Wonder Woman is Really Good

I finally got to see Wonder Woman (later than everybody else), and it was really good.

It was nice to see one of the DC movies have a hopeful hero. One that isn’t bitter and angry at the world. Wonder Woman even touches on that at certain points by having [minor spoilers] the realities of war threaten to turn her into the equivalent of a brooding Superman [/minor spoilers].

I could gush about the movie endlessly, both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine were fantastic, as well as the whole supporting cast, but you don’t need me to tell you it’s a good movie.

I hope the other DC movies learn something from Wonder Woman, because right now the only DC movie I’m interested in watching is Wonder Woman 2.

What did you think of Wonder Woman? And where would you rank it compared to the other superhero movies?

Tarr of Tarrs

This story takes place in the same world as The Horned Scarab, but follows the Tarr and one of his bodyguards trying to evade an assassination attempt. Other than sharing a secondary world, the two stories don't connect in any way. Although, in theory, Tarr of Tarrs takes place while Arn and Rohqim are dealing with the Horned Scarab.

***

Tarr Oben, Tarr of Tarrs, regarded the land of his empire from a balcony of his temple fortress. Green fields spread before him, cut by mountain ridges and deep valleys. The mighty swing of the river Rund touched the horizon.

Eldara watched from behind silken curtains. Light from the noonday’s sun gleamed off her bronze cuirass. The Tarr had power, a power that was unseen to the eye, but heard in the depths of his voice, and perceived in the stride of his gait, the set of his shoulders, the pits of his eyes.

Tarr Oben turned from the balcony and strode into his chamber, robes embroidered with gold and silver trailing behind him. His necklaces and bracelets sang a soft clangour. Eldara followed, silent, and stood at the study’s entrance with Dula, another guard. 

“Eldara, come and look at this.” The Tarr’s voice resounded deep in Eldara’s chest.

Eldara obeyed, approaching the Tarr’s side, peering at the maps on his desk. Eldara gave the Tarr her counsel, in a soft, quiet voice. Her lips brushed the Tarr’s ear. He nodded to her, and without another word she returned to the doorway and stood alert. She noted Dula’s sideways glance.

Eldara’s eyes darted to a flicker of movement near the balcony. She took a step forward, and the first arrow flew. Her shield was up in time for the arrow to ping against its hardened bronze. Guards lurking in the shadows leaped forward. Four assailants in black cloth stalked into the Tarr’s chamber, bows at the ready. But the other guards did not engage them.

“What are you waiting for?” Dula said as he charged forward, shield upraised. But before he could reach the black clad men, a guard sliced open Dula’s throat. Dula fell to his knees, blood pulsing from his throat.

Their eyes alighted on Eldara.

She dashed into the study, swung the heavy oaken door shut, and slid the deadbolt into place. The Tarr was on his feet.

“What has happened?”

“We’ve been betrayed.”

He ran a hand over his beard. Then, he regarded her with a questioning gaze.

Eldara said, “the secret passage, it’s the only way out.”

Tarr Oben nodded, and together they moved the large desk to reveal the trapdoor beneath.

They darted through the secret corridor. They came to a barrack’s door. Eldara opened it just enough to peer through the gap. Her heart froze, a pile of bodies was all that remained of the fifth quarter guards. Their weapons and armor stolen.

Tarr Oben lightly touched her arm. “Whoever did this will suffer the Tarr’s justice.”

She turned from the gruesome sight.

Eldara continued down the corridor. “I know an unused passage to Counsel Orla’s chamber, there you will be safe until we learn how deep this betrayal’s roots are.”

“I trust Orla, but I will not hide. Together we will weed out the scum that mean to mock the Tarr.”

A side door opened, and a guard adorned as she was stepped into the passage. Her grip tightened on her sickle-sword.

“Hail,” the guard called. “We’ve trapped the traitors in the Tarr’s chambers.”

How long had they been walking for? This passage cut through complex networks of rooms and servant-ways. Would the guards in this quarter of the temple fortress know what had happened in the Tarr’s chamber?

“Have you notified the fifth quarter?” Eldara asked.

The guard hesitated, “yes.” His hand drifted toward his belt.

A dagger twirled through the air—not at Eldara, but at the Tarr. Eldara leaped in the way and felt the force of the dagger slam into her cuirass. She reeled into Oben’s arms.

He gasped. “Eldara…”

The man lunged. Eldara deflected a strike with her shield and used the deep curve of her sickle-sword to hook the man’s ankle and pull it out from under him. He went sprawling. She struck with the edge of her shield, and the man’s skull crunched and squelched under the force of her blow.

She turned to the Tarr. He leaned on the wall, rattled, but unharmed. Eldara pressed a hand to Tarr Oben’s shoulder. His eyes danced for a moment, and he gave her a weary smile.

She led the way, her shield dripping brain matter.

They came to the door of Orla’s chamber. Eldara opened it slightly and peered through. Orla, hunched and gray bearded, spoke quietly with one of his personal guards. Instinct held her back. Instead, she strained to hear the Counsel’s words.

“Is it done?” Orla asked.

“He escaped into a secret passage. Below we found a dead man, and no sign of the Tarr. He must have turned to a passageway unknown to us.”

“This damned place is hollow with rat holes. Unsurprising he would hide in one.”

Eldara’s heart thrummed. It was Orla who had killed her companions and tried to murder the Tarr. Oben—who had heard Orla’s words as well—nodded to her.

It was in silence that she emerged from the secret passage, and without joy that she struck down Orla’s guard. He did not have time to draw his blade.

Orla screamed. Eldara swung swift and true, and Orla’s head was severed from his shoulders.

Tarr Oben pulled Eldara close and whispered, “bring me Orla’s firstborn so that we might learn how deep this betrayal’s roots are.” His lips brushed her ear.

Monolith

This is an oldie I wrote a couple years ago. It's set in a world that I never fully fleshed out, where a native species of scaled creatures called Goras fight off an invading alien force. And throughout the Goras' planet are these ancient monolithic structures that they revere. Honestly, I can't remember what role the monoliths were supposed to play in the overarching story.

This piece is far from perfect, but I've decided to post it as is. I only gave it a very cursory edit for minor typos and errors. Otherwise, it's presented in all its pockmarked glory. 

***

The monolith touched the clouds. They swirled around the top of the massive gray column like the clouds of a mountain peak. At the very top, Arlon thought he could see specks of snow. Around its base were skeletons of Goras that had come before him, their corpses mangled and twisted in on themselves. I will not fail.

The monolith had been here since time before memory, since time before time, and all the while it sat silently contemplating. Arlon, feeling the chill seep between his green scale plates and seek out his flesh beneath, reached out a hand and touched the monolith.

