Friday, January 30, 2015

Dark Redemption chapter 61: Strolling Through the Park

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and picturesque facade of the City of Redemption lies another city; a community of dark and ancient magic populated by creatures of the night. Dark Redemption is a shared-world novel based on an online role-playing game by James Crowther.

Strephon Mackenzie, a semi-immortal half-fae has been tasked by the Faerie Queen with the mission of investigating a renegade faerie lord named Melchior who has established himself in the city. He has learned that a local werewolf pack has taken to wearing faerie enchantments, and suspects that Melchior might have a hand in this as well  To find out for sure, he wishes to find the source of these enchantments.

It had been many years – decades, really – since Strephon had visited Wildmere Forest.  Despite the name, Wildmere was one of the more domesticated of the heavily-wooded patches of parkland, designated as “forests” by centuries of tradition, within the Redemption city limits.  During the 1800s an attempt had been made to tame these forests and prune them into properly-manicured parks, with pedestrian walkways, gardens, lawns, and even a few pieces of tasteful statuary.  Of these, Wildmere was the most successful.  Strephon remembered walking here with Phyllis in happier days, back when she was alive, and when he walked places.

He had not been there since the city had established a weekly Artisan’s Market held in Wildmere every Saturday afternoon.  It seemed peculiar to see the familiar park bustling with vendor’s tables under coloured awnings crowded on either side of the two main walkways making an “X” through the middle of the forest.  The light drizzle of the previous night was only just tapering off and the mid-morning sun finally piercing through the clouds, yet already a scattering of customers was drifting from table to table.

Here a thin gentleman in spectacles was selling blown glass barometers fashioned in the shape of swans; across from him a woman was adjusting her racks of tie-dyed scarves to keep them out of the drops still falling from the trees; beyond them was another woman selling jewelry made from bottle caps and a small, gnomish woman with masks of Herne the Hunter – or was is supposed to be Cenunnos? -- carved from grotesque pieces of wood.  Strephon chatted with each vendor, and expressed a polite interest in their wares.

“Yummy-yummy dog treats!”  a tall blonde lady with a terrier under one arm said, rattling a cup of homemade biscuits in Strephon’s direction. 

“I do not have a dog,” Strephon said apologetically.  “I have a cat, but I don’t think she’d care for dog biscuits.”

“They’re yummy!” the lady insisted.  Strephon decided he didn’t want to know how she was so certain of this.

The woman with the masks seemed to be watching Strephon with an intensity he found disquieting.  Or perhaps it was the masks.  They made him think of the Wild Hunt, something he had never in his lifetime seen, but of which the faeries spoke in hushed and fearful tones.  Strephon propelled his wheelchair past that vendor.  He could speak with her later.

The next vendor was a plump, friendly woman with a pixieish smile and startlingly blue hair who had a table of chainmaille jewelry.  “Feel free to try anything on,” she said.  “I have men’s jewelry as well as women’s..”

“Thank you.”  He gave a rack of earrings a quarter turn with his finger.  Despite the woman’s assurances, he saw nothing that really suited him, but he found himself wondering how some of the pieces might look on Cassandra.  Now what brought her to mind?

“I believe there used to be a woman here selling jewelry.  Belladonna Morrigan?”  He tried to sound casual.

The blue-haired woman pursed her lips in thought.  “I haven’t seen her this week.  She’s usually on the west side of the park by the hawthorn bushes.”

“I understand she’s out of town,” Strephon said; which was not a lie.  Morrigan had been dragged off to the Faerie Realms by the fae she had held captive; that was certainly ‘Out of Town.’  “I wondered if you might know anything about the work she did.”

The woman gave a slight shrug of her head.  “She worked mostly with silver.  It’s expensive, and I don’t think she sold a lot.  I do a little work in sterling, but mostly I use aluminum jump rings.  They don’t tarnish, and they’re non-allergenic.  Oh, and she decorated her pieces with distinctive runes.”  She frowned.  “Not Celtic runes that I know of.  I think she claimed they were elvish or Atlantean or something like that.”

“Or faerie?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Do you know who bought her jewelry?”

She shrugged again.  “I don’t think she had a lot of customers.  A lot of lookers; not a lot of takers.  As I said, she was expensive.  I’d guess that most of her customers were tourists from out of town with lots of money.”

That was pretty much what all the other vendors he had spoken to said.  But he thanked her, and bought a black and silver bracelet for Devon.  “That particular weave is called ‘Rhino Snorting Drano,” the vendor told him. 

"Devon will be delighted."

And on further thought, he also bought a pair of green Swarovski Crystal earrings for Cassandra.  A foolish thought, he told himself.  He didn’t even know if he would see her again.

Coming to the intersection of the sidewalks, he turned down the west path.

And there stood Cassandra.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Dark Redemption chapter 60: Three's a Crowd

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and picturesque facade of the City of Redemption lies another city; a community of dark and ancient magic populated by creatures of the night. Dark Redemption is a shared-world novel based on an online role-playing game by James Crowther.

Cassandra True has followed her roommate Cecily to the Cyba-Netsu, a local club frequented by vampires and other exotic people.  She has learned that Cecily has been seeing a vampire there, and Cassandra hopes to save her.  Miss Kurayami has warned Cassandra not to interfere with her friend’s love life, and so Cassandra decides on another course of action.

“Oh, my god.”

“What is it?”  Philippe looked around the club floor.

Cecily crouched down, trying to hide behind the screen on her table’s laptop.  “It’s my roommate, Cassandra,” she whispered.  What was she doing here?

