I’m interviewed over at Blog Talk Radio with Rodger Nichols and the fine folks of #ModernSignedBooks. Come listen to me tell you cool things.
I’m always surprised to hear myself answering questions.
I’m interviewed over at Blog Talk Radio with Rodger Nichols and the fine folks of #ModernSignedBooks. Come listen to me tell you cool things.
I’m always surprised to hear myself answering questions.
When it comes to writing characters, I follow certain belief systems. First of all I consider myself moderately well read. I’ve tried to educate myself in various world religions, economic systems, histories, mythologies and culture. I always attempt to bring a ring of truth to every single character I create, from the strong protagonist to the lowly cab drive in one scene. It’s the difference between good prose and great prose in my opinion.
I know others who are great at the three act structure and meticulously map out scenes, rising and falling tension, allegory, metaphor and theme. They can tell you the beats of a story, and the precise way each scene must end to create the perfect transition.
Every single one of those things are critical to a successful story. And for me I do some well, and some I struggle to get right. Every time I write something new, I find these things are a little smoother, a little more part of my organic process.
But they are never easy.
Now characters, here is my super power. Oh, I’m sure there are people who write better characters than me, and I’m sure you could show me examples of where I’ve written flat, uninteresting characters, but this is where I sing.
The most common comment I get after “wait, a het guy wrote a really good book about a lesbian without being a jerk”, is how emotionally powerful my characters and stories are. I have put serious thought into why this is, and it comes down to what I absolutely love about other authors.
I fall in love with characters first. Then I want to see what happens to them. I want to follow along with them and experience what they experience. That’s the heart of the game for me. I want complexity and empathy. I want to see them struggle with hard decisions and thrill with them when they triumph. I love Superman when he’s emotionally connected like this scene.
He’s the most powerful person on the planet and the only thing he uses to save the day is be there, listen with an open heart (okay, use his laser vision, go read it) and be emotionally engaged.
That is when writing is at its best, at least as far as I’m concerned.
Which brings me around to the serial I’m hoping is keeping you folks entertained: Dear Father Mulcahy. The Cleric Journal. The tales of Useless Lump.
In the beginning the serial is funny story of a bumbling guy who is so naive that he doesn’t understand even the most basic things about human behavior. I have read those first 7 entries a few times at cons, and I always get laughs. That’s exactly what I wanted when I wrote it.
But as this serial goes on, the silly morphs over time to be more introspective, more mature. The character has started to grow up over the course of the first four books, evolving into a better version of himself. Or at least that’s what I hope I’m doing.
The comments I have received on this agree with my thinking, so that’s good.
If you are new here, I started writing this serial on August 4th, 2015. I’ve posted two hundred and fifty four individual entries, once a day, with a total word count so far in excess of 257k words.
I’ve broken them into 4 books and hope to publish them individually for those who want them in a compact format, which also allows me a chance to tweak a few things.
See I’m pantsing this thing. I sit down to write each day with a vague idea what I want to do, and I see where the muse takes me. This is TOTALLY different from how I write the Sarah Beauhall books. And it’s a fun experiment.
It will be interesting to see how far and how long this goes.
Kathy and I drove out to North Bend to have dinner with our friend Bill from Chicago tonight. We ate at the NB Bar & Grill. Nice place. But the company was exceptional. We talked for a long time, catching up about our lives, families, work, etc. Always a grand time.
Then, on the way home Kathy and I were listening to the radio which is not always a clear signal out near the mountains like that. Fairly annoying. That and the road noise made it hard to tell what song was on without turning the volume up pretty loudly, then we couldn’t hear each other talk. Not the best trade off.
I asked what I should blog about tonight, and I suddenly recognized the song that was just starting: David Bowie — Changes. And with that, I knew what this blog post was going to be about.
My writing career is constantly in flux. It took me a long damned time to sell my first short story, and I still don’t sell them very frequently. Shorts are hard stuff and I truly admire those who can pull them off.
When I signed with Tor in 2008, I was super excited and thought I was on the road to glory. Then they dropped me in 2013, a year after the third book came out, a year after they were obligated to make a decision, because my amazing editor was trying to get the sales numbers to justify a new contract.
But, alas, publishing is about counting magic beans, and even though I had no publicist at all for book two, they cut the print run in half, and gave it a significantly narrower distribution, the sales were weaker. Go figure.
Fast forward to today. Book 4 in the Sarah Beauhall series came out on April 11th, 2016, three years after Tor dropped the series and four years after I’d written it and the next book as well. I have a brand new publisher out of Denver and so far the comments and fan response has been rewarding. I have no idea if the book is going to sell well, but it’s out in the world and that’s the most important thing to me.
See, I’m reinventing myself. You have to do that many times in your life, go through “Changes” as David Bowie sings about. Turning to face myself proved to be a far harder task than I ever imagined. Now I think how we’ve lost so many amazing artists in the last couple of years and how many of them lived their lives the way they wanted to. Bowie and Prince come to mind, of course. But here I am, fifty-one years old and trying to figure out what’s next for me in the writing world.
One of the things I’ve come to realize is that there is no road. There are a thousand roads. There is no map, all roads are equally passable with the right attitude and perseverance. That whole thing about when one door closes another door opens is a very old and0tired platitude we tell each other to help when people are discouraged, but the truth is: when one door closes you’d be smart to look around and realize that there are more doors than you can open, and that change is what is keeping you down. Fear of change.
I started the Cleric Journal because I was bored with not writing. I was tired of letting the fact Tor turned down the next Sarah book define who I am as a writer. I was tired of feeling like I’m a failure when the game is so rigged against anyone being successful that the only thing to do is to shut the fuck up and write the next thing.
Because you can only control your quality and your output. That’s it. You can try marketing if you have those chops, and the desire, but in reality you have the ability to improve your craft through study and practice. That’s it. Write and write some more.
And take a hand at marketing if you can figure it out. It’s not how my brain works, but I’m a smart guy, I can learn new things. But I fear change, so learning new things does not always come quick or easy.
On the other hand, writing tales. That I have down cold. Oh, I need to continually work on quality, but output — I’ve got that in spades.
