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. 🙂

One-Hour Flash – Killing the Dead

Here’s another flash fiction story I wrote as part of a one-hour contest. This dark urban fantasy tale is called “Killing the Dead,” and like the story from last week, “The Writing on the Wall,” it has lingered on my hard drive for quite a while. I’ve dusted it off and given it a quick polish, but it’s essentially the story I scribbled out in an hour three or four years ago. If you’d like to read the first story or learn more about these one-hour contests I’m so fond of, check out the link above.

Okay, here’s “Killing the Dead.”


Killing the Dead

Johns watched the sun dip low on the horizon, thankful for the warmth radiating though his legs from the hood of his pickup. He drew in a deep breath and ran a hand over the badge on his shirt. The stylized skull and hammer said he was a graver, an agent of the church, and one of the few people dumb enough to be outside after dark since the event of ‘18. It was crazy, dangerous work, but somebody had to deal with the dead, and it sure beat flipping burgers or working construction.

Nightfall was near and he hopped off the hood of the truck, stretched, and took stock of his surroundings. The graveyard was an old one, the headstones weathered and crumbling. The most recent date he could find was 1976, which meant the folks interred here had been dead for a minimum of fifty years. The chances one of the corpses would contain a roamer was thin, but, like usual, he’d claimed this particular graveyard on a hunch. Most gravers liked the newer cemeteries, where roamers were all but guaranteed. The problem there was you got paid the same for cleansing a cemetery of one roamer or fifty. Lot of young gravers didn’t survive their inaugural cleansing.

Johns went around to the bed of his truck and did a quick equipment check. He had a gallon of holy water—blessed by Father Daniels this very morning—some of which he had already poured into his super soaker. He had the axe, the maul, and the sledgehammer, plus the chainsaw if things got really out of hand.

He picked up the super-soaker. As absurd as it seemed, the giant squirt gun was the most important weapon in his arsenal. It could fire a concentrated blast of holy water up to sixty feet, and within that range it was nearly impossible to miss.

He glanced out over the graveyard, looking for a likely spot. There were plenty of headstones, but granite was tough to manipulate, and even an old roamer would have a hell of a time animating one of those. There was the ground, of course, and the newly dead usually went there. He’d faced down more than his share of dirt monsters. This cemetery was old enough that if it had a roamer, it would be experienced. If he were a betting man—and he was—a small stand of oak trees on the edge of graveyard was where he’d lay his wager.

Johns slung the super-soaker over his shoulder, grabbed the wood-axe from the bed of his truck, and started toward the trees. He pulled up just within the maximum range for the soaker and propped the axe on a nearby headstone.

Night fell completely in a few minutes, and Johns flicked on the LED light attached to his vest. He shivered in the sudden cold. Ever since the event, the temperature dropped a good twenty degrees at nightfall. Even in the middle of a Texas summer, the cold came on as soon as the stars came out. He guessed the dead liked it that way, or maybe they needed it that way. Who knew?

Minutes passed and silence settled over the graveyard. That was a good sign. Night critters that put up a racket at night—crickets, frogs, that kind of thing—went quiet when there were roamers around. He listened and was rewarded with a faint whistling that rose from the direction of the trees, a low winding keen that made the hairs on his arms and neck stand up. The telltale moan of a roamer. He’d never understood why they made so much noise, but it sure made them easier to find.

Johns moved toward the trees, soaker held up to his shoulder. The roamer appeared soon after, a faint shadow, slightly luminescent against the dark backdrop of the tree trunks. He could make out a male outline but not much else. Roamers became more indistinct as they aged, losing details until they were little more than shadows. He guessed he was looking at a century-old roamer at the least.

The roamer was lingering around the trunk of a big oak—it had chosen its medium for the night. Johns rushed forward, yelling, letting his target see and hear him. The apparition hissed in anger then disappeared into the tree. The oak shook and trembled, its branches swaying with ominous and unnatural life.