She saw Cassandra come out of Kurayami’s office and look around the dance floor.  Cecily tried to sink lower in her seat, but it was too late; Cassandra’s gaze met hers and she strode purposefully towards their table.

“Hullo, Cecily!” Cassandra said cheerily.  “I was hoping I’d find you here!  This must be Philippe.”

Philippe rose and gave Cassandra a half-bow.  “Your servant.  And you must be Cecily’s friend, Cassandra,” he said in the suave, Continental tone that made Cecily melt inside when he directed it at her, but made her feel quite differently when spoken to her roommate.

“What are you doing here, Sandy?” Cecily said through gritted teeth.

“I decided you were right.  It’s not fair for me to judge your friend before I’ve even met him.  So, if it’s all right with you, I thought I might join you.”  Cassandra grabbed a chair from a nearby table and sat down between Cecily and Philippe.

It was not all right with Cecily, but Philippe said, “We’d be delighted and sat back down.

“Then we’ll make it a three-way.”  Cassandra giggled.  “I mean, a threesome.”

Cecily frowned.  That remark was so unlike Sandy.  “Have you been drinking?’

“I have not,” Cassandra insisted.  “Just one Nuzzy Fable.  Fipple.  One Fuzzy Navel.”  Cassandra giggled again.  Yes, Cecily was sure now; Cassandra was pretending to be drunk.  Now she was unbuttoning the collar of her blouse, that silly high-collared thing that she thought made her look professional but really made her look more virginal than usual.  “Whew!  It’s so warm in here!”

Good grief, how unsubtle could she get?  But Philippe seemed to be eating it up.  “Another Fuzzy Navel for this lady here,” he told a passing waiter.

Philippe couldn’t keep his eyes off Cassandra’s cleavage.  No, not her cleavage, that peculiar amulet she was wearing.  Where did she get it?  Cecily didn’t remember seeing it before.

Then Philippe turned his attention to Cecily again and in an instant all her jealousy evaporated.  Of course he loved her.  How could she think otherwise?  She relaxed a bit.  But then his gaze returned to Cassandra.

“So I understand you’re a vampire,” Sandy was saying.  “Tell me a bit more about it.  I expect most of what I know is wrong.”

“Well, to begin with, we dislike the term ‘Vampires.’  It has such a superstitious connotation.  We prefer to call ourselves The Kindred.”

“That is so fascinating!” 

Cecily scowled at that. Cassandra wouldn’t find it fascinating; she would find it pretentious.  She’d figured out Sandy’s game now; she was trying to break the two of them up. Well, it wouldn’t work.  But why didn’t Philippe see that?  And why he focusing on that amulet and why did he seem so tense?

“What an interesting charm you’re wearing,” Philippe said at last.

“Oh, this?”  Cassandra seemed to notice what he was staring at for the first time.  “A friend gave this to me.  For protection, she said.  But we’re all friends here, right?  I’m sure I don’t need it.”  She unfastened the amulet and set it down on the table.  Philippe seemed to relax.

They chatted some more and Cassandra slipped deeper and deeper into her Fuzzy Navel.  Cecily was still sure she was only pretending to be tipsy.

“Would you excuse me?” Cassandra said suddenly.  “I have to visit the Little Girl’s Room.  I always get turned around in this place; where is it?”  She stood up abruptly and teetered a little.

Philippe rose immediately and steadied her elbow.  “I was on my way there myself.  Let me show you.”

His offer was like cold water in Cecily’s face.  He was going to bite Cassandra.  She knew it.  How could he do that?  Cecily wanted him to bite her.  She was expecting it.  She was waiting for it.  And now he would be drinking from Sandy, his lips at Sandy’s throat.  It wasn’t right!

Cecily was about to say something, when Cassandra scooped up the amulet from the table and placed it in her palm.  “Take care of this,” Cassandra said softly, her voice suddenly sober.  “Keep it safe.  Please.”  She closed Cecily’s hands over the charm; then she lurched towards the lavatories.

Philippe came close after her, but first also paused by Cecily and brought his lips close to her neck.  “I won’t be long.”  His breath was cool and sweet on her flesh.  “I haven’t forgotten you darling.”  Again, all her suspicion and mistrust ebbed from her, replaced by a sense of blissful anticipation.  How could she doubt him?

He gave Cecily’s hand a pat.  “And dispose of that, will you?” 

The chill returned.  Cecily watched Philippe escort Cassandra towards the back of the club.  Then she opened her hand and looked at the amulet.  Sandy told her to keep it safe.  Obviously, it was a charm to protect her from vampires.  And Philippe had told her to throw it away.  Cassandra was trying to play some sort of game here.  But she had also trusted Cecily.

She did not throw it away. Instead,  Cecily fastened the amulet around her own neck.

Immediately, a strange clarity seemed to come over her. She still loved Philippe, and desired his touch on her throat; but for the first time she realized that his regard for her was purely nutritional.  He was going to enthrall Cassandra; and then he was going to take both of the back to his flat and feed on them both.. And she wouldn’t even be sharing him with Cassandra, because he belonged to neither of them; they belonged to him.  And despite how wrong she felt this to be, Cecily knew she would welcome it, and he would make love to them, and he would offer Sandy some Essence…

No.  She couldn’t let Cassandra do this.  She rushed to the back of the club to the alcove in front of the lavatories.  Cassandra was backed up against the wall, with Philippe standing over her cooing tender blandishments and drawing closer to her carotid artery..  In Cassandra’s face Cecily saw the same mixture of dread and desire that had paralyzed her so often.

