Submissions: A Pair of Never Have I Evers

With over four hundred submissions you might think I’ve seen just about everything when it comes to editorial responses. I’ve certainly seen a lot, but there are a couple of anomalies in my submission record that stick out. Let’s talk about them.

1) Never have I ever received a revision request.

Yep, not once. I think I’ve received just about every other kind of response you can get from a publisher, but the revision request eludes me. I know authors who receive tons of them, to the point where it’s almost commonplace. So why not me? Here are two possible reasons.

  • The market. Some publishers just don’t send them. It’s either a yes or a no because they don’t have the time to work with an author to develop a maybe. This is certainly anecdotal, but the authors I know who receive revision requests on the regular write more lit-fic, so maybe it’s more common in that circle.
  • I’m a true outcome writer. Borrowing a term from baseball, a true outcome player is one who often generates one of three outcomes in an at bat: a home run, a walk, or a strikeout. So far, I tend to be that kind of writer. I either get an acceptance (a home run), a form rejection (a strike out), or a personal rejection (a, uh, walk, I guess). I’m not sure how much of that is what I write and how much is where I submit, probably a bit of both. It’s possible I’m a true outcome writer because my submission targeting needs work. That’s always worth reexamining.

2) Never have I ever received a rude rejection.

I hear tales of rude or mean-spirited rejections a lot, but I’ve never been on the receiving end of one. Unlike the first anomaly, I’m, uh, okay with that. I’ve received feedback I thought was wildly off base, but it wasn’t rude, just wrong for the story I wanted to tell. So, why haven’t I got one of these literary kicks to the teeth?

  • I’m just lucky. Totally plausible. Maybe, I’ve just managed to avoid the editors that send rude rejections, or I’ve managed not to do anything that would bring their ire down on my head.  *Knocks on wood.*
  • They’re pretty rare. When I do see an author talking about a rude rejection on social media it invariably gets a whole bunch of clicks, shares, and retweets. It’s the kind of salacious tidbit folks love to read and talk about. So, when it does happen, I think it gets magnified, and that might make it seem more common than it actually is. (My personal opinion is that rude rejections are rare as hen’s teeth, but see my last point.)
  • Rude is subjective. Sometimes, when I see an author talking about a rude rejection, it turns out to be what I’d consider a pretty standard form rejection. Yeah, these things can be short and to the point, and if you’re feeling salty about the rejection, it might come across as terse or dismissive. In other words, one author’s rude is another author’s shrug and move on. I’m not saying rude rejections don’t exist–I’ve seen conclusive evidence they do–but I think it’s best to get a little distance before using any rejectomancy to divine a rejection’s intent, good or bad.

Got anything to add to my submission anomalies? Or maybe you have some of your own. Tell me about them in the comments.

A Month of Microfiction: March 2019

In late February I started writing daily Twitter microfiction under the #vss365 hashtag (that’s very short stories). I’ve had a real blast writing these things, and the prompts have been fun and challenging. I’ve been a flash fiction writer for a long time, but I’d never attempted micro because, frankly, I was intimidated by the tiny word counts. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to dive in because micro is an excellent exercise in stripping an idea down to the frame so it still makse sense with the bare minimum of words. I think that’s a great skill for any writer to work on.

Anyway, I thought I’d round up my month’s work and put it on the blog. You’ll notice a hashtagged word in each of these stories–it’s just the prompt word we had to use for that day. As for quality, it’s kind of a mixed bag. I think there are some real gems in here, some pretty good ones, and a fair amount of, well, kinda mediocre ones. If you’d like to read my microfiction in real time, just follow me on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.

Oh, and on some days I wrote two micros. The first of the two is the one I actually published.


March, 1st 2019

You can’t #escape the past. You can run, sure, but your old life? It’ll catch up, eventually, with names, faces, bodies. When it finds you, it doesn’t give a shit you’ve turned over a new leaf. And when the past speaks, it sounds a lot like a gun cocking in your ear.

March, 2nd 2019

I don’t watch Lucky work. It creeps me out. My job is talking, his is making people receptive to talking.

He comes out of the garage, wiping blood from his knuckles, that weird satisfied look on his face. “You’re up.”

“Can he still talk?”

Lucky shrugs. “He can #listen.”

March, 3rd 2019

I wake next to the ceiling, sigh, and struggle to #orient myself. These out of body experiences are becoming more frequent. I stare down at my body: gray, joints twisted, heart a thready echo of youth long past. I think the old pile of meat is trying to tell me something.

March, 4th 2019

The apocalypse taught me to #improvise, to use brains and instincts I never knew I had. Every tin can is a way to collect rain water, every rusted-out old car potential shelter, and every person I meet . . . Well, let’s just say I can “improvise” the taste of chicken.

March, 5th 2019

Up close, you can’t #overlook the details. The bulge of a Kevlar vest, the way a mark moves if he’s strapped, the wary gait of a man who knows he’s a target. The world is safer through a scope, and at three-hundred yards, it’s just pull the trigger, lights out, get paid.

March, 6th 2019

“Drink, Eva,” Ivan said.

“No, the red stuff is yucky.”

Nadia sighed. “Ivan, for a vampire you are oddly unpersuasive.”

“I’m open to suggestions.” Nadia went outside and returned with a snowball.

“Who wants snowcones?”

“Me! Me!” Eva said.

“Ivan, the cherry #syrup, please.”

March, 7th 2019

1) The catcher smirks as I step into the box. He’s a young guy, his big league dreams still intact. I know what he thinks. Why do I keep playing? The pitch sails in, and the crack of the bat gives me the same answer it has for eleven minor-league seasons. I #belong here.

2) The house didn’t #belong in Miller’s Field. It sat alone, more ruins than home, its broken windows promising darkness and dust. We found the foundations of other houses, almost invisible beneath the weeds, chewed to concrete stumps. The old house loomed over the carcasses.#vss365

March, 8th 2019

I once believed #she needed a shield from the world and its darkness. I was a fool, blind to the scars she bore from past battles hard-fought and hard-won. The mighty have no need of champions. Now I fight beside her, beneath her banner, and I am stronger for it.