As of 4/26 I’ve written over 257k words in the Cleric Journal saga. I just completed book four in the tale that will go on for a while yet. I’ll take the next few days and figure out what book 5 is all about, and do some blogging here to keep you entertained, but I’m pushing through.
Book 1 of the Cleric Journal is off to NY with my agent. I’m hoping she can find a home for the series. That would rock. But if she doesn’t, I’ll go indy publishing with it. Hell, I may end up indy publishing them in any case, but I want to see how NY handles this. I’m a firm believer in “psychotic persistence” so I can’t help but hold out hope that something will break here. In the meantime, I’m off to watch an episode of West Wing and head to slumberland. Tomorrow is another big day. Of course, if you play the game correctly, they are all big days.
And that song keeps looping through my head.
Rufus and Leviathus travelled with us for the first day before cutting west to make for Skyfell. They argued like two cats fighting over the last bowl of cream, bless ’em. If Bob hadn’t separated them a few times, I think they may have devolved into a slap fight, and that would’ve just embarrassed us all in front of the Broken Finger Legion. They had appearances to keep up.
When we parted ways, Rufus promised me he would see about connecting Night Wing Tower, The Hallowed Fortress, and his archeological dig at Wind Spire with supply runs and official recognition from the Great University and the city of Skyfell. He speculated that the notoriety would help him get more funding for his work. He also promised to check on the Dryad and Scarlet, the mothers of my gestating children.
Bob added copies of the maps he had made, which Rufus assured him would be heavily scrutinized and treasured by the Great University’s library, as well as the Geography and Cartography departments. They discussed private matters that were none of my business, so I did not pry. It just made me happy to see my friends making connections and their own friends, even if old weasel gnome was still an obnoxious wizard.
Wizard Tim sought me out after the second day and commended me for my actions with the frogs, stating that they would make good, if little sycophantic, allies. He then quizzed me about the amulet I had given Nebuchadnezzar and we discussed the more esoteric aspects of ancient gods and their possible resuscitation. It proved an interesting conversation. I want to discuss that another time, after I’ve had a chance to ponder his hypothesis. He owned the shrunken heads that named me The Fool of prophecy, so he has been watching for me for many years. His research seemed to align with my dream quest in more and more ways. Must I always be plagued with wizards?
Speaking of which, Sparkle made a point of reminding me that in the eyes of the only legal authority within a hundred leagues, I was myself a wizard. I punched her in the arm, which she deserved.
Wizard Tim also warned me about some changes that were undergoing back at Night Wing Tower. The hobs had begun meeting in the sanctuary with one of their own, the burly Wolf Master. He was the first to find Bob’s nightly song a joy, rather than an indictment of past mistakes.
This Wolf Master had lost his way, but found comfort in the sanctuary that night I began the re-consecration of the altar. Apparently he had been recruiting others to join his conversion experience. That partially explained what happened with Bÿglar, though I have not discussed it with him specifically.
All in all, the world was shifting and I seemed to be the fulcrum. I am doing my best to eschew hubris and avoid pride, Father. I know that way lies failure and madness. But it sure feels good when things seem to be coming together.
Oh, I forgot to mention the fairies. Booty Shake and Morning Glory and their squadrons took Magda’s body and left. They are wonderful people, Fairies, but I still do not understand their ways. They said they would take her home to the Green Sward, where ever that is. I think it’s a euphemism for the Far Shore or the Next Life, but I could not be sure. She came from the Green they would return to the Green, Morning Glory assured me, the words obviously ritualistic.
I blessed them and bade them fair fortune. Booty Shake kissed me on the nose and thanked me for saving their lives. Morning Glory lead them all in a song so high pitched the lizard folk whimpered. Then they were gone. I cried, of course. They were so beautiful, and I don’t mean physically. Their magic was fresh and felt like springtime. They had good hearts full of playful love. I will miss them dearly.
I guess I am not meant to have air support.
Liz came to me deep in the night before we would reach Night Wing Tower. She led me to a clearing where I found Bob and Sparkle, as well as two horses fully packed for a long journey.
“It’s time for you to go on,” Bob said, handing me a fresh pack. This one was larger than the one I currently carried, but could be worn higher on the back. He had bartered it from the Broken Finger supply master in exchange for a copy of his maps. Inside the pack was food, first aid supplies and fresh ink, quills and parchment. He took the old pack I had been carrying and we went through it, transferring items across. In the bottom I uncovered several potion bottles, a scroll case and a scattering of gems I had long forgotten.
I explained each of the items and where they had come from, with Liz chiming in to make corrections and Sparkle laughing at my frustration at the interruptions to my tales. Sooner than I was happy about the new pack was ready and Liz and I were lead to the horses.
“Follow this road north three days beyond the Hallowed Fortress,” Bob said. “Do not stop and visit them, ride hard. Make for Black Crescent lake first, then on to Far Spire Keep. I have modified my maps.” He handed me several rolled skins. “I traded for these as well. The leather will stand up better than your parchment. Take good notes and I will update these next time we meet.”
He hugged me and went to Liz, giving Sparkle a chance alone with me.
“Well, lover,” she drawled, going for crass, but I saw the pain in her eyes.
I placed a hand on her shoulder and kissed her forehead. She closed her eyes at that and suddenly her posture shifted. I could see it in the way her shoulders slumped and she began to wring her hands.
“Lilith?” I asked, and she nodded.
“I dream of you when I am alone in the dark,” she whispered. “And it makes me not afraid.”
Then kissed me on the mouth and fled back toward the camp.
I watched her disappear into the black and turned when Bob placed a hand on my elbow. “You have done a kindness with that one,” he said, his gravelly voice full of emotion. “I will watch out for her while she lets me.”
We stood there a moment longer, then he hugged me. Being in his arms was one of the only times I ever felt truly safe. Then he too left.
Then it was just Liz and I, as it was in the beginning. We embraced for a very long time. Believe it or not, it was I who broke away first. She clung to me so feverishly I began to fear she was not going along. Then she stepped back and we walked to the horses.
“Try to keep up,” she said. “We will sell the horses in Far Spire and cut east again. If we are lucky the next few days will be hard, but quiet.”
I climbed onto my horse and waited for her to do the same. Then we were off, riding into the night, northward toward cataclysm and a future of foolish hope.