“Sandy?  I was thinking,” Cecily said, and the Vampire’s spell was broken.  “Neither one of us got much sleep last night.  Maybe it would be a good idea to call it a night.”

Cassandra blinked, as if confused.  Then slid away from Philippe to Cecily’s side.

“I could call you a cab,” Philippe offered.

“That’s okay.  We’ll manage.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  Cecily put her arm around Cassandra and escorted her out of the club.

“Thanks,” Cassandra said.  “I thought I could hold out against him.  It was harder than I thought.  I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how it was.”

“It’s okay,” Cecily said.  “We’ll get you home.”  Already she was beginning to regret leaving Philippe.  She had so looked forward to later.  Still, there would be tomorrow night; and she did have a responsibility to Sandy.

“Funny,”  Cassandra said as they walked out into the evening drizzle.  “I thought I was coming to the club to rescue you.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Cecily said.

A taxi cab pulled up alongside the sidewalk by them, and a big black cabbie rolled down the window.

“Tobias!”  Cassandra said.

“Grams told me you might need a lift about now,” the cabbie said.

This made no sense to Cecily, but it seemed to make sense to Cassandra.  In any case, she was glad to get out of the rain.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Dark Redemption chapter 59: Into the Lioness' Den

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and picturesque facade of the City of Redemption lies another city; a community of dark and ancient magic populated by creatures of the night. Dark Redemption is a shared-world novel based on an online role-playing game by James Crowther.

Cassandra True has discovered that her roommate Cecily has become involved with a vampire at a local club called the Cyba-Netsu .  Her attempt to discuss the situation with Cecily has gone badly and ended up as a quarrel.  She decides that she will have to go to the club herself and speak with its owner, a powerful vampire named Kuraymi .

“There is somebody watching the club from across the street.”

Kurayami looked up from her invoices.  “You are sure, Seymour?”

The club’s bouncer nodded curtly.  “She’s been sitting at the bus stop for over an hour now.  Three busses have gone by and she’s still there.”

“Do you recognize her?”

“Yes.  She has been here before.  She is Miss Cecily’s friend.”

Kurayami brought her pencil to her lips thoughtfully.  “Yes, the reporter.  She is also a friend of Mister MacKenzie.”  Seymour stood over her waiting mutely as she considered the matter.  “”It is a cold, damp night.  Invite her in.  Politely.  Bring her here to my office.”

Seymour nodded again and turned to leave.

“And Seymour,” Kurayami added, “bring her in the side door; not through the club.”

  • * * * *

Cassandra had not intended to confront Kurayami this quickly.  She had planned to just watch and see when Cecily went in and came out again and maybe get a good look at Phillipe.  She’d also hoped that in her overcoat and sunglasses, she’d be nicely inconspicuous.  In retrospect, she realized that was a mistake.  When the club bouncer came out to her and offered her and umbrella and invited her in, there seemed little point in refusing..

“How pleasant to see you again,” Kurayami said as the bouncer escorted Cassandra into her office.  “Do have a seat.”

Cassandra gingerly sat down in the chair the looming bouncer placed for her and accepted the fuzzy navel from the tray he offered,  “Thank you,” she said.  She felt the same unease as she’d felt when visiting Mrs. Morrigan; the sensation that she was entering a spider’s web.  Still, she couldn’t back down now.

“You may remove your coat if you like.  Please, make yourself comfortable.”

Actually, Cassandra would have felt more comfortable with the coat on, but acceded to Kurayami’s request.  She thought she caught the hint of a smirk on Kurayami’s face as she unbuttoned her overcoat and revealed the high-collared blouse she was wearing.  It had seemed an obvious precaution at home when she was getting ready to go out; now it seemed childishly futile.  The smirk disappeared when Cassandra unbuttoned the coat further, revealing the medallion Grandma Simms had given her.

“Should I be carrying a crucifix?” she had asked Grandma Simms.

“You say your prayers before going to bed every night?  You go to church every Sunday?”

“Um… well…”

“A cross be no good luck charm.  You can’t impress a vampire by pretending.  This might help, though.”  Grandma Simms had pressed the medallion into her hands. “ I
It has spells on it to repel the undead.  Might not stop a powerful vampire like Kurayami, but it’ll give her something to think about.”

Kurayami seemed to be thinking now.  She gave an annoyed frown and Cassandra thought she heard a sharp intake of breath like a hiss.  Kurayami’s glance darted to her sharply.  After a longish pause that made Cassandra’s throat feel dry, Kurayami said, “So.  That’s how it is.”

Cassandra nodded and hazarded a sip of the fuzzy navel.

“And my I ask you what brings you to my club this evening?  You know you are welcome to come inside whenever we are open.”

Cassandra took a deep breath.  “I’m sure you remember my friend Cecily.  She comes here often.  She’s been seeing a lot lately of this guy she met here named Philippe.  I don’t think we need to pretend he’s not a vampire.”

There.  She’d said it. Cassandra felt her cheeks burn under Kurayami’s relentless gaze; did that lady ever blink?  But at least it was all out in the open.

Kurayami did not respond immediately, as if carefully choosing her words.  “Then I think we may speak frankly.”

Again, Cassandra nodded.  The sip of alcohol had bolstered her confidence a little, but she didn’t want to drink too much.

“You disapprove of your friends paramour and so you wish to break them up, am I correct?” Kurayami continued.

“I’m concerned about Cecily and her safety.”

“Surely, she is the best judge of that, isn’t she?”

“I don’t think she’s entering this relationship entirely of her own free will.”