March, 9th 2019

Frankie “Ice Cream” was the #epitome of a good guy and a good hitter. He gave his marks Ben & Jerry’s. A sweet end, he called it. But a good guy can be a good hitter only so long. Frankie quit with an empty pint of B&J in his lap and one of his own bullets in his skull.

March, 10th 2019

His letters always ended with an ellipsis. The dates and names before that were things we already knew, horrors we’d already found. We studied them, as we had to, but what kept me awake at night wasn’t the awful details. It was the terrible promise of that dot, dot, #dot.

March, 11th 2019

Cooper called his pearl-handled Colt Peacemaker “Fool’s End.” He’d swagger into a saloon, pick some tough talker with iron on his hip and jostle him, maybe spill his drink. Then Cooper’d smile and wait, hoping the fool would test a #quick temper against quicker hands.

March, 12th 2019

Dr. Keller asked me to draw my nightmares. He said the first #sketch–all whorls and spikes–was good progress. The second, clearer, the face more real, scared him. By the third, he begged me to stop. By the fifth, they took him away. Now I can sleep, and I do not dream.

March, 13th 2019

Most headhunters end up zombie chow in the first month. They go in, guns blazing, and draw the horde down on their heads. I take a different #approach. I follow the rookies with my rifle, wait for ’em to do something stupid, and then make sure the new zombie dies first.

March, 14th 2019

I found a #pocket universe in an old pair of jeans. It ate my iPhone and twenty-six bucks before I realized what it was. When Jack kicked in my door to collect his money, I showed him what I’d found. Now he gets to visit another dimension one pocket-sized bit at a time.

March, 15th 2019

1) People say they #crave adventure, but that’s bullshit. They want the idea of adventure, the Hollywood version of being lost in the jungle or shooting bad guys. When you’re ten days without food in the Amazon or plugging bullet holes with your socks, you just crave home.

2) If you’re human and you #crave BBQ chips or pickles, you just run out to the store and get some. When you’re undead, and you crave the brains of a painter (tastier memories), you have to wait outside art galleries in the dark with a hammer and an ice cream scoop.

March, 16th 2019

When death came for me, I refused to go. So it asked me a #question. “When should I return?” Like a fool, I said never. That was a long, long time ago, and now I spend the endless stretch of years asking my own question. “Where is death?” I’ve yet to get an answer.

March, 17th 2019

He called his fists shock and #awe. He’d ask me which I wanted. I went with awe because his left was weaker. MMA taught me to use my own weapons, and when I came home the last time, he didn’t understand the change. I didn’t ask which he wanted. I just gave him everything.

March, 18th 2019

The deep space probe sent back a series of #cryptic messages, each different than the last. I cracked one weeks later; it was simply the number 10. The next message was 9, then 8, then 7. The messages stopped after number 1. Now we watch the skies, tremble, and wait.

March, 19th 2019

A guy came to the bar with a gun in his belt. He was real nice and offered his services for our #mutual benefit and protection. It sounded like a good idea to me, but Nick packed his bags that same night. When I asked why, he said, “Hey, Joey, who protects us from HIM?”

March, 20th 2019

He does his job under a #pseudonym. Sometimes he goes by cancer, or stroke, or heart attack; other times he’s car accident, killed in action, or simply victim. No matter what he calls himself today, his true name is writ large and bold across each of our frail bodies.

March, 21st 2019

A demon walked into Lucifer’s office with an idea.

“I’ve invented a way to #magnify human evil so it’s easier for them to be terrible to each other,” the demon said.

“Wonderful! What’s it called?”

“That’s the best part. It sounds harmless. I call it ‘social media.'”

March, 22nd 2019

Murder is a #riddle. The blood and bodies are clues to the who and why. Killers always obfuscate their horrors, all except the one we called the Headhunter. He took pride in his work, and he didn’t leave riddles. He left a statement in red, “Come and get me if you dare.”

March, 23rd 2019

1) How do you end a killer’s career without getting killed? A little #sabotage goes a long way. I soldered bullet to casing in that stupid hand cannon Oleg uses. Did it work? I wasn’t around when the gun went boom, but I’m told blind, one-handed hitmen aren’t in high demand.

2) He began his career with a gun. When it got too easy, he used a knife. After that, he just strangled his hits, and we thought we’d seen the pinnacle of the hitman’s art. Then they found Jimmy Moretti, eyes wide, mouth open, not a mark on him, literally scared to death. #satsplat

The second one here was actually a different Twitter microfiction hashtag–#satsplat

March, 24th 2019

I was a #thorn in his side. Only irritating at first, a tiny obstacle he pushed aside to get to my mother. He didn’t fear me for a long time, but the day came when he swung his fist and drew it back slashed and bloody. He’d failed to notice how big and sharp I’d become.

March, 25th 2019

The #frame is cracked, the photo faded, but I can clearly see the family who lived here. What’s left of them shambles toward me through the ruins of their house, and I go to work. When it’s done, I reload, and put the picture on the bodies. I say a prayer and burn it all.

March, 26th 2019

1) I was eight feet tall when the docs installed an implant to #inhibit my growth. When I hit fifteen feet, they tried another. At fifty feet, they started getting nervous. At five hundred feet, the army paid me a visit. I didn’t want to be a monster, but a man’s gotta eat.

2) We tried to #inhibit its growth, but it spread so quickly. We threw science and reason at it, tried to arm the population with facts. They didn’t want facts; they wanted chemtrails and ancient aliens and a flat earth. We watched, helpless, as ignorance devoured the world. #vss365

March, 27th 2019

As a child, I looked through the #keyhole at the door of my grandfather’s study and saw a vast alien world stretching beneath an emerald sky. He told me it was where he came from. After the funeral, the keyhole showed only dust and books. The magic had gone home with him.

March, 28th 2019

He #collects and cultivates misery, sowing dark seeds with targeted vitriol. His foul words take root and spread, tiny flowers of hatred nurtured by dogged malice. For a fleeting moment he has power, malign purpose, and something to fill the yawning abyss in his soul.