He stopped, aimed the soaker and waited. This was the dangerous part. Until the roamer completely inhabited its medium, it couldn’t be trapped, although it still controlled enough of whatever animate it had chosen to crush, gouge, or smash any unfortunate gravers nearby. Roamers, more than anything, wanted to be real again, to taste some semblance of life, and most didn’t fuck around once they’d found something to animate. This one was no different.

The trunk of the oak suddenly took on horrid life, the bark twisting and bulging as the roamer absorbed organic material and began crafting a body for itself. In this transitive state it was vulnerable, and Johns depressed the trigger on the soaker. A stream of blessed water struck the tree trunk, and the roamer within it loosed an ear-splitting howl. Its partially formed limbs reached out, wooden talons clawing at the air, then froze as the holy water did its work, locking the roamer in its transitive state and rendering it harmless until the next night fall.

Johns hefted the axe. All he had to do now was chop up the roamers body and keep a piece big enough to prove what he had. Father Daniels would say the last rights tonight at Saint Michaels, sending the roamer’s spirit on to the afterlife. Then he’d get paid.

He smiled as his first blow with the axe sent wood chips flying. Any night you helped stave off the apocalypse a little longer and put some cash in your pocket was a good one.


I had fun with this one, and if I remember correctly it was well received by the other authors in the contest (my notes say it came in third). I don’t remember the prompt, unfortunately, but it was likely a cemetery or something of that nature. The issue with this one (other than a pretty meh title) is it’s really the beginning of something longer, and I had to spend a fair amount of my 1,000 words telling the reader how this urban fantasy world worked. That didn’t leave much time for anything else, so the action is a bit rushed, and there’s not much to the main character. I do like some of the concepts I came up with, though–the gravers, the roamers, and the pseudo-post-apocalyptic urban fantasy thing–and it may be something I return to in the future for a longer story or even a novelette.

Which Work Do You Read? – A Poll

As some of you know, my current published works reside in two very different camps. First, there’s the work I do for Privateer Press, which includes two novels, a handful of novellas, and a whole bunch of short stories. All that fiction is set in Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms setting, a steampunk-esque fantasy world. Then there’s my other work, which is, of course, my own IP, and is primarily horror (with a smattering of sci-fi and fantasy). That’s mostly short stories, though I’m currently working on a novel.

I’m just curious who reads what. Do my IK readers read my stand-alone work, and do my horror, sci-fi, etc. readers read my IK work? If you’ll indulge me, I’ve created a little poll here to get something of an answer to that question. No judgment either way. I completely understand that horror or fantasy may not be someone’s cup of tea. I’m just thrilled anyone reads anything I write. Period. 🙂

 

Okay, now that you’ve answered the poll. Here’s some free stuff to read.

If you’re interested in checking out the Iron Kingdoms writing I do for Privateer Press, there’s a bunch of links to various published works here. There’s also a couple of free stories on the blog published when I was still on staff with Privateer. Links below.

  1. Tomb of the Deathless
  2. Wayward Fortunes

Finally, if you have a Kindle Unlimited membership, you can read one of my IK novellas, On a Black Tide, for free. Otherwise, it’s .99 cents.

If you’d like to check out the other stuff I write, mostly horror, there’s a whole bunch of that free on the internet. There’s a fairly comprehensive list on the blog with links right here, but I’ll list a couple of my favorites below.

  1. “Night Games” – This is a story about vampires and baseball. Yep, you heard that right. Read it from Devilfish Review or listen to Pseudopod’s awesome audio version.
  2. “Scare Tactics” – A parapsychologist and her pet demon get up to some supernatural hijinks in this one.  This is another one you can read at Devilfish Review or check out a fun audio version from Dunesteef.
  3. “Cowtown” – My most recent publication, “Cowtown” is a flash fiction piece (1,000 words) that mixes horror and comedy. You can read that one at The Arcanist

Anyway, please vote in the poll if you’re so inclined, and if you have any questions about any of my work, ask away in the comments.

Acts of War: Aftershock Now Available

If you’ve been following this blog over that last 30 weeks or so, you’ve seen me document the process of writing, revising, and editing my novel Acts of War: Aftershock. Well, today, all that work comes to fruition. Acts of War: Aftershock is now available in eBook and print formats from all the usual suspects.