Kurayami chuckled, as if Cassandra had said something funny.  The laugh made Cassandra feel chill, but she pressed on.

“:I have reason to believe that she and Philippe have been doing drugs.”

The chuckle ceased.  “That is preposterous.  I permit no drugs in  my establishment.”  The warm hospitality had left Kurayami’s voice, replaced by an edge of steel.

“Maybe they’re not doing it here…”

“Where is your proof?”

Cassandra looked away.  That was the thing.  “It’s mostly a hunch.  But I’m pretty sure.”

Kurayami relaxed and the serene smile returned.  “Don’t you think you are being a bit presumptuous?  Your friend’s romantic affairs are her own business, not yours.  You are judging Philippe based on superstition and Hollywood myths.  You haven’t even met him.  Don’t you think your friend knows his character better than you?”

Cassandra tried not to squirm.  What Kuriyama said was true; Cassandra had been asking herself the same questions.  It was hard not to feel intimidated in her presence, and the sensation of entrapment became more and more palpable. Cassandra felt a strong urge to simply acquiesce and go home.  “Perhaps…” she said.

Then she met Kurayami’s basilisk gaze and held it.  She knew now what to do.  “Perhaps you are right.  It’s wrong for me to jump to conclusions like that without getting to know him.”

Cassandra stood up and gulped down the rest of her fuzzy navel.  “Thank you very much, Miss Kurayami; you’ve been very helpful.”  She grabbed her overcoat and headed for the door.

“Miss True!”  

Kurayami obviously did not consider the interview over yet; but Cassandra had no desire to prolong it.  She beat the bouncer to the door, but paused before she left.  “And thanks again for the drink.”

She strode briskly out of the office and towards the club floor.

Next:  Getting to Know You

Friday, January 2, 2015

Dark Redemption chapter 58: Weighing Options

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and picturesque facade of the City of Redemption lies another city; a community of dark and ancient magic populated by creatures of the night. Dark Redemption is a shared-world novel based on an online role-playing game by James Crowther.

Cassandra True has discovered that her roommate Cecily has become involved with a vampire.  Her attempt to discuss the situation with Cecily has gone badly and ended up as a quarrel.  Now Cassandra ponders what to do next.

Cassandra intended to speak with Cecily again in the morning, but woke to the sound of Cecily breezing out the door.  “I’m off to work, Sandy!” her voice was unnecessarily loud.  “That’s what responsible people do!  Ta!”  Cecily slammed the door on her way out.

Rubbing her temples, Cassandra sat up and squinted at her alarm clock.  Damn!  How could Cecily be so bright and chipper at this time of the morning?  She must have gotten even less sleep than Cassandra did.  She dragged herself out of bed and made another cup of coffee.

The more she thought about the peculiar way Cecily reacted to her mention of addiction the night before, the less she liked it.  Cecily tended to talk casually about drugs in conversation, but in practice she stuck mostly to alcohol.  For her to react so defensively suggested to Cassandra that Cecily had something to hide.  “Methinks she doth protest too much,” Cassandra muttered grimly to herself.

The obvious thing to do would be to search her room.  Cassandra felt a twinge of guilt over snooping on her roommate, but she told herself this was for Cecily’s own good.

Entering the room, Cassandra was shocked to find it as neat as a pin.  Cecily had obviously anticipated her and cleaned it, no doubt to destroy anything incriminating.  Had Cecily slept at all last night?  Doggedly, Cassandra dug through Cecily’s dresser and looked under her mattress looking for anything to confirm or disprove her suspicions, but found nothing.  Even the wastebaskets were empty.  Cecilie never took out the garbage.  Cassandra briefly considered digging through the dumpster in back of their building, but a look at the clock warned her that she didn’t have the time.

“Are you all right?” Saul asked when she came into the newspaper office.  “You look beat.”

“I’m okay.”  Cassandra dumped the armload of material about the Redemption Culture Claque on her desk and headed straight for the coffee machine.  “Didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“That Strephon friend of yours isn’t causing you problems, is he?”

A bit of guilt nibbled at the back of her conscience.  Saul had helped her try to research Strephon, and so she really ought to tell him what she’d found out about Strephon.  What she suspected, she corrected herself; she didn’t really know anything.  And even if she was right about Strephon being part fairy, surely it wasn’t her place to go spreading his secret around.  Well, she had told Cecilie, but that was different.  But did she really owe Strephon any confidence, seeing as he’d been lying to her all this time?  Cassandra shook her head.  Strephon’s Victorian manners were beginning to rub off on her.  No, she needed to talk things over with Strephon first before she told anybody else anything.  Not that Saul would believe her.


“Hm?  Oh, no.  Nothing like that.  It’s my roommate, Cecilie.  I’ve been worried about her.”  Could Saul help her with Cecilie?  No, he probably didn’t believe in vampires.  And as for the drugs, he’d probably just tell her to go to the police.  She’d already decided that the police would be no help in this situation.

Cassandra turned in her Culture Claque story and tried to concentrate on her next assignment, but her mind kept drifting to the problem of Cecilie.  What about Strephon?  Could he help her?  He probably did believe in vampires.  At least he’d take her seriously.  But Strephon didn’t seem like someone who would know squat about illicit drugs, unless it were something like opium or laudanum.

Who else could she turn to?  Maybe Grandma Simms.  Mrs. Simms had helped Cassandra when she and Strephon had been attacked by wolves, and Cassandra had the impression that she knew a lot about magic. Cassandra made a note to visit the Friendlee-Mart on Fitch Street after work.