Nothing happened.

Am I not worthy?

Arlon had travelled through the grand forests and swamplands and into the realm of the Gora’s enemies, all the while hoping beyond hope that he would be chosen by the monolith. But no visions came to him, no whispered words found his ears, no otherworldly beings reached out to touch his flesh.

Arlon shrugged, his scales screeching against one another, and he craned his head to look toward the monolith’s peak. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps there is a way to show my worthiness.

Arlon marched around the base of the monolith, it was so large it would have taken him days to make a full rotation, but after a few hours he found what he had hoped for--a stair. A series of horizontal stones jutted out of the monolith’s gray stone. They were not connected, and some were farther apart than the others, but Arlon could climb it.

And so he did, reaching one hand above the other to grasp the stones and use those below him as footholds, he climbed. And climbed. And climbed. Arcing through the sky, the twin moons shone on him with soft pale light, and the sun rose once more. And still Arlon climbed, heaving from the effort, never stopping. How many days past he could not know, but soon he felt the cold chill of the monolith’s peak, and reached an opening at the very top of the monolith. Arlon crawled into it, hauling himself over the caves lip and falling to the ground, panting and heaving. And before he could bring himself to his feet, he passed out from exhaustion. How much time had passed he did not know, but he awoke to the sun high in the sky and its light warm on his scales.

Arlon now looked into the cave, it was a smooth and perfectly round tunnel, the sun’s light illuminated it from holes in the ceiling. He took the bladed chakram from his hip, and holding it firm in his hand began the long march forward. It was long and slow, but soon he came to a grand opening that led into a circular room. And in the center of this room was the decayed skeleton of a Gora, one such as him. He approached the skeleton, reached a trembling hand to touch its surface, and felt nothing but dry bone. The monolith had been his faith, the one thing his people could see from all their land, the one hope of another, a better place. And now he had climbed this ancient and holy place to find nothing but a corpse. There were no answers for his people here, no secret knowledge, no whispers from the afterlife.

The room led nowhere, there was no other stair, no secret room. And it was a long and slow walk back to the cave’s entrance. And as he stood at the lip of the cave, he thought, how can I return to my people? How can I tell them everything we believed was a lie. He couldn’t, because he couldn’t bear to break the hearts of a thousand generations with the truth that he was now faced with.

And so, with a hollow place in his chest and a tear in his eye, he stepped out over the precipice of the cave--and fell.

The Orendotsky Bear

Illustration by Amanda Lien | Twitter | Website |

Illustration by Amanda Lien | Twitter | Website |

I originally wrote this for an anthology submission, the guideline being that the story had to deal with the personification of DEATH. I don't think I leaned into the theme heavy enough, and ultimately ended up with a war story. Still, I like the world and characters of The Orendotsky Bear and would like to revisit it in the future.

***

Ana marched forward. The battlefield around her a fresco of corpses marked by arrows and blades. She had marched for seven days and seven nights. The small elderly man in the distance nodded to her. For seven days she lived when she should have been dead.

Orendotsky Palace loomed over her. A spired shadow of stone and glass. Cries rose up from its gate. The rebellion, her rebellion, were storming the palace.

And they were all going to die. Just like she had.

The old man inhaled from his hookah, pale smoke billowed from his nostrils. He stood over the body of an Orendotsky soldier, running a finger along the blood slick blade.

When the Orendotsky Bear fell, Ana would die.

Smoke billowed from tubes and pipes that protruded from the old man’s back. The smoke twisted and whorled, forming faces caught mid scream, only to fade once more. The old man tilted his head toward her.

Your people fail, his voice like droplets of dew spoke in her mind. The old man’s mouth did not move. Hurry.

 She marched. Her boots crunched the snow beneath her. It fell lazily, resting on her shoulders, mixing with the white of her leopard skin cloak.   

The clangor of metal grew louder. Then the boom of a battering ram against thick oaken gates. This was their final push. They’d known it weeks ago. The rebellion marched forward, even as Ana had fallen.

And still, she could not let go. She had to see it to its end. The bodies around become fresher, until they steamed with the warmth of life they’d lost. They old man inhaled, the smoke whirling into his nostrils. The pipes upon his back sputtered, gouts of mist rising from them.

“Must you follow me?” Ana said, her voice low, nearly a whisper.

I will collect your promise soon. The old man, who she knew to be Death, spread his arms to the battlefield. There is much to collect here.

Ana had heard many stories of Death. From the people in the south, to the westerners who thought it a pathway to a paradise, but to her it was Neiz. The spreading of black frost, the oncoming storm, the one and only truth. Neiz came for all, whatever name or form it took, it was the inevitable.

Neiz inhaled from his hookah, I want to see you keep your promise.

“How could I not?”

Neiz titled his head, his eyebrow rising in a curiously quizzical expression.

She continued forward. Ana had thought on it, the deal they’d made, she lived to kill the Bear. But if it were done by another’s hand, then maybe…

The rebels were clustered before the gate. They held shields over their heads as the Orendotsky soldiers rained down arrows from the high wall.

One of the rebels, Igin, turned to her. “You, join the others…” he trailed of, recognition widening his eyes. “Ana, it can’t be.”

“It is.”

She surveyed what remained of her troops. Not much. An arrow struck a man working the battering ram. He collapsed, and another tried to pull him beyond the arrows’ range, to where Igin and Ana stood. Another arrow whistled through the air, piercing the chest of the second man. They both lay on the ground moaning. The others kept working the ram, but there wasn’t enough of them and they couldn’t lower their shields.

“This your idea, Igin?”

Igin straightened, “they would have butchered us if we stayed on the open tundra.”

“They already butchered us.”

“But there forces were retreating to the palace. We pressed on, harrying and taking out as many as we could. We couldn’t let them regroup, we couldn’t let them get behind the palace walls.”

“And did they?” Ana asked.

“Some, but we dwindled their numbers. They haven’t had a proper rest, a proper meal, in days.”

“Neither have you.”

Igin ran his hand over his thick unkempt moustache, “if they recouped and marched on us on the tundra, we wouldn’t have had a chance.”

“A handful of men can defend these walls.”

“We had to try. After you fell…” Igin seemed to regard her, seeing her again for the first time. “You once said even Neiz couldn’t keep you from seeing Orendotsky’s head roll.”

“I meant it.”

“I fear it’s for naught.” Igin turned to the palace, craning his head to see the wall’s top.

“Tell the men to stop trying to force the gate. Focus on staying alive, but make a show with the ram. Make the Orendotskys think we’re still trying to take down the gate.”

