Though I Am Not Generally a Fan of Reboots

This one *might* be an exception: http://www.epictimes.com/2015/08/zorro-to-be-rebooted-in-a-post-apocalyptic-setting/

I could even see a way this could function with a nod to the original. Our noble hero remembers his history (or alternate history) and the story of the Californian who fought the oppressive governors in his day and decides to take up the mantle to right wrongs in the present. Now, how rapier and bull-whip would work in a post-apocalyptic setting is another question. But I love me some classic duels–which looked nothing like the watered down sport version people see once every four years in the Olympics. So I’d roll with it, given some decent handwavium.

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An Exceptional Article On Comic Fiction

One that can be expanded to fiction in general: http://www.reaxxion.com/6512/erik-larsen-speaks-on-online-outrage-women-in-comics-and-sexist-costume-designs

One of the reasons I truly despise the discussions of ‘outfits’ in fiction is that they forget that speculative fiction is meant to be idealized. “Realism” is, quite frankly, what most of our audience is trying to get AWAY from. Now, in a movie setting, I understand more of it. Because they are real people having to look like they can do real things. The fantastic elements also end up toned down as a result. But even then, I’ve said before: It made sense in the Batman movies. Because he’s clearly a ‘normal’ person going against ‘normal’ enemies. His superpower is being all-prepared with Bruce Wayne’s almost infinite resources. This did not carry over well to Man of Steel, as Superman is quite clearly other than human.

But this has, in some sense, what has always been the problem with Superman in all his incarnations. The greatest threat Superman ever faces is himself. His rogues’ gallery is weak. And the only way to threaten him is to find unobtainium. I also laugh at the ‘realistic’ Wonder Woman suit. As Larsen’s counter makes clear, her attire clearly recalls her origin story. And it is not her outfit that makes her look ‘weak.’ I laugh at how the movie costume is running away from her iconic look as fast as it can, and the critics STILL body shame her.

With a certain segment of the population, there will *always* be body shaming, unless no one beautiful is seen in public. I would never Suggest Just Who that might be, however.

A Hearty Endorsement

Of this list of questions: http://writerswrite.co.za/15-questions-authors-should-ask-characters

I’ve always been a fan of doing character interviews. I do them of my major characters in each book. Along with questions like, “What would cause you to abandon your plan?” for the antagonist (as in, “Does he do it because he wants to make the world better, as he sees it–and thus is a well-meaning extremist. Or is he just in it for Global Domination and the EVULZ). Even minor characters get a good helping of these questions. You never know when one might ‘step up’ on you.

For Yalissa, in my Hellenistic Fantasy, for instance. What would mentally destroy her has changed from Book 1 to now. In the 1st, the Destruction of her Temple and Faith would have undone her. She would have sacrificed everything for her fellow Chosen. However, the events of the second book tear away all of that from her. Now, her relationship to Sharit is more open to questioning. And what she truly cares for is the people she has freed from captivity.

How did she get from point A to Point C? Ahh. Not telling. lol. One day you’ll learn. I hope. ūüėČ

Where We Discuss Who Tarien Cole Is.

Or More Accurately: Is Not.

I often hear the statement, “Your writing must reflect your beliefs.” I personally find this a ludicrous statement. My current work, for instance, is a Hellenistic Fantasy written with full polytheistic pantheons, the possibility of apotheosis, Pre-Christian philosophy regarding Government, Civics, and Economics, and the general presupposition that all war is Holy War. In short, it is a Fantasy Recreation of the world of Rome and Carthage in the Punic Wars. Minus even the far-off influence of Judaism and Monolatry (if not true Monotheism). My lead characters all operate within the views of that world. One a priestess whose Patron oversees Love, Beauty, Trade, and the City, as Tanith did Carthage. Nor do I apologize for their own personal agendas, some of which include things we consider quite odious in the modern world: Slavery, for instance, was commonplace in the era. Well over half the Roman population was servile. Carthage could not have functioned without them either. It would be a gross disservice to insert modern considerations on the topic into that setting. They simply did not exist.

The person who Tarien Cole inhabits has a very distinct set of values. Despite my love of steampunk, I enjoy my modern conveniences, thank you. Despite the fact my current WIP comes from a ‘pagan’ setting, I am comfortably Christian in confession. And I have other works where that faith does occur in characters. Including a Historical Fantasy set in 16th Century Prague with a Brandenburg-born Bohemian Lutheran with Calvinist sympathies (who takes a Romani sorceress as his wife). Despite the fact the economic system of both of those worlds predates Adam Smith, I am a believer in the Free Market.

In short, most of my works have little relation to me. Some have virtually none. I don’t, as a rule, cut snippets of myself off and make characters out of them. In fact, I made the lead male character of my Steampunk as divergent from myself in personality as I could imagine. Just to see if I could! Hence his rather Indiana Jones-ish mentality to everything from women to problem solving.

Am I saying it’s wrong to do that? No. There are no ‘right or wrongs’ in writing, except this: “Thou Shall Not Bore Thy Reader. Because That Simply Sucks.”

I happen to enjoy making characters from what I observe. In history, in reading, and in the setting itself as I formulate it. I don’t pre-program parts of myself into the story. And even when a character ‘somewhat’ aligns with myself, I’m still responsible as a writer to answer questions AS THE CHARACTER. Not as me. So again, I am almost always endeavoring to divorce myself from the process, and listen to the characters.

They are not me. They may be my friends (though their murderous, sadistic author has a strange way of showing it). But I am not a metanarrator. Consider this one more reason I resent using fiction as a method of message.