What else?  Cassandra looked at her notebook, at the scrawl of names, thoughts and queries that she had jotted down as she grappled with her problem.  There was one name she hadn’t written, that she had been avoiding.


If anyone knew anything about vampires at the Club Cyba-Netsu, it would be Ms. Kurayami.  And if Cassandra wanted to settle things one way or the other, she would have to go back to the Cyba-Netsu and talk to Kurayami herself.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Spitting at the Sun -- conclusion

A story of mine from a dark fantasy anthology titled Hunt the Winterlands.  The narrator is the Loremaster from a tribe of orcs whose world changes when a strange object falls from the heavens and lands in the distant Daggar mountains, plunging the land into an eternal Winter.  An ambitious rival, Borklan, claims that this is a new god and persuades the tribe to expel the Loremaster.

Wandering through the frozen wilderness, the disgraced Loremaster comes eventually to the place where the object fell and sees that everything Borklan claimed was true.  Despairing, he resigns himself to death.

Spitting at the Sun

(c) 2011 by Kurt Wilcken


            Death was long in coming; and before it did, I felt the jab of a kick in my ribs.  I rolled over and saw Borklan standing over me.  “Get up, old man,” he said.

            “Go away,” I said, burying myself back into my cloak.  He kicked me again.  “What are you doing here?”

            “I need to talk to you, old man.”

            “Why?  Has the tribe tired of you already?”

            He would have kicked me a third time, but by now annoyance had overcome my weariness and I blocked his foot with the shaft of my spear.  I sat up and returned his baleful glare.

            “The tribe follows me now,” he boasted.  “Even Gurthang fears me and defers to my authority.  I let him keep the title of Chief but he knows I can destroy him with a word.”

            I grunted to show my lack of surprise.

            “Under me the tribe has increased its territory.  We have taken many farms from the human-lands.  We have raided other tribes of Orcs, and when they saw the strength of our god they joined us.  We are a mighty people now with Goblin slaves and vast lands and we are growing greater every day!”

            “Goblins!,” I snorted.  “Since when have Orcs associated with Goblins?”

            “They are our slaves!”

            “It sounds as if you enslave Orcs as well.  Do you eat their flesh too?”

            “I have not come to argue with you, witless old man.”  He clenched the hilt of his sword and bared his teeth.

            “Then why have you come?”

            We glared at each other for a space; then he gathered his temper and continued.  “There has been some dissent.  The old men of the tribe, of course, fear the new ways.  They only see their own power weakened and not the new strength of the tribe.  But they are weak and have no support.”

            “Then who opposes you?”

            He hesitated again.  “The women,” he spat.

            For the first time in many weeks, I smiled.  Like many young warriors, Borklan dismissed the women of the tribe as being of little account, merely because they do not hunt and are not permitted to speak in the Council.  But women have their own wisdom, and a deep understanding of things which every Loremaster must know.  “What say, then, the women?”

            “Since the coming of the Sleeping God, there has been no spring.  The grass and trees remain sleeping under the snow and there is no new growth.  I have explained to them that what weakens the humans makes us stronger, but they are foolish and do not listen.”

            “The women gather fruits and roots to sustain the tribe when the hunting is bad; and they make bread from the grains of the field.  It is right that they fear a winter without spring.”

            “Their foolish chatter is poisoning the rest of the tribe.  They say that you were right and the tribe was wrong to banish you.  There is one way to stop this talk.”  Borklan drew his man-sword and pointed its tip at my throat.  “Come back to the tribe and tell them you were wrong.  Tell them that they must now worship the new god.”

            I laughed.  “Are you truly that desperate?  Has your god not proved himself that you need an old man’s word to support it?  Go back to your followers, Borklan.  You will get no help from me.”

            Borklan’s face took on a visage like the sky before a storm.  “There is one other way, old man, but I thought to spare you.  If you will not come back willingly, then I will take your head back without you and everyone will see whose god is the more powerful.”  And he raised his sword to strike.

            As he did so, I beheld the dull red sky in the east and saw a bit of flame peek through the clouds.  It was dawn, and the Sun, weary and cloud-encumbered was rising over the distant hills.  There would be no challenge to the Sun this morning; for like him, I was weak and defeated.

            And in that thought, another thought came, as the brushing away of a branch reveals the view of a valley beyond.  The Sun had been defeated, even as Borklan had said; and yet, every morning it still rose.  In his own way the Sun was also issuing a daily challenge; not that he had any hope of defeating his opponent any more than I had hope of defeating the Sun; but rather in the same spirit as our own ritual.  Each dawning was the Sun’s act of defiance against the Power that had bested him.

            The questions of the youngsters came back to me.  Why do we not worship the Sun as the humans do?  Because we are Orcs; we are proud and independent.  The Powers may beat us down with their strength, but they do not win our worship.

            But what if…

            What if one of the Powers were to relinquish his own strength, to let a foe humble him?  To be crushed into the earth and yet still spit defiance at his enemy.  Such a Power I could respect.  The Orcs serve no masters, but such a Power I could call my brother.

            Borklan paused and did not strike his blow.  I think he saw something in my eyes.  Whether I had seen a vision or heard a spirit he could not say, but I think he recognized that some great thing had happened to me, because in his eyes I saw fear.  I met his gaze and uttered the words of the Challenge:

            “I am a free Orc, the son of free Orcs.  I bow to no Power, neither in the Earth nor the Sky nor the Sea.  Though you may smite me, my spirit shall endure.  So do your best, you maggot’s son, and still I will defy thee!”