“You have a plan?”

Ana looked to the archers, “I need three soldiers. Hulga, Dremlin, and Arstof.”

“Dremlin fell on the tundra, and Arstof… isn’t whole.”

“Just Hulga, then. We’ll clear a path for the battering ram. Tell the men to be ready to break down the gate. No shields, no distractions. When the archers start to fall, the gate has to come down.”

“Yes, sir.” Igin called over a man and started relaying the orders.

Neiz stood behind Igin, Ana could see him over the old soldier’s shoulder. Neiz smiled, taking a long drag on his hookah. 

***

Hulga towered over Ana, a spear and shield on her back. They both had thick coils of rope with grappling hooks on the end. Together they made their way around the castle, crouching low among the mounds of bodies and banks of snow. The archers on the wall were focused on the main gate, they knew there wasn’t much of the rebellion left. An attack on the wall seemed folly, and it likely was.

Arstof waited for them, he crouched beside a mound of the dead. The older man stood, straight backed, and Ana saw what Igin had meant. Arstof’s arm was gone. Severed at the shoulder. A dozen spears were embedded in the ground beside him. He had insisted on helping, and though he might not be able to climb a rope, he could still throw a spear.

Ana and Hulga nodded to him, then approached the east wall. It was out of sight of the main gate. As they approached a guard passed on the wall overhead. He must have seen them, he leaned over the wall’s lip to squint through the falling snow. And Arstof’s spear pierced the man’s neck, sending him toppling backward. Someone would notice that, and then archer’s would be on the wall and Arstof would have to retreat from throwing distance lest he be riddled with arrows.

They twirled their grappling hooks, hurling them into the air. They arced over the wall, and with a screech of steel on stone, took hold on the merlons. They began to climb, pulling themselves up the wall.

Shouts from the other side. Another man looked past the wall, and a moment later Arstof’s spear struck him. Ana made out pieces of muffled shouts, “kill the spearmen,” “cut the ropes.” They climbed faster.

An Orendotsky soldier began sawing at the ropes, while a pair of archers scanned the ground for the “spearmen.” The first archer didn’t see the spear that struck him, but the second let his arrow loose. A moment later, another spear struck that man down.

“How many spearmen are out there?”

“Do they have a reserve?”

Ana’s lips twisted into a smirk.

More archers, but they crouched next to the merlons, fearful. Another spear struck the man sawing at Ana’s rope, then the one sawing at Hulga’s went down.

The archers let their arrows loose.

“I got one,” an Orendotsky said.

Ana reached the top of the wall, her hand over its lip. A sword raised over her head, ready to strike, but a spear sent the man spiraling backward. She pulled herself up.

Ana was on the wall.

An archer turned, knocked an arrow, and loosed. Ana spun, the arrow thudding into the shield at her back, and drew her blade. She ignored the archer and instead charged toward the man raising his blade to strike down the still climbing Hulga. The blade thrust for Hulga’s head, but Ana’s own sword forced it away. Before he could bring the blade around for another swing, Ana hooked her arm around his neck and spun him to face the first archer.

An arrow pierced into the Orendotsky soldier. The archer lowered his bow, mouth agape. Too late he turned his head to the sound of a whistling spear, it pierced his throat, a gout of red splattering across the smooth cut stone.

Another man charged Ana, but Hulga was there with her spear. She tangled his legs, sending him sprawling, his helmet tumbling away. She stomped on his head, brain matter and skull fragments scattered across the stone.

An archer screamed at the sight, fleeing.

Three remained, and they raised their bows. Ana and Hulga had unslung their shields, and now they stood shoulder to shoulder, shields up. They marched forward as arrow thudded into their shields of wood and steel. Twice the arrow point pierced through, threatening Ana’s face. Still, the two women marched.

One of the archers began to back away.

“Hold!” Someone shouted.

“There’s only two of them,” said another.

Hulga thrust her spear without lowering her shield. The blade sliced the archer’s arm, he stumbled back. Ana had grabbed one of Arstof’s spears, and now she thrust out as well. A slice here, a cut there, and the archer’s were stumbling back. One grew angry, with a cry he drew his sword and charged. Ana thrust her spear through his throat, it protruded from the back of his neck.

She kicked his body off the end of her spear. The other archer’s turned and ran.

“They’ll send more,” Ana said.

“We have time,” Hulga’s gripped tightened and loosened on her spear, “they’ll have trouble believing there are only two of us.”

“Good, better that they think we’re a squad. Anything to relieve pressure from the main gate.” Ana moved to the other side of the wall, the courtyard below bustled with activity. “They’ll be coming soon. Maybe if we can get Arstof—“

“He’s gone.”

Ana rushed to peer past the wall. Hunched over on his knees was Arstof, two arrows protruding from his chest.

A pit formed in her stomach. Is there a point to this if they all die? Neiz plucked a feather from one of the arrows. She looked away, and there Neiz stood atop the wall, kneeling down to caress one of the Orendotsky’s insignia. She had worn that insignia once, draped over steel plate, marching through the snows to the west.

Neiz exhaled smoke and it swirled around Hulga’s ankles, small spectral hands clinging to her fur boots.

“Come one,” Ana said, “we have to keep moving. We need to disrupt those archers so our men can break down the gate.”

 A squad formed in the courtyard below and began making their way to the parapet. They were coming for the rebels. Ana and Hulga took off at a run, darting along the wall to where the archers were concentrated on firing at the battering ram. Two archers didn’t see Ana’s and Hulga’s striking shields, they went toppling over the wall, arms cartwheeling uselessly. Thudding crunches resounded from the impacts.

The other archers twirled, aiming their bows at the two intruders. Both Ana and Hulga let their spears fly. Two more archers went down. Their shields were up as a cascade of arrows whistled past, their shields sang a war song with each collision. The two charged, drawing their swords, and closed the gap between themselves and the archers—who were forced to draw their own blades.

The archers weren’t prepared for close combat, all they had were blades, no shields, and were lightly armoured. Ana struck, digging her blade deep into on man’s chest. Another stabbed at her side, the blade sparked as it hit the steel of her chest plate. She thrust the hilt of her sword into his face, sending him reeling with a bloody nose.

The Orendotsky archers charged. They tried to rush the two women and overwhelm them. But Ana and Hulga had their shields up, and shoulder-to-shoulder on the narrow wall path they were an immovable wall. As the Orendotsky tried to pry their shields away, the rebels lashed out with their blades, cutting streaks of red into the archers.

Booming resounded up the wall, and the gate creaked and groaned.

Men in the courtyard began shouting.

