the word means. And I really don't see how anybody can not like having power.”
Some people are masters of arithmetic. Doesn't mean they want to spend their time doing long division.”
But we aren't talking about numbers. We're talking about magic! Power!”
All power comes at a price,” I told him, but he shook his head.
You don't agree?”
From what I've seen, it's the powerless that pay while the powerful do whatever they want.” The bitterness in his voice was unusual, for him. But I did not press.
Well, let's go down and receive my delivery.”
What have they got?”
Another kind of power.”

~ ~ ~

Perrick Leed was wearing pale yellow this time, and had traded his tri-cornered had for what looked like a velvet sack. But then I knew as much about fashion as I did about the Emperor of Chagul's favorite concubine.
Magister Leed. You'll have to introduce me to your tailor,” I said by way of greeting, and he smiled politely.
Magister Angrado, good morning. May we enter?”
Of course,” I said, and brought down the wards and moved aside so that they could haul in four iron casques, each with an imposingly large lock.
If I could impose upon you gentlemen to bring them upstairs?” I said to the armsmen. There were a few grimaces, but no muttering. The bank must have been paying them well. They were a mixed lot; Camlachers, Lucernans, Nine Cities men. I wondered where Leed had hired them from, and asked as much.
Bellaria is at war with itself,” he replied. “Such conflict draws mercenaries. You'll find a ready pool of them, wharfside, and many more at Jedder.”
A small town a day's sail south,” he explained as we climbed the stairs to the second floor. “Those who do not have an inclination to fight for the rebels wait there to be hired by the would-be Syndics. Those who prefer the rebel's cause, or knew no better before taking ship, end up wharfside here in Bellarius.”
Just set them against the wall, if you would,” I told the armsmen, and they complied. Then they retreated back downstairs, leaving only Leed, Keel and myself in the dusty second floor of the Citadel.
Is there something I should sign, Magister?” I asked Leed.
Of course. After you've counted the coin, sir.”
I'm certain that won't be necessary.”
Sadly, I must disagree with you, Magus. Vulkin and Bint does love its procedures, and abhors any anomalies regarding them. I would be let go in an instant were you not to count the coin in my presence and confirm that all is as it should be.”
I sighed. “Very well, Magister Leed. I wouldn't want to be the cause of any disturbing anomalies.”
Keel snickered, and I gave him a questioning glance.
Do mages always talk like that when they get together?” he asked.
Like what?”
Like there's a prize for whoever uses the fanciest word.”
Leed gave a slight smile. I considered the question.
Pretty much,” I finally decided, and turned to Leed. “The keys, sir?”

~ ~ ~

It was all there; forty chains of Lucernan mint. Forty thousand marks. I signed and Leed and his entourage departed.
Yes, Keel?”
That's a shit-ton of money.”
Yes it is.”
What are you going to do with it?”
Some of it goes to Moc Mien to keep you from getting knifed by his crew while we're in Bellarius. A lot more goes to him for assisting me in trapping a rift-spawn.”
You don't need forty large for that.”
Correct.” I scooped up a double handful of marks and handed it to him. “First, find and hire two armsmen who can be trusted.”
How do I know if they can be trusted?”
I smiled. “I trust your judgment.” I'd also be putting them under a Compulsion. “One stays here, one follows you everywhere.”
I can take care of myself.”
Did your arm heal itself while I wasn't looking? You need a bodyguard, Keel. Bellarius is far from safe, and I've already made an enemy of one of the warring factions. You will likely be a target.”
All right,” he said, not liking it. “What else?”
Go to Moc Mien and tell him to come see me to collect his fee. After that, find us a housekeeper who can cook and can be trusted, and send them to me, here. Then order some decent furniture for all of us, and get a tailor for you and I. Have them come this evening. I also want a fisherman's net, as strong and big as you can find. Better make it two. Do you need to write this down?”
No. Can't write anyway. Or read, for that matter.”
We'll have to rectify that at some point, but there's no time now. What else? Best if the housekeeper is male or a very old woman. Everyone will be staying at the Citadel for the duration of our stay, and since there's a distinct lack of privacy here I don't want to bother putting up partitions. We'll likely be leaving in a few days. Which reminds me. See if there are any ships for sale.”
You want to buy a boat?”
No. I want to buy a ship. They're generally much bigger than boats.”
What kind of ship?”
I'm not sure yet. Find out what's available, and then we'll discuss it.”
Anything else?”
Yes. How are you passing back and forth from the Girdle to the Gentry-controlled portion of the city?”
That will no longer do, after today. Like it or not, I am now a power in Bellarius. You, as my representative, cannot be sneaking about. It will lessen my honor and my status.”
He looked at me as though I'd suddenly started speaking Chagul.
I'm completely serious. There's no chance any of the factions will learn to love me in the brief time I'll be here, so that leaves fear.”
Love? Fear? You said we're probably leaving in a few days, but you're talking like you want to rule this place.”
We are in the middle of a three cornered civil war, Keel. We are in possession of the Citadel, the only physical symbol of authority left in this midden of a city, since Amra pulled down the Riail. You know very well what I want, and it isn't to become a despot. But the three factions assume we are a fourth, I guarantee you, and it won't matter what I say to the contrary. So I won't bother.”
All right, I guess I can understand that. But why not just ignore them until your business is finished?”
I would do just that, if there was any hope they would return the favor. There isn't. You saw that yesterday. If I was content to stay in the Citadel, it wouldn't matter, but we have business in the city below, and so we must play the part.” As much of a stupid, monotonous waste of time, energy and money as it would be.
Yeah, but what part, exactly? I'm still not clear on that.”
I will play the part of a dangerous, inscrutable archmage whose motives are unknown, but undoubtedly dark and arcane. You will play the role of my trusted servant, who speaks with my voice.” I looked him over. “Hmm. You'll probably need a haircut to manage that. Add a barber to the list. Also a cobbler. Your big toe is sticking out.”
You look pretty shaggy yourself.”
It sounds nicer than 'homeless.'”
Fine, send a barber and a cobbler up for both of us, then. Go, the day isn't getting younger.”
He turned to go, then turned back.
You need a symbol.”
Come again?”
If you're going to play the part of a power. You need a symbol.”
I do?”
Absolutely. The Gentry all have their heraldry nonsense. Even the crews have got their versions of 'em. If you want to mark your territory or your property, you have to have a mark. It'll be expected, Holgren. Seriously.”
All right. What do you suggest?”
You remember that one thing you tried, where fire shot out of all the windows and almost cooked me along the way?”
I already apologized for that.”
People are still talking about that in the Girdle. Not me getting burned up, of course; how would they know about that? But they're still talking about the night the Citadel burned.”
They think that's when the Telemarch died. Your symbol should be a burning tower. If you're serious about making people think they should be scared of you.”
That's... that's not a terrible idea actually. I'll work on it. You get going.”