Proof I *Can* Be Nice When I Feel Like it.

I spared one of my characters today. I was all set to do the deed, via poison meant for another character, no less. But I decided to spare her. ūüėõ

I feel…strangely ambivalent about the decision. Like an imp who wants to go back and off her anyway now. *evil chuckle*

Yeah, I’m such a softie. That’s why I’m getting ready to slaughter an entire army…

You didn’t think it could LAST, did you?

 

Does the phrase “Strong Female Character” MEAN anything anymore?

For Comparison Shopping, Look Here: http://litreactor.com/columns/overcoming-object-love-how-to-write-female-leads-who-are-people

OK: What am I NOT saying: I am not saying women shouldn’t be written as people. Obviously they should be. Since most of my books have a female lead who is often the more powerful of a pair, it’s not even that I’m against ‘strong female characters.’ Though I think this phrase is so trite and overused as to be emptied of all meaning, to the place that ‘strong’ has become ‘interesting.’¬†

Even in the article I link, you see the diluting of the word ‘strong.’ So they’re not physical. They may or may not be intellectual. And if you dare to make them temptresses, look out, because the accusation of ‘objectification’ soon follows. In the comments of that article, the author seems more inclined to defend social action in fiction writing than he is telling stories. This incurs my wrath on level one of fiction writing: WRITE TO ENTERTAIN! ¬†If you want to campaign for social action, go write a political blog. They’re not the same form of writing, and nothing is more unsatisfying than message fic with a listless story.

Subverting cultural and genre expectations is always fascinating when done well. But part of doing it well is to do it in the context of the story’s organic narrative. Karrin Murphy in the Dresden Files is probably one of the strongest–and most interesting–characters in fiction. But her determination to succeed as a police officer in a male-dominated environment–and yet deal with the demons that drive her to rely on Harry–create a dynamic and vibrant character who can inspire without appealing to the artifice of feminism imposed from outside.

I’ve said this so many times I should just post it as my blog mantra. But I’ll say it again: If your name isn’t Neal Stephenson, DROP THE MESSAGE FIC! If in the context of the story, your character organically says something political, fine. But if it doesn’t fit the story, it’s just bad polemics. And I get enough of that on TV for free already.

I’ll add this to the fire too: I don’t buy that Cersei is a strong female character in GoT. Her ‘strength’ comes from outmaneuvering a man with all the subtlety of a chess pawn, and her position. She consistently misuses and fails to use the power that provides her. If Tyrion didn’t save her bacon, Barratheon would’ve won. Her brilliant gambit following this? Let’s alienate him, and then let Joff get away with murder (literally and repeatedly) , because no one would notice. Not even people far more subtle than Cersei ever was. She’s a selfish character with impossible¬†motives and an inability to use what she has, saved by competent people around her repeatedly that she disdains continually. And this is a ‘strong’ woman? Eh, not nearly as much as people make her out to be. Believable? Sure. But that cuts again at why I think that phrase has been emptied of all meaning.

And, by and large, emptied of it by the very people promoting the idea of ‘better’ female characters. If you want ‘powerful’ women, that has to be understood in the context of the story and the world they live in. And if that world involves, for instance, women who have little in the way of property or political rights: Like the Late Roman Empire transplant in¬†Codex Alera. What then can give women power? The ability, among other things, to guide, support and protect the men who HOLD those rights. But read that series and say Amara or Kitai are weak characters. And yes, sometimes that means seduction is a weapon in the arsenal.¬†

If that bothers someone, the answer to that isn’t to annihilate history. It’s to understand that not every story caters to every reader. And not every story is going to be a feminist utopia. And maybe, just maybe, we can get people to accept that there were powerful, fascinating women–meaningful and influential characters even–in those times. It’s the duty of the writer in such a setting to explore ways such a character can exist. It’s the duty of a reader in such a setting to accept that the ‘truths’ we cling are often anything but ‘true’ in another society. Especially when values are involved.

PS: For truth in advertising I’ll note that my current WIP has a female lead who is BOTH an influential politician AND a sacred courtesan. No she doesn’t mix business and pleasure. In fact, she’s forbidden to, though others try to get her to. Oh yeah, she’s also a mage. USUALLY she uses that for healing. But sometimes people who objectify her live to realize they’ve underestimated her.

Sometimes.

Chugging UpGrade

I’ve spent all week on one chapter of the Sword & Sandal. It’s admittedly a¬†long chapter. But not¬†that¬†long (about 6000 words so far, and climbing). To be fair to myself, I’ve spent a lot of work editing. On that front, I should point everyone to this little side project:¬†http://fav.me/d5ylwfa

The Crux is probably best described as my own response to¬†The Dark Tower¬†and Six Gun Tarot. It’s something I did more or less completely for fun, with knowledge that even Weird Westerns set on post-apocalyptic future worlds are still not really marketable. So I don’t have any problem sharing it there. But I love Westerns. And I hated what the second of the books above, in particular, did with the genre. I think there’s enough room to be¬†“punkish” without going all PC. And of course, if you’ve followed me long enough, you know I despise Message Fic.