Ana stabbed, a man stumbled, knocking another behind him and the two fell in a tangle of limbs.

Another boom.

Hulga thrust with her shield, but an archer had gotten around her, his blade dug deep into her thigh. Blood pulsed from the wound, too much blood. Hulga whirled, striking him in the throat with her shield. His larynx collapsed, and he gurgled, struggling to suck in air. 

More shouting from the courtyard.

Boom.

Hulga wavered, struggling to stay on her feet.

Ana marched, her blade a whirlwind of steel. Red arced through the air, bone cracked from her shield, and men cried out as they were struck down.

Boom.

Hulga fell, ashen faced, panting, beads of sweat on her brow.

A thunderous crack, a screech of steel. The gate collapsed. She heard men cry out below, followed by the clangor of steel. The rebels charged into the courtyard.

Ana tore a length of fabric from her tunic and bound Hulga’s wound. The big women wheezed, but a smile played at the edges of her lips.

“We did it,” Hulga grabbed Ana’s arm, “almost there, Ana, we’ve nearly done it.” Hulga’s grip loosened, and her eyes closed. Her chest rising and falling with the faintest of breaths.

Ana held Hulga’s hand. “We’ll do it, I promise.”

The Orendotsky retreated deeper into the palace. Ana marched to a lower parapet, and her soldiers finally saw her. Many grew silent, some whispered prayers, and others spoke of the Leopard who could not be felled. 

“It’s not over,” she called to them. “It’s not over until the Bear and all his cubs are dead.”

They cheered, bloodlust in their eyes. That was all they needed. The Leopard returned to them, and now they stood within the Orendotsky’s palace, its soldiers retreating. The rebels were beaten and bloodied, stomachs empty, limbs tired, but now they were fueled on faith.

They charged into the palace, searching out those that remained, killing all that bore the Orendotsky Bear.

Ana marched through the main hall. Massive double doors, stained glass embedded within, shone with the setting sun’s light.

She knew he would be waiting beyond those doors. He who had once bounced her on his knee, a child, and told her stories of the wilds. He who she had yearned to please while bearing the mark of the Bear.

She swung the doors open. The grand throne room was empty, light spilled in from the setting sun. The very top domed with stained glass, the floor slick marble tiles. And there he sat, the Orendotsky Bear, upon his throne of ivory and gold. He bore a cloak of bear fur, the bear’s head resting at his shoulder, its mouth open in a wordless roar. Orendotsky was a burly, barrel-chested man with dark hair that merged with his bramble bush beard.

His sword, unsheathed, rested across his knees. He smiled at her. She hated the flood of resentment that flowed into her. The feeling of embarrassment, mocking.

“Little doll,” he said. He had always called her that, a pretty thing. “You’ve finally come back to me. You made your point. Stop it. Now.”

“No.”

“No? Funny. Funny how now it’s no. But not when I gave you luxury. Not when I made you the most powerful Orendotsky in the east. Then, it was yes.

Ana was silent.

“No words? How far will you take this, is humiliating me not enough?”

Ana raised her shield and readied her sword. She scanned the room, his Imperators—personal bodyguards—were not there.

Orendotsky tilted his head. He seemed amused. But Ana could see the fear behind his eyes. Orendotsky raised his sword and took a step forward.

They circled. Slow measured movements, each waiting for the other to strike. Neiz took a long drag on his hookah, amusement shamelessly displayed on his features.

Don’t take too long, he said.

The Bear struck, trying to overpower her with his height and weight. Her shield took the blow, and she darted in with her sword, clipping him on the cheek. A testing strike from the Leopard.

Orendotsky growled, deep and guttural. He grabbed the edge of her shield, trying to pull it away. She thrust with her blade, he parried, and in the moment her arm went wide he slammed his forehead into hers.

Ana reeled, stumbling back. Black dots danced before her eyes. He reached out, fingers twisted into a claw, and grasped for her throat. A sliding cut streaked red across his hand. He pulled it close to his body. Ana thrust with her shield, putting her weight behind it. He stumbled, lost his footing, and fell.

Take your prize.

Ana thrust. Her blade dug deep into Orendotsky’s chest. She twisted, watching as agony and realization played on Orendotsky’s face. This is what she wanted. This was why she gave her soul to Neiz, for this moment. To see the pain of her father twisted on his face, to see the realization that his little doll was so much more.

***

Igin’s boots clomped through the grand hall. They were stained black with blood. Men ran at his side. They all froze as they entered the throne room. Sprawled on the tiles lay Orendotsky, the Bear himself. And beside him, on her knees, was Ana clutching the sword that pierced his chest. Her head lolled, her chest still.

“She did it,” Igin whispered. And then louder, “the Leopard killed the Bear.”

The rebels stood in silence. Hulga, aided by two others, approached Ana, knelt, and whispered a prayer. Others did the same, bowing their heads to her.

One of the men approached Igin and said, “what of the Imperators?”

“Let them run, there’s nothing they can do now.”

“One of the servants says they left with a boy.”

“So?”

The soldier took in a breath. “He is of Orendotsky’s blood.”

Igin brushed his moustache, looked to the sky, and then to Ana. “Find them, kill them.”

“Sir, even the boy?”

“In Ana’s own words, it’s not over until the Bear and all his cubs are dead.”

Camp NaNoWriMo and the Mighty Newsletter

Camp NaNoWriMo turned out to be a success. I’d pledged to write 20,500 words, and I hit that goal plus 55 extra words.

The project was the sequel to The Horned Scarab, tentatively titled The Underbelly War. I had already written 10,000 words of the rough draft, and wanted to use Camp NaNo to spur me on to finishing it. I’d guesstimated that the story would only need 30,000 words to tell, but I’d been wrong. Looking at the rough draft and all the dangling plot threads, I’d think it needs another 20,000 words before it’s a complete (albeit rough) story.

I don’t know when it’ll get those extra words. As I’ve said on here and on my twitter, The Underbelly War is unlikely to see the light of day. The Horned Scarab just didn’t make enough to justify the expense of self-publishing a sequel. So for now, I’ve written 30,000 words of it—including some rough endings—and made a ton of notes for whenever (if) I return to it.

In its place I’ve been working on submissions for shorter works, but I’m going to devote the majority of my writing time to finishing a full length novel. Once done, I plan on shopping it around to be traditionally published. Wish me luck.

 

The Mighty Newsletter

In other news, I’ve made a newsletter. You can subscribe here or on the sidebar of my blog. It’ll be a sorta monthly email letting you know when new stuff I’ve made comes out, as well as book recommendations, and sometimes even a mini-blog only for subscribers. I plan on including other goodies in it, short stories, poems, and even giveaways. SUBSCRIBE and you’ll get it all sent right into your inbox!