~ ~ ~

Keel was gone for perhaps an hour before my first visitors of the day announced themselves by trying to break down the front door with cannon fire.
I felt the intense if fleeting pressure on the wards at the same time I hear the hollow boom of the cannon ball striking them.
Imbeciles,” I said aloud and got up from the table where I'd been working on Keel's burning tower badge. I opened the door.
In the street below, Steyner's halberdiers were back, this time joined by a three-man cannon crew. They were wearing the emerald and jet of Isinglas mercenaries. I couldn't see the cockade they wore that would tell me which company they served. Not that it mattered.
They had a short, stubby little bronze perrier that was still smoking. They were perhaps twenty yards away, and a few of the halberdiers had obviously been struck by shrapnel when the stone ball had shattered against the wards and then been flung away at high velocity. Two men were screaming. A third wasn't, his head being almost completely gone. The idiot captain in half-plate was, sadly, unharmed.
I stepped outside, waited until I caught the captain's attention, then said “I warned you.”
Then I summoned up my well and disincorporated him. Or, as Keel would have it, I made him go 'splat.'
I do not kill lightly. I take no enjoyment from it. But I have no qualms about ending a life. Life is cheap, cheaper than it ought to be, perhaps. But it is what it is, and there isn't a mage alive that would countenance the sort of disrespect the fool had shown by assaulting my sanctum. Most would have slaughtered every man present, but I had made my point, and was content.
I considered telling the others not to come back, but that seemed pointless. Either they would or they wouldn't and telling them was far less effective than showing them. Finally I just shrugged to myself and went back inside.

~ ~ ~

My second caller was a big, beefy sailor, his thinning hair pulled back in a queue. He only had one hand. If he noticed the remains of Steyner's captain on the way up, he said nothing.
Magister Holgren, then?”
He tugged on an imaginary forelock with an imaginary hand and said “Name's Marl. I've come to cook and keep house.”
Keel told you the position's requirements?”
Aye. Marketing, cooking, cleaning. I'm to lodge here. The position will likely be temporary.”
Come in then, master Marl.” He entered, and I sat at the table. When I invited him to do the same he declined.
Keel explained the basics. I'll let you know the finer points. Then you can decide whether you still want the position.”
As you say, Magus.”
You're well aware the city is unstable. Many think I wish to become its ruler, or hope to use me to make them ruler. Anyone who serves me should be aware that this means they may be targets, for those hoping to extract information if nothing else.”
People might try to pump me for information, or worse. I understand.”
You'll be doing the marketing, so you will be in danger. Keel is also hiring armsmen. One will accompany you whenever you leave the Citadel.”
All right.”
I will lay two spells on you. The first is a Compulsion not to betray any secrets you may learn while in my employ. This Compulsion is voluntary; you have to agree to it. The second spell is simple tracking magic; if someone takes you or you get into trouble, I'll know where you are and can come collect you. These two spells are non-negotiable requirements of your employment. Are you agreeable?”
Will they hurt?”
Not in the slightest.”
Will they let you read my mind?”
Not a single stray thought.”
How much is the pay, Magus? Your boy was somewhat vague about that. He said 'at least double whatever you're making now.'”
What are you making now?”
Nothing, being unemployed at present.” He smiled.
What were you making before you became a man of infinite prospects?”
Two gold, six silver a month.”
Then I'll pay you eight.”
No. Eight gold.”
That's too much, Magus.”
Three gold for your services. Five for your hazard.” I scooped out a handful of marks from my purse and counted out twenty. “Your first month in advance. The rest is for marketing. If you need more just tell me, but I'll expect a weekly accounting.”
As you say, Magus.”
Any other questions, Master Marl?”
He looked around. “Where's the kitchen, then?”

~ ~ ~

The third caller was an old man pulling a hand cart. The steep incline had obviously worn him out. Inside the cart were two fishing nets, reeking of the sea. I foolishly hadn't specified to Keel that they should be new.
Live and learn.
I tipped the man a couple of silver for his trouble, and brought the nets inside. If I hadn't needed a bath and a change of clothes before that, I certainly did after. I dumped them on the floor and called out for Master Marl.
Aye, magus?” he replied, half-climbing the stairs and poking his head up from what I just knew he would refer to as the galley, if only to himself.
Any idea how to make these less rank and less slimy?”
Aye, I can do it, magus. Will you be needing them today?”
Tomorrow will serve.”
D'you need 'em dry?”
No. Just not sopping wet.”
I'll have 'em ready by morning. But I'll need to buy a tub. Among many, many other things.”
Noon tomorrow is soon enough.”
There was another knock on the door.
Would you like me to get that, Magus?” asked Marl, and I shook my head.
The furniture had arrived.
Five beds, five smallish wardrobes, three silver-backed mirrors in wooden frames, another table and six straight-backed dining chairs, a couch whose pastel embroidery made my eyes want to bleed. Bedding. Linens. Chamber pots. Pitchers. A coat rack. A boot scraper. A porcelain flower vase. Pewter tankards and stamped iron utensils. Other things I didn't bother to unpack and identify.
Keel was having entirely too much fun.
I had them dump it all there on the first floor. Keel could have fun setting it all up, as well. I tipped them well. Bellarius, being dishearteningly vertical for the most part, couldn't boast much in the way of draft animals. Human toil was the norm.
D'you want me to get started on all that, Magus?” Marl asked me, face impassive. Here was a man unafraid of work.
No, let's leave it for Keel, shall we? I asked him to buy a few necessities, for a few days. It looks like he cleared out every furnishings shop in the city.”
Well, to be fair magus, the shopkeepers are hurting. Like as not he paid a pittance for all these goods.”
Speaking of which, have you worked up a list of what you'll need for the kitchen?”
Aye. I'll be going marketing now, with your permission. And I'll pick up my kit while I'm about it.”
Of course.”