March 29th, 2019

“You don’t need your #robe. Just grab the paper,” she said. Why did I listen? I had it coming, of course. Revenge for the Saran Wrap on the toilet seat. Now I stand in front of a locked door, naked, shaking my head and grinning like an idiot. I’ve finally met my match.

March 30th, 2019

1) The #second time we tried to summon the devil, it almost worked. We used the right kind of blood–goat not pig–and Doug got most of the incantation right. But he fucked it up at the end because he still can’t say that one word. Christ, Doug, it’s BLASPHEMY not BLASMEPHY.

2) When it comes to that final decision, most folks can’t pull the trigger, swing the bat, or thrust the knife in the crucial #second. They freeze up, grow a conscience. That’s why I get paid. I’m not the strongest or the toughest, but I can make that decision. Every time.

March 31st, 2019

Some say I have the soul of a #poet. It’s true. I keep it in a jar on a shelf above my desk. It comes in handy when I can’t think of a good word. I just shake the jar like a magic eight ball, and after a short poem about some guy from Nantucket, the perfect word appears.


And that’s my March microfiction. If you have a favorite or two, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. There might be a longer tale in some of these scribbles.

A Week of Writing: 10/8/18 to 10/14/18

Fell of the weekly writing update wagon there for a bit, but I’m back at it. Happy Monday.

Words to Write By

This week it’s another one of my favorite quotes from Stephen King.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

—Stephen King

Show me a writer that doesn’t procrastinate, and, well, I just won’t believe you. 🙂 I think we all do it, and why do we do it? Mr. King hits that particular nail on the head with his quote. Before I actually start writing, all I can think about is what might go wrong, how I won’t be able to write that scene convincingly, make that character believable, revise this chapter into something coherent, even compelling. Of course, when I get over myself, and start, you know, writing, it’s never as bad or as hard as I feared. When I finish for the day, I almost always look back and think, “Now, why did it take me so long to get started?”

The Novel

I’ve been working on and off on the revisions of the novel for the last couple of weeks. Primarily, I’ve been writing new material to fix some of the plot holes and character motivation problems. This week, I’ll paste that new material in to the manuscript and then begin the process of revising the book as a whole. I’m still shooting to finish this round of revisions by the end of the month.

Short Stories

I started a couple new short stories last week. One is a compete rewrite and re-imagining of a piece I wrote nearly fifteen years ago, and the other is a completely new idea for a horror/humor anthology call. Just a couple of short story submissions last week, though I did send a few more the week before.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 0
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 0

These two submission give me 102 for the year, and you might have seen my post about hitting my 100-sub goal. At this pace, I should end 2018 with something in the neighborhood of 120 to 130 submissions.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

10/8/18: 100 Submissions – An Analysis 

This posts gives you the dirty details on my journey to 100 submissions: all the rejections, acceptances, the works.

10/12/18: My Acceptance Rate by the Numbers

An in-depth look at my acceptance rates broken down by type of market.

Goals

Keep revising the novel and finish the two short stories I started. And, as always, more submissions.

Submission Spotlight

This week, Pseudopod, one of my favorite markets, has opened again to general submissions. They’re part of the Escape Artist group of podcasts that publish awesome audio short stories. Pseudopod is their horror podcast, and, as you can imagine, that’s kind of my jam. I also might be a little biased since they published my story “Night Games.” But only a little. They are a pro-paying market with a great editorial staff, so send them something if you have a story that fits. Submission guidelines below.

Pseudopod Submission Guidelines


That was my week. How was yours?

My Acceptance Rates by the Numbers

I’ve blogged about the chances of getting published by specific markets, but what about a more personal view of the subject? If you’re regularly submitting work to semi-pro and pro markets (with a token/free market here and there), how many acceptances should you expect? Hard to say, honestly. There’s not a lot of data out there regarding what a good overall acceptance percentage looks like. Since the only hard data point I have is my own experience, let’s take a look at my numbers since I’ve been tracking my submissions through Duotrope.

The table below shows the last seven years, complete with how many submissions I sent, how many were rejected, how many were lost, never responded, or withdrawn, how many were accepted, and my overall acceptance percentage for the year. I calculated my acceptance percentage by dividing the number of acceptances by the number of submissions less the number of withdrawals and pending subs. Pending subs only affected the numbers for 2018. (If you counted those pending subs, my acceptance rate for 2018 would be 16%.)

Year Subs Reject L/N/W Accept Acc %
2012 6 5 1 0 0%
2013 16 14 2 0 0%
2014 38 29 4 5 15%
2015 46 37 2 7 16%
2016 53 43 2 8 16%
2017 73 64 4 5 7%
2018 101* 72 2 16 18%
Total 333 264 17 41 13.4%

*to date

I wasn’t writing much short fiction in 2012 and 2013, but things picked up the following year, and I started submitting more and getting some acceptances. As the years went on, I sent more submissions, and I received more acceptances. Then 2017 happened, and I’m still not completely sure why I struggled so much to get stories accepted. With 2017 in the rear view, 2018 has been, by far, my best year for both submissions and acceptances.

With the exception of 2017, my acceptance rate has hovered around 15% and I;m at 13.4% overall. I think that’s pretty solid. I’ve heard anecdotally that a 10% acceptance rate is about average. Again, I have no data to back that up, and, honestly, I think the acceptance percentage can vary a lot based on the type of market you submit to. So let’s look at pro, semi-pro, and token/free markets and see if it makes a difference in my overall acceptance percentages. As usual, I’m using the Duotrope definitions for pro (.05/word and up), semi-pro (.01 to .04/word), and token (under .01/word).

Market % of Subs Acceptance %
Pro 53% 6%
Semi-Pro 33% 11%
Token/Free 14% 47%

As you can see, more than half of my subs go to pro markets. The next biggest chunk go to semi-pro markets, and, finally, about fifteen percent go to token/free markets. Not surprisingly, my acceptance percentages line up with the general acceptance rates of the three market categories. Pro markets are hardest to crack, then semi-pro, then token/free. This is not to say there is always a correlation between pay and how hard it is to get an acceptance from a market. There are many fine token/free publishers who put out top-notch stuff and have acceptance rates in the low single digits.

Now let’s look at the numbers for just 2018, and see if my strategy of subbing primarily to pro markets is working.

Market % of Subs Acceptance %
Pro 67% 9%
Semi-Pro 22% 16%
Token/Free 11% 70%

This year I’m sending even more subs to pro markets and my acceptance percentages are trending up in all categories That’s a trend I hope continues this year and into next. So, why am I seeing more success in 2018? Here are some possible reasons:

  1. Dumb luck. As I’ve said many, many times, sometimes getting a story published is about putting the right piece in front of the right editor at the right time. I think I did that more in 2018. Conversely, I think I might have been equally unlucky in 2017, as some of the stories I’ve sold this year, I started subbing last year.
  2. Better stuff. I think my short story skills have improved over the last couple of years, especially with flash fiction, and I think that’s translating into more acceptances.
  3. Better submission targeting. I’ve learned a lot this year about which markets are more likely to accept my work and which aren’t, and that may have led to a few more acceptances.

Of course, I am still very much a work in progress, but I think I might have figured out some things that will lead to more success in the years to come. I hope. 🙂


Care to share your own acceptance rates? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Submission Statement: September 2018

Another month of submissions, rejections, and acceptances in the books. Here’s how September shook out.

September 2018 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 10
  • Rejections: 6
  • Acceptances: 2
  • Publications: 1

I’m happy with ten submissions for the month, and two acceptances is pretty solid too. Only one publication this month, but I’ve got a bunch slated for October. As for total submissions, I finished September with 96, just four away from my goal of 100.

Rejections

Six rejections for September.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 5
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 1
  • Personal Rejections: 0

Mostly standard form rejections from pro markets this month, though I think one might be an upper tier (more on that below).

Spotlight Rejection

The spotlight rejection for September comes from a pro market I’ve never submitted to before (though I certainly will again).

Dear Aeryn,

Thank you for submitting [story title] to [publisher] for consideration. Unfortunately, we’re going to pass on this one. It just didn’t work for us.

We look forward to reading further submissions from you.

Best,

This might be an upper-tier rejection, but it could just be their standard form too. Some markets include verbiage like the second sentence in all their rejections. Since I don’t have any other rejections from this publisher to compare it to, it’s hard to say.

Acceptances

Two acceptances this month. That continues my streak of eight straight months with at least one acceptance. So far, only January has skunked me. The two acceptances in September bring my yearly total to sixteen.

Here’s one of the acceptances I received in September. This one is for a story that had received a bunch of close-but-no-cigars. It took second place in a flash fiction contest, and I’m very pleased it has finally found a home.

Hi Aeryn,

We’re happy to announce that your story [story title] is the Second Place winner of our [contest name]

We’ll be publishing your story on October 19.

There’s more to this acceptance, but it’s just the usual payment and rights stuff. This one should be available to read soon.

Publication

One publication in September, which you can read below.

“What Kind of Hero?”

Published by Ellipsis Zine


And that was my September. Tell me about yours.

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Old Friends, New Blood

Hey, Iron Kingdoms readers, got something special for you today. In the past, I’ve put up stories that were published in the pages of No Quarter magazine or part of organized play for Privateer Press, but not today. Today, I present a completely new and unpublished Iron Kingdoms short-short story that has never been read by anyone outside of the Privateer Press editorial staff. That same editorial staff has given me the go-ahead to share it with you. (Thanks, Mike. Thanks, Doug.)

So let’s head to war-torn Llael for “Old Friends, New Blood.”


Old Friends, New Blood

By Aeryn Rudel

 

“Your weapons,” the guard said and pointed to a low table beside the door. He was little more than a boy, and the casual, almost bored tone of his request rankled Fyodor Goska.

“Do you think I mean to put a knife in Kovnik Ivachev?” Fyodor stepped close. “Do you think you could stop me?”

The guard stiffened, and his hand fell to the haft of his axe. For a brief moment, Fyodor toyed with letting him pull it off his belt. Then he placed one broad hand on the boy’s shoulder, laughed and unbuckled the broad belt that held his knives. “You are too serious, soldier.”

The guard relaxed. “Thank you, sir.” Fyodor heard respect now, and, he noted, the appropriate amount of fear.

He put his weapons on the table, and the guard opened the door to the kovnik’s office. Fyodor found Ivachev behind his desk, head down over some document. The room was sparsely appointed, but the few pieces of furniture looked expensive. Gregor Ivachev was the same age as Fyodor and nearly as big. He loomed behind his desk, a gray-haired warlord out of place in these clerical surroundings. “Fyodor,” he said and stood. “Good to see you, old friend.”

Fyodor nodded. “It has been a long time since we met face to face.”

“Too true, but there are certain protocols that must be followed.” Ivachev gestured to one of the chairs in front of his desk.

Fyodor moved closer but did not sit; instead, he gripped the back of the offered chair and leaned forward. The pose made the big muscles in his arms and shoulder bulge. “Protocols you have now violated.”

Ivachev frowned. “I am aware. I did so because you are my friend.”

“Is that what I am?” Fyodor said. “Maybe, once, on the streets of Korsk, when we were young.”

“I do not regret leaving the bratya,” Ivachev said. “Just as you do not regret staying. We chose different paths, but here we are, together.”

“Very well,” Fyodor said. “Speak on, friend.”

“You have done good work for us in Llael,” Ivachev began. “I am pleased with your many successes—“

“Before your office reeks of horse shit, get to the point,” Fyodor said.

The kovnik smiled. “I have spent too long among dignitaries and aristocrats.” He cleared his throat. “The incident at the docks has given some in the High Kommand reason to doubt the effectiveness of your men.”.

Fyodor laughed, short and sharp. “You mean the incident where the Khadoran military failed to inform me the insurgents were led by a warcaster? The incident where I lost eight men and my son lost a leg?”

Ivachev drew in a deep breath. “I know what happened could not be avoided, Fyodor. But some in Merywyn do not approve of the use of the bratyas to enforce our rule. They seek any excuse.”

