Heralded by Blood and Other Tales

RAGE MACHINE BOOKS has published  my collection of short Dark Fantasy stories!

If you ever feel that you are doing well as a writer, I would recommend re-reading all of your old short stories. That will put a pin in any inflated sense of accomplishment right quick.

As I have gone through the process of selecting stories for this volume I have run headlong into countless cringeworthy examples of my many bad writing habits. I have shuddered with embarrassment at the numerous examples of passive voice, imprecise word choices, repetition, bad grammar, not to mention atrocious spelling.

When I began I was keen to become reacquainted with my older works, but as I slogged through I became more and more mortified at my own inadequacies as a writer. And what made it worse was that most of this work has seen print!

If ever there was an argument as to why a writer needs a good editor, I am the embodiment of it.

Nevertheless, it has been somewhat illuminating to look back at where my head was at when I wrote these stories. It is interesting, particularly at my age, to read the words of a much younger version of myself, to smile indulgently at my youth’s misconceptions, and to be reminded of the things that I once considered to be very important. As I head North through my middle age, the concerns and cares of my bygone days seem quaint, if not downright mystifying to my older (and hopefully wiser) self.

As well I have been able to track the voice of the writer Jack Mackenzie as it developed, slowly and painfully throughout my early career, such as it was. I can clearly see the influences, the bad imitations, the clumsy striving for poetic turns of phrase as well as the many places where I was just plain bullshitting my way through a story.

I fear that my naked prose is not as elegant as I had hoped it was. My dialogue seems to work, though, far better than the simple task of describing clearly and concisely what the hell is going on. Perhaps I should have been writing screenplays instead of short stories.

Well, what’s done is done. As the venerable Omar Khayyam puts it in his classic Rubaiyat;

The Moving Finger writes and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears blot out a word of it.

However, as true as that is, another aphorism about vanity may apply here, for I have not let all of my mistakes stand. I know many writers who present their earlier works “warts and all” but I simply cannot let these little darlings into the house without first insisting that they wipe their feet. I find that I am compelled to wipe away the dirt from their faces and try to smooth down the cow licks as best I can before I let company in.

I always felt that when someone comes to visit you should at least try to put your best face forward. Perhaps that seems old fashioned, put it’s how I was brought up and it is how I continue to live today even when I do not feel like it, thanks to my beloved wife.

Besides that, it is a sign of respect to one’s company to try to present an inviting and clean atmosphere – to not let the dogs run wild, to pull out the best china that you have (the sets that match best and have the least amount of chips and cracks) to serve the better quality biscuits, the nice tea and to provide some clean seats and dusted surfaces when company comes to call.

And you, dear reader, are the best company.

As for the kinds of tales these are, well, these are tales of the darkest fantasy. These are the literary spawn – bastards though some may be – of the stories that one would have read in the pages of Weird Tales, that venerated pulp magazine of the early part of the twentieth century. That pulp rag that birthed the stories of Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Seabury Quinn, C. L. Moore, and many others. These stories have percolated in those pages as well as through the fiction of Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. They have been steeped in heroic fantasy fiction, sword and sorcery, and outright horror.

One is even a sequel, of sorts, to a story by the great horror icon and popular Weird Tales author, H. P. Lovecraft.

Does this literary inspiration guarantee that my tales will inherit the quality of the stories which have provided their impetus? No. Of course not. My poor efforts cannot be faulted for their enthusiasm, however. My love for these authors and the types of tales for which they are famous knows no bounds and I have tried to infuse much of that love and admiration into these stories.

If you have a similar love for these kinds of tales, then I am certain that these efforts will prove to be acceptable to you. It is my hope, dear reader, that they provide you with a modicum of pleasure. It is my sincerest wish that they will thrill you in the same way that those Weird Tales once did.

I have tried my best, dear reader. I have cleaned the furniture and importuned the children to behave. I hope you enjoy the biscuits and that you find the tea satisfactory.

Lets spend some time visiting, shall we?

You can purchase the e-book at Amazon.com. The print version will follow shortly.



Nemesis Man

If this isn’t the weirdest damn thing. Someone figured out that H. P. Lovecraft’s poem “Nemesis” fits almost perfectly to the tune of Billy Joel`s “The Piano Man”

So, naturally, if you figure something something as monumental as this out, what do you do? You record the song and put it up on youtube.

Here is Lovecraft’s original poem”

By H. P. Lovecraft

     Thro’ the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber,
          Past the wan-moon’d abysses of night,
     I have liv’d o’er my lives without number,
          I have sounded all things with my sight;
And I struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright.
     I have whirl’d with the earth at the dawning,
          When the sky was a vaporous flame;
     I have seen the dark universe yawning,
          Where the black planets roll without aim;
Where they roll in their horror unheeded, without knowledge or lustre or name.     I had drifted o’er seas without ending,
          Under sinister grey-clouded skies
     That the many-fork’d lightning is rending,
          That resound with hysterical cries;
With the moans of invisible daemons that out of the green waters rise.

     I have plung’d like a deer thro’ the arches
          Of the hoary primordial grove,
     Where the oaks feel the presence that marches
          And stalks on where no spirit dares rove;
And I flee from a thing that surrounds me, and leers thro’ dead branches above.

     I have stumbled by cave-ridden mountains
          That rise barren and bleak from the plain,
     I have drunk of the fog-foetid fountains
          That ooze down to the marsh and the main;
And in hot cursed tarns I have seen things I care not to gaze on again.

     I have scann’d the vast ivy-clad palace,
          I have trod its untenanted hall,
     Where the moon writhing up from the valleys
          Shews the tapestried things on the wall;
Strange figures discordantly woven, which I cannot endure to recall.

     I have peer’d from the casement in wonder
          At the mouldering meadows around,
     At the many-roof’d village laid under
          The curse of a grave-girdled ground;
And from rows of white urn-carven marble I listen intently for sound.

     I have haunted the tombs of the ages,
          I have flown on the pinions of fear
     Where the smoke-belching Erebus rages,
          Where the jokulls loom snow-clad and drear:
And in realms where the sun of the desert consumes what it never can cheer.

     I was old when the Pharaohs first mounted
          The jewel-deck’d throne by the Nile;
     I was old in those epochs uncounted
          When I, and I only, was vile;
And Man, yet untainted and happy, dwelt in bliss on the far Arctic isle.

     Oh, great was the sin of my spirit,
          And great is the reach of its doom;
     Not the pity of Heaven can cheer it,
          Nor can respite be found in the tomb:
Down the infinite aeons come beating the wings of unmerciful gloom.

     Thro’ the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber,
          Past the wan-moon’d abysses of night,
     I have liv’d o’er my lives without number,
          I have sounded all things with my sight;
And I struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright.

Science Fiction as Social Commentary

Despite its far flung settings and futuristic subjects, the best SF still has ties to the here and now

The very best science fiction, whether it be literature or in the movies or on television, the kinds of science fiction that resonates most strongly with the readers and viewers, is not the science fiction that merely shows us the wonders of the world of tomorrow, but the science fiction that comments on the world of today.

Despite a recent loud and disruptive movement within science fiction fan circles that proclaimed that science fiction should only focus on rocketships and rayguns, robots and whiz-bang action and decried any other type as propaganda from rabid leftist social justice warriors, science fiction and social commentary go hand in hand. It has done from the very beginning.

