Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Confirmed Kill

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

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


Art by Néstor Ossandón.

Confirmed Kill

by Aeryn Rudel

Northern Thornwood, 606 AR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Ceryl in Cygnar, autumn 609 AR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Horgrum, son of Vargal Oakheart.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can,” Horgrum said confidently.

“Show me.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked back at Sharp.

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

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

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

* * *

The Black River in Occupied Llael, summer 611 AR

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

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

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

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

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

“Widowmakers?”

Horgrum nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

Horgrum shrugged. It was simple, just very dangerous.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Likely,” Horgrum said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sharp?” he called out.

Silence. And then, “You get him?”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in No Quarter #72, June 2017


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

   

One-Hour Flash: Kite Flyers

Hey, all, here’s another installment of one-hour flash. I’ve got a weird one for you this time. With these one-hour flash challenges, you get a prompt, usually a photo, and then you have sixty minutes to write something resembling a coherent story. Sometimes that prompt resonates, and you come up with something pretty workable. Sometimes it doesn’t and you struggle to come up with anything, and when you do, it’s, well, bizarre. This story is the latter. The prompt for this one, if I remember correctly, was a photo of big squid kite, and, as a horror author, my mind immediately latched on to . . . well, you’ll see.

Anyway, here’s a story called “Kite Flyers.”


Kite Flyers

They looked foolish. Samuel knew it, but at least the fog gave them some cover. It was probably better the few people in the park couldn’t see all the kite flyers clearly, anyway. Some of them only came out on this very special afternoon when the wind and the fog mixed, creating a sky full of swirling grey eddies and whorls.

Samuel stood on a hill, his kite in the air. It pulled at the spindle in his hands as it surged against the twine and the wind. He could just make it out in the fog, a wide canvas diamond with a vivid yellow cross. In the middle of that cross was a collection of Latin words culled from an ancient Christian manuscript, the Book of Lios. That particular book hadn’t been considered for entry into the Bible most Christians were familiar with. In fact, the church considered it witchcraft and had ordered most copies burned over five hundred years ago.

Samuel could see the shapes of other kites now, as each kite flyer took his or her place on one of the many low mounds surrounding a patch of reddish-brown clay. He knew the city had tried to grow grass in the patch for years with no luck. Nothing would take root there, not even weeds.

The wind picked up, and the fog thickened. Two events that any weather man would tell you were completely contradictory. Not on this afternoon. He looked up and saw other kites through the fog: a blue square with the Star of David in gold, a bright red triangle with the dharmachakra of Buddhism, and he could just make out the shape of a golden box kite painted with the interlocking spiral of the yin yang. He knew each of these kites, like his, bore text from works far older than the faiths they represented. Words that had been folded in to each faith and largely forgotten. Forgotten until today, when the kite flyers took to their mounds. He knew more kites lurked in the fog, some representing religions he recognized and some bearing strange sigils that belonged to faiths with few adherents. Few human adherents, anyway.

They all gathered on this day, their differences in doctrine and theology—no matter how acrimonious—set aside to focus on one goal. That goal had just taken flight, and its owner stood in the center of the mounds. The kite was massive, far larger than any single person should be able to handle—a great green monstrous thing, a floating octopoid head trailing dozens of streamers of bright pink canvas tentacles. The symbols on the great squid kite were a riot of strange angles and spikes. It hurt to look at them. It hurt even more to look at the kite flyer, even though he wore a great brown shapeless coat that covered most of his body. His proportions were oddly humped, and his stooped frame suggested something awful and ancient. He gripped his kite spindle—its twine a greasy pink like a length of stretched intestine—in gloved hands that had too few fingers or perhaps too many.

Samuel pulled his attention away from whoever flew the squid kite and focused on his own. He let out more string, moving his hands lower at the same time. His kite darted in the wind, moving back and forth. The box kite was the first kite to make contact. It snapped out the air, diving in low, its flyer clearly trying to pull his kite string across his target’s. The squid kite moved quickly to the left—against the wind—and the box kite missed its mark and smashed into the red clay in a tangle of canvas.

Samuel grimaced. One down.

More kites appeared in the air around the great squid, a riot of shapes, colors, and religious symbols on the wind. They dived in and out, their flyers trying desperately to smash their charges into the great floating orb of the squid or snap its string. They failed. The squid kite moved with unnatural speed and agility, avoiding the dive-bombing swarm of smaller kites. Its operator also snapped his kite’s streamers, the squid’s tentacles, up with surprising force, smashing enemy kites out of the air and sending them crashing to the ground.

