Exit Rewrite Mode

Two books, 215,000 words, and pretty much able to stamp “Final Draft” on Aurori’s Blood. I’m pleased with the first two books of that series now. And I have an idea how to focus the fourth book so that it’s still the series I wanted to write, instead of the crazy thing it veered into with the fifth book. Ultimately it will still get to that crazy stage. But not until I’ve exhausted the history that’s the reason I wanted to write the series in the first place. 😛

So now I’m even more in a ‘dead’ time between here and NaNoWriMo. Or at least I would be, except for my vacation in September. So I think I can be at about 50,000 words by November, and then double that in the Month of Frenzy. Maybe even finish book 4, Chosen’s Return. Besides, can I really complain about going to Hawaii? Nah. Used to live there, once upon a time, for three years. That was before donning the tophat and goggles. My writing back then was largely academic in nature. Loved semi-colons. One of the things I had to learn when switching to fiction was to crush them ruthlessly.

I’ve been meaning to add pages on the blog for all the other stuff I’ve dabbled in. That is: The Aurori, my Hellenistic Fantasy, an Urban Fantasy, and a Space Opera. Though the latter may or may not go under Tarien Cole, as such. I haven’t decided yet. Given the amount of blog time I’ve talked about both lately, they need them. 😛

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Something I’ve Discovered

Devoted Editing to two straight books in full rewrite mode saps the enthusiasm. I’m almost to the end of the second now. So there’s no reason to set it aside. But I don’t think I’ll do this again. Write one, rewrite one works better for me. Especially since I usually am editing a project while I write anyway. Though nothing as full-bore as I’ve done the last couple months.

I started compiling notes for Book 4 of the Hellenistic Fantasy. After the full-scale war of the last book, this one will be a bit more maneuver and counter, though with a dark adventure for a second plotline. Yalissa’s not-so-pleasant discoveries continue to accumulate. But at least she gets to ask questions in person this time around. Not sure she’s going to like the answers, though.

I made pilgrimage up to Sporting Park in Kansas City to watch Sporting KC throttle Toronto FC 4-1. It’s always fun to watch a game there. In fact, I’d call it the best venue for any sport in the country. And the team is the defending champs, so no reason to complain there, either.

But my real countdown is to vacation in Hawaii. Three weeks tomorrow. I lived there for three years back before Tarien Cole was a name to use. I’ve missed it often, but hadn’t had a chance to go back yet. It’ll be sad to miss the rainy, stormy, part of the year for sun and the beach. Oh darn. I may even get some writing done on it. If my wife will let me. 😉

So Hercules the Movie Is Out

And it has The Rock, who I think it just about a doggone perfect Herc.

But I will not be seeing this. Why? General principle, it’s a “demythologization.”

Yeah, all those cool things you see in the trailer, they only happen in the narrative during the first 4 minutes of the movie. “Son of Zeus?” Yeah, Herc made that up so his enemies would fear him. We’re going for the “true” story, you know.

Like the “true” story of King Arthur and Troy, this is once again a sad attempt to strip away anything fantastic and leave the audience with a “real” sense of who the character was. For a given value of real where historical elements that could not have existed together are thrown together by Did Not Do Their Research Screenwriters (Llamas in Troy? Oh yeah). With the result that we get a by-the-numbers Hollywood cliche story attempting to be the biopic of a character we can’t know anything about without the myths.

What a load of tripe. You want to go sword-and-sandal non-mystical? There’s LOTS of stories to tell that could do it right. But those wouldn’t have the ‘name’ value. Say “Hannibal” and people think of a cannibal, or a black dude on an elephant (hey, btw, he was Phoenician w/ a Spanish mother, and thus olive-toned, but yeah “History Channel” you know). Never mind the Punic Wars would be an amazing series to bring to the screen. We need to tell people that no one believed that silly mystical stuff back then. Religion only comes from the rubes, you know. Oh wait, you mean Plato had a section about Atlantis? Welllll… don’t look here, because shut up. Instead, we get Hercules trying to play a mercenary general with a heart of gold. Because…”history,” meaning, “We made up the story. But we have to start somewhere, right?”

Whose history? The history the revisionist hucksters want to sell. There’s never been any sense of wonder or adventure in the world. So you can just sit back, dull your minds on Rom-Coms, and forget about dreams, faith, or anything that makes you creative. What a sad, myopic, universe to live in.

