Aeryn’s Archives: Roll Credits

Today on Aeryn’s Archives I’m doing something a little different. Instead of looking at a single piece of work I published, we’re gonna look at, uh, all of them. Some of you may have noticed the professional credits page on the blog, but it’s honestly not something I expect folks to read. In fact, it’s mostly for me, a place where I can keep track of everything I do. Sure, it gets a few views now and then, but it’s just a boring list of I wrote this, edited that, and produced this other thing.

Anyway, I rarely talk about my writing history/career as a whole because, well, I’ve done a lot of different things that don’t fit neatly together. This seems like a decent way to approach the plurality of my professional writing experience in a way that’s somewhat succinct and hopefully not as dreadfully dull as looking at a pages-long list. 🙂

Total Writing Credits: 280

If I did my math right, I have 280 distinct writing credits. That’s 280 things my name appeared on/in alongside the word author or designer or whatever. Now, this comes with a couple caveats. Not all of this is fiction, and some of it is self-published. So anyway, let’s break this down into three categories.

Fiction Credits: 108

When I say fiction, I mean fully narrative fiction. It’s kind of a weird distinction to draw because a lot of my game design credits are fiction(ish), but they have that historical documentary vibe, which I consider a slightly different beast. Anyway, these 108 credits run the gamut between short stories, flash fiction, microfiction, and longer works like novels, novellas, and novelettes. Oh, and a handful of them are co-author credits. I’d say about half these credits are things I published with Privateer Press before and after my tenure there and fall under media tie-in. The others are all mine, the short stories and whatnot you see me talk about on this blog.

Game Design: 102

Game design is a broad term, and I use it here to describe any non-narrative writing in service to a tabletop roleplaying or miniatures game. This category includes things like Dungeons & Dragons adventures I wrote for companies like Goodman Games and Wizards of the Coast, game material for WARMACHINE and HORDES, the principal tabletop miniature games produced by Privateer Press, and, finally, a whole bunch of history-book-style articles exploring the various IPs of the games I worked on (mostly the Iron Kingdoms). Like above with fiction, a handful of these are also co-authored.

Now, as I said before, some of these credits are fiction(ish), and some folks might consider something like the voice-y Gavyn Kyle articles I wrote for No Quarter magazine as fiction. That’s cool, and I wouldn’t put up much of an argument, really, but to me they fit more comfortably under game design.

Self-Published Game Design: 70

Finally, we have the digital gaming supplements and adventures I wrote and produced under my own little RPG company Blackdirge Publishing between 2005 and 2010. All these supplements are designed for use with Dungeons & Dragons, either 3.5 or 4th edition. Running this little “company” was a good experience, and I learned a lot from it. I separated these out because they’re somewhat different than the other work I’ve done and I acted as author, producer, and publisher all at once. Most of these are micro-supplements, just a few pages long. I did produce a handful of longer ones, though rarely more than 30 pages or so.


So there you have it. My writing bona fides, such as they are. Of course, I also have a bunch of editing and production credits, but those are even less interesting than the writing credits. 🙂

The Way I Write Part 3: Refinement

Once more we’re taking a look at my writing as it’s progressed over the last twenty years to see how it’s changed and if it’s improved. The first post focused on pretty amateurish works of fiction from the early aughts. The second post jumped ahead a few years and we saw what might be called an evolution of style and voice. Still, the fiction in these first two posts was flawed, overly wordy, and pretty much the polar opposite of how I write now. In this post, we’ll jump ahead a few more years, starting with 2010, and see what’s changed.

“Blasted Heath” (circa 2010 A.D.)

This passage is ones of the first bits of fiction I wrote for Privateer Press, not too long after I took the position of editor-in-chief for No Quarter Magazine. This was a bit of league fiction supporting the organized play of the tabletop miniatures games WARMACHINE and HORDES.

Grim Angus stared at the faint tracks in the muddy ground, rubbing his chin with one blunt-fingered hand. He’d expected to find skorne tracks—the Bloodmseath was full of the murderous bastards—and maybe even tracks of the few humans that lived in the marsh. But these weren’t skorne; neither were they human or trollkin.

