Where To Find Me

Things have been very quiet here for multiple reasons, but the main reason they will likely remain quiet is Patreon. That’s where I’m focusing my attention.

And from January 2021, I will be focused on writing long form fiction rather than RPG material, and that fiction will be happening on Patreon and Sword’s Edge. I will start posting one free chapter per month of my work-in-progress at Sword’s Edge starting in January.

My backers at Patreon will be getting at least 5,000 words of fiction focused mostly on my work in progress, in PDF, epub, and mobi. At Sword’s Edge, there’ll be one chapter per month. You can find information at the WIP page there.

I hope this provide some level of entertainment in these trying times.

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Work In Progress – The Project

As of January 2021, my Patreon will be focused on long-form fiction. I will be posting chapters from a novel, providing at least 5,000 words of fiction each month. One chapter per month of the “official” work in progress (WIP) will be posted here, at Sword’s Edge, though I may publish two or more chapters of the work at my Patreon. I might also publish one chapter from that WIP and another from a different WIP, but there will always be one chapter for the official WIP until it is complete.

The WIP page is here. You can find my Patreon here.

Daughter of Glory Cover

So, what is this WIP? I have been sharing a first chapter preview and synopsis of each of the possible WIPs at my Patreon, and I have also posted them here, at Sword’s Edge. They are all available through the WIP page, which will be updated as this project proceeds. Right now, there is voting happening at my Patreon to see which of these six options is considered the most worthy of being extended to a full work—as I have said elsewhere, not might be worthy, but this is to decide the most worthy of available options.

If you feel strongly about one of these works, you can always join my Patreon and support its creation. You can also contact me through email or on Twitter to make your thoughts known.

TDSS Cover

Since I started publishing RPG material in 2004 (yow!), it has been my primary creative focus. I am now facing a bit of burnout. I have stopped running games (still playing, just not running games), and the vast majority of my creative energies are now being focused on writing fiction. I’m excited about this, though I recognize that those who know me, know me through my RPG work. Still, I’m going to do this for me and if it washes out of my system, or if I feel recharged, I’ll get back to running games.

It is also possible that running games online—only available options for me since March—just doesn’t give me the energy doing it in person does, and this may have leaked into my RPG creativity.

Whatever the case, it’s long-form fiction for the foreseeable future. I hope that future includes some people being entertained by what I’m writing.

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The Bloody Dark, Chapter 01

01

Bloody Dark Cover

The Quirinus Corporation returned to the planet of Anesidora almost ten years to the day from when it had abandoned it. Mined out, polluted, almost a wasteland, profits from the colony had continued to decline. The Company’s revenues dropped as the cost of keeping its indentured servants alive increased. Given the financial situation, the Company had abandoned the colony. Given the costs of relocating the 5,000 plus indentured servants on the planet, the Company had abandoned them.

It had, however, marked the assessed market value of the infrastructure and equipment left behind as credit extended to the population. While the equipment would depreciate, the credit never would.

And then, on a Thursday, in the month of Cherries—known elsewhere as Galactic Standard April or just April—a Company ship arrived at the spaceport in Libera, the capital of the Independent Republic of Anesidora (not recognized by any corporate authority). It had ignored hails when it entered the defence identification zone of the planet, so was under escort when it landed. Small assault vessels decades out of service provided the escort, and it might been comical except that the Company vessel had no weapons—neither atmospheric nor exo-atmopsheric.

The Company should have been prepared for this. One of the reasons it had decided to return was that the Republic of Anesidora was becoming a popular trade outpost. The information available was that it had begun an asteroid mining project—something the Company had considered, but had decided against due to a lack of profitability. Apparently, the Company analysis had been flawed. At present, the mining program was minimal, but many corporations and entrepreneurs were looking at the system and considering approaching the Republic for licences to access some of its asteroid field for mining.

And that would mean recognizing the Republic as a sovereign government.

But the Company didn’t like that. Anesidora and its system was the property of the Quirinus Corporation. Its population still owed the Company a hefty amount due to the credit the Quirinus Corporation had advanced it—the infrastructure and equipment abandoned on the planet along with its population.

The Company had come to take control.

Asiah Relling, chief legal counsel for Carmentis Sector had not come to Anesidora to be threatened. He did not appreciate the hostility of the debtors implicit in the armed escort as his vessel had made landfall. Relatively tall, he wore an expensive two-piece suit with a fashionable cravat, a walking stick with a head fashioned of pure exetium, and veslestere sandals. Four armed guards—none wearing armour, all wearing dark suits, but all also carrying high-powered firearms in obvious “concealed” holsters—flanked him.

High walls surrounded the landing pad of the docking port. A single door provided access. Various tools and equipment used in the maintenance of exo-atmospheric vessels lined the walls. Hoses and filaments used to charge and fuel vessels hung in coils. A single data terminal jutted out of the wall near the door. Everywhere was clean but worn. The equipment had been dated a decade ago and had not been replaced. 

The assistant port officer, Tayne McFlower, approached, dressed in wrinkled and stained work overalls and bearing no weapons, though one datapad. She was taller than Asiah and a smile almost formed on her lips, before those lips drew tight.

“Welcome to Libera.” Tayne lifted up the datapad, brandishing it like sign. “We’ve got no paperwork on your ship or your visit.” She then pointed to the four guards, once each in turn. “And I’m not seeing licences for your weapons. You’ll need to lock those up on your ship and we’ll need to get your docking permissions in order before anything else.”

Asiah’s eyes narrowed. “I represent the Quirinus Corporation, and the Quirinus Corporation owns all of this, so I will be telling you what is acceptable and what needs to be done.”

Tayne’s eyebrows raised and she offered a slight, half-grin. “Is that so? Well, that was before my time, but what I heard is that your corporation abandoned this place and these people, so I don’t think your claim’s going to mean much.”

Taking out a much smaller datapad, one that fit in his palm, Asiah’s eyes did not leave Tayne. “It doesn’t matter what you think. That is the reality of the situation. You say you weren’t one of the indentured servants assigned to maintain the planet? Well, you will need to sign a contract if you wish to remain and continued to be employed here. What was your name?”

“She doesn’t need to tell you that.”

The speaker had just entered through the single door. Tanyne turned and raised a hand in greeting. “Hi marshal. You know about this fellow and this corporation stuff?”

“I know enough.” The marshal stood to about Tayne’s chin. She had broader shoulders and a confident stride. The tattoos showing from under her closely shorn hair suggested time in some mercenary company. A heavy pistol hung from her hip. She patted Tayne’s shoulder. “I got this.”

“You are the marshal here?” Asiah tapped something on his datapad, then looked up. “The Quirinus Corporation contracted no law enforcement entity. Should I assume you are part of the criminal conspiracy claiming Anesidora?”

“Assume whatever you want.” The marshal took a step, placing herself between Tayne and the corporate group. “Now, the assistant port officer here has made clear the rules. I’m not here to argue them. I’m here to enforce them. You’ve got four guns against me, so you might think that puts me at a disadvantage. You’d be wrong. This’ll go much smoother if you put your weapons on the floor then step back a ways so I can collect them.”

Asiah sniggered and shook his head. “I admire your confidence. I really do. But you are very mistaken in your belief. We are entirely in the right here, and any violence you perpetrate on us will only leave you open to prosecution, should you survive.”

The marshal’s left hand was on the pistol at her hip. The other was behind her back. While none of the corporate’s could see what might be there, Tayne had a clear view of the even larger pistol the marshal gripped with her right hand.

“I know a little something about the law, and the fact is that abandoning a planetary system for five years leaves it open for other claims.” The marshal never looked to Asiah, but her eyes moved between the four thugs flanking him. “The completion of the oribital platform and the commencement of asteroid mining, by the interstellar laws your own corporation signed on to, means that the Independent Republic of Anesidora is now the corporate authority for this system.”

“The Quirinus Corporation never abandoned Anesidora.” Asiah’s smile could conclusively be categorized as merciless. “It left its indentured servants as a wholly owned subsidiary, answerable to the Quirinus Corporation while its credit remained outstanding. That credit remains outstanding.”

And this led to a very similar smile coming to the marshal’s face. “Where’s the contract?”

“I beg your pardon?” The hand holding Asiah’s datapad dipped slightly.

“For that to stand up in court, you need a contract.” That marshal tapped the pistol on her left hip with her index finger. “If you set up a subsidiary, you also need the incorporation agreement and licence. You’ve got none of those things. I know. First thing I did when I took this job was look for them. I’m afraid your legal branch messed up. Are you part of the legal branch?”

“That depends on the tribunal ruling.” Asiah put away his datapad. “Your little government will be bankrupt long before the case is finished. There are three levels of appeal. And that assumes we just don’t hire a mercenary company to come here and wipe this place out. If you don’t want to play nice, we won’t either.”

“Oh, maybe a mercenary company like Executive Solutions?” The marshal stopped tapping her pistol. She slowly and quietly unbuttoned its strap.

Tayne began to retreat toward the door. No one acknowledged her movement.

“Is that supposed to impress me with your knowledge?” Asiah shook his head. “Executive Solutions has been dissolved. Maybe you are not as smart as you think you are.”

“Dissolved? That’s one way to say it.” The marshal’s grip on the pistol at her back tightened. “It got destroyed by Vanguard. That was before Vanguard dispersed.”

Asiah took a step back. “What are you getting at?”

By this time, Tayne had reached the door, she stepped through it, ducking into the hallway there.

“If you know anything about Vanguard, you might know about Thrace Targe.” The marshal crouched slightly and leaned forward, as if facing heavy winds. “That’s me.” She smiled a wolf’d smile. “Now turn around, get on your ship and get gone. You can also put down your weapons and we can talk, but whatever you do, you don’t get Anesidora.”

Tayne had accessed the communications network. She put a call through to the marshal’s office.

One of the guards, a beefy man who may have once been dangerous but moved slow and telegraphed his every thought, put his hand on his weapon. “She’s just one person.”

Asiah touched his cravat, loosening it only slightly. “Perhaps.”

All four guards went for their weapons. Thrace had both weapons out and firing before any of the guards cleared their holsters. She hit each in the right hand. With another volley, she shot each in the leg, dropping them to the ground.

“Looks like you made your choice.” Thrace approached the group, the four guards on the ground, most groaning, bleeding from wounds to their hands and their legs. Asiah withdrew, moving back up the access ramp to his shuttle. “That was me playing nice.” She kicked away each weapon in turn, then, holstering the weapon on her left hip, covered each guard individually as she searched them for more weapons. “You don’t want to see me when I’m angry.”

As she removed the last secondary weapon from the last guard, three people burst in through the doorway, each bearing a longarm—two with rifles that could be used for hunting, but one with an assault rifle.

Thrace didn’t look to them. “It’s okay. This disagreement has reached it conclusion and these people will be leaving.” She backed away as the guards crawled or limped up the access ramp to their vessel. “See that their ship is escorted to the minimum safe distance for a jump. They try to engage their FTL earlier than that, torpedo it.”

The accessway started to close, and the vessel’s maneuvering systems started to whine and hiss, getting ready for a soft liftoff. Only then did Thrace turn her back. She considered the three people who had agreed to act as her deputies. None of them had her experience or her skills.

“They’ll be back,” Thrace said. “And it’ll be a lot worse. We need to get ready.”

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Daugther of Glory, Chapter One

One

Daughter of Glory Cover

The tears would not come. Mairwen could feel them there, in the pit of her empty but unhungry stomach. She could feel them in her throat when she couldn’t sleep, when she stared up at the stars and thought of all those families dead and unburied. And she could feel them as exhaustion overtook her, riding her palfrey, led by the woman who she thought of as her mother—the only other person to escape the village of Sternhill alive.

She bounced and jerked on her horse, comfortable in the saddle but so tired and so unfocused that she thought she might still fall. How many days since they had fled in the night, their way lit by burning homes and barns? All the life she could remember had been in Sternhill. All her friends, all the families whom she knew, everyone was gone. Dead. Murdered.

Her foster mother, Veris, had dragged her out of her bed even before the first shouts cut through the night. She always had packs ready—something Mairwen had never questioned because it had been a constant. As the first flames rose and Mairwen heard the screaming, Veris set her to readying her palfrey. Just outside the shed, Mairwen had heard steel on steel, and the sound of hard blows against a body. When she rode out of the shed she saw five figures, all broken, all soldiers or at least wearing armour and bearing arms.

By that time, flames consumed much of Sternhill. She wanted to urge Veris to help, she wanted to stay and save her neighbours. Something else inside her, something that made her nauseous with shame, had wanted to flee, to leave them to their fates if it saved her. She wanted to say that she had ignored that voice, but how hard had she argued with Veris? How hard had she fought to stay and share the fate of those she had purported to love?