<End Book 4>
“I am Leviathus Rising Star, Master of the Word, Wizard of the High Houses, Subjugator of Toads, Order of Starlight, Third Ring of Corpuscles, Fuchsia Servant of Thought”
Gods, I hated wizards.
“By the treaty of the Magenta council, I demand the rights afforded to me by my station and importance within the City of Skyfell and the Great University.”
I looked at Rufus, already feeling a headache coming on. He raised an eyebrow at me and I nodded.
“I am Ruffalo Androgen, Thunder Caller, Maker of the Word, High Wizard of the Court of Antiquities, Grand Master of Imperforate, Order of Nightshade First Class , Fourth Ring of Corpuscles, Emerald Servant of Mists. By my station and my tenure with the Great University, I stand in judgment.”
Leviathus looked as if he’d been struck. His already pale face lightened a shade and his lower lip quavered. He wasn’t looking quite so haughty now.
Tim coughed and I glanced at him, nodding at his impatience. Fine, I said to him with my eyebrows. Let’s continue this maddening farce.
He seemed to take my eyebrows seriously, for he stood straighter and recited, “I am Timoteus, Lightning Wielder, Bringer of the Word, Wizard of the Court of Relics, Master of Plenary, Order of Night Shade, Fifth Ring of Corpuscles, Jade Servant of Light. By my station and my tenure with the Great University, I stand in judgment.”
If Alfred had not been standing there, Leviathus may have fainted outright. However, Alfred nudged him upright and the managed a weak splutter.
“There are but two,” he finally stammered out. “You cannot stand in judgment without a third.”
That was my cue. I hated these games, but you know, I didn’t want to just brain the guy. Besides, killing him wouldn’t be as humiliating for him. Hell, he’d likely welcome a good beating about now.
I stepped forward and using my best intonation announced, “I am the Fool, Merric Life Bringer, formally Useless Lump, Bearer of the crest of Kithri — Bread Mistress and Life Giver. I am Prophet of Semaunzilla (may she strike her foes with aplomb) — scaly harbinger of parity. I am he who wields of the Mace of Teeghel; Captain of the Night Wing legion; slayer of the great snow beast; demon bane; priest of love and life.” I drew breath and went on. “Merric of the honeyed loaf ; Knight of the Journal; Secret Keeper of the Forgotten Citadel; Whisperer of Fallen Flames, Dragon Blight and giant slayer.” I glanced at Alfred who just shrugged, “Conqueror of the Hallowed Fortress, liberator and peace monger,” and last but not least, “Time warden and catalyst of a waking god.”
Here I glanced at Nebuchadnezzar who stood to the side, witness to our trial.
“Wow,” Sparkle whispered to me when I finished. “You are nearly pompous enough to be a wizard.”
Luckily Leviathus did not hear her.
“What University?” he asked. “I do not recognize any of those orders.”
Tim stepped forward and read from a parchment. “Merric Life Bringer, having saved the lives of two members of the Order of Nightshade, is hereby bequeathed the title of Wizard of the Order, second class.”
“Add that to your list,” Rufus said with a straight face. “My weasel suit could get an order of second class, but it’s enough.”
The crowd turned to me, as if waiting for a response. “Merric Life Bringer, Order of Nightshade, second class,” I amended. ” By my station and my tenure with the Great University, I stand in judgment.”
Tim nodded and stepped back. Leviathus lurched forward, his good hand clenched into a hooked claw. “Second class?” he shouted. “Second class?” He gibbered, spinning to take in the witnesses. None of them seemed to have any idea what was being said.
“Oh,” I added, stepping toward the spinning wizard. “I’ll add healer of broken elbows to my list if you’ll settle down.”
Leviathus glared at me for a moment, then as if a sheet of water had been laid upon him, he grew calm. “Thank you,” he said.
That was different. Being a wizard took a lot of mental fortitude, that was true. I think I’d just seen the best example of that I’d ever see.
I healed him, even though Sparkle said I was an idiot.
Leviathus was exultant, moving his arm around in great sweeping motions, flexing his wrist, splaying his fingers in great wiggling motions. “Thanks the most high god,” he breathed. Then he fainted.
Healing can take it out of a person, especially if I’m not careful how I do it.
This drew an approving nod from Sparkle.
All in all the trial took about as long as it took for me to heal all the lizard folk and more than half of the Black Heart survivors. Over two weeks. By then everyone was ready to travel.
I made arrangements for Just Jacob to take over the Hallowed Fortress as governor along with his brigands. Alfred and the fairies wanted to accompany me back to Wizard Tim’s tower, now called Night Wing Tower, much to his consternation.
Liz’s people said they would not return home, instead they would return to Night Wing Tower and decide from there. The remnants of the Black Heart Legion were folded into my own legion and would accompany me back as well. Half of the goblins opted to go with me, and the other half opted to remain and help Just Jacob clean up the slave pens, clear out the nasties in the catacombs and sewers, and generally help keep the place in order.
Nebuchadnezzar had convinced his people to remain as well, with him as their leader, but under the governance of Just Jacob. I liked this plan. The treasure rooms were divided and two thirds would accompany me back to Night Wing Tower to help pay for supplies and salaries for my burgeoning army.
The two merchants that had been nervously waiting to do business with the frog king had survived and were happy enough to trade with Just Jacob, as Leviathus had promised them the next ruler would.
For the moment, everyone had a place and a mission. I was feeling practically giddy with relief. Now I just had to deal with the wizard debacle and I was free to go.
In the end it was Leviathus who freed the lizard folk. After all it was he who had taught the frogs to utilize the magic they used to control all the slaves. It took us only a few hours of disenchanting to free them all. Rufus and Tim were a great help, but Leviathus assisted as much as he could. His broken elbow had wrecked his concentration and his rest. Memorizing spells was not a skill for one in constant pain.
Finally, once we had Leviathus revived the trial completed in short order. Leviathus would return to the Grand University with a list of demands, including bequeathing certain regions to my new legion. Funny how important everyone thought that was. I bet none of those stuffed shirts had ever left their towers, let alone walked through this swamp.
It did grant me certain amount of assistance and the undying love of Rufus who was thrilled to see Leviathus humiliated.
