Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Confirmed Kill

Got something neat to share with you today. Privateer Press has granted me permission to host a few of my published Iron Kingdoms short stories on the blog. Most of these come from old issues of No Quarter magazine, and this first one, “Confirmed Kill,” ties into the Acts of War novels, Flashpoint and AftershockThe story features two of my favorite characters from the series, the trollkin sniper Horgrum and his spotter Sergeant Sharp. “Confirmed Kill” is the story of how these two came to work together in the Cygnaran Army.

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


Art by Néstor Ossandón.

Confirmed Kill

by Aeryn Rudel

Northern Thornwood, 606 AR

“Take them and go!” Horgrum’s father shouted, pointing his axe at the tree line. Vargal Oakheart was an aging trollkin, but still mighty, and his voice boomed over the din of gunshots and battle cries.

Horgrum shook his head. “No, I will fight.” He had his own axe in hand, but its blade was clean, unlike his father’s, which was stained red with the blood of the invaders.

Vargal glanced behind him, where their village burned, where humans in crimson armor slaughtered their people. He turned back to Horgrum and put a heavy hand on his son’s shoulder. “We are lost, Horgrum,” he said, his voice thick with sorrow. “Take your brother and sister and flee.” Solissa was thirteen and Kolor only ten, too small and too young to fight. They cowered behind their older brother, wincing at each booming report of an enemy rifle.

“And go where?” Horgrum demanded. He was twenty years old and a seasoned fighter, and the thought of leaving his village and kriel sickened him.

“South, to Cygnar,” Vargal said. “You will be safe there.”

Horgrum opened his mouth to challenge his father, but the sound of hooves cut short his protest. A human in bright red armor astride a great black horse emerged from the smoke and flame.

“Go!” Vargal shouted and shoved Horgrum backward. He took his axe in both hands and turned to face the enemy.

Horgrum pushed Solissa toward the trees, and she took Kolor’s hand. They ran.

Before he entered the woods, Horgrum turned back to see the human warrior barreling down on his father. Vargal twisted aside from the Khadoran’s lance and lashed out with his axe at the passing horse. The great blade hewed through one of the animal’s legs, and it crashed to the ground, throwing its rider. Horgrum smiled as his father closed on the enemy and split the human’s skull with a short overhand strike.

Horgrum’s grip tightened around his own axe. These humans, these Khadorans, were not so strong. The kin could defeat them. He took a step toward the clearing.

“No, Horgrum.” Solissa’s hand on his arm stropped him.

Vargal had pulled his weapon free from the corpse and turned back toward the battle. Through the smoke Horgrum could see more trollkin and humans fighting. He could help his people. He could defend them.

He took another step, and a single sharp report rang out. His father stopped midstride, and blood poured down his back from a fist-sized hole that had blossomed between his broad shoulders. He collapsed to his knees, and then pitched over into the dirt.

Horgrum shook off Solissa’s hand and raced toward his father, screaming in rage. He made it five paces before another shot rang out. The bullet struck his axe, smashing it from his grip. He dove to the ground. Bodies lay everywhere, human and trollkin. His hand fell across the butt of a rifle as something huge loomed out of the smoke, a human warrior encased in steam-powered armor that made him nearly as large and powerful as a full-blooded troll.

Horgrum picked up the rifle. It was big by human standards, long-barreled and finely machined. He had never used such a weapon, but he’d seen them fired. He rested the butt against his shoulder and curled his smallest finger around the trigger; the others would not fit inside the guard. The armored man charged, and Horgrum stared down the rifle’s barrel. A sense of calm flowed over him, his rage and fear drained away, and only the enemy and the rifle remained. He drew in a breath and aimed as best he could, peering through the attached scope and adjusting until he felt centered over the enemy’s heart. He pulled the trigger, and the gun bucked and spat smoke.

The armored human stumbled, and Horgrum couldn’t tell if his shot was the cause, or if he’d even hit his target. Then the man faltered again, blood sluiced down his helmet from the visor slit, and he fell over backward. Horgrum had not hit the spot he’d intended, but Dhunia had graced him with a bit of luck.

Horgrum had no time to celebrate. Another shot rang out and dizzying pain lanced through his right shoulder. Another soldier appeared. This one wore no armor, but he carried a rifle like the one Horgrum had taken from the enemy corpse. He was an older man, with graying hair falling beneath a red cap. A livid scar marred his angular face and ran from his right brow to the middle of his nose. This had to be the human who killed his father.

Despite his wound, he wanted to find a way to kill this man, but Solissa’s voice from the tree line called him back to reality. “Horgrum, more soldiers are coming!”

He turned and lurched toward his sister, expecting the human to shoot him in the back as he ran. No shot came, and he made it to the trees, the enemy rifle gripped tightly in his right hand.

* * *

Ceryl in Cygnar, autumn 609 AR

“Is that a Vanar Liberator?” the soldier asked incredulously, rising up from behind his desk.

Horgrum looked down at the rifle in his hand. He hadn’t known it had a name. He’d brought it to the Ceryl recruitment office because he thought human soldiers supplied their own weapons, just as the warriors in his kriel had.

“I took it,” he said, unsure how to respond. He’d waited in line for an hour. The army in Ceryl, his home for the last year, was looking for volunteers to serve in the trencher corps, the name for warriors in Cygnar that had a reputation for being tough and capable. Regular folk seemed to look up to them, at any rate.

The soldier’s eyes narrowed. “Took it from whom? These are pretty rare.”

Horgrum glanced around the small, square room. There were two other men here, both wearing the same blue uniform. They stared at him. “One of the Khadorans who attacked my village carried this weapon. I took it from his corpse to defend myself.”

“You don’t say?” The first soldier’s expression changed from suspicious to approving. “When and where?”

“Three years ago, in the northern Thornwood,” Horgrum said. Maybe what had happened to his kriel would strengthen his chances of acceptance. He needed what the army offered. He, Kolor, and Solissa lived in one of the squalid trollkin slums, and though he often found work on the docks—his strength made him a good laborer—it paid little. The army paid more and consistently, and with that money, he could take better care of his brother and sister.

“If he killed a Widowmaker and took his gun, you should pin a bloody medal on him,” someone said from the long line of others hoping to join the trenchers.

The soldier chuckled at that. “Experience killing the reds isn’t a requirement, but it doesn’t hurt. I’m Corporal Newsome. What’s your name?”

“Horgrum, son of Vargal Oakheart.”

“Well, Horgrum, the trenchers can always use someone of your size, strength, and, uh, durability, and we’ve recruited a number of trollkin in the past . . . ” He paused and looked down at Horgrum’s rifle again. “You any good with that thing?”

“I have become skilled with this weapon,” Horgrum said. He’d practiced with the gun as often as possible. It was difficult to get ammunition, but he hunted game outside the city whenever he could to put more food on the table for his siblings. The gun was not designed for a trollkin, but over the years he’d traded work with a gunsmith who had modified the stock and trigger guard to fit his frame and thicker fingers. He’d developed a knack for the weapon, finding if he was patient, he could usually make his shot. He enjoyed stalking his prey and taking it down with a single, perfectly placed shot.