            He gave a snarl of rage and swung the sword at me, but although his borrowed man-sword was good for intimidating those of the tribe, he had little practice in its use.  Whereas my many years, which he so blithely mocked, included much experience fighting with a spear.  I caught his foot with the butt end of my spear as he attacked and sent him tumbling to the ground.  His blow, meant to hew my neck, merely grazed my ribs.

            I rose to my feet, more quickly than he anticipated and stabbed at him.  He rolled out of the way, but the point of my spear left a long gouge in his forearm.

            He scrambled clumsily to his feet and brandished his sword before him.  I kept my ground; I had not his speed, but the length of my weapon was greater.  After a couple feints to test my defenses, Borklan decided the same thing.  He tossed aside the sword and recovered his spear, but as he did so I thrust my spear into his side.  He howled in pain, and I gave the spear a twist as I yanked it out to make him howl the more.

            We circled each other warily, spear versus spear.  I was hobbled by weakness and age, but he was equally crippled by the wounds I had delivered.  He braced his spear against his body with his good arm and made a sudden charge.  Expecting the charge, I dodged to one side and drove my own spear into his face.  The point sliced up across his cheekbone and into his eye, penetrating into his skull.

            His weapon dropped from his hand and he fell to the bloodied snow.

            I stood over him for a moment, catching my breath.  His good eye rolled back and forth in his head as if trying to find me.  “Do not think you have won,” Borklan croaked.  “The Sleeping God remains there beneath the Earth, and his power rules this land.  The day will come when he awakens.  He will destroy you all…”

            “One may be bested and still not be defeated.  That lesson I should have learned from Urg-Dar, but I learned it anew this day from my brother the Sun.  Your Sleeping God defeated you long ago, and there is nothing left of you for me to curse.”

            He answered me not.  Perhaps he had already died and did not hear me, but I like to think he spent his final moments trying to think of a reply.

            That was several days ago.  I grow weaker by the day and do not expect to live much longer.  I regret that I lack the skill of men to put words down onto parchment that their wisdom can live beyond their lives, but I will do what I can.  I will lift the biggest rock I can and whisper my story to the spirits of the earth, so that if someday some traveler rests on this spot the spirits may whisper it into his ear.  Then I will go peacefully to the halls of my ancestors, and when I meet the spirits of my fathers, I shall also greet my new brother, the Sun.

            Hear my story, O traveler, and remember the wisdom I have learned.

            One may be bested, and still not be defeated.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Spitting at the Sun -- part 3

A story of mine from a dark fantasy anthology titled Hunt the Winterlands from a couple years back.  The narrator is the Loremaster from a tribe of orcs whose world changes when a strange object falls from the heavens and lands in the distant Daggar mountains.  The cataclysm caused by the object does not affect the orc tribe right away, but the following winter is a harsh one that drags on into the summer months.  An ambitious young warrior of the tribe named Borklan has gone off to learn what has happened and returns speaking of a new god, "The Sleeping God", who has brought the eternal winter and will enable the orcs to crush the race of men. 

Spitting at the Sun

(c) 2011 by Kurt Wilcken

(part 3)

            “We are free Orcs!”  I shouted to make myself heard over the raucous mob.  “We worship no gods such as men do.  If there is some war among the Powers as Borklan says… IF such a thing has happened, then it has nothing to do with us.  We shall live as we have always done, according to the lore of old!”

            “The world has changed!” Borklan replied.  “The old Powers are dead, and you are a master of dead lore.  A new world demands new gods and a new lore!  The Sleeping God will lead us to victory!”

            “Victory!” the warriors of the tribe shouted.

            The elders of the tribe looked at one another and at Gurthang.  They felt what I felt; the mood of the tribe was a swift river carrying Borklan along, but threatening to overwhelm anyone who stood in his way.  Gurthang rose from his seat and stood before Borklan, planting his own spear on the floor with a dull noise that stilled the shouting.  “Do you then lead the tribe to war?” he growled.

            The murmurs of the warriors ceased.  Gurthang was pressing Borklan to openly challenge him.  If Borklan called his bluff, he might lose; although past his prime, Gurthang still possessed much of the strength of his youth, as well as many years of battle craftiness; and if the Chief bested him, the tribe would no longer heed Borklan no matter how persuasive his words.

            Borklan lowered his head and again smiled his deadly thin smile. “The Chief leads the tribe as always, and I will follow you, my Chief.  But the Chief cannot lead well if he relies on poor advice.  Your old Loremaster would have us hide in our holes from a dead Sun.  The tribe needs a new Loremaster.”

            “Ojah!” shouted one of Borklan’s friends.  “Borklan!  Borklan!  Down with the old lore!”  The other warriors took up the chant.  “Borklan!  Borklan!”

            Gurthang turned his gaze to me and bit his lip.  We had earned our spears together as boys.  I had stood by him when he challenged Dripthew, the tribe’s previous chief.  Now I saw dreadful decision in his eyes.  I needed no casting of bones to read his future: Chief only in name, he would desperately cling to his position while Borklan gave the commands, until the day that Borklan decided he needed Gurthang no more.

            “What then of our old Loremaster?” Gurthang said in a low, defeated voice.

            “Kill him!”

            “Meat for the pot!”

            “No!”  Gurthang’s voice regained a bit of his accustomed thunder.  “The Loremaster is a holy man.  It is not for us to lay blade upon him.  Let him take his spear and some food and leave this tribe.  His fate shall be in the hands of the Powers.”

            I think Borklan would have preferred I die right there, but the tribe, after some grumbling and muttering, agreed to Gurthang’s counsel.  The Loremaster, after all, speaks to spirits; and evidently they feared that even a discredited Loremaster might call down calamity upon the tribe.