~ ~ ~

By the time the next knock on the door came, I'd fashioned four burning tower badges. It was intricate work, and being practically frivolous, I rather enjoyed it. I rarely had a chance or a reason to be artistic with the Art. The intricate, precise work required a level of concentration I was familiar enough with. The consequence of failure was nothing at all; a feeling I'd almost forgotten.
I'd transformed a few marks into the shape of the Citadel, then tied and hardened tiny little flickering flames of green witchlight to come licking out of the windows. The effect was somewhat gaudy, and I'd need to renew each of them every few days. But I was pleased with the result.
There was another knock, more insistent this time.
I got up from the table, expecting Moc Mien. I went and opened the door.
It wasn't Moc Mien.
The man at the door was a hulking brute with a scar that ran up his face and creased his shaved, tanned scalp. His eyes were a dirty green, small, and rather evil-looking. The teeth he exposed with his insincere smile were very, very white, though. He was dressed in woolen trousers and a leather jerkin that was too small to go all the way around his barrel chest. A silver amulet on a chain gleamed between his overdeveloped pectorals.
Did Keel send you?” I asked, thinking it was one of the mercenaries.
No. Gabul Steyner did.” And then he punched me in the face. Through the wards.
Through the Telemarch's wards.
I staggered back, momentarily stunned, and he followed me in, as if the wards simply weren't there. He punched me again, and I fell to the floor, ripping power from my well as I went down. With a flick of my wrist I released it, regretting for Marle's sake the mess of blood and tissue that was about to coat the room.
Nothing happened.
They all do that,” the man said, standing over me and waving his hands in a parody of a mage casting a spell. “And then they all get that stupid look on their faces when nothing happens.” He smiled. “I never get tired of that.”
He picked me up by the front of my shirt and threw me onto the table. Everything on it went flying. I bounced once and tumbled to the floor. I landed hard and awkward on my side, with an awful wrench to my shoulder, one hand twisted behind my back.
He flung the table aside and squatted down, reaching for my neck.
What do you want?” I asked, and then his hands were squeezing the breath out of me. Hard.
I got what I want; Steyner's money. Now he gets what he wants. You dead.”
So, the muscles of my arm shrieking in abused protest, I pulled Amra's knife out of my belt where I kept it at the small of my back, and plunged it into the side of his neck.
He fell back. I kept the knife. He put his huge hands to the wound, but it was pointless. I'd hit the artery. He looked at me in shock.
I worked myself up to a squatting position, spat blood out of my lacerated mouth. A piece of tooth went with it.
They all get that stupid look on their faces, when a mage sticks steel in them instead of waving his arms around,” I panted, an ugly, oily hate possessing me. “You should have run me through with a sword as soon as I opened the door,” I continued, over his dying grunts. “But no, you had to make it personal. You had to mix business and pleasure, you miserable, twisted shit.”
Then I leaned over him and, with a violence-shaky hand, reached out and took the amulet from his neck, snapping the chain. Then I sat back.
As soon as I'd touched the thing, I'd become completely cut off from my well. I knew what it was. For whoever touched the thing, magic simply didn't exist. I'd heard of such things before, but had never actually seen one. They were rare artifacts even before the Cataclysm, and completely impossible to fabricate nowadays. How this murderous thug had gotten hold of one was a mystery.
Thanks for the magical sink,” I told him as the spark faded from his eyes, slipping the amulet into my pocket. “It might prove useful.”

Then, with a groan, I got up and dragged his carcass out to the street.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Amra 4, Chapter 2

Some more of the current work in progress! Chapter 2 turned out to be a bit on the long side. The usual caveats apply: Every single word below is subject to change before publication. Enjoy!


