My novellette ‘The Lich’ is free this week on Kindle

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This tale about the fall of an undead wizard, told in his own words, was my first foray into fantasy, originally published in last year’s “Ancient Enemies” monster anthology. If you like grimdarks, not-so-sympathetic villains, or fringe characters in general, check it out. Cover art by the incredible Laura Hollingsworth.

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LURK is on Audible

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Quick update to let you all know that LURK is out on audiobook, exclusively for Audible! I’ve been an Audible fanboy for years, probably since within about a month of when they launched, so this is pretty exciting for me personally. The audiobook is read by the incredible Kevin Meyer.

Stay scared, creeps.

Things Change, and That’s The Way It Is

So it looks like Corruption is getting a delay, for a few reasons. I was originally planning to release the book in January, but now it appears I need to push it back a few weeks or even months. The main reason is plot rewrites. I’m also going a different direction with the cover than I initially thought, and am hiring a professional to do the artwork instead of using the ugly clip art version I created in GIMP. My cousin Laura Hollingsworth, who did the beautiful cover artwork for my upcoming novella The Lich (below), is now doing the artwork for Corruption, too. She’s good, right?

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Daaaaaaaaaang.

As for those plot issues I mentioned…

After a long conversation with my dad last night, a big chunk of which was spent talking about his feedback on the book, I’ve realized that something I have feared about the story all along was definitely not just in my head. There are some serious pacing issues in the first 30% of Corruption. My first full crack at an epic, complex fantasy with three different, nested plotlines was bound to have some significant issues. In this case, it is too much setup in the beginning of the story.

There is a big chunk at the start of Corruption where the characters are meeting, Dan is settling into his new life in Eastern Europe, and things are falling into place for the events in the second half of the book,  when shit really begins to hit the fan… I think everything after this period of buildup is awesome, but, as my dad pointed out, too much setup means a slow beginning, which could end up causing readers to put the book down before it ever really begins.

Duh. I should’ve known this. I kind of did, but I needed to hear it from someone else. And this is why beta readers are important, people. Art can’t be created by committee, true; but it also can’t be created alone. You always need people you trust to give you a second opinion. Always. Nothing is ever perfect on the first go. There are always going to be some changes.

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Not that kind.

So, how am I going to attack this problem?

My strategy is twofold. I am introducing a new POV character to breakup the monotony of the opening of the book. This POV character is actually my favorite character in the book, but his action was mostly off-screen until the climax of the story. A Clare Quilty type, if you will. Now, he is getting his own chapters-short and to the point-which will bridge two of the three nested stories that make up Corruption and hopefully give its first act some much-needed gas.

This may not be a perfect solution, but other than adding foreshadowing to some of the dialog, which I am also doing, I’m not sure how to go about it without a total rewrite, which I’m not willing to do. I like the first act of the book a lot, and don’t want to throw it out. It does what it needs to do, it’s just a bit slow. I already like the pacing better with the added chapters, and plan on finishing my first pass of rewrites by the end of this week.

Beta readers, let me know if you want the update.

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Takeaways

If I’ve learned anything from writing it is that, like any discipline, it is a mirror for life itself. You make mistakes, you learn, you adapt, and overcome. If you fuck up, you take the positive, leave the negative, and try your best to use that experience to grow. Doing the opposite will never get you where you want to be. It is also monumentally important to let others in on the things that are important to you, to take help and wisdom from others and give it when you can. It is a much longer and harder road when you try to go alone.

 

 

Fiction: The Girl in the Blue Dress

This letter is for the girl in the blue dress. You know who you are and that I’ve wanted to contact you. My name is Rider. My handle on the BrickLog is RK466. You can contact me at #1107381980085.

However, since I know this letter will have far more readers than just you, the following is for all those who are not the girl in the blue dress. Blue, you can skip to the end.

Everyone else, I want to tell you a story. It’s about love, and longing, and the childish games Watchers play—at least one in particular—in the service of those first two things. I’m hoping my story will convince you to help me with something, because I desperately need your aid.

The first time I saw her was in Pompeii. She was walking towards me, up the sloping street, wearing a blue dress. She carried a basket of olives on her hip, which was swaying, her eyes locked on the mountain behind us. When she noticed me noticing her, she recognized me instantly as a Watcher, like herself, and asked me: “Are you enjoying the show?”

I said “Yes”.

“Me too,” she said with a smile. “This one’s my favorite.”

That city in its prime is more beautiful than you can imagine without seeing it firsthand. It’s an old Schwarbrick (sorry, Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show, if that wasn’t clear), so the ticket only costs a few dozen seconds. The streets are vigorous, still brimming with life, hundreds of people all passing along their kinetic energy in a crashing, haphazard fashion. And when the mountain finally blows, and the jet black streams darken the sky in an instant and that sound—oh God, that terrible sound—penetrates you so deep it could bury you, you know why we do this, why those few dozen seconds of our lives are nothing for the joy of witnessing a Schwarbrick like this.

You think: This is why we watch.

The advertisements all push the war shows these days, but I prefer natural disasters. The heroics are better, more organic. If you’ve never seen one of the Natural Crisis ‘bricks, you don’t know what you’re missing. I consider myself an addict. It used to be because of my morbid fascination with all the blood, the fires and the suffering. But these days it’s because of her.

I won’t give up searching until I find her.

During every great catastrophe in human history there has always been someone standing by, laughing. And when I first laid eyes on her, loitering up the stony road in Pompeii with her basket of olives towards the place at the top of the rise where she would have the best view of Vesuvius, the vantage clearest of vineyards and tombs, I knew she was the type to laugh, not out of sadism, but because to her this really was just a show.

Then the caldera cracked and my eyes were drawn away from her to the eruption rising to cover the sky with obsidian dust, and by the time I thought to look for her again, she was gone.

The next time I saw her was in Rome. It was 217 AD. Most show-goers watch in marathons: a week in Ancient Rome, a week in China, a day or two on a certain stretch of the North Atlantic of a silent, iceberg-laden night, because buying ‘bricks in bulk is cheaper, costing only a few minutes for each show rather than the hours or days they would cost to purchase tickets for individually.