She fell forward against the neck of Willow, her horse. She began to slide off when strong hands took her and lowered her to the ground. Veris Fitzgurth, her foster mother, stood over her, dark, intent eyes holding hers. Veris’ friar’s hood left much of her head obscured or in shadow, and Mairwen knew that under the robes she wore mail armour made from a dark metal that did not seem to reflect light. In the night, Veris disappeared into the blackness.

“You haven’t slept, have you.” She didn’t question. She made a statement. Her resonant voice, so quiet and gentle, rumbled through her. Mairwen took comfort in it.

“I couldn’t.” She lay back, and Veris lowered her to the ground. “I close my eyes and I remember them. I hear them. I can smell them, even.”

Veris sat beside her, her hand on Mairwen’s forehead. Willow waited patiently, watching.

“We left them to die.” There, very close, Mairwen felt the tears coming.  A few more words, a confession and maybe they would arrive. She wanted to wash this all out of her. She wanted it to all just flow away. She had no more words. The tears remained elusive.

“I couldn’t let them kill you, Mairwen.” This time, Veris’ voice broke as she spoke her foster daughter’s name. She cleared her throat, as though something other than emotion had caught her up. “We would have died. If I could have saved them all, I would have. Someone was there. Something. Something strong.”

“Hunting me?” Veris had not spoken of the attack even when Mairwen had asked and prodded. Maybe the nights had worn away at her as well.

“Yes. Hunting you. And even if I could have stopped those who attacked the village, worse would have come.” She covered her face with her hand. “Better to die by the sword. Better that than what could have come.”

Fatigue had saved Mairwen from fear, but now it came. “What do you mean?”

“I’m sorry.” She rose. “I shouldn’t have said that.” She went to Willow, cradling the horse’s neck in her arms. She stroked her mane. “I am tired also. I’m sorry I pushed you so hard, but we must be clear before they realize you are not among the dead. I need to find you safety.”

Mairwen raised herself up on her elbows and looked around. The path they followed cut through a forest of tall trees with massive trunks. Sunlight made its way through the labyrinth of leaves to come like rain, touching here then there, a pool of illumination. Ferns, bushes, fallen branches, and dried leaves covered the ground beneath that majestic canopy. Within that profusion, anything could hide, watching them as they rested, perhaps fearing them as much as they feared what lay behind them.

She inhaled deeply, letting the thick but fresh scent of all that life around her purge her of the stench of death. She knew death lay around her in the forest as well, the end of both animals and plants, but that was clean. That was natural. There had been nothing natural about the attack on Sternhill.

“We can sleep,” Veris said. “We have pushed hard for a few days, and we need a rest. We shall find a stream or pool and camp there. I believe I can hear a creek.”

Mairwen could not, but Veris had always proved preternaturally perceptive about the world. She could taste an evening rain shower in the morning air, and a touch of fruit would tell her if it were ready or could wait. Even if Mairwen wanted, she did not believe she could question Veris. She wanted there to be a stream. She wanted to just collapse. She thought maybe in this forest, by a fire, with Veris beside her, she might be able to sleep.

But when they had found the stream, and Veris set a small campfire, the smell of it made her heart pound. She started to sweat. She grasped Veris’ arm. “Please, put it out.”

They ate cold food and slept huddled together under a rough shelter Veris had hastily constructed. Wrapped in her arms, face buried in her chest, Mairwen slept. She had nightmares, but she pushed through them and past them. She recognized them for what they were and let them flow through her.

She awoke in the very early morning, dew around her, hints of sun touching it. Veris brushed Willow, and turned at her stirring.

“Can we have a fire?” she asked.

Veris smiled. She patted Willow. She came to sit with Mairwen. “If you wish, but it is not necessary.”

“I was tired.” Mairwen steadied herself with a deep breath. “I still am, but I’m better.”

They had a hot breakfast and Mairwen felt revived. For the first time since they had left Sternhill, she felt unburdened. Nothing weighed on her shoulders, though something sat in her belly. Anxiety remained, clawing at her every thought, but it did not fill them.

“Where are we going?” she asked as she packed.

Veris paused in saddling Willow. “There is a village two or three days further west. We will find haven there for a pace while we decide what to do next. An old and trusted friend has an inn there. Somewhere to rest and recuperate.”

“And then we’ll move on.” The weight returned, less than before but still oppressive. “We’ll never have a home again.”

“Yes, we will.” Veris spoke with conviction. She spoke with passion. “We will overcome this, you and I. I will not fail you, Mairwen.”

She stopped her packing and rose. “This isn’t about failing. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do. Nothing anybody can do. This isn’t your task, Veris. This is our life.”

“I need to protect you.” Veris reached out and touched Mairwen’s hair. “I cannot fail at protecting you. If I fail that, I have no life.”

“I know you feel responsible for me. I know that. But I’m responsible for me, okay? I don’t want to be the reason you get hurt or get killed. I don’t want you to let anyone else die for me.”

“I cannot help it.” Veris’ hand fell to her side and her gaze fell to the earth. “It is all that motivates me. It is the reason I live.” Then their eyes met again. As before, that dark gaze revealed no weakness, only iron. “You can deny my responsibility for you, but I cannot. You did not place it on me. You cannot repeal it.” Veris smiled. “But here we stand, talking of responsibilities and lives and ignoring the road before us.  We can talk as we travel.”

Mairwen did not know what more to say. Veris had been with her all her life, teaching her, taking care of her. She loved her like a mother. She was her mother. When Veris spoke of Mairwen’s true family, it had no reality for her. They could be a myth for all it mattered. As much as their death had affected Veris, it meant nothing to Mairwen.

They did not talk as they travelled. Mairwen rode and Veris led Willow, all in silence. Mairwen listened to the forest around her, the life there. She breathed in its purity. Death in nature had a purpose. Animals fed. Animals killed for hunger. Did they take joy in it? She couldn’t say, but she could say that wolves did not slaughter without purpose.

When Veris finally did speak, she told her of Halrada, once a great warrior who settled in a town on the edge of the world to create a place of sanctuary within reach of Sternhill. As Veris spoke, Mairwen realized she had no plans beyond reaching the inn in the village of Nayrsford. Or perhaps she had, and did not wish to speak of them.

“After we find your friend, Halrada, then what?” Mairwen asked. “Do we flee and then flee some more?”

Veris rubbed her shaven head. “There are lands to the west and to the north into which we might disappear, but they have dangers of their own. They are closed to most travellers and fearful of new faces.”

“Then we don’t seem to have any good choices.” Mairwen exhaled slowly, quietly, trying to avoid a sigh.

“Some choices are better than others, and I may have friends who can help in those places as well.” Veris glanced back at Mairwen with what Mairwen considered a forced smile. “I may surprise you yet.”

What could possibly surprise her more than the story she had related of Mairwen’s father—an Archmage. She, the daughter of Myrrdin the Glorious, the Archmage who died some eighteen years ago, when she was just a baby. Veris had spoken of it only to her. Were she honest, she would admit she had never believed the story. It was too much like a fairy tale. But someone had come for her. Someone had destroyed an entire village, murdered all its people to find her.

Murdered all its people.

Still, no tears. Instead she felt anger rising. Why? Why would anyone seek her out after eighteen years? Why would someone be so cruel as to kill hundreds searching for one young girl, a girl who had never accomplished anything in her life, who threatened no one? “Why do they want me dead, Veris?”

Veris turned toward Mairwen as she walked, but did not face her. “Who?”

“Veris, please. You say the men who attacked Sternhill sought me. They want me dead. So tell me why.”

“They are afraid. Arnau, the man who killed your father, the man who became Archmage, he has learned of you. He has been seeking you almost a decade.”

A fist held her heart tight. A great weight pushed the breath from her body. “A decade? And you never told me?”

“We were safe.” Veris continued to walk, looking down, leading Willow. “I thought we were safe. You had a good life. You were so strong and smart. What could I say to you when you were so young? As the years passed, it became harder. I had said nothing for so long. I believed he would abandon the search.”

“But why is the Archmage afraid of me? What have I done?”

At this, Veris stopped. Willow did also, nuzzling Veris. “Not what you have done. What you could do. Your father was mighty. Not just because of his magic. Your father saw the world could be better. The Guild Magi guards it secrets, extracts heavy payments, makes demands of nations and kings. Your father wanted to share magic. He wanted to educate all. Any man or woman who had talent, he wanted it nurtured. He saw the wealth of the Guild and wanted to use it to feed the hungry, cloth the poor. He refused licence for wizards and sorcerers to assist in wars.”

Veris looked up, her face flush, her eyes watery. “Your father thought he could save the world. The Guild wanted only more wealth and power. It won it by burying him. And here you are, an adult, the heir of an Archmage whom commons and lords alike still revere. If you prove as powerful at wizardry as he, how could any force stand against you?”

Veris stroked Willow’s face. “When your father died, there were riots and rebellions. The Guild Magi itself came under attack, and the charterhouse in the imperial city of Solon was burned to the ground. The people remember that for a very brief time, someone tried to make the world better. The Archmage fears that should you step forward, there were many who would rally to you—rulers and commons alike, even some within the Guild itself. That is what he fears.”

“I don’t want to be an Archmage,” Mairwen said. “I don’t even have magic.”

“But you do.” Veris gripped her leg. “I’ve seen you conjure fire and make a needle dance. They are small tricks, yes, but that is how it begins. It is in you. If you choose to follow it, it can save you.”

“By causing a war? No. I don’t want that.”

Veris nodded, stepping back. “I understand. I understand better than you might imagine.” She started leading Willow again. “Let us reach Nayrsford and then consider our way forward from there.”

Mairwen did not sleep well that night. She dreamed of the burning of Sternhill, but instead of hundreds of homes, she saw thousands, hundreds of thousands. She saw armies marching and blood flowing. It shocked her awake.

The fire had died to its embers. It barely illuminated their small camp, but it provided enough light to see the figure. Wearing shadows like a cloak, that figure stood across from her.

“And here we find the daughter of Myddin.”

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Stonefall, Chapter 1: the Call

Chapter 1: The Call

Stonefall cover

The wagon bumped and shuddered as it drove over the uneven ground of the steppe. The horizon seemed to stretch forever in all directions, with only minor undulations—waves on the sea of grass—to break the monotony. The line of twenty wagons inched through this, pulled by patient oxen. Somewhere out there in the grass the scouts ran along, keeping pace, watching for either game or enemies. There was much of the former and few of the latter, but both would incite quick action among the Three Horn people.

Adara shifted her wagon a little to the left to get a better view of their direction of travel. Her mother rode at her right on the finest of her family’s five horses, and glanced over with suspicious eyes. Adara simply smiled and ignored the accusation in that gaze. Her father rode ahead with nine other skirmishers. They were not hidden like the scouts, their role was to incite action in others. Their bows were strung and ready, their flint-tipped arrows close at hand. All ten were ready to act should they identify either danger or opportunity.

The Three Horn people had already travelled for six days and would likely travel for three more before reaching the mound of the Mother Goddess. The air had turned chilly and the sun, stars, and moons all told their seer that the time had come for the gathering. Each family brought their timber and their stone, ready to participate in the year’s construction.

Adara didn’t like that part of the festival. She did enjoy the feasting and celebrations that would come following the building. Her family and their godsworn cousins could build a house in a few days, especially if her sister and brother—out there running with the scouts—did their part. Daragal, her younger sister, would find her partner this festival, so this could be her last year building with her birth family. She might depart with another caravan—depending on the marriage contract. She might even ride off to one of the hill forts where the Dirt Diggers lived. Adara didn’t like that thought. Fewer and fewer of the Dirt Diggers attended the festival. If Daragal married into the Diggers, when would Adara see her again?

As eldest sibling, she and her mother would need to bless the union. What if she did not? She had never heard of an eldest sibling withholding a blessing, but what if she did?

But Daragal seemed excited about finding a partner, maybe even starting a family. She had many skills that would make her a good pairing. She needed to find a partner with fire and vision who could push her. Smart, sharp-eyed, sure-handed, and able to read the bones, father would surely find Daragal a good match.

At Adara’s feet, Sharpness stirred. The dog’s ears flicked and he yawned. He looked around, watched the herds moving under the watchful care of his brethren, and then lowered his head again.

“Useless.” Adara pushed on him with her foot.

Sharpness rolled over, showing her his belly, his tail wagging.

“No. No tummy rubs.” She couldn’t help but smile as she said it. She proved her words false by rubbing the presented belly with her foot.

Sharpness was a great shepherd when he was told to do that. He wasn’t bossy and never nipped at the sheep, cattle or horses, but his voice and his speed got their attention and got them moving where he wanted them to go. But this day, Adara had wanted his company as she drove the wagon. He had worked every other day, and though he wasn’t old, he was probably closer to his death than he was to his birth. He deserved a rest.