“Well, if that’s the case, maybe lugging around a chain gun in the trenches isn’t the best spot for you,” Corporal Newsome said. “Stay here for a second.” He turned and walked through a door behind him. Horgrum could hear him talking to someone else, and then Corporal Newsome and another human appeared. The second man was older, gaunt-faced, and of middling height. Rather than the simple uniform Newsome wore, this man was attired in partial trencher armor and gear, including a nicked and much-repaired steel breastplate that suggested combat time. He carried himself with the ease of someone well accustomed to the weight and encumbrance of his gear.

“Sergeant Sharp, this is Horgrum Oakheart. He’s got a Vanar Liberator he took off a dead Khadoran,” Corporal Newsome said. “Says he can use it too.”

Sergeant Sharp approached. “Fought some Reds, have you?”

“They attacked my kriel in the northern Thornwood. Killed my people. I took one of their weapons and killed one of them before I . . . fled. I’ve been practicing with it ever since.”

Sergeant Sharp frowned, and Horgrum saw something on the man’s face he did not expect: sympathy. “I’m truly sorry to hear that,” he said. “Can you shoot well?”

“I can,” Horgrum said confidently.

“Show me.”

* * *

The recruitment office was part of small garrison near the Ceryl docks. Behind it were barracks for some of the trenchers stationed in the city, and behind that a rifle range. The soldiers here used the ocean to their advantage, and their “range” was a series of targets attached to floating buoys at various distances.

“Those targets are at 100, 200, 300, and 500 yards.” Sharp pointed to the target buoys as they approached the firing line. The other soldiers in the recruitment office and some twenty of the potential recruits had followed them, all eager to see a trollkin fire a Khadoran rifle. “That Liberator has the range to hit any one of them.”

Horgrum nodded. He’d taken a deer at a distance greater than the farthest target—once. The man-shaped targets on the buoys were smaller, and the wind here would affect a shot at the longer ranges. “If I show you I can shoot this gun. You will let me be a trencher?”

Sharp smiled. “Oh, you’ve already got that locked. Trollkin never have any problems meeting trencher physical requirements. We take ’em whenever we can, but I’m looking for snipers. If you can shoot that rifle well enough, there could be a better place for you, one more suited to your talents and with better pay.”

Better pay. That got Horgrum’s attention. Solissa and Kolor would not go hungry on a trencher’s salary, but if he could make more, he could provide more: better food, a better place to live, and more opportunities to make a good life for themselves.

“What must I do to prove I can use this rifle?” Horgrum asked.

“I’ll give you six shots. Two each at 200, 300, and 500 yards. If I like what I see, we’ll talk further.”

“No,” Horgrum said. “I will put a bullet through the head of the farthest target. If I do, you make me a sniper. If I miss, I will ‘lug a chain gun’ for Corporal Newsome.” He hated to gamble this way with the future of his brother and sister, but his need was too great for empty promises. This Sergeant Sharp seemed an honorable man who respected such a challenge.

Sharp said nothing for a moment, then grinned. “Okay, Horgrum. You hit that target, with one shot, and you’re in.” Behind them, the assembled soldiers and recruits began making wagers.

Horgrum nodded, put the rifle to his shoulder, and pulled back the firing pin. He set the front sight on the head of the target buoy. It bobbed up and down on the water, and he felt a breeze blowing in from the south—and it was shifting. It would slow his bullet, and he would have to adjust for that. All in all, this was a much harder shot than he had let on. Why had he promised it all on one shot? It now seemed reckless. He gritted his teeth and put doubts aside. He needed this, for his kith, and the buoy was not running away from him at top speed through the brush. He drew in a breath, letting the silent calm of rifle and target settle over him. The voices of the men around him faded away, and his world became the wind, the sight, and the target in the water.

He waited, getting used to the rhythm of the target’s movement on the waves. He curled his finger around the trigger. The target bobbed down, up, down, up. He squeezed. The rifle bucked his shoulder and the explosive report drowned out everything.

He looked back at Sharp.

“Pull it in, private,” Sharp said, and one of the soldiers ran forward to pull at the thick rope connected to the target buoy.

As the target neared the dock, all were silent until the hole just left of center in the target’s head became visible. Then, laughter and cheers, plus a few groans from those who had bet against him, rose from the crowd.

Sharp held out his hand to Horgrum. “Welcome to the trenchers, Private Horgrum. We’re going to need to get you a bigger rifle.”

* * *

The Black River in Occupied Llael, summer 611 AR

Horgrum cradled the Raevhan Express prototype in his arms and crouched low to the ground near the river’s edge. Designed for a trollkin’s frame, the massive rifle, with its oversized trigger guard, enlarged stock, and weight of nearly thirty-pounds, was engineered to propel a gigantic projectile with force and accuracy unequaled by any other military rifle. Since passing basic training and gaining a position as a trencher sniper, he’d become intimately familiar with the gun. He’d named it Dhunia’s Mercy. Sometimes he missed his old Vanar Liberator, especially on long, grueling hikes.

“What do you see, Corporal?” Sergeant Sharp asked and squatted down next to him. He’d been assigned to the sergeant soon after basic, teaming up as one of the first Trencher Express Teams, each consisting of a trollkin sniper and a human spotter. Sharp was his commanding officer, but more than that, he was a brother in arms and one of the only true friends he had among the Cygnaran military. He had come to think of Sharp as an extension of his kith.

“Boots, soft,” Horgrum said. “Moving north toward Riversmet.” They were in Khadoran territory, scouting along the Black River for Lord General Coleman Stryker, who had quietly led an invasion force into occupied Llael.

“Not Man-O-War or Winter Guard,” Sharp said. “How many?”

Horgrum studied the tracks again. “Three—two men and a woman.”

“Widowmakers?”

Horgrum nodded.

Sharp rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “They usually travel in groups of four. They must have lost a man somewhere.”

“Greywind Tower isn’t far from here,” Horgrum said. “The Resistance may have gotten one of them.”

Sharp grimaced. He didn’t like that answer. “Maybe. Suggestions?”

“Follow the tracks, find them, and kill them.”

Sharp frowned. “That simple, eh, Corporal?”

Horgrum shrugged. It was simple, just very dangerous.

“You know hitting a Widowmaker team, even with a man down, is risky,” Sharp said. “You look me in the eye and tell me you want to do this because of our mission in Llael and not because you’re looking for Red Cap.”

This had been a bone of contention between them since the beginning. He and Sharp were often tasked with counter-sniper operations, and they’d killed dozens of their Khadoran counterparts. Each time, Horgrum had looked for Red Cap, the name he’d given the sniper who’d killed his father. Several times they had gone out of their way to seek out Widowmakers, sometimes pushing against the limits of their orders. The thought of his father brought back memories as vivid as the day they had happened. Sharp was familiar with the destruction of Horgrum’s kriel, and though he sympathized with his partner’s desire for vengeance, he did not approve of Horgrum’s singular pursuit of it.