I'd given up on any quick solution to the puzzle of Amra's disappearance after I'd exhausted every reasonable avenue of inquiry that I and Greytooth could come up with. That had wasted a week, but I had, at least, confirmed three things: That Amra wasn't dead, that the Telemarch definitely was, and that Amra was almost certainly nowhere in the World.
That left everything outside the World. Which was a very large area to search. Technically, it was an infinity. Multiple infinities. But at least I had her point of departure.
I climbed the stairs to the top floor, to look for the hundredth time at the Telemarch's inner sanctum. Or rather, the space that had contained his inner sanctum.
There wasn't a precise line where the room ended. Take the ugly, skull-shaped door, for example. The exterior of the door was as solid, and tasteless, as it had ever been. The interior of the door, however, no longer existed. Or at least the interior surface was as gone as gone gets.
It did not cease to exist at a precise point. The interior surface of the door, and the entire room, just faded. The nearest analogy I could manage was that of someone dipping a brush in ink and dragging it across a sheet of parchment. At first the line would be a solid black, but as the ink was used up, the line would become fainter, patchier, until it disappeared entirely.
In this case, the ink was reality itself. What the brush had been, and whose hand had guided it, I could only speculate. In all probability I had the metaphor reversed, and reality had been erased rather than applied. It made no difference, really, since all I had at this point was speculation.
I entered the room, wishing for at least the fiftieth time that I'd known what it had looked like before it had gone missing.
Keel had been following me. I hadn't really noticed until he failed to follow me into the room. He didn't like the room. Said it gave him the mimis, whatever those were.
Hurvus will be around this afternoon to check your eye, Magus,” he said to my back.
What's to check? It's not there anymore.”
You know what I mean.”
I sighed, and nodded. “I do.”
We've nearly finished off the Telemarch's larder. Down to dried beans and ham bones. I have a little coin, enough for a few days' groceries, but I don't know what's available now.”
Because of the riots and the barricades.”
I turned around. “No, Keel, I mean why are you still here. This last week I have not been the pleasantest person to be around. Why are you still here, telling me about appointments and groceries?”
His face got a little pale, and a little angry. “Did you want me to leave?”
No. I just want to know why you're here instead of out there. You told me you were one of the Just Man's followers, before.”
He nodded. “I was. But Ansen's dead. He doesn't need any help. Amra's alive, somewhere, and she does. I owe her.”
I'm doing everything I can to get her back, Keel.”
I know, magus. And I know I can't really help with that. But I can remind you your wound needs checked, and I can make sure there's food ready when you remember to eat.” He shrugged. “I want to do what I can, even if it isn't much. Plus,” he grinned, “I'm supposed to be gone from Bellarius. Since I'm still here, I'd rather be holed up in a fortress with a magus than out on the street where Moc Mien's crew can get hold of me.”
I smiled. It hurt. “Ah. Theiner. I'd forgotten about him. All right, If you're going to be my eyes, ears and hands in the city below, I can't have you dodging his crew all the time. Best to deal with him now rather than later.” I left the inner sanctum, dug into a pocket and came up with a few marks. I passed them to Keel. “After you buy provisions, I want you to invite Theiner up for dinner tonight. I want to talk to him.”
Uh, magus–”
Don't tell me you don't know where to find him.”
It's not that. If he sees me again he's going to do very bad things to me. Permanent things.”
No he won't.” I dug out another mark, pulled a whisper of power from my well, and scribed the Hardic rune for 'parley' just above it. The rune floated and turned slow circles, as buttery gold as the gold mark it drew its reality from. I gave it enough power to last the day, and hardened it so that it wouldn't fade once I turned my concentration away from it.
I flicked the coin to Keel. “Give him that. You'll be fine. He'll respect the parley.”
All right,” he said, both morosely and dubiously. “Anything else?”
Do you know where the banking house of Vulkin and Bint is?” I was going to need much more hard currency than I'd brought along with me on my voyage from Lucernis.
Not really, but all the banks are on the same street, so yes.”
I'll need you to carry a letter there for me. I'll write it out in a moment.”
They're not going to let me in the door. Especially not with the rioting.”
You don't have to go in. Just deliver the letter to the doorman. And on your way back invite Greytooth to dinner, as well.”
So we're having a dinner party.”
It would appear so. Better buy some decent wine.”
Keel, if you don't start calling me Holgren I'm going to write it on a stick and beat you with it until you remember.”
He smiled. “That sounds like something she would say.” No need to explain who 'she' was.
Where do you think I got it from?”
All right, Holgren. One more question?”
Why the change? For the last week you've barely spoken, or slept, or eaten. Everything has been about the magic. Now you're making plans like you're going to be here a while.”
It was a good question. The boy was perceptive, if annoyingly young. “The change is because I've exhausted all my quick, relatively sane options for finding her.”
So? What now?”
From here on out, haste is a liability. She lives, that much I know, not hope. While that remains true, I have to walk a knife edge in regards to what I can and should attempt, to find her and get her back. I have to walk that edge. No more sprinting. The consequences could be dire.”
He shook his head. “I don't really know what you mean.”
I'll explain all you're likely to understand, and probably much more. But tonight at dinner, not now.”

~ ~ ~

When Keel left I went exploring. I'd seen something in the Telemarch's weave of wards that had intrigued me. I wanted to see if my suspicions were correct.
I knew that, below the four visible floors of the tower, there was a basement that served as larder and kitchen. But the weave suggested there was more to the Citadel, possibly much more.
I didn't bother to take a lantern. The weave of wards and other, still unknown magics was so dense and bright to my magesight that mundane light wasn't necessary. If I needed to see something with my physical eyes—eye—I could always summon magelight in any case.
It was in the great hearth of the kitchen. What looked like a solid, soot-blackened back wall was just illusion. Behind it was a corridor. Where it led to, I couldn't tell from the outside.
I stepped through the wall.
Dust and soot, thick and dry and kicked up by my feet, assaulted my nostrils. I sneezed. It was loud in that cold, silent place. I walked forward, and within a few feet came to a T intersection. Stairs led down in either direction. I chose the left-hand path and descended, but soon enough came to an abrupt dead end. I summoned a ball of magelight and took a look.
The passageway had collapsed, and the weave of wards was torn and dead where the rubble began. I did a little mental calculation and came to the conclusion that I was just about where the Riail must have stood, before Amra made it fall down on top of the Syndic.
Retracing my route, I took the right-hand stairs. Soon enough the stairs began to spiral. They went down a long, long way, with the occasional off-shooting corridor, which I ignored for the time being.
Eventually I came to a rough-hewn cavern, featureless and empty except for a massive iron disc which lay on the floor. It was at least four feet in diameter and five inches thick, and had hundreds of sigils carved into its face, all of them whispering of containment and quiescence, torpidity and compliance.
It was the sorcerous equivalent of a prison door.
I traced the weave, found the command, forced the door. The iron disk floated up and out of the way, revealing a black shaft drilled into the floor. At first glance I thought the shaft was featureless, but closer inspection revealed more of the same sigils carved into the shaft's smooth wall. They were barely visible to the human eye, they were etched so small. I hadn't noticed them at first because every iota of magic had been leeched out of them, unlike the sigils on the shaft's lid. Closer inspection revealed that they were still sound, just bereft of power. If it were necessary, they could be renewed.
I summoned a glowing bead of light, gave it weight and enough power to last perhaps a quarter of an hour, and dropped it down the shaft. It fell and fell, and was lost to sight long before its power sputtered out.
This then was what Greytooth called the rift, where Aither had stored his unrefined magic, his uncut chaos. It was empty now, a very deep, very dark hole in the ground rather than a flawed reservoir of power. I would have given much to know where that power had gone. I had a feeling that, wherever it had disappeared to, Amra wasn't far from it.
Where did you go?” I whispered, and the rift ate my words and gave nothing back.
I sat down on the dusty stone floor, put my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. Alone for the first time in a week, I let my frustration and fear for Amra out in a burning shriek. When it was done, my throat was raw. I don't know that it made me feel any better, but at least I felt no worse. Slowly, patiently I pieced together my self control and calm reserve, and strapped myself into it, like a knight his armor.
The frantic worry clawed at my stomach, as it had since she'd entered the Telemarch's sanctum. I made sure no sign of it touched my face.
I replaced the lid and began the long climb back up to the tower.
If I had need of it, I had the world's deepest, most secure oubliette at my disposal. And I would have need.
I'd feared, since I first forced the door to the Telemarch's inner sanctum, that any reasonable approach to locating Amra would be met with disappointment. Slowly, over the course of the last week, as spell after spell had failed, I had been considering more extreme plans to get her back.
The first that came to mind was finding yet another of the Eightfold's Blades, and using it to find her. I'd put it aside, considering just how powerful, unpredictable and dangerous those Blades had so far proven to be. Put aside, but not discarded. I would do it if I had to. Even if it earned me Greytooth's enmity.
Before I went down that road, however, there was another I could travel. It was equally deadly and equally terrifying, but it was a route that I had much more knowledge of.
The rift, bereft of power as it now was, would still prove useful on that journey.