When the sun touched the horizon, the skirmishers and the scouts all returned. By that time, the Three Horn people had created a laager with their wagons—a defensive circle inside which they would relax and cook their food. Each wagon was a home, and those homes had study walls. Those whose role was night guard used the extra wheels each wagon carried—almost perfectly round circles of bound and glued wood—as shields three paces out from each wagon, cover from which spearmen could protect the archers who would shoot from the spaces between the wagons.

Adara had her turn that night, on the first watch. As people drifted away from the fires to beds into or under their wagons—or to some other informal sleeping arrangement—Daragal kept Adara company. She had her bow nearby. Adara had her spear. That weapon was famed among the Three Horn people. The spear had a black, sky-metal head—a long, sharp blade that seemed as much a long knife or short sword as a spear point—and a bronze butt spike that Adara had planted in the ground. Their grandfather never spoke of how he had acquired the spear, and many rumours and stories had grown up around it. He had called it Skyfang. She loved the name.

Sharpness lounged at Adara’s feet. He would go and join the other dogs who had rested through the day, keeping watch on the herds. Nights were easier than days, and many of the Three Horn people’s youngest adults—including her brother, Galgrath—took shifts working with the dogs. Though Adara knew Galgrath could not help but seek to excel at this minor duty, many of the others would sleep though most of their shift.

Short but thickly muscled and with legs that never tired, Daragal lounged on the seat from which Adara had steered their wagon. “You never want a partner?”

“Never is a long time.” Adara, her eyes adjusting to the moon and starlight, seeking movement out on the steppe, did not consider her sister. “Dad didn’t find anyone good the last couple of festivals.”

Daragal let out a short bark of laughter. “No one worthy of you? Or no one who could endure you?”

“Either or.” Adara smiled because Daragal could not see her. “I’m a lot to take.”

“There is too much meat on that bone.” Adara heard the seat and floorboard creak and she could imagine Daragal rose as she spoke. “I’m not even going to try.” Then Daragal was beside Adara. “Do you think Estric will be there?”

Adara shrugged. “The Black Bone people have always come, at least as long as I can remember. I’m sure he’ll be there.”

“It would be good to see him again,” Daragal said. “Share a drink. Maybe hear about his life.”

The life that you might soon have, sister? “His partner came from a strong family with many animals. I’m sure he is very happy and very comfortable. His father is wise. He chose well.”

“I hope so.” Daragal tensed. Adara caught it in her peripheral vision, and it made her turn to consider her sister. Daragal was intent, eyes straining. “Something. Something out there. I think.”

Sharpness rose. Did he sense Daragal’s unease, or was it something else? The dogs that were already with the herds started barking.

Adara hefted her spear, Skyfang. “Sharpness, hunt.”

Like an arrow from a bow, Sharpness launched himself. Fast, he never got so far from Adara that she couldn’t keep her eyes on him. They quickly reached the herds who had become agitated with the barking of the dogs.

“Sharpness, find Galgrath.” The available light wasn’t enough for Adara to discern features, merely shapes.

In a few heartbeats, they were with her brother. Tall and lithe, he was like an amalgam of Adara and Daragal—a synthesis of their mother and father as well. He had the bow he had recently finished fashioning ready with an arrow nocked. He visibly relaxed as his sisters and Sharpness arrived. He lowered himself to a knee to pet Sharpness than rose again.

“I don’t know what it is.” Galgrath took a step so he was just behind Adara. Instinct? Adara knew he would never admit to feeling safer around his siblings, but she knew she did. “Probably the smell of a predator.”

Other watchers lit the fires that had been set against the possibility of predators—four-legged or two. Some took their dogs to move the herds closer to the laager. More of the people stood ready in that temporary stronghold, the night being young so few of them actually rising from sleep though being denied it.

“A lot of fuss.” Adara searched the night, her eyes now compromised with the light of the fires. They were there to ward off predators, not to aid in seeing them. If it was raiders, that wouldn’t help much. The watchers moved away from the fires they had set, staying out of their light, making sure they didn’t present themselves as good targets for two-legged hunters.

Then Sharpness became timid. Instead of barking, he whined. He lay down, seeming to try to let the ground absorb him. He panted.

“That’s not good.” Galgrath took another step back.

Adara crouched, set Skyfang at ready. She should have brought her shield. Skyfang was light enough to wield with one hand. If she had thought they faced raiders, she would have taken the time to fetch the shield. It was skin over a bone frame, but was thick enough to slow or even catch arrows, and could deflect most spear thrusts if angled correctly.

It happened so fast, Adara wasn’t sure what she saw. To her right, a massive shape charged through one of the watch fires. It scattered it, burning brands now spread through the grass—dry grass. Someone screamed. The form raced back out into the night.

“What—“ Galgrath had almost screamed the question. He took a deep, shuddering breath. “What was that, Adara?”

“I don’t know.” She pointed to the growing blaze surrounding the broken watch fire. “We need to stop the fire from spreading before we can do anything more.”

Many had the same idea. While there were plenty of people who stood transfixed, perhaps uncertain what they had just seen or frightened by it, most of the people raced with whatever tools they had at hand toward the growing brush fire. Adara and her siblings could stamp and kick earth to cover flames. Others had actual shovels, or even pots, cooking utensils, or shields to overturn the earth on the edges of the fire. Others brought blankets to try to smother it.

The effort quickly brought the fire under control, and for a moment, everyone involved took the time to catch their breath and enjoy their triumph. But that moment disappeared. As everyone began calling to family or friends who had been at the watch, Daragal went to assure their parents they were all well. Adara and Galgrath busied themselves the fire would not rekindle.

Daragal returned, a frown on her face, her brow furrowed. “It was Sarath. They found her spear and shield. The shield was bloody and smashed.” Her eyes searched the night. “What could it be?”

“I don’t know.” Adara shook her head. “It was like darkness moved with it.”

“A wolf.” Galgrath’s voice shook as he spoke. “It was a wolf. Huge. Like a horse.”

“Wolves don’t—“ Daragal stopped at Adara’s glare.

“Galgrath, make sure our herd is safe.” Adara took a steadying breath. “Sharpness will help you. Daragal, get to the laager and take my position.”

“Adara, you’re not . . . you can’t . . .” Galgrath spoke quietly, his eyes wide.

“I’m not going to do anything yet.” Adara patted his shoulder. “I’m going to see if there is a trail.”

Daragal pursed her lips, her eyes narrowing, her gaze moving between Galgrath and Adara. Finally Daragal’s shoulders loosened. She closed her eyes. “I’m coming with you.” Her eyes opened and she turned to Galgrath. “You get the herd. Tell mom and dad. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

Galgrath wanted to argue, Adara could see it. She shook her head. “Please, Galgrath, see to the herd.”

She imagined the desires warring just behind his eyes. Finally, he nodded, touched both Adara and Daragal on the upper arm, then called Sharpness to him and set off into the night.

“We’re actually going to hunt this?” Daragal set off toward the shattered fire, tightening the belt that held her quiver of arrows.

“We’re going to see if we can find Sarath.” Adara considered the grass around the fire. “Even if it is just so her family can provide rites.”

The trail was easy to follow, even in the pale light of the moon and stars. Galgrath had been right about one thing at least—it was the size of a horse and seemed to move like a bull. It had created a path of trampled grass. Adara knelt to touch a print. Feeling its shape as much as seeing it, she realized it was, indeed, a paw. A wolf’s paw.

“I think Galgrath may have been right.” Adara rose and stared at the path away from the camp. “It’s the biggest wolf I’ve ever heard of.”

The light and noise behind them increased as the camp came awake and discovered the attack. Adara had no time to consider that, or wonder about her parents or their herd. She and Daragal were on the hunt.

Even in the weak light, they could not miss the trail. They moved quickly, but still cautiously, worried both that there might be more wolves like the one that attacked their camp—would this monster move in a pack like the wolves Adara knew?—and also that a missed step could leave one of them injured. Twist an ankle or break a leg and what hope would Sarath have?

Be honest, what hope does she have now? Adara thought.

Before she could pursue that thought down a long, dark tunnel, they came to a small vale. They almost ran off the side of a small cliff—and would have if they had moved with less care. To either side, the ground inclined at a more manageable angle, two sides to the hill that the cliff seemed cut from.

There, in a depression about twice the size of the people’s laager, the beast paced. It had left Sarath—alive, Adara could hear her groaning—on what Adara thought was a raised platform of some sort. A rectangular structure that—from Adara’s vantage—looked like a chest or other large box dominated the stone dais on which Sarath lay. Four pillars rose up marking a square in which the round platform sat.

The wolf stopped its pacing and looked up at Adara and Daragal. It bared its teeth and growled.

Easily the size of a pony but likely weighing much more, the wolf had fangs the size of Adara’s fingers. It began to approach, its eyes seeming to reflect the starlight.

Daragal had an arrow nocked. “Fight or run?”

“There’s no way we could outrun that thing,” Adara moved to stand before Daragal, setting her spear and crouching to allow her sister to shoot over her head. “Do you think you can hit its eyes?”

“I can hit one, sure.” Daragal did not boast, and Adara knew it. “But then that monster is going to charge and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the second.”

The beast stalked slowly, watching them at the top of the bluff. It moved to their right, moving the base of the hill, to a side it could easily charge up.

“Blinded is the only way we stand a chance.” The tight fist around her heart and the undulations in her belly both faded. The darkness seemed to fall away, and she could clearly see the beast that approached. She planned her attack. Through the mouth and into the brain? If it gave her that chance. If it charged, take its momentum on the spear and be ready to draw it out quick or lose it. Lose that spear, and Adara was left with a knife. “Do it.”

Under the light of the stars and the moon, threatened by a wolf the size of a small horse, Daragal once again proved her worth. The flint-topped arrow tore through the night and lodged in the thing’s right eye. Adara heard the tension of the bowstring as Daragal had another arrow ready almost before the first found its mark. The beast howled. It thrashed. It reared up, it shook its head with such force that part of the arrow broke off.

The tip remained buried in its eyes.

Each time it reared up, it came down closer to Adara. She knew it offered no opportunity to Daragal to blind the other eye. Whether out of cunning or sheer luck, it protected its vision. Daragal did not wait for the perfect opportunity. She loosed arrows in a stream. Each one drove home into the wolf, but none in its other eye. Some in its chest as it reared up. Many in its neck and shoulders. None slowing it.

The next time it rears up, it’ll be coming down on me. And the spear. And I’ll be trapped. “Back.” Adara yelled it as she moved, hoping Daragal understood her intent. Hoping her sister would move, praying they didn’t trip over each other.

The beast went up on its hind legs again, shaking it head and howling. Adara didn’t bump into Daragal. She tried to judge the distance—close enough to get the spear in its chest, far enough away that she wasn’t caught beneath it.

Just before it began to descend, it turned its head to glare at her with its one good eye. It opened its jaws. This was not mindless threashing. This wasn’t an undirected expression of rage and pain. It targeted Adara, ready to drive its claws into her, then crush her in its massive jaws.

An arrow took its good eye.

Adara shifted, moving to the side, as the beast roared and dropped, driving at the place Adara had been.

But was there no longer.

She saw the opening and took it. Rather than setting the spear to take the charge, she thrust with it from the side, seeking the heart, praying Skyfang could penetrate the thing’s ribs.  The entire shaft reverberated with the impact. It was like stabbing a tree—there was give, but not enough, and the point felt fixed, trapped.

This howl was unlike the others. This didn’t express rage or hatred or pain. This sounded like surprise.

Suddenly, the beast no longer had substance. Instead of a monster of a wolf, Adara faced shadow and smoke. The howl continued, but faded as the mass of the beast seemed to dissipate. For a moment, Adara could see it still, fully composed of inky darkness but lacking any physical substance. The arrows that had lodged in its body, including the two in its eye sockets fell to the ground. Skyfang was free.

In moments, it had gone. It evaporated in wisps and puffs, leaving nothing.

They stood, stunned, staring at the place where the beast had been. Adara looked down. The ground showed evidence of the battle that had just occurred. Like the trail they had followed, the beast had roiled up the earth with its thrashing. She had felt it when Skyfang struck. It had been there. It had been real and physical as much as she or Daragal.

Adara feared that at any moment, it would appear again. That this had been a trick. Magic. Yes, magic was at work here and she could not doubt it. Would it suddenly appear again? Would there be a cloud of black mist from which it would coalesce just as it had evaporated.

Nothing. Another heartbeat and then another, but still nothing.

“It’s gone.” Daragal’s words came somewhere between a question and a statement.

“I think so.” Adara scanned their surroundings, seeking it. The beast had been quiet enough before it had attacked Sarath. Did it stand in wait, ready to charge them again? But she saw nothing. She heard nothing. She smelled nothing. She felt nothing. “I think so, yes.”