Horgrum could not look Sharp in the eye, but he said, “Widowmakers are also scouts, and if they’ve come this far south, they may have seen the army. We can’t let them return to report.”

Sharp’s frown deepened, but Horgrum knew his reasoning was sound, even if it wasn’t his primary motivator. The sergeant let out an irritated sigh after a few moments. “Bloody hell. Then let’s hope we spot them before they spot us. I’d like to keep my head on my shoulders for a few more days.”

* * *

“He’ll have heard the shots,” Sharp said, staring through his spyglass at the small Khadoran camp at the bottom of the hill.

Horgrum viewed the darkened camp through the scope on his rifle. Two corpses lay splayed out near the river, illuminated only by soft moonlight. He could only tell the gender of the first corpse. The top two-thirds of the man’s head had been torn away by a bullet the size of a shot glass. He’d taken the Khadoran sniper from nearly six hundred yards—a good shot—but he frowned as his scope moved to the second body. The woman had moved from a crouch to standing just as he fired, and the bullet had struck her neck. She’d bled out quickly, but it was not a clean kill.

“Yes, he will have heard,” Horgrum said. There was no ignoring the thunderous report of the Raevhan Express.

“I can see tracks moving away from the camp,” Sharp said. “Looks like he went off for a piss or something, heard the shots, and decided to stay gone.”

“He will look for us,” Horgrum said. They knew a third sniper lurked nearby, but they hadn’t seen him yet. They’d found the camp and taken the opportunity to eliminate two of the Widowmakers, figuring they’d eventually track down the third.

“Agreed,” Sharp said. “And if he’s any good. We’re going to need to flush him out.”

Horgrum didn’t like the sound of that. “What do you mean?”

“I think he’s in those trees there. By the river. Good cover and sight lines. He’s waiting for one of us to stick our head up so he can shoot it off.”

“Likely,” Horgrum said.

“Well, we can’t just bugger off and leave him to hustle it back to home base. So, one of us needs to draw him out, and since you’ve got the big gun, that’s me.”

“No, Sharp,” Horgrum said. “I can take a bullet. You can’t.” Trollkin healed quickly and could survive wounds that would be fatal to softer-skinned humans.

Sharp chuckled. “One of these days you’re going to figure out I’m in charge, and you do what I say, not the other way around. Now, keep your rifle on those trees. I’m going to work my way down the hill on my belly. It’s dark, and a man on his stomach is a bitch of a target. He’ll need some time to aim properly, which means you’ll see him before he shoots.”

Horgrum took his eye away from the rifle’s scope to protest further, but Sharp had already left, and Horgrum could hear him wriggling through the leaves on his belly. “Dhunia, protect him,” he said under his breath and put his eye back on the scope.

The copse of trees where the sniper likely hid was dark, and it was difficult to make out individual trees. He waited, knowing Sharp’s peril grew with every moment that passed.

Then, something moved. A spot of color in the black, illuminated briefly by the full moon overhead–a red cap. The sights and smells of his burning village came roaring back to Horgrum. Fear and rage mingled at his inability to protect his father and kriel from the enemy.

He drew in a deep breath and set his cross hairs in that spot of crimson. He would protect Sharp. He saw the glint of moonlight on the enemy’s scope as his rifle came up, and Horgrum squeezed the trigger. The thunder and fire of the Raevhan lit up the night for a split second, blinding him. When he could see through the scope again, the red cap had disappeared. He hadn’t heard another shot, but if they’d fired simultaneously he wouldn’t have.

“Sharp?” he called out.

Silence. And then, “You get him?”

Relief poured over Horgrum, and he took the rifle away from his shoulder. “I got him.”

* * *

“This one’s been around awhile,” Sharp said, squatting over the body of the dead Widowmaker. “That red cap means one-hundred confirmed kills. Could be him.”

Horgrum frowned. His bullet had all but disintegrated the Widowmaker’s head. He thought he’d seen a flash of silver hair beneath it just before he pulled the trigger, but he couldn’t tell if this red cap was his Red Cap. “I didn’t see his face.”

Sharp’s snatched the red cap from the ground and waved it at Horgrum. “This is the second marksman we’ve killed with a red cap. Do you know how many marksmen like that there are in the entire goddamn Khadoran army?”

Horgrum stared at his feet, rage and shame warring for control of his emotions. “Not many.”

“And you’ve killed two of them,” Sharp continued. He held the cap out to Horgrum. “Send this back to your brother and sister, and tell them you killed him. Let them put your father to rest in their hearts, even if you can’t.”

Horgrum accepted the hat, trying to recall the face of the sniper who had killed Vargal Oakheart. He recalled a scar and white hair, but nothing else. The man had become a symbol of the vengeance he craved and little more. It ate away at his heart, and he was letting it. He loosed a long, steadying breath and said, “Red Cap had one-hundred confirmed kills?”

“A lot of them good Cygnaran soldiers,” Sharp said. “You’ve put a stop to that.”

Horgrum stuck the cap beneath his breastplate. “I’ll send this to Ceryl, to Solissa and Kolor. They’ll know what it means.”

Sharp smiled. “Sounds like a confirmed kill to me.”

Originally published in No Quarter #72, June 2017


Want more Horgrum and Sharp? You can read about their adventures alongside Lord General Coleman Stryker and Asheth Magnus in the Acts of War novels.

   

Ranks of the Rejected: Avily Jerome (Havok Magazine)

Today it is my privilege to present an interview with Avily Jerome, the editor for Havok magazine. Avily is an accomplished editor and writer, and she has great advice for authors who want to publish in Havok (or publish in general). She also knows a thing or two about rejection and how to deal with the inevitable reality of “not for us.” My own association with Havok is pretty simple. They’ve published two of my stories, including one in the issue releasing today, which means I’ve twice had the pleasure of working directly with Avily and the rest of the Havok team.

Make sure to check out the latest from Havok, including the April issue, and the guidelines for the annual contest issue Rampage! Monsters vs. Robots, coming in July (more info on that below).

    


1) Tell us what Havok Magazine publishes in 50 words or less.

Havok publishes speculative flash fiction. 1000 words or fewer, in a variety of speculative genres. We’ve done everything from steampunk to dinosaurs to straight sci-fi, and everything in between, including some pretty spectacular mash-ups. Content-wise, we’re family-friendly, so no excessive violence, language, or sensuality.

2) How do you come up with Havok’s themes? What are some of your favorite past themes?

Every year we have a brainstorming session with Splickety (our parent company) staff members and throw around ideas until we find the ones we like. We try not to do anything too similar to something we’ve done in the recent past, and we try to make the themes broad enough that multiple genres can fit within the same theme.

Favorite themes… that’s a tough one. I love our Halloween horror issues. Some of my personal favorite stories have been in the horror issues. The Dinosaurs issue was a lot of fun. Probably one of my top picks is our Literary Mutations issue, where we made classic stories into speculative stories.