“He’s a pompous elf of the worst sort,” he said, which surprised me. I thought Leviathus was human. “Only elf on his father’s side,” he went on. “Thought he was better than the rest of us all through school. Ass.”
Rufus would accompany Leviathus back to Skyfell with the written confession, list of demands and supplies, and other little bits of political manipulation we could entertain, including granting Johann full tenure, and having a group of the old masters work on getting Beatrice’s curse removed.
All is all it was more than I could hope for.
I just wish I wasn’t so exhausted by it all.
We walked out of the gates, squinting against the glare of the sun. To be fair, the clouds were moderate, and the sunlight weak, but compared to the inside of the fortress, it was glaring. As my eyes adjusted I saw an amazing sight. The frogs lined the west side of the grand courtyard. Turns out there were four hundred and thirty seven warriors, some wounded and another thousand non-combatants including children. They were backed against a wall that ran three times as high as I stood, I could tell fairly close to just how tall it was because Alfred stood at the entrance speaking with Just Jacob and the brigands.
Hemming the frogs in were six cohorts of the Broken Finger Legion. They were impressive in their uniforms with their straight lines and everything. Order had a certain beauty to it. Brother Durham would’ve been very impressed.
Along the eastern half of the great courtyard stood the baggage train of the Broken Finger Legion. There were wagons with food and supplies, as well as three ballista and two broken down catapults ready to be assembled by the waiting crews. Tents were being put up between the wagons and the wall, with goblins scurrying around seeing to the logistics’ of making camp.
Rufus weasel gnome stood at the bottom of the stairs leading from the courtyard to the landing we had just come out upon. Bob stood with him, as did Tim. In front of the three of them stood Leviathus pontificating loudly and gesticulating with one hand. His other arm was in a crude sling securing the broken limb against his body. By his voice I could tell he was sorely indignant.
Squaddie Kregal ran up to me, tossed off a salute and informed me that the Broken Fingers were setting up a section of their camp for the lizard folk. He said he would be happy to escort them where they could get food and water, perhaps a bed and for the sorely wounded, some care with his healers.
I thanked him, consulted with Liz and sent them all off with Kregal. He was efficient and respectful, helping the infirmed down the stairs and seeing that the young ones were not left behind. Liz went with them and I promised I would catch up once I saw to the wizards. She nodded once before leaning in and hugging me.
“Do what you must,” she whispered to me before breaking away. “I trust your decision.”
What more could I ask for? Sparkle opted to accompany me as she had words she wanted to say to Tim. I was not sure I could miss that exchange for all the cheese in the world. We strode down the stairs and I was intercepted again by a young hob private. He saluted and handed me a scroll. At my return salute he went into a parade rest, waiting for me to read the message.
It proved to be an invitation to visit the command tent of the Broken Finger Legion. Their commander, who outranked a mere captain such as myself, said at my earliest convenience, so I took that to mean I could take care of the immediate business with the frogs and the wizards.
I informed the courier that I would attend to the commander after I settled the truce and he snapped off a salute before running back toward the tents. I did love the efficiency of a well trained army.
Sparkle and I made it to the bottom of the stairs and walked the dozen strides or so to stand behind Bob and Rufus.
Wizard Tim glanced at me and tipped his hat in my direction. It was quite a magnificent hat, I must say. It was a large, sweeping peach basket hat adorned with purple and gold flowers and several long pink ribbons. The entire thing made his head look too small and his beard look just right. Funny that. His beard was usually over grown.
“I refuse to be accosted again by this lout,” Leviathus roared, his voice strained from the obvious pain he was in. “He has no respect for my station.”
Tim glanced at me and shook his head. “Young Merric here spared your life, Leviathus. You should show some deference.”
Rufus grumbled and Leviathus shot him a look of disgust. That’s when I noticed the seven frogs kneeling on the cobblestone behind Leviathus. Each was bound and had his or her head bowed (it was hard to pick out gender with the frogs).
“Are these the wizards who controlled the slaves?” I asked, waving my arms at the kneeling frogs.
To my surprise it was Nebuchadnezzar who stepped from the crowds of frogs aligned to the west and came forward, only to be held at bay by two burly hobs with spears.
“If I may speak?” he asked.
One of the hobs pushed him back with the shaft of the spear and I called out to him.
“Let him come forward.”
The hobs glanced at me, conferred with his compatriot who pointed to my rank insignia and stepped aside, allowing Nebuchadnezzar to approach.
“Do you speak for these?” I asked, indicating the wizards.
“Only those of my people,” he said, his voice strong and his head high.
“And what of your ally Leviathus?” I asked, indicating the tall lanky wizard who sputtered and spit in indignation at being ignored.
“He was never my ally,” Nebuchadnezzar said, plainly. “His bargain was with our late and barely lamented king. Any bargain he had died with him.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “So, are these they who controlled the slaves? Those who forced child to fight for his life in a vain hope to save the life of the parent?”
“Yes,” Nebuchadnezzar said. “Three are such. Four are apprentices.”
I walked around Leviathus who turned as I passed and spat. “You will not ignore me, heathen,” he said, the pomposity so thick I could make a stew of it.
“Don’t make me break your other arm,” I said to him in a calm and even voice. “I’ll see to your execution directly.”
This quailed him for the first time. He opened his mouth twice but nothing came out. I took that as my sign to proceed.
“How did you control them?” I asked the three wizards. The center one, a pale green frog with a curious bracer on his left wrist, looked up and spoke croaking words I could not understand.”
“Speak the trade tongue,” Nebuchadnezzar barked and the wizard glared at him.
“Tell me this and I may spare your life,” I said. I really had had enough bloodshed this day.
The wizard frog sneered at me. “You are filth,” he said. “I would see you hung from your entrails from the top of the fortress, our most sacred home.”
“Harsh,” Rufus said.
“You lose,” I said. “Anyone else?”
The two other wizards stubbornly looked at the ground, while the first one reviled me for my inadequacies and my poor parentage. I am unclear how he knew of my parentage, but he was a wizard and they know things.
“I will free the one who tells me of this secret.”
Nebuchadnezzar shook his head. “They will not help you. They are sworn to their masters and will not betray them.”
“Then they hold no use for me,” I said, shaking my head. “I might as well kill the lot of them now. I am sorry Nebuchadnezzar, I told you I would accept the surrender of your people. But I cannot abide these who enforced tyranny over those I hold dear.”