~ ~ ~

Any unusual pain?” Hurvus asked me as he applied some milky solution to the empty socket. It was cold, numbing and uncomfortable.
Define unusual, in the context of losing an eye,” I replied.
Sudden headaches? Persistent irritation?”
No. The pain has lessened, though it still hurts if I glance somewhere quickly.”
The muscles are tied into each other, trying to move an eye that isn't there anymore. The pain will fade. Sit up, lean forward, let it drain into the basin. Have you considered a false eye or sewing the lids shut?”
I have not.”
Good. Don't. That's just begging for infection. And don't sleep with the patch on. Disease loves close, damp, dark places.” He handed me a clean cloth and began packing up his things in a worn leather satchel. I wiped the solution off my cheek and eyelids.
It don't need any more attention from me. I won't miss the walks up the Mount. If you need anything else, you can come see me. I won't be back here.”
Trouble getting through the Girdle?”
No. The boys on the barricades know me, and the Blacksleeves as well. Physicking has its benefits.”
What about Keel?” I asked him.
What about Keel?”
Anything more to do about that arm of his?”
I unbound it this morning and re-splinted it. Or hadn't you noticed?”
I hadn't. I've been rather distracted.”
He grunted. “It's properly set and healing well. The splints can come off in a month. No more, no less. Then he'll need to build his strength back up in the arm, but slowly. The muscles will have atrophied by then. I've told him all this, but Isin only knows if he was paying attention.”
I stood and shook his hand. Passed him a few marks. “My thanks, and your payment. Have you eaten? Greytooth will be supping with me in an hour or so.”
I can't. I have a committee meeting.”
I raised an eyebrow.
The Just Men. I've been keeping busy sewing them up after their clashes with the Councilors' troops.”
Have you become a revolutionary, then?”
I take no part in politics. But their organization regarding casualties is a sad fucking shambles. I decided to give them a little advice, if only to make my life easier and keep people from dying unnecessarily.”
Enlightened self-interest, then.”
Too fucking right.”
A drink before you go?”
His eyes said 'hells yes' but his mouth said 'no thanks.'
I saw him to the door. As he was going down the steep street, he passed another gentleman coming up it. I waited at the door, since anyone who had climbed this far could only be coming to the Citadel. The fellow didn't look like much, but I activated the wards nonetheless. Appearances, deceiving, etc. The man was a mage, that much I could tell with my magesight. How powerful he might be I had no idea.
He was a relatively young fellow, fit enough that the climb hadn't winded him too badly. He was dressed in white hose, black shoes with silver buckles, and a suit that was silk and pale, pale blue. He wore a tri-cornered hat, Isinglas-style. I looked down at my own clothes, and realized I was sorely in need of a laundress. Well. At least black was forgiving of grime.
He stopped a few feet away from the threshold and said “Magister Angrado?”
I nodded.
He doffed his hat and gave me a shallow bow. “Perrick Leed, of Vulkin and Bint.”
Well met, Magister Leed. Would you care to come inside?”
Your pardon, but no. I was sent to verify your claim, as is necessary before the bank can accede to your request. It will only take a moment, and then I will return to the bank directly to fulfill your instructions.”
Well enough,” I said. I'd set in place the precautions Leeds was now following, so it wouldn't have been very fair of me to complain. Being both a thief and a mage, I'd imagined far too many ways to make child's play of a banking house's mundane security procedures.
Do you submit to the Compulsion, magus?”
I do.”
He summoned up his power, and I felt the Compulsion settle on my mind like a soft cloth. I would notice no further effects, as long as I did not try to lie.
Are you in fact the mage Holgren Angrado?”
I am.”
Do you in fact wish to withdraw a sum of forty thousand Lucernan gold marks based on the letter of credit on file with the Bellarian chapter of the bank?”
I do.”
Does the Lucernan chapter of the bank in fact hold sufficient monies on deposit in your name to cover in full the sum you have requested, including the applicable five per cent accommodation fee?”
It does, as far as I know and last I checked.”
Are you in any way trying to deceive the bank into giving you monies that you do not in fact possess, or are otherwise spoken for?”
I am not.”
The Compulsion dissipated and Leed bowed once again. “I thank you for your time, Magister, and apologize for this necessary delay. Your request will be fulfilled in the morning.”
Why the delay?”
The current situation in the city is such that we feel it necessary take extra precautions, to ensure that your funds are delivered.”
In other words, the city is a battlefield and you need to gather a small army to make sure I get my gold.”
Precisely, Magister Angrado.”
Well. I apologize for putting the bank out in this fashion.”
Apologies are wasted on banks, magus,” he said with a small smile, “as they do not fit in any ledger. But I appreciate the sentiment. Good day.”