From the fantastic adventures of Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1735 to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to today’s fiction in print and on movie screens and television, science fiction that reflects and comments on current events usually has a more profound impact. Indeed, some will argue that is the very purpose of science fiction, to illuminate aspects of our world and our lives today. Science fiction holds it up to a funhouse mirror, distorts it, stretches it, and then examines it in ways that cannot be done without current cultural biases interfering. By couching a subject in the language of the rockets, rayguns and whiz-bang action, greater insights can be wrung from certain subjects and issues that are too “hot button” to talk about directly.

But how much of this is deliberate? As the aforementioned loud and noisy movement has accused the establishment of science fiction of doing so, how much of this “message” is deliberately inserted into modern science fiction as a form of “propaganda” and how much of it occurs naturally, an unavoidable by-product of writers who are keenly aware of our contemporary society’s ills and wish to provide commentary on such, if not prescribing their so-called SJW remedies?

This, it turns out, is not a new discussion. Nor is science fiction’s penchant for presenting social commentary disguised as fantastical adventures.


I mentioned Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels earlier. Anyone who has taken a literature course in high school or college knows that Swift’s fanciful adventure was not merely a rousing tale of a hapless traveler in far flung lands. Swift constructed his fantasy world of Lilliputians, Brobdingnagans and Houyhnhnms not as a mere distraction, but to make pointed observations about contemporary European society. He did this deliberately. Indeed, Swift himself is quoted as saying that he wrote Gulliver’s Travels “to vex the world rather than divert it”.

His criticisms of contemporary society did not impinge upon the book’s sales, fortunately. Indeed, the book became popular as soon as it was published. John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.”

Mary Shelley’s debut novel, Frankenstein, is considered to be one of the first science fiction stories. The English science fiction writer Brian Aldiss has argued that it should be considered the first true science fiction story because, in contrast to previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character “makes a deliberate decision” and “turns to modern experiments in the laboratory” to achieve fantastic results.

But what does Frankenstein say about society? Shelley says that the world is cruel and monsters will not be tolerated but shhe also asks how will technology change us? The character of Victor Frankenstein is modern man, poised on the cusp of great discoveries that will challenge God, but also poised at the point at which we become the monsters. Victor rejects his creation, goes back to a world that does not embrace change. But change, in the form of Adam, has other ideas.

This battle with change will define the next two giants of Science Fiction: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Verne portrays scientific change as a wondrous process that will bring adventure. He often does not show how this will affect human lives. (Captain Nemo is perhaps the closest he comes to it.) Wells rejects Verne’s naiveté and returns to Shelley’s grim view. Change will be painful. Traveling in time, becoming invisible, alien invasion, giant monsters, all will be terrible. Wells is not afraid to make social commentary, in fact, did nothing else at the same time that he predicted tank warfare, aerial bombing and other future realities. His novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, for instance, was written as a fundraiser to stop animal vivisection. Wells moved away from narrative as he progressed, abandoning the Science Fiction adventure for proselytizing novels and non-fiction.

In the wake of World War I, society as a whole began to change in earnest. Mechanical inventions had been seen on the battlefields of Europe and now, in peacetime, they were making their way into people’s homes. Certainly the early twentieth century was not devoid of social criticism, but in the aftermath of the Great War, it was mostly in the purview of art and culture movements. The surrealists, the Dada-ists, the Bauhous movement. These were, for the most part, intellectuals talking to other intellectuals, and not making many inroads into popular culture. Indeed, that these movements set themselves aside from and opposed to popular culture was a point of pride.

But in 1920 a unique stage production in Russia was about to change all that.


R.U.R. is a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). It premiered on January 25, 1921 and introduced the word “robot” to the language and to science fiction as a whole.

The word “robot”, which displaced older words such as “automaton” or “android” in languages around the world would itself become a trope that would offer science fiction writers copious opportunities to play, poke fun at, or otherwise satirize a host of society’s foibles, not the least of which, mankind’s desire for institutionalized slavery. Indeed, in Czech, robota means forced labour of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters’ lands and is derived from the word rab, meaning “slave”.

The name Rossum is an allusion to the Czech word rozum, meaning “reason”, “wisdom”, “intellect” or “common-sense”. It has been suggested that the allusion might be preserved by translating “Rossum” as “Reason” but only the Majer/Porter version translates the word as “Reason”. R.U.R becomes one of the first examples of science fiction using a new technology and a fantastical future world to say something profound about the contemporary society from which it sprang.

The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), from synthetic organic matter. They are not exactly robots by the current definition of the term: they are living flesh and blood creatures rather than machinery and are closer to the modern idea of clones. They may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but a robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race.

Again, the social commentary does not hurt R.U.R.‘s public reception. The play was successful in its day in both Europe and North America. R.U.R. quickly became famous and was influential early in the history of its publication. By 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages.

Perhaps by today’s standards using a play about mechanical creations to send the message that slavery is bad may not seem like a very controversial move. It’s pretty well de rigueur today. If you have robots or artificial people in your story, at some point you’re going to have to talk about slavery and how it is bad and how all sentient beings should be free to make their own choices, etc., etc. That message can be found in at least one episode of any of the various Star Trek iterations.

But, of course, the using of science fiction to comment on society would not end with R.U.R.


There is a phrase that always seems to accompany science fiction of this type. “Thought provoking”. That was always kind of a code phrase that the science fiction you are about to read or see, which may have all the cool, whiz-bang trappings of science fiction that fans love, will also have a “message”

Science fiction that was described as “though provoking” could also be synonymous with “heavy handed” or worse, “boring”.

As L. W. Michaelson observed in his article for The Antioch Review in 1954, “Social Criticism in Science Fiction”: “What better way to reach the adolescent mind than with a glorious action story filled with blasters and super-rockets and energizers and what not and then carefully sandwiched in between the action, some little gems of information that will impart a perspective on our society as a whole?”

There are obvious works that can be described as “message” fiction. Orwell’s 1984 is an obvious warning against totalitarianism. Huxley’s Brave New World is a warning about the dangers of utopia.

This is in contrast to the science fiction published in popular magazines. From Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine and to the many others that popped up in its wake, science fiction was a venue for telling fantastic stories of brave industrialists who overcame society’s indifference or disbelief, and built powerful rocket ships to travel into the far reaches of space. Early science fiction tales were rightfully disregarded as little more than chewing gum for juvenile imaginations.


But that began to change. In the post war era of the 1950’s, science fiction writers had transformed from happy-go-lucky champions of technology to gloomy prophets of doom. Indeed, in the nuclear era the “Frankenstein’s Monster” of the day was the atom bomb. It was a powerful and terrible weapon with devastating consequences that raised moral concerns among even the most hawkish of writers.

In this post-war era many science fiction writers felt compelled to include a healthy serving of social commentary along with the aliens, robots and ray-guns. Indeed, it was argued that science fiction was one of the few genres that could do this without too much fear of public censure.