Nebuchadnezzar looked at me curiously. “Why do you not just take what you want, torture them until one of them breaks?”
I turned to look into his great bulbous eyes and answered, never a hesitation in my mind. “While sometimes we must kill our enemies, it is never the first choice. Killing is simple. We are better for diplomacy and tolerance. While I cannot condone the horrid conditions your people place my friends into, I can change the paradigm and end the cycle of retaliation and violence. As for getting answers. I have learned that torture is rarely fruitful. There is no compromise there. If we are to be an honorable people, we must learn to live within certain boundaries.”
At this Leviathus laughed and Sparkle leaned forward and thumped his broken elbow. He cried out and fell to whimpering.
I motioned for the two hobs who had stopped Nebuchadnezzar and they approached. “Take them back to their people. Remove their bonds and see that they are fed. Do not hurt them.
The hobs saluted and escorted the froggy wizards away. Their leader stared at me in disbelief when his bonds were removed but he want with them quietly. I turned again to face Nebuchadnezzar. “Tell your people that we will negotiate for the turnover of this fortress to a new governor. We will strip the palace of anything of value to pay wages and supplies. But your people will not be killed. If they swear to serve me, to join my forces, I will show them mercy.”
He did not respond, just looked into my face and blinked his great eyes, the squicking sound the ticking of a clock.
“And if none choose to stay here under your thumb?”
“They will be free to go. All but the wizards, I’m afraid. Until I can free my people from their control they will be kept here.”
“I will tell them,” he said. Then he did a remarkable thing. He held his hand out to shake my own. There was an air of ceremony there, one I could respect. I stepped forward and clasped his hand and wrist, giving it a firm yet gentle shake.
He turned and moved toward his people, only to stop and look back. “You are a holy man, are you not?” he asked me.
“I strive to be,” I replied. That answer seemed to please him.
“Have you ever heard the whispers of the gods?” he asked. “I have prayed to the gods we found in this place for the entirety of my life and for the first time one of them has answered me.”
“That is good, is it not? Are you the shaman here?”
“We have no such,” he said.
“Perhaps you do now.”
He pondered this. “There was a moment when a golden light flashed through the castle and a voice spoke in my head, telling me that the fool would be our salvation.” He was obviously confused and perplexed. “Was that a god?”he asked. “Or a demon sent to vex me.”
I thought back to when I pulled out the amulet of the Bountiful One and how the golden light had pulsed from it, calming and healing us all.
On a whim, I pulled the necklace off my neck and placed it in Nebuchadnezzar’s hands. I would’ve placed it over his head, but he had no neck. “This is the symbol for he who spoke to you. Take it in and speak with him again. Perhaps you can find wisdom in the conversation.”
He grasped it tightly in his fist and golden light pulsed outward, encompassing the entirety of the courtyard. Every head turned toward where we stood and the frogs cried out in unison.
“What do they say?” I asked when they grew silent once more.
Nebuchadnezzar wept, his great eyes trailing tears across his mottled face. “They name me ruler,” he said, the awe strong in his voice. “Me, the outcast.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Fair enough. Go to your people then, and tell them of our bargain.”
Then I turned back to face the wizards who remained and thought how I was going to deal with Leviathus.
As if she read my mind, Sparkle tip-toed up to whisper in my ear. “I’ll kill him for you,” she said.
“No, you won’t.”
She stuck out her lower lip. “Why?”
“Because Lilith would not like it,” I said and I stepped back next to Rufus. Time to unravel another piece of the puzzle.
I’d totally forgotten about the goblin slaves that had been following us. Frankly it wasn’t until one of them pulled on my sleeve that I could focus on what was going on around me.
“Are we to be freed?” he asked, much braver than I expected from one as downtrodden as he. It was Ratbiter, the one who had spoken with us when the others cowered.
“Yes,” I said, looking him square in the eyes. “I will give your people the same chance I gave the last group of goblins I freed. You can go off on your own, return to your tribes if you desire. Or you can follow me. I will give you a free choice in your fate. You can work with us in some capacity, or you may decide to take up arms in our cause. The choice will be yours.”
Ratbiter looked at me confused and shook his head. “You are a very strange man,” he said. The other goblins grumbled and nodded in agreement.
The hob warriors, I noticed, were listening carefully to my words.
“We tolerate no tyranny in my company. If you deal with us, you deal square. Everyone draws wages. Everyone is fed, clothed and housed. No one will be deprived basic dignity.” I looked down the line of the warriors, catching each of their eyes. “Dignity and honor above all else.”
No one said anything until we got to the tunnels leading to the dungeons. The first room we came to was the goblins. I asked Ratbiter to go in and talk with them, tell them what I said and asked him to lead them out to the courtyard. He is a young goblin, in his prime. He studied my face for a moment, took in my armor, my holy symbols which hung across my chest and scratched his chin where a wispy bit of beard grew. I waited, allowing him to think and was rewarded with a short nod.
He huddled with the other goblins and they entered the room as a group, calling out to acquaintances and offering their deals. We went on, letting the arguing and cries of disbelief echo in the halls. One of the warriors shook his head, but there was no anger in his face — just bewilderment.
When we got to the Hob prison, I halted us and picked out the warrior who had made a move to support his squad leader, the one Bÿglar had to hold at bay with his spear. I faced him. “What is your name soldier?”
He saluted. “Gronk, Shield Breaker,” he said proudly. “er, sir,” he finished.
I smiled at him, making sure to show my teeth.
“Warrior Gronk. Inside this room you will find what remains of the Black Heart Legion.”
He blinked and the others looked on, curiosity sweeping the room.
“They are in bad shape. Does your legion have any healers?”
He nodded, gravely.
“Okay, choose two to run back and gather healers. I’d like you to lead the rest of the troop here to go in and help them as you can. Any that are ambulatory can help the others. I want every one of them out of this hole and into the light of day as soon as feasible. Do you understand?”
“Dignity and honor,” I said, “does not include putting a man out of his misery to save face. Every one of them were overwhelmed by dark magic.”
“Wizards,” Gronk said and turned his head and spat.
I turned and spat as well, which made him grin.