She was watching the Rome shows this week, same as me. It was the evening of the Coliseum fires.

We were both exploring the hallways outside the arena as workers prepared for a gladiatorial match that was to take place the following day. A low blanket of charcoal clouds belched murmurs of thunder through the dimming sky.

I don’t recall how many people died that night, if there was even a record. But I recall their faces well, so placid and unaware.

I found myself walking suddenly behind a woman whose stride and swaying hips seemed familiar. But I couldn’t place exactly where from.

Then I saw the blue dress; the same she was wearing in Pompeii.

She strolled casually, not making much effort to fit in, because she knew she didn’t have to. She was still carrying her basket of olives. I assumed it was her immersion prop, to make her presence in times that were not her own more convincing. Mine is a pair of rope sandals, uncomfortable as a plague, but they fit well (enough) in most historical ‘bricks.

The girl looked back at me and smiled. She had vibrant freckles, amber hair that fell in slow-moving curls, olive skin so smooth it appeared oiled under the torchlight. I knew it was her as soon as our eyes met.

She kept pace with me and eventually said, in a language distinctly not Ancient Latin: “Hey, you. Fancy seeing you here. You like this type of ‘brick, huh?”

I told her I did.

“Natural Crisis week is my all-time fave,” she said. “When you’re done here, though, you should skip the Titanic and check out the S.S. Sultana instead. It’s a much better ‘brick, and a lot less crowded.

I saw her wink as we entered the glow under a lantern. I stopped, taking her arm gently. “You know, these are always more fun with another person. Would you like to watch this one together?” I asked her.

A sudden snap of thunder spooked a pack of hyenas in one of the cages nearby. A crowd of people gathered to watch the handler desperately trying to sing them calm again. Non volo! He cried. Non volo! Non volo, non volo

“No,” she said over my shoulder. “Sorry, but I like to watch alone.”

When I looked again, she was gone.

We all saw the finger of lightning and heard the deafening cries. It was no surprise for me, as I knew it was coming. But when the bright flash licked down against the top of the Colosseum, and the flames budded from the wood supports and spread and scattered, it was suddenly as if the whole world had ended.

I felt a hand brush my back, soft and reassuring. A flash of blue passed my peripheral vision. But when I tried to find her, I could not.

I went to the S.S. Sultana next. I was young, could afford to shave a few more days off my life to buy another Schwarbrick ticket, and it was one I had never seen.

I stood on the main deck and brushed her shoulder with mine. She looked stunning. She wore a fur coat over her blue dress, for the night was frigid and the surface of the Mississippi caked with drifts of ice.

It’s a short show, the Sultana; only a few minutes to view. We didn’t have much time.

She smiled at me and took my arm, said, “Boom,” and pointed toward the boiler. We were knocked apart as the true sound of the explosion split the frosty night, and somewhere among the din, I heard her laughing.

“That always gets me!” She chuckled as we found each other again amid the chaotic screaming of the crowd. She propped herself steady on the rail as the deck tilted and people began jumping overboard, screaming.

“This is great!” I said, shouting over the noise. “I’ve never seen this one before!”

“I know!” she said, and grinned.

The fireball ascended above us like a beacon, and in that crimson light I saw something about her I hadn’t noticed before: she had a scar tattoo of a star under her eye that bunched up as if it was twinkling when she smiled.

“Let’s go to the Egyptian Plague,” I said.

“What?”

“The Egyptian Plague!” I repeated. “Come on! It’s great!”

She left my arm, turned and made fast for her extraction line on the second deck. “I’ve gotta go,” she said.

“Wait! What’s your name?”

Then my own extraction point out of the Schwarbrick opened, and I exited back into the present, disappointed, but still flying off the feel of her touch. Many centuries in the past, the Sultana’s second deck began to sink beneath the lapping freeze of the rough-and-tumble Mississippi.

I didn’t see her in Egypt, nor in Babylon. I snuck up on someone I thought was her in California at Donner Lake, hiding in the snow drifts behind a thermal shield, but I was mistaken. That watcher was an older woman, brunette and irritated I’d crashed on her show. She made a joke that this was a bad time to be sneaking up on people, and that if I’d done it to the wrong party I would probably get eaten. We started talking and ended up getting along, shared a bowl of soup and watched the cannibals devour each other.

When I finally saw my girl again, it was in the Anasazi Famine of 1299. She was walking among the corpses, holding a fox skin over her nose. The sweet smell of rot lingered like an echo over that doomed city. She was wearing her blue dress. I could see it from all the way across the dust-bitten valley, like a single drop of color on a gray, apocalyptic canvas.

Neither of us spoke. She only took my hand, and we walked in silence among them, an entire civilization dead to starvation. The few Anasazi who were still alive picked through the ruins and the streets in a last desperate attempt to find food. The dead offered no complaint.

History has come to know them as The Old Ones. That is what Anasazi means, a name they surely did not call themselves. Their language is lost and cannot be learned even by the most dedicated Schwarbrick aficionados—one of the few such languages the fandom has yet to crack (I know, because aside from being a Watcher, I’m also a Cracker; meaning, I dedicate the vast majority of my free time when I’m not ‘bricking to solving the lost languages of the past we hear in the ‘bricks; it makes the experience richer).

But in their places, dead or alive they looked no older than us—smaller perhaps, rougher, harder—but no older.

I didn’t see it as a good time to ask for a second date. There would be another time, I told myself. There always is.

I now must apologize, dear reader, if I have misled you thus far. Even thinking about her makes it difficult to write. I’m writing all of this to you because I need your help. What I ask is simple: if you see her, you must show her this letter. I need to see her again.

You must give her this letter. She’ll know who I am by reading it and, I hope, will seek me out, since my efforts to find her have been haphazard at best, and most of the time, altogether fruitless.