UPDATE: Oh, and here’s another beautiful “historical gem” from the Hercules movie. So Hercules, the Founder of the Spartans, the Warrior Elite of the Ancient World, whose classic saying was “With Your Shield or On It.” IOW, come back victorious or come back dead. The people who took a King’s personal guard to Thermopylae and commit mass suicide trying to hold off Xerxes Army (300, anyone?). Yeah, THOSE people learned all this from Hercules. Now this would be a very HISTORIC element of his life, if anything.

So what does the movie do? Hercules gives a mealy-mouthed speech about how it’s more important to ‘survive’ than to win the battle. That’s sooooo historical. So truth-telling to power. Brett Ratner, you are a freaking clown.

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.

Funny, Wouldn’t You Know

https://tv.yahoo.com/blogs/tv-news/new-fall-tv-shows-to-watch-gotham-how-to-get-away-with-murder-the-flash-234444779.html

I find Gotham about as fascinating a concept as watching paint dry. Without Batman, it’s another crime procedural in a not-quite made-up city. And if the 1st half of Agents of SHIELD showed anything, it’s that most of a TV audience doesn’t really care for monster-of-the-week stories in a world with established lore. They want to explore that world with the heroes. Not doing that here, move along. 

On the other hand, Hieroglyph  sounds outright fascinating. Ancient Egypt always intrigues. And there is definitely more room for sword-and-sandal epics. 

Says the guy writing a sword-and-sandal. 😉

 

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.

A snippet from my current project

Here’s something I can share without too many spoilers. Amuhan Arsah is the Strategos (General) of Susa for the Marqashian League. He’s unifying the tribes of Kidwy behind him before he marches on their shared enemy. It isn’t always a pleasant march. 😉


 

If I would have been forced to describe the last day’s march on Trystwy in a single word, it would’ve been ‘swarmed.’ Never have I seen so many ways to be attacked by relentless, blood-sucking insects. Leeches waited in the swamps our march skirted. Mosquitoes and black-winged moths both descended on us in fast-moving clouds, as maddening as Shahrak Horse Archers. Even Shayla, whose ebullient mood had proven infectious since joining us, frowned and muttered, “Khepra Himself must have planted His seed in this bog.”

As a third mass of bugs appeared, thick enough to conceal the sun, Tiernan dismounted from his horse snarled, “Erebus take this!”

“Run faster!” Spiros taunted. “Maybe we can use you as bait!”

When Tiernan arrived at the bank, he didn’t dive into it, instead he reached into the mud with both hands and slathered it over his exposed arms and face. Clumps rolled down his short beard and tumbled back into his hands. The Thunderbolts hooted, but Shayla leaned forward on her pony like a cat being teased until its rump raises and wiggles. He returned to the ranks with a wide, lips-sucked-in grin that resembled a matron’s toothless effort. Even I found it impossible not to shake my head at the bard.

He had the last laugh, for as the bugs feasted on us, he rode through them without so much as a flick of the finger. When next we passed a spring with sufficient bank, half the host dove for the mud. I found myself tempted to join them, but as Strategos, my duty was to bear every burden without flinching. No matter how trivial it might seem. So I contented myself with swatting those insects that slipped beneath my hood or up the sleeves. With the low shoulders of Shayla’s gown, I knew that she had to be suffering worse, despite her cloak. So I cleared enough space with a hand for me to talk. Then I asked, in a tone I thought gentle, “I’m assuming Tiernan’s remedy is part of your folklore. So why didn’t you avail yourself to it, Shayla?”

She turned up her nose at me and harrumphed, turning her pony around and disappearing into the ranks behind as I gaped until a moth found its way to my tongue. That cost me much in military decorum. Tiernan covered his mouth and chortled. “The Chief didn’t lie when he said taming that one is like saddling the wind. Be thankful she’s infatuated with you.”

I feigned a blink as we resumed our march. “What convinces you she is?”

“Gods Amuhan!” His chest quivered. “Her eyes never leave you. Even now, she watches your back. Her hand ‘accidentally’ finds yours whenever it can, and brushes your arm or leg when it can’t.”

I tucked my head further into my cloak to hide my blush as another cluster of dried mud fell from the bard’s smirking face. “But you knew this already. Because while most Gods have favored you, Telas did not. You’re no better lying than the child caught with a chunk of bread from the oven.”