Soon the clearing between the mounds was littered with downed kites and terror gnawed at Samuel’s belly. He had never seen so many fall so quickly. He let out enough twine to make his own attack but held off. There were still kites in the air: the Star of David still flew along with others he did not recognize. They were holding back, waiting. They had one more shot, one more massed attack. If they failed . . . He didn’t want to think about that. About what it meant to the world beyond the fog if all their kites fell and the great squid still flew.

It was time. He felt it, just as the other kite flyers must have. Attack now.

Samuel pulled hard on his spindle and his kite darted out of the fog, down toward the great squid. Others were doing the same, but this time they coordinated the assault, with equal numbers attacking the body of the great kite and its string. The squid juked in the air, avoiding all but one of its attackers. He saw a kite in the shape of great black crow slam into the squid and heard the sound of snapping kite spars. The squid shuddered but did not fall.

Samuel’s own kite now made contact, and its twine crossed the thick pink ribbon keeping the squid aloft. The spindle shuddered in his hands and it was nearly torn from his grasp. Then the sound of twine snapping echoed across the park. The squid’s line parted, and its operator stumbled backward with a shrill alien cry.

The great squid floated to the ground slowly, flattening out once it contacted the earth like a gob of mucous spat from the heavens. The remaining kites fell around it as their operators climbed down from their mounds. Samuel dropped the spindle and turned his back on the field of ruined kites. He would return in one year, on the day when the fog and the wind collide.


I warned you. Weird, right? The problem with this one is not so much that it’s a vignette or a scene; there’s actually kind of a story here. The problem is the concept is so preposterously strange (I’d even venture to call it silly) no one would publish it. Still, I’m amused by what my desperate brain came up with when given the chance to mix kites, of all things, and horror. Yep, the dreaded Cthulhu kite of doom. 🙂

If you’d like to check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series, click the links below.

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 – Crucible Guard in Acts of War

Last weekend Privateer Press held its annual convention Lock & Load in Bellevue, Washington, and announced a whole bunch of exciting things for the Iron Kingdoms, the setting for the tabletop miniatures games WARMACHINE and HORDES. I was at the convention signing copies of my new novel Acts of War: Aftershock, and perhaps not too surprisingly, the novel serves as a bit of a preview to one of those exciting announcements.

If you watched the keynote from Lock & Load, then you saw Privateer Press announce next summer’s new faction, the Crucible Guard. For those of you familiar with the Iron Kingdoms, you’ve no doubt realized the Crucible Guard are connected to the guild of alchemists called the Order of the Golden Crucible.

So, if you’re excited about the Crucible Guard (I sure as hell am), and you’d like a preview of what some of them can do, check out Acts of War: Aftershock, which features two upcoming models from the new faction, including one of their warcasters, Aurum Legate Lukas di Morray.

Here’s a little taste of Aurum Legate Lukas di Morray from Aftershock.


Lukas moved to a stand near the back of the armory where a suit of armor hung. Outwardly, it looked like a simple breastplate of yellow enameled steel with pauldrons, vambraces, and greaves. As Magnus got closer, he noticed the network of thin tubing that ran from the breastplate to the other pieces.

Magnus lifted the breastplate from the stand and set it on Lukas’ shoulders. He then noticed the strange contraption that occupied the same space as an arcane turbine on a traditional suit of warcaster armor. It consisted of half a dozen empty tubes, each about six inches long that jutted from the back plate in two rows of three.

Alyce stepped forward to help her husband with the rest of his armor. “There, on that table, you’ll find a case with twelve vials,” she said to Magnus, pointing at a low wooden table covered in ammunition crates.

Magnus found the case she’d indicated. Inside were a dozen vials of clear liquid with attached syringes. They looked like they would fit in the tubes across the back of Lukas’ armor. More of his serum.

Magnus watched as Alyce placed the syringes into the armor, pushing each one in firmly. Lukas grimaced as the needles punctured his flesh.

“They’re in,” she said.

Lukas took a deep breath and turned his right arm over, exposing the underside of the vambrace. A row of three studs or buttons rose from the steel plate, and he pushed the first one. A soft hiss arose from the back of his armor. He sighed like a man who finally had the one thing he most desired. The flesh on his face grew firmer beneath his beard, as if the weeks and months of his captivity had simply not happened. His back straightened, and his chest seemed to gain breadth and power. Aurum Legate Lukas di Morray was beginning to look like the war leader they had risked so much to free.


If you’d like to learn more about Aurum Legate Lukas di Morray and his wife Aurum Omnus Alyce di Morray, check out Acts of War: Aftershock, available below:

 

Get it in Print – $15.99
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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