L. W. Michaelson in his essay for “Social Criticism in Science Fiction”, makes plain that the use of science fiction as a cloak or a disguise in order to more freely speak about subjects which were not generally brought up in polite society is a deliberate and an inherent feature of the genre:

“The channeling of man’s critical sense, via science fiction, from the currently inhospitable field of the present to a more secure area of the distant future or past, is due in part to the increasing sensitivity of Americans to criticism of any kind. Al Capp, the cartoonist, noted this in his article in Life (March 31, 1952) and concluded that his comic strip, Lil’ Abner, would have to eliminate social satire entirely and concentrate upon “trivialities” and/or the matrimonial difficulties of his hero.

In regard to this sensitivity, perhaps we feel our way of life is engaged in some ceaseless competition, or is continually on trial before the eyes of an indifferent or hostile world. Thus, if the science-fiction Gulliver mentions the year 2186, or better still 3547, this sensitivity is correspondingly dulled. In other words, there is an inverse ratio to our dislike of criticism; the farther away in time and space the criticism seems to lodge, the less the irritation or concern.”

In the 1950’s science fiction had become so caught up in moralizing and philosophizing about society, that in 1951, editor Raymond J. Healy felt compelled to publish a collection of science fiction tales, New Tales of Time and Space, that were deliberately more positive and light-hearted than the majority of what had become the “message” fiction of the day. In the introduction to the book, magazine editor Anthony Boucher noted about the stories in the collection: “For all their positiveness you’ll find many of these stories markedly critical of the present state of man’s world – many of the authors markedly unconvinced that contemporary American culture is the ultimate and unchangeable Way of Life.”

The criticism of society as a whole from science fiction writers was so obvious that in 1953 conservative editor, Thomas. P. McDonnel, wrote an article for Catholic World Magazine on “The Cult of Science Fiction”. In that essay, he complains that “liberals in general are now using science fiction as a kind of intellectual underground communication system or as a semi-secret club lecture platform.”

And you thought that loud and disruptive movement was a new thing.

This is actually only about half of the article that I wrote. You can read the entire thing and more in the latest issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY. Download issue # 2 for FREE right here, or click on the image below!

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Hard Copy now available

Don’t like e-books? Miss the tactile experience you get with actual, physical, printed-on-paper type books?

Well, my latest book TIME LIKE BROKEN GLASS is now available from my publisher, Rage Machine Books in a print version! You can order a copy and get it at a 30% discount for a limited time!

Just follow THIS LINK or click on the book cover below:

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Rogue One’s Diego Luna


I saw ROGUE ONE last night for the second time. I saw it earlier in the week as well. It really is an amazing film and is probably the best of the series after the first one. The writing is so good and the performances are superb.

Among the cast is Diego Luna, a Mexican actor who plays Cassian Andor, a Rebel Alliance Captain.

As I watched I realized that Luna would be perfect casting for a character of mine, Poet from my Ka Sirtago series.


Poet is companion to Sirtago, Ka (or prince) of the southern kingdom of Trigassa. Sirtago is a giant of a man, hideously scarred, constantly angry, brawling, drinking and whoring. Poet is his lifelong companion, his best friend who keeps him out of trouble or, if he can’t, at least keeps Sirtago pointed in the right direction.

The Sirtago stories are unabashedly sword and sorcery in the tradition of Robert E. Howard and  Fritz Leiber.

And in my personal fantasy, a Hollywood film made from the stories would star Diego Luna as Poet.

My Ka Sirtago stories are available on Amazon.com

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Time Like Broken Glass

Well, it’s getting close to Christmas, and what better gift to give others (or yourself) then a book! Specifically, my book.

Time Like Broken Glass is a fantasy novel about magic and time travel and it is available at Amazon.com. And right now it’s only $2.99 in a Kindle edition!

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Not sure if you should get it? Well, here, let me help you decide. Here are the first three chapters.



Chapter One

Nalat looked down at the broken pieces of the mirror he’d been carrying with utter dismay. His expression was reflected back to him a thousand times in the shattered pieces. The once beautiful mirror that his brother Balis had fashioned and told him to mount on the signal tower now lay in several pieces, each piece reflecting him and his surroundings in a slightly different way.

Nalat let out a disgusted sigh. His thousand tiny counterparts did the same. Each at a slightly different angle, as if there were a thousand different Nalats, each with a different provenance. If only one of those thousand Nalats reflected in the shards had not been so clumsy as to drop the signal mirror before installing it in the tower.

Nalat bent down and picked up one of the larger pieces. The surface was smooth and slightly curved. When the mirror was whole it formed a large, shallow bowl an arm length across so that it could better direct the reflected light of the sun. The edges were jagged and sharp and Nalat touched them gingerly.

He watched himself carefully handling the broken piece of mirror. Behind his reflection he could see the tower that he had been about to climb. He could also see the loose end of the leather strap that he had not tied tight enough. That loose strap had allowed the mirror to slip out of its holding cradle on his back.

Nalat turned with the larger shard, not sure what to do with it, when suddenly he saw the figure of a man reflected in it.

Startled, Nalat dropped the shard. It shattered on the rock as he whirled about.

The man stood several paces away. He was tall and he carried a large leather pack and a long walking staff. He wore simple traveler’s clothes and a pair of cloth boots. His hair was long and white, but his thin face was not lined with age. Merely by looking Nalat could not tell if the man were old or young.

The man favored him with a friendly smile. “It’s a shame that such a well-crafted object should come to such a bad end.” He said in a soft voice.

Nalat stared at the man for a brief moment. How had he gotten there? He had not heard him approach. Had he been so preoccupied by the broken mirror that he had failed to hear him? “Who are you?” Nalat asked.

The man’s smile grew broader and he pulled his pack off of his back. “Are they difficult to make?” he asked as he opened his pack’s flaps.

Nalat nodded, still wary of the stranger. “They are. My brother Balis makes them. He is a well respected craftsman and a mirror like this takes many days to perfect and polish.”

The man nodded. “So having it shatter to pieces represents quite a loss of time and money, does it not?”

Nalat nodded again, still wary. The man opened his pack and drew out a rope. The rope was made from many materials, each a different color and composition. It was not a simple length of rope, but tied end to end to form a loop. Nalat could see that it had neither beginning nor end.

The man stood and snapped the rope as if it were a whip. Nalat was startled to see it suddenly form a hoop. The man grasped one edge of the hoop and the rope somehow maintained a perfect circle on its own.

“Let’s see what we can do for you, my friend,” the man said and he reached into the empty space bounded by the circle of rope.

Nalat blinked his eyes and shook his head. He could not possibly be seeing what he thought he was seeing. To him it looked as if the man’s arm disappeared as it went through the hoop of rope.

The man had a look of intense concentration on his features. He pushed his arm even further into the hoop and even more of his arm disappeared.

Suddenly his arm jerked and he withdrew it again from the hoop, but his hand was no longer empty. It held the edge of an object. Slowly the man pulled the object out through the hoop.

Nalat stared in utter amazement as a mirror, exactly the same dimensions as the one he’d just dropped and shattered, was withdrawn from the empty circle.

As the man withdrew the mirror completely he snapped his other wrist and the stiff hoop of rope suddenly went limp. In his other hand the man held up the mirror offering it to Nalat.

Nalat stared in complete awe at the thing. It was beautifully crafted. His brother could not make a more beautiful one. And it was the perfect size and shape for a signal mirror.

“Will this one do?” the man asked, a strange little smile on his face.

Nalat took the mirror. “Who are you?” he asked.