Book Recommendations: Cyberpunk, Luchadores, and Elder-Thing Monstrosities

Necrotech

Necrotech is a gut punch of a cyberpunk novel. It has a protagonist who'll tear your nards out through your throat, a brutal unforgiving world, and nanotech zombies. What more do you need? Go buy it!

| Amazon | Goodreads |

 

Rencor: Life in Grudge City

Luchadores are the heroes and villains. They orchestrate crimes on a grand scale, only to be thwarted by the hero luchadores. Thing is, those were the old days, and two rival luchadores from those bygone times have to team up to solve a museum robbery. Cross chops, body slams, and ass kickery ensues. This book straight up made me happy. I couldn't put it down. Go. Buy. It.

| Amazon | Goodreads |

 

Hammers on Bone

Hammers on Bone is gross in the best way. Following a private investigator who's also an eldritch horror monstrosity as he tries to put down other equally horrifying eldritch monstrosities. The story is enthralling, with a macabre sort of fascination to detail, and prose that is at a master craft level of artistry. GO BUY IT!

| Amazon | Goodreads |

Goodreads Giveaway: The Horned Scarab

The Horned Scarab is up for grabs over at Goodreads. If you have a Goodreads account you can enter for a chance to win one of two paperback copies. The giveaway is only open to U.S. and Canadian residents. 

If you've been curious about my work, this is a dang good way to job on board at no cost.

Edit (April 23, 2017): The giveaway has ended. Thanks to everyone who entered!

The Book of Jewels

Illustration by Monica G. Cabral | twitter | tumblr | Instagram |

Illustration by Monica G. Cabral | twitter | tumblr | Instagram |

I wrote this short story a little over a year ago. Then, I didn't really have any intentions on what to do with it. All I knew was that I had come up with this fantasy world and I wanted to write something in it. Enter Hrusk, the half-orc half-gnome ass kicker. (I also have a rough novella with her has the protagonist.) 

This world, at the moment referred to as Aftania, is my own version of orcs, gnomes, and elves. I came around to this late, I think most fantasy writers probably start with the elves, get it out of their system, and then transition to more creative stuff. I did the reverse, writing weird shit before I decided "fuck it," I wanted to write about orcs. Some of the worldbuilding elements have changed since I wrote The Book of Jewels, but I've decided to upload it warts and all. Hopefully, you'll see more of Hrusk in the future.

***

The orc punched Hrusk in the face.

Roll with the punch.

“Half-breed’s got nothing clever to say now?” He jabbed her in the gut.

Groan, make them think it hurts.

The orcs tossed her against the wall, and the biggest most tattooed of them leaned forward and said, “we don’t want to see you around here again. Ever.”

Avert your eyes, make them think you’re scared.

They sauntered off, seeming real proud of themselves.

Hrusk spat blood onto the alleyway’s cobbles. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, and then felt her ribs. Nothing was broken. She rolled her tongue around her tusks, both still there. Hrusk crouched near the opposite wall and searched the grime crusted cobbles. There it is. A key, covered in small markings, which she managed to swipe from one of the orcs. They hadn’t even noticed as she tossed it to the side.       

This better be worth it.

She walked into the street and pulled up her hood. The people here were packed shoulder to shoulder. She sidestepped a bushy bearded gnome, and shouldered past a giant beetle who warbled a complaint at her. She averted her gaze from a pack of orcs, muscular and hairless with black pupilless eyes, and ducked under a floating cart. Its levitation sigils warm on her skin. She came face-to-face with an armastoat, who snorted snot onto her and then licked it off. A moment later its handler cracked a whip and the stoat lumbered on hauling the cart at its back.

Hrusk squeezed her way to a side street that led to the Teal district. It stunk of rotted meat. She checked the dagger at her waist and laid a hand on the pommel of her sword. This was one of the places in the city of Aftan that few wanted to be in. The tenements were made of rotted wood and cracked bricks. She rounded a corner and found herself walking in the space between two tenements, barely wide enough for her to fit. There were a lot of shadowed corners someone could disappear into. One bad job for the wrong kind of people and Hrusk would find herself in one of those nooks. She didn’t like the Teal district.    

A man with a golden beard and long matted hair slumped against a wall with a canteen in his hand. Even in that position Hrusk could tell he was tall and lanky, and the pointed ears added to the effect.

Hrusk kicked him, and he looked up at her, his face angular, his nose hawkish, and his eyes a vibrant blue.

“Hello Ellbrim, I got what you wanted.” Hrusk tossed the key into his lap.

Ellbrim rolled it between his fingers, took a swig from his canteen, and said, “well, shit. I didn’t think you could do it.”

“I’ve been dealing with orc gangs ever since I can remember. I barely broke a sweat.” One of her bruises radiated a dull ache.

 Ellbrim rose from his place, making sure to secure his canteen on a loop at his belt, and began to lead Hrusk deeper into the Teal district. All five feet of her had to look upward to see his face. It was hard to believe that this ragged elf had once been a renowned incanter. His faded red waistcoat with dangling threads made him look like a vagabond.

Ellbrim kept taking swigs from his canteen. He staggered once, leaned against a wall, and then regained himself. She’d done jobs for him before, and when he promised a payout he was good for it. Even if the job ended in a maelstrom of spectral fire.

Ellbrim stopped before a dilapidated tenement missing four of its walls and all of its roof. Ellbrim stepped over the rubble into the building. Hrusk chuckled as she walked through the only standing door.

“You needed a key for this place?” Hrusk said.

Ellbrim held the key pointed downward between his forefinger and thumb. “The key is sigiled, though I doubt the orcs knew that.” The key moved slightly as Ellbrim paced through the tenement. “The best place to hide a secret is where no one will look for it.”

Brilliant.

“Here,” the key in Ellbrim’s hand vibrated from an unseen force. “Tear up these floorboards. Now.”

Hrusk sauntered forward, “take it easy with the commands and the ‘now.’” Hrusk jammed her dagger between the floorboards and pried them up. She looked into the opening to see solid steel. “Well shit. There is something here.” She pulled up the rest of the floorboards to reveal a steel door. It was covered in sigils similar to those on the key, and had no hinges or keyholes. “And how does this thing open up?”

Ellbrim let go of the key and it hovered above the steel plate. With a few whispered words, a motion of his hands, and a spark of blue light, it began to lower. Jagged sigils glowed when it touched the steel plate, and the key melted into the steel. There was a grinding noise, and the plate dissipated. A cloud of gray-blue mist rose around them. Hrusk batted her hand in front of her face.