“And I am that excuse, eh?” Fyodor said and spat. “My men and I have served you well, Gregor. You know this.”

“I do, and you must not forget we have both profited by our agreement.” Ivachev pointed one thick finger at Fyodor.

“Then how do we maintain our agreement in light of my failure?”

“That is why I called you here,” Ivachev said. “I have convinced those with doubts in the High Kommand to give you another chance, let you prove your worth. I wanted to tell you personally.”

“I have been underboss for twenty years,” Fyodor said, shaking his head. “I took that position and maintained it by proving myself, again and again, to my men, to rival bratyas, and to you, Gregor. What more must I prove?”

“To me? Nothing,” Ivachev said. “To those who doubt, you must kill someone.”

Fyodor shrugged. “The blades of my bratya are red and wet.”

“What of your own blades?”

For a moment, Fyodor could not speak. The question struck him like a hammer blow. His vision swam with images of closing his fingers around Ivachev’s throat and squeezing the life from him. “You dare . . .” was all he could manage, but his glare would have loosened the bowels of most men.

Ivachev was not most men, and he held Fyodor’s murderous gaze, unflinching, and slid a folder across his desk. “Kill this man. By your own hand. No one will doubt you again.”

Fyodor sucked in a great gulp of air and took a tight rein on his anger—it would not serve him here. He picked up the folder but did not look at its contents. “It will be done,” he said, his voice flat and measured.

Ivachev nodded. “I am sorry it has come to this. I wish it were otherwise.”

“I am sorry too, old friend.”

***

It had been some time since he stalked a target on his own. It felt good to worry about nothing but himself and his quarry.

The man he would kill this night thought himself invulnerable in his grand house along the river, his station shielding him from harm like a suit of Man-O-War armor. Fyodor would prove him wrong.

Only one guard patrolled the grounds, making a slow circuit around the outer wall. Fyodor watched him from the shadows, waiting for the right moment. It came soon enough. The guard stopped, set his rifle against the wall, and unbuckled his pants. The splash of urine against the stone covered Fyodor’s approach. He clamped one hand around the man’s mouth, wrenched his head back, and slashed his throat. The blood emptied in steaming gouts, and Fyodor pushed the body into the shadows at the base of the wall. Then he leaped, grasped the top of the ten-foot barrier with one hand, and pulled himself up and over. He dropped to the cobblestones on the other side in a tight, controlled roll, then crossed the courtyard to the house.

Fyodor made his way to the rear of the building and found a servant’s entrance. Unguarded. Beyond lay a short hallway, leading to an antechamber and a broad stairway.

He climbed the stairs, both long knives in hand. At the top stretched another hallway, this one with many doors to the left and right. He ignored them. The door at the end of the hall was his destination. Warm yellow light spilled from beneath it, and he heard voices beyond.

He flipped one of his blades over into a throwing grip and kicked open the door. His hand flashed down, the knife spinning from it on a lethal arc. The weapon struck one target with a dull thud as he stepped into the room and he surged  toward the other.

Ivachev stared in horror, his mouth a round O of surprise. The boy who had stood guard outside his office the other morning lay on the floor before the kovnik, Fyodor’s knife buried to the hilt in his chest. The boy’s eyes were wide, terrified, and he tried in vain to pull the knife from his heart.

Ivachev had a pistol at his belt, but he’d been too long away from the streets of Korsk, and the lessons it taught, one of which was a knife is always quicker than a gun in close quarters. The gun came up, too slow, and Fyodor smashed it aside. He lashed out with a heavy boot, and kicked Ivachev’s feet out from under him. The kovnik crashed to the floor, and Fyodor followed him down, planting a knee in Ivachev’s chest, pinning him. He put a knife at the kovnik’s throat.

The boy had stopped moving and lay still in a wide pool of scarlet.

“Why?” Ivachev said.

“More than a leg,” Fyodor whispered. “But we pay our blood debts in full and then some, do we not? It was your information that cost me so dear.” He leaned down, pushing his face inches from Ivachev’s. “Your information that caused some to lose faith in you.”

Ivachev opened his mouth to say something, but Fyodor had finished talking. He opened his old friend’s throat with a quick sawing cut, then held him down while he bled out.

When it was over, Fyodor retrieved his blade from the body of young Marcus Ivachev, then returned to the corpse of his father and wiped his blades clean on Ivachev’s uniform. “You were right about one thing, Kovnik. I did have to kill a man.”

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Peace of Mind

Got another piece of Iron Kingdoms fiction you today. This one is called “Peace of Mind” and it also comes from an issue of No Quarter magazine. It features members of the Searforge Commission, a mercenary company drawn from the dwarven empire of Rhul. This story centers around a group of miscreants and unfortunates stationed at a backwater fort where they can’t get into much trouble. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

New to Privateer Press and the Iron Kingdoms? Check out this link for an introduction to this war-torn world of steam power and sorcery.


Peace of Mind

By Aeryn Rudel

Valkar rubbed his hands together and shivered. The sun was sinking on the horizon, and the tolerable cold of the day gave way to the unbearable chill of the long winter night. His watch didn’t end for another two hours, and he looked longingly back through the gates of Baram Fort toward the light and noise from the barracks. He shook his head and turned his gaze back to the small winding road that led up to the small fortress. Warmth and food would have to wait. Although the High Shield Gun Corps stationed at Baram Fort was not exactly known for following the rigid guidelines set forth by the Searforge Commission, Captain Vornek Blackheel considered dereliction of watch one of the few actionable offenses.

Drinking while on duty, fortunately, was not on the captain’s list of punishable activities. “Ecken,” Valkar said to his fellow guard, a much younger dwarf standing on the other side of the wide gate. “Give me a bit of that. These old bones are aching something fierce.”

Ecken had been dozing on his feet, a skill at which he was quite accomplished. The young dwarf came awake with a start and fixed Valkar with a hazy stare. “What did you say, Valk?”

“I said gimme a swig of uiske.”