            So they cast me out.  They permitted me to keep my spear and my casting bones and a small bundle of the herbs I used for healing.  They gave me a waterskin and a few pieces of dried meat.  Some of the younger hunters threw stones at me and Gurthang did not stop them.  Still, I felt more pity for him than I did for myself.  My own catastrophe was so sudden and complete that I could barely comprehend it.  I would stop every now and then and look back at the tribe, each time smaller and more distant, as if my expulsion were a dream that might fade away.

            For many nights I traveled.  I continued to perform the ritual Challenge to the Sun each dawn, more out of habit than anything, and a stubborn determination that the traditions be followed, even if I were the only one to do so.  Then I found what shelter I could and pulled my cloak over my head to sleep, fully expecting to die before the next sunrise.  Within a few days I ate the last of my food.  After that I hunted when I could find game and dug into the cold earth for roots when I couldn’t.  When I could find neither, I hungered, and walked on.

            Occasionally I would pass a farmhouse or a village of men, abandoned and alone; or the carcass of some wayfarer, man or beast, who had perished.  I found one, a fighter with an empty scabbard  and guessed this was where Borklan found his sword.  The scavengers had left little meat on the bones, but the man’s knife was a better one than my own and I gladly traded it.

            One day I came to a village of the Elves, deep within a silent forest.  A circle had been drawn around the village to protect it from enemies and I could feel its magic as I approached, but the village itself was still.  One lone Elf sat in the center of the village, in dirty robes; surrounded by skeletons and as thin as a bone himself.  He bade me come into his circle where it was safe, but I saw the hunger in his eyes and heard the madness in his voice.  Here was a mage who had created a magic barrier to protect his home; but being afraid to leave their circle, his village ran out of food.  One by one, they had starved to death.  And what then?  The Elf wouldn’t say; but the blood on his robes and the bones at his feet told me all I needed to know.  He cursed at me as I left him behind, but his curses meant nothing.

            For many weeks I wandered without aim, not caring where I ended up; but the spirits guide our footsteps and lead each man to his destiny.  And so my own footsteps led me to the Daggar Mountains, to the spot where Borklan’s god had dug a great bowl of dust and death.  No trees stood in that deadly hollow; they all lay on the ground as if knocked down while trying to flee some great calamity.  What few traces of buildings I saw lay scattered amongst the rocks, even as Borklan had said.  The very spirits of this place were alien to me and spoke in a language I could not understand.

            I sat down and there I pulled my cloak over my head and wept; for until that moment I had hoped, in some small corner of my soul, that Borklan had lied to us about what he saw.  Then I knew that this new Power was stronger than any of the other Powers I had ever seen.  I curled up like a hedgehog and waited to die.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Spitting at the Sun -- part 2

I'm posting a story which originally appeared in a shared-world anthology titled Hunt the Winterlands, devised by my good friend Alex Ness.  The anthology's setting is a world of Dark Fantasy where the land lies under a curse of eternal winter due to a mysterious event long ago.

My story is set about the time that event happened.  Our narrator is the Loremaster of a tribe of Orcs.  His job is to teach the young of the tribe the story of Urg-Dar, Father of Orcs, who refused to bow down to the gods and was cursed by the Sun; and to perform the daily ritual re-enacting Urg-Dar's defiance.  He is the repository of his tribe's collective wisdom going back for generations.  But everything he knows is about to change...

Spitting at the Sun

(c) 2011 by Kurt Wilcken

(part 2)

            It happened one night in early autumn.  As I cast the bones to augury the night’s hunt, one of the hunters cave a cry and pointed to the heavens.  “A star is falling!”

            I meant to rebuke him and explain, as my father had told me, that the stars are the Children of the Night Sky suckling at her myriad teats and that occasionally one will pull away causing the milk to spurt out -- I have seen such things in the sky, and indeed they do look like a star is falling to the superstitious -- but when I looked up myself I saw that he was right.  I saw a light, much larger than a star and brighter, plunging towards the heavens leaving a shining trail, as straight as the edge of a knife.  It struck the horizon far in the east and a glow of fire lit the rim of the world.

            The sun rose late that morning and glowed a dim, sullen red behind a shadow of cloud.  I spoke the words of the ritual, proudly defying the sun; but in my heart I felt a tremble of fear.  Why, I wondered.  The sun had risen to a red sky before; more times than I could count; and as Loremaster, I knew how to interpret such signs.  But I did not know how to interpret this.  The bones had augured no calamity.  The only ill omen I could see was the grim, calculating look in Borklan’s eyes.

            That afternoon Borklan came before the Council.  He had grown into a strong-armed warrior in the years since the time I had cuffed the lore of the tribe into his skull, and the younger hunters admired him for his skill and his courage.  “Something great and wonderful has happened today,” he said.  “A piece of the sky has fallen to the earth!  We must send a party to seek it out!”

            “Such talk is foolish,” I argued.  “What we saw is strange, I do not deny, but it can have nothing to do with us.  Let the sky keep to the sky’s own business.”

            “How will we know if we do not look for it?  This is undoubtedly a sign of some great occurrence.  Who can tell what mysteries lie where the sky-piece fell?”  He struck the ground with the butt of his spear to support his argument.  Many of the younger folk of the tribe murmured in agreement.

            “You are merely speaking great words to make yourself seem more important.  I say again, it has nothing to do with us.”