3) Since Havok publishes flash fiction, in your opinion, what are the benefits and challenges of writing at 1,000 words or fewer?

One of the best benefits for writers is that it really tightens your writing. You have to decide which information is vital and which is extraneous. You have to cut out every bit of fluff and every unnecessary word.

One of the biggest challenges is fitting a full story arc and creating compelling characters in such a short amount of space.

4) What advice can you give writers submitting to Havok? Which stories have the best chance at publication?

We accept stories up to 1000 words, but I only have room for two or maybe three 1000-words stories per issue. Most of the stories I publish are about 700 words, so if you can stick to 700 words or fewer, your odds are better.

As for story itself, if you can make me feel, whether it’s humor, sadness, love, nostalgia—you have a higher probability of catching my attention. I also love twist endings, complex world building (although again, this is hard to do in a flash story), and hard choices.

 5) Take us behind the scenes. Describe Havok’s evaluation process for a story.

I have a pretty multi-faceted process for choosing stories. First, of course, I look for writing quality and story arc. Even if the story is one I like, if the writing is poor, or if it’s going to take too much effort on my part to edit it and get it ready for publication, then I’m probably going to pass on it. Conversely, if the writing is clean and flows but the story isn’t engaging, then I’m not going to try to work with it.

Most of the submissions I receive fit these criteria, so after I’ve narrowed it down a bit, I look for several different components. Story arc is a big one for me. I’m okay with open endings, as long as there is some resolution and some emotional satisfaction for the reader. Too often, I read stories that feel like prologues. It’s okay if it’s part of a bigger world, but the story has to be self-contained. Along the same lines, the world can’t be too big or require too much explanation, and there can’t be too many or too complex of characters. I don’t want to be pulled out of the story or feel like it ended too soon because there were too many unanswered questions or because I couldn’t keep track of all the characters.

Beyond that, there’s some personal preference involved, and there’s also what does or doesn’t fit within the rest of the issue. If a story is too similar to either the staff feature or the featured author, I’ll pass on it because I want to have a variety. I also try to have a mix of dark and light, so if I have a really good story that’s tragic or violent, I’ll try to balance with one that’s humorous, and so on.

6) Well, this blog is called Rejectomancy, so I gotta ask. What are the top three reasons Havok rejects a story?

Top reason—I just don’t have room to publish all the fantastic stories I receive. #2, it doesn’t fit with our submission guidelines for either word count, theme, or content, and #3, the story is flat and doesn’t hold my interest.

7) You’re an accomplished writer as well as an editor, so you understand  rejection comes with the territory. Any pro tips for dealing with it?

Don’t take it personally. Just because you receive a rejection doesn’t mean I (or any other editor) didn’t like it. I try to offer at least a little feedback on every story that makes it through the initial screening, with something I like and something to work on, so take that for what it’s worth—one editor’s opinion—and keep writing, keep submitting, and keep going.

 8) Last question: what new and exciting things are headed our way from Havok magazine?

The single most exciting thing coming is our annual contest issue, coming in July. The theme this year is Rampage! Monsters vs. Robots. The theme description is on our website. The Grand Prize includes an Amazon gift card and a bunch of ebooks and other goodies. And don’t forget to check out all the other themes from Havok and from Splickety’s other imprints for this year.


Avily Jerome is a writer, the editor of Havok Magazine, an imprint of Splickety Publishing Group, and a book reviewer for Lorehaven Magazine. Her short stories have been published in multiple magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests, both for short stories and novels. She is a writing conference teacher and presenter, a new-author mentor, and a freelance editor. In addition, she enjoys speaking to local writers’ groups.

Her fantasy short story serials, The Heir, and the sequel, The Defector, are available on Amazon, and book three, The Silver Shores, is coming soon.

She loves all things SpecFic, and writes across multiple genres. Her writing heroes include Joss Whedon, Robert Jordan, and J.K. Rowling, among others. She is a wife and the mom of five kids. She loves living in the desert in Phoenix, AZ, and when she’s not writing, she loves reading, spending time with friends, and experimenting with different art forms.

To contact Avily or to find out more about her mentoring and editing services, please visit her website at www.avilyjerome.com

It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 5: Tough Charity

Time for another installment of It Came From My Hard Drive. These are short, high-fantasy vignettes I wrote for Goodman Games around ten years ago. They were used to introduce chapters in various RPG supplements I was working on at the time. This one comes from a book called Hero’s Handbook: Tieflings. If you haven’t been playing Dungeons & Dragons for most of your adult life, you’re likely wondering what the hell a tiefling is. Short answer: tieflings are folks who have a demon or a devil somewhere in their family lineage. In this book, we took the approach that every tiefling is descended from a powerful devil associated with one of the seven deadly sins. The idea is that a tiefling character would try to overcome the temptations and urges of their infernal blood and work toward becoming heroes.

Anyay, this short vignette introduces the chapter about tieflings descended from Mammon, the devil of greed.


Tough Charity

Tarro emptied the coin purse into his hand, curling six long fingers around the platinum coins. One hundred eighty gold pieces, he counted the gold equivalent of the platinum in his head. It took me thirty-four days to accumulate this money. The tiefling stared across Dhavosin’s main road to the squat temple of Elyr. A white-robed priest stood outside the plain brick walls with a wooden collection tray, entreating passersby to donate to the church. The money Tarro held in his hand, earned from adventuring, would feed and clothe the children and other destitute souls within the temple for most of the year. He scratched a spot between his horns, a spot that bore the invisible mark of Mammon, the great devil whose blood and avaricious nature were part of his being.

“Come on, lad,” Rodren said beside him. The stocky dwarven warrior was two feet shorter than Tarro but half again as wide. His ruddy, bearded face beamed up at the tiefling, his eyes full of pride and hope for his devil-tainted companion. “All you have to do is walk over there, put the money in the collection tray, and you’re done. It’s that easy.”

Tarro set off across the street, his dwarven companion in tow. “Are you sure this temple will use these funds appropriately?” he asked.

Rodren chuckled. “Tarro, it’s a temple of Elyr, the god of charity. “I don’t think the priests are like to run down to the nearest brothel with it.”

Tarro frowned but could think of nothing that would contradict Rodren’s appraisal of Elyr’s clergy.

The Elyran priest saw them coming, and his eyes widened in alarm. It wasn’t every day a tiefling warlock and a dwarven warrior paid a visit to the poor house. “My good sirs,” the priest said and bowed, his voice trembling. “Blessings of Elyr upon you.”

“Good day to you, your Holiness,” Rodren said, using a title meant for a high priest on what was obviously a simple lay cleric. “My friend has an offering he’d like to make.”

“Oh?” the priest said and cast a critical eye on the horned, scaly tiefling standing in front of him, grimacing, as if in pain. “Elyr is always glad to accept charity . . . from anyone.”