Ecken looked down at the battered metal flask he’d been clutching to his breastplate and smiled. “Sure, Valk.” He walked across the short space between them, swaying slightly. He wasn’t quite falling-down drunk yet.

Ecken held out the flask. Valkar reached for it, but before he could take it, Ecken dropped it. The young dwarf stooped to retrieve the container, and his helmet tumbled from his head, revealing the huge scar above his left ear. The surgeons had removed a portion of Ecken’s brain after a Khadoran bullet had plowed through his skull. The hair hadn’t grown back over the wound.

Valk grimaced. “I’ll get it, Ecken.” He bent down and retrieved the flask and Ecken’s helmet, wincing as his aching knees popped.

“Sorry, Valk.” Ecken put his helmet back on.

Valk took a drink from Ecken’s flask, letting the cheap uiske burn a path of warmth down his middle, then handed it back. “You’re a good lad, Ecken. When our watch is over we’ll get some food, hey? You need more in your stomach than that Khadoran fire water.”

Ecken frowned. “I’m not hungry. I just want to go to sleep. My head hurts.”

Valkar put a hand on the younger dwarf’s shoulder. “I know. But I got my orders, and one of them is make sure Ecken eats.” Captain Blackheel had placed Ecken under Valkar’s care shortly after the wounded dwarf arrived at Fort Baram. It was the only place the Searforge would allow him to serve, a high mountain fortress in the middle of nowhere filled with the dregs of the Gun Corps: drunks, thieves, and miscreants. Ecken’s wound gave him near constant headaches, and it made him prone to violent mood swings, leaving him largely unfit for anything but guard duty at a fort that rarely saw visitors. It was a mercy, Valkar supposed, the Searforge had let Ecken remain in the corps, draw pay, and receive something resembling supervision and care.

A black look fell across Ecken’s face, and Valkar thought he might explode into one of his rages. They came on with little provocation, and Ecken would shout and bellow, even physically assault anyone who came near. The rest of the dwarves at Baram Fort knew to avoid their injured compatriot during these times, and only Valkar could calm Ecken down, usually. Last week, Lieutenant Murgan, the fort’s ogrun second-in-command, had to restrain Ecken, holding him immobile while he thrashed and cursed. After that, he’d fallen into a black depression that lasted days. The only thing that seemed to give him some measure of peace was drinking, and though Valkar knew inebriation wasn’t doing anything but masking the pain, he couldn’t begrudge the young dwarf his one escape from a grim reality.

“Okay, Valk,” Ecken said, and his face softened. “I’ll eat some porridge. I think I can keep that down.”

Valkar smiled, relieved. “Good lad. Now back to your post.”

Ecken nodded and returned to his side of the gate. Valkar didn’t mind looking after the young dwarf; it gave him something to do, a purpose. He’d come to Baram Fort not because he was a drunk, a coward, or even a bad soldier. His only crime was growing old. He’d served in the Gun Corps for fifty years, never rising above the rank of sergeant because he was happiest in the trenches, wading through the mud and blood with the grunts. Then they’d told him he was too old to serve, that it was time to set his rifle and axe down. They offered him a fair pension, but what would he do with it? He had no children, no wife, and only distant relatives. He’d get older, grow decrepit, and then die alone. He’d refused to retire, so they granted him one final post, a place where the Searforge Commission could forget about him. He accepted and found his place among Baram Fort’s group of misfits. At least he wouldn’t die alone.

“There’s a wagon coming, Valk,” Ecken said, pulling Valkar out of his thoughts.

Valkar looked down the narrow road, a nameless and little-used trade route that ran from the Rhulic city of Drotuhn and climbed through the Thundercliff Peaks, eventually connecting to Hellspass, the more conventional route for traders travelling between Khador and Rhul. Fort Baram was positioned to guard this all-but-forgotten route from the few travelers and merchants who used it—mostly to avoid the steep tolls of Hellspass.

A large wagon pulled by two huge Khadoran draft horses rumbled toward the fort. The driver wore a heavy black cloak with a hood, and eight men in chainmail hauberks with axes on their belts and rifles over their shoulders walked alongside the wagon.

Valkar frowned. He’d never seen a wagon so heavily guarded pass through Baram Fort. He glanced back through the gates; there were a few other dwarves moving about in the yard, on duty, and two or three more manning the walls, but they were coming up on a watch change and most of the troops were in the barracks.

“Ecken, let me do the talking here. Alright, lad?” Ecken nodded and took another drink from his flask. “And put that away.”

The wagon drew to a stop twenty feet from the gate. It was Valkar’s and Ecken’s jobs to speak with all those passing through and to check their goods for contraband. Valkar picked up his shield, a heavy square thing with a notch at the top that served as a rifle rest, and approached the Khadorans. His breastplate and chainmail felt heavier than usual, and his joints ached with every step. Ecken followed him.

“Good day, friend,” the driver in the wagon called down in passable Rhulic.

Valkar looked up at a weathered, bearded face and blue eyes that glinted like chips of ice from the depths of a hood. “What’s your business, and where are you headed?” Valkar asked, beginning their standard line of questioning.

“I am a dealer in exotic animals, and I have purchased one of your famed white bears from a trainer in Drotuhn.” He looked back at the payload of his wagon. There were three cages there, covered in a tarp. The tarp was rimed with ice. “We are travelling back to Skirov, where I run a menagerie.”

Valkar nodded. “Bear, huh?” He’d visited Drotuhn on many occasions, and they were known for quarrying stone, not training dangerous beasts. “Why are there three cages?”

The Khadoran merchant smiled. “I was hoping to buy a few other beasts, but the deals fell through. Two are empty.”

Valkar looked over at Ecken. The young dwarf was standing on the other side of the wagon, closer to the cages. His brows were furrowed in puzzlement, “I don’t smell bear, Valk,” he said. “I’ve smelled them before. Something stinks over here, but it’s not bear.”

The Khadoran’s guards had moved closer, four on each side of the wagon. Their faces were hard, weathered, experienced. They were professional fighting men.