“They’re all jerks,” I said, clasping him on the shoulder. “I am relying on you and these men to see that those inside are treated well. They are our brothers. Let’s see them rescued in such a way that they can have some respect.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Gronk said, stepping back and saluting. “We will preserve the honor of Black Heart Legion and in doing so, safeguard our own.”
We left them to their task and the three of us; Liz, Sparkle and myself — went to find the lizard folk.
The way was worn from millennia of foot traffic. Before the lizard folk trod these halls, acolytes and worshipers came here to implore and venerate their god of choice. Heck, for all I know, lizard folk did walk these halls. There were many, many temples within this warren of catacombs. I would not be surprised to find some off-shoot of Semaunzilla (may she help Liz cope with what is to come). Walking this path made me at once scared, exultant and sad. The civilization that saw the rise of this fortress had seen the peak of humanity’s achievement. The tolerance and love that this place had once represented astounded me.
And yet, the desecration here has been profound. How many gods fell the day Abigail and her cadre slaughtered those within these walls? How long did it fester before the frogs came here? Was it feasible to consecrate these halls once more?
We stood outside the prison and hesitated. Liz looked back at me, holding her hand out for me to take. I stepped forward and she pulled me close to her, leaning her head against my shoulder.
Sparkle slipped to her other side and took her by the arm, lending her support and a kind word. Then we opened the door.
Dozens of lizard folk stood in eight different cells lining the periphery of the great room, with an open courtyard in the center. There were old and infirmed, young and wounded, but mostly they were beat down and exhausted men, women, and children who had been held captive for more than two years by callous and cruel masters.
They did not cheer when we entered the room. They knew enough of what had happened when their warriors had returned to them and when their shaman leader, Ssarwick, Liz and Jira’s father, had taken his own life. They parted as we walked in, making a path for Liz to approach her father.
None would look at her as she walked amongst them. They kept their heads bowed and by the faded colors of the rills that ran over their scalps and down their necks, they were ashamed.
Liz knelt where her father’s body lay. They had cleaned his wounds and adorned him with feathers and baubles that they had managed to keep. His staff lay across his chest, with his hands folded atop it. He looked peaceful, but worn. The years of captivity had been unkind to him most of all.
I was startled when one of the youngest children, a girl younger than Liz had been when I first met her, began to sing a throaty song that filled me with ennui. Soon the others took up the song and Sparkle moved to stand beside me and take my hand. Presently the lizard folk were pushing us forward, toward Liz, closing the circle behind us and burying us in their lamentation.
Prior experience drove my action. It was a gamble, but one I thought was very low risk. I slapped the squad leader, open handed, and barked. “What part of my position confuses you, soldier.”
One of the warriors let out a growl and shifted his foot, as if to step toward me, but Bÿglar barked something in goblin and positioned his spear at the man’s throat. Then he said in an even, but forceful tone. “Anyone who has a problem with my captain gets to wait for the rest of us on the other side of the far river.”
The one who growled stared at Bÿglar, anger and resentment warred on his face, but his training and the rank on my shoulder carried a significant amount of weight.
It was the squad leader who saved the situation, ultimately. He straightened his shoulders and saluted. Even though we were of different legions, I did still out rank him.
“We were told to take this position and watch for any who would seek to disrupt the surrender of this fortress.”
“On who’s command?” I asked, lowering my mace back to my side and standing my ground. It only took a moment of officer glare which I’d learned from that old, grizzled hob sergeant back at wizard Tim’s keep to prove my final point. The squad leader took a step back and glanced at his men, shaking his head. The tension fell away immediately. I glanced at Bÿglar who lowered his spear and stepped back to stand at my side, but leaving enough room for both of us to use our weapons should the need arise.
“How did you come here?” I asked, returning the hob’s salute. Always respect and honor. That is the trick with these proud people.
The squad leader nodded, acknowledging my return salute and stood at attention, his head high, and rattled off details.
“We were heading down the old trade road between Farspire Keep and Black Crescent lake roughly a week ago when our commander ordered us to reverse march and head here. There is a wizard that he has had dealings with and scuttlebutt was that he had shown up in the night and convinced Commander Blüd Hammer to come and assist in the taking of this fortress.”
I nodded. “And the frog wizards? Any sign of them?”
The squad leader shook his head. “They all look alike to me.” He paused. “Well, all but one. There was a mottled purple fellow who was leading the frogs in their surrender.”
“How does he fare?” I asked, suddenly worried for Nebuchadnezzar well being.
“Safe as I saw him last,” he replied. “Had a dab hand at keeping his people calm. How many warriors do you have with you?” he asked.
I looked at Bÿglar who only shrugged. This was my command, after all.
“I’ll introduce them to you,” I said, grinning. I stepped out of the room and waved the others forward. Once they were all in the room, the squad leader goggled.
“Is this all that survived?” he asked, horrified.
“Yes,” I said gravely. “We lost two. A lizard folk warrior and a fairy”
The warriors laughed, but stopped when I glared at them.
“Is he serious, or mad?” the squad leader asked Bÿglar.
“What is your name?” I asked the man, cutting across any reply Bÿglar may have thought to make.
“Squaddie Kregal, sir,” he snapped off with another salute.
I saluted back. “We have slaves to free, Kregal. I’ll need your squad to help me get our people out of the dungeons.”
I turned to Bÿglar. I need you and Kregal here to go with Bob and see to things outside.” He saluted which garnered an approving look from Kregal. ” Bob, can you see about finding Nebuchadnezzar and make sure that the surrender is going well and that no one is slaughtering the frogs?”
Bob smiled at me and gave me the same salute Bÿglar had. I squinted at him, but he moved across the room, ignoring me further.
“Liz, I want you with me for sure. Rufus,” I pointed to the weasel gnome. “I’d like you to accompany Bob. If you find Tim, tell him he and I will be having words as soon as I get out of here.”
“What about Leviathus?” he asked, his voice dripping venom.
“Do not kill him,” I said. He looked very disappointed.
“I want the frog wizards alive as well,” I said to the entire room. “I want to know how we free the lizard folk from this binding they have over them.”
Sparkle went to stand beside Liz, waiting for me.
I motioned for the hob warriors and after one moment of hesitation, their squad leader, Kregal, motioned for them to follow me.