I wrote this last year. It grew out of a short story character concept that sprang into my head a while before that:¬†http://fav.me/d48a92f which earned me a Daily Deviation on dA. I couldn’t come up with a good story for Phoebe right off, after that. But she wouldn’t leave my head. So I turned back to the Wastes, and mashed up magic, western, post-apocalyptic adventure, steampunk, and a dash of potboiler (though much less than usual), to make what is probably my most straight-out adventure story.¬†It started out with its own magic system, but wound its way into my Auroriverse. I’m not sorry for that. There are plenty of messed-up worlds to write about in it. Even if the current project and my Space Opera are distinct. ūüėČ

It’s the story of a gambler, a gunslinger, and a cannibal (yes, he’s a good guy) in the last bit of civilization for a thousand miles in any direction. And ‘civilization’ is a loose term, when you speak of a world forsaken even by its gods. When one gets out of sight of the city’s gaslamps, anything goes. Really, I had as much fun as anything I’ve written outside my Urban Fantasies.

I tossed aside Brett Weeks¬†Night Angel¬†the other day. I’m fairly certain that establishes me as having fallen out of love with true GrimDark. Especially since I devoured Ringo’s Princess of Wands in 3 days. Yeah, I know, there’s a message in it. But contrary to dedicated message-fic masquerading as speculative fiction these days, there’s a STORY first. And Ringo isn’t Anvilicious about the message.¬†¬†Besides, some people do need to know that not every believing Christian is the stereotype of a Bible Thumper. I’ll concede faith often plays an important part (and usually positive) in my stories. I don’t think you can be honest to historically-based fantasy without making it so. But that doesn’t mean I either have to make every hero ‘jaded on religion’ and a modernist in disguise. Or a bigot either. Those two character types have become a veritable cliche in modern fantasy, and not even the reviewers call it out. So yes, when Ringo makes a character who isn’t one of either, it’s nice to see. Much like the Carpenters in¬†The Dresden Files.

Maybe this is why I’ve gravitated to Urban Fantasy for my reading these days. Epic Fantasy has been overrun by dark, depressing places I don’t care to visit, with characters that have few, if any, redeeming features. Glen Cook was never as depressing as the people who’ve come after him. Look at his¬†Instrumentalities of the Night series. Sure, there’s a lot of darkness involved. But Piper is far from an unsympathetic character, even as a mercenary. It’s ironic we have to descend to the grime of the cities to find characters we can believe in anymore.

How Grim is Too Much?

I’ve followed Luke Scull since the early says of NWN, and chatted with him on the old Bioware Forums and NWN Vault more than once. He was a remarkable module creator, and I enjoyed the interactive stories he wrote. So I’m interested a great deal in his coming¬†The Grim Company.¬†Already in your hands quite possibly if you’re on the right hand side of the Atlantic.

But I was a bit troubled by his comment to this review, which does not put off my interest, but does inspire me to rebut¬†http://www.lukescull.com/2013/08/publishers-weekly-review.html. Having tried to read Joe Abercrombie’s¬†Best Served Cold I can honestly say the answer to the question, “Does it matter if your characters are not truly sympathetic?” is, to myself and many readers¬†Yes.¬†I don’t mind grim worlds. Reality is a pretty grim place when viewed honestly, and it’s not likely to be different for most people in most settings. The United Federation of Planets sounds wonderful, but its functionality doesn’t withstand scrutiny. At the end of the day, a functioning world is going to involve lots of people doing very disgusting things to other people. And the hero who doesn’t understand this is in trope terms,¬†Too Dumb to Live.

That said, being forced to live in such a world doesn’t mean having to¬†enjoy¬†it. Or at least not conceding that when one does enjoy it, it’s a perverse amusement. The characters in¬†Best Served Cold, to my sentiments, all enjoyed being jackwagons far too much. “Interesting” will only carry you so far, once you figure out that you really don’t care if the character lives or dies, there’s not a lot of reason to keep reading. It’s a similar problem to the one I had with¬†The Name of the Wind.¬†I can’t bring myself to care if Kvothe lives or dies. He’s as snobbish as the nobles he feuds with. And his one flaw is he’s¬†abrasive. Because anything he tries to do, he excels at. Now I can acknowledge both Abercrombie and Rothfuss are insanely talented writers. But skilled authors have turned out books that failed to capture the attention before. That’s not¬†always the fault of buyers being too dumb to see their brilliance. Sometimes it’s the fault of authors being too clever for their own good. So yes, please give us a character to care about.

I read another interesting piece here.¬†http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. There’s a lot to be said about this article. Much I agree with. One-dimensional ‘strong’ female leads are just as dull as one-dimensional ‘damsel-in-distress’ leads. And I absolutely agree about the pass female characters are given when it comes to using lethal threats as a way to prove they’re just as tough as guys. And yes, the examples she gives in that article are two of the more overtly shocking ones. Now I do have Aishe unleash fire on Kilian once in my Aurori Saga, but she does so¬†knowing Kilian can stop it, and holding back her strike enough to make sure it doesn’t hurt him. Honestly, I will at this point aim my finger at feminism and say, “You wanted non-feminine women leads. You got them. They’re still dull.” Better answer, write real women as leads, and don’t apologize for letting them being overpowered like any other hero every once and a while. We all get overwhelmed by the world sometimes.

But she’s dead on about Sherlock Holmes being all the things she lists, and then a woman getting to be ‘tough.’ Meh. I thought Sydney Bristow in¬†Alias was probably the best female action lead I’ve seen drawn. Definitely capable of being tough, but still intelligent, resourceful, capable of being vulnerable emotionally, truly damaged without being broken. And determined. Interesting she wasn’t mentioned in that article. ¬†In short, Sydney was a real person who happened to be a woman, and more interesting for being one.