By the size and spacing of the tracks, Grim counted two dozen man-sized creatures. The depth of the depressions on some of the tracks suggested armor, and heavy armor at that for such narrow feet to leave lasting impressions in the swampy earth. Others tracks were fainter, left by lighter armored troops – scouts perhaps.

“What’s that, Grim?” A deep, gravelly voice asked over Grim’s shoulder. A resounding thud that shook the ground followed the question.

Grim sighed, stood, and turned to address the speaker. Noral Stonemapper was an immense trollkin, easily seven feet tall and so stoutly muscled he was often mistaken for a full-blood troll. The huge trollkin was a krielstone bearer. His honored burden, a six-hundred-pound chunk of granite inscribed with the great deeds of trollkin heroes, was sunk a full foot into the mossy sward in front of him.

What I like about this piece, as opposed to the earlier passages I’ve shown, is I’m definitely starting to simplify, to edit down, especially when the voice of the character demands it. In this case, Grim Angus, a trollkin bounty hunter, and a stoic and pragmatic one at that. In addition, this just sounds more like the stuff I currently write, but let’s look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 6%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 75.1
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 6.0

Now that, folks, is pretty damn readable, and it’s well within the parameters of most published fiction. Additionally, if you look at the stuff I’m writing for Privateer Press today it’s within this range, so as far back as 2010 I was starting to dial in my fantasy fiction voice. Now let’s look at something in another genre.

“At the Seams” (circa 2012 A.D.)

This is from one of the first pieces of flash fiction I wrote back in 2012. I initially wrote it as apart of a one-hour flash fiction contest, and the following passage comes from that first draft.

My head is throbbing now, but I have to maintain focus. If I let the thought slip for just an instant, I’ll lose something—maybe just a bit of fingernail or a few flakes of skin and maybe a whole lot more. I almost look down at the smooth stump where my left foot used to be but manage to avoid it. I’d like to hold on to my right foot a little longer.

In the end, I know it’s pointless. How long can you keep thinking about not falling apart? How long can you think about any one thing at all? It’s not really possible. The mind wanders, and you just can’t—

Blinding pain in my right hand wrenches me away from thinking about thinking. I look down to see that my right index finger now ends after the second knuckle. The rest of the finger lies on the floor. There’s no blood or anything, just a clean separation, as if my finger never had that extra inch of flesh and bone.

If you were to look at a some of my fiction now, I think you’d see a lot similarities, but let’s look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 85.8
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.7

Yep, this is pretty much where I live now. Sure, the occasional story goes a bit higher or even a bit lower on the readability scale, but for the horror, crime, and even sci-fi I write these days, this is my happy zone. My style has grown into something you might call streamlined, hell, even straightforward (I can even live with spartan), and I’m happy with it. One other thing to note is I published this story with The Molotov Cocktail in 2013, my first flash fiction publication.


Well, I think the improvement between 2007 and 2010 was a big one, and it’s pretty clear my style became much more streamlined, less wordy, and well, actually publishable. Again, for reference, here are the readability score and dates for the excerpts we’ve covered so far.

Date Story Reading Ease Grade Level
2000 Lullaby 53.5 13.4
2005 Rearview 37.9 14.4
2006 The Tow 61.6 10.7
2007 The Fate of Champions 62.9 8.7
2010 Blasted Heath 75.1 6.0
2012 At the Seams 85.8 4.7

In the final post in this series, I’ll look at stories I’ve actually published in the last few years and see if we can detect any further improvement.

Aeryn’s Archives: No Quarter #30

The next episode of Aeryn’s Archives is one that changed my career trajectory completely. I went from freelance game designer and editor to full-blown editor-in-chief of a bi-weekly magazine from a well-known wargame publisher. So let’s dive into No Quarter #30.