War Has Come Again to Llael

On the heels of inflicting defeat upon the Khadorans at Riversmet, Lord General Coleman Stryker marches deeper into enemy territory to prepare a major assault. But he is unprepared for the avalanche of a massive Khadoran counterstrike. Empress Ayn Vanar and Supreme Kommandant Irusk send their nation’s most fearsome warcasters to retaliate against the invaders and secure her conquered territories at any cost. Hope comes in the form of Ashlynn d’Elyse, warcaster and leader of the Llaelese Resistance, a woman with no love for Cygnar but who could make for a powerful ally if convinced to help. Along with Asheth Magnus, Stryker’s enemy-turned-ally, this unlikely team must fight to persevere despite being outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and cornered with only their wits and a few warjacks to save their cause from utter annihilation…

Get an eBook – $7.99:

Get it in Print $15.99:

And, of course, if you haven’t read the first book in the series, Acts of War: Flashpoint, you can get that right here.

Get it in Print – $14.99

Acts of War: Aftershock – Excerpt #3

The release date for Acts of War: Aftershock is right around the corner, and here’s one more excerpt to whet your appetite before the book drops on July 12th. This time, we’re going to focus on one of the primary antagonists for the novel, Assault Kommander Oleg Strakhov, and a mysterious new character who has a big role to play in this book and the next.


Rynyr, Khadoran-Occupied Llael

Lukas di Morray had never known such pain. At least that’s what his mind told him; it insisted his suffering was worse than any he had ever endured. His muscles were stone, drawn tight against his bones, and they sent ragged shards of agony through his body with even the slightest exertion. His skin itched and burned, and though he had torn away all his clothing save for a bare strip around his loins, he sweated rivers, and the warm stones of his cell offered no respite.

But it was his mind that pained him most, his mind that conjured specters of friends and family now lost, dead or captured by the enemy. It dredged these memories from his subconscious to torture him, to remind him of his failings, of his dereliction of duty. Most of all, his mind howled with incessant need, the all-encompassing want of the serum to which he’d become addicted. He’d been without it for weeks, ever since his capture, and each day that passed, he grew weaker, withering without the alchemical concoction that granted him strength, vitality, and some semblance of sanity.

The serum was like no mundane drug. There would be no torturous period of withdrawal and then improvement, possibly even freedom from the addiction. No, the strength his serum granted him damaged his body each time he used it, pushed him one step closer to death, and he was much more likely to die if denied it.

He rolled over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. The heat from the volcano permeated the stone, turning his cell into an oven that slowly baked the moisture from his body. They would bring water soon, and it would offer some fleeting respite, but then the questions would begin, and he still clung to enough of his self to resist them.

He heard footsteps, heavy and purposeful, coming down the hall toward his cell. It would be Strakhov again, coming at the appointed hour to question him. Perhaps he could endure another beating and resist. Or perhaps not.

The barred door of his cell opened with a metallic squeal, and a shadow fell across him. He could smell the smoke from the Khadoran’s warcaster armor trickling into his cell, making the heavy stale air all the harder to breathe.

“Would you like a drink before we begin, Legate di Morray?” Strakhov’s voice was deep, and his Llaelese was practiced and precise with no trace of an accent.

Lukas let out a shaking breath and closed his eyes, fighting tears at the mere mention of water. He could hear it sloshing in the bucket carried by the guard accompanying Strakhov, and though it was undoubtedly warm and would taste of sulfur, it would be a single moment of relief he desperately wanted.

“Today, you can drink as much as you like,” Strakhov said. “Come now, sit up, drink.”

Lukas sat upright, his muscles screaming in protest, and bit down on his lip to keep from crying out. Strakhov and his guard came around to the other side of the cell. The guard, a man in black armor wearing the gas mask of an Assault Kommando, carried a metal bucket from which the handle of a ladle projected. The sloshing inside that bucket was the music of heaven, and Lukas knew he was staring at it like a starving man stares at a crust of bread.