Where I don’t agree with the article is this insistence on a quota system. Along with changing token characters into female ones just for the sake of¬†being¬†there. I don’t see how token switching character genders makes for better ‘representation.’ A token is a token. And it’s still pandering. Better to say, concentrate on making enough¬†fascinating¬†female characters that we don’t think about how many background females there are. Make an honest attempt to portray a real world, and I think the readers–or at least those not hung up on representation questions, which is there OWN hangup–will fill in the world appropriately.

An Adventure With Cage.

Rather than give you a biography if Micajah Thaddeus (Cage) Monaghan, perhaps it is better to share a tale of one of his exploits. This on behalf of His Majesty’s Army in the Dythian Crown Colonies of Itica. I hope you enjoy:

You Are What You Eat

Basierne, Chot Drissa
Imperial Itica
12th Caetani, 3012 Kreiosian

“Good Morning, My Fox,” the raspy, seductive voice of Isolde Vaiel awakened Captain Micajah Thaddeus Monaghan.

“Mmm, it’s morning? How are you up so early after last night?” He teased. “Great Kreios, you made breakfast too?”

“Of course I did, Cage. It’s your birthday.” She affected a pout. “Did you think I would’ve forgotten my Captain’s birthday?”

“I thought you said last…” Cage started. He sat up in bed, revealing his muscular and bare chest. Cage was twenty-three, with blond hair, blue eyes, and the classic horse-soldier’s body; lean muscle and rugged features.

“It was part of your present, yes,” she grinned impishly. She wore a shift barely concealing pleasant hips as she set the tray on his lap. Her blond, clove-scented hair and the view she left him sent fresh waves of desire through Cage. Last night had been the first time they had spent the night in her home. Though not the first time they had shared a bed in their six months together. She teasingly raised the lid over the breakfast platter.

“Poached eggs!” He shouted. “And boysenberry jam? Soter’s blood! How did you manage barking boysenberry jam here?”

She shook her head, her impish grin fixed as she clasped her hands in front of her. “I’ll never tell, My Fox. Now eat hearty, you need a good meal. It may be months before I see you again.” She sighed dramatically. “And I haven’t heard from Father in a month either.”

“Damn, how did she pull this off. As far as I know, you can only get boysenberry jam in Sylvunur or Caralie.”¬†He shook his head. He had acquired the expensive taste while traveling with his father, Duke Roderick Monaghan.¬†“And I think our relationship has never been better since I’ve been posted to the opposite side of the world.”¬†

He ate breakfast leisurely until the swinging pendulum on the opposite wall drew his attention to the clock’s face above. “Abyss, fourth hour already?” He raised his voice, “Isolde! How long does it take to get to base from here?”

“Seventeen minutes if the cable car is running on schedule,” she replied from the kitchen. “But typically it runs two minutes behind.”

“So twenty minutes to get there, and I have to be there by half-past sixth hour.” He grimaced and started wolfing down his breakfast.

As he finished, Isolde returned and started brushing his uniform. “I hope they don’t expect you to appear in your Dress Blues, Cage. I don’t think you’ve time to go home.”

Cage shook his head. “I don’t. And I doubt I’ll be gone over a month, dear.”

She rolled her eyes, “That’s reassuring, My Fox. Assuming some exotic jungle snake doesn’t do to you what you did to my breakfast!”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Cage grinned as Isolde helped him with his sword belt and jacket.

“You be careful,” she said with a poke to his stomach.

Cage caught her hand and kissed it, then her forehead, and last her small, full, red lips. She leaned into him and smiled as he said. “I’ll be fine. At least it’s late spring here. Think how miserable it would be in Trivoria this time of year?”

She shivered. “Kreios save me from another Trivorian winter! And you Dythians get it the worst! Be safe Cage, and don’t be gone too long.” She smiled impishly at him. “And we’ll celebrate when you get back.” Cage smiled and darted for the cable car.

* * * *
Colonel Aylmer slammed his pointer on his desk as Cage arrived. “You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago Captain Monaghan! Perhaps you think your father’s name makes you immune to your inability to be prompt?”

Cage shook his head and snapped to attention. “Of course not, Lord Colonel!”

“Damn my eyes if you think it doesn’t! We both know I can’t discipline you without making a scene. But be assured, you may be smarter than you act. But you’re not as smart as you think, Captain Monaghan!”

“I’ve never thought myself smarter than you, Lord Colonel,” Cage replied, managing to keep his face straight.

“That’s good, Captain; because if I suspected otherwise, I’d ram this pointer up your arse so far they’d need to gut you like a fish to retrieve it! And I know about your Vravani lady friend, Micajah. What would your father think?”

“He’d be glad I’m on the opposite side of the world from Whitemont’s Society Pages, Lord Colonel,” Cage replied.¬†“Though taking a commoner mistress is hardly unheard of among young officers posted in the colonies. They’re just mad because Isolde’s Trivorian and not native.”

“Bloody straight! Fine, this mission should keep you from trouble for the next month or two anyway.” He flipped the map page over with his pointer. “You heard about the chaps from the Crown Society, right? Archaeologists; you’ll take a train to Chenas, about a day’s train into the interior. Pretty much as far as the tracks go, lad.”

“I remember going there with a patrol last year, Colonel Sir,” Cage replied.

Colonel Aylmer shot him an annoyed glance. “Did you? Good, because you’re going upcountry from there. Your porters are already there. There’s a temple at Hingjhao. It’s left over from when the Xingers ruled. The tribes apparently still paid tribute to them before we took over.”