Tarro grunted in reply and glanced at the collection tray. Eight copper pennies and two silver stars rested on its worn surface, not nearly enough to feed the orphans and other poor folk who lived in the temple. He thrust his hand out, causing the priest to jerk back, likely expecting some dire enchantment from the black-robed tiefling.

“Here,” Tarro said through clenched teeth and opened his fist. Platinum coins fell onto the collection tray with a clatter.

The priest’s eyes grew huge and round at the sight of the money. “Elyr bless you, my son! What would possess you to part with so much?”

Tarro opened his mouth to reply, but Rodren answered for him. “Don’t mind the horns and scales, your Holiness. Tarro’s a good sort, and he likes to give back now and then. It’s good for the soul. Right, Tarro?”

“Absolutely.” Tarro said, unable to look away from the mound of platinum on the collection tray. Finally, he smiled up at the Elyran priest, flashing a mouthful of crooked fangs. “Can I get a receipt?”


If you’d like to check out the other vignette’s in this series, click here:

  1. It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 1 – The High Road
  2. It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 2 – The Challenge
  3. It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 3 – A Red Night
  4. It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 4 – A Pointed Education

Tales from the Editor’s Skull – Interview with Howard Jones

Goodman Games is about to unleash a brand-new sword-and-sorcery magazine on the world called Tales from the Magician’s Skull. The first issue is filled with old-school pulpy goodness written by authors who know the genre well (including yours truly). I recently spoke with Howard Jones, the editor-in-chief of Goodman Games’ latest venture, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about the magazine and the current Kickstarter campaign to support it.

1) Okay, give us the skinny on Tales from the Magician’s Skull. The elevator pitch if you will.

It’s a magazine dedicated to old-school sword-and-sorcery. Not pastiche, not homage, but new fiction about new characters in new worlds, inspired by the great old ground-breaking stuff. That means there’s forward momentum and inventive world building and dark sorcery and darker deeds and heroes wandering where brave men fear to tread.

2) Tells us a bit about your background as a writer and editor. How did you get involved with the project?

I’ve written a historical fantasy series set in ancient Arabia for St. Martin’s, four Pathfinder novels, and a slew of short stories. A new fantasy series from me will be dropping (again from St. Martin’s) next summer. I grew up reading and loving the kind of fiction this magazine emulates, fantasizing and dreaming what it would have been like to edit for one of the great old pulp magazines, so this is a dream come true.

Long before I was a published author I was an in-house editor for Macmillan Computer Publishing, breaking into fiction editing when I assembled eight volumes of swashbuckling historicals by Harold Lamb. And I was the Managing Editor for a sword-and-sorcery e-zine, Flashing Swords, and then, near the end of its run, Black Gate Magazine. I met Joseph Goodman when I was reviewing role-playing supplements he’d published for Goodman Games, and one year at GenCon I dropped by his booth to hand him my first published novel.

In short, over the course of a few years, we came to admire and appreciate the work the other was doing.

3) How did you and Goodman land on sword and sorcery for Tales from the Magician’s Skull? What about that genre interests you?

We’re both drawn by the sense of the adventure and the pacing. There’s little to no navel gazing. It’s all about the story. And while there IS darkness and dread, most of the time the tales aren’t drowning in it. These are typically tales with heroics and death-defying action. In earlier fiction there are fewer conventions about what magic looks like or what elves are or other issues that have become so codified some have a hard time breaking out of the mold. We love that.

There are tombs and treasure and strange enchantments, bizarre and curious locations, and protagonists desperate to get in or out of such places, sometimes in pursuit of lofty goals but more often simply to live another day.

4) Who are the writers in the first issue? And, uh, how did they get so damn lucky?

Here’s a funny thing. It started out as Joseph Goodman asking me if I wanted to contribute a story to the Goodman Games 2017 GenCon magazine. He’d asked me for one for the 2016 mag, and I said yes both times. Shortly after receiving the one for 2017, though, he wondered if maybe I knew some other sword-and-sorcery writers. Well, most of my writer friends are sword-and-sorcery writers, so that was easy.

He kept asking for a few more, and before we knew it, there were more than enough for an entire magazine. When Joseph proposed that, I lobbied to become its editor.

Because the whole thing grew organically, we tapped people we knew well who could exactly get the sword-and-sorcery vibe we were after. For issue two we’re reaching a little further afield but  still working for the same feel.

As for who’s within, there’s you and me! Then there’s Chris Willrich, best known for his Gaunt and Bone sword-and-sorcery tales and books, which are a well-known secret amongst modern sword-and-sorcery fans. He penned a new one about his characters. And James Enge, perhaps the breakout writer from Black Gate, who’s drafted a new adventure starring Morlock the Maker. There’s Bill Ward, who wrote a tale of dark conspiracy in an Asian-inspired fantasy coastal setting. And Clint Werner, well-known Warhammer author, who gave us a creepy Hammer-horror infused sword-and-sorcery tale, and John C. Hocking, probably best known as the author of Conan and the Emerald Lotus, but more recently known for his tales of the archivist, writing a dark, punchy adventure set in that character’s world.

If you want to know more, the Kickstarter gives you thumbnail synopses of each story!

5) So besides awesome tales of sword and sorcery, what else can we expect from Tales from the Magician’s Skull?

Well, there’s horror and suspense as well, which are important components of the genre, and I think you’ll see an occasional tale with those features more primary than secondary. But within the magazine you’ll find some great artwork, and maps to lost places within the stories, and then an appendix that presents the monsters and challenges in Dungeon Crawl Classics game statistics, in case you want to bring any of the events to life at your own game table.

6) I know a lot of my readers are dying to know the answer to this next question. Will the magazine be opened up to unsolicited submissions at some point? If so, tell us a little about what Editor-in-chief Howard Jones looks for in a story.

To know what I look for in a story, check out the first two issues, and read yourself some great old sword-and-sorcery, like the Conan stories, or the early Fafrhd and Gray Mouser stuff (particularly from the Swords Against Death collection) or practically anything from Leigh Brackett. We don’t plan on publishing space opera, as she often wrote, but her sense of color and pacing is definitely something to model off of.

We do plan on opening to submissions, eventually. But it’s likely to be a few issues yet. First we want to establish the magazine and build up a reader base, which is challenging enough without adding slush reading on top of it!

7) How and where can folks support this awesome project?

Not only can you drop by the Kickstarter campaign and pledge for an e-copy or physical copy of the magazine (or maybe even join our secret society) you can help spread the word. I’m tremendously pleased that we met our funding goal in the first day. But I’m also certain  there are many more sword-and-sorcery fans out there. Surely they must number in the thousands. Help us reach them! Spread the word. We love this fiction and want to share it!


Howard lives in a lonely tower in Indiana with a wicked and beautiful enchantress. When not running his small farm or spending time with his gifted children, he can be found hunched over a laptop, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted moors. His books have been acclaimed by well-known mortal critics. Sometimes he edits short stories for magazines and he once anthologized the work of historical writer Harold Lamb. He knows karate. Yah!