Snickering, I looked back at Shayla. Her head turned and dipped, like she was unaware of where I was. But before I returned my gaze to the road, her golden eyes belied the claim of disinterest. “Yes I did know,” I affirmed. “Though hearing you say it encourages me. One never is quite certain if a man’s heart isn’t playing tricks on him when it comes to the affection of a woman. Still, there’s something strange about her family.”

My bannerman’s face narrowed into a line. So I leaned a hand on my knee. “Let me guess: You know because it echoes the story about why you left your mother’s people?”

Tiernan winced. “I’d hoped you hadn’t seen my reaction to your analogy.”

“I did, comrade.”

After glancing over his shoulder to ensure Shayla’s pique hadn’t passed yet, the bard said, “Lord Amuhan, I’ll tell you my story. It’s up to her to tell you how close it is to her own. But I’m certain the same law is involved.”

“What law is this?” I drummed a finger on my thigh. Then flicked at another mosquito.

“Our people have a custom when duels are fought. To prevent retaliation, the victor must take the surviving spouse and any children from into their own family.” His eyes flicked to Shayla again.

“That explains why she and Carii are so different in temperament and looks.” I stroked my chin. “So the Chief became her husband to guard the daughter. And she took up her training because Shayla possesses talent as well.”

“Probably,” Tiernan conceded. “I was accepted among the Lexovi because of my Mother’s talent. She had birthed me before becoming Beien Ciall to them. But another challenged and defeated her. All such duels are to the death. If there isn’t a death blow, the victor carves out the loser’s heart. “ He paused and cleared his throat, and I glimpsed a sheen over the big man’s eyes.

“And by law, you had a new mother,” I finished.

He nodded grimly. “Understand, that most of the time, such ‘adoptions’ go well enough. However, in my case she didn’t want a ‘half-breed’ for a son. Now I became an outside in truth. And if a boar’s tusks were laced with poison, would any think to look before I died?”

“No, they’d never know,” I replied with a shake of the head. “They’d assume you succumbed to the wounds. So how did you—?”

“I’m not a bard because I have a strong voice and love to collect stories that can be put to song,” he answered dryly. “Mother taught me much of herblore and natural remedies. She also taught me a good deal about ritual magics.”

My eyes rounded. “Why didn’t you say this when Toi was poisoned?”

Tiernan shook his head. “You forget, he walked away. We thought it little more than a scratch. It wasn’t until the Priestess couldn’t heal him that she even thought to look for poison. By then, Toi was already dead. Besides, the chemist seemed to do a thorough enough work in identifying it. And I had never seen it before either.”

I closed my eyes and remembered the yellow ball and black bile extracted from his body. The bones broken from convulsions and contorted expression on his face as the poison killed him. There wasn’t a pit in Erebus deep enough for his murderer. And I wasn’t certain the order to kill me had come from Davos either. “I appreciate you telling me this, Tiernan. It couldn’t have been easy.”

“I’ve gone this far in disclosing the ways of Mother’s people,” the bard said with a deep frown. “You should know, even if Shayla were Carii’s birth daughter, eventually the two would become rivals. And only one could remain in the tribe.”

I hung my head. Rain Dancer sensed my distress, mincing his steps as I looked over first one shoulder, and then the other for the wilder woman. I caught a glimpse of her blond mane near Captain Spiros at the front of the Hundred Hands. A stab of jealousy pricked my side, though if I had been the newcomer, I’d be as curious as Shayla to learn of the new cultures.

“The condor was hers? Or Carii’s?”

“Hers,” Tiernan answered without hesitation. “She’s the curious one. And the birds are already bound to her arms.”

I pivoted and made an interrogative grunt. He shook his head. “Now I am getting perilously close to discussing secrets Mother made me swear I’d never share. If she wishes, Shayla will explain herself.”

With a sigh, I answered, “For an explanation, this isn’t helping me understand her very much.”

Tiernan chuckled. “Lord Amuhan, I may be a bard. And I certainly know the ways to woo women. But I’ve never made claim to understand them.”

I laughed so hard, I nearly swallowed a mosquito.

 

Enter NaNoWriMo…if You Dare.

Welcome to the beginning of my story. I won’t share it all here. But this is safe…After a fashion. 😉

Chapter I: Centurion Prime Baro Aulus

Apotheosis is possible. This is incontrovertible.

Even if one rejects the Leucian Legend of Sharit, it does not explain away the Ascended heroes of our Golden Era.

They attained Divinity by devices myriad. But for each of these glorified Heroes two things remained true:

They each received personal sanction from one already among the Immortals to enter the Divine Ranks.