This was the first issue of No Quarter with yours truly as editor-in-chief, and how did I land this illustrious gig? Well, it turns out I knew a guy. 🙂

In early 2010, I was working fulltime as a freelancer in the gaming industry, writing short adventures and articles for companies like Goodman Games and Wizards of the Coast. I also did a spot of editing on occasion. I liked what I was doing, but it didn’t pay much and my wife and I were scraping by and living in a town we absolutely loathed. Then, one day in February, I got a call from my buddy Ed Bourelle. Ed and I had become freelance friends over the years and talked almost daily over the phone about the trials and tribulations of working in the biz. Anyway, Ed had recently taken a position at Privateer Press, publisher of the miniature wargames WARMACHINE and HORDES, and the company needed an editor-in-chief for their inhouse magazine No Quarter. Knowing I had experience in the magazine department, plus writing and editing skillz, Ed asked if I’d like to come out to Seattle and interview for the job. My answer was in the “Does a bear shit in the woods?” area, and soon enough my wife and I were on our way to Seattle. Well, needless to say, the interview with Privateer Press owners Matt Wilson and Sherry Yeary went well, and I was offered the position. We moved to Seattle the following month, and I’ve been here ever since.

As I said, I had previous experience running a magazine, a 64-page black and white quarterly called Level Up for Goodman Games, but No Quarter was a completely different animal. When I started, it was 96-pages, full color, and bi-monthly (we eventually increased it to 112-pages). In addition, where Level Up was an RPG magazine that primarily included articles with illustrations, No Quarter was a wargaming magazine, and that meant miniatures and tons of photos of miniatures. That was all new to me, and I’m not ashamed to admit when I sat down at my desk and got the full picture and scope of what I needed to do on the first day, I was more than a little terrified. I left wondering if I could even do the job, but I came back the next morning with a plan that was essentially to break the magazine down into its component parts. Each article and photo spread (or cover or table of contents) was an individual job I could focus on and not become overwhelmed by the magazine as a whole. It got me through that first issue (as did the help of all the incredibly talented people who worked there), and I learned a lot. I eventually had a system in place that made publishing the magazine easier and more efficient, and I found ways to put my personal stamp on No Quarter. That’s not to say there weren’t bumps in the road. With a magazine there always is, but that’s a tale for another time.

Anyway, when No Quarter #30 showed up from the printer, and I held that first glossy 96-pager in my hands, it was one of the highlights of my career. So, thanks, Ed, for making that phone call back in 2010, and thanks Matt and Sherry for letting some guy you’d never heard of run your magazine. 🙂


All the back issues of No Quarter are available through the Privateer Press online store, including #30. Click the cover image and the link below to check it out.

No Quarter Magazine #30

A Week of Writing: 12/3/18 to 12/9/18

Another weekly update on my writing woes and wins.

Words to Write By

This week it’s another does of wisdom from Elmore Leonard.

All the information you need can be given in dialogue.

― Elmore Leonard

I like this quote because it’s how I generally write. I use a lot of dialog, and it’s my favorite way of conveying the story and plot going on around the characters. Generally, I avoid long passages of exposition, but that’s not to say all exposition is bad. This is more of a stylistic preference. Of course, if your dialog is thinly disguised exposition, that’s not gonna work either. The characters need to sound natural and authentic when they’re talking to each other, and I think if it’s done right, you can deliver a lot of info to the reader without them even knowing what you’re up to.

The Novel

This week, I’m returning to Late Risers. I’ve addressed most of the big problems (I hope), and this next revision pass will largely be cleanup. I’ll work on fixing the little inconsistencies in the story as well as sharpening up the writing. Then I’m gonna give the manuscript to my agent, cross my fingers and toes, and hope for the best.

Short Stories

Not exactly a banner week for submissions, but I did manage to get one new story written and submitted.

  • Submissions Sent: 1
  • Rejections: 0
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 1

One submissions puts me at 115 for the year. I’ve really slowed down this last month, but I’d like to hit 120 submissions before the new year. The shortlist letter I received is from a publisher that’s new to me, and it’s for one of my longer short stories. That’s be a nice one to end the year on if it comes through.

The Blog

Just one blog post last week. As with submissions, my blogging output has suffered a bit in the last month.

12/4/18: Submissions Statement: November 2018

My monthly report card for submissions, acceptances, and publications.