Ranks of the Rejected: Mitch Malloy

In the past, I’ve interviewed writers and editors for Ranks of the Rejected, but as it turns out, they aren’t the only creative folks who get rejected. I’ve worked with a fair number of freelance illustrators in my professional career, so I thought I’d get the skinny on the trials and tribulations of that line of work straight from the horse’s mouth. I turned to the very talented Mitch Malloy, an illustrator I’ve worked with recently. Mitch was kind enough to answer questions about his work (and provide me with some awesome samples) and tell me about rejection for the freelance illustrator.

Be sure to check out Mitch’s website and gallery right here: www.mitchmalloyart.com


1) Tell us a about your work. Who are your typical clients?

My work is all over the place. Generally, my style is contemporary realism, but I do a lot of stylized work too and some hybrids of those two. I prefer realism most, though. The lion’s share of my work is science fiction and fantasy. I mostly do work for clients in traditional gaming and video games, but I occasionally do book or publishing work. I’d like to do more book work for sure.

I do most of my work digitally since that was what I learned on, but increasingly I’ve been working toward incorporating more oils, gouache, watercolor, and graphite pieces into my professional assignments.

2) How do you typically get contracts as a freelance artist? Do you send your portfolio out to potential publishers, like writers do with submissions? Or does the work come to you at this point?

I’m lucky that most of my work finds me at this point. But every other season work dries up, and I’m back to slinging my portfolio at art directors and hoping something sticks. A lot of work gets lost to cold calls, so I go out of my way to try and figure out a specific email address for an art director to be sure somebody at least sees my work before throwing it out. It’s worked, but I’m not sure they don’t hate it.

3) You and I worked closely on a project recently, the cover of Red Sun Magazine #3, where you illustrated my story “Caroline.” It’s not typical for an illustrator to work directly with an author (as cool as it was), so what is the usual process?

Normally, once I’m on somebody’s roster for work, it takes a while for the right project to roll around. When it does (whatever that project is), an art director or outsource manager reaches out, asks about my availability, and negotiates a rate. Then I receive a brief, which has specs and a written description of the assignment. Usually things like the focus and mood of the piece are called out, which helps me nail a specific idea earlier. Sometimes it’s nebulous, and I have to shoot a bit broader in my ideation. My absolute least favorite is when a client calls to deliver this information instead of writing it out in an email. I like things clear and concise so I can dive right in, but most conversations of this nature tend to be unfocused, and it immediately gets me out of my groove.

Anyway, once I get a brief, I do thumbnails for myself, pick my best ideas, and refine them for presentation. The client narrows it down to one option, then I gather my reference and work up that comp with color, a drawing, etc., working toward a final and reviewing along the way.

4) I assume that anyone working in any creative field will get rejected in some fashion. What does rejection look like for the freelance illustrator?

For me, rejection has often been silence. So many unreturned emails, ghost clients, or cold call emails lost to the void. I get rejected by going unanswered. Otherwise, I might get a form letter or (rarely) a handcrafted bit of rejection. I’ve also been subject to a lot of rejection once clients find out my rates. I work some great-paying gigs at this point. I don’t usually want to work the cheaper ones (with rare exception). A lot of potential clients flee when they find out I want a fair wage for my work, which I’m okay with. Makes it easier to focus on jobs that will pay fairly (though they’re rarer).

5) What have you learned from rejection? How has it helped you grow as an artist?

Rejection usually pisses me off so much it sends me into a self-improvement spiral. One of the ways I handle rejection is to just grind until I prove to whoever that I am capable of the work. It’s not like I can get better on a timeline that would make them notice. It’s irrational. But rejection fuels a lot of my study. Thankfully, more and more, I just do studying because I’ve found the love for it. Every once in a while that letter comes in and I get swept up in the fury again.

(It probably isn’t healthy)

6) Got a favorite rejection? Memorable, funny, mean, just straight-up weird?

I once was told in a client meeting that I couldn’t offer feedback on their product until I was capable of doing the work myself. The work wasn’t very good. I could have done it myself. It freaked me out so much I went and worked my ass off to show them up. They later told me they were impressed by my growth, so I guess it worked?

On a more lighthearted note, I was once rejected because somebody thought I was the singer/songwriter Mitch Malloy. When they found out I wasn’t, they were no longer interested in commissioning me to do a painting for them. For reasons I’m not sure I’ll ever understand.

7) Okay, plug away. Tells us about your latest project and where we can run out and see/buy it.

Most of my latest projects are for clients I can’t talk about for another few months or even years. This is my life! But if you want to see a really wonderful fantasy setting with great fiction and RPG supplements, go check out Aetaltis. I’m the art director for the project, and it’s a huge passion for me. Check out what we’re doing here: www.aetaltis.com


Mitch is an artist with a deep passion for craftsmanship and storytelling. He has over 5 years of experience working as an artist in games. He is currently at Riot Games where he works as an illustrator. Outside the office, Mitch is a freelance artist for novels and traditional games. Mitch lives in the greater Los Angeles area with his lovely wife, his adorable son, two cats, and a dog.

Mitch’s clients include Wizards of the Coast, Riot Games, S2 Games, Privateer Press, Modiphius Entertainment, Onyx Path Publishing, Mechanical Muse, Posthuman Studios, Conceptopolis, Fantasy Flight Games, Present Creative, Super Genius Games, Wyrd Miniatures, and Broken Egg Games.

Ranks of the Rejected – Josh Hrala (The Arcanist)

Time for another installment of Ranks of the Rejected. This time I interviewed Josh Hrala, the editor at The Arcanist, a new flash fiction market that focuses on fantasy and science fiction. I’m always excited when a new flash fiction market appears on the scene, especially a paying one, and Josh and The Arcanist are off to a great start. Josh has an extensive background as a professional writer, so he’s no stranger to rejection, and now that he’s working the other side of the literary fence, he has some great advice for writers looking to publish their fiction with The Arcanist or anywhere for that matter. Check it out.


1) Give us the short and sweet on The Arcanist. The description on the label if you will.

The Arcanist is a flash fiction publication that focuses on SFF stories that are 1,000 words or shorter. Our goal is to provide a place where people can get new SFF stories every week and devour them wherever they are. Alongside these stories we pepper in non-fiction pieces about SFF authors, news, and other things related to the genres.

2) You have an impressive writing background, so what made you decide to jump the fence and try your hand at the editorial side of things?

It’s really hard to nail down an exact moment. I’d say that I’ve always wanted to be an editor, and I’ve always loved the tasks I had to do in editorial at my various staff writer positions. Even while writing 2-3 articles per day, I enjoyed working on stories written by others, developing them into working pieces, and making them the best they could be. I even enjoyed the scheduling and formatting of the pieces. There’s just something to it, you get to put everything in place and give it a final polish.

As these thoughts started to sharpen in my mind, Andie, Patrick, and I started to write together and talk about stories. All three of us love SFF in all of its forms and originally started writing short films and mini-bibles for TV shows when we could. It turned out that almost everything we made worked better as fiction than it did for film, and we’re still developing stories right now. Eventually, The Arcanist was born out of the idea that we loved doing this, and we could use our collective fiction knowledge and my editorial background to make something new.