The tall man laughed. “My name is Agaron.” He said, stuffing the length of rope back into his pack.

Nalat looked from the man to the mirror. It was solid and real. He was not dreaming. “How did you…?”

The man laughed again. “Why don’t you place that mirror where it belongs and I will tell you while I follow you back to your home. I am a simple traveler and for the very small price of some food and drink, I will tell you great tales of my adventures.”

The fortress of Mund lay several miles inland from the mouth of the river Sern. It hugged the northern bank of the river and was surrounded by farmland. The cultivated fields extended eastwards right up to the northern woods.

The signal tower was situated at the foot of the Flee Hills. It was one of five signal towers surrounding the fortress. A sixth signal tower sat atop the citadel of the fortress itself. By rotating and tilting a concave mirror, flashes of sunlight were employed in coded patterns to send messages. The signal tower on the cliffs above the inlet could signal when ships arrived. The towers in the surrounding areas could signal the citadel, warning King Canidanex of the presence of invaders.

Not that there had been for many years, not since King Canidanex had united the tribes and brought peace to the region. Nalat had never known the days of fear and uncertainty that had gripped the land long ago, with tribes of wild men surrounding any village and town. Nalat had little interest in history. He had heard rumors that something had happened long ago, than some powerful warlords had held all of the land in their grip. He had heard stories that these warlords were mages who were able to summon the powers of air or of water or of metal or of fire.

Nalat did not believe such stories. They were the province of old wives who told their children frightful stories to make them go to sleep. The children would then lie beneath their covers shivering in fear all night.

Nalat was a rational man. He believed in rational things. He knew that one season followed another and that night followed day and that one did not produce mirrors from within a circle of rope.

Nevertheless, he had seen it happen. Or had he? Perhaps it was a trick, some slight of hand that the stranger, this Agaron, performed. Perhaps that was how he proposed to make his living within the walls of the city of Mund. Nalat did not care. He had a fine mirror – one that was just as good, if not better, than his brother Balis could make.

He did not

Nalat gingerly installed the new mirror into its cradle at the top of the northern signal tower. He worked slowly and carefully. He did not want another mirror to smash to pieces at his feet.

As he worked a wind swept up from the south and brought fragrant signals from the fields below. It was late summer and the wind was warm. Nalat relished the feel of it as it rippled through his clothes and his hair.

He finished fitting the mirror into the turret and lashed it securely into place. Then he climbed down the long ladder to the ground where Agaron was waiting patiently for him.

They followed a well-trodden path. Fields of wheat, corn, barley and other crops were growing magnificently on either side of them as they approached the stout timbers that made up the walls of the fortress of Mund.

The path led to a door at the base of the fortress wall. Nalat approached and grasped an iron rod that hung from a leather strap. He struck a small circle of steel that hung from a similar strap. It made a loud tone that rang out and hung in the air long after Nalat’s single strike.

A small hatch opened above the door and a weathered face peeked out. The face scowled at the stranger, but brightened when it saw Nalat. “What, ho, my friend?” the face croaked. “Who have you brought back home with you, young Nalat?”

“Good day, Master Woollet,” Nalat shouted up to the face. He indicated his companion. “This is Agaron. He is a traveler who seeks the hospitality of Mund.”

Master Woollet nodded sagely. “Then I shall let him pass, so long as he brings only peace with him inside these walls.”

Master Woollet’s weathered face disappeared from the hatch and the door began to rise uncovering the entrance. Nalat and Agaron stepped through into the fortress itself.

Mund was a bustling, thriving and noisy community. Dwellings were packed close together. Most were simple buildings of two stories, but some were taller, wider and more impressive. Most impressive of all was the central citadel whose four towers dwarfed everything around it.

Nalat led the way through crowded and narrow streets of hard packed dirt. They walked the North Fork past children playing noisy games until it joined Market Road. There they passed through booths where sellers eagerly hawked their goods to passers by, past small huddles of seemingly disinterested elders. They made many twists and turns through narrow lanes packed close with houses built with wattle and daub and roofs made of thatch.

They stopped at a small, plain dwelling with a tiny fenced yard where a handful of chickens scratched and clucked. Two small children, a boy and a girl, dirty, ragged, with dark mops of hair were playing a hopping game. They stopped when they caught sight of Nalat. They rushed at him eagerly with wide, toothy grins on their little faces. “Uncle Nalat! Uncle Nalat!” they cried in delight.

Nalat laughed and returned their hugs. “And how are my little yard mice today, eh?” Nalat teased.

The children stepped back from their uncle and smiled wide, open smiles at the stranger who accompanied him. “Children, this is Agaron.”

The children said polite hello’s. Agaron returned their smiles with one of his own and Nalat led him into the front door of the dwelling. The children followed the two adults in, but stayed at a respectful distance from the stranger.

“Did you get that mirror installed?” a gruff voice asked as soon as they stepped through the door. As Nalat’s eyes adjusted to the relative gloom he could see his brother Balis’ stocky form coming in from the rear door. His dark, curly hair and beard outlined a rough looking face that was tanned and leathery.

Balis was several years older than Nalat, and his hair showed streaks of gray and his shoulders were hunched from stooping over his work all day.

Nalat hesitated for the briefest minute before answering. “Yes,”

Balis narrowed his eyes suspiciously at his younger brother. “What happened?”

Nalat pursed his lips and looked back at Agaron, then returned his eyes to his brother’s searching stare. “The mirror broke,” Nalat admitted.

Balis’ face pinched with a disgusted look. “How many times have I told you to be more careful!”

“But Agaron gave me a new one,” Nalat protested, indicating the stranger standing behind him. “A better one. I was careful with that one. I fit it onto the cradle and all was well.”

Balis shifted his suspicious gaze to Agaron. “Are you a mirror maker?” he asked.

Agaron smiled. “I am many things,” he said. “I am a traveler who has many skills as well as much to teach and many stories to tell. For a drink and a meal, I would be quite willing to…”

“I cannot pay you for the gift of a mirror,” Balis interrupted. “You may have the hospitality of our house and the pick of any of the mirrors in my shop.”

Agaron shook his head. “The mirror was a trifling matter. It cost me nothing. But I will accept your hospitality with much gratefulness.”

Balis nodded. “Sit, please,” he said, indicating the crude table and chairs. “Make yourself comfortable. My wife will be back from the market momentarily. I must speak with my brother.”

Balis favoured Nalat with a significant look and then turned and walked into his workshop. Nalat dutifully followed.

Balis’ work area was a small room that opened up into a courtyard that was covered by a canopy. The courtyard was full of mirrors in various stages of completion.

“How could you have been so careless?” Balis rounded on Nalat once they were under the canopy.

“It was an accident,” Nalat protested. “It slipped from my back just as I was beginning to climb the tower.”

Balis thinned his lips into a grim expression but could say no more. Balis had tied the mirror to Nalat’s back himself. Instead he let out a sigh of frustration, something that he seemed to be doing more and more lately. “Who is this traveler you brought home? Where is he from?”

Nalat shook his head, grateful for the change of subject. “I don’t know. He didn’t say.”

“And you say he had a mirror?”