And every Hero either performed a mighty sign of their worth, or they slew a being revered as a god.

Thus we observe that even Gods are mortal, after a fashion.

-Polyeidus, The Arch Between Worlds

10th Ildos (Sharit to Leucians), Imperial Era 356

Year of the City 2892 (Marqash Reckoning)

Twin Harbors, Marqash

A ham-fisted right hand sailed toward the Dessian’s craggy nose. Baro Aulus dodged to the right, allowing the blow to slide over his shoulder. Then he scooped dirt from the floor and tossed it into the four cubit and span, ebony-skinned tribesman. He spat and rubbed the back of a hand as large as Baro’s head across his face, and the shells in his hair jangled like discordant lute strings. The other patrons had formed an impromptu gladiatorial ring around the combatants, and hooted at the display of dirty fighting.

But Baro did not fight for coin, and the glory he sought would never be found beneath a pavilion in a makeshift harbor-side tavern. So he slammed a boot into the tree-trunk thigh of his opponent, who howled and buckled to one knee. Then leaping into the air, he drove his fist down across the giant’s temple. With a pitiful moan and the rolling of eyes whose whites flashed like a thunderbolt across the dark face, the Gorunsite thumped against the dirt. Muttered curses and the exchange of coins greeted Baro’s victory. He offered a tooth-baring grin that made his square face look even less inviting than it had before festivities had broken out.

The Scithian tavern keeper raised a hand and shouted, “Enough! We don’t need guards tossing us under the piles.” Turning his round face with multiple jowls on Baro, he barked, “What brings you to the harbors, Dessian? You need to look at the markets for whores.”

“I came here to deliver a message,” Baro answered, his eyes narrowed and his bushy brows melded into one. “Someone seems to think it’s a good idea to make my people disappear when they venture into the Twin Harbors. Maybe you imagine there’s good coin selling them in your homeland?”

A murmur passed through the two score gathered around, and Baro let his hand drop to the short sword on his hip. “Since I know the Market is too busy to take people away from, and we don’t go onto Temple Hill, that leaves here. Enough different races pass through here. Someone’s bound to be stupid enough to think they can get away with it.”

“Scithians only take barbarians for slaves, soldier,” the tavern keeper, Cisseus by name, answered. “Maybe you should take this up with the Ninety-and-Nine.”

“Intend to,” Baro replied. “But you were in my way. We both know that to most Scithians, ‘barbarian’ means, ‘anyone not likely to be missed.’ Now you know the Dessians have been missed. I’ll be back.”

Tossing a silver Marqashian shekel onto the crude table where Cisseus had spread his wineskins, Baro ground his heel into the dust and left the pavilion’s shelter from the midday sun, if not the suffocating heat. A second Dessian, taller and leaner than himself, joined him. “They didn’t take that well.”

“Didn’t expect them to, Trifus,” he replied. Casting a glance over his shoulder before adding, “I’ll bet you a cycle’s wage the leader of those slavers was with that wine-seller. Wouldn’t surprise me if the tribal he sent was his bodyguard.”

“No bet. I need the money,” Trifus offered him a grin that came too easy for a man who made his living soldiering in the ranks.

But that’s what happens when we spend our time out of uniform instead of drilling, the centurion lamented. The prime century of the 7th Legion should be marching five leagues and thrown into battle before third codices had burned away. Instead they had spent the past year haggling with merchants, and passing notes to the Assembly. Meanwhile their commander, Gaiuso Donuso, was forced to bow and scrape to greedy Leucians who sent mercenaries to do their fighting and then reaped the profit from blood they never shed. Snorting through clenched teeth, Baro took a moment’s perverse pleasure in the thought of forming ranks, locking shields, and marching through their Market District straight up the long low slope to Temple Hill. Then they would wipe their bloody feet in the halls of the whore-goddess worshiped by the soft traders who built this city.

Just once, he wanted to see if Leucian magic deserved to be feared when faced with the Legion’s iron. After all, Scithians knew magic too, and Gaiuso had sent them scurrying to the hills, shields thrown aside, in a single day. Baro grinned at that memory, back when they fought as a Legion ought. Before politics had caught up with them and sent him and his men to the far corners of Niserie’s Sea. Scattering the men so the Legate’s enemies wouldn’t have to fear him, or his allies worry about the glory of Gaiuso Miniscule Donuso’s name eclipsing theirs.

He stopped and cocked his head as Trifus began, “Baro, is something-?”