Cage nodded, “Yes, I remember the histories saying Mystics from the Zouxing Dynasty were involved?” The Dynasty had once ruled over nearly three-quarters of the world.

The Colonel shrugged. “Not Xingers, so I doubt they were true Mystics. But they frightened the men. Anyhow, these archaeologists want to explore the ruins, don’t ask me why. I’m no scholar. But you’ll lead a squad of skirmish cavalry, capable of fighting dismounted if the country gets too rugged for horses. Keep the civilians alive, and bring them back when they’ve finished their tour. If it gets sticky, send word and we’ll reinforce.”

“Understood, Lord Colonel,” Cage bowed.

“The train leaves at thirteenth hour, with or without you. If you miss it, you’ll be spending the rest of your career in a three by three cell in the barracks. And even your hero father won’t save you. Is that clear, Captain!”

“Crystal clear, Lord Colonel,” Cage bowed again and backed out.¬†“That could’ve went a little worse,”¬†he thought as he beat a hasty retreat.

Chenas Station
Chenas, Imperial Itica
14th Caetani, 3012 Kreiosian

“Lieutenant! Could you come here, please?” The nasally voice’s request made Cage’s spine shiver.

“Pardon me, Professor Hegan, but the rank is Captain,” Cage replied.

“Captain, you say? Oh, is that higher? Well, I guess it is in the Navy, it makes sense it would be in the Army too.” The Professor was short, pear-shaped, and had a bushy mustache that represented almost all the face visible under his pith helmet.

Cage was unsure whether to laugh or scowl, and so managed to avoid both. “Yes, it’s higher, Professor. But what’s your concern?”

Hegan waved at the bickering between another of the Crown Society members and some Itican natives. “Well, it seems the porters are being uncooperative and refusing to take our baggage. But how can we do research if we don’t have our equipment?”

Cage shoved his hand beneath his pith helmet. “And you expect me to negotiate with them? Sir, you do realize I’m here for military purposes?” Cage watched Hegan’s eyes bulge and raised his hands. “Fine, I’ll see what I can do.”

A squat man with broad shoulders muttered to Cage, “How did Edward Troop get this duty again?”

“Probably because Edward Troop’s commander is too competent and well-connected to sack. But too much of an annoyance to the Colonel to leave alone, Sergeant Waddle,” Cage replied.

“Well, with all due respect, Captain. I think the commander should either use his connections or make a mistake and get in trouble without getting us killed,” he replied.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Cage deadpanned. “Let’s see what the porters want.”

The skin of the four men ranged from gold to dark brown. They argued in the local dialect, which Cage had not been able to decipher yet. He raised his left hand, while his right stayed near his cavalry saber. “What troubles you, friends?”

The shortest of them looked at Cage. His head barely reached the base of Cage’s neck as he said in clipped Dythian, “We understand you go to Ta’na Sa’mra?”

Cage asked, “Is that the name of the temple at Hingjhao?” The man nodded. “Then yes, that’s where the Crown Society chaps are headed, so we’re making sure they don’t get lost on the way.”

“We don’t go to Hingjhao, Captain. Bad things there now. They eat creatures. Take their power.” The porter shook his head and waved his arms.

“What’s your name, friend? And how long has this been happening?” Cage asked.

“I’m Anta. And it’s been since winter’s thaw, Captain. More than one villager has disappeared there,” he replied.

“Anta, my orders include sending back for help if there’s trouble so it can be dealt with. Would you be willing to see that?” Cage asked.

“We won’t go to the village, Captain,” he repeated.

Cage smiled and shook his head. “I’m not asking you to. If there’s trouble, then there won’t be a reason to carry all these things to the village. But they’ll be closer for later, and you’ll have done fair labor. Also, you’d guide my Sergeant back here so he could send word of the danger, yes?”

Anta stopped and pondered. “You listen to us when we say we go no further?”

Cage held up his finger. “If you give me your word you go as far as you can. Then we find a safe place for these things. I’ll not have them strewn across the jungle or thrown in a river!”

“We want more money then,” Anta replied with a greedy grin.

Cage pointed at Professor Hegan. “Money is his bailiwick. I just lead us there and back. And I want to be moving by midday.”

* * * *

17 Caetani

The column wound through the jungle. A horse skittered to the side, as if it were prancing on the parade ground. Cage turned and saw a giant constrictor snake weaving its way out of the river, black on blue. He pulled his pistol and waited, but the snake slithered away from the men.

“I would’ve thought you’d kill it by reflex,” Professor Hegan said; pushing his pith helmet back to wipe the sweat from his forehead with a cloth.

Cage shook his head, too distracted by the hair on the back of his neck standing on end to be annoyed. “Something’s watching us, and not a snake. Best to save lead until its needed.”

He turned and kicked his horse’s side. The column wound with the road again. Cage noticed the porter’s increasingly agitated glances into the jungle to their right.¬†“Chin up, Cage. You’ve been in worse spots. Think of Isolde’s warm embrace when you get home.”

A glimpse of orange preceded a ROAR and a jungle cat leaped from the jungle to their right. Cage called out, but it had already dismounted the rider on point. Cage drew his pistol and fanned the hammer three times. That drove the tiger off before it found his man’s neck. Cage spurred his horse and drew his sword.

It jumped to the left side of Cage, leaving Cage where he could not reach it with his sword. But it turned broadside to the column, which unloaded a barrage of rifles. The tiger fell. Cage dismounted and drove his sword into it’s chest. “Bloody Abyss, I’ve never seen one that big, three meters?” A man said from the back.