Nalat scowled, uncertain how to relate what had happened to his brother. He shook his head. “He didn’t seem to have one at first, but then he did something with a rope and…”

Before he could finish, Nalat was interrupted by Balis’ children as they ran into the courtyard, squealing with laughter. “Father!” they called.

Balis stepped forward and stopped them both in mid flight. He knelt down to them. “Children, you know better than to come running into my workshop. How many times have I told you that mirrors are delicate things?”

The children were immediately silenced by the rebuke. Kalim, the boy, spoke to his father gravely. “We’re sorry father. We wanted to show you our new toys.”

“New toys?”

Kalim held up an object that looked to be made of a shiny metal. Balis took it and turned it around in his hands. Nalat leaned closer to see. It looked like a representation of a bird, but its lines were straight and its wings stuck out at unnatural angles. It had many eyes along its length and colored markings as well as what looked like writing. Below, instead of feet, the strange bird sported wheels.

“Look at mine, father, look at mine!” Kalim’s sister, Sisim, said, as she held up a doll.

Balis stared at the doll. It was fashioned to look like a woman with golden hair and pale skin. Her clothes were brightly colored and quite immodest.

Balis stared in consternation at the brand new toys. “Where did you get these?” Balis asked.

“Agaron gave them to us!” Kalim exclaimed.

“He did a funny trick with his rope!” Sisim put in.

Nalat felt as if cold water were being poured down his back. He had tried to convince himself that he had only imagined that Agaron had made the mirror come from within his hoop of rope. Had he done the same thing? Magically pulled these fine items from seemingly thin air?

Balis stood up and shoo’d the children back through the house. Nalat’s feet felt leaden and his head felt light as he followed his brother back into the kitchen. The children ran screaming into the front yard with their new toys. Agaron smiled as they passed him then turned his gaze to Balis. “There are fine craftsmen in the east,” he said. “They make many strange and wondrous objects. I hope you do not mind that I made a gift of them to your children.”

Agaron smiled at Balis and something in his gaze seemed to soften Balis’ normal attitude of gruff suspicion. He shrugged. “Thank you,” he said. “There are few enough fine things in Mund.”

Agaron’s smile widened. “That will not always be so. I can see a time when this modest fortress will be a great city and will make many fine things.”

Balis grunted at Agaron’s words but before he could say anything in reply, Hela returned from her sojourn to the market.

Hela was a beautiful, tiny woman with dark hair that fell about her face in soft curls. She bundled a pack full of groceries through the front door and dropped them onto the table. She then allowed herself to drop into a chair. Balis came and stood before her and she smiled up at him with a lovely, radiant smile that could melt the heart of any man who looked at it. Even Balis, as gruff and taciturn as he usually was, became a grinning, prattling fool under her spell. Balis loved her more than life itself and if it wasn’t for the great love that he had for his brother Nalat would be consumed with jealousy over his good fortune in marrying one so lovely.

“Nalat has brought a visitor,” Balis said. “This is Agaron,” he said, indicating the tall newcomer. “He is a man full of surprises.”

Agaron bowed low before Hela and favoured her with a wide smile. Hela returned the smile, stood and curtsied. “The blessings of our house are yours to share,” she said. “From whence do you come?”

Agaron’s smile widened. “I come from many places, milady, and I have done many things. In exchange for your hospitality I will tell you many tales of the wondrous lands that I have seen.”

Hela smiled but she sat again and rubbed her side, trying to hide a look of consternation. Balis knelt down beside her, a look of grave concern in his eyes.

“Are you unwell, milady?” Agaron asked.

“She has pains,” Balis answered, tersely.

Hela smiled at Agaron, though clearly still in pain. “Do not concern yourself with my womanly weakness,” she said. “I grow weary sometimes, that is all. You are welcome to share our meal with us, though I hope that what meagre treasures I have gathered at market will fill all our bellies.” Hela indicated the armful of groceries she had deposited on the table. There were a few vegetables – mostly potatoes – some mushrooms and a squash. Nalat knew that it was as much as she could carry and as much as they could afford.

Agaron shook his head. “I am grateful for any hospitality. I am certain that there will be enough.”

Balis helped Hela to her feet. “You are pale,” he said. “Come and lie down.”

Hela nodded weakly and allowed herself to be led to her bed. Nalat watched them go, his brother tenderly guiding her. He felt an uneasy worry about his sister-in-law. She had been unwell for a long time and the pain was coming more frequently now. She would become alarmingly pale and grow light headed.

Nalat heaved a sigh and turned back to his guest. He saw him tucking his rope back into his pack. He was about to ask about the rope when he looked at the table.

Nalat’s jaw dropped open as he saw the bounty that was spread out there. The table was overloaded with potatoes, carrots, green beans, apples, pears and other items that he could not identify. There was a joint of mutton and two fat geese already plucked and gutted.

Nalat stared in amazement, unable to utter a word. Agaron smiled at Nalat’s expression.

“How did…?” Nalat managed.

Agaron shrugged. “Your brother’s wife is a most resourceful woman.” He said, standing up. “Shall we begin preparing the meal?”

Agaron proved to be as able at cooking as he was at producing surprises from the air. Together he and Nalat made a feast fit for kings and they all ate heartily. Even the children ate until their bellies were full and did not complain about a single item on their plates.

Only Hela ate little and although she seemed gay and was full of praise for the two cooks, Nalat could see that she was wan and that her laughter hid the pain deep inside of her.

After the meal and some wine that seemed to be produced from nowhere, Agaron fulfilled his promise of tales of great adventures. He spun tales of the taking of cities by great armies led by heroic warriors. He told his spellbound audience about life and loves in lands far away. He spoke of despotic rulers and the brave warriors who defied them.

He told stories of love and romance and adventure and the children protested at being taken off to their beds, despite their heads nodding with sleep.

Nalat’s belly was full with food and his head, made light by the wine, was full of great tales. He felt a happy glow settle over him.

He was still thus satisfied when he went out of his brother’s house to relieve himself in the garden.

The night was still and quiet. The moon shone full above reflecting itself in the stream that he made. In the distance he could hear a dog bark and out of the corner of his eye he saw a figure walking through the streets. He turned his head and was startled to recognize Agaron walking the deserted streets towards the town.

Nalat finished and tucked himself back into his trousers. He walked towards the front of the house. He could see the figure in the pale moonlight walking in the direction of the market, an empty pack slung over his shoulders. He was certain that it was Agaron but when he looked back through the open front door of his brother’s house he could see Agaron speaking animatedly, his hands flickering like birds in the orange glow of the hearth light.

Nalat looked back down the street. The figure was gone. The moonlight illuminated the streets deserted for the night and the rough buildings where the citizens slept soundly.

He shook his head. Perhaps he had imagined seeing the figure, or he had caught sight of one of the night guards and his fevered imagination had turned the guard’s armor and cloak into Agaron’s simple robe.

It mattered not. He returned back into the house, sitting down and becoming engrossed in the new tale that Agaron was spinning.

Somewhere though, deep inside of Nalat, an uneasiness began to grow.


Chapter Two

Barliman peered out into the darkness. He could see nothing save for the light of a few distant signal fires dotting the blackness, but he could hear the faint approach of the enemy. The sound they made was rhythmic and steady and it grew louder with each passing minute.

Tramp tramp. Tramp tramp.

It was as regular as music, or like the ticking of a clock, but it did not soothe Barliman’s nerves. He gripped his pike harder, his sweat-soaked palms trying to find a secure purchase on the long wooden weapon.

He stood in a long line of King’s soldiers, each as frightened as the other, each trying to project a strength and a courage that none felt. Each aware that the steady rhythmic approach of their enemy meant certain death for most of them.

“Steady up, boys!” the Master-at-arms called out. “Here them bastards come!”

Now Barliman could see shapes in the darkness and he suppressed the shudder that wanted to break out and play havoc with his body. They were squat and ugly as they moved in supernaturally regular lockstep with each other, as if there were only one creature and the myriad others were merely a reflection of the one. Tramp tramp. Tramp tramp.

But the army of metal men was no reflection. This army was palpable and very deadly.

Barliman peered through the darkness at the approaching figures. He had expected their bodies to be shiny like armor, but the metal men’s bodies were black like the metal of the cannons that stood at the ready. Barliman shuddered. How could they defeat these creatures when there was nothing inside to kill?

Barliman heard the shouted cry of the gunner master and the cannons exploded. A great pall of smoke hid the approaching metal men from sight but not before Barliman got a brief glimpse of a score of the enemy being knocked down by the cannon ball, dashed from the field as easily as playing pieces could be dashed from a board.

Hope fluttered briefly in Barliman’s heart. He heard the gunner master’s voice shout out again and a second cannon exploded in noise, fire and smoke. This time there was no sound of the metal men being scattered by the cannon ball, and when the smoke cleared Barliman stared in utter horror at the sight of the newly fired cannon ball hovering in mid air over the still advancing troops of metal men.

The metal mage, unseen and directing his forces from a position of safety, would not be stopped by mere cannon fire. Anything that was metal could be brought under his control.

Barliman felt hope crumple and fall inside of him as he gripped his pike and watched the unrelenting advance of the enemy,

“Glory or death, boys,” he heard the Master of Arms shout. “Glory or death!” And he gave the signal and six hundred flesh and blood soldiers roared as one as they advanced towards their certain doom.

Barliman woke, bathed in sweat, the bedclothes half tangled around his legs, half on the floor. He kicked them loose and sat up, his head bowed, resting in his hands. The mage wars had been over for ten years but the nightmares persisted. The battle he’d dreamed about was the most frightening and most devastating of the whole campaign.

Barliman shuddered and tried to put the memory away. They lost many a man that night and Barliman had lost many a good friend.

Early dawn sunlight streamed into his small room from a high window. He looked up and could see one of the towers of the great cathedral jutting up into the sky. The sounds of the city waking from slumber filtered in through the window as well.

A bowl of water sat on a small table near his bed. The water was lukewarm. He dipped his hands in and splashed his face, his head and the back of his neck.

Then he remembered the little whore that had been with him last night. “The Goddess’s Tits,” he breathed and scrambled to find his coin pouch.

It lay abandoned and empty by the door. “That bitch!” Barliman shouted as he stared into the now empty folds of his once full coin pouch. He heaved it back to the floor where it fell with a slap. He fell back upon the bed and cursed himself for a fool.

The little whore had been ginger-haired, comely and reasonably priced. He’d thought himself fabulously lucky last evening, and indeed, he was. The slut had been magnificent wild in his little bed and he’d tumped her with abandon before falling asleep, spent and exhausted. Obviously the whore had not been as exhausted by the night’s exertions as Barliman had been. She still had the cunning to steal his last few coins.

He cursed the whore and cursed himself for being such a fool. After an hour of cursing he roused himself and dressed. He had a little bit of bread and cheese left over from yesterday and he ate hastily.

He knew what he had to do, had known for a while that this would be his inevitable choice ever since he arrived in the city.

Barliman had entered Munden three days ago only to find that the Royal Guard had little use for an old soldier, even a veteran of the metal campaigns. He had approached the city militia and they had been anxious to have him, but they did not pay their members, who, when they were not learning to march and carry pikes, made their livings as bakers and coopers and blacksmiths.

Barliman had no trade, no skills to speak of except for soldiering. He’d exhausted most of his coin seeing the sights and sampling the wares that Munden had to offer. The little whore had stolen what little he had left after three days in the city.

His lodgings were in Westgate, a crowded neighborhood on the North Bank of the Great River that divided the city in two. He climbed the tiny stairs, careful to avoid Mistress Guich, who was as unpleasant as she was uncomely and had a voice like a screech owl.

Barliman stood in front of the small lodging house and pulled on his boots. Then he straightened and stared up at the soot-blackened towers of the cathedral opposite him, silhouetted starkly against an ash-colored sky. He knew he should go in and offer a prayer for good fortune to the Goddess, but he was still peeved at her for the bit of sour luck she had thrown his way.

He had tunic and doublet, pantaloons and boots, but no hat and no overcoat. He wore his sword, which he had kept in fighting shape, though the scabbard was scratched and rough looking. He’d mended his clothes where they frayed or snagged, but his skill with a needle was less than exact and he looked a bit like a raggedy scarecrow. He was tall and imposing with dark hair cropped close to his scalp and pale eyes.

There was a time when he had been fighting trim and looked it. Today he was still in fighting form but did not look it at first glance. His predilection for ale had caused his belly to extend like a small cooking pot. Lack of regular meals had made the rest of him thin, but his muscles were still wiry and strong and he could still wield a blade well enough.

He moved down narrow cobbled streets until he came to the docks proper. Here all manner of men and some women crowded the wide way between dockside and city. Barliman saw sailors of every ilk as well as rich merchants and the sullen labourers who unloaded goods from the ships to their carts.

The ships were magnificent. Barliman had always been fascinated with the great dark wooden boats with their tall masts and their complicated interlay of rigging. He stood leaning against the wall of a building that housed shipping offices and watched the boats being loaded, unloaded, or anchoring or getting under weigh.

There were others such as he, large men, mostly. Some had signs that held short entreaties for employment. Others had parchments that outlined their careers and made plain the ways in which they could be useful. Barliman cursed himself for not having prepared himself for this inevitable day. With some of his coin he could have hired a clerk to write down his particulars and word it prettily. He cursed the little whore again for snatching away his means of doing so, but he had to admit to himself that it was more likely that he would have spent the coin on drink.

As it was he could only stand like a great, imposing figure and hope that someone would employ him.

By mid afternoon no one had given him a second glance. A whore or two tried to solicit his trade but he had growled at them and told them to be off. He scolded them for being painted harpies and thieves and drew their ire, though it mounted to little more than a rude gesture of the thumbs and some black looks.

Desperate now and feeling keenly the lack of food in his belly and drink to warm his bones, he left his station by the wall and moved boldly among the wealthy men, offering his services to all who looked like they might need a guard. Then he moved on to the vessels themselves. He had never sailed on a ship, but thought that it would not be greatly different from soldiering anywhere else.

“Oh?” said one captain, a great-bellied man dressed in finery with a three-cornered hat and a great wig. “You seek to become a sailor, do you?” the man had sneered at him.

“I seek employment wherever it is needed, sir” Barliman replied in his most defferential manner.

The captain grasped his black mustache between thumb and forefinger and rolled it ‘round, an amused cast in his eye. “Suppose I was to order you to brace the mains’l? What would you do, eh?”