“Obey him as you would obey me,” he growled. “Do not embarrass Broken Finger.”
As a unit the dozen hobs grunted, “Ooo, yah,” and moved out into the hall in two lines. I was very impressed by the size of them. Very large men.
I went to Liz who had not said anything about Jira dying and took her hand in mine.
“Let’s go free your people,” I said. “They can go outside, can they not?”
She looked at me, her beautiful eyes shining with unshed tears. I saw the pain in them, knew the agony she was internalizing, the blame she was building, brick by brick around her heart. I could not stand that. Not with her.
I pulled her around and drew her into my arms. “Life is a series of choices,” I whispered to her. “Jira and your father made their own choices. It is our lot to honor those decisions and make our way in the world despite the pain and loss.”
She squeezed me, her strong arms clinging to my back and she wept into my shoulder. No one said a word as we stood amongst the hob warriors. Sparkle waited at the other end of the hall, keeping her head to the side, giving us space.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I should’ve been there for you and your family sooner. This is my failure.”
She dug her claws into the point where my back plate intersected with my breastplate, making sure to poke the tender flesh underneath my armor.
“You are a fool,” she said, nuzzling my neck for a moment, then turning and walking to Sparkle.
I let them go ahead, heads bent in whispers as they went forward to the prisons. The hobs moved with me when I followed.
So much loss, so many mistakes. I just prayed that we could salvage something from this unmitigated disaster.
I dozed, however briefly while the others kept watch. Liz woke me after a bit and suggested that we’d given Nebuchadnezzar enough time to spread the word, and that we should move out.
Seemed like the logical thing to do. We regrouped, I tossed off a few minor heals and we set off. The halls around us were abandoned — meals were left on tables. We found one room with a spinning wheel and loom that had obviously been used until minutes before we passed by. Everywhere we went, we found dropped tools, discarded weapons and cowering slaves. Three times we found goblins huddled in rooms, afraid to flee, but having no other direction, chose to stay where they were. Bÿglar had the most experience dealing with goblins and he rallied them to follow us, the whole time asking them questions and probing for knowledge of remaining resistance. They knew little, but it was clear from their words and the evidence we saw that Nebuchadnezzar had done as he promised.
One of the goblins by the name of Ratbiter said he overheard Nebuchadnezzar telling his masters that they should make their way to the central courtyard and await our coming to accept the surrender of the fortress. That seemed like good news. Of course, we were wary and proceeded as if an ambush would appear around any turn.
We scouted for another hour and finding no one else, followed the goblin’s directions to the courtyard. Rufus was dubious, and Bob tolerant but I could tell he really did not like the goblins. They were expecting an ambush of epic proportions. So we were not surprised when it occurred. What did surprise us was who was waiting to cut us down.
Hobgoblins. Two dozen with swords and shields bearing the insignia of the a legion I had never heard of. Bÿglar was apoplectic, however. I was familiar with the Black Heart Legion, of course. They were the ones who had abandoned the Night Wing Legion, my legion, to protect the strategic bridge while they hied off on some other mission. The surviving members of that legion was housed below in the prisons. So who were these new players? And how in the nine hells had they come to be here?
As I had said, we were moving in a typical “we are going to be ambushed in any moment” mode so Sparkle spotted their set up before they saw her. She scooted back to us and reported exactly what she saw, down to the approximate ages of the troops we faced. That girl had a wicked sharp mind. She not only told us how many, and where they were stationed in the room, but described their uniform coloring and visible insignia.
As she was sharing with us , Bÿglar quite literally choked, swallowing and gasping at the same time. Not the brightest moment in the boy’s life, but what can you do. He not only knew the insignia, but was terrified of the hobs who wore them. Of the hobgoblin tribes in the portion of the world, and as far as Bÿglar knew, the entirety of known history, this was the most powerful legion by rumor and myth: The Broken Finger Legion.
Seriously, when he whispered the name, I had to ask him to repeat it, because, you know. NOT SCARY. I mean, sure, names can be misleading. But Broken Finger Legion? I actually laughed, which it turns out, alerted the Broken Finger troops to our presence. So much for stealth. The hobs did not charge into our midst, thankfully, so I decided to follow my last rousing success with diplomacy with another go.
Hob elite warriors are a cut above the normal troops. My body guards, Shadow One and Shadow Two were, or had been, of those elite. They were not just brute force, but could think and use tactics, important things like that. They were also very loyal and obeyed orders from a superior officer without hesitation. That was my best ploy of avoiding bloodshed.
These were some of the very best any legion had to offer and we’d be hard pressed to defeat them without some heavy explodey stuff from Rufus, or losses on our side. Luckily, I also out ranked them. Bÿglar confirmed that the ranks Sparkle had described were definitely elite warriors, but only one was a squad leader, the one with the yellow stripes on his right pauldron. I wanted to mention that yellow frequently denoted cowardice in many myths and cultures that I had read about, but the look on his face was enough to quell my tongue. Still, I needed him, so I pulled him up with me and sent the others back down the hall with the goblins.
Around the bend in the hall was an open room where the hobs had set up behind crates, blocking the exit on the far side that would lead us to the main entrance hall and eventually out to the courtyard. If all the frogs were out there, waiting to surrender, then these hobs must be either confused or led by a very smart strategist. My money was on confused.
I pulled the Night Wing Legion insignia from my pouch and put it on over my right pauldron, making it visibly clear who I represented. Then I pulled out my symbol of rank, Captain in this case, and lay that over my left pauldron. Bÿglar gave me an approving nod and swallowed hard. At least he didn’t choke this time.
Hobs value bravery, honor, and discipline above all else. They respect violence and a forceful leader. I’d walked this walk before. I knew what to do.
I strode boldly down the hall, with Bÿglar at my side. As we turned the corner, he called out in goblin for the warriors to come to attention and salute a superior officer.
Yep, confused. The warriors glanced back at their squad leader, who happened to be standing behind a stack of crates closest to me, so I stormed up to him, swearing with my most colorful Abyssal phrases, one which caused Bÿglar to stumble a step. None of them raised their blades to me, but confusion reigned on their faces. Especially on the face of the squad leader who stood nearly to my height, but with shoulders that would make Bob proud.