The centurion grabbed his wrist and worked his jaw muscle. Then he glanced to their right through streets filled with citizens and slaves from every tribe of nation that trafficked with Marqash. Spotting an alley between two limestone rows of warehouses lined with long-narrow pods Baro knew to be filled with goods. “This way.”

They ducked away from the throng, scattering a gaggle of urchins already in the alley with slap of his hand to the leaf-shaped dagger on his right hip. Drawing it, he held the blade to his chest and motioned for Trifus to move to the other side of the street. The stout man drew his gladius from the opposite hip Baro’s hung from. Baro’s eyes flicked at the walls, thinking the alley too narrow for the sword and fretting at another sign of too little use over the past fourteen cycles.

As they crept back behind the empty pods, Baro saw a quartet of men with clubs and staves make the turn. They had managed to haul the tribesman back to his feet to complete their number. He guessed it would have taken an hour for them to rouse him. Two remained unfamiliar to him, but the leader, in a leather skullcap, had the round face and dark hair common to the Scithians. When his face passed through a sliver of light filtering through the shadows cast by the storehouses, Baro saw battered nose and stifled a grin. I saw you at the back of the tent, the centurion recalled. So much for looking in the wrong place.

A cool wind blew from off the sea, causing the hairs of Baro’s arms to curl and stand. He remained focused on their pursuers, until he heard a snarl. “Trifus,” he hissed. “Deal with that dog.”

“Isvan’s sword!! That’s no dog, Baro!” he answered, his voice cracking like he had never seen battle.

Baro stifled a curse as he peered over his shoulder. “Sidur’s hooded face,” he blasphemed and flipped his dagger to his left hand as he reached across to draw his sword. The creature had the head and neck of a dog, but the body of a man. Its hands were those of a man, but with talons instead of nails. The centurion had faced two decades of war, and put every manner of sword and beast to his blade. But he had never imagined a creature like this in his darkest nightmares.

It charged Trifus with a slobbering maw. The legionnaire’s mouth hung open like a child about to take the rob from his tutor. Gathering himself, Baro waited until the beast was two paces from his companion and then dove, screaming as he brought down the blade at the beast’s back. But in the background, he heard laughter from his pursuers.

An eye-blink later, he saw why. The sword passed through the monstrous creature’s neck. Then he followed through the thing of mist and slammed, shoulder-first, into the brick of the storehouse. He had to twist his body to avoid the ignominy of impaling himself on his own sword. Baro had just enough time to wonder how they had managed the trick before the sword grated along his left side. Hissing, he dropped his blade as he slumped to the ground.

Staggering to his feet, he looked up to see Trifus tossed aside by the tribesman like a rag doll. Then the man with the shells in his hair smirked at him and brought both hands to the base of the staff. Baro thought he should be ducking, but his sluggish body refused to get out of the way of the blow. The wood cracked, splitting the weapon in two across his skull.

* * *

“Baro?” Trifus’ voice caused waves to crash in his head. Or perhaps it just woke him sufficiently to feel what had been there for hours.

The Legionnaire repeated his query. His superior’s thoughts scattered about his skull like flotsam from a ship wrecked as Niserie swam. Baro attempted to stand, but only managed to plant one knee before toppling to the stone floor. After the jolt of pain through his body subsided, he found the cold of the stone comforting, as it sluiced away an unwelcome burning in his chest. Clenching his fists, he found them clammy, and sweat from his brow had dribbled into his stinging eyes. Resting his hand on the crude bandage around his chest brought a sharp renewal of pain along with a confirmation of the cause. Blood poisoning. He didn’t need a healer to recognize that it was lethal likely as not.

“Baro!” Trifus called a third time.

“Vat?” he muttered the answer through what he first thought to be a sponge placed where his tongue ought to be. But putting his hand to his mouth revealed no gag, only a swollen speech organ. Slapping the floor Baro cursed, “Damn! I’m going to talk like a Scithian shepherd for the rest of my life.”

“They took us beneath the city,” Trifus began unbidden. But Baro couldn’t muster the will to shut him up, so he listened to the boy prattle, “I don’t know where or how far. I was hooded the whole way. But it was down a whole lot more than up, and I heard the sewers. At least I think that’s what they were. We went deeper from there though.”