I’m not some creep in the bushes, you see. I know my feelings are mutual, even if she does play hard-to-get. I’ve known ever since she kissed me above the flooded valleys of the Yangtze in 1931 AD, the last time I saw her.

Three million people died that year in the floods. She came to the show drunk. She sat close to me on the hillside, her arm entangled in mine and her soft head resting pleasantly on my shoulder. We both speculated on the horror of losing one’s home to the rising black waters, or one’s family, then suddenly, she kissed me.

Her lips tasted of wine and the gray, forgotten future. When she pulled back she had rain in her eyes and a smile caught between her dimples.

“I know we’re not supposed to interfere when we watch,” she said. “But haven’t you ever wanted to?”

“What’s your name?” I said.

“That would be interfering.”

She slid a finger along the top knuckle of my right hand, softly wiping away the raindrops gathered there.

“We’re not interfering at all! And who cares? You some sort of BrickLogger?”

“Loggers aren’t the only ones who care about all the innocent people who get killed when we interfere.”

“How do you know anyone does? All that’s been proven is it creates a failed timeline.”

She squeezed my hand and stood up on her heels, kissing me deeper than before. “I gotta go.”

Someone screamed on the river below, a man clinging desperately to a raft made from doors wound together with chicken wire, the pregnant black waters fighting to pull him under.

When I looked up again, she was falling back through her extraction point into her own time.

“Wait! How can I contact you?” But she wasn’t there.

And again, after our picnic at Fort Point in 1906, as we watched San Francisco collapse to the malicious arithmetic of the quakes; and the bombing of Hiroshima; and the time we stood with hands clasped tight as the women buried their children at Wounded Knee.

She’s playing games with me.

You must find her, dear reader. Whoever, whenever you are, there is a significant chance she is nearby. I know, because she told me this week is her favorite. I’ve left copies of this letter in every ‘brick currently being shown.

She isn’t hard to recognize. She wears a blue cotton dress, a simple garment that could fit easily anytime, anywhere. Sometimes she carries a basket of olives as an immersion prop. Her hair will be done up in whatever style is trendy in your time. She will be close to wherever you find this letter. She always knows where to get the best views.

In return for your help, I will help you. I know I am only a stranger to you—some words written on a piece of paper. But have you not also loved and longed for one who toyed so indecisively with your heart? Would you not do anything to secure their love, so you might be happy?

If she isn’t there, the advice I’m about to give you will still be useful. By law and the terms of the Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show user agreement, I must be purposefully vague in what I am about to say. But it is monumentally important that you listen, and listen well. Your life depends on it.

For My Blue: Call me already. I’m running out of time and can’t keep chasing you around through the ‘bricks like this. I know you’re in just as much time-debt as I am. You’re being childish by pretending to be interested; either you’re interested, or you’re not. If so, just call. I hope your answer is yes.

For everyone else: Very soon, you should put down whatever you’re doing and start to run.

*First published in Nonlocal Science Fiction, December 2015

(Want to read this story on your Kindle? Download it here)

New Cover Reveal

Hiya friends. I’m pretty thrilled right now. As of tonight, the Kindle version of LURK will have a new cover, which I think is pretty phenomenal. Take a lurk:

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Why change it, you ask? Quite simply, I didn’t think the old cover was perfect for the book. In the vast literary jungle that is Amazon, there are hundreds of thousands of novels both traditionally and self-published that all have good covers, and to even get a click-through for someone to read your blurb these days, your cover can’t just be good… it needs to be eye-popping.

So… there it is.

 

Paperbacks will be updated sometime next week. And as always, if you haven’t read it yet, Part One is free to read here.

Turkey and Good Old Fashioned, Got-Danged Terror

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There is no such joy in the tavern as on the Kindle with free goddamned books.

Quick announcement to let you all know that Lurk will be free all Thanksgiving on Kindle, from 11/22 – 11/26. That’s zero dollars. As in free ninety nine. As in five finger discount. As in the punchline of a bad “your mom” joke. So if you’ve been on the fence, know someone on the fence, or know someone who knows someone who has a fence and might possibly one day be on it (or just someone who is looking for an unsettling, creepy read), give them a recommendation and that there link.

And as always, if you read the book and enjoy it, please consider leaving an honest review.

Corruption (Prologue)

ONE BY ONE the old bricks fell. “Almost got it,” Katherine said, pushing hard into the broken wall until her arm slid through. The hiss and splash of bricks falling into water whispered through the ancient tunnels. “You owe me a bottle of good vodka,” she told the one-eyed man watching from the shadows.

Vojciek attempted to scowl, but the cracked dolomite of his face betrayed a quiet satisfaction. The old master’s laugh cracked like embers from the torch. “Ho-hoo! One bottle? Make it three. You’ve done well today, Kat.”

Katherine’s nickname among her fellow Vermin was Meerkat – often shortened to Little Kat, or just Kat. Meerkats were burrowing rodents supposed to have lived on the Surface before the Last Day of Sun. Bookmother had read her a story about them once. Since she was a little girl falling over on Vojciek’s mats, Katherine had tried to emulate how she imagined such small, springy creatures must have fought, all sniping limbs and devious balance.

She raised her heel and kicked the broken wall, once, twice, then three times, the old stones spilling from their dusty crypts until the hole was wide enough for her and the old man to fit through.

“Let me guess. I’m taking point?” Katherine said.

Vojciek poked his torch through the hole, his white, bottlebrush eyebrows folding down into a hard squint. The light shied beyond the broken bulwark of the wall, where a few scattered glimmers revealed a canal snaking away into the darkness. A rank cloud enveloped them as the old, unseen bowels of the Night City breathed once more.

Katherine had always imagined such a discovery would be exciting, but all she could think about was the smell.

“That is a good guess,” her teacher said.

The old man stopped her as she was sliding her foot through the jagged bricks. He offered her the torch. “We’re just little Vermin sneaking through His halls, trying to steal a bite of cheese. And we know his cure for little Vermin. But though Vermin we may be, we are also the fire. No matter what awaits us in there…” Vojciek said.