She rose from her crouch. She noticed Daragal did not return the arrow she had ready on her bow to her quiver. While Daragal remained watchful, Adara studied the ground where the beast had been before it disappeared. Yes, she could see and feel the marks. It had happened. The beast had been real. The evidence for that was everywhere. Except a body.

Quickly gathering the arrows she could find, Adara slipped them into Daragal’s quiver. She wanted her sister to be ready with her bow, not bother with fallen arrows. What good the bow would do against a beast that could become shadow, Adara didn’t know, but it made her feel better.

Accepting that the beast had truly gone, Adara turned back to the dais on which it had left Sarath. That was when she noted the carcass that lay on that stone fixture at the centre of the platform. The contours of that item became more apparent, and with the body atop it, Adara began to think of it as an altar. That’s what it looked like, details of it becoming clearer as she approached. Decorated with carvings and strange markings, it seemed to be part of the platform—carved out of the same stone. Adara realized the carcass atop it was that of a wolf. A normal wolf of the kind that roamed the steppe.

As she reached the dais, she saw both its eyes sockets were empty and bloody.

Daragal returned her arrow to her quiver and went to help Sarath. Bloody, weak, and confused, Sarath was nonetheless breathing and conscious. She was alive. She looked up to Daragal. “What happened.”

Daragal looked to her sister and then back to Sarath. “I really don’t know.”

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Resistance: EARTH, Chapter 01: Technical Means

Chapter 1: Technical Means

Resistance EARTH cover

Thin clouds of dust drifted along his path, the force impelling them barely moving the scrub along the trail. He heard nothing but a few birds, a few small animals, nothing larger than a groundhog. He had paused dragging the litter on which he transported his day’s catch back to the village. He eased his rifle off his shoulder, shrugging to help slide it into his arms. He flipped off the safety then crouched. Something was out there. He couldn’t hear it, see it, or even smell it, but he knew.

Then he caught it—that low throbbing groan bordering on a whine that marked the alien’s anti-grav technology. A drone? Something larger?

He didn’t move. He had cover. If it were an ISR bird—intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance—it would have an easier time finding him if he proceeded. Just like the human eye, those things were attuned to movement. But one could destroy the small ones with a good shot. And this far from any control zone? The Unitary would never seek to recover it. It’d self-destruct. If it lost its connection with the SecNet, it’d go inert if it didn’t have other programming. He had two disabled ISR drones to thank for his current comfortable life.

Though that was absolutely and positively a relative term. Eleven years ago, he would have considered this a hardship posting. The village at which he currently resided—a place the locals called Dry Roads—had more modern conveniences than any of the holes in the Middle East or Central Asia he had scouted back in his counter-terrorism days, but when things were bad, you had to stay underground and you might not see the sun for days.

Dry Roads and places like it—the places he had lived for the last decade—continued to exist because the Unitary considered them too small and insignificant to warrant the expenditure of resources necessary to remove them. Still, when there was a lot of air traffic, the population stayed hidden. It was like living in a warren of rabbits, scared to catch the notice of a pack of predators, unwilling to abandon their homes for the unknown.

How many such villages had he known since the aliens had come? Wait, was this lucky number thirteen?

That fled his thoughts as the transport came into view. This was a big, slow, commercial freighter not a military or security personnel carrier. It had no escort. He could see no armed autonomous vehicles up there with it. That could mean bait, with other AVs either in its cargo area or flying higher, waiting to engage any hostile force. It could also mean the Unitary considered this area inactive. In a way, that was good—less security traffic. In another way, that wasn’t so good as it meant more aerial traffic which both meant more time underground and a higher likelihood of Dry Roads getting noticed.

He had once heard an academic call a particular target country “the land of no good options.” Yeah, that about cut it. He was a prince in the land of no good options.

Watching the freighter move slowly across the sky—it seemed slow because of the altitude, but he was sure that thing was approaching supersonic—he considered his plan for the rest of the day. Willa would buy the carcasses off him—he had gone out at her request—and then he’d pick up a few perishables before heading to the communal kitchen to cook a meal. He’d share that with Ahad and Sally—they’d helped him enhance his radio—and then a couple of cups of Sally’s bad homebrew before early to bed. He had volunteered for patrol the next day and there were some tracks to the south that needed investigating. There was a chance one of the neighbouring warlords was pushing closer to Dry Roads, and that could lead to some hard choices.

It took a long time for the freighter to finally disappear over the horizon. He checked his watch. He had plenty of time. It was a lazy day—no rush, no fuss.

It seemed like he had just risen when his sixth sense got him under cover again. This time, the angry roar of afterburners accentuated the whine of the anti-grav. Two close-support drones streaked through the sky, following the path of the freighter. If it had been bait, that freighter had been way too far out ahead. If those two weren’t linked to the freighter, that was way too much traffic for a normal day.

He checked his weapon, then his sidearm, then the backup on the cart, then the man-portable air defence system strapped to the side. He steadied his breathing as he did so, willing himself into a mindful but meditative state. Time to move on. Change the plan. One cup of homebrew to be neighbourly then pack.

By morning, he’d be gone.

When he got moving, he had the carts straps across his chest and cradled his rifle in his arms. It wasn’t that he consciously dialled up his senses, but it sure seemed like they were turned up to eleven.

The pall that hung over the village, the hint of wood and coal smoke that usually welcomed him ‘home,’ increased his anxiety. These were signposts for any hunter. Would it whet the curiosity of the Unitary? Feed the greed of a rising warlord? Maybe. If it did, he wouldn’t be around to face it. And if he had been around, what could one person do to stem the tide? He hadn’t built this world, he just needed to live in it.

For the third time that day, the sight of a vehicle led him to seek cover. That technical—an off-road utility vehicle with a crew-served weapon in its cargo bed—could have been from a warlord’s fleet, but it almost certainly wasn’t Unitary. An individual sat in that cargo bed, legs hanging off the back, sharing a cigarette with Jasmine, one of the village’s ‘marshals.’ Jasmine actually had law-enforcement experience before the aliens had come, but nobody held that against her. She had proved a patient and fair arbitrator. Those few times she had used violence, she had shown admirable restraint.

He watched the pair. It was obvious that Jasmine was comfortable, as was the individual in the bed of the vehicle. That individual dressed in a somewhat military manner—back before the aliens, he would have called it ‘tacti-cool’—and he was armed, but he didn’t seem to intimidate or worry Jasmine. In fact, it looked like the two were flirting.

Shouldering his weapon, he adjusted his sidearm so it would be easier to access. He had made a decision informed by the details he saw, but if pushed he would have to admit it was about his gut. His instinct. He thought he knew Jasmine pretty well, and her reaction sold him.

He approached cautiously, slowly, dragging his cart but with his hand close to his sidearm in a shoulder holster. He had another in a concealed holster in the small of his back and then another on his upper leg. If he went down, it would not be for lack of proper tools.

Jasmine gave him a wave. “Hey Decker. Welcome back. We’ve got company.” She ran her hand through her short hair and turned back to the male in the bed of the vehicle.

Company indeed. The male in the back of the vehicle had his eyes on Decker. The weight of the cart no longer registered for the man Jasmine knew as Decker.

The guy in the back of the vehicle smiled and pointed. “Holy—is that an FAL? Man, that is kitted out.”

“Yeah, Decker loves that gun like it was a puppy he raised to a wolf.” Jasmine chuckled a bit at her own comment.

The man Jasmine knew as Decker didn’t like the intensity with which that unidentified male watch him, even worse that the guy tried to hide it, tried to continue his conversation with Jasmine while keeping Decker in sight. It was all Decker could do not to turn around, just drop the cart and disappear. He had started with less than what he carried. He could start again.

Two heart beats later, when it was too late, Decker regretted not abandoning Dry Roads as soon as he saw the technical.

“His name isn’t Decker. That there is Webb.”

When he heard his name, Webb froze. His hand went instinctively to his sidearm. Vehicle Boy reached for the AK laying beside him on the bed of the vehicle, and that changed everything.

Webb dropped the cart, drew his sidearm, put it on Vehicle Boy. “Don’t move. Don’t touch your weapon. I will put you down. Do. Not. Move.”

Vehicle Boy stopped, then started to raise his hands. Jasmine backed away and raised her own weapon. She didn’t train it on Vehicle Boy. Webb couldn’t blame her. She was smart and she was tough and she was a good shot, but two people she probably considered allies looked like they were about to start shooting, and she had no idea why.

To be honest, neither did Webb.

“Webb, jezus, put it down, man.”

Dry Roads had a kind of a berm around it, a defence that wasn’t particularly noticeable from the air. Beyond that, walls and obstacles had been constructed between remaining structures, creating a kind of wall. Again, not much, but anything more might draw the wrong kind of attention. The upper floor of the standing structures had multiple heavy weapons in them, and the man the residents knew as Decker, but who was also known as Webb, had helped them set up a mortar position that could be camouflaged when not in use.

The defences deterred raiders and got the warlords thinking it might cost too much and profit them too little to try to conquer the settlement while still escaping the Unitary’s notice.

There were two access points—not exactly gates, though there were two reinforced vans that could be wheeled into place to create a kind of barrier. Through the closest of those points, hands held above her head, strolled Sharma. Dark eyes on him, a smile on her wide mouth, her dark hair cut shorter than when he had seen her last and with a touch of gray, Anita Sharma walked out of Dry Roads.

He had worked with Captain Anita Sharma—well, she had been a captain before the aliens came—on a few operations in Central Asia. He thought she had been abroad when the aliens came. Maybe she had.

“I’ll lower my weapon when you explain to me what you are doing here.” He altered his aim slightly, so that the barrel of the SIG Sauder P226 autoloader handgun was not directly on Vehicle Boy’s chest, but it would be an instant to return to centre mass and put rounds into it. “How did you even find me?”

Sharma shrugged. “I still have contacts, a fair number of them, and you’ve made a bit of a name for yourself out here in the Red.”

The Red—the red zones, areas which lacked the infrastructure or populace that the aliens and their puppet government of the Unitary desired. Places that were free of their dominion. But also places in which they felt free to act with impunity. Like the other great empires of history, the Unitary made sure the barbarians all fought each other so they wouldn’t join together to fight them.

“Sorry to waste your time.” Webb holstered his sidearm. He turned to get his pack from the cart. If there was going to be a betrayal, if he was a target for whatever reason, he hoped Sharma would make it fast. If they tried to capture him alive . . . well, he was going to make sure that didn’t happen.

“What do you mean?” Sharma took a couple of steps toward him but stopped when he turned his head to glare at her. “Listen, I don’t know what you think I hunted you down for, but I’m not a threat, and neither is my team. I just want to talk.”

Shrugging on his pack, Webb glanced at Jasmine. “Would you mind grabbing us some coffee if you could?” He cleared his throat. “Michelle might want to join us as well. I don’t know if this is about Dry Roads.”

Sharma shook her head. “It’s not about Dry Roads, and I’ve already had a good chat with the mayor. This is just about you. Well, you and us.”

Jasmine didn’t move. Her eyes moved from Sharma to Webb and back like she was watching tennis.

Webb turned to face them, his pack on his back, his weapon cradled in his arms. “Us?” He pointed at Vehicle Boy with his chin. “You and him?”

“No, not Russell and I.” Sharma paused. Her eyes grew tight and she had a slight grimace. She was decided what she was going to say next, trying to be careful. There was something she figured he didn’t want to hear.

Webb exhaled loudly. “Just say it.”

“I’m with the Resistance.”

“Yeah, good talk.” Webb shouldered his weapon. “Best of luck.” He started walking away.

“Just a minute, Webb.” Sharma started walking toward him, hand outstretched. “Just listen for moment.”

“There’s nothing to listen to.” But Webb did stop. “How many capitals did they vaporize in an instant? How many people got killed because we thought plucky optimism was sufficient? No, you and your Resistance are going to get people killed, and not just the stupid ones like yourselves. Innocents are going to pay the price.”

“It’s the regular people we are trying to help.” Sharma had almost reached him. “Thus to tyrants, right?”

Webb turned. “Thus always to tyrants, but that was you, not me. And it’s easy to play at that when the tyrants are always weaker than you. This tyrant wiped everything out and has rebuilt it from the ground up.”

Sharma stopped within reach of him. She spoke quietly, and it wasn’t likely Russell the Vehicle Boy could hear them. “We have a chance, Webb, a real chance.”

“No you don’t.” Webb pinched the bridge of his nose. “The thing with insurgencies is that they work great against an opponent that is concerned with human rights or protecting property or population. When an insurgency faces an entrenched government that is willing to saw off its own arms and legs to win, the government wins. And you know who ends up dying the most.”

“Listen, I can’t say more, not here, not now, but I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t honestly believe this was possible.” She grabbed his upper arm. “I know about insurgencies. I know about fighting them. I know about crushing them. We’re ready for this.”