What really excites me about being on this side of the fence is giving SFF writers a new place to publish their work, a place where they get paid, a place that looks modern, isn’t behind a paywall, and presents their work in ways that other sites don’t. What we’re trying to do with The Arcanist is bring new readers and writers into the SFF fold by publishing solid stories in a new, easy-to-access way.

We are giant craft nerds, too. We all met at Point Park University where we were a part of the creative writing program. This formal writing education made us love well-crafted literary stories. So we want to use that know-how to elevate both SFF and flash fiction because both genres take a lot of heat. SFF often gets critiqued because it involves more world-building than plot, character development, and structure while flash fiction can be viewed as too short of a medium to be taken seriously. While those can obviously be true depending on the work itself, we want to show what can happen when craft is valued more than settings and ideas while also showing that great fiction – regardless of genre – can be accomplished in very few words.

3) Why flash fiction? How did you and The Arcanist land on that story length over more traditional short stories?

When we were coming up with what we wanted The Arcanist to be, we had a few goals in mind. The first was to find a way to spread our love for well-crafted SFF content to people who may not read it otherwise. While many hardcore SFF fans love a long, epic narrative, I know a lot of people in my life who would never sit down with something that big. However, they are the same people who don’t blink an eye when it comes to reading a bunch of long articles on Facebook. This gave way to the idea that flash fiction is a great ice breaker and – if presented in on the right platform – could inspire new readers and writers to give the genres a shot.

Of course, traditional short fiction was an option – one we might revisit later alongside flash – but we wanted something smaller, something that can be read on the bus ride home. A bite-sized bit of magic that people can read anywhere.

Secondly, as I mentioned above, we love craft and believe that short form content is a great way for writers to hone – or show off – those skills. When a SFF writer is forced to stay under a certain word count, especially when it’s as tiny as 1,000 words, things get interesting fast. Characters have to be active and making choices right from the start or even the best ideas can fall flat.

In short, it makes writers question what they need to tell a story, and that can lead to some really cool things that readers will love.

4) What advice can you give writers submitting to The Arcanist? Which stories have the best chance at publication? Which stories are absolute nonstarters?

The first rule of submitting your work to us is to please, please, please read the submission guidelines. They aren’t even that hard to nail down: a SFF story that is 1,000 words or less. It’s surprising how many people just scroll down until they see the submit link and send things off without actually knowing if it’s what we want.

If your story meets these requirements, you’re already in a good place. However, there are some tips that will really put your story over the top.

The biggest problem we see on a craft level is that the characters in the story are often more boring than the world they inhabit. You can have a great world, but your story will be ruined by a passive character who merely walks through it and doesn’t make a choice or have any agency.

Also, make sure that you aren’t starting your story at the wrong place. This happens with monster stories quite a bit. What’s more interesting: how the monster got out or what happens when the monster is already out and the character has to deal with it? It’s the latter 99 percent of the time. If you need to write the buildup to the monster getting loose to make sure you know how it happened, that’s fine, but then the submitted story should probably take place afterwards. We get many stories that end where they actually should have started.

So, as tips go, you want your story to start at the right place, to make sure your characters are active, and make sure you aren’t relying on a witty idea to push your narrative. Ideas are cheap, execution is hard. We are all about the execution here.

5) How about a glimpse behind the scenes at The Arcanist. What does the evaluation process for a story look like?

We have two ways to submit stories. You can either email them to us or use our form, which requires you to submit a Google Doc version of your story. We HIGHLY recommend using the form, it makes it way easier on our end and we end up getting to those ones first and the inbox second.

The stories are then divided up and assigned to either me, Andie, or Patrick. We do not use slush readers, so everything that is submitted goes straight to an editor. The assigned editor reads the story and makes sure it follows the rules. If the story flat-out doesn’t work for us, it is rejected. If the first editor reads it and is on the fence, we all talk about it. If an editor really likes it, we do the same.

The on-the-fence stories and the ones individual editors want to greenlight are talked about in person, and we break them down and see if they truly work. Personally, these discussions are my favorite part because we really dig in and make a decision.

After that, it’s all about either breaking the bad news or sending acceptance letters, setting up payments and publication dates, and finally unleashing the story into the world.

6) This blog is called Rejectomancy for a reason, so let’s get to the good stuff. What are the top three reasons The Arcanist rejects a story. Be blunt, even savage if you must.

The number one reason is that you didn’t follow the rules. They are there for a reason. They are meant to challenge writers and be a bit difficult. When you write “approx. 1,000 words” we know that typically means “I went a bit over, sorry.”

The second is not knowing what your story is about. This goes back to what I said earlier about ideas and narrative. A lot of the time, we love the ideas presented in a story. We often scratch our heads and wonder how someone came up with this, which is fantastic. It’s a great feeling to have. The worst feeling to have, though, is realizing that the story is merely that concept with no narrative, action, or anything to back it up. It’s hollow, and doesn’t work on a craft level because narrative took a backseat to a clever idea, making the story more about the idea than anything else.

The third is a simple question: does anything actually happen in the story? With our 1,000-word limit, you don’t have a lot of time to flesh out a world or describe tons of scenery, you have to get to the point. There’s not enough space to have a character walk around and take things in for longer than maybe a sentence before something has to push them to action. Just because it is short doesn’t mean the story doesn’t need to have a beginning, middle, and end. The best stories we see have active characters and twists that make us look at the whole thing differently. The “turn” is one of our favorite moments, but even these can fall flat without active characters.

Also, just as note, please don’t submit your story with weird colored fonts, large sections underlined, or any other strange formatting. We read a lot, and these attempts to get our attention only hurt our eyes. I don’t know why people do this, and we won’t outright reject stories for this, but it makes us sad and gives us a headache, which doesn’t help your chances.

7) You’re a writer too, so you understand that rejection comes with the gig. Any pro tips for dealing with it? 

I’m not sure there is way to actually prepare yourself for a rejection. You have to learn early on that you can’t get your hopes up even if you think your story is gold because, let’s face it, we all think all of our own stories are gold.

If you want to get your work published, you need to wrestle with the fact that rejection is likely in your future far more often than acceptance, but you have to also understand that just because one place rejects a piece doesn’t mean it won’t work elsewhere. Make a plan, send out your story, follow all of the rules the publication asked for, and see what happens because it’s always worth it in the end. Remember that rejections are nothing personal and that every rejection is a chance to make the story better.


Josh is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Arcanist. His work has appeared on Cracked, PopSci, ScienceAlert, Geek & Sundry, ModernNotion, and others. You can get The Arcanist’s stories delivered straight to your inbox every Friday by subscribing for free here.

One-Hour Flash – Madcap

Here’s another flash piece I wrote as part of a one-hour flash challenge/exercise. This time, I actually have the prompt the story was written for (I was the one who posted it in this case).