“That’s enough, Private,” Cage said as he drew his sword out.

But as he did, the tiger stirred, swiping at Cage with its front paw. Cage leaped back, talons slashing air scant centimeters from his chest. Cage fired his pistol left-handed, and then lunged into the beast with his sword, impaling its chest as it stood on hind legs. It fell back to the ground, slumped over his sword.

“Cut the thing’s head off!” Cage shouted, his heart racing and voice a half-octave high. His men fell on it with swords, and though sabers that had never been sharpened were not the best tools, eventually the head was severed from its body.

Anta ran up, “You see! The beast lived!”

Cage shook his head. “We’ve seen nothing but a wildcat yet,” he lied. “But we’ll find a place to rest for the night. We’ll need to tend to Greg anyway.”

Anta gave him a hard look. “You’re not breaking your word, are you?”

Cage stared back. “I may not be my father’s equal. But I keep my word. And I can’t send word back without knowing what’s there. It behooves us both to keep moving, friend.”

Anta nodded and returned to the porters. They muttered between themselves, but did not unload. Cage took that as success enough for the moment. He walked back to Professor Hegan and whispered. “I want an autopsy done on that tiger, tonight. And I want it done quietly.”

“Captain Monaghan, is there something wrong?”

Cage looked back and frowned. “I’m enough of a soldier to know when I’ve landed a killing blow, Professor. Do that autopsy tonight, alone.”

* * * *

“Captain Monaghan,” Sergeant Waddle’s breath smelled as if he had stashed whiskey in his canteen again.

“Waddle, you’re not nearly as pretty to wake up to as Isolde,” Cage grumbled.

“I’m sorry, sir. Next time I’ll shave closer,” he grinned.

Cage chortled. “Kreios save me from that!” He pushed himself off the tree he had napped under. “What is it, Sergeant?”

Professor Hegan leaned in and Waddle nodded to him. Cage motioned for him to go on, and the Professor tugged his mustache. “Well, you see Captain. The beast you fought…it was already dead.”

Cage’s eyes bulged and he fought down a scream as he reached for his helmet. “Explain that, Professor.”

Hegan ran his hand through his hair and knelt beside him. “Sir, the tiger had its heart, its stomach, and part of its brain cut out. Needless to say, there was virtually no blood in the creature anymore either.”

Cage swallowed. “So you’re saying this was a living creature made into an automaton? I suppose it could be done.”

The Professor’s bushy lips quivered. “Captain, I’m not sure that’s what happened. I don’t know how it was able to move again.”

“Are you saying I should be listening to our tribal porters before I listen to the Crown’s Natural Philosopher, Sir?” Cage snapped.

“Captain Sir, I don’t know about Xing Mysticism. To be honest, that’s why I’d hoped to see this place. I’ve read about their use of the Aether. But I don’t understand how it works. So I wanted to come to a place that’s been touched by them and learn,” Hegan’s eyes blazed as a convert’s.

“Barking Abyss!” Sergeant Waddle cursed. “We’re out here facing we don’t know what so a Professor can satisfy his damned curiosity?”

Cage silenced him with a long glance. “We’re here because the King ordered us here. We serve at his pleasure. Alright, I want to get a little closer before we have to turn the porters loose. So let’s be ready to move at daybreak.”

It was three hours into the afternoon march when the crawling sensation returned to Cage’s neck. He heard the porters behind him bickering again. Then he saw movement on the trail ahead and raised his hand. The column stopped. Cage motioned with his hand for the front two men to dismount and scout ahead.

As they did, he turned to Waddle. “Sergeant, I want two men left with the baggage. The rest will continue ahead, on foot.”

“Yes sir,” Waddle replied.

Hegan drifted up toward Cage. “Captain Monaghan, you certainly don’t…”

“I certainly do intend for civilians to remain at the rear until I know what we’re facing. Is that clear?” Cage snap-turned his head toward the Professor as he finished. “Because if you want to argue, I’ll tie you both against trees here. Then when we get back to Chot Drissa, I’ll send a telegraph back to my father, the Foreign Minister and Duke of Aare. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”

“Hmmpf, I didn’t know you were the type to stand on your rank, Earl Monaghan,” the Professor protested.

“He’s not. Which means you should take him as serious,” Sergeant Waddle replied.

Cage drew the rifle from his mount and slammed a cartridge into the breach. Then he motioned for two men to advance along the river and two more to the right. The rest followed him. He lifted his hands to his lips.

There were two hyenas and a few men walking in tribal attire. Two of them carried a travois carrying a Dythian Officer. Cage raised his rifle and sighted the back of the man hauling the travois. He pulled the trigger and watched the man tumble down. An inhuman moan rose from him and the hyenas howled discordantly. The rest of Edward Troop opened fire. Their shots ripped through the enemy before rushing in to dispatch them before they could rise again.

Cage reloaded as he approached the travois and studied the man bound to it. He had brown hair and a thick handlebar mustache. His service uniform was tattered, but a Major’s insignia was still visible. “Are you alright, sir?” Cage asked.

“I’d be bloody better if you cut me loose,” he answered dryly. “But given what they had planned for me, I think this is better.”

Cage chuckled and drew a knife from his boot. “I’m Captain Cage Monaghan, Second Hussars, Edward Troop.”

“Monaghan, you say?” the man replied as he rubbed his freed wrists. “You do look a lot like the portraits of the Duke. You’re his son?” Cage nodded. “Well, I’m Major Merill Simpson, Fourth Foot; your father’s old regiment, as it happens.”