~ ~ ~

Keel was a dismal cook.
He'd prepared what he said were marsh eels in heartroot sauce, but looked like discs of gristle half-submerged in a gray, cold, pasty gravy. He'd mistaken pepper for a vegetable, rather than a seasoning. The bread at least was bought from a bakery and palatable, if stupendously expensive, costing nearly as much as the wine. The rebels controlled the docks, but Councilor Steyner and Councilor When controlled the routes into the Bellarian countryside, where virtually all the produce and fresh meat for the city came from. Imported wine was dirt cheap. The price of loaf of black bread was enough to cause heart palpitations.
Greytooth, Keel and I ate in virtual silence. Greytooth, I had discovered, enjoyed talking about as much as I enjoyed having one eye. Keel could talk all night, but he kept silent, sitting at a table with two mages. As for me, I'd been raised to save conversation for after a meal. Besides, I needed all my concentration to finish the meal without letting on what a chore it was to chew and swallow.
Theiner had not yet made his appearance.
I had no idea where Keel had gotten the table. Or the chairs. Or the dishes or the cutlery. I hadn't seen anything remotely like them when Amra and I had first entered the Citadel, and in the week that followed, I hadn't been paying attention to anything other than trying to find her. Well, that and my eye. I would have been happy to ignore that as well, but the pain, especially at first, had been unignorable.
I finished the last bite and, with a sigh that I hoped sounded like satisfaction, pushed the empty pewter dish away from me.
Many thanks, Keel. That was...” I searched for a word that wouldn't be an outright lie.
Horrific,” Greytooth supplied.
...filling,” I finally managed.
I've seen my Ma make it a hundred times,” the boy muttered. “Not sure what went wrong.”
Cooking is as much an art as the Art,” I said. “Perhaps we should hire a professional.” I looked around the virtually empty ground floor. “Maybe somebody to dust. Do you know anyone?”
That would haul themselves up to the Citadel each day, past the barricades? How much are you paying?”
Whatever you think is fair, Keel. I leave it to you. They can do the marketing as well.”
He nodded. “I'll find somebody tomorrow.” He rose to collect the dishes.
No, leave them. We need to talk, we three.”
Greytooth raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing.
I filled everyone's glasses and sat back down. “First I want to thank both of you for all you have done this last week, and for the assistance, and friendship, you tendered Amra before that.”
Keel looked down at his lap, embarrassed. Greytooth swirled his wine.
I have not been able to discover Amra's whereabouts, despite all our efforts. We have done all that can reasonably be done, I believe.”
Does that mean you're giving up the search?” Greytooth asked, voice mild.
It does not. It means I am preparing to resort to unreasonable means to find her.”
Such as?”
Well that depends in part on what you can tell me about the Philosophers' connection to the Eightfold, and Her Blades.”
He put his glass down. “I can tell you nothing, Holgren.”
Can't, or won't?”
He avoided my question by asking his own.
What do you hope to gain by such knowledge? How does that have anything to do with finding Mistress Thetys?”
An Arhat was mixed up in the whole sordid affair with the Blade that Whispers Hate. Here in Bellarius, Amra encountered the Knife that Parts the Night—and you, Magister Greytooth, another Arhat, another Philosopher. I have learned one thing in the years I have spent with Amra Thetys: Where she goes there is no coincidence, only cause and effect.
That the Philosophers are connected to the Eightfold's Blades I have zero doubt. That Amra is connected to the Blades, likewise. Therefore you Philosophers are, in some form or fashion, connected to Amra, even if only tangentially. I want to know what that connection is, Fallon.”
Because anything connected to her might be something I can use to pull her back from wherever she has gone, or guide me to where she is.”
Holgren. I am sorry, truly. This connection does not offer hope of that sort.”
Tell me, and let me judge.”
Very well. Put simply, The Cataclysm was caused by a splinter faction of the Philosophers; this much I suspect you know.”
I do.”
That faction used one of the Eightfold's Blades to... do what they did. The rest of us have been dedicated to collecting Her Blades ever since, to finding them and keeping them out of the reach of anyone who would seek to use them, so that nothing like the Cataclysm might ever happen again.”
Noble,” I said, “but not, you'll pardon my saying, terribly effective, judging by the state of Bellarius.” Hundreds had died when the power of the rift had begun to breach its containment. Buildings had melted like wax, dark things had been birthed and still roamed the night streets, killing and worse. The Knife that Parts the Night had made it all possible.
We are few and the Blades are extremely powerful. Until Amra destroyed the Blade that Whispers Hate, we had devoted ourselves for centuries to tracking the Blades down and containing them, believing them indestructible.” He tossed back the remains of his wine and set the empty glass carefully on the table.
Amra Thetys gave us hope that we might accomplish what we all had believed was impossible. She gave us reason to believe we could fully discharge the debt that the Philosophers owed the world, for bringing on the Cataclysm. Her destruction of Abanon's Blade gave us reason to hope that we need not spend an eternity hunting and imprisoning the mad weapons of a mad goddess, that our quest and our watch might actually have some end. That is the connection between Amra and my order, Holgren. That, and no other. I swear it. I'm sorry that it does not afford you any means to bring her back.”
It was the most I'd heard him say at any one time. He looked drained. I poured him another glass.
How do the Philosophers track the Blades?”
We do not, as such. We merely look for certain signs that one might be loose, and in the hands of a mortal. We have no direct way of finding them using the Art, or the Philosophy. I do not know where Kalara's Knife is any more than I know where Amra is, nor do I have any special means of finding out.”
What if—” My question was interrupted by a knock at the door. Theiner, I presumed. Or Moc Mien. Whichever. Keel obviously presumed the same, because he was suddenly very busy clearing the table and disappearing.
I went and opened the door.
Magus,” Theiner said with a nod. “Got your invite.” He was standing with his arms folded, coat-less despite the cold.
I nodded in return and stepped aside to allow him entry. He didn't move.
Where's Amra?” he asked.
That's one of the things I'd like to discuss with you.”
She obviously did what she said she would, or we wouldn't be standing here talking. And I wouldn't be meeting you in the Citadel if the Telemarch still had a pulse.”
Please, Moc Mien, come in.” He was Theiner to Amra, not me. I was meeting with a crew chief, not an old friend.
Finally he did, with what seemed to me a strange reluctance. He wandered around the big, empty room for a moment, sparing a glance for Greytooth, who in turn ignored him completely.
Where's Keel?” he asked.
Washing up after dinner.”
Staying out of my sight, you mean.”
I mean he's washing up after dinner.” Moc Mien snorted, but let it rest. To my mind, Keel had nothing to prove to anyone. He could have fled the city at any point, knowing his former crew wouldn't be kind at all if they caught him. He'd stayed to help rescue Amra. Moc Mien's opinion of the boy meant nothing to me.
Care for some wine?” I asked him, and he nodded. I poured him a glass.
Are you going to answer my question, mage?” he asked as he took the glass from me and leaned up against a pillar.
As to where Amra is, I don't know. Not here. Not anywhere in the word. But not dead.”
You're going to have to explain that one to me, I'm afraid. I'm just a street rat grown up.”
