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.

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. 😉

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.

A Slight Change of Plans

Rather than adding five thousand words of setting document to my text of The Iron Conqueror, I thought it better to add it here. That way, those who are interested can look up anything they want. And those who don’t worry about the worldbuilding don’t have to wonder if they’re expected to read it all. 😉

Linkage here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/a-griffins-tale/

I’ll include further detail on the Magic System in the Future. But this is a start.

On another note, I’ve almost finished the first book of my Sword & Sandals. Just in time to start a war. 😛



Fantasy Worldbuilding: On Technology & Magic

One of the reasons I love to write Steampunk and Urban Fantasy is I don’t have to make excuses for why there is both gunpowder and magic in my world.

Or better said, I don’t have to argue why I shouldn’t have to make an argument for having both magic and gunpowder in a fantasy. To me, one of the most annoying tropes in fantasy is the assertion that magic removes tech. First of all, it’s applied with horrific inconsistency. There can be High Renaissance fashion, castles, rapiers, full plate armor, caravels, and even primitive steam engines. In other words, all the trappings of the late 1600s. But, JRR Tolkien forbid you ever, ever include anything that looks like even a primitive firearm. Somehow, the inclusion of a musket ruins fantasy.

I once read Raymond Feist’s defense for this. That was where magic emerged, technology stalled because it wasn’t ‘necessary.’ OK, if that’s what you want to do with your world, fine. But let me point out why this is actually illogical.

First, magic is unpredictable. Even Mordenkainen or Pug can find their spells going awry every so often. Whether that be because they’re out of reagents, the Gods thought it would be funny, or just plain bad luck. Magic is not reliable. And the less certain your mage is, the more likely it is things go boom in your face. So why should we think that the uneducated masses would trust magic as far as they could carry a stake?

Second, It assumes that every genius is a wizard. Why would this be true? Does every genius pursue the same fields of knowledge in our world? Do the all become politicians? Businessmen? Even philosophers? Nope. So why do they all become magicians in your world? ‘Cause? Not an answer. Then there’s the question of what happens if magic is a gift that not everyone has access to? isn’t it entirely likely that a certified Leonardo Da Vinci doesn’t get the magic bug? So what does he do? Stay a farmer? Not buying it. See Tavi in Codex Alera on this score for a character where this is well done.

Third, philosophically, magic and technology are opposed forces. Magic is insular, elitist, academic, esoteric, and expensive. Thus it;s the province of a very few. Technology is practical, utilitarian, comparatively inexpensive and reliable, and easy to reduplicate compared to magic as well. Thus, it becomes the force that gives power to the masses. Magic is the essence of an elitist feudal regime. Technology the harbinger of advancing freedom and the Renaissance. So it’s somewhat laughable when technology is stifled and yet the masses yearn to be free without knowing what the rest of the masses are thinking.

So, while my current writing project is an Epic Fantasy set in a pseudo-Hellenistic era world (thus no black powder), I have no problem writing fantasy with firearms and advancing technology (pretty much everything else I’ve done). And even in my current project, the Hellenistic era saw a lot of advancement in society and technology, and I can emulate that freely. 😉

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 décor.”

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.

The World of the Iron Conqueror

One of the things I did in A Griffin’s Tale that is somewhat atypical for Steampunk is my choice to indulge in creating a new world. At the time, I was writing a Historical Fantasy series (my Aurori Saga, which if you followed to my deviantArt page, you will see there), and wanted the freedom to explore a new setting.

So The Iron Conqueror has a strong flavor of Victoriana, and Airships, Gaslight, Gears, and all the strange science that one expects from Steampunk. But it also has a goodly dose of magic, common to the “Gaslight Fantasy” subset. Creating a new world also allowed me to spin the Great Game of Nations in directions the Victorian era did not pursue. For example, Caralie pursued a course similar to that of Napoleonic-era France, with a similar end. But in reprisal, it was divided into a group of puppet states, vassals of their conquerors.

As a result, much of Trivoria’s politics are played out through the carcass of fallen Caralie, including the majority of The Iron Conqueror’s plot. It becomes a cat’s paw for The Dythian Thallosocracy and the ever-ambitious Sylvunurian Empire to its west (an analogue to the Prussian Empire, but with an attitude towards those its conquered not entirely dissimilar from The Dominion of the Draka in S.M. Stirling’s Dystopia of the same name. Meanwhile, the Union of Vravan is an experiment in decentralized pseudo-monarchy, much like the United Netherlands of Orange Family’s height.

It’s even become a ‘training ground’ of sorts for the far off Zouxing Empire to allow its Great Houses to prove their worth in the eyes of the Divine Emperor. So, unintentionally (as politics so often does) the winners of a war, in their pursuit of stability, have created fertile ground for a new one. So there is nothing like the Congress of Vienna to facilitate peaceful negotiation between nations. But there is the confusing web of alliances. Yes, it gets messy. 😉

The world is about 3/4s the size of Earth, and significantly cooler. It orbits at the outer edge of the habitable zone of an orange dwarf star. Two large asteroid belts block out much of the star field to the naked eye. It also possesses plentiful coal, but petroleum poor (at least in the parts of the world their technology allows them to explore and exploit). Hence my justification for the prominence of external combustion engines and steam power. The petrol engine exists, but its not profitable to mass produce.

In general, technology is at an 1850s-60s level. Though certain areas (airships in particular) are more advanced. Among the residents of the Zouxing Dynasty, this is not quite as prevalent, as much knowledge is kept from those who lack the Mystics’ Gift. And those who possess it are encouraged to maximize their study and use of it, as opposed to more ‘mundane’ fields. One still finds ornithopters with Aether-fueled power sources and weapons among them, however.

There is magic via manipulating the Aether. Those who can do this are called Mystics, and the gift is much more prevalent in the Zouxing Dynasty than it is on the Trivorian Continent, though even in the east, it is not unheard of.

The vast majority of action takes place in the southeastern continent of Trivoria. It is where both main characters, Cage Monaghan & Katharina Tomiko Marquering, is included below: