Category: Fiction (page 1 of 41)

Gothmatum: A Thin Dark Veil

A journal entry for Gothmatum Baenre.

I am aware that, as long as my life can be and as much as I may discover, there are some things I may never understand.

For example: necromancers tend to fancy themselves “masters of death”, then give themselves over to curses such as lichdom and vampirism.

They lie to themselves.

These are states of undeath. They are born of a fear of death, not mastery. Those who seek such states retreat to remote, dark places. Crypts and foreboding castles are the order of the day for these so-called “masters of death.”

Cowards and fools, to a one.

Life and death are separated by a thin, dark veil. Those who live can see death. When she comes, the living can run from her, try fight against her, or reach out to touch her. She has no master. She simply is. She lingers on her side of the veil, patient and eternal. She cannot be wielded like a sword or staff, but she can be understood.

That is my goal. Not to master death, but to understand her.

The nature of the veil is of greatest mystery to the living. Those who cross it are never the same, should they return. Souls are carried to other realms, other planes, or simply are lost forever. How does the transition work? Is there a mechanism somewhere in the cosmic clockwork of the planes? Or is it truly a duty of a psychopomp to take the soul by the hand and guide it to its destination? The nature of the veil — what scholar who truly wishes to understand death would not make that their primary focus?

This is the goal to which I have dedicated myself. Many who claim the title of necromancer merely wish to dominate others with their animated corpses and fearsome spells that bring death. But do not evokers also bring death with fire and lightning? What of those illusionists who fool others into thinking that ravine is solid ground. No — true necromancy lies in studying the veil between life and death. Seeking to understand it. Maybe, for just a moment, penetrating it.

I have spoken to one who has crossed that veil in both directions. He claims his soul went directly from Mount Celestia and back with no stops between. Does he merely not remember the journey? Is the veil both thin as a razor and infinite as the void? These are the questions to which I seek answers, not “how do I cheat death” or “in what way can I extend my life until it is the thinnest of threads linked to a shambling corpse that plays at still being a wizard”?

The paths to the answers are dark. There will be false turns and pitfalls into roiling seas of madness. But I will find those answers. I will negotiate those turns, avoid those pitfalls. I have seen Death with my own two eyes. Now, I shall find ways to understand her.

That, in my mind, is true necromancy.

Honor & Blood, VIII: Victor

The Twins

Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this tale can and will deviate from series canon.

The Story So Far: Victor Luxon
has completed his task of returning heirloom blades to the great Houses of Westeros. He and his household make for their restored castle at Moat Cailin, but not before visiting his father-in-law, Walder Frey, at the Twins…

“So…” The word was drawn out for a moment longer than most would consider polite. Victor Luxon tore another mouthful of meat from the haunch in his hand. He waited for the speaker to lean closer before he made eye contact.

Walder Frey’s mouth never stopped moving. The largest orifice in the old man’s weasel-like face was even more animated as he entreated his son-in-law. “So! You still have some of those old swords, do you?”

Victor shrugged. “My father has them. They’re locked up, under the Mage’s Tower.”

“The Mage’s Tower.” Walder turned his head to spit. The gelatinous projectile sailed down from their high table and landed in the soup of one of Walder’s sons. The young Frey gave his father a withering look. Walder merely chuckled. “Serve ya right for being so pretty, boy!” The old man turned to Victor. “Too much of his mother in that one. Too pretty.”

“So you said.” Victor took a drink of wine. “Why do you ask about the swords?”

“Freys don’t have ancestral blades. It’d be nice to have one.” He got that leer in his look again. “Just be a matter of putting a different hilt on it, I imagine. Who’d know the difference? A sword’s a sword, right?”

“To the peasants and the dim lower nobles,” Victor replied. “Show it to any of the Great Houses, and —”

“Oh, yes, have them call me a liar! I’m not used to that old sausage, not at all.” Walder Frey sniffed wetly. Victor tried to keep his frown to himself. He’d traded that bastard and his irritable smile for a completely different definition of the word ‘disgusting’. “Or, better yet, would I be ‘dishonoring’ the sword if I put some Frey colors on its hilt? That’s something you Luxons know all about, eh? Honor?”

“It’s in our words.” Victor set down his goblet. “Do you really want a Valyrian sword that badly?”

Walder blinked as if stunned. “Who wouldn’t? Pretty things, those. Look quite fashionable over my hearth.”

“A sword’s meant to be used. It’s a weapon, not a sculpture.”

“And how often does your lord father use his?”

Victor frowned. This conversation was quickly going in uncomfortable directions. “Often enough to make men without sense think twice before opening their fetid mouths.”

Walder’s expression darkened. “Boy, you’d best not take that tone with me.”

Victor met Walder’s gaze. “If we were squatting over the same shithole, father-in-law, you can be damned sure I’d tell you if your shit stank. I’d expect you’d do the same for me.”

For a moment, the mouth of Walder Frey made no sound. Then, like a hole in a sack bursting wide under the pressure of its contents, the Lord of the Crossing’s jaw hinged downward wide, and he laughed loudly.

“You just might be the most worthwhile in-law I ever had the good fortune to put in bed with one of my daughters!” He slapped Victor on the shoulder. Victor barely felt it. “I’ve seen lesser men, even my own blood, piss themselves when I round on ’em.”

“You do remember every insult hurled at you, or so they say. Most of that, I imagine, comes from so-called highborn manners.”

“Too right, you are.” Frey took a large drink of wine. “What is it that you want?”

Victor narrowed his eyes. “That’s a broad question.”

“Well, then, make your answer broad. Come on, speak up.”

“I want what you want.” Victor paused. “I want to make my house great.”

Frey leaned back, a long “ah” sound coming from his mouth. “And how, exactly, are you going to do that?”

“By engaging in actions my sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters after, will speak of in awe and reverence. By taking what is mine. By denying my house’s lands, titles, and holdings to those who’d take them from us.”

“You’re starting to sound like you see yourself as some kind of conqueror.”

“And why not?” Victor gestured broadly. “The North is vast. The Starks will not be able to control all of it forever. There will be opportunities that House Luxon will seize. I would dishonor myself, and all the Luxons past and future, if I settled for less than I’m owed.”

“So the Starks owe you the North, eh?” Frey grinned his skull-like grin. “Come now, boy. Such things should not be shouted from the parapets. They need be whispered, between those of similar ambitions.”

Victor furrowed his brows. He was not used to whispering about such things. He found the very notion uncomfortable. Honorable men did not whisper. Still, he nodded.

“Good. You have some sense, at least.” Walder Frey beckoned him closer. “Come, let us whisper now about our liege-lords, and how we might best serve ourselves, rather than their fat arses…”

Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.

Next: Jon

Mondays are for making art.

Delta-V: Judicious Panic

Previously: The year is 3301. It’s been two weeks since Commander Jason Frimantle committed an act of piracy under Federal law, strong-arming new hires of his father’s shipping company over valuable cargo.

“…and if you look to the starboard side of the spacecraft, you will see what is colloquially known as a ‘hot Jupiter’.”

Jason Frimantle muted his comm and sighed softly. When he’d first seen the astronomical wonder a week ago, he too had been surprised by the vibrancy of color and violence in the storms visible on the gas giant’s surface. Trapped as it was in the competing gravity wells of two nearby stars, the tidal forces in its titanic hydrogen and helium pockets would have torn a planet the size of Earth to shreds. From here, though, the Dolphin-class passenger liner was perfectly safe, and Jason was almost certain that at least a few of his passengers were taking holo-vids, pointing, and making awestruck noises.

All Jason could think of was the paycheck.

The problem with working for a company like Baroness Starsight Tours was that they were tied to one particular place. And at that place, they kept personnel records, bureaucrats… weak points. So far, Jason’s stunt on Abel Prospect had gone unreported, as far as he could find out. And thus far, no bounties had been posted on him at any of the stations near Baroness Starsight’s headquarters and main ports of call.

“Pilot?” The voice crackled from the comm located in the passenger compartment. “Did you bring any food aboard?”

“Refreshments are available in the cabinets located aft. All credit programs accepted.”

“What? We have to pay?”

Jason rolled his eyes. Of course you have to pay, it was in the contract you signed. “Standard Baroness Starsight contracts include the pricing for all refreshments available aboard —”

His comm buzzed. His external comm.

“Jason Frimantle.”

It was a statement. Not a question.

Jason flipped channels. “This is Baroness Starsight civilian vessel ‘Deveraux’, how can I help you?”

“This is gonna look bad on my resume.” Jason looked at the ship sending the signal. It was an F-63 Condor, being flown by a commander ranked as Expert. “Get your passengers into escape pods. They’ll be safe, and I know that ship’s insured. I’ve been told you’re worth more alive, but if you try anything, like holding them hostage, I’ll be a lot less inclined to be gentle.”

“Hostages? What are you talking about?”

“Pirates are known for that sort of thing, Mister Frimantle. Please, I’m asking nice.”

Jason checked the information again. ‘Marcus Corso’. Bounty hunter, more than likely.

Don’t panic. Do not panic. Don’t you dare.

He flipped the comm back over. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Commander speaking. Return to your seats and secure yourselves at all points. I am about to take evasive maneuvers.”

He took a deep breath, then flipped to the external channel. “Commander Corso, I’m not going to hold anyone hostage, and I’m not going to turn myself over to you. I’m plotting a course back to Independent space now. You’re welcome to try and stop me.” He reached under the console, pulled off a particular panel, and tweaked a few of the wires. This ship wasn’t designed for many pilot modifications, and tampering with it could cost him the contract. But this seemed a bit more important.

There was a laugh. “I have to admit, kid, I like your gumption. Your dad said you might be difficult. But you’re in a Dolphin-class space bus. I’m in a cutting-edge Fed fighter. There’s no contest.”

“If I were staying to fight,” Jason said, “I’d agree. But you’re about to eat high wake. I suggest you get clear, this beast can breach pretty big.”

The ship’s computer warned Jason that Corso had deployed his hardpoints. In the next moment, laser blasts spattered against the ship’s shields. Jason banked the ship hard to port, firing the portside reverse engine. As soon as his aft was pointed at Corso, he hit the boost. With a surprisingly dolphin-like whine, the liner leaped forward at maximum velocity. The frame-shift drive charged, and they were yanked across space at super-relativistic speeds.

Jason didn’t hesitate or rest once they dropped back into supercruise. He plotted the course back to the home port and made one jump after another in rapid succession. He barely stopped to scoop extra fuel to make sure they didn’t get stranded. It wasn’t until the ship was in the station and docked that Jason managed to breathe again.

There was no sign of pursuit. Corso hadn’t popped into space outside of the station. In fact, as far Jason could see, there’d been no F-63s at all anywhere near them. He ran a hand through his hair, leaving the cabin behind to greet the passengers as they disembarked. He hoped none of them would note that those blonde locks were matted with sweat.

A couple of the passengers — a concerned father, a bureaucrat who barely stopped talking to her personal comm, a little girl with pigtails who kicked him in the shin — gave him grief over the abrupt end of the trip. Still, they’d hit their goals and gotten home safe. Jason would get paid.

And then he’d leave. Somewhere else, somewhere the Wayfarer could take him even further from Federation bounty hunters and system authorities…


He blinked, coming back to where he was standing. He was looking at a familiar face. Reddish-brown hair, light brown eyes..

“Commissioner Parker?”

She smiled. It was a wide, warm thing, tinged with mischief. Not an expression worn by the shipping magnate bureaucrat back on Lave Station. It was about then that he noticed that while her fashion was similar to the commissioner’s — pencil skirt, business-style blouse and jacket, heels — it had its own spin on the look. The skirt was just a bit shorter, the cut of the jacket a little more daring, the top two buttons of her blouse unbuttoned. She wore spectacles, which the other had not, and while she wore her hair in a similar fashion, curling locks of it fell to frame her face, and the chopsticks in the bun were more vibrant and eye-catching.

“I see you’ve met my sister.” Her voice, again almost identical to the other’s, was smoother, more relaxed. “Kind of stuck up, isn’t she?”

Jason swallowed, feeling very much on the spot. “She’s a conservative sort, yeah.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” Her smile widened. “Parker’s my name, yes. My twin hasn’t gotten married — can’t imagine why that is — and neither have I. But I don’t commission a thing. You can call me Stephanie.”

He nodded. “And you know my name.”

“I do.” Her lips pursed in an interesting way, at least to Jason’s eyes. “And I’m aware of your skills, and cool head under pressure.”

He thought of the sweat that’d trickled down his cheek. “Thanks.”

“Listen. I represent a… certain organization. We’re always on the lookout for new talent. Especially commanders who can handle themselves in a crisis and aren’t afraid of running afoul of… antagonistic parties. The pay’s fantastic, and we’ll provide your first ship. Interested?”