Barliman stared at the captain. “I don’t know, sir,” he admitted ruefully.

The captain smiled a nasty little smile. “Suppose I was to order you to to set the flying jib. Where would you go, eh?”

Barliman said nothing.

“Where is the mizzen, eh? The main topgallant?”

Barliman said nothing but burned with anger at this shameful display of his own ignorance.

The captain shook his head. “I need experienced sailors. I need good topmen who can climb the ratlines like monkeys, not some ignorant lout who can’t even manage to swab the deck effectively. What good would it do me to hire you, eh?”

Barliman fixed the portly captain with a steely glare. “I know which end of a sword to hold,” he growled. “I know which end of it can carve open the bellies of great, fat, stuffed blouses like the one standing before me.”

The captain’s eyes widened with shock at Barliman’s naked insult. “Goddess damn you, sir!” the captain spat. “Goddess damn you for an insolent bastard!”

Barliman choked back any further insult and the urge to free his blade and to run the arrogant wretch through. Instead he turned away.

He had walked less then three paces when Barliman heard a crack from overhead like a peal of thunder. Instinctively he looked up and saw a great iron cannon swinging overhead. It was bound with hemp and was hanging from a wooden spar. There was a second crack and the cannon jerked downward.

The crowd below had, as one, brought their attention to the swinging spectacle. The danger to those below the cannon soon became apparent and the mob erupted into a cacaphony of alarmed shouts and shrieks.

“The spar’s gonna crack!” an old seaman yelled unneccessarily. The moment the words were out of his mouth the wooden crossbeam gave a final loud protest and snapped under the weight of the great gun. The gun and the spar fell directly onto the dock. The crowd had run from this impending disaster and the cannon merely smacked onto the cobbled quay, breaking all the stones beneath its massive weight. The end of the spar hit the ground near the cannon and then toppled over. The great timber, like a felled tree, smashed into the crowd, pinning several souls who were not fast enough to get away.

Barliman had watched the whole scene rooted to the spot in alarm and in fascination. Now, seeing the men trapped beneath the weight of the great timber, he sprang into action. He dashed for the furthest end, wrapped his arms around the great spar and lifted with all his might.

The beam was devilish heavy and Barliman could only manage to lift it a small ways off the ground. He was soon joined by others hands that reached in. One by one they pulled the poor trapped souls away, dragging them from under the timber’s weight.

When all had been cleared from under Barliman heard a voice groan in protest. As one, the hands that had joined in to lift the great oak failed and the timber crashed back onto the dock, narrowly missing crushing Barliman’s foot.

Barliman turned to see the fate of those that the spar had pinned. One was dead outright, a young sailor of tender years. The other was an older sailor, clearly badly injured. Barliman was no physician, but had seen enough battle wounds to lay money that the fellow would not make it through the night.

The third victim was sitting on the dock, held up by his companions, his legs stretched out in front of him. One buckled shoe was askew and his hose and pantaloons were torn and dirty.

“Give me air!” the man cursed and his companions moved aside and Barliman saw that it was the fat-bellied captain whom he had insulted mere minutes before.

There were men crowding around Barliman now, exhorting his strength and courage and praising his quick wit. Barliman did not hear their words, only saw the proud and nasty captain sitting on the ground, his wig askew and his pride as crushed as the other two unfortunate sailors.

The captain mopped his brow with a silk handkerchief and looked up directly at Barliman. When their eyes met, a look of red-faced anger took his features. “Goddess damn you, sir!” the captain bellowed. “Have you come to gloat at me?”

The crowd grew silent a moment. “I just saved your life,” Barliman said, quietly, but his voice carried over the sudden silence of the crowd.

“I suppose you expect a reward for doing so, eh?” the captain said. His companions tried to calm him down as they hoisted him up, but he shook them off. “You’ll get no such reward from me, sir! I piss on you sir! Good day!” and he turned and stalked away, leaving one shoe behind for another to pick up and carry it behind him.

Barliman stood watching the fat captain’s retreat, then he sighed and resolved to return to his lodgings, his belly empty, his feet weary, and his spirits crushed as if they had been under the great spar when it fell.

“I saw what you did,” a voice said from behind him. Barliman turned to see a young man, dressed in finery – a rich shirt and a coat with gold brocade – his hair long and golden as summer wheat and his delicate features smooth and unblemished. His eyes were of the most earnest pale blue and he regarded Barliman boldly and directly as few men had ever done.

Barliman scowled at this young man, then shrugged. “Whatever I did, it profited me none today.”

“True,” the young man agreed. “But few who had been scorned so openly by one would lift a finger to help that same one in their time of crisis, yet you lifted the timber to save the very man who had publicly insulted you only moments before.”

Barliman could have pointed out that he did not know that it was the fat captain who was trapped under the spar. If he had known, perhaps he would not have been so eager to help. But some instinct told him to keep his council and wait. He merely shrugged.

The young man continued to regard Barliman with his earnest expression. “For such virtue to go unrewarded, indeed for it to be flouted, thrown back into your face, is an injustice that I cannot stand.” The young man stood straight. He was still a foot shorter than Barliman, yet Barliman could not help feeling that he was standing before a bigger man. The young man removed a leather glove and offered his hand to Barliman. “Captain James Wellburton, at your service, sir.”

Barliman shook the offered hand. “Thomas Barliman,” he said, then cocked his head. “You look a trifle young to be a sea captain.”

The young man smiled at him then, a trace of sheepishness in his expression. “I confess my inexperience, but the Goddess has favoured me with a large fortune and with it I purchased a boat and its captaincy. We have only just arrived from the northern coast and I am looking for a personal guard. I flatter myself to think that I have found that man. What say you?”

Barliman regarded the young man for a moment, then he smiled. “Your servant, sir.” He said, giving an imitation of the formal bows he had seen Mundeners use when conducting business.

Captain Wellburton gave Barliman a pleased smile as an older man with a pinched, sour expression approached. “The passengers are ready to disembark, Sir,” he said.

“Thank you, Brull,” Wellburton said. “This is Thomas Barliman. He’ll be joining us. Thomas, this is Brull, my aide-de-camp.”

Barliman nodded. Brull looked him up and down, seemingly little impressed with what he saw. “We’ll be puttin’ him on the payroll, I take it?”

“Of course,” Wellburton said, still smiling.

Brull nodded. “What do I put him down as? Local expert? Bodyguard?”

Wellburton waved his hand airily “Either of those will do.”

Brull nodded, jotting down a note in a manifest he carried with him and then turned away.

Wellburton smiled. “Come. Let me show you the Shining Pearl.”

Wellburton led Barliman through the crowds of sailors, dockworkers, passengers and prostitutes, past crates and barrels that were freshly unloaded from ships. As they walked Barliman heard voices speaking in languages that he did not understand but which sounded exotic in his ears. He smelled spices and perfumes that overwhelmed him. He saw animals in cages that were unlike anything that he had ever seen.

Finally they came to the Pearl. It was a magnificent ship. Three masts and a row of cannon ports spoke of a ship that would be swift in pursuit and deadly in a fight. “Has it been in many battles?” Barliman asked.

“Goodness, no,” Wellburton answered. “We’ve never had to fire a single cannon in all the time I’ve owned her. We’re not a warship. We’re a ship of exploration, though we are capable of defending ourselves should the need arise.”