“I have taken this fortress,” I bellowed, slamming my mace into the crate in front of the squad leader, smashing the wood and spilling rice onto the ground at our feet. “On whose authority do you hold this position?”
There was a moment right there, a second after I uttered those words, where I could see the calculation in that squad leader’s mind. He could kill me and Bÿglar, likely saving a lot of hassle for himself and his squad. You know that look, Father, I’m sure. The squad leader’s eyes twitched to his squad and he drew a breath.
I knew rage. The world swam with blood. We stalked the halls slaughtering frogs everywhere we found them. Twice we were forced to fight a lizard folk, but somehow we managed to subdue them rather than kill them. I believe it was Bob who had the steadying hand there. Me, I was out of my mind with grief and anger. It wasn’t until Liz pulled me back from killing three frogs who had surrendered did I even realize I had been wounded in many places, nicks and bruises that while not life threatening, would have slowed me down in previous battles.
I was just sick of all the death, if that makes any sort of sense. Even as I write that sentence I realized the irony of my words. I had to sit in that hall and collect my thoughts for in that instance I could see how easy it would be to slip over the edge and become that which I loathed. Liz disarmed the frogs and locked them in a storage room. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe. Breathing had been a struggle for a while. I had driven myself beyond exhaustion in the hours we stalked the halls. My throat hurt from the shouting, which would be a problem when I got around to healing the others. I couldn’t find the divine for a bit. Rage is not conducive to gods who abjure mindless violence. Violence against a worthy foe is one thing. Slaughtering the weak, despite their complicity in heinous crimes, shaded the white with too much gray.
So we sat in that hall, Bÿglar and Sparkle at one end, watching for enemies, with Bob and Rufus down the other end of the passage. Liz sat with me and placed her hand on my knee while leaning her head on my shoulder. She did not speak, but her presence helped to cool my blood. Impudent wrath coursed in my veins. I wanted to lash out, break things, make them pay. But no matter how many of the frogs I killed, it could not assuage the pain in my soul; could not fill the hole in my heart.
When my breathing had calmed to the point I could hear more than the throbbing heartbeat in my ears, I began to hear other voices. The three frogs, bound and captured, wept. They did not rail or shout. That was for the brave and the foolhardy. These three, simple followers of a corrupt power, wept for their families.
Gods I hated myself in that moment. Is this how good people did bad things? Granted the frogs were, as a civilization, cowardly, base and greedy. But honestly, doesn’t that apply to many of the world’s people? I must’ve sighed heavily because Liz patted me on the leg and stood, holding out a hand for me to rise along with her. When I was on my feet she hugged me and called Rufus and Bob to join us.
“Merric has a new plan,” she said as if she could see inside my head. The other two looked at me, watching for a clue to my mood. I didn’t have much of a plan, of course, but with Liz’s prompting the idea formed to the point I could articulate it.
I went to the storage closet and reached for the door. Bob’s hand shot out, grabbing me by the wrist, a look of fear in his eyes. How far down the line had I travelled this day? I turned and pulled him into a hug, letting the comfort of his stout frame and warm heart settle the last of my wrath.
“I won’t hurt them,” I said as I stepped back.
He looked into my face, touching my left cheek with his gloved hand. He glanced at Liz who nodded and that seemed enough for him. He stepped back and I opened the door.
The three frogs began to wail then. I was an avenging angel, mighty and covered in the spattered remains of other frogs. I cannot imagine what we must’ve looked like in that moment. So I did the things I understood to do. First I used one of the cantrips I had learned on that first day I could feel the divine. I pushed the limits beyond any I’d tried before, but I seemed to succeed. In one instant I looked a horror, and in the next, I was scrubbed clean. Blood and gore vanished in a blink and I knelt to the frogs, cutting their bonds and helping them each to their feet.
They were wounded and afraid. I knew a little of resolving that so I did the best of my calling. I healed them, calming their fears and bowed my head.
“I beg your forgiveness,” I said in the language I had always attributed to Liz’s people. Seems it is a broader language, one shared by any of the scaled races, and apparently, the frogs.
They did not respond, of course. I mean, would you? They did look at one another in confusion and fear, expecting some new torture, but I did not rise, and the others stepped back, giving them access to the door and the hall.
“I beg you take my words to the remainder of your people,” I said, looking up for the first time. “Tell them we would parley with the wizards. Tell them we will make a truce with your people if they come to terms. Tell them we will take the slaves you have captured and free them to their own devices.”
They looked around, eyes nearly as large as my head, panic apparent on their faces. “Or flee,” I said, understanding. “Tell any you see that we will not attack any who go unarmed. We are here for our friends.”
“And Leviathus,” Rufus broke in. Man he really hated that guy.
“And the human wizard,” I said, nodding. “Will you take our parlay?” I think Alfred would be comfortable with my attempt, though he was a much wiser ambassador than I.
Two of the frogs edged toward the door and when we did not stop them, hopped down the hall as if hell hounds were on their heels. Perhaps that is an apt description of who we had become.
“I will take your message,” the final frog said. I sat back on my heels and looked at this amphibian. He was mottled purple and green, colors that seemed more rare among those we’d ever fought. Perhaps it was a matter of rank, or a happenstance of birth. No matter, he looked into my face and did not shirk.
“We know of your coming,” he said, his voice as serious as any I had heard. “The old ones spoke of your coming in the ancient of days. He bowed then, touching his webbed left hand to his forehead. “You are he who comes to break the world.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” I replied.
For a long time he watched me, his eyes luminous orbs that held a depth and wisdom greater than I had ever considered the frogs having. “You may not have a choice in the end,” he said. “But I see in your eyes that you speak truth. I will warn the Lump of your words.”
I shook my head at those words. Lump? The froggy wizards were considered a lump? Could that be a happenstance? After all the years of being called Useless Lump, the coincidence boggled me. I moved aside and let him go. Bob escorted him to the end of the hall where Bÿglar nodded, accepting my actions without question.
“What is your name?” I called out.
“Nebuchadnezzar” he croaked and then was gone.
I sat back against the inside of the closet and closed my eyes. Let the others watch. We had some time before word would come back.
Either we would parlay, or we would fight to the death. Whichever, I was too tired to think for a little while.