            The Council argued back and forth, but the tribe’s chieftain, Gurthang, decided the matter.  “The Autumn Hunt is almost upon us.  I cannot spare a scouting party to go off fetching pieces of moonbeam.”  The elders of the Council chuckled, but I saw another reason behind Gurthang’s ruling:  He too saw Borklan’s ambition and sought to check it.

            Borklan crossed his arms and scowled.  “So be it.  Then if you women are too cowardly to seek the piece of the fallen sky, then I will go myself!”  And with that, he strode proudly from the Council chambers.

            He left that sunset, carrying a spear, a knife and a bundle of rations, and headed eastward in the direction of the Daggar Mountains.  He did not return the next day, nor the day after that. 

            Weeks passed and the nights lengthened as autumn passed into winter.  The tribe rejoiced with the waning of the year, because the longer nights meant more hours to hunt and the men of the human-lands remained behind their village walls waiting for springtime.  But this year the frost came sooner.  Clouds shrouded the sky nearly every night and when the wind blew from the east it carried the bitter grit of dust.  So dense lay the clouds on the eastern sky that some mornings I could not even see the Sun until it had risen well over the horizon.

            Strangers began to cross our territory.  First we noted an increase in game, which brought much food for the tribe.  Then the occasional band of Goblins would venture into our lands, always coming from the east.  Our warriors killed what they could and drove the rest away, for the Goblins are thieves and make poor neighbors.  One day, shortly before Midwinter, a group of humans passed through, traveling quickly with their possessions in carts.  These we slew also, sparing only one or two for questioning.  As Loremaster, I have learned some of the human tongues, but the language of these was strange to me.  I could make out but few words:  “ashes”, “darkness”, “death.”  They were evidently fleeing something which they feared even more than they feared us.  Gurthang and I decided that there must be some great war to the east which all these people were fleeing.

            I nearly missed Midwinter’s Day.  Although I kept careful reckoning of the passage of the suns, I had difficulty tracking the seasons of the gloom-encumbered sky.  Again I began to worry.  The days were growing longer, yet still the land lay in the cloak of winter, as if the world had forgotten about spring.

            Although spring never arrived, Borklan did.

            He came striding across the snow, just before dawn, using his spear as a staff and wearing a sword at his side like those forged by the humans.  “I have returned!” he shouted.  “Hear me, my people!  Everyone come and listen!”

            Gurthang confronted him, his brow knotted like a club.  “So you have returned.  And do you think the Council has time for traveler’s tales?  I am Chief and I call the Council.”

            “I call not the Council, but the whole tribe!  Old and young!  Warriors and females!  All must hear what I have to say!”

            “So, young braggart,” I said, standing by the Chief, “You went off seeking a piece of the fallen sky.  Did you find it?”

            Borklan met my mockery with  a blade-thin smile.  “I found more.  I found our destiny.”  Then he turned to the people of the tribe who had begun to gather around him.  “Let me tell you!  For many weeks I traveled when I left our tribe, until I came to the Daggar Mountains.  High into the mountains I climbed until I came to a pass and on the other side I saw a wide hollow, miles and miles across, as if a giant’s club had smote the earth.  And in that hollow I saw nothing but ash and destruction.  The trees had been knocked over like sticks, and the rivers choked with dust.  I saw villages of men that had been flattened as one might kick over an anthill. And I saw the bodies of men and beasts picked to the bones.

            “I continued on across the devastation until I came to the center of the circle, where the very stone of the earth was shattered and I found a deep pit that had been filled in by rock and debris.  I could feel that within that pit lay a Power, a Power greater than any one that Orc or Human, Elf, Dwarf or Goblin had ever before seen.  And the Power took me, and I fell into a deep sleep and entered the spirit lands.”

            The tribe gathered around Borklan, enraptured by his story.  I found myself bound by the spell of his tale too.  I had intended to mock him as a liar, but I could not.  I recognized truth in his words and it frightened me.

            “I know not how long I traveled in the realm of spirits, but when I awoke, I understood many things.  A new Power has come to Earth, greater than the Sun, greater than the Sky.  With one blow he has overthrown the old Powers.  A new age has come.  Hitherto was the age of the Sun and the dominion of Men, but the Sun has been defeated!  No longer do we need to fear it!  No longer do we need to cower underground until sunset!  A new god has arrived!  He sleeps now, but his power goes out into the land.  This is the Age of the Sleeping God!  This is the Age of the Orc!”

            At this blasphemy, the spell broke and I found my tongue.  “We are Orcs!  We serve no gods!”

            “Hah!  Pathetic old man!  You pretend to challenge the Sun with your daily mutterings when really you fear him and use the fear of others to cling to your position in the tribe.  Well, hear my challenge!”

            With that, Borklan turned to the east, and I realized that as he had spoken the Sun had indeed risen above the horizon, red and sullen.  Borklan raised his sword high over his head and shouted.  “Hear me, O Sun!  You are defeated!  You are powerless!  Your reign is over!  A greater god has crushed you and scattered the children of men before him.  In this sign we will triumph!  We shall seize the human-lands and we will not stop until all the earth is ours!  The Day of the Orc is now!”

            We all cringed, waiting for him to fall, burnt by the rays of the Sun, but yet he stood.  One by one, the people of the tribe realized that  the Sun was not burning them as it used to.  So weakened was the Sun by the dense clouds that covered him, that his face could no longer harm us.

            The youths of the tribe started up a low chant:  “Borklan!  Borklan!”  Other voices joined it.  The Chief looked to me uneasily; he saw his rule slipping from him and expected me to put  a stop to it.  Borklan also looked to me, daring me to try.