“…Fire does not fear,” Katherine finished, taking the torch.

Vojciek drew a deep breath, pulled his shawl up over his nose, and nodded for her to move. Katherine mounted the broken wall and vaulted into the darkness.

Her legs splashed into cold, oily water. The shadows retreated and advanced from the flickering nimbus of her torchlight like unsure combatants. Black islands of questionable composition floated by her in the gloom.

“Look what we’ve found! Another tunnel!” Vojciek said. “What a strange and mystical thing to find hidden a mile beneath the Surface! Ho-hoo! Is something wrong, Kat? Worried we might wake up some ancient, eldritch thing set down here to guard our Beloved Ruler’s secrets? Feel any tentacles brush against your leg yet?”

“No. Can’t say that I did.”

“You never know down here. Better stay on your toes…”

“Ugh.”

Katherine paused, holding the torch close to the tunnel’s low, curving wall. Unlike the other passages, this one wasn’t made of brick, but carved straight from the slick, pale rock. “Have you noticed the walls?” she said.

“Aye. Either we’re standing in a very shoddily-delved mineshaft, or whoever built this passage did so in a hurry,” Vojciek said.

The tunnel branched every twenty or thirty steps, a spider-web network of yawning, black mouths all waiting to devour the scarce light of Katherine’s torch. They were all dead ends, Katherine knew. She had studied the manuscripts in Bookmother’s library enough to know that once they passed the false wall, it was a straight shot to the cavern. The other passages were blinds meant to mislead potential grave robbers.

The tunnel ended abruptly around the next bend, and the two of them stepped into a cavern so large Katherine’s torchlight barely touched the ceiling.

They were standing on a slender crescent of beach winding around the shores of a vast subterranean lake. There was an island rising in the distance, upon which stood the largest building Katherine had ever seen.

It was a great cathedral, all wrought from red brick and white marble. Its shadow-shrouded spires were so tall they interlocked with the gargantuan dripstones of the cave ceiling like twisted puzzle pieces. Katherine had to crane her neck to take in its full, nauseating height.

The Lost Cathedral of Saint Aram. It actually exists. Her pulse quickened as the realization fully sank in.

“Ho-hoo! Three bottles of vodka, indeed. Your mother would be proud, Kat. I wish she was here,” Vojciek said.

“It’s hard to believe I’m finally looking at it,” Katherine said. “Feels a bit surreal.”

“On that note…” The old man pulled a leather flask out of a secret pocket stitched into the lining of his coat, took a deep swig, and offered it to Katherine. “Distilled it myself, you know.”

She took a drink and gave it back.

Vojciek put the flask away, unslung his Wyvernwood spear from where it rested on his good shoulder. “Since this is your show, I trust you know how we’re getting across that.” He pointed his spear across the lake.

The serene, midnight water ran far past the tiny halo of her torchlight, as motionless as black stained glass. They could swim, but the lake was deep, and icy cold. It’s too warm this far down to freeze. Too bad. Some thick ice would have helped.

“I have a plan,” she said.

The old man gestured for her to demonstrate. Katherine raised her hand and released the ghost from where it rested in the casket embedded within her palm. The world gave a little scream, and a crushing pressure enveloped her. A black, shivering line bloomed from her fist. She aimed it at one of the giant stalagmites growing from the cave floor.

Katherine flicked her wrist, slicing the monstrous stone pillar from its base. The upper segment began to slide, down, down, down, until it toppled. She made another quick slash, and another, slicing angled portions from the base. The pillar rolled into the frigid water with barely more than a splash. A maze of ripples cascaded across the lake, lapping the shore with a gentle elegy of waves.

The pillar had fallen to form a natural bridge between the beach and the island that they could easily wade across. Only after did Katherine wonder if the sound could have been heard up on the Surface.

The old man frowned at her.

“We’re deep enough,” Katherine said.

“That was thoughtless,” Vojciek said.

Katherine bedded the ghost in her palm and started across the beach. “We can handle a few shells, master. Besides, we’ll be gone before they ever know we were here.”

Vojciek shook his head. “It’s not Shells we need to worry about. They won’t send a purging party. Not here.”

Katherine’s gaze drifted to the empty socket where her master’s eye had been, hidden under the ragged corners of an old leather eye patch. The ghost shot a knife of pain up her arm at the thought. “If we’re on borrowed time, then we’d best hurry.”

The old man stroked his mustache and gave her a dismissive shrug. “We’re all on borrowed time, Kat. One of the great secrets of life is that it can end at any instant. Realizing that will both free and condemn you. But no matter what chains the Oppressor may put on us, he cannot take away our fate.”

“I thought you said fate was a choice.”

“Precisely my point. Now, before we go on, I can see the ghost is giving you some discomfort. It is reacting to your fear. The People of the Sun were masterful architects, most of all when it came to weaponry. It’s one of the reasons they’re not here anymore. I thought you were better prepared for this. Remember your drills. You must empty your mind to avoid being stung. You must become the fire. Kat…?”

She stepped out onto the pillar, walking on the balls of her feet so she wouldn’t slip and fall in. It was no different than walking on the balance beam in the mat room back at the Last Station, something she’d done a thousand times since she was a child.

Far beneath the surface of the lake, the shelf of the shore dropped away to limitless depths of black. Katherine’s reflection on that mirrored surface was one she hardly recognized. Her once-smooth, pale skin was now yellow from malnutrition. Her close-cropped hair was spotting white. Her cheeks looked sunken, and there were deep circles under her eyes from camping in the Undersprawl for more than a week.

Yet even living the hard, likely short life of a Vermin, she was far more fortunate than most girls her age in the Burrow, already married and bearing children before their eighteenth birthdays.

So many lives I’ll never live. But I chose this, didn’t I? I knew what I was giving up, just like mom did.

Vojciek whistled as he set foot on the rocky shore of the island. They both took a moment to soak in the magnificent sight of the Lost Cathedral up close.