Cage smirked as he offered his hand. “Small Empire; pleased to meet you.” They shook hands as Cage asked, “What in the Abyss are these?”

Merill shook his head. “Abyss is the right word, otherwise I’ve no idea. We were escorting a group from the Whitemont Archaeological Society to a Temple. But they led us into an ambush. They killed and…” Merill paled. “…ate the rest of my men. I can’t imagine what they planned for me. But somehow they knew I was the officer.”

Cage swallowed hard before saying, “Pardon me? You’re not misremembering, are you?” He cringed inwardly before he finished the question.

Merill’s eyes flashed. “Are you meaning to…”

Cage held up a hand. “I apologize. But we have two men from the Crown Society with us. They want to go to the same place.”

Simpson gulped. “Can I have some water please?” He drank greedily from Waddle’s canteen. Then he said, “Damn. I can see why you’d be cautious, Captain. These are your men. What do you suggest?”

Cage lifted his pith helmet to wipe away the grime with his sleeve. “When we camp, you, Waddle and our porters will return to Chenas and telegraph Basierne for help. Is that acceptable, Sir?”

The Major tugged at his coat. “Capital, Captain Monaghan! I’ll make sure the cavalry gets rescued for a change.”

* * *

Ta’na Sa’mra, Hingjhao
20 Caetani

Cage’s stomach tied itself in a knot as he saw the Temple. “Bloody thing looks like a Daraskan Ziggurat.”

“You’ve seen one before, Captain?” Professor Hegan asked.

Cage nodded. “With my family, we traveled Erand after the Republican Wars ended.”

The Ziggurat had a single staircase on the west. It ascended to a door at the top of the Temple. Then it descended by narrow stairs, deep into the bowels of the structure. Before they were halfway down, darts skittered against the stone. “Grenade!” Cage shouted, and one of his men tossed a stick-bomb down the stairs. It bounced twice and then exploded at the bottom with a muffled woompf and a cloud of dust, debris, and bone fragments.

Shambling creatures ascended the stairs. “Aim at their heads, lads!” Cage shouted and knelt to give them room to fire. He drew both pistols and fired as fast as he could pull the triggers. The ear-splitting roar of a dozen or more guns in the narrow staircase made Cage sure his eardrums were bleeding.

Smoke filled the stairway, along with the moans of falling creatures and shattered bones. When he counted six shots from the gun in his right hand, he holstered it. Then he hastily reloaded his other pistol. His fingertips singed on the chambers as he spun them. Then he drew his saber.

They had cleared the stairway, so he motioned twice with his saber. Two men descended past him. When the first reached the bottom, his left foot sank. Before Cage could shout, four spears impaled the soldier. “Oh bloody Abyss, Greg,” Cage cursed.

Cage felt a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, there was nothing you could’ve done, Captain Monaghan.”

Cage grabbed Hegan by the throat and slammed him against the wall. “Is this a damned trap! If it is, I’ll squeeze the life from you right here. You knew there were Mystics here, didn’t you?”

Hegan’s eyes bulged as he shook his head. “My Lord, no! We suspected. The archaeological society had accepted some native Iticans a few years ago. They…stole some books. We tracked two of them here. But we didn’t know what they were, other than agitators. The Directorate asked us to track them.”

“The Directorate? My Father ordered this. And you didn’t tell me?” Cage grumbled as he let Hegan down.

The Professor felt at his throat. “He didn’t know they’d assign you, Captain. And my orders were to not discuss the mission unless I had to.”

Cage gave him a long look. “You can end this?”

Hegan and his assistant shared a glance before he said, “We think so, Captain. At least long enough for you to bring in artillery and demolish the place.”

“More like airships, and they’ll be here any time now,” Cage replied. “So we better move, because the Air Service can’t hit Whitemont from the harbor.”

Hegan pointed at the spears. “Use those to check for more traps, My Lord.” Cage nodded and motioned to the other soldier below to take one.

As Cage descended the stairs, Hegan asked. “What’s the plan, Captain?”

Cage chuckled darkly. “Plan? I’m a cavalry officer, by training and nature. I charge, preferably by the flank. When I’ve done all the damage I can, I retreat as fast as I can. Then I reform and charge again. There’s no flank here that I can see. But we’ll charge and reform back here.”

Hegan gulped. “I see…I was expecting something more detailed. Then draw the creatures back to the door ahead. I’ll stand a few yards behind it and read this scroll.”

Cage smirked as he checked the loads on his pistols and dropped a cartridge in his rifle. “Disappointed I don’t act like my father? It’s a long queue. But fine, we’ll reform on the other side of that door.” He strode toward it without another word.

There were seven members of his troop remaining. Four aligned to his left, three to his right as they passed into the torchlit chamber, dim red flames discoloring the stone walls. A stone throne arose from a dais. Skulls were piled on either side of it. An altar stood behind it, soaked in blood with a body still on it, an exposed rib cage clearly visible.

Cage fought down the urge to gag. “I don’t think much of your d√©cor.”

A man walked around the altar, licking his fingers as he sat in the throne. “I apologize for the cliched appearance. But I haven’t had time to bring it to Dythian standards: Not enough coal smoke, gray haze, and rain, right?”

Cage shrugged as he took another step closer to the throne. “But Itica has fine rugs. Why insist on this musty stone? So drab chap, it won’t do.”

“I suppose after I eat your heart on the altar behind me, you’ll be in a much better position to appreciate your surroundings,” the necromancer said.