Strakhov was a large man, made even larger by the bulky warcaster armor he wore. His face was square, handsome, though severe in a way that made him less attractive and more threatening. A long jagged scar ran down the right side of his face, crossing his lips and ending above his chin, and he wore an eye-patch over his left eye, a starburst pattern of scars blooming out at its edges. He oozed threat and power, both of which he had in ready supply.

The guard set down a sturdy stool in front of Lukas, and Strakhov sat down on it. He leaned forward, smiling, showing his straight white teeth like a shark just before it bites. “Now, come and have your drink.”

Strakhov held out his hand, and the kommando gave him the bucket. He set it on the ground between him and Lukas. Strakhov dipped the ladle in and pulled it out, dripping water, and lifted it to his own lips. He took a deep drink and smiled.

“It is good,” he said. “We found a water purification system, so this is clean and pure.”

Lukas watched Strakhov drink. He would have drooled uncontrollably if he’d had enough moisture in his system to do so. “Please,” he croaked.

“Of course, Legate, come forward,” Strakhov urged. The distance between them was only a few feet, but it seemed a world away to Lukas.

He crawled toward Strakhov, his body shuddering with the pain. When he reached the bucket, he sat up again. Strakhov offered him the ladle. “Drink.”

Lukas took the ladle, the muscles in his arm spasming at the weight of it, and dipped it in the bucket. He pulled out a full dip, his shaking hand spattering with water as he brought the ladle to his cracked lips. He gulped the water down, the liquid burning the sores that had formed inside his mouth, but he didn’t care. It was exquisite, and Strakhov was right: the water tasted pure and clean.

He plunged the ladle back into the bucket for another drink, but Strakhov shot out a hand and caught his wrist. There was no denying the iron strength in that grip, and Lukas whimpered with fear and pain. Strakhov clicked his tongue.

“You can have another drink when you answer a question. One drink for one question. This is a fair exchange, no?”

Lukas nodded. His lips trembled, and total mental collapse was not far off, but what choice did he have? “Ask.”

“Good,” Strakhov said. “Very good. First, I want to know the primary ingredient of your serum.”

They had been down this road before. Strakhov had seen the effects of what the serum could do, but he didn’t understand it, didn’t understand how dangerous it was, didn’t know how many men had died horribly testing it, and didn’t grasp that Lukas and his wife were the only successful experiments—and that success was a debatable term in either case.

“I told you before,” Lukas said, “the serum is a failure. It can’t help you.”

“A failure?” Strakhov said. “I find that hard to believe. When we took you in Laedry, you killed eight men and destroyed a warjack by yourself. You are no warcaster, yet this serum made you the equal of one.”

“Yes, it made me strong before, but look at me now. I am withering away without it.”

“Improvements could be made, certainly,” Strakhov said. “But if the serum is truly a failure, what harm is there in telling me its main ingredient?”

“You asked about the inner working of this citadel before, how the lava is controlled and dispersed throughout the city. I helped design the system. I can tell you how that works instead.”

Strakhov smiled. “We will get to that soon enough, Legate, but today, I have different questions, and certainly you want that drink.”

The serum was a failure. Lukas knew it, and if he gave it to Strakhov, the warcaster would take it back to the Greylords Covenant, and they would attempt to unlock its secrets. Maybe they would improve on it, and such a thought was terrifying. If Khador could create warcasters at whim, even those with a third of the power Lukas commanded, they would gain an overwhelming advantage in battle.

“It doesn’t matter,” Lukas said. “The serum doesn’t work.”

Strakhov put the ladle back into the bucket and motioned for the guard to take it away. “We are reasonable men, you and I. Yet you would force me to use methods I find…distasteful to get what I require.”

Lukas braced himself for another beating. Strakhov was expert at delivering painful blows that did not leave lasting damage to the head and body. Lukas would soil himself and wail in pain, but he would survive, and the serum would stay a secret.

Strakhov got up and went to the cell door. “Bring them in,” he called down the hall.