I snorted. “So is Amra, as far as that goes. Please don't play the fool, Moc Mien. It doesn't suit you.”
All right, if she isn't dead and isn't in the world, where the fuck is she?”
That's exactly what I've been trying to find out ever since she disappeared.”
Well. Thanks for enlightening me. Is that all you wanted to discuss?”
No,” I said. “But let's leave the other topics until Keel rejoins us.” I hoped the boy would return without me having to call him. It wouldn't do to show fear to one like Moc Mien. “Amra told me that you were her oldest living friend. How did you meet?”
I needed someone small enough and with the balls to climb up the inside of a drainpipe. It was a pretty wide drainpipe, but it was long, and as crooked as Kerf's staff.”
What in the world did you need someone to do that for?”
It was the only way I could find into a place I wanted to get into.”
Did she do it?”
No. She asked if I was born a moron or became one later, and then picked the lock on the coal chute.” He smiled at the memory, briefly. The smile disappeared when Keel came up the stairs from the kitchen, replaced by the stony mask of a crime lord. For his part, Keel ignored his former boss, sat down at the table and sipped at his wine.
I went to the table and sat down, looking at Moc Mien. After a brief hesitation he peeled his back off the pillar and sat, splay-legged, in the last empty seat.
Gentlemen. Sitting around this table are the four people in Bellarius who know Amra, know that she saved this city from utter destruction, and have a stake in bringing her back from wherever she has gone.”
Yeah, you might want to explain that part a bit more clearly,” Moc Mien drawled. “Where did she go?”
Very well. Here are the bare facts. She entered the Telemarch's inner sanctum. The Telemarch died. Amra, the Knife that Parts the Knife, and the power that the Telemarch had summoned that was rapidly destroying the city all vanished. The facts and their order of occurrence are what I and Magister Greytooth are completely certain of.”
What in hells is the Knife that Parts the Night?”
A powerful and deadly weapon made by by a powerful and insane goddess. It was what gave the Telemarch much of his magic, and made him insane.”
Fair enough. Next question. Where were you when Amra was facing him down, mage?” Moc Mien's voice had a thick thread of contempt running through it, but I answered calmly.
Getting my eye gouged out by a monster.”
He was protecting a little girl,” Keel said, pointing to me, eyes hot. “Where the hells were you?”
I'm going to let that pass for now, boy. We'll get to you later.”
Keel,” I said quietly, “Moc Mien is here for a parley at my invitation. Don't insult my honor.” It wasn't really fair to Keel, but he was young and hotheaded. He needed to learn to stay calm when provoked.
Sorry,” Keel muttered. He didn't sound the least bit sorry. I wouldn't have either, at that age.
Moc Mien, Amra isn't dead. Whatever she did, it saved the city and everyone in it. Whatever she did, it caused her to disappear from the world. But she isn't dead.”
How does that work, exactly? How do you leave the world any way other than feet-first?”
There are an infinite number of planes of existence.”
Oh? Care to give me an example?”
Certainly. In fact I'll give you eleven: The eleven hells, to be precise.”
You're saying Amra is in a hell?”
I don't know where Amra is. It's possible she's there. It's equally possible she's wandering around the plane of the gods, stealing fruit from Isin's own garden and complaining about the wine. I don't know where she is. I only know she isn't here, on this plane with us.”
Moc Mien rubbed his forehead. “Well. Thanks for informing me, I suppose.” He put his glass on the table and stood up. Turned to leave.
I'm going to find her,” I said quietly to his back, “and then I'm going to go and get her. And I need your help.” I looked at Greytooth and Keel. “I need all of your help.”
Moc Mien turned around.
Just what sort of help is it you think I can offer, mage?”
First, I want you to give Keel a pass for the time we will remain in Bellarius. I'll need him to run errands for me. I need him to be able to do that without turning up at my door in pieces.”
How long were you planning on staying?”
I don't know. Perhaps a week. Perhaps a month. Until I no longer need the Citadel.” Until I could take, and break, one of the creatures created by the power of the rift.
I can probably accommodate you. It won't be cheap.”
I didn't expect it to be free. Second, I want to hire your crew. It will be for a very dangerous job.”
What do you want to steal, and who from?”
I don't want to steal anything. I want to trap something.”
Trap? We're thieves, not hunters.”
Do you see many hunters in Bellarius? I need tough men who know the streets, alleys, rooftops and hiding places in the city. Your crew will serve.”
Not unless I say they will.”
You know what I mean.”
What are you hunting?”
One of the creatures that was spawned the night Amra disappeared. One of the dark mishaps created by the Telemarch's rift. Which one doesn't really matter.”
So you want me to ignore Keel's existence, and you want my crew to kill something.”
No. Not kill. I need it alive.”
By all the dead gods, what for? Those things are deadly.”
I need it to lead me to Amra.”
How in hells will that work?”
It's complicated and magical. Just trust me. If I can capture one and break it to my will, I'm virtually certain I can use it to lead me to Amra, or at least very near.”
Greytooth cleared his throat. “Have you discovered a way to walk the planes, then?”
Me? No. But there's a book that might tell me how.”
Oh, really. And where might this book be found?”
In the Black Library.”
Greytooth stared at me, open-mouthed. Finally he said “You've lost your mind.”
What?” Keel asked. “What's the Black Library?”
I have to second the kid, unfortunately,” Moc Mien added. “Never heard of it. Not that I'm big on libraries.”
The Black Library,” said Greytooth, never taking his eyes off mine, “is in Thraxys. The fifth hell.”
So let me get this straight,” Moc Mien said. “You want to trap one of the nightmares that's been terrorizing the Girdle and house-break it. Then you're going to go to a library in the fifth hell and steal a book that will tell you how to wander around other planes of existence. Have I got the basics down so far?”
That's not a plan. That's not even wishing. That's pure, impossible madness.”
Greytooth cleared his throat. “I'm assuming you'll be using your new, notional pet as a bloodhound of some sort, to lead you to wherever Amra is.”
That's right.”
Moc Mien looked at the Philosopher. “You're not taking him seriously?'
I am. Unfortunately. It is both the strength and weakness of mages that we deal in making the impossible become the inevitable. Strength, because without that level of self-belief, we could work no magic whatsoever. Weakness because we sometimes bite off more than we can chew. Holgren is not necessarily mad, despite what I said earlier.”
Are you joking? I'm not even a mage and I can see holes in that plan big enough to put my foot through.”
Nothing Holgren has said so far is impossible. Incredibly dangerous, yes. Almost sure to get him killed, certainly. But not impossible. Though I do get the feeling he is leaving out some rather large portions of his plan.”
Oh?” I asked. “Such as?”
Such as how you're going to domesticate a monster. Such as how you're going to gain access to the infernal regions in the first place. Such as how you intend to to battle your way past the endless hordes of demons hungering for a taste of living human flesh, rather than the pale, wispy sustenance of a human soul. Such as—”
Details, magus, merely details.”
He snorted. “Does that mean you don't yet know how you're going to deal with those details, or does it mean you don't want to discuss them?”
Mostly the latter, a bit of the former,” I admitted.
Greytooth just shook his head. Silence crept into the room. Keel finally broke it.
So does all that mean Holgren is rats-in-a-bag crazy or not?”