“Do you have a bill of sale?” Valkar asked. He could feel the tension in the air. Something was wrong here, and he felt exposed, vulnerable. He had a horn at his belt he could sound to alert the fort of an attack, and his hand crept down to it.

“Of course,” the Khadoran said. He rummaged through the inside of his cloak. It took a little too long, and Valkar’s hand closed around the horn. But the Khadoran produced nothing more threatening than a thin sheaf of papers. He handed them down to Valkar.

Valkar ran his eyes over the first page. The Khadoran’s name was Dima Glukhov, or at least it was the name he’d put on the bill of sale. Everything looked in order. The man had purchased a bear from the market in Drotuhn and paid one hundred gul for it—more money than Valkar would see in a year. He handed the papers back to the Khadoran. “This looks in order, Tradesman Glukhov.”

“Excellent. Then we can be on our way and pass through your fortress?”

Valkar considered that. The papers were in order, but it was their job to confirm the goods stated by a merchant were actually what they were carrying. He could let them go. Captain Blackheel wouldn’t care. But something bothered him, a curious sense of dread that seemed to hang over the Khadoran and his wagon. He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then said to the Khadoran, “One more bit of business. I need to verify if your cargo is what you say it is.”

A black look fell across the Khadoran’s face, and his eyes became flat and hard. “I hardly think that is necessary.” His voice was low, measured. “Perhaps we can come to some kind of arrangement.” He reached again into his cloak and pulled out a small sack tied with a drawstring. It clinked. “There is fifty gul here. Take it and let us be on our way.”

It was a lot of money, and almost every other member of Baram Fort would have taken it and let the Khadorans through. It just made Valkar angry. He opened his mouth to say something, but Ecken’s voice cut him off.

“Valk, there’s a man in this cage . . . with swords on his hands.”

Ecken had lifted the tarp on the closest cage and was peering beneath it. Valkar had been a soldier for over fifty years, and in that time he’d developed something like a sixth sense when it came to violence. He could almost taste it in the air. He knew the Khadorans were going to attack, but he was too slow to shout a warning as the guard nearest Ecken unlimbered his axe and smashed it into the young dwarf’s helmet. Arcane runes formed around Dima Glukhov’s fist and he unleashed a blast of freezing air at Valkar, smashing him to the ground and robbing the strength from his limbs.

Valkar’s hands were gloved against the chill, and they had kept the worst of the Khadoran sorcerer’s spell at bay. He fumbled for the horn at his belt, hearing Khadoran thugs moving toward him. He brought the horn to his lips and blew a single sharp note.

***

Mindslaver Orixus came awake to the sound of the human and dwarf speaking. He could feel their minds at the edge of his consciousness, but he couldn’t touch them yet. The alchemical mist the human had used on him was crude but effective; it dulled his mental abilities, made his thinking sluggish and uncoordinated. But his faculties were returning to him, and as they did, they brought cold anger and shame. That this pathetic human had managed to ensnare him and four drudges stung him. He’d taken a risk by leaving the hive with such a small guard, but the wounded soldiers on the battlefield near the hive offered a tantalizing collection of raw materials, and he wanted them before his rivals could lay claim.

The human had been waiting for him, expecting him. Orixus had been hit with the sorcerer’s freezing spell and unable to move or think. They’d stuffed him and his drudges into cages, treating him—Mindslaver Orixus, second of five in the Terxat Hive—like a mindless beast.

Rage flowed through his body, and its heat steadily burned away the fog in his mind. He could feel the human’s alchemical tranquilizer fading, like a melting iceberg. He would soon be free. The sounds of combat erupted outside his cage, and the cephalyx was pleased. His enemies would be distracted, long enough for him to regain full control of his abilities. He gathered all the mental force he could muster and pushed against the poison restraining him, hastening its dissipation.

Soon.

***

Valkar climbed to his feet, his legs heavy and slow. Ecken had gone down, and he feared the young dwarf had been killed, but he had more pressing concerns. He could hear the dwarves in the fort responding to his horn. The sound of many voices and the clatter of armor drifted through the gates.

One of the Khadoran thugs bore down on him. The man was big, maybe twice Valkar’s height, and he was swinging a two-handed axe. Valkar brought his shield up and the heavy axe cracked into it, biting deep into the top edge. This is just what Valkar had wanted. He let go of his shield, and his opponent had twenty pounds of iron and wood dangling at the end of his now-useless weapon. The human tried to pull the axe free, but Valkar brought up his carbine with practiced ease and shot the man through the chest. The heavy dwarven slug ripped through the man’s chain mail and shredded his heart.

Loud cursing in Khadoran drew Valkar’s attention back to Dima Glukhov. The Khadoran had jumped down from the wagon and held a single-bitted war axe in his right hand, its head encircled with runes. Glukhov was heading for Valkar, and a ring of azure light formed around his fist.

Valkar backpedaled, heading toward the open gate. He stood little chance against the Khadoran spellcaster. The loud cracks of dwarven carbines sounded behind him, and he heard one voice rising above the din. “What in the name of Ghor’s bleeding ass is going on out here?!” Captain Blackheel had a drill instructor’s volume, and everyone turned in his direction. Looming beside him was his second, Murgan. The ogrun was armored head-to-toe in chain and plate and had his warcleaver and shield in hand.

A line of gun corps riflemen had formed before the dwarven commander, and they parted to let Valkar through. Glukhov stood in front of his wagon, his men around him. The spell runes had disappeared.

“What happened, sergeant?” Murgan asked as Valkar drew near.

“We were checking their goods, and they attacked. One of ‘em knocked Ecken down. He’s still out there.”

Captain Blackheel grunted in irritation. Then he settled his helmet on his head, hitched his breastplate into a more comfortable position, and took hold of his axe. He stepped through the line of dwarven riflemen, his face a black cloud of anger.

“Alright, you bloody Reds,” he began, looking directly at Glukhov. “You can lay down your arms and tell me why you attacked my boys, or I can give the order and shoot you until you stop twitching. What’ll it be?”

The captain was black-tempered, surly, and frequently drunk, but he was also one of the bravest dwarves Valkar knew and a skilled battle leader. He’d always meant to ask the captain how he’d ended up at Baram.