The sound of footsteps, many footsteps, echoed off the stone. These were not the strong deliberate treads of soldiers; it was slow, dragging, the sound of men and women walking to their deaths. Four men and three women entered the cell, two Assault Kommandos behind them, carbines at the ready. The prisoners wore tattered rags, and they had likely been taken from the citizenry of Rynyr before the city was cleared out. Lukas looked at each of them, not recognizing anyone, until he got to the last woman in the group. There, his heart caught in his throat. Both fear and joy seized him.

Alyce. No.


Got a question about the book? Fire away in the comments section below. And if you’ve missed any of the Aftershock articles and updates for the previous weeks, you can find them right here:

Week 1 Update Week 8 Update Week 15 Update Week 22 Update 
Week 2 Update Week 9 Update Week 16 Update Week 23 Update 
Week 3 Update Week 10 Update Week 17 Update Week 24 Update  
Week 4 Update Week 11 Update Week 18 Update Week 25 Update  
Week 5 Update Week 12 Update Week 19 Update Week 26 Update  
Week 6 Update Week 13 Update Week 20 Update Week 27 & 28 Update  
Week 7 Update Week 14 Update Week 21 Update 

Acts of War: Aftershock is available for preorder in print and digital from Amazon, and you can buy and read the first book in the series, Acts of War: Flashpoint, right now.

          

Buy Print – $14.99                                Preorder Print – $15.99

Buy eBook – $7.99                               Preorder eBook – $7.99

Acts of War: Aftershock – Interview

We are rapidly closing in on the release date for Acts of War: Aftershock, and this week, Mike Ryan, publications director for Privateer Press, interviewed me about writing the book. So, here’s Mike’s interview questions and my answers.


MR: How do you feel the relationship between Stryker and Magnus changes in Aftershock compared to where they were in Flashpoint?

AR: The book begins with the two of them reluctantly accepting they must be in each other’s lives (and way). Magnus has accepted his demotion to major and Stryker has done what he can to get Magnus out of his hair while still trying to get some use out of him. Stryker doesn’t trust Magnus at all, and Magnus believes Stryker is an idealist, which, in his opinion, makes for a poor leader. Not exactly a great place to build trust and cooperation, you know?

As events in the book unfold, an understanding develops between the two.  They must face facts: sometimes the other guy’s approach is the correct one. This is a bitter pill to swallow, but it does create a foundation where they can work together for the good of Cygnar.

MR: The introduction of Ashlynn d’Elyse to the novel adds a new element to the series, yet she is not exactly eager to work with our heroes. How did you approach getting into her character?

AR: Ashlynn blames Cygnar, at least in part, for the fall of Llael during Khador’s initial invasion. Though Cygnar had good reason to withdraw its forces—their own territories had become vulnerable—they left what remained of the Llaelese military in a bad way, all but assuring a Khadoran victory.

Now, Cygnar has marched back into Llael to “liberate” the country and place the long lost heir of King Rynnard di la Martyn on the throne, an, heir, mind you, that is currently betrothed to the new king of Cygnar. To Ashlynn, this simply looks like a power play, like a young king trying to expand his territory through a combination of political marriage and military strength. When the book begins, it’s difficult for her to see Stryker’s force as little more than another invading army, and, hey, who could blame her?

That’s where I started with Ashlynn. She’s angry, bitter even, that her country has become an arm-wrestling match between Khador and Cygnar. She’s been fighting tooth and nail to keep the Resistance going and kindle what hope remains to the Llaelese people. She’s seen friends and family die, had to make alliances that could prove disastrous in the future, and she’s running out of men and resources. Of all the characters in the book, she has the most to lose and few reasons to trust those claiming to be her allies. That anger drives her in a lot of ways, pushes her to keep fighting even when it seems hopeless, and our heroes have a lot to prove if they want to win her as an ally.

MR: Readers who are fans of Khador are going to be pleased to see their faction well represented in Aftershock. What are the challenges of shifting to the Khadoran point of view in a book that is focused on Cygnarans as the heroes? 