Ellbrim bowed, “after you.”

“What’s down there?”

“An ancient temple to a forgotten god.”

That was never good. “What exactly is it you’re looking for?”

Ellbrim shrugged. “There will be gems and jewels, enough to pay you what I promised twice over.”

Hrusk was getting that festering feeling in the pit of her stomach. An ambiguous incanter and an ancient temple never went well together. But temples were notorious for being lavish. She inclined her head toward the opening, “pointy ears first.”

Ellbrim extended his hands as if to say “as you wish” and descended the stair. Hrusk followed. The stair led far beneath Aftan. It spiraled around a thick column. The stair led into a long hall with unused lanterns hanging from the walls. Ellbrim snapped his fingers as they passed these and each one burst to life with green fire. They came to a grand chamber, and her eyes widened. Gems. A lot of fucking gems. They lined the walls, embedded in the stone to make murals and frescoes. Even the pillars were covered in rubies and sapphires. Jewel encrusted serpents spiraled up the pillars. 

Ellbrim marched into the chamber.

“Wait, what are you doing?”

He spun on a heel and raised his hands to take in the whole chamber. “What’s it matter, look at all this. Start taking as much as you can carry. It’s your reward.” And he turned his back to her.

Hrusk drew her dagger and started popping jewels out of the walls. She stuffed as many as she could into her satchel, all the while keeping an eye on Ellbrim. There was so much here, her gaze travelled along the walls and ceilings. If no one else knew of this place, she could live like a king, coming back to harvest it all. But Ellbrim knew of it. She didn’t even like elves.

Hrusk shook those thoughts from her mind. Don’t go to that dark place. You’re better than that.

Hrusk made for the door. She glanced over her shoulder. In the center of the far wall was a massive serpent statue coiled in on itself. It was covered in crimson and amber jewels, and its maw was closed. Ellbrim raised his hands above his head, and spoke in a language Hrusk didn’t recognize. The air around him went muddy, and the serpent’s head rose. It brought its great head back, opened its maw, and slammed down on Ellbrim. Its maw closed over the elf, and then it returned to its resting position. Ellbrim was gone. No blood, no fabric, not even scuff marks on the tiled floor.

Hrusk knew enough about incanters and gods to turn her back on the temple. A small part of her was curious as to what she had just witnessed, but she buried that part, along with the entrance to the temple. She heaped broken beams and mounds of bricks over the entranceway to make sure no one else found it. Maybe she’d come back later for more gemstone. For now, she was going to get out of the Teal district.

***

Hrusk spent her gems all over the city of Aftan. She had gone from tavern to tavern gulping as much ale as she could and getting thrown into the street for being too rowdy. She was half asleep, her face pressed against slimy cobbles, when two bugmen approached her.

“You the half-orc half-gnome?” One of them warbled at her through its face mandibles.

When Hrusk gave a groan for an answer the second one, which looked like a hunched over beetle, said, “what else would she be? Look at her.”

The bugman’s tone roused Hrusk, and she stumbled to her feet. “Whadya sez?” She fumbled at the hilt of her sword but couldn’t get it free.

Each bugman grabbed one of her arms and started dragging her through the back alleys of Aftan. By the time Hrusk was regaining herself she was against a dead end wall facing three figures. Two were the ant and beetle bugmen, and the third was a man in a thick cloak with his hood drawn. She could see a tangled white beard spilling out of the hood. Symbols around his eye emanated a muted glow. Sigils?.  

“You are Hrusk?” The man said.

She nodded.

“I need to ask you about the Teal District.”

She didn’t answer.

“Rumor is a half-orc half-gnome was seen with an elf named Ellbrim. Do you know who that is?”

“No.”

The man raised a hand from within his cloak and snapped his fingers. A circle of red lightning surrounded Hrusk. “Wrong answer. What did Ellbrim show you in the Teal district?”

“Nothing.”

He snapped his fingers again and the circle of lightning tightened. She could feel its heat on her legs, and the crackling made her ears ring.  

Two four-armed bugmen and an incanter, the odds weren’t in her favor. Bide my time.

“Temple,” Hrusk submitted. “A temple.”

“Good. What kind of temple?”

“I don’t know,” she lied. Let him think her ignorant. The circle of lightened edged closer. “There were jewels everywhere, and snakes. That’s all I saw.”    

A smile played on the man’s lips. “Good, good. Now, you’re going to show me where it is. And remember, if you try anything clever, I’ll end you.”

She nodded.

The lightning faded, and Hrusk remembered to breath. I’ll run you through, old man. A set of insectoid hands took the sword and dagger at her hip, and then pushed her forward.

“Walk,” the ant one said.

Hrusk decided to take the long way to the Teal District.      

She came to learn that the ant was named Kank and the beetle was named Bamb. The old man said nothing other than “keep walking.”

Hrusk figured she could take down one of the bugs, maybe both if she managed to pry her weapons from them, but the old man at her back was a problem.

Carbun Avenue came into sight, dense with Aftan citizens. Hrusk led them as near as she dared. Her foot struck out, and Bamb’s knee twisted at an awkward angle. The beetle let out a warbled cry of pain. Hrusk tore her arm free of Kank’s grasp and darted into the crowd of Carbun Avenue.

She shouldered past a gnome, who went toppling into a human, who knocked down three other people. Bamb and Kank warbled at her, and a quick glance showed them charging into the crowd. They stumbled and shoved the confused onlookers out of their way. Hrusk ducked under a floating cart, pressed her hands to its bottom, and heaved. The levitation sigils groaned as the cart tipped. They couldn’t support the cart at a lopsided angle, and it fell with a crash, spilling cabbages and grains into the street.

Everyone in the street stared at the overturned cart and the two bugmen that clambered over it. Two orcs drew Hrusk’s eye. One had a myriad of tattoos across his body, it was the orc she’d stolen the key from. Hrusk dashed toward him, the bugmen on her heels. Too late the orc saw her fist streaking toward his face. The impact resounded with a meaty thud. Hrusk managed a quick “fucker” before sidestepping the stunned orc and barreling into the crowd. The bugmen collided with the orcs and they all tumbled into a heap of flailing limbs.

Hrusk darted into an alley. The tumult of the crowd faded as she dashed away. The alley opened onto a narrow street. Just as she rounded a corner, something grasped her leg. Off balance, she stumbled to the ground. The pressure writhed up her legs and to her abdomen. Her arms were pinned to her sides, and something hissed, its tongue licking her ear.

A red scaled snake coiled around her. The old man loomed over her. He spoke a strange language, and the snake tightened.  