Feet thumped on stone, clamming Trifus up. Baro forced his left eye open, his right remained swollen shut. That was enough to confirm they had chained the two of them in a cell by the wrists. Last time he had seen one of these, it was after a drunken brawl following the Battle of Omana. He cracked a smile in the dark at that memory, as much with relief at discovering his head still worked as much at the amusement of the memory.

The cell door swung open with the scrape of metal on stone. It slammed off the wall and was caught by the tribesman. Baro growled and forced himself to his knees, the metal of his fetters scraping on the floor. Then the pain across his ribs forced him to sink back to his haunches with a moan.

“There’s no need for you to stand yet, Dessian,” said the man who trailed the torch-carrying Gorunsite. His deep, commanding voice radiated power like Sasubek’s chariot coursing across the sky. Over four cubits tall, and as sturdily built as any gladiator, with darker skin than the pale Leucians native to Marqash, but not as ruddy as either of the two Dessians.

“You’re the one who summoned that smoke-creature,” Baro guessed.

The large man chuckled. “Yes, I suppose it would have seemed that way to you.” He tilted his bald head and regarded him with dark eyes, their combined effect resisting any attempt by Baro to guess his age. “You appear to have taken ill, Dessian. My Scithian friends find that a pity.”

The broken nosed one spoke up from the rear of the cell, “The two of them would’ve caught a good price in Bydia, Kontar. Legionnaires make good gladiators. But him alone,” he pointed at Trifus, “Isn’t enough to justify going home yet.”

“We’re soldiers of the Seventh Legion!” Trifus’ voice echoed shrilly off the stone. “You can’t believe our officers aren’t going to notice our disappearance!”

Kontar sidestepped to smirk down at the Legionnaire. “Ah! I imagine you said that to provide yourself some comfort. But the problem with your argument is that I want your officers to notice.”

He waited for Trifus’ face to flush as he realized the implication. Then with a sigh, Kontar continued, “But in truth, I doubt that the disappearance of a half-dozen soldiers will stir the mighty Dessian Republic to wrath. So I will leave you in the tender care of Tharo Vlahos and his hirelings, while I goad this indolent city into rage.”

The Scithian slaver shot the Tunan magician a sidelong glance and then leaned in to whisper. Baro was adept at lipreading with two eyes, but not as well with his stronger eye swollen shut.

“Tharo,” Kontar replied with a smirk, “I’ve given you all the slaves your ship could carry, from Dusae, to Naxos, and now here. I’ve allowed you to arrange a deal with the largest traders of flesh in Marqash. You’ve accomplished your goals. Now I ask you to remember your agreement and support mine. Or have you forgotten?”

A flurry of muttered words was accompanied by a glittering dust falling at the slaver’s feet. Baro did not recognize the tongue Kontar spoke. It sounded nothing like the Tunan common to the strife-torn region now. But it wasn’t a barbaric speech either. Rather, it was too lyrical and rhythmic for him to follow, as the words disappeared in the beat of the chant.

Whatever the magician said, it won the Scithian’s support as he replied, “Of course, Kontar. How foolish of me to forget. We’ll be happy to help you in any way you wish.”

The Tunan patted Tharo on the shoulder. “I knew you would be. No one is more scrupulous as a Scithian.”

Baro stifled a laugh at the mocking proverb, but the slicing pain across his chest as he inhaled stole his breath. He held himself upright, exerting the discipline gained over almost two decades of life in the field to master his pain and refuse to bow to these foreigners. As Kontar returned his attention to the Centurion, he forced himself to meet the magician’s gaze with a set jaw to his misshapen square face. He felt the Tunan’s pressure on his mind, but he did not give his captor any purchase.

Kontar pointed toward the soaked bandage across his wounded torso. “It’s going to take a healer of some skill to treat you, Dessian. Pray to your gods that we find one for you.”

The Scithian stared at Baro with an arched brow; giving the Dessian the distinct impression the slaver was deciding if it was worth his while to barter with Nefere to keep him alive until they reached the flesh market. He knew what they were after. A pitiful glance. A pleading outburst like Trifus’ earlier. Submission. Instead, Baro drew himself up and sent a stream of red spittle at Tharo’s feet.

“Stupid ass!” the slaver barked. “Diallo, teach the Dessian pig another lesson.”

The tribesman chuckled as he stepped past his Scithian master. Then, quicker than Baro’s good eye could follow, Diallo’s foot snapped into the Centurion’s jaw. His teeth rattled as Baro’s head snapped back into the stone behind him. Then he slithered down the wall and lost awareness to the renewed roaring of his skull.