(Exciting, huh?)

This story, “Madcap,” is part of a loosely connected series of stories about an organization called the Bureau of Fae Affairs or BFA for short. The idea came to me in one of these one-hour challenges, and I occasionally return to it in that scenario. Anyway, it’s an urban fantasy concept in which a very public government agency has to deal with an influx of fairytale creatures into our reality. The BFA both polices and eliminates dangerous fae while helping those that wish to live here peacefully integrate into our reality. There’s no denying the “Men in Black” feel of it, the differences being a focus on mythological creatures rather than aliens (obviously) and more emphasis on the work the agency does to integrate the newcomers into human life. (This story is not a great example of the latter.)

I’ve got like five or six of these stories floating around as flash pieces (one published), which all originated during one-hour flash challenges. I’ve also completed one longer tale, but I haven’t done much with any of it. “Madcap” is pretty typical of where I end up with this idea when I try and fit it into flash.


Madcap

 

“You the guy from the Jotun division?” The big guy leaning against the trunk of an aging Ford Crown Victoria asked as Simmons walked out of the woods. He looked to be in his mid-forties, and his thick brown hair was graying at the temples. He was built like an NFL linebacker, though, an easy two-fifty, and most of it muscle. He wore a black tactical rig over a Kevlar vest, faded jeans, and black work boots. A pair of cheap sunglasses perched on his crooked nose. His tactical harness bore the letters BFA in white reflective paint.

Simmons nodded. “Yep. That’s me,” he said and shrugged to settle his own tactical gear on his shoulders. His vest, too, had BFA written across it. “How’d you get way up here in that?” Simmons pointed to the faded blue Crown Vic. They were at least ten miles into the woods, and he’d had to park his Wrangler on the toll road a mile back. How this guy had managed to get his Ford POS this deep into the woods was a mystery.

“I’m Fitzgerald,” the big guy said, ignoring Simmons’ question. He pushed away from the trunk of his car and extended his hand. Simmons shook it and tried not to wince as his hand was swallowed and squeezed by Fitzgerald’s oversized mitt. “I’m surprised the bureau could spare one of you guys,” he said with a chuckle. “I hear Sigrid is teething.”

Simmons shook his head and sighed. “That she is.” His current position in the BFA—the good ol’ Bureau of Fae Affairs—was part of a team whose entire duty was to care for a twelve-ton Jotun baby. Jotun, or frost giants, were just one of the many fairytale creatures that had come spilling into the world when trans-dimensional portals had quite unexpectedly opened up around the globe a decade ago. The BFA had formed shortly thereafter, a government agency tasked with ensuring that peaceful giants, ogres, goblins, elves, and other fantastical creatures were dealt with and integrated into the human world if they so chose. Unfortunately, not all were peaceful. In fact, a lot weren’t.

Simmons smiled. “I’m not gonna lie. I was glad for the temporary assignment. Our little darlin’ has wrecked three cranes and two fire trucks since those teeth started coming in. It’s a goddamned emergency every day.”

Fitzgerald grinned. “I wish I could say this’ll be easier,” he said and pointed to the object of their mission—a hole bordered by rotting boards in the side of a small hill.

“Is that a mine?” Simmons asked.

“It was. Probably gold prospectors. It’s full of gnomes now.”

Simmons ran through all the fairy creatures he’d encountered in his five years with the BFA and came up blank. When he thought of gnomes, he saw cheap statuettes in quaint city gardens. He was in good hands, though. He’d been told Fitzgerald was a hitter, a BFA agent that dealt specifically with the nastier fairy folk in the most extreme and abrupt fashion. “You’re the hitter. I assume you can tell me all I need to know.”

Fitzgerald nodded, returned to his car, and popped the trunk. From within he withdrew two mammoth shotguns—they looked like the very deadly mating of firearm and Mac truck. “Ithaca Mag-10s,” Fitzgerald announced and tossed one of the huge shotguns to Simmons. He caught it with both hands—it was as heavy as he had suspected.

“We need these for fucking gnomes?” Simmons asked. “You could drop a rhino with these things.”

“I’d rather be hunting rhinos with BB-guns than the little bastards in that hole with these,” Fitzgerald said and grimaced. “What we have here is a particularly awful variety of gnome called a red cap. They’re called that because they like to dip their hair in the blood and entrails of their victims. They also have skin as hard as granite, claws that would give Freddy Krueger a hard-on, and, oh yeah, they can see in the dark.”

“Jesus,” Simmons said. He could actually feel the blood draining out of his face.

“Don’t worry,” Fitzgerald said and slapped Simmons on the shoulder. “They’re dumber than a box of rocks. We’re gonna bring ‘em to us.”

“How?”

Fitzgerald pulled what looked very much like a grenade from his tactical harness and smiled. “Smoker,” he said. “My own special concoction. It’s loaded with cold iron shavings. Makes their skin burn. They’ll come piling out of that hole, and then we just light ‘em up.”

“You’ve done this before, then?” Simmons said and pointed his shotgun toward the hole.

“Nope,” Fitzgerald said, pulled the pin on his grenade, wound up like a baseball pitcher, and fired the grenade at the hole. It disappeared into the dark, and the BFA hitter took a step back and put his own shotgun to his shoulder. Fiveseconds later, a muffled but still extraordinarily loud thud rolled up out of the hole followed by a cloud of greasy black smoke.

The first red cap burst from the smoke cloud at full tilt. It was small, about four feet tall, gangly limbed and gray skinned. Its face was a mashed lump from which two glittering black eyes stared hatefully outward. Its hair, brick red and dripping, streamed behind it, and it reached for both of them with long-fingered hands, each bearing six-inch talons.

Simmons squeezed the trigger, and his shotgun punched his shoulder like a kicking mule. The charging red cap’s head disappeared in a geyser of brown ichor and what looked a lot like rock dust. Its twitching body fell at his feet.

“Nice shot, Simmons!” Fitzgerald exclaimed beside him and kicked the red cap corpse away.

“Fuck me,” Simmons breathed, adrenaline still buzzing through his veins. “That’s may be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.”

Fitzgerald nodded. “Unfortunately, you’re gonna get to see them in their natural habitat.”

“What?!” Simmons said, eyes wide.

“Yup. The smoke is clearing, and it only drew one of the little fuckers out. There’s always at least six in a red cap nest. We gotta got down and root ‘em out.”

Simmons shook his head. “No. No. No,” he said. “That’s madness.”

Fitzgerald shrugged. “Maybe. But it’s the job.” He slapped Simmons on the shoulder again. “Cheer up. It beats changing the diapers on a twelve-ton baby, don’t it?”


This was fun to write and it gives some info on the setting, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and it isn’t a successful flash piece. Like many failed flash attempts, this likely works better as the beginning to a longer piece. Maybe I’ll go back and do something more substantial with the BFA or maybe I’ll just continue to produce these little 1,000-word scribbles for one-hour writing challenges when I should be writing something I can actually publish. 🙂