“Now,” the old man said through clenched teeth, “you’re not going to do that again.” With a word the snake raised Hrusk to her feet.  “We’re going to the Teal District, and you’re showing me to that doorway. Or—“ the snake tightened and twisted as he spoke that strange tongue. “Do you understand?”

Hrusk nodded.

Bamb and Kank came stumbling into the street.

“Bind her hands, and make sure she doesn’t get away this time,” the old man said.

The bugmen tied her hands and then each grabbed one of her arms. The old man exhaled, and the red serpent dissipated.    

***

The Teal district, cracked and crumbling. Hrusk led the way to the fallen temple. She cursed Ellbrim, wherever he was.

When they found the dilapidated building, Hrusk took a step back and pointed her chin to the mound of rubble. “Under there,” she said.

Bamb pushed her aside and began hefting shattered stone and splintered wood to reveal the passage below.

The old man’s eyes were fixed on the dimly lit stair. Without looking at Hrusk, he said, “kill her.”

The abruptness of it made her heart leap. Kank drew his four blades and marched toward her. Hrusk backed away, arms bound and her weapons at the bugman’s hip. Kank leaped at her. Hrusk sidestepped the blow. Kank reeled on her and unleashed a flurry of whirling limbs. Hrusk ducked and dodged as best she could. So many damn arms. Kank thrust, Hrusk sidestepped it and clamped her jaws down hard on his wrist. She twisted her head and tasted bitter ichor. Kank let out a warbled cry as she spat out his hand. Hrusk lunged, pulling her sword free from Kank’s hip. Kank reeled, and she thrust with her blade, burying it deep into Kank’s chest. Green ichor pulsed from the wound, and Kank fell to the ground convulsing.

The old man and Bamb were gone. They’d underestimated her. She’d never have a better time to get away. But Ellbrim could be down there. She shooed away the thought. Let them shit fire on each other. Not my problem. She took a step away from the doorway. He’s probably drunk off his ass. A flicker of light came from the passage, it shone a faint green. It’s two against one. Ellbrim was supposed to be powerful. Drunk and out of practice. Hrusk turned toward the passage. She told herself this was to get revenge on the old man, not because she was worried about the elf. She grabbed her dagger from Kank’s corpse and made her way down the passage.

The lanterns Ellbrim had lit still shone, and she could see Bamb the beetle and the old man entering the jeweled chamber. She kept near the shadows as she moved closer. Take out the old man first, and then the beetle will be easy.

The old man and Bamb were standing before the great jeweled serpent. Hrusk pressed her body close to one of the grand hall’s pillars. The old man raised his hands and spoke in that unfamiliar language. The jeweled serpent came to life, opened its great maw, struck forward, and swallowed them both.

Hrusk waited a few moments and watched the jeweled serpent. The hall was quiet, and the statue made no further movements. Hrusk walked up to the jeweled serpent, sword and dagger in hand, and stared at it for a time. It didn’t move nor did it show any signs of life. She tapped her pommel against the statue’s body. Nothing.

She climbed it, hauling herself over the thick coils of its body until she was beside its head. She tried to pry the mouth open, but it wouldn’t move. She tapped her pommel along its neck, and it resounded with a hollow ringing. Using the pommel of her sword she struck at the serpent’s neck. Jewels fell to the ground and a crack formed where she had struck it. Again and again she slammed the steel of her pommel into the statue until chunks began to fall away and she could feel the soft caress of air on her skin. She pulled and pried at the hole, kicking pieces inward and forcing it wider and wider until she could fit through it. She climbed into the serpent’s gullet and had to crouch low to keep her head from striking the smooth stone above her.

She tripped and went tumbling down the tunnel. She careened down a spiraling tunnel, deeper and deeper, until tumbled onto stone.

What she saw was a palace. With domed spires and sprawling walls, it was a massive complex hidden in a large cavern. Green flame shimmered in lanterns. The palace was covered in jewels, but at the center of palisades, arching bridges, and huge towers were gem stones the size of horses. Hrusk had never seen anything like it.

She stood in the palace courtyard bathed in spectral green light. This first courtyard led to another wall, likely made to keep ancient armies out, and as she passed through the gate she froze in place. Lying on the tiles of an inner courtyard was Bamb’s body littered with arrows.

She pressed close to the doorway with her sword drawn and scanned the surrounding parapets and towers. She couldn’t see anyone.

She found her way through the first courtyard and up a stair to the parapets, from there a door led into a tower, up a stair, and to the top that was connected to an arching bridge that led from tower to tower.

A stooped humanoid figure stood motionless on the bridge, bow in hand. Hrusk stepped forward. The statue’s head whipped around to face her, symbols carved into it shone to life, and an arrow shattered on the wall beside Hrusk’s head. She barreled forward. The thing knocked an arrow and fired again, nicking her shoulder. Before it could knock a third Hrusk was on it and swung, gripping her sword two-handed, and shattered its chest like porcelain. It made a sound like grinding stone, and the myriad of symbols lost their glow.

Automatons. Artificial creatures brought to life with complex sigils. They could “live” for centuries requiring no food or rest. How ever ancient this palace was, it was still protected.

Ellbrim, what were you looking for here? She had a vision of the ragged elf proliferated with arrows. She shook the image from her mind. His body wasn’t in the courtyard with Bamb, which meant he may still be alive.

An arrow sailed past her head nearly clipping her ear. Her gaze found its source, an automaton knocking another arrow on the opposite bridge. She ran for the tower before her, and a dozen arrows clattered to the tiles around her. Automatons appeared in windows and from behind railings. One emerged from the doorway in front of her and let its arrow fly. Hrusk charged.  

It dropped its bow and drew a long rusted sword. Hrusk parried a thrust, sending orange mist into the air. She struck with her dagger. The automaton’s clay chest shattered, gears of tin and copper clanging to the ground as its sigils faded.

Hollow footsteps sounded from the stairs, more were coming for her.

She ran out onto the bridge where four automatons stood shoulder to shoulder, and a quick look over her shoulder showed more crowding the tower stairs. Hrusk wondered if it was too late to start praying to Balael.

Hrusk charged the four in front of her. Her sword swung, and the automaton’s rusted swords bent and shattered from the force. She ducked under a swing and tackled the attacker. With a heave strengthened by her momentum she sent one of the automatons over the bridge’s railing. She whirled in time to catch a broken rusty sword with her dagger, and cleaved through its head with her sword. The broken sigils popped, sizzled, and lost their glow. The automaton collapsed. The final two lumbered forward.  

The others had made their way up the stair and were crowding the bridge. Hrusk was about to turn and run when one of the automatons burst into flame, its porcelain flesh melting away. Another and another caught fire and the flames burned green.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” A voice called from behind her.