“Are you?” Webb cocked his head slightly to the side. “You know where this will go, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it starts with us attacking military targets, but then we realize we aren’t making a difference.” Webb shook off her grip. “We aren’t creating any pressure. We are not degrading the enemy. So then we turn to civilian leadership. I mean, they’re working with the aliens, right? They’re collaborators. Maybe they deserve this. But that doesn’t move victory any closer. Then we target government sites. They’re just bureaucrats, and this is a just a job to some of them, and some of them might actually make more of a difference to people’s well-being than us, but they’re working for the enemy. And then it’s a theatre or a museum. And then it’s parents near a school. And then it’s a school.”

Sharma’s face got hard. “No. That’s not going to happen.”

Webb let out a mirthless laugh. “It always happens. They all start as freedom fighters, but when the dial doesn’t shift, terrorism is just higher up on the spectrum.”

“Then that’s why you need to be a part of this.”

Webb took a step back. “Because I could stop it? How? Are you making me the boss? If not, how do I stop it from the inside? By assassinating Hitler? Sure, maybe. But what if it’s removing bin Laden? How did that work out? How do I stop it when it’s a cell-based decentralized structure? How many more do I have to kill then?”

“Look, I don’t know,” Sharma said. “I don’t have all the answers and I never have. I’m not going to be able to make you love this, but I need you on board.”

“No, you don’t.” Webb shrugged. “I mean, you never did, right?”

“Yeah, I did.” Sharm rolled her neck then looked down at her hands. “Listen, I’m in the shit and I need your help. There it is, okay?”

There it was, and it was no surprise. She hadn’t played the card right away, and she could have. She tried to talk him over, tried to get him to see the light—well, her light—and when all that failed, she targeted his weakness. Loyalty.

“What kind of shit?” He crossed his arms over his chest. “What kind of help?”

In spite of the tension, she chuckled. “I tell you and you’ll definitely walk away.”

“Try me.” It was as close to signing on as he could get.

“It’s a mole.” Sharma held up her hands to pause Webb’s retort. “That’s my theory. That’s what I’m thinking. It’s not a widely held view.”

“I appreciate your faith in me, really, but you need someone from counterintelligence.” Webb knew just the person, one of the very few people he had trusted back in the day and if Sharma could find Webb, this person should be no problem. “You remember Jackson?”

“Yeah.” Sharma rubbed her face with both her hands then her shoulders dropped slightly, her posture collapsing if only a bit. “Jackson got hit. He’s dead.”

“He’s dead?” Dead because he had thrown his hat in the ring with Sharma’s insurgency. Webb wanted to be angry. He wanted to blame Sharma, blame the insurgency. He couldn’t. Jackson would have done what Jackson wanted to do. “The mole?”

“That’s my working theory, but I can’t say more until I know you’re in.”

“They killed Jackson.” Webb all but snarled the words out. “You better believe I’m in.”

Sharma let out a breath she may have been holding for days. “Thank you.”

Webb flexed his hands—they had involuntarily balled into fists. “I mean what I said, and I’ll probably walk once we take care of Jackson’s killer, but you always had my back. I got yours.”

“Always.” She grabbed his upper arms and squeezed.

“You know who we need, right?”

Sharma nodded. “Bren.”

“Yeah, Bren.” Webb pursed his lips. “You . . . you’ve got a line on her?”

“I do.”

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Fortune’s Soldier: A Bloody Crown, Chapter 01

Chapter 1

The Month of the Serpent, Ferisday the Twenty-Sixth.

Kaessekros on the Red Isles in Kellaldh

Fortune's Soldier Cover

She sat watching the sea. The sun set somewhere at her back, out of her view. The window of her room looked out over the Great Sea, to the east. Somewhere beyond the horizon lay the Frisian Republics. That was where most of the smugglers that sheltered in Kassekros sold their goods. Strong Kellei spirits, wool, dried kelp, all of these without the tariffs placed on them by the Jutes. Cheaper than anything the Jute merchants could offer, whether they stole it from the Kellei or from their own people.

Rhona Trevean pinched the bridge of her nose. They had buried her father that day, the ceremony secret. He had long stood against the Jutes, claiming to fight for a Kellei crown which no longer existed. Fifteen years after the rest of Kellaldh fell to them, the Jutes still could not conquer the barony.

In her heart she knew that was because they had not tried. Not really. The Old Baron, her father—Argus Trevean—had a fleet of fast ships manned by fearless crews who knew how to fight on the water. The Jutes had knights and cannons, and could crush most forces on land. At sea? That they had not mastered. And Sercourt nestled in the Shieldlands—rocky hills and mountains cut through with rivers and glens but no real roads or open fields on which to array ones cavalry or set up ones cannons.

To the people of Sercourt, even those of Kaessekros where he had hid in the all but impregnable keep, the Old Baron symbolized resistance. It didn’t matter that his daughter accompanied him to all councils, that he made no decision without consulting her and her mother, or that he had ensured Rhona could read, write, and fight. This made no impression on most of the Old Baron’s retainers and adherents. Eccentricity was accepted in the great, and who but a great man could oppose the Jutes with such success?

Hyperbole, perhaps. Many of his retainers knew well that the Old Baron relied on his daughter and wife. They had helped maintain the secret of his passing from the people of Sercourt and of Kellaldh more widely. But what would happen when her mother made a decision with which they disagreed? Could she impose her will on them as the Old Baron had? Could she command the loyalty and respect he had? Their culture valued a woman as a wife, a homemaker, and a mother.

And Maura Cornavia, Rhona’s mother, was all those things. She had been a good wife to Baron Trevean. She had made a fine home for their family. She had raised Rhona. These were all admirable things. But like her husband, she could be politic, she could be strategic, and she could rule. What of the stories of the queens among the Kellei, great warriors who had faced down empires or led their people on great migrations? Ancient history or myth, what did it matter now?

Rhona rose from the window and straightened her tunic. Melancholy? Self-pity? Is this what her father would want? Is this what he had taught her? Decisions were being made in the hall right then. The retainers would be drinking the family’s best spirits, toasting the memory of the Old Baron, and deciding on the future of Sercourt.

Her future. Her mother’s future.

She took her sword in its scabbard down from the wall. She slipped on the baldric from which it hung. She wondered about her father’s sceptre—a small wand topped with a black pearl he bore as a loyal vassal of the Kellei crown. Her mother would have it. She should carry it when she met with the lairds and thanes.

For a moment, Rhona froze. How could she face them, the men who had followed her father for so long? What would they think of her? Since the coming of the Jutes, her father’s warriors had given her respect and deference. They followed her father’s cues just as they had followed his orders. She had honestly thought herself free. Thought herself independent. Did it all rely on her father? Without him, would his retainers expect her mother to remarry—perhaps one of them—and that Rhona find herself a husband?

They could demand what they liked. They could not enforce it. She would leave. She and her mother both would find their own way. Her father had valued them because of their intelligence and their will. Her parents had taught her well, and she would find her fortune wherever she could. She would not bow to another’s demands, not while she could still stand.

She exhaled, long and slow. She took her dirk from her desk and slid it into her boot. Bedecked as a warrior, she tied back her hair. Let them sneer now. She was her father’s daughter. She was her mother’s daughter. She would not betray their teachings or their examples.

Her door opened onto the circular stairs that ran through the centre of the keep. In the cool evening air of the early autumn the stones retained some vestige of the day’s warmth. In the morning, she would avoid even brushing against them if she could. In the evening, she rested her cheek against the wall. She inhaled the scent of the fires and roasting foods below her in the hall. She listened to the subdued cacophony of the assembled guests and residents. It offered her some comfort in its familiarity.

As she descended, her heart pounded. She knew them all, had argued with them, colluded with them, and even commanded them. Her father interred, his presence now gone from the hall, from the keep, from the citadel, she faced them truly alone.

A table that ran almost the length of the hall dominated it. A great chair—empty—stood at its head. On the walls flanking the table, two great hearths provided heat and light. They had cunning chimneys, but still their smoke hung in the air. Tapestries of the history of the Treveans and Sercourt covered the walls, dulled by age. A score of men—no women—stood around the table, some conversing, some debating, and some silent and lost. Servants filled their vessels with ale and wine.

Then she saw her mother. Grief had not bent Maura, nor had it dulled her bright green eyes—eyes which she had bestowed on her daughter—or drawn the colour from her sun-kissed skin. She spoke with Raendolf. Almost a decade younger than Rhona, Raendolf had the eyes of an ancient and the insight to match it. Her father’s factor—representative, clerk, diplomat, and master of business—did not have the beef or muscles of the other men in the room, but all deferred to him. He had an easy manner that belied his shrewd cunning. Her father had valued his intelligence most, but he had relied upon his loyalty.

He saw her first as she stood on the stairs, not yet in the hall. He smiled. Thin and with little happiness or mirth, it did put her at ease. He directed her mother, whose eyes met hers. Another smile and another slight pinch of warmth for Rhona. Maura raised her hand. She held the Old Baron’s sceptre of office. Raendolf gestured for Rhona to come down.

The room went quiet as she entered. They watched her with sympathy and with compassion. Some eyed her with uncertainty, but she expected that. Raendolf moved to intercept her.

“Milady, I am pleased you were able to join us.” The tight muscles around his eyes spoke to her more than the ease in his voice. He never called her ‘milady.’ “A visitor has come to us from across the sea who had hoped to speak to your father, but I explained to him the Baron Trevean was unwell, and that you would speak for him.”

“Of course.” She risked a glance around the room. She easily spotted the visitor, in his finery with his oiled hair. “A visitor from Taulmeer, is it.” She approached him with a smile. “I am Rhona Trevean, daughter of Baron Argus Trevean of Sercourt.”

She would call the man handsome, but not attractive. He looked all but dead to her. She saw no exuberance, no passion. His smile seemed insipid, his motions cloying. He offered her a perfect bow, but she never liked perfect bows. People who spent so much time perfecting bows generally ignored issues of more import.

“I am Justyl, Marquis of Tramecelle.” He reached for her hand and lightly grazed it with his lips when offered. “I am saddened to hear of the great Baron’s illness. His courage and valour are known even in the court of Taulmeer, and my king sent me here to tender his greetings.”

“I thank you for your kind words and will pass along your king’s greetings.” Of course there was more, but this courtier did not know how to proceed. In the middle of a clutch of barbarians he treated with a woman. Did she pity him? No, not much. “And please pass along my father’s respect and consideration to your master, the king.”

Justyl nodded a curt bow in response. He leaned close. “I have more to say, if we could speak privately.”

“Every man here has sworn his blood and his honour to my family.” She had thought to say father, but decided she could send a message to the retainers as well as to the Taulmeeran noble. “Speak as plain before them as you would in private with my father.”

Clearing his throat, Justyl pulled at his tunic. “I will do so.” He touched his jaw, and Rhona realized she didn’t trust him in part because of he lacked a beard. Every retainer, even Raendolf, had a beard. She did not know of any man save the clerics of the Church who lacked beards. “With the death of King Eadwine and the ascension of his heir, Eadelred, now King of the Jutemark, my king sees an opportunity for your people. Your noble father has led the battle against the Jutes in Kellaldh for many years. Perhaps now is the time for your father and his allies to rise up and drive out the Jutes. My king, saddened by the suffering of the Kellei people, brothers in holy vows and united by the predations of the Jutes, wishes to offer his aid in freeing your people from Jute tyranny.”

She had heard diplomatic language before, but Rhona worked hard to stop from smiling. It wasn’t that this amused her so much, but she felt all her emotions much closer to the surface. Her melancholy had choked her, and now hilarity boiled up almost too fast for her to push it back down.

“We only just learned of King Eadwine’s death weeks ago,” Rhona said. “It amazes me that your king heard of this and could react so quickly.”

“The King of Taulmeer is always excellently informed.” Now the smile became humble, and from that humility shone forth pride.

“I have no doubt.” And she didn’t. Taulmeer’s wealth could buy many eyes. “And what can Sercourt do in return?”

“You misunderstand . . .” Justyl opened his mouth to add more, then paused. It only lasted a heartbeat, and then he moved on. “Taulmeer expects nothing from Sercourt and Kellaldh. My king has watched the Jute campaign against your indomitable province and sympathizes. After securing our own lands against Jute predations, my king has decided that he will now reach out to those who have suffered and provide them succor.”

Rhona worked hard not to laugh. Her mother was much better at diplomacy. She could swallow these silly statements with a smile and say what needed to be said. Her father, though, had never learned this talent. It had not endeared him to the Kellei crown, though that did not matter after the Jutes had buried it.

Rather than a laugh, Rhona nodded and crossed her arms, attempting to provide a model of interest and slight deference. “That is very kind of him. Perhaps it is incidental that focusing the Jutes on a rebellion in their own neighbourhood might distract them from any plans to reinforce or expand their own holdings on the borders of Taulmeer. In fact, should the Jutes bring enough forces into Kellaldh, it might leave their ports on the mainland vulnerable.”