Its brick-and-marble façade rose in layers, reminding Katherine of an enormous gingerbread palace. Each of its twin bell towers was topped with a giant gumdrop of verdant bronze. The main door was carved from a single slab of pure amber, the frame adorned with hundreds of life-sized marble statues depicting choirs of angels singing and marching to war. Most other churches in the Night City had long since fallen to ruin, their statues and marble dressings stolen by time. But this cathedral was perfectly intact.

The people of the Twilight Age built this. It’s like a window into another world.

“Ho-hoo! Almost makes an old atheist want to believe again,” the old man said.

Katherine felt it, too, though she did not share her master’s skepticism. “How old do you think it is?”

“If the legends are true, older than anything still standing on the Surface.” A hint of sadness tinged the old man’s voice. “But I’m still not entirely convinced they are.”

“What would convince you?” Katherine said, gazing up at the cathedral’s bulbous, twinkling spires. “Do you not think this is Saint Aram’s?” She wanted to say, are you mad? But kept the thought to herself.

Vojciek picked something from his mustache and flung it off into the darkness. “It would be nice, wouldn’t it? If we found the church where our Oppressor lived before his rise to power, when he was merely an acolyte; if we found his diary, that terrible trove of secrets so powerful it could undermine is rule, even make the Amber City fall…

“We have found a real, physical structure, which someone really hid – or built – a mile underground. Does that mean it was moved here by magic, or that the Crippled King was the one who did the moving, like the stories say? Or that this discovery will win us the war, and herald a glorious new age of daylight?”

The old man didn’t wait for her to answer. “Now, I don’t know much about any of that, but here’s what I’ve observed in my six decades on this iceberg. Myths are always about what we want to believe, and never about what is. Suppose we discover some proof the Crippled King is not who he claims. Will our position have improved? Will it stop the Amber City from hunting us down like little rats? No. We’ll still be Vermin to them. We will always be Vermin to them. Hate doesn’t need a reason.”

“I see,” Katherine said.

The old man spat. “Oh, don’t give me that face. You’ve found something incredible, Kat. I give you all the credit. I certainly don’t want any. Fame would go right to my head. Can you imagine? I’d become as insufferable as a full bladder multiplied by a hangnail. Ho-hoo!”

She forced a smile.

Vojciek took another swig from his flask, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and casually extended a long, bony finger toward the door of the cathedral. “But don’t take my word for it. Open it. That way, when you prove me wrong and win this war, you can look back on this moment and say, I told that old fool. I always knew I’d surpass him. What’s that old saying again? To the master goes the blade?”

Katherine took a deep breath and placed her hand on the door. There was no handle. She merely had to press her fingertips to the cool, smooth amber and a crack opened in its center. The door swung inward.

The old man’s cackle echoed through the cathedral’s dark, voluminous innards. “Ho-hoo!”

Katherine stepped inside and gasped.

She was washed in blinding light, then the resounding boom of organ music. A hundred airborne lamps flickered to life all floating between dozens of ornate pillars, which held aloft a great domed ceiling swathed with paintings of the saints and their sacred stories from the Sol Firma. The walls were a robber’s trove of countless golden statues and icons gazing out at her from every nook and sepulcher.

Most of the vast interior of the church was occupied by a colossal black ship resting on a crystal bier, like some behemoth display in a museum built for giants. It reminded Katherine of the stories she’d heard as a child of the Twilight Age, when brave men and women still sailed the unfrozen seas all the way to edges of the world. From a distance, the shining, ebony hull appeared mirror-smooth, but up close it was covered with thousands of tiny pockmarks.

The music thundered its final note, dwindled, and started over from the beginning. The song was a military march played in a major key. She’d heard it before, but couldn’t remember when.

“The Battle Hymn of the New Republic,” Vojciek shouted over the din. “One of my favorite tunes. The title refers to the new New Republic, not the old New Republic, or the old Old Republic, or the Great Old Republic, or the Grand Old Republic, or the Federation, or the Paradigm, or the republic that called itself a republic but was actually a fascist empire. No, no, the one to which this song refers is the one our Beloved Ruler usurped on the Last Day of Sun, before the fall of the True Night…”

“Master.”

“Sorry. I’m rambling again. Piss on it. The point was – and I did have a point – I haven’t heard this tune in decades. I still remember some of the lyrics.”

The old man conducted an invisible choir with one hand as he sang:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…

“He is knocking down the silos where the grains of wrath are stored…

“Doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot, I can’t recall the words…

“…His day is marching on.”

The old man’s voice trembled and quieted, leaving only the heart-pounding percussion of the organ, then he said, “Your mother used to hum it to you. That’s why you remember it. It was the only way to get you to fall asleep so she and I could train. But I doubt you’ve heard it since. This piece of music was banned a hundred years before you were born.”

“We should turn it off,” Katherine said.

Vojciek struck the ground twice with the butt of his spear. The music ceased. The old master gave Katherine a gap-ridden smirk. “Most buildings from the Twilight Age were fully automated. Some call it magic. I call it sound engineering.”

“What’s that?” Katherine said, venturing closer to the altar.

“Well, well. Now that is a pretty thing,” Vojciek said.

He followed her up the marble dais to where a huge statue of a faceless man in white robes levitated with one palm outraised, the universal symbol of the Wanderer.

The statue was four times as tall as a man, all grown from a single vein of solarite crystal. The artist had left the face blank, but had covered the Wanderer’s arms and legs with intricate spirals where they poked from beneath his tunic.

“The Wanderer, praise be upon him,” Katherine whispered. She knelt and touched the tip of her thumb to her forehead, ears, and mouth. Vojciek remained silently on his feet, glowering until she stood.

“Yes, yes. Son of the Spiral, Sower of Seeds, the Gardener of Worlds, the source of as many unutterable curses as revelatory visions. Legend tells that the People of the Sun used to make these statues from solid gold. Solarite would’ve been a more decadent option. Gods always mirror the societies who create them.”