Jason thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. “Sure. If it gets me out of Federation space, especially.”

She put out her hand. “Shake on it.”

He did. She had a firm grip, and her fingers lingered on his palm for just a moment.

“Good. Be sure to sever your ties with Baroness Starsight. You’ll find your new ship in Landing Bay 24.”

“Twenty-four,” Jason said with a nod. She smiled at him again.

“Looking forward to working with you, Commander.” She turned and walked down the corridor, heels clicking whenever they touched the deck. Unlike her sister’s heels, they were stiletto-style, and the seams of her stockings ran up the back of her legs in clean, straight lines.

Jason really didn’t know how to process what just happened.

He made his way to the Baroness office to collect his pay and hand in his resignation. Then it was to Landing Bay 24. There, he found a small ship that he knew was capable despite its size: a Viper Mk.III fighter. He ran his hand over its hull with a smile. It was already fitted with registry numbers saying it was his. He got in and checked the cockpit. He found a note on the pilot’s seat, shocked to discover it smelled faintly of Stephanie’s perfume. He opened it.

Don’t forget that you owe us. This isn’t a gift; it’s an investment.

A chill ran down Jason’s spine.

What had he just been talked into doing?

To be continued…

Elite Dangerous is a registered trademark of Frontier Developments.

Songs of Cornell: Just Getting Started

There really wasn’t anything Cornell Starblossom liked more than a lively tavern at night.

Night was when everybody shook of the day’s responsibilities, relaxed, and loosened their laces, especially their purse strings. The half-elf was adept enough with bandore and thelarr to maintain a decent enough lifestyle with just a few hours of song every night. What really got him attention — and tips — was his voice. Unlike the instrumental skills, honed by years of study at the College of Fochlucan, he’d been born with a melodious voice with good range and solid timbre. He’d trained that too, to be sure. From participating in hymns to Sune with his mother, to literally singing for his supper all up and down the Sword Coast, he’d built the stamina, clarity, and expressiveness to handle a night’s worth of song, much to the delight of patrons and approval of tavern owners.

He sang songs of pure love, loves lost and regained, learning to love one’s own self. He sang ballads of heroes long gone and the battles of mighty nations. He sang of dragons, dire portents, and powerful magic. Most of all, he sang to the individuals in the tavern, rubbing elbows with men and sitting beside ladies, all the while keeping a fine hat in view for the depositing of coin.

It was getting late at the Clover Wall Roadhouse when Cornell wrapped up his encore. He felt tired, but satisfied. After recent ordeals, he was glad to have time to simply ply his trade and get to know the locals, especially those in high standing. The blacksmith in particular had been of interest to him, in terms of acquiring better means of protecting himself. Having done that, he resolved to spend the next tenday involved in nothing but good song, good food, and pleasurable company.

He was thinking about the feisty redhead who’d invited him to her chambers in a few hours as he counted the night’s coin. Just enough for his upscale rooms and meals to last him until tomorrow night. He leaned back with a smile. He had no taxes to pay, no lands to manage, no manor to worry over. Just him, his music, and the road. It was freedom, and he valued it highly.

“Oi. Knife-ears.”

He blinked, slowly, and looked up at the source of the voice. It was a burly, smelly human, beefy hands in fists. A thinner, weasel-faced human stood behind the first, sneering at Cornell.

“Gentlemen.” Cornell’s voice came out in his easy drawl, an affect picked up from his youth in Daggerford and time on the road. “Got some feedback on th’ set? I’m always lookin’ t’ improve.”

“We bet good money on you in the arena, flower-muncher. We want it back.”

Ah. So these two were from the Redplumes. Or, at least, had supported the Redplumes in their assault and kidnapping of innocents along the road. Especially non-humans. Cornell’s smile faded just a touch, remembering the roar of the crowd, the frothing of the quipper-infested waters…

“Ain’t my fault you bet on th’ wrong odds.” He paused. “Were they good odds that we were gonna bite it? I shoulda placed a bet on us, myself. Might’ve been able to help you kind gents.”

The beefy one slammed his fist into the table. “We will have coin, or we will have blood!”

“Oi.” This was the barkeep, wiping down his bar, looking up from tending to his last few customers. “Keep it down or get out. No fighting in my place.”

Cornell gave the barkeep a nod and a smile, and got to his feet. “You heard th’ man, gentlemen. Care t’ step outside?”