She saw just a flicker, a change around the eyes, a slight decrease in the smile, and Rhona felt certain this Taulmeeran diplomat recognized a shift in the game and the rules. “This is possible, but my king is not a rapacious beast such as King Eadwine embodied. Those ports and the province of the Norelaw are, indeed, properly Taulmeeran, but who would wish to reignite a war that would harm the innocent people of those lands?”

“It would then indeed be unfortunate if the Jutemark gave Taulmeer reason for just war.” Raendulf took a step to stand just behind Rhona. “Knowing the admirable patience and compassion of your king, he is also known for his pursuit of true justice. Should the Jutes give cause, your king will have little choice but to drive them from his lands. And in this, it would be beneficial for him to have an ally always ready to support him in his rightful and just pursuits, especially an ally on the border with the Jutemark.”

“Yes, this would be beneficial.” Justyl clutched at the gloves he held in one hand with his other. “When Kellaldh has a king secure in his crown, he would be welcome to approach my king as a younger cousin, seeking the wise counsel and protection of an elder.”

“But for now, what aid does your king offer?” Raendulf asked that which had racked Rhona through the exchange. “Other than his kind consideration, for which those who stand for the Kellei crown duly thank him.”

Stand for the Kellei crown? An interesting turn of phrase, one which Rhona had not considered. Yes, Sercourt alone among the royal demesnes remained. Only the barony stood as a land adhering to Kellei laws.

Justyl grimaced. He pulled at his gloves, but his eyes remained hard. “While no one would argue that the Baron Sercourt is the last bulwark of the Kellei crown in Kellaldh, the Kellei court in exile sits in my king’s court in Aneros. They stand for the Kellei crown, just as they stood with the Kellei crown in its final days.”

A thin man, all but bald but with a full beard shot through with gray, pushed his way forward. “That’s bullshit. We stood and fought. They turned and ran. We lost the crown because of their cowardice. They stand for nothing.”

Maura stepped forward and put her hand on the man’s shoulder. His face, red and taut making the scars upon it unmistakable, slackened and his bulging eyes looked away. Maura spoke some words quietly in his ear and he bowed, stepping back into the crowd.

“My husband’s captains, his sworn kerns, warriors who have given blood oaths to protect him and avenge him on his death, they do not understand politics.” Maura beamed at the Taulmeeran representative with a dignity that decades of suffering had not diminished. “To a Hillman kern, when your lord falls, you give your life for vengeance. A kern does not surrender and does not retreat if his lord dies on the battlefield. They do not understand that for the crown to survive, the nobility must also survive.”

Justyl inclined his head slightly to Maura. “I understand. Our knights are much the same.”

A ripple of amusement ran through the assembled retainers. Rhona watched as Murdoch, the kern who has railed against the Taulmeeran representative, spoke to two of his men, kerns sworn to Sercourt and not to one of her father’s thanes. His outburst had not surprised Rhona, nor had his obedience to the quiet words of her mother, whatever those might have been. In the fight against the Jutes, he led from the front and feared nothing. He had been an uncle to her—kind, gentle, with an easy and raucous laugh. Murdoch, like Raendulf, were as much her family as was her own mother.

“Will your king be sending these knights to support our war against the Jutes?” Raendulf spoke as though he had not registered the small outburst, other than to use it as a convenient segue to the information he sought.

“Knights?” Justyl’s eyes widened and his smile showed actual amusement. Rhona thought he revealed real emotion or was perhaps the finest actor she had ever seen. “No, our knights would be ill-suited to fight in Sercourt and most of the High Moors. But my king can offer men, men of war who have marched against the Jutes.”

“These would be mercenaries.” Rhona did not want her disappointment to reach her voice. Of course the Taulmeeran king wanted to rid himself of the mercenary armies who had defeated the Jutes. Disband them on his own soil and he risked that they would turn to banditry. The Kadetrean States, south of Taulmeer, and only just recovered after a decade in which disbanded mercenary companies ran roughshod, stealing, murdering, and setting up their own petty states. Taulmeer would see that and look for another avenue.

And while it might not offer the best solution, if the king would finance them until they could march into the Jutemark, disbanding them there, within enemy territory, would create a problem for the Jutes. It would not free Kellaldh, but it would give Sercourt breathing room.

What did that matter without her father? Who could rally the people, create a new army, prepare the lands to face another Jute army? He had taught her much, and she had rode with him in the field, but would even his most trusted kerns and thanes follow her?

“They are mercenaries, yes, but most of them are Kellei,” Justyl said. “They seek to return, but they wish to return to a Kellaldh ruled by a Kellei king, free from the Jute yoke. My king sees benefits for both you and them. You have a seasoned company of soldiers, accustomed to following orders and loyal to Kellaldh, while they may return home and perhaps gain themselves the gratitude of a new Kellei king. At the least, they may retire to their home when your war is over, to live how they wish.”

“Kellei mercenaries?” Rhona looked to Raendulf, who grinned.

“We know of many such men,” Raedulf said. “Young men sick of Jute rule, with no future but perhaps a  natural aptitude for violence. They pass through Sercourt on their way to the mainland. Some have stayed to become kerns, but most travel over the sea, to seek fortune and glory. You are saying that you have assembled an army of them? One that you will provide to the baron?”

“The crown hired many companies in our war against the Jutes,” Justyl said. “Two of these free companies are led by men who claim to be Kellei: the Company of the Unicorn and the Company of the Cyclops Banner. My king had such esteem for the captain-general of the Company of the Unicorn, he has made him a marquis, and now the two armies march under the Cyclops Banner.”

Another ripple swept through the retainers, but this time rather than amusement, it was discussion and some surprise. Rhona knew of the two companies, and she had known that their leaders both claimed birth in Kellaldh. Did it change anything? A mercenary was a mercenary. They fought for wealth and nothing more. Loyalty to Kellaldh? A leaf to cover their true motivation. Perhaps they thought to come to Kellaldh and create their own fiefs, ripping them out of Jute hands. As long as they didn’t think they could rule Sercourt as their own, what difference if mercenaries or the Jutes ruled the High Moors and the Marches? Sercourt’s war would continue.

Rhona accepted it. Better swords against the Jutes than nothing at all. “And these companies are ready to ship to Kellaldh?”

“At this time, the Marquis de Terenquist, who had once led the Company of the Unicorn, has advised my king that subterfuge is best.” Justyl now had his arms behind his back, and leaned forward slightly. “As such, my king would like to send a representative of the Cyclops Banner to meet with the baron . . .” Justyl glanced at Maura, then Raendulf, and then back to Rhona. “Or perhaps representatives of the baron to discuss the contract. The terms would be your own, but payment would come from Taulmeer.”

This time, Rhona didn’t think she kept her confusion from her face. Why would Taulmeer suggest such terms? Why would they relinquish control of this weapon? It could not have come from them. The Kellei court in exile? Why would they allow the Old Baron to make his own terms, which would undoubtedly cut them out? No, this had to be either the marquis who had been a captain or the current leader of the mercenaries. Did this soldier expect he could get better terms from the Old Baron? Well, whomever he was, he had not met Raendulf.

Rhona closed her eyes for just a moment, feeling her heart rebel in its cage. She took a breath. “I understand. When should we expect this representative?”

“He is ready to sail as soon as I return.” Justyl raised himself up on his heels and then rocked back. He continued to do this as he spoke. “He presently consults with the Marquis de Terenquist and some other of his own captains and retainers. You should expect him in the weeks after I depart.”

“And you will stay to enjoy our hospitality for a space?” Maura couldn’t have meant it, but Rhona knew her mother would not ignore diplomacy for expediency, not when this man offered them an army.

“Sadly, I must depart immediately.” No sadness touched Justyl’s words. “My king has much work for me. I hope you can understand and accept this.”

“We understand completely.” Rhona’s reply may have come too quickly. She didn’t care. “We thank you for your pains and we hope you will extend our deep gratitude to your kind and just king.”

Rhona ignored the continued niceties, leaving those to her mother who finally escorted the Taulmeeran representative out of the hall. The great doors closed, and an explosion of sound filled the room. Questions, demands, fears, and recriminations all came forth, aimed everywhere and at everyone. Rhona ignored it. She staggered to the table and leaned against her father’s chair. An army. Loyal? Unlikely. Disciplined? Impossible. Ready to fight the Jutes? Oh, she certainly hoped so. She needed nothing more.

Raendulf finally calmed the room. The mob stood around her, suffused with silent anticipation.  Raendulf’s eyes moved from her to the chair. He said nothing, but she saw his face tighten. She read the message and sat. She had expected some response, something voiced. Nothing came. The retainers took their seats, others who had no right to sit for deliberations crowded around.

As soon as retainers filled the seats at the table, Raendulf spoke. “The captain-general of the Free Companies of the Cyclops Banner is a man named Alec Rathwig. He did not pass through Sercourt, but we know some of his trusted captains, men who have marched with him the last decade. Three of the captains who fought with him against the Jutes in Taulmeer passed through Sercourt and continue to send money to their families through us. We have influence with them.”

“Is he Kellei?” Rhona held her palms flat on the table, worried they would shake otherwise. “Is he really Kellei? Can he beat the Jutes?”

“Is he really Kellei?” Raendulf threw up his hands. “I believe so, but what of it? How can we tell, really? From what I have heard from the mainland, he hires on most of the men who sail from Sercourt. He is the largest employer of Kellei mercenaries. And he has beaten the Jutes. Honestly, he seems to really hate them. He has taken on contracts no one else would, minor contracts from nobles or crowns that are all but buried, to face the Jutes. He has lost to them, certainly. War is never certain. But he has beat them, often.”

“More victories than losses.” Glamorgan, Thane of Lanshiel, and one of the younger retainers, sat to Rhona’s right, three seats from the head. He had the look of a kern—shaved head, scarred visage, tattooed arms—but he came from minor nobility. Her father than taken a liking to him. He likely saw a younger version of himself. “Does it matter if he is Kellei? If he is willing to fight the Jutes, let him come.”

“The contract concerns me,” Rhona said. “What happens when he rejects our control over him? What is he looking for from us that Taulmeer or this court in exile won’t give him?”

“Court in exile.” Murdoch, who stood behind Raendulf’s chair immediately to Rhona’s right, followed the statement with a long string of expletives.

“Why haven’t we heard of them before?” This, Rhona directed to Raendulf. “Father maintained . . . maintains so many contacts on the mainland, he knew everything that was happening in the Kellei community.” No one seemed to notice the inference of Rhona’s mistake, so she moved on, hoping none had time to consider her words. “No one ever spoke of this.”

Raendulf grimaced and rolled his eyes to the side. “True. It’s true. But the nobles with whom your father had good relations died in the war. The contacts on the mainland were mostly smugglers, merchants, or minor lords who maintained their ties to the Kellei community. This court in exile sounds like opportunists. Plenty of those. If they don’t talk to the Kellei, we wouldn’t hear of them.”

Glamorgan all but growled. “So if this mercenary does his job, if he frees some of the lands around Sercourt, we’ll have a gaggle of pretend Kellei coming to claim their rights.”

“And Sercourt.” The realization came to Rhona then, in the middle of the conversation, and she almost wanted to cry. “My father has no male heirs. Where do you think that gaggle will roost as it bides it’s time.” She swallowed down the anger. “Or don’t even bide their time.”

Murdoch had never tempered his language, and he made an oath that brought the blood to Raendulf’s face. What followed that oath made her heart swell. “We die for Sercourt, milady. We die for you and your mother. I’ll put my blade and my blood to that.”

She wanted to leap out of her chair and suffocate Murdoch in affection. She didn’t. She wanted the tears to come as love for him welled up. She couldn’t. She also couldn’t look up.

Until the sound of a chair hitting the floor seized her attention. Glamorgan stood. “Let any man here deny your right as your father’s heir, and I will see him on the field. Lanshiel for Sercourt, milady. Always. Lanshiel for Sercourt.”

This did not engender a flood of support for her, but many around the table did not yet know of the Old Baron’s demise. Glamorgan did. Murdoch did. They prepared the road for other to follow. Glamorgan, who had lost his wife when she tried to birth him a son, had only three daughters. Young, he could marry again, but did he see in her his own eldest daughter?

She allowed a few more retainers to shout their support, their eternal, undying support for her father’s line, before she stood, raising her arms. “Your support is appreciated, but we all know this world and what it expects. We also know that my father is a man, only a man, and he will soon join Osiris in the Fields of the Sun. When this happens, we will need to make choices. For now, we must consider Taulmeer’s offer and how we shall address this captain-general when he arrives.”

The discussion allowed Rhona to lose herself. Her mother returned, standing behind the chair, working with Raendulf to guide the assemblage, allowing Rhona the time to think, to consider.