Katherine had no desire to debate the flaws and virtues of organized religion with the old man here.

She climbed the dais and ran her fingers along the fat, smooth nodules of the statue’s toes. They were surprisingly warm. “It’s magnificent.”

Vojciek uncapped his flask and drank. “Suppose so. Suppose not. Boo. I suppose nothing matters less than an old man’s sorrow.”

Katherine turned. “What?”

Her master’s voice fell to a crack. “I may not get another chance to say this, Kat. S-something… I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time.”

“Yes, Master? What is it?”

“That I’m proud of you. The Vermin fight because we must, not because we wish to be honored. But don’t think I don’t see you, Katherine. The highest reward for a teacher is to watch a student reach their potential. And I know you will succeed where I failed. Because you are the fire.”

The old man’s lips quivered. “When the Oppressor’s Dog stole your mother, I tried to get her back. She was my best student. How could I not? I climbed up the Echelon. Even got as far as the Palace of Dolls. It was the best I ever fought. He… was there. I fought him, Kat.”

Her master motioned to his missing eye. “You never asked me how I got this. Thank you for that. Now, you shall never need to. He… defeated me. But he let me live, to shame me. To send a message to any other little Vermin who might get a big idea. To remind me of that day and what he, and the regime, were capable of. And to remind me of your mother.”

An old ache stabbed in Katherine’s heart. She thought she might burst into tears, so she turned her face away and gazed up at the statue of her Prophet.

A muffled crash drew her eyes back to the altar in time to see the old man ram it again, shoulder down with all his bodyweight. His claw-toed boots scrambled for purchase on the slick tiles of the floor.

“Now help me… (huff)… move this… stupid… (puff)… eldritch… thing…”

“Why?” she said.

“Because if there’s treasure… (huff)… hidden in this… (puff)… church, (wheeze)… it will be buried here.”

But even with both of them pushing, the altar wouldn’t move. When Katherine’s muscles were nearly spent, she muttered “Piss on it,” and used the ghost to slash a tiny wedge from the altar’s base. The heavy marble box groaned and gave easily with the next concerted push, revealing a deep hole falling away to blackness beneath the chapel floor.

“Ho-hoo!”

Voyciek lowered the torch, then threw it down. He followed it in, landing six feet below on the lid of the slender crystal box lying half-buried at the bottom. No, not a box. A coffin.

A grave, Katherine realized. Someone was buried under the altar.

The death mask painted on the coffin’s lid in ripples of brilliant, dancing light depicted a man with a long, plain face. There were dreadlocks in his hair and beard, and his robes were simple, but there was a penetrating humility to his face that caught Katherine off guard.

The People of the Sun buried their kings and queens in grand crypts full of riches and splendor, and their priests in the walls of their churches. Why would they bury this man somewhere no one could honor him, without so much as a grave marker, or even a name?

Vojciek knocked the loose dirt off the sarcophagus with the butt of his spear. “They grew these caskets from solarite crystal, you know. Grave robbing was considered a penultimate sin back then. You can tell from the death mask that this man had rich friends. Thankfully…” The old man slammed the blade of his spear down through the lid of the coffin. “…Wyvernwood was invented to beat solarite, so open sesame.”

Katherine’s excitement turned to ash as the quincunx of cracks oozed down the crystalline surface, and Vojciek gave one last, powerful jerk to pry the lid free. The top half slid away, revealing the raggedy grin and dust-eaten cloth of the corpse inside.

No buried treasure. No great secret that will win the war. There’s nothing here but bones.

“Who was he?” Katherine said, trying to hide her discontent.

The old man shrugged. “No idea.”

For the first time since setting foot in the cathedral, Katherine felt tired. Her eyelids grew heavy and hunger raked her insides. “Is that it? Is this what we came here for? These… bones?”

Vojciek hopped out of the grave, using his spear to vault himself up, then stood next to her, brushing himself off. “Bones are bones are bones, Kat. They can mean nothing, or everything in the world.”

“Master,” Katherine started to say, but was cut off by the echo of a door slamming somewhere else in the church.

The ghost stung the inside of her palm. Katherine gasped and clenched her teeth shut to keep from crying out.

“Hide,” Vojciek said.

They both scrambled down behind the ruined altar.

The view of the main door was blocked by the looming black mass of the ship, but there was a gap under it where Katherine could almost see who had come inside. There were no footsteps, only a soft, golden light slowly making its way across the floor toward where they were hiding.

Shells, maybe, or the Amber Guard… she tried to convince herself. But there were no sirens. No floodlights. No screaming spears of blue flame to root them out. There was only one creature in the service of the Crippled King who hunted his Vermin alone.

A dizzying chill spread through her as she heard the clink, clink, clink of a heavy chain echo from the other side of the ship.

A flood of terrified memories came rushing back to her all at once, some from the earliest moments of her childhood; memories of her mother, of losing sleep over stories of the man with the lamp and the iron chain, a monster who couldn’t be hit or killed, whose only joy in life was to take little Vermin like her to the Amber City so they could be turned into dolls.

The old man rapped her on the shoulder, mouthing the words, “Go, Kat. You need to run. Use the ship. Not the door.”

He pointed to the vast, black vessel on display in the center of the cathedral, so tall its masts nearly scraped the inside of the dome. “Climb up and find the stairs to the bell tower. Then rappel down the outside. Stay hidden. He cannot know you’re here. You must tell them what you found. And whatever happens, do not gaze into his lamp.”

Katherine broke cover and sprinted, only stopping once she reached the nearest of the huge, crystal columns that held the ship aloft to try and catch a glimpse of their pursuer.

Wait, where’s Voyciek? Then it hit her. The old fool meant to stay and fight.

That hideous, golden glow was almost to her side of the ship now. She could see the tip of his chain, a horrid, bladed beak that snapped with each clinking bounce upon the floor. His boots were divided at the toe to hide the sound of his footfalls. His robe was a swirling nimbus of the color deeper than black.