AR: The main challenge is to present them as antagonists but not necessarily villains. Khadoran leaders like Supreme Kommandant Gurvaldt Irusk and Assault Kommander Oleg Strakhov are not evil men; they’re not the monstrous inhuman horrors that run the show for Cryx or Legion. It was important to make sure they came across as soldiers first, men whose loyalty to their country is just as fierce as our Cygnaran heroes. Of course, from the Cygnaran point of view, the Khadorans take actions that are villainous or even cruel, but when we jump into the Khadoran POV, you see a different perspective, one that makes these action justified and even necessary from a Khadoran viewpoint.

MR: You clearly enjoy writing battle scenes–they are among the very best scenes in the book. How do you choreograph a big battle compared to an individual one-on-one fight?

AR: I do like writing battle scenes, especially in the Iron Kingdoms. I mean, you got multi-ton warjacks duking it out, warcaster flinging spells and steel, not to mention armies clashing in battles of truly epic scope. In other words, there’s a lot to work with.

The one-on-one duels are like chess matches, where each fighter matches wits and skill against the other, looking for the tiniest opening to exploit, or, in the case of Ashlynn d’Elyse, just straight-up owning anyone dumb enough to cross swords with her. These battles are almost always from a single POV, and the characters’ personalities, backgrounds, and, of course training dictate a how they fight. Here, I tend to get more detailed with specific techniques, weapons and armor, and how these things affect the outcome of the duel.

In a big battle, there is always an element of chaos. It might be controlled chaos, and the generals and leaders of clashing armies are certainly looking for tactical advantages to exploit, but with so many men and machines on the field, no one can see or know everything that is happening. When I write big battle scenes, I like to jump from POV to POV, both to get a varied sense of how the battle is going, and to use those quick cuts to highlight that element of chaos and the vast scope of the conflict.

MR: What was the writing process like for you in working on Aftershock? Did you find yourself re-reading Flashpoint to get back into the groove?

The first draft for this one went quicker than the first draft for Flashpoint, and I think a lot of that had to do with how much I needed to establish in the first book. Here, I hit the ground running and got right into the action, right into the meat of the overarching plot for the trilogy.

I reread Flashpoint in its entirety before I started writing Aftershock, just to get into the right headspace, and I always had a copy open while I was working on the new book. I referred to Flashpoint constantly, both as a refresher on the events that led up to Aftershock and to make sure the continuity between both books was correct.

MR: Do you have a favorite scene, a favorite moment, in Aftershock that you are particularly pleased with?

As much as I enjoyed writing the battle scenes, it’s the quieter, character-driven moments that stand out for me. There’s a number of them that come to mind, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so, first, I’ll point to one that’s already spoiled. The return of Sebastian Harrow, where he slithers into the ranks of the Resistance as a spy for Irusk, is one of my favorite moments, and you can read it right here on this blog. There’s no action in this scene, but the gravity of what’s happening, and, of course, the foreshadowing is huge.

Another scene I like quite a bit is the initial meeting between Asheth Magnus, as a representative of the Cygnaran army, and Ashlynn d’Elyse. These two have actually never met in the fiction before and know each other only by reputation, so it was a lot of fun to write that historic scene. This is largely a conversation, but with two legendary warcasters and a fairly tense situation, it’s more than a little dangerous, especially for Magnus, who finds himself at a rare disadvantage.


If you have any additional questions about the book, fire away in the comments section below. I’ll answer as best I can.

If you’ve missed any of the Aftershock articles and updates for the previous weeks, you can find them right here:

Week 1 Update Week 8 Update Week 15 Update Week 22 Update 
Week 2 Update Week 9 Update Week 16 Update Week 23 Update 
Week 3 Update Week 10 Update Week 17 Update Week 24 Update  
Week 4 Update Week 11 Update Week 18 Update Week 25 Update  
Week 5 Update Week 12 Update Week 19 Update Week 26 Update  
Week 6 Update Week 13 Update Week 20 Update
Week 7 Update Week 14 Update Week 21 Update

Acts of War: Aftershock is available for preorder in print and digital from Amazon, and you can buy and read the first book in the series, Acts of War: Flashpoint, right now.

          

Buy Print – $14.99                                Preorder Print – $15.99

Buy eBook – $7.99                               Preorder eBook – $7.99