But not about the future without her father. Not about how she would face the demands that would come for her to marry. Her age would no longer matter. Boys would be pushed forward as suitable partners, as would men older than her father. This would be about power. This would be about control—control of her as much as of her father’s lands.

Alone once again in her room, sitting on the ledge of her window long after the discussion had concluded, these thoughts came again. The hope delivered by the Taulmeeran representative had brought with it frustration. Could Kellaldh be freed? She didn’t believe so. Could she remain free? Again, she didn’t believe so.

This mercenary army would change the fight. Taulmeeran coin could help, it might even alter the balance, but Taulmeer would soon lose interest. The mercenaries would be killed or bought off by the Jutes. Lands freed would join Sercourt in the long, exhausting war. Young men would become sworn swords or venture to the mainland to fight for wealth. In the end, she would remain in Sercourt with her mother. They would face the Jutes as they faced their own people, making demands to which no one listened.

Her father had believed in her. He wanted her to be his heir. He relied on her as much as he relied on her mother, his wife. But he had died. He had died and he had gained no oaths from his retainers to support Rhona as his heir. And if he had? Oaths lasted as long as the strength to enforce them.

She would face the future just as she faced the Jutes. She would plan for the worse and hope for something better. And when the world turned to crush her, she would fight with all her strength, dying like a kern, unbent and unbroken.

She was a true daughter of Trevean.

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Trans-Dimensional Skull Shot, Chapter 01: Comms

Chapter 1: Comms

TDSS Cover

Chopper sat in the hotel’s lobby. He lounged in a dusty chair, feet up on a table made from something that resembled a crocodile—something big and mean and full of violence.

Something like him.

And then that made Chopper think of the fate of that big, mean, violent beast and what it might mean for him. Sure, he wouldn’t be a table, but dead was dead. And death seemed to get closer every day that he lived through.

Which, sure, was technically true, but that’s not what he meant.

Tall, bulky with hard muscle, sporting a scarred visage, and shaved head, Chopper had no company in the lobby. The dead cities were far away, and they had been that way for two standard decades, if what Chopper had read were true. But this place, this small town with its big hotel, it hadn’t seen the worst that the people of a dying planet could offer. Those big cities probably had, but this planet’s death and been long and loud. This place had been abandoned long before the chaos and anger that fear too often brought arrived. This place hadn’t burned.

But it also didn’t look like anyone had bothered to give it a sweep in the last twenty years either.

Chopper had wandered through the town that had been known as Morotos, and had been amazed at how quickly nature had taken back its own. Sure, structures still stood, he could tell what had been buildings and where roads had been, but those were frames on which plants grew. And rather than dead, the town was alive, just with animals rather than people. Chopper had to admit, he preferred it that way.

The hotel must have been sealed. The plants that grew along its exterior had not come inside, and while the parts that Chopper had seen offered only dust and decay, he had met no interlopers—none of the small, silver-furred creatures he thought of as foxes, or the trilling winged animals that had no feathers but had long, trailing tendrils when they flew.

Chopper had hoped for more. He had thought that he had found the sanctuary of an old friend, and he had come to warn them. If his sources had learned of this place, then lots of other people would have as well. This wouldn’t be a sanctuary, it would be a target.

While Chopper might not have been the sharpest or quickest when it came to puzzles, even he realized that those clues could have been planted. They would have been planted to draw those hunting his friend, meaning that even if they weren’t there, other clues might be, some other way to make sure they were okay.

Chopper leaned back in the chair and flexed his neck. He had already waited hours and was ready to wait hours longer. He could be patient. He didn’t like to be, but he could.

When the stun grenade crashed through a window high up on the front wall, it didn’t surprise Chopper. Still, he felt he should play along, so even though the flash and the bang had not disoriented him, Chopper put an arm before his eyes as though trying to protect them.

With some irritation, he saw that only seven hunters poured into the spacious lobby. Chopper frowned slightly. Who sent seven hunters to capture him? A dozen, at minimum. Maybe there were others standing by, maybe with some heavy weapons, and that these were just the shock troops, something to soften him up before the real game started. He hoped so. HE had a reputation to uphold.

Well, he had once had a reputation. Maybe this was part of the price for staying so quiet for so long.

“You didn’t even knock.” He didn’t move, save to raise an eyebrow. “That’s rude.”

The most average among the seven lowered his weapon to reach inside his jacket and pull out a piece of paper. “You’re the mercenary known as Solitaire. The Tetrarchy of The Dying Suns have a bounty on your head, a pretty damn big bounty.”

“Wait, what?” Chopper covered his face with his palm. “Are you kidding me? Do I look like Solitaire?”

“You’re not fooling us, merc.” The speaker carried an automatic shotgun. One of those was a dragon in enclosed spaces. In a large and open area where a target could put both distance and cover between themselves and the weapon? Not the best choice. Still, she seemed mighty proud of it.

“You’re all bounty hunters and you’re using merc as an insult?” Jester leaned forward. “And people question my intelligence. Listen, just take a good look. You sure you want to be doing this?”

“You can shut it right now.” That was the shortest of the three, speaking through the few crooked teeth still in his mouth. “We’ve come to collect.”

Chopper put his feet on the ground and leaned forward. “I’ve got some bad news for you. First of all, and I am kind of amazed I have to say this again, I’m not Solitaire.”

“Quit talking.” The shortest’s face contorted, bending in on itself in apparent confusion, the barrel of his rifle held unsteadily on Chopper. “Surrender yourself or we’ll start shooting.”

“And, just so we’re clear, who I am is Chopper, and Chopper always brings the boom to the party.” Chopper pointed to a recessed area above a carved gargoyle a far corner. Seven pairs of eyes followed that hand. None of those saw his right hand reach for the compact weapon uncomfortably tucked between his back and the chair. No one but him heard his sub-vocalized command—words spoken all but silently, never leaving his throat.

Others might call the automated grenade launcher he had set up as soon as he arrived overkill. Even if you were expecting a kill team of twenty—a grenade launcher in a hotel lobby? But Chopper liked overkill.

He also liked explosions, but that was totally not the reason for the weapon emplacement.

It was simple luck that the first grenade detonated right between the tall, bulky individual in the body armour and holding the light automatic weapon and the very average, balding individual with the modified battle rifle whose stance suggested military training. The explosion tore through them both, and Chopper was pretty certain neither would be joining this game any time soon. The satisfying sound of a second launch made Chopper smile.

Everyone was rushing for cover as Chopper pushed back, knocking the chair over, providing him concealment if not cover. A wretched scream followed a second explosion. Chopper drew out the secreted Ackdam Hellion revolver from the back of the chair. He liked the Hellion. Like him, it hit heavy and looked beautiful doing it. He popped up behind the overturned chair and threw himself over the stonework behind him. He got cover just as the bounty hunters—not that they had earned the title—unloaded their weapons in a flurry of poorly aimed and uncontrolled cyclical fire.

The third explosion heralded a collection of cursing, shouting, and general mayhem. Chopper felt right at home. He leaned out over the stonework—some kind of frame for a container, filled with dirt but oddly barren of plants—and aimed the Hellion. The first target he saw was the shotgunner, who opened her mouth to say something but froze when she caught sight of Chopper and his hand cannon. Her eyes widened the moment before the high calibre round caved in her face and jerked her body back.

That left three targets.

Another explosion—that one uncomfortably close—and more yelling and shooting. Chopper crawled to his left, keeping himself well below the rim of the stonework. He had moved a few metres—enough to throw off his opponents’ aim—when the shooting stopped and he heard the unmistakeable sound of empty magazines leaving ports. He rose on one knee.

Focused on changing magazines, no one really noticed him. There were three still up and active, and they had taken cover in the shambles of the room. The grenade launcher seemed to have a jam—Chopper could hear it grinding and a sound like a chain caught in a gear, but no more explosions. Chopper put his sights on the short one with the bad teeth who was really focused on changing his magazine. It didn’t look like he had ever done it under fire before. Shorty had the magazine in, but hadn’t cycled his weapon when he noticed Chopper. He started to raise his weapon with the bolt still open – no round in the chamber. Chopper let him pull the trigger. Nothing. Chopper winked then fired two rounds—one centre mass the other in his face.

Two left.

One of those was Mr. Average, the man with the bounty notice. Chopper caught him in his peripheral vision and started to pivot. It was one of those moments—and Chopper had a few—when everything slowed down as the deadly threat took up all his focus. He was pretty damn sure that Mr. Average would get at least one good shot before Chopper could get the heavy Hellion on him and put him down.

A lean figure, draped in purples and grays, dropped from above. Chopper could hear the rattle of suppressed fire. The personal defence weapons the figure held in each hand vibrated as one spat out fiery bullets and the other sent ice. Mr. Average shuddered as the rounds impacted, his left side igniting. He screamed his agony, his legs collapsing beneath him as he crumpled into a broken pile on the floor.

The figure landed gracefully, weapons at the ready. “He’ll live.”

“Then we don’t need that one.” Chopper took aim at the last bounty hunter, framed by a doorway, fleeing the ruined hotel. Chopper fired once then turned back to new arrival. “Good to see you, Solitaire. Cutting it a bit close, maybe?”

“A joke?” Her head reaching only to Chopper’s chin, Solitaire offered him a nod. She wore a tunic and functional pants with a loose, short coat over them. On her back, was a compact field pack. Solitaire leaned down and applied an emergency healant to Mr. Average’s collection of wounds.

Chopper stepped over Shorty’s body He holstered the Hellion, stopping just before he stepped on Mr. Average. “I thought this one was going to punch my ticket.”

“This one?” Solitaire had a sharp chin, dark hair and eyes, and a wide mouth with thin lips. She poked Mr. Average’s side, eliciting a scream. “He would have missed.”

Chopper had his personal communications capsule—his shell—in hand and had the grenade launchers app open. Looked like a bullet was lodged in the feed. It could be repaired, sure, but it would cost money and take time. Money? Not that big of a problem. Time? Chopper wasn’t what his schedule would be looking like in the near future. “So was this for them or for me?”

“For you mostly.” Solitaire took out her shell and took an image of Mr. Average’s face. She leaned back down, and checked the healant again. Mr. Average groaned. Rolling him on his side and pulling his arms behind his back, she looped a zip-cuff around his wrists trigger it to tighten.

“Now, let’s chat.” Solitaire squatted, her two weapons dangling from tactical slings underneath each arm. “I’m not going to gag you because we want to talk to you, but if you start spouting off or screaming or anything, I’ll seal your mouth and move along. Are we clear?”

Eyes wide, Mr. Average nodded. Solitaire picked up the bounty notice he had dropped. “You say you were hired by the Tetrarchy of Hemera. You met a representative on Anesidora in the Pythos system, did you?” Mr. Average nodded. “You apparently didn’t realize the Tetrachy doesn’t have representatives on Anesidora. They don’t have representatives anywhere.”

“Yeah, the Hemera don’t leave Cluster 5,” Chopper said.

Solitaire shrugged. “They’re rich beyond belief. They control the Brin Asimov Gate and tax the hell out of traffic. They sometimes send out missionaries. You didn’t convert, did you?” Mr. Average silently answered in the negative. “That was a joke.” She rose. “So who was it?”

“Well, last I saw, you had six people and two corporations looking for you.” Chopper tapped his chin. “But it takes a lot of guts to impersonate the Tetrachy.” He glanced down at Solitaire. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

Solitaire’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Well, I don’t really want to do this, but . . .” She took off her left glove. She reached for Mr. Average.

The air near the entry to the hotel, above the body of the last bounty hunter, shimmered only slightly, a weird distortion like one saw when heat rose from the ground. Chopper drew the Hellion. At that moment, the air opened, fluttering around a tall, thin individual, The individual drew off the hood of their chameleon cloak, their face covered in a an enhanced vision device and respirator.

“I am late. My apologies. A ship approaches. It is registered to a front company. It exists on paper only. It has transit documents issued by Zephyr Corporation.”

Chopper touched his forehead with the barrel of the Hellion. “Nice to see you Jester.”

“You as well.” Jester took the long, sleek, sniper weapon system off their back. They checked the optics. “A small shuttle detaches from the main ship. This is its destination. There could be a dozen opponents. The shuttle is unarmed.”

“Do we shoot it out or do we rabbit?” Chopper asked Solitaire.

Solitaire’s eyes were on Mr. Average. She had not yet touched him with her bare hand. “I need that ship.”

“A ship working for Zephyr?” Chopper frowned. “Aren’t they pissed enough?”

“It’s Dust.” Solitaire replaced her glove. “I’m not sure how, but Zephyr got her. They’re holding her on Dispatera.”

“We need the ship to access Dispatera.” Jester touched their mask. “We will need to take the shuttle. There will be more fighting on the ship.”