Glukhov lowered his axe and smiled. “You seem a reasonable sort. I need to get through your fort, and I’m willing to pay to do it.”

“You killed one of my boys,” Blackheel said. “I can’t let that stand.”

Valkar didn’t know if Ecken was dead, but he dared not say anything.

“And you killed one of mine, so we’re even on that score.”

Captain Blackheel spat out the wad of sourleaf he’d been chewing, reached into his pouch for another, and stuffed the dried leaves under his bottom lip. Then he shook his head. “No, I don’t like it. You’re gonna put your weapons down, let us take you into custody, and then we’ll see what the Trademaster at Hellspass has to say about your cargo. Whatever the hell it is.”

Glukhov’s eyes went wide, and something that looked like fear flashed across his face. The runes formed around his fist again, and Blackheel raised his hand, signaling to the twenty rifles behind him to take aim. “I mean it, Red.”

Valkar felt the air grow thick with tension, but then something else appeared in the back of his mind, a presence, looming and dark. He heard the telltale metallic clatter of locks falling away, and then something rose up over the wagon, hovering like a grim black wraith.

Dread speared Valkar’s guts as the thing came into the light, drifting through the air behind Glukhov. It was man-shaped and clad entirely in black leather, but its head was a swollen orb from which five blue lights shone, eyes maybe. Worst of all, four metallic limbs jutted over the creature’s back, each tipped with a hooked blade.

“Captain,” Valkar called out, but it was too late. The creature descended on Glukhov like a great black spider, its metallic limbs scything forward. The Khadoran spellcaster’s head came away from his neck in a spray of blood, and he collapsed to the ground twitching.

“Fire!” Captain Blackheel called.

Nothing happened.

Valkar looked down the lines of riflemen and saw blank stares, their weapons hung limply in their hands.

Valkar then felt the creature’s presence grow in his mind, and he heard its voice, an irresistible whisper. Come to me. His feet moved at the behest of another, and he saw he was not alone, the rest of Baram Fort had lowered their weapons and shuffled toward the spindly black horror

Valkar tried to fight it, to push away the monster’s influence, but he couldn’t. He was a prisoner in his own head, watching his body move and react as if it belonged to someone else. The Khadoran thugs were enthralled as well, moving closer to the creature.

From behind the wagon came four more abominations. They were men, or might have been once, but their bodies had been altered, augmented. Each wore a heavy helmet that covered the head and neck. Yellow light glowed from the visor slits. Their arms ended in a curious array of blades, clamps, and saws, like something you might see on a warjack.

Yes, this is your future, you pathetic worms, the creature whispered into Valkar’s mind, maybe into all their minds. He was shown images of dark caverns filled with terrible apparatuses where men became monsters, where flesh was replaced with steel and wire, and where the soul and will were scrubbed clean from mortal minds.

Movement to Valkar’s left caught his eye. He couldn’t turn his head, but, on the periphery of his vision, he saw Ecken stand up. He was relieved the young dwarf had survived but horrified he would be subjected to the same terrible fate as the rest of them.

Ecken was closer to the black-shrouded monster, and he shuffled up to it. It glanced down at him, and Valkar felt its curiosity ripple through his mind . . . then, shockingly, fear. The creature tried to move away, but Ecken had his axe in hand. He swung it, buried the steel in the creature’s midsection.

A piercing psychic wail of shock and agony burst through Valkar’s mind and he fell to his knees, clutching his head. The dwarves and humans around him did the same.

Ecken yanked his axe free in a spray of blood and brought it around again, this time in an overhand strike at the creature’s misshapen skull. The blow landed true, and the monster’s head burst like an overripe melon, splattering gore in all directions.

The presence in Valkar’s mind winked out, and he was once again in control of his body. He climbed to his feet and broke into a stumbling run toward Ecken. The young dwarf stood over the corpse of the alien creature, a puzzled look on his face.

“Are you okay, lad?” Valkar said and took Ecken by the shoulders.

Ecken smiled and pushed his helmet off his head. It had a big dent in it where the Khadoran thug had struck him. He let the helmet fall to the ground, reached up, and touched the gruesome scar above his ear. “I felt it, Valkar. It was in my head, but it couldn’t make me do what it wanted.” He laughed softly. “I think the surgeons cut that part out.”

Valkar pulled the injured dwarf into a tight embrace. “Thank the ancestors,” he said then gently pushed Ecken back and looked into his eyes. “You’re still a soldier, lad. And you did a soldier’s work today. Saved us all. Don’t you forget that.”

“Put these bastards in shackles,” Captain Blackheel bellowed behind them. The rest of the gun corps collected the weapons of the remaining Khadoran thugs, who had lost all interest in fighting and handed them over without a fuss. “Now put ‘em in cold storage until we figure this mess out.”

The captain walked over to Ecken and Valkar and looked down at the corpse of the black-clad creature at their feet. “What in the name of all that is good and green is that bloody thing?” he said. “Never seen anything like it. What about you, old man?”

Valkar shook his head. “No, sir.”

“Well put it into cold storage with the rest of these Khadoran fools,” Blackheel said. “And, Ecken, good work, soldier.” He walked away, bellowing more orders.

Ecken pulled his flask from his belt and shook it, but he didn’t take the cap off.

“Go on, lad. You’ve more than earned yourself a drink,” Valkar said.

Ecken looked up at him, his eyes filled with a deep and abiding sadness. The clear understanding of all that Khadoran bullet had taken from him was overwhelmingly evident on Ecken’s face. It hurt Valkar to see it. “Not now, Valk,” Ecken said, putting the flask away. “Maybe I should eat something.”

Valkar looked away and wiped at his eyes, but he showed Ecken a smile when he turned back. “Right, lad; let’s get some food into you.”

***

Originally appeared in No Quarter #67, published by Privateer Press


If you’d like to read more about the dwarves of Baram Fort, you can do so right here on this blog. The story “Wayward Fortunes” features another adventure with the misfit Rhulfolk and their captain, Vornek Blackheel.