Hrusk turned to see an elf with a ragged beard and frayed red overcoat. With a flick of his wrist another automaton burst into flame.

Ellbrim!”

“Good eye, now hurry up.”

 “Are you going to explain what’s happening?”

“Automatons.”

“Right.”

Ellbrim led her from the tower and they bolted down a spiraling stair to an inner hall. Ellbrim swung the door shut and lowered a heavy iron bar over it.

“Now,” Hrusk said between breaths, “what is going on?”

Ellbrim mopped the sweat from his brow with his coat sleeve. “This is the palace of Orga.”

“You mean the palace?”

“One of her palaces. I came here looking for the Book of Jewels.”

“And that old man?”

“He wants the book.”

“Figures. Who is he?”

“His name is—“

A thunderclap shook the palace. Hrusk glared out a window to a large tower in the palace’s center. Red lightning sparkled in its windows.

“I’m guessing that’s where the book is,” Hrusk said.

“Most likely,” Elbrim brushed his beard. “There are a lot of automatons in there.”

“How much is a lot?”

“A small army kind-of-a-lot.”

“So, we just sit back and let them take care of the old man.”

Another thunderclap and an arc of lightning shot through one of the central tower’s windows. An automaton went spiraling to the ground, shattering into pieces.

Ellbrim was up and running. “We can’t let him get the book!”

Hrusk spat a curse and was sprinting beside Ellbrim a moment later.    

The courtyard was littered with the shattered remnants of automatons.

Hrusk picked up a piece of porcelain, its edges smoking. ”How strong is this guy?”

“Very.”

They bounded up a spiral stair crushing shards of porcelain beneath their boots. He’ll be tired when we get to him.

Two large double doors stood slanted on their hinges. Beyond was a grand hall of jeweled serpentine pillars and marble tiles. In the center stood the old man, hood back revealing his tattooed pate and glimmering eyes. Blood red lightning crackled around his hands. An eight foot tall automaton, nearly half as wide, loomed over the old man. It raised a rusty cleaver, and before it could swing it burst full of lightning. The cleaver fell to the ground as its hand melted, and the automaton turned to a pile of slop.

Ellbrim charged forward, his own hands engulfed in green flames. Hrusk watched as a cascade of green fire and red lightning exploded into the air. Each’s blasts seemed to resound off invisible barriers.

Hrusk made her way around the two. Each of their blows boomed like a thunderclap and shook the palace’s foundations. Jewels clanged to the floor, and tiles cracked from the force.

Within the serpent’s maw sat the Book of Jewels. The serpent statue’s ruby eyes glinted from the reflected light of spectral fire. There’s probably a pressure plate. She flexed her fists, her eyes darting to Ellbrim with each thunderous strike. Or it might breathe fire, spit acid. Ellbrim stumbled, and an arc of lightning singed his overcoat. Balael’s ass.

Hrusk leaped for the book, clutching it as she dove through the serpent's maw. The palace shook, and the sound of grinding stone echoed throughout the chamber. A screeching hiss sent Hrusk reeling. The serpent statue came to life. It slithered to the person in its field of vision, the old man.

He didn’t see what was rising behind him, even as Ellbrim began to back away.

It was at the last moment that he looked over his shoulder, and a primal fear twisted his features. The serpent statue struck with the speed of a viper, cleaving him in two.

The old man’s entrails spilled onto the marble tiles and seeped into cracks and crevasses as the serpent statue shook its head back and forth.

Ellbrim slumped against a pillar, sweat beading his brow and breathing heavy. Hrusk made an involuntary “whoop.” And the serpent’s head snapped around to regard her.

Shit.

Clutching the Book of Jewels close to her, Hrusk ran. Ellbrim staggered after her, struggling to keep up. The serpent statue snaked around pillars, and its bulk scraped and marred the walls of the spiral stairs. It followed them through the courtyard, crashing through walls and crushing still living automatons beneath it. All the while its ruby eyes intent on Hrusk and the Book of Jewels.

“The book,” Ellbrim wheezed. “Give it to me.”

Hrusk tossed him the book, which the elf nearly fumbled. The serpent had caught itself on a narrow corridor, and it was writhing to shake away the wall. Stone fell away from its sides as the corridor distended.

Ellbrim flipped through the books brass pages. Each was inlaid with small sigiled jewels and gemstones that glowed as Ellbrim passed his fingers over them. Hrusk was clutching her sword in both hands.

“Ellbrim, hurry.”

Ellbrim raised his hand, spoke in the language he’d used to enter the palace, and flicked his wrist at Hrusk. Her sword began to glow with white light.

The serpent darted forward in a storm of dust and shattered stone.

“Strike it!” Ellbrim called.

Hrusk raised her sword over her head, and as the serpent descended on her she swung. Sparks flew from where she hit, and chunks of stone fell away from the serpentine statue. Beneath its shattered flesh were slimy red scales. It reared up to strike again. Hrusk cast a glance at Ellbrim, but the elf was half-lidded, fighting to remain conscious.

The serpent struck. Hrusk leaped out of the way, its snout colliding into her side with such force that she went tumbling. Her blade still glowed. The serpent rushed forward. Still on the ground, Hrusk swung a warding blow. The blade’s tip sliced the serpent’s snout, and a series of cracks spider webbed outward. Hrusk scrambled to her feet.

 Ruby eyes glinted, and behind them blinked membranous eyes. It slithered forward, the foundations quaking from its movements, its tongue flicking outward. It lunged, Hrusk dodged to the side. Fangs racked marble. A ruby eye loomed before her. She thrust her sword, ephemeral light pierced through the gemstone to the flesh beneath. The grand serpent reared, maw wide with a silent roar. It thrashed, smashing its head against pillars and walls. The serpent fell, its body stilled, and the light from Hrusk’s sword faded.

She stared for a time before slumping to the ground. A few moments later Ellbrim staggered to her side.

They sat together, regarding the wreckage in silence. She traced the curve or the serpent, and noted the blood pooling beneath its head.

“That book,” Hrusk said. “It’s powerful.”

Ellbrim nodded.

“You could do a lot with that.”

“A lot of bad things.”

“Or good things.”

Ellbrim flipped through the pages, passing his fingers over the jewels. Each glowed as he did so, the sigils carved into them shimmering. He lingered on one longer than all the rest. He threw the book into the air, spoke a few words in that mysterious language, and snapped his fingers. The Book of Jewels was engulfed in flame. Its ashes scattered in the air before it touched the ground.

“Now,” Ellbrim said, “we don’t have to worry about it.”