She couldn’t see his mask, but she didn’t need to. For to gaze into the Ratkeeper’s mask meant a fate worse than death. His mask was what hypnotized you. Then his lamp would trap you with its terrible light, and your soul – your life as a free individual capable of thinking and making choices – was gone forever.

The Ratkeeper. He’s really here. I’ve dreamt of this moment for so many years. But I can’t stop shaking. I need to run, live to fight another day-

I’m not the fire at all. I’m nothing but a scared, little coward. Pathetic. What would mom think?

She’d tell me to escape. To make the old man’s choice matter. To tell them what I found.

Katherine climbed up through a jagged wound in the ship’s hull into the shadows of the lower deck. Katherine stumbled through piles of char and the remnants of cargo whose contents had long since turned to ash to the tiny light of a porthole, where she pressed her eye against the murky glass and readied the ghost to fire.

Despite its fogginess, the window gave a good view of the altar. She had barely settled when Voyciek’s slender shape stood from behind it and planted his Wyvernwood spear in the ground.

“Remember me?” his voice drifted distantly through the glass. “I thought we might run into each other again here. I’ve found your beloved sovereign’s great secret, dog.”

Another shape entered Katherine’s vision. The Ratkeeper advanced, seemingly unmoved by her master’s speech.

The old man retreated up the dais, keeping just enough distance to stay out of reach of his enemy’s slowly twirling chain, until his back nearly touched the statue’s huge, crystal toes.

“I know the terrible things he was trying to hide, the truth that will bring down your unholy regime.”

He’s grandstanding. Letting his enemy get close before springing the trap. Classic Voyciek. But will it work? And where is the trap…?

“Come now. Try to take it from me, then. Before I scamper off and tell the whole world. Then you’ll really be in a pickle, won’t you? Because you fear Him far more than we shall ever fear you.”

Close enough. The old man ducked and the red tip of his spear slashed back in a wide arc as the Ratkeeper’s chain smashed into the wall where he’d been standing. The old man’s cut took the statue off at the knees. Voyciek tucked and rolled as the huge crystal statue crashed down on top of his enemy, filling the cathedral with billowing motes of dust and ruin that swallowed master, monster, and all.

But that was only the start of it.

Before the old man was back on his feet, the Ratkeeper reappeared next to him and struck. Voyciek was ready for it, and spear met chain with a harsh cry that raised discordant echoes through the dusty shadows.

Pain lanced inside Katherine’s palm. The ghost begged her for release.

Impossible. How could he-

I saw it crush him-

There’s no way he could-

She couldn’t fire until she had a clear shot. But a clear shot never came.

The old man cackled as the two combatants entered their death-dance and began circling crab-wise, spiraling ever closer as they checked and dodged each other’s blows. “Ho-hoo! You made an error letting me live. You of all people should know the way to hunt Vermin is to stamp them out with one, quick stroke. Let us linger, and we grow stronger, faster, until one day you are overrun.”

The old man was fast, the blade and butt of his spear forming a blur of sanguine red. But his enemy moved like nothing Katherine had ever seen.

At first she thought it was only a trick of the glass, but the longer she watched, the more convinced she became that it was no illusion.

When the Ratkeeper dodged, he didn’t simply evade the old man’s attacks. He vanished and reappeared somewhere else, moving like something shuttering and demonic, something wholly unnatural.

Try as he could, the old man couldn’t hit his target. Suddenly the sag of an arm. The old man was getting tired. The flashing guard of his spear dropped an inch, and Katherine knew with sickening horror that it was over.

The Ratkeeper’s chain grabbed the old man’s spear and yanked it away. His lamp brightened and Voyciek froze. Even through the ruddy filter of the porthole, Katherine could see golden light blooming in her master’s eye. The old man’s hands went limp, and he said a name.

Everything was sick, and slow, and wrong. The old man wasn’t supposed to lose. Katherine whimpered.

The Ratkeeper stopped his advance and looked up toward the porthole. Katherine ducked, praying he hadn’t seen her.

I need to run. Mourn him later. Live now. Tell them. I am the fire.

Katherine was already at the first landing of the stairs when she heard the scream. She paused, wiped the tears from her eyes and put her other hand out to steady herself. The walls of the ship were cold, full of crevices and forgotten, ancient knowledge. He should have been there with her. No. No time to think. She had to be fast. She had to be quiet.

She took the stairs three at a time, the remains of the ship settling, creaking, and resettling with every step. She was almost at the airlock that led out to the main deck when she heard a voice calling to her from deep within the bowels of the ship.

“Come out now, Kat. I slew the Oppressor’s Dog. We’re safe, dear Brave One. We can go home. Call to me so I know where you are.”

The old man’s voice had none of its usual candor. It was flat, lifeless, ragged, like tearing cloth.

That’s not him. That’s not Voyciek.

The old man’s calls echoed through the ship. “Don’t you want to feast on roasted meat and drink vodka next to the fire? Come out now, so we can go home…”

No. Voyciek is gone. That thing is using his voice. Trying to lure me out.

She tried opening the airlock, but her hands were trembling so violently she could barely grip the wheel, and the rusty, stubborn metal was not wont to move after ages of being sealed.

The blood pounded in her chest and skull with each booming summon. He was getting closer. “I owe you a bottle, don’t I? Distilled it myself, you know…”

I have to run. I have to tell them what I found.

A creak, nearby. Someone was coming up the stairs. A voice like needles in the darkness. “Found you, Little Kat.”

Katherine spun and fired the ghost into the black maw of the stairwell. The walls split like pieces of a cloven fruit. In the scattered matrix of light that fell through the perforations, she saw him step onto the landing beneath her.

The Ratkeeper was using her master’s body as a lampshade. The old man had been draped over the lantern to hide its light. He didn’t move, only watched limp and lifeless from his perch with buried candles for his eyes.

Katherine screamed and cut a long, vertical line down through the ship’s hull, reached back with her other hand, and pulled the airlock open.