“Well, hell, since it’s a party.” Chopper returned to the chair he had sat in and the stonework behind it. He retrieved a field pack similar to Solitaire’s. He touched a pocket and a Daedalus Light Support Weapon materialized in the air above the pack. Chopper took it. He loved the weapon. It could punch through armour, or penetrate three different buildings before taking down a target. On cyclical, it created a wall of projectiles. On semi-auto, Chopper could flip up an auxiliary optic to allow for magnification and the delivery of terrifyingly precise rounds. “Let’s get it done.”

“I will prepare.” With that, Jester again draped themselves in their chameleon cloak to disappear. As they moved, the air shimmered with distortion, but otherwise Jester had vanished.

Solitaire cradled a scoped, suppressed Paradyne ‘Orca’ submachine gun in her arms, a weapon that hit harder and reached farther than her small PDWs. Chopper figured she had carried it in the field pack Dust had devised, the field pack like his that accessed extra-dimensional space. Chopper couldn’t explain it—hells, he had met really smart scientists who couldn’t explain it—but it sure was handy.

And he figured that was why Zephyr wanted Dust.

All the thoughts got blown out of his head by the blast of sound and light that hit him. This time, he hadn’t been ready. This time, it actually disoriented him. Already standing behind the stonework, he dropped, judging he was fully under cover by feel. What about Solitaire? Jester’s vision device would have protected them, but Solitaire wouldn’t have had any more warning than he had.

Or had she?

Chopper heard the action of the suppressed Orca firing in three-round bursts. The sound moved away to his left. She was creating space, drawing attention away from him. She new he was disoriented and she was trying to keep the focus on her.

 He didn’t know if he had a sister—any family, really—but that was okay, because he had Solitaire, and Jester, and the rest. He had made a damn fine family.

As his senses slowly drained back into him, the air filled with the reports of weapons. He thought he heard sidearms, longarms, even one directed energy weapon. Then he heard the sound of Gloria, Jester’s weapon. One target out of the fight. Every time Gloria fired, someone died or got incapacitated. But it would reveal Jester, if only for a moment.

Vision still hazy, but fairly certain he knew the direction of his targets, Chopper rose, the Daedalus on automatic. He saw shapes mostly, but there was a cluster of figures bristling with barrels, and there was another, slighter figure, firing from behind cover.

Chopper knew where to aim.

The power of the Daedalus always thrilled him. He felt like an ancient god hurling thunderbolts—or, like lightning, but with the sound of thunder? He didn’t bother to aim carefully. This wasn’t about causing physical harm. This was about distraction and intimidation. Go ahead, stand in front of my mighty monster. Let it kiss you. Embrace its anger.

His desire had been to draw attention and force action. That worked, but the Daedalus also tore through the assembly of targets and dropped three of them. Maybe not dead, maybe not incapacitated, but degraded at the very least.

Job done, Chopper got back in cover, Daedalus’ bipod resting on the stonework ready to get to more precise work.

Gloria made its contribution to the carnage.

“You can all die here or you can drop your weapons, give us your ship, and come after me later.” Solitaire punctuated the offer with a burst from the Orca. A scream and the sound of impact on the ground suggested that punctuation was an exclamation.

Chopper saw movement, a silhouette rising from cover to aim at Solitaire. He squeezed the trigger three times. The Daedalus shook and shouted in his hands, caressing his shoulder. The stone, brick, and plaster around the figure exploded into dust. The splatter of red and viscera on the wall behind where the silhouette had been told Chopper that his demonstration had been effective.

Then he saw it—a shimmer behind Solitaire. The appearance of an arm from out of the air. A heavy autoloader pistol coming to bear on the back of Solitaire’s head. Chopper tried to shift his aim, bring up the magnification optic, save his friend.

Jester appeared, somersaulting over the figure, scything out with a plasma-edged long blade, cleaving off the figure’s hand at the wrist. Jester landed beside Solitaire, facing the figure, sword still in hand. The chameleon cloak fell away from the opponent, showing an individual clad all in dull gray, head hooded, face masked. The individual reached for one of two shoulder holsters. Jester twisted, dropping to stand on their hands, their feet curving from the ground to connect with the figure’s jaw. The force of the impact lifted the figure its feet and spun it in the air, its body landing hard on its shoulder.

Jester’s body launched, curving through the air, their feet returning to the ground, their body once against upright. The plasma-blade sizzled. The figure reached for its boot—another weapon? Seriously? Jester severed both the leg and the reaching arm.

As bullets sped past the now exposed Jester, time returned to its regular flow. Chopper rose, firing as he did, spraying, uncaring about precision only about effect. The general area where their opponents fired from became a cloud of debris and dust. The ammunition count on the Daedalus dropped far too quickly. Seconds, not even seconds. The weapon was dry.

Chopper dropped. He ejected the can. His pack dispensed another. He loaded. He worked the action. He rose, readying the weapon, settling it on its bipod.

Jester fired. Gloria reached out, punching through stone, creating a mist cloud of blood.

Two sets of empty hands thrust into the sky. “Stop! Stop! Surrender! We Surrender!”

“You sure aren’t fast learners.” Solitaire checked to see that Chopper had his weapon trained on those empty hands. She rose from cover. “Come out in the open and provide the access codes to the shuttle, then we can leave you in peace.”

Two men in battered body armour, no weapons visible, stepped onto the open space, one placing what looked like a shell on the floor. “Full access. Right there. Leave us our stuff, okay? We won’t be able to go back to the ship.”

Solitaire had her Orca SMG levelled at the two. “You’re right, because we’re taking that. But don’t you worry, your weapons, ammo, and equipment will all be left behind, along with any survival gear and supplies on the ship.” She lowered her weapon. “But if you come after any of us again, after any of Hazzard’s old crew?” Her eyes lit with what appeared to Chopper to be literal fire. “We’ll have some fun with you before you die. We will make you regret your every life choice.”

Jester appeared behind them, the plasma-edge of their sword crackling, distortions of heat dancing along it. “And then we will become mean.”

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Extraction: A Review

This review was first presented on my Patreon.

Extraction is the new Chris Hemsworth action movie released on Netflix.

The summary according to Rotten Tomatoes is:

Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) is a fearless black market mercenary with nothing left to lose when his skills are solicited to rescue the kidnapped son of an imprisoned international crime lord. But in the murky underworld of weapons dealers and drug traffickers, an already deadly mission approaches the impossible, forever altering the lives of Rake and the boy.

The action is outstanding. Hemsworth is physically believable as Rake, and the action choreography leans toward the John Wick school of extreme action. It’s done quite well and this is where the movie shines. Hemsworth has a great alter-ego in the film played by Randeep Hooda. Their two characters cut through the opposition with gritty aplomb, and when they end up opposite each other, it’s a treat.

The following is a bit of a spoiler, but doesn’t really ruin any specific plot elements—nor is the plot particularly novel or interesting—but talks about events that happen later in the movie, so you have been warned.

As amazing as the action is, I was honestly uncomfortable with the casual wholesale murder of Bangladeshi police officers. Now, the movie shows us there is corruption in the force, but not necessarily all the way through it. Certainly there is at least one high-level officer who takes orders from the baddie, but there’s no indication that the crazy number of officers mowed down by Hemsworth’s and Hooda’s characters are anything other than police trying to apprehend individuals they believe to be criminals. In fact, there are multiple instances in which a police officer could have shot and killed either of them, but instead chose to tackle or otherwise restrain them.

Were this set in New York instead of Dhaka, I strongly suspect we would have had a scene of a group of mercenaries, whose dialogue would reinforce how unrepentantly evil these people are, getting into police uniforms so that we—the audience—could root for the hero putting them all in their graves. None of that here.

I am really torn on recommending this movie. The action is topnotch, but the dehumanization of “the other” evidenced in the wholesale murder of Bangladeshi police officers honestly bothers me. I’m going to have to give this movie a 2.75 kitted-out secret squirrels out of 5. The action is great, the star power is there, but the story is pretty pedestrian and the disinterest in the humanity of the Bangladeshi police is a problem.

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Time to Hunt: A Review

This review was first presented on my Patreon.

I had the chance to catch the new South Korean thriller, Time to Hunt, on Netflix this week. 

The plot, as summarized on Rotten Tomatoes is:

In a hopeless dystopian city, Jun-seok (LEE Je-hoon) is released from prison and plans his next step in life in order to start anew with his friends Jang-ho (AHN Jae-hong), Ki-hoon (CHOI Woo-shik) and Sang-soo (PARK Jeong-min). But their excitement for the plan is short-lived as an unknown man chases after them. Can these best friends get away from the hunt?

The story is actually pretty generic when one breaks it down. The “plan” involves the robbery of an illegal casino. Up until then, the most outstanding part of the movie was the setting and atmosphere. This isn’t a science-fiction movie per se, but it’s definitely set at some point in the future. 

The South Korea of this film is hopeless, mostly abandoned, covered in constant smog, and depopulated. I think anyone will be affected by the setting presented in the film, but if you’ve actually lived in South Korea, especially in a major urban centre, the shots of block after block of empty streets and abandoned stores have a very visceral impact.

The hunt of the title and synopsis has an assassin chasing after the young friends, and the tension gets dialled up to 11. I’m not necessarily a huge thriller fan, but have seen more than a few. Time to Hunt definitely delivers both the thrills in moments of kinetic energy but even more on the anxiety and pressure leading to those explosions. 

I would recommend Time to Hunt and give it 4 bullet-riddled bodies out of 5. This is a thrilling and tense movie with solid performances in a story that has few real surprises but serves as the vehicle to deliver its promise.

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My Problem with Far Cry 5 (and New Dawn)

This article was first presented on my Patreon.

I play a lot of first-person shooters, especially open-world FPS RPGs, and I’ve played Far Cry since Far Cry 2. I really like the gameplay of Far Cry 5 and Far Cry: New Dawn, but I have a problem with their stories.

In FC5, the villain is a religious zealot. That is not the problem. The problem is . . .

MAJOR SPOILER FOR A GAME THAT CAME OUT IN 2018.

ALSO, TRIGGER WARNING FOR SOME REALLY MESSED UP CONTENT

REALLY, NOT KIDDING, MAJOR SPOILER. MAJOR TRIGGERS.

LAST WARNING.

The problem is that the villain—Joseph Seed—is actually the hero, or at least that the villain has been correct about the end of the world. Given the supernatural powers he exhibits at the end, and the through-line into FC:ND, it’s heavily suggested that he is, in fact, touched by the Christian God.

The guy who supports torture, forced drug dependency, eugenics, and in at least one case, a lieutenant who forces children to engage in cannibalism, he’s the messenger of the Christian God.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that you can’t win. If you fight him, in the end, you lose and become his prisoner. In FC:ND it’s revealed you become his disciple. If you walk away, you turn out to be a Manchurian Candidate and likely murder your friends. You can’t win.

Granted, in FC4, there were no good choices. (SPOILERS FOLLOW) You end up turning your homeland into a narco-terrorist nation, a religious extremist nation, or you leave it in the hands of a murderous dictator. But at least you didn’t become the discipline of the religious extremist, drug kingpin, or murderous dictator. I’m okay with the idea that sometimes there are no good choices. I found FC5 frustrating not because there were no good choices, but because you—as the character—can’t win. The villain always wins.

And he turns out to be the one who is actually right. Not just persuasive or entertaining (like Vaas or Pagan Min) but actually correct—the end of days is upon us and he is the chosen of the Christian God.

Further, it gets worse with FC:ND. In that game, Seed is key to winning the game. He has created a kind of Utopia, and the main character from FC5 becomes a Specialist—one of the Guns for Hire that can accompany the main character—and is a kind of super soldier following Seed. Further, Seed has found some kind of Garden of Eden tree (or maybe the tree is supposed to be the source of Iðunn’s apples from Norse Mythology) and this has given him extended life and provides the main character with super powers as well.

Then there are the villains in FC:ND, two African-American sisters who are warlords following the nuclear apocalypse at the end of FC5. While the white villain of FC5 is touched by God, the sisters are irredeemably evil. Throughout the game, classic rock indicates good guys, and “urban” music denotes villains.

I’m not saying the designers intentionally adapted racist tropes. I am saying they and everyone in the design chain was blind to it. Or am I just hyper-sensitive? I think I was definitely more sensitive after the end of FC5. It was just so jarring. 

Crazy evangelicals that literally torture people to death? Actually doing God’s work.

This really bugs me because I like the gameplay in both games. I especially like FC:ND because it’s got that great post-apocalyptic setting (yes, Fallout fan . . . at least since Fallout 3) and while it doesn’t have the weapon modding system from FC5, I like the various weapons that are available at the different tiers.

So while I love the games, I hate the stories. I’ve played through FC:ND twice and am on my second round of FC5, but the second play-throughs I’m just going to avoid the actual endings. Fuck ‘em.

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