Goals

I’m back to work on Late Risers and pushing to squeak out a few more submissions.

Acts of War: Stormbreak

I sent in the final draft of the first part of my project for Privateer Press. It’s called Acts of War: Stormbreak and it will complete the story I started in the novels Flashpoint and Aftershock. We’re telling the story in this third installment in a unique way, and here’s more about that from Privateer:

Beginning with the upcoming Winter Rampage event kicking off in January 2019, the ongoing contest for control of Llael will continue—and the shape of the Iron Kingdoms to come will be decided by you, the players. Connecting the Winter Rampage, the spring narrative league, and culminating at a final climactic event at Lock & Load 2019, the Stormbreak storyline continues the Acts of War series penned by Aeryn Rudel (Flashpoint, Aftershock) and will conclude the saga of the liberation of Llael. Written in four parts, the Stormbreak fiction will be published online for free, setting the scene for each of the Organized Play events that it covers. Key factors reported by the players of each event will not only influence the next event but the storyline itself, as Rudel reactively writes each of the segments following the Organized Play events to illustrate the changing world and the shifting storyline based on player feedback. Ultimately, Llael’s destiny will be revealed, and the player-driven outcomes of events will decide the fate of key characters featured in the storyline, including whether or not they survive the final battle and what form, if any, they may take in future battles of WARMACHINE and HORDES. We’ll also see in the introduction of a new technology that will change the shape of warfare in the Iron Kingdoms, forever. (If you’ve read Watery Graves by Chris Jackson or “The Devil’s in the Details” by Miles Holmes, begin speculation…now!)

Full details here. Keep an eye on the blog for more information about Stormbreak.


That was my week. How was yours?

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Old Friends, New Blood

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

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


Old Friends, New Blood

By Aeryn Rudel

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What of your own blades?”

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

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

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

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

“I am sorry too, old friend.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Ivachev said.

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

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

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

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Peace of Mind

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

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


Peace of Mind

By Aeryn Rudel

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

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

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

“I said gimme a swig of uiske.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Soon.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fire!” Captain Blackheel called.

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valkar shook his head. “No, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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


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

A Week of Writing: 7/23/18 to 7/29/18

Monday has arrived, and it’s time to share my weekly writerly report card.

Words to Write By

This week’s quote comes from Elmore Leonard, whose “10 Rules of Writing” is one of my favorite pieces of writing advice.

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

—Elmore Leonard

This quote is the abbreviated version of rule ten in the aforementioned “10 Rules of Writing.” I’m currently trying to figure out which parts of my novel might fall into this category and then remove/rewrite them.  A difficult task, and one I’ll ultimately need my critique partners to help me with, but I think I made some headway this week.

The Novel

Last week was very productive. I didn’t finish my initial revisions, but I’m three-quarters of the way done. I removed a problematic plot point, and I’m in the process of reworking the rest of the novel to match. It’s going pretty well, though I definitely have some plot and character motivation holes to shore up.

Short Stories

Finished revising one story and had just enough time to submit it to an anthology that closed to submissions on July 29th. I’m still working on one more revision I need to get out by the 31st.

Another fairly slow week for submissions.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 1
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0

Two submissions this week and only four for the month. Disappointing, but the shorts have to take a backseat to the novel right now. I plan to send out a lot more short stories in August while my critique partners are caving up my manuscript.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

7/9/18: A Week of Writing: 7/16/18 to 7/22/18

The usual weekly writing update.

7/12/18: Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Confirmed Kill

A free Iron Kingdoms story published last year in No Quarter magazine. Privateer Press gave me permission to post this one in its entirety (plus a few others).

Goals

One big goal – finish the initial revision of the novel and get it off to my critique partners. Everything else is secondary.

Story Spotlight

The spotlight story is the piece I mentioned above. As some of you know, I’ve been writing for Privateer Press for a long time, and I’ve published two novels and a whole bunch of shorter works in their Iron Kingdoms setting. Anyway, they’ve given me permission to post some of my old stories on the blog, the first of which you can read by clicking the illustration or link below.

“Confirmed Kill”

 


That was my week. How was yours?