She exited onto the main deck as the two halves of the ship were beginning to split and fall away, scrambled up the nearest mast to the crow’s nest, which cracked and fell as the ship at last gave to the damage of her cut and collapsed.

She rode the falling mast over to the inside of the dome, leapt and grabbed onto the lowest protruding ledge. Her feet kicked through empty air as they struggled to find purchase. They did, and she pulled herself up onto the dusty rim.

She sat there, torn, bloody, and heaving. The dome’s interior had no doorway that she could see, only the bright falsity of the circling, painted heavens.

I’ll need to cut a hole. But what if he follows me, and being trapped inside that wreckage didn’t kill him?

Weren’t the ceilings of these old churches all made of plaster? Hadn’t one of Bookmother’s tomes said that?

She let the ghost guide her hand in a 360-degree cut, taking the dome down in a deluge of priceless art that rained slow, pale ruin over the vastness of the church. That way, even if the Ratkeeper were still alive, he wouldn’t have the advantage of his vanishing trick. She’d be able to track his movements, to see him coming before he saw her. Katherine braced herself against the ledge and waited for the storm to pass.

When the air was clear, she stood and brushed herself off, then hurried to the corkscrew stair winding up the inside of the tower. She half expected the Ratkeeper to be waiting for her at the top, but the cathedral was silent above as it was again below.

Five hundred steps later, she entered the belfry.

The belfry was a tiny room, empty save for two giant ropes and an ancient mattress. In the old churches, this was where the Acolytes slept, as it was their duty to ring the bells.

Her first task was to get the window open. She didn’t try to find the latch, instead cutting a square portion large enough for her to crawl out of from the huge panels of stained glass. A burst of cold air rushed in, nearly knocking her to the floor.

Why is it so cold? And where is this wind coming from? I’m a mile underground.

Puzzled, Katherine poked her head out and looked down. Her heart sank to see a thick sheen of ice covering the outer façade of the church. In the short time she and her master had been inside, the entire exterior had been encased in frost.

It would be impossible for her to climb down.

Katherine shivered and sat down on the bed. He sealed us in a cage of ice. A maddened giggle escaped her lips. A cage of ice for little mice.

He survived. Oh, he survived, all right. He foresaw our every move. He’s taking his time. Playing with me. It’ll be any moment, now.

She decided she would commit suicide rather than be turned into a doll.

She wanted the moment of her death to be peaceful, so she could ascend the Spiral without the baggage of hate. But she couldn’t get comfortable. Not only that, there was something hard poking her through the cloth. Something hidden.

Katherine gasped and tore open the threadbare sheet, her pulse racing with newfound possibility. Could this be…?

Yes. Her fingers found four distinct edges buried deep inside the rotten slag of the mattress. A book. She pulled it out and gently set it in her lap.

The book was a mountain of thick vellum all bound carefully in stained glass. It was made by hand. The cover illustration showed twin crescent moons setting over a triangular plane. The vermillion pages cracked and whispered as she leafed through them. She was careful not to damage the delicate calfskin as she read-

Or rather, tried to read. The book was written entirely in Old Ithic.

Len could read this, she thought. I couldn’t translate a text this size even if I had time.

Microscopic handwriting ran to the edge of every page, hundreds of thousands of words written in the forgotten language of the People of the Sun. There were countless diagrams and schematics depicting the stars and the mechanics of motion.

Someone went to great lengths to keep this a secret, even before the Last Day of Sun.

This is it. Wanderer’s wisdom, this is his diary. This is the Crippled King’s dia-

There was a clink, clink, clink outside the belfry door.

Katherine closed the book and rose. The ghost burned agonizing spirals up her arm, tasting her fear and her hunger for vengeance. She held her palm to her forehead and prepared to fire. Then she realized how stupid that was. This was her chance. She could avenge the old man, avenge her mother, and all the other Vermin this butcher had killed.

You can hit him. You can track him. Remember your training. You are the fire.

Clink. Clink. Clink.

She let her hand drop from her face and aimed it at the door.

Clink. Clink.

Clink.

The belfry door opened.

Her cut bisected the door and some of the wall beyond at a perfect diagonal. Massive chunks of wood and stone slid away and the cold wind howled in. But the Ratkeeper wasn’t there.

Before she knew what was happening, the wall was already on top of her.

Crushing pressure. Blackness. A collapsing tunnel of red. Katherine tried to scream, but couldn’t. The thing biting her legs was too heavy to move. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. There was only the pressure, and the sick, sick red.

She opened her eyes to an enormous pile of bricks swallowing her legs, hips, and stomach. The Ratkeeper had jumped into the room somehow, pulled one of the walls down on top of her. It didn’t hurt, but the pressure – oh, Wanderer, the pressure – it felt like half her body was trapped in a vise.

She couldn’t move.

Her enemy stepped over her casually, raising his lamp so it shined into her face. Katherine tried to look away, but he was everywhere, even when she closed her eyes.

That mask. There it was. That hideous mask. A pale circle of glazed and fired clay bearing the image of an endless spiral. There were no eyeholes, because he had no eyes.

It couldn’t end like this. Not for her. She was the fire. She couldn’t be beaten so easily, by some mask, or some lamp, or…

The cloaked figure standing over her faded into the shadows of the background as Katherine’s ears filled with sound and with it, a pleasant warmth that brought tingles to her skin. The cold and darkness evaporated with every word they spoke, thousands of voices, then hundreds, then one.

Oh, my sweet baby girl. I love you so much. Open your eyes, honey. It’s all right.

She hadn’t heard that voice in years. But she knew it, didn’t she? It was still there like a splinter buried deep in her heart.

My strong baby girl. You’re the bravest of the brave. Braver than I ever was, her mother said. Suddenly all she wanted was to listen, and greedily suck up every last drop of that warmth. It was as sweet as fabled sunlight.

C’mon, Kitty-Kat. Time to come home. Say yes, baby, and come home.

Katherine opened her eyes.

 

***

Stay tuned…. Corruption is coming soon.