Cage sighed dramatically. “You’ve got it all wrong! Now was the part where you disclose your evil plan to take over the world. But since you’ve jumped ahead…” Cage flipped his rifle into his hands and snapped off a shot at the throne from his hip. The bullet flew true and the necromancer dissolved in a cloud of smoke.

“Don’t tell me it was that easy…” Cage muttered with a sly grin. From behind the throne, a chorus of moans arose in a furious cacophony. Cage groaned. “I just had to ask! Fall back! And leave some grenades behind!”

The soldiers retreated to the door, grenades tossed along the floor. The bombs exploded as the first creatures emerged. Doors opened from side passages, and shambling creatures joined the attack. Cage tossed his rifle through the door, spun and drew pistols in both hands.

His men reformed on his flanks. Thunder in their hands as they fired into the shambolic advance. Arms stretched toward them, moans and screams filled the hall as Cage’s hearing was buffeted by the resounding blasts.

“Hold them off a little longer while I read this!” Hegan shouted.

“Better make it damned quick, or we’re going to be on the menu with a fine chianti!” Cage shouted back. One of the men to his right was buried under a tiger. Cage spun and shot from the hip. The beast was thrown clear by the shots and his men finished it.

He felt a hand grasping his left arm. He yanked it free and drew his saber, carving a circle around him. The dull blade needed more than one hack to sever an arm or head. But it still kept them off.

Hegan’s voice left off its chant. There was an eerie silence, and then a piercing scream as the horde fell to dust. Cage stood, a pistol in one hand and his saber in the other. Two of his men had fallen. “Did we win?” One of the survivors asked.

“Abyss if I know,” Cage answered.

Hegan patted Cage’s back. “Captain, we need to find…” his sentence was cut off by a BOOM followed by a deep rumbling. “…Is that an earthquake?”

Cage cursed, “Swards! An aerial bomb; the airship’s here. Everyone out, now!” Cage led by example, sprinting for the stairs.

“But Captain we have to…”

“Run! NOW!” Cage screamed. As his foot hit the bottom step, the earth shook beneath them again. “Damn, they’ve bracketed us. Move it!”

Cage’s lungs were burning as he ran up the narrow steps. The Professor’s assistant tripped and fell over the stairs. He stumbled up, running with a limp and gritted teeth. They reached the top of the Ziggurat to see a bomb released from a half-kilometer above. “Bloody Abyss. GET DOWN!” Cage shouted.

The bomb struck near the base of the Ziggurat to the right of them. Stone flew into the air, forming a crater in the west side of the Temple. The airship turned, revealing the Dythian Fox-on-Water emblazoned on its dorsal. Cage was too exhausted to sprint down the stairs and collapsed against the stone, waving them off.

The airship stopped directly above them, and Cage watched the bay open with morbid fascination. But instead of a bomb, a ladder was winched down to them. Cage sighed with relief and let the rest of his men go first. When he climbed up into the gondola, he snapped, “Crater the barking place.”

“As you wish, Captain,” the pilot said in a cheerful voice.

* * *

Basierne, Chot Drissa
30 Caetani, 3013 Kreiosian

Isolde smiled as Major Micajah Monaghan collapsed into the couch. He flipped the paper open and groaned. “Bloody Abyss.”

“What is it, My Fox? Is the tea not to your liking?”

“It seems there was an accident with Professor Hegan. He was struck by an ox-cart,” Cage sighed.

“Such a shame, he was a University Professor, right dear?” she asked, sitting by him with her elbow on her knee.

“I don’t know if he was a simple Professor,” Cage mumbled.

“Pardon? Oh, you’re not talking politics now, are you? We promised no business until you’re properly welcomed!” Isolde plucked the paper from his hands and tossed it aside.

Cage chortled. “Well, I imagine you have ideas on how to welcome me?”

“My Fox’s star ascends. Soon he’ll be as bright as his father’s. So why shouldn’t I have ideas? I’m proud of you, Cage,” she said and kissed his neck. She put aside her thoughts of the ‘accident’ and her need to cable Sylvunur for further instructions and set about her duty, seducing Micajah Monaghan.

“A woman could do worse things for her Empire,”¬†she thought with a sincere giggle as Cage rolled her beneath him on the couch.

Ladies First

Image

Specifically, Mistress Katharina Tomiko Marquering, the female protagonist of¬†The Iron Conqueror,¬†and the¬†Griffin Tales that follow. Born in the ‘Orient’ of my world (though that’s the west in Sibanenne), but raised in the Union of Vravan as the daughter of missionaries. She is a woman of two worlds, and yet truly welcome in neither. She is well aware of her ‘outsider’ status, and yet cherishes the freedom her adopted homeland allows her.

But her Zouxing heritage manifests in her Mystic talents. Born a sorceress, she becomes a student of the history and culture of her homelands to aid in using her gift wisely. Katharina is always balancing her desire to be a properly pious lady with the knowledge that her talent demands greater discipline, responsibility, and opportunity to protect what she loves.

Petite, yet possessed of a keen intellect, she is a research assistant to her father, who is the Professor of Zouxing Studies at the University of Heideren. She is somewhat frosty to those who do not intrigue her, and yet open and caring to those who capture her interest. She is not without her frivolous side, though few ever see it.

The enigma that is her background becomes a catalyst in The Iron Conqueror. And as she learns about herself, she discovers her enemies are not far from finding out the truth either. And they will not be pleased about what they have learned.

(Character render by Suzi Amberson, aka Kachinadoll on dA, at my request.)