~ ~ ~

The 'party' broke up a short while later. Greytooth and Moc Mien left thinking I was probably insane, but in the end Moc Mien was convinced to help by the promise of large amounts of gold, and Greytooth by simple hope. Keel was also leaning towards crazy, but he was too young and inexperienced to make a final judgment. Even if he became convinced I'd lost my mind, I was fairly certain he'd stick around out of loyalty.
Gold, hope, and loyalty. Powerful enough motivators to convince three people to attempt what seemed impossible. Explaining that I didn't need any of them to accompany me on my trip to Thraxys hadn't hurt either.
I knew more about the eleven hells, in all probability, than anyone else alive. I'd studied them in depth after I'd sold my soul, looking for some way out of the bargain. Then I'd died, and gone to the third hell. What I'd discovered there wasn't something I could talk much about; some sort of compulsion had accompanied my resurrection. But one thing I'd learned before my resurrection gave me hope that my plan to raid the Black Library might have a chance of succeeding.
The hells were empty. Or at least the third one had been. I was willing to bet my life and my soul that the others were, as well.
Oh, there were still damned souls pouring in, but there were no demons or daemons there to receive them, to torment them, to feast on them.
They were all gone.
Where they'd gone or why, I hadn't a clue. Whether they would be back, the same. But their disappearance gave me at least a hope of success. If they were still disappeared, I would not have to battle my way across the third, fourth and fifth hells to reach the Black Library—a battle I would have had no chance of winning. Even without their native denizens, trekking across three hells would be a perilous journey.
I would have to enter at Gholdoryth, the third hell. It was the only one with a gate I had relatively easy access to.
First things first. Trap and train one of the rift-spawn. The Citadel had everything I need to do so, if it could be done. Once I'd accomplished that, I could leave Bellarius behind and return to Lucernis.
I wouldn't be spending much time in Lucernis, however, if all went well. Just long enough to drop Keel off safe and sound at home, visit a couple of powerful, unpredictable beings, and reopen the hell gate that the mad sorcerer Bosch had created just off the Jacos Road.
Inspector Kluge would be very unhappy about that, if he found out. Best he didn't find out.
From there....
Well. Step by step.
I left Keel by the fire with a nod and climbed the stairs, magelight guiding my way. I passed, once again, the cloth-covered easel on the second level, as utterly uninterested in the Telemarch's artistic endeavors as I had been when Amra and I had first climbed the stairs to his inner sanctum.
I stopped off at the library on the third floor and took a book at random from the dusty shelves, not bothering to look at the title, if it even had one. Many of them did not. It didn't matter. If I did not read to distract myself before sleep, I wouldn't sleep. Facts and suppositions and memories and plans and fragments of plans would parade themselves endlessly across the stage of my mind, and soon enough it would be dawn and I would not have slept a wink. I could function without it, but I would never be sure I was as sharp as I needed to be. Especially if I needed to cast a spell extemporaneously.
Magic was an unforgiving art, and failure due to inattention could mean sudden death; mine or others'. That much Yvoust, my master, had beaten into me early. He hadn't been wrong in that, though he had been in too much else.
I went to 'bed' in the inner sanctum, as I had every night since Amra had vanished. Keel may have felt uncomfortable there, but I found it peaceful. I hardened the magelight, propped myself in a corner and started to read what seemed to be a treatise on the measurement of time, written by some dead Gosland philosopher. It was all rubbish and nearly impenetrable, which was exactly what I needed.

I got almost two solid hours of sleep. Hurvus would not have been happy with me. I forgot to remove the patch.