The two humans shared a vicious grin and moved to the door. Cornell handed the barkeep his coin — “for my rooms and board ’til tomorrow night” — and followed, running his fingers over the feather in his hat before putting it on his head. He thought about the rapier hanging from the left side of his belt, and the new crossbow on the right. It was his bandore that he hefted onto his left shoulder, however. As he walked to the door, he did a quick check of the tuning of the strings, plucking one or two to get the notes just right.

As soon as they were outside, he saw Weasel-face pulling out a pair of crossbows not unlike Cornell’s new acquisition: built for a single hand, quick to reload, deadly with good aim. Ham-fist’s weapon of choice was a hammer with a long haft and a heavy-looking head. They grinned. Ham-fist opened his mouth to speak.

Cornell looked squarely at Weasel-face and gave the bandore a quick riff.

this may hurt a little but it’s something you’ll get used to

The discordant melody and minor chord made Weasel-face’s eyes go wide. Screaming in panic, the man dropped his crossbows to clutch his head in pain, and turned to run as fast as he could. Ham-fist whirled to yell an imprecation, and that’s when Cornell drew his crossbow, aimed, and shot the human in the back of the thigh.

Howling, Ham-fist went down.

Cornell walked over, hanging the crossbow from his belt, and drawing his rapier. He placed the tip of the blade under Ham-fist’s chin, and lifted the human’s face towards his.

“I’m no killer, nor am I thief,” he said, his voice grave and even. “But I am a Harper agent.” Cornell lowered his instrument to the ground gently and opened the left side of his jacket, showing the badge he wore underneath. “An’ you are a threat t’ the common folk, or at least those who ain’t like you.” He put a little pressure on the rapier, a tiny bead of blood appearing on the man’s white skin. “I suggest you grab your friend an’ leave. Don’t let me see you here again. Remember: we’re watching you, racist.”

Ham-fist nodded, or at least did so as well as he could with a rapier at his throat. Cornell smiled, stepping back, and sheathing his weapon. Ham-fist stumbled to his feet and jogged after Weasel-face.

Cornell took a deep breath, and let it out again. While he had no taxes or land, he did have his responsibilities. It was the Harpers who had sponsored his entry into Fochlucan, kept his mother safe, and appraised his father, an elf wizard and adventurer in his own right, of Cornell’s progress. And there was the whole empathy-for-the-common-folk thing. Growing up half-elven wasn’t easy, especially in areas in the North of the Sword Coast mostly dominated by mainline humans. He could empathize with so many of them. It was part of the reason why stories of the Harpers had always appealed to him, and why he now wore their emblem.

He adjusted his hat and headed back for the Roadhouse, bandore on his shoulder. The night, much like his journey across Faerûn in search of story, song, and worthy causes, was just getting started.

Mondays are for making art.

Dungeons & Dragons copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Flash Fiction: We Are One

From territory to territory we have roamed. We prefer the warm, the dark, the places with circulation and room to expand. There are explosive moments, expulsions that carry us forth to new homes, and no matter how few we might be when we move beyond the blinding like back into the darkness, we grow stronger and in number until we are ready to expand once again.

The new territory is unlike anything we’ve experienced. We had more room before. Things were relatively stable. The sounds were soothing, the feeling comfortable. Now, things are chaotic. There are violent, explosive noises within. Other noises are without, things we do not understand. And then we, as one, our people and our home, are moving faster than we’ve ever moved before, a longer distance than we’ve ever known.

Strange, caustic chemicals flow through our territory. We die in droves. We struggle to survive. We avoid the places where the death pumps in towards us, gather our strength, shelter our numbers. When we’re ready, when the time is right, we strike. The territory convulses. We fly free. And we find new homes.

We multiply, we continue, we spread. This territory is vast and varied, but similar enough. The warmth helps us grow. The movement takes us far. Even as one part of the territory does dark and cold, others gather and we find new, warm, dark places to take root and grow.

Never before could we have imagined being so many. Not in our wildest dreams did we see ourselves being this spread out. From one to another we speak, we strike, we grow. We embrace our manifest destiny.

Though our territories may wither and die, we remain strong.

Some believe these resources are finite. At some point sooner or later, they say, the fuel will run out, the territory will no longer be vital, and we will cease to exist.

Perhaps. But until then, we thrive.

We rise.

We are one.

For GISHWHES I was challenged to write a story from the perspective of a virus.

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