As they approached the gangplank Barliman saw three figures descending slowly. They were tall and wild-haired and dressed in furs and large, showy jewelry. They regarded the world with dark expressions and Barliman could sense a menace about them. He stopped short, his chest tightening. “Mages,” he breathed.

Wellburton stopped and regarded Barliman. “Fire mages,” he confirmed. “From the North coast. They have come to Mund for the parlay.”

“Parlay?” Barliman asked.

“Of course,” Wellburton answered. “Do you not know of the Parlay?”

Barliman shook his head but did not take his eyes off the fire mages as they passed. The mages nodded courteously to Captain Wellburton but did not spare Barliman the slightest glance. Barliman disliked mages for the most part. He disliked their haughty airs and their secretiveness.

“There are fewer of them every year,” Captain Wellburton said as he ascended the gangplank towards the deck of the Shining Pearl. As he came aboard a bosun hastily jumped off of a stool and fumbled out a small pipe with which he tried to pipe the Captain aboard. “That’s enough of that nonesense,” Wllburton said to the bosun, absently.

The bosun was a younger man and he gave the captain a sloppy salute, merely pressing his knuckle to his forehead. “Beggin’ your pardon, Sir,” he managed. “I wasn’t expectin’ yer to come back so soon.”

“That’s allright, that’s allright,” Wellburton said, then he turned to Barliman. “Well, sir. What do you think of her?”

Barliman nodded. “She’s a fine ship, Captain.” He said, though in truth he was no judge. He had not been on many ships and most of his time aboard had been spent in cramped quarters belowdecks.

Wellburton seemed pleased, however and clapped Barliman on the shoulder. “I’m glad you think so,” he said. “Come to my cabin. I wish you to meet some friends.”

Wellburton led the way aft to the captain’s quarters. The quarters were spacious as ship’s quarters go. It was certainly the most luxurious accommodation that this boat had to offer, but Barliman had to duck his head to avoid braining himself on the low beams.

There was a small table made up with fruit, cheese, meats and a bottle of port. As soon as he entered the cabin Barliman could smell the aroma of cheese and spiced meats and his stomach growled alarmingly.

Wellburton either did not hear or ignored it. Seated at the small table was a small, portly man. He wore round glasses and his black hair was streaked with grey and pulled back into a single braid. He wore a fine doublet and a long coat and rich pantaloons. Barliman was suddenly self- conscious about his shabby attire. He was beginning to feel like some sort of scarecrow plucked from a cornfield and brought into this fine company for mere amusement.

Wellburton did not seem to notice or even care. “Thomas Barliman, I’d like you to meet Samuel Deschaines. Don’t get up, Sam,” this last he said as Mister Deschaines tried to rise and began to sway alarmingly. He abandoned the attempt and sat back in his chair.

Wellburton smiled indulgently, “Hasn’t got his sea legs yet, poor fellow,” Wellburton explained.

Samuel Deschaines smiled eagerly, nevertheless. “Very pleased to meet you, Mister Barliman,” he said, extending his hand. Barliman shook it firmly. As he did so his stomach growled again even louder than before. Deschaines gave Wellburton an uncertain look.

“My goodness, where are my manners?” Wellburton exclaimed. “Sit down, Thomas. Tuck in. You must be famished.”

Barliman sat at the small table and Deschaines handed him a plate. “The pork pie’s quite good,” he said.

Barliman nodded and with Wellburton’s and Deschaine’s help his plate was soon loaded and his glass filled. He tried to eat with a sense of reserve but it had been so long since he’d sat before such a spread that he ended up emptying his plate with great gusto and was immediately loaded up a second time.

“Mister Barliman was not aware of the Parlay,” Wellburton said to Deschaines as Barliman tucked into his second helping.

“Really?” Deschaine said, draining his glass of port and pouring another. “It is very exciting for those of us with a clinical interest in magery.”

Barliman’s brows knotted. “Clinical interest?” he asked.

“Indeed,” Deschaines said. “Many people do not consider the mage with any emotion except fear and hatred. The common belief is that the mages are mere demons or evil sprits. Indeed, I have heard it said from uneducated country folk that the mages sprang from the ground that was fertilized by the dung of demons.”

Barliman could not help but laugh at this notion and Deschaines joined in. “Yes, I found that amusing as well. But what is very interesting is what the mages themselves believe.”

“And what’s that?” Barliman asked.

“The mages believe that when the world was young, the Mother Goddess, shortly after giving birth to it, was cut into several hundred pieces and her body was scattered around the Earth. From each of these pieces sprang life – a different sort of life from us common people who were merely children of her loins. The mages believe that they sprang directly from the Goddess’ blood, so to speak. Some became fire mages, others became air or wood mages, and so on.”

Barliman raised an eyebrow. “Do you believe that?”

Deschaines smiled. “Of course not. I’m a naturalist. I know that mages have abilities that seem magical, but I am convinced that they are, in fact, based completely upon natural principals of our world.”

“Mages, natural?” Barliman said.

“I know, I know,” Deschaines shook his head, still smiling. “It flies in the face of most people’s long held prejudices against the mages, but I am convinced that all of their abilities can be traced back to some natural law, some condition of the world of which we have no knowledge as yet. I believe that the mages have an extra ability, some sort of extra organ or perhaps a different pathway in the brain, that allows them to tap into and manipulate this natural force, to allow them to do the things that, to us, appear magical and astonishing.”

Barliman, finally feeling a sense of fullness and satisfaction that he hadn’t felt in months, sat back and smiled at his hosts.

“Do you disagree, sir?” Captain Wellburton asked.

Barliman shook his head. “I would not presume,”

“But surely you have an opinion of Mister Deschaine’s theories?”

Barliman shrugged. “I don’t think it matters much how they get their powers. What matters is that they have ‘em. That makes them different and that difference makes ‘em dangerous. So what do we do about ‘em? We either fight ‘em, as I have done, or we learn to live with ‘em.”

Deschaines frowned at Barliman’s answer but Wellburton laughed and began applauding. “You are a politician, sir.”

“Goddess, I hope not,” Barliman laughed. He was feeling fine now. The food was excellent and the port had gone down nicely. He was feeling relaxed and slightly tipsy, but the sense of camaraderie was very strong. He was accepted into this company, treated as an equal, something he had never been before in his life. He had always been a soldier, something to be ordered about and no one had ever expressed an interest in his opinion.

The evening continued in this manner, with Deschaines holding forth on a number of subjects. Captain Wellburton kept the food and the wine flowing. Barliman listened to the erudite conversation, sometimes fascinated, sometimes bored and sometimes confused, but he thoroughly enjoyed himself.

As the evening drew on Barliman began to grow weary. He found himself nodding off at the sound of Deschaine’s voice.

As his mind drifted he began to hear a sound.

Tramp tramp. Tramp tramp.

Suddenly he was back in the dream. He was standing in formation, holding his pike and waiting for the approach of death.

Panic gripped him. Part of him seemed to be fearful of the approaching metal men and another part, the part that was aware that he was dreaming, felt a panic that he was sleeping while his hosts, indeed, his new employer, were speaking to him.

He tried to wake himself. He tried to open his eyes, but he could still see the line of metal men approaching in the dark.

“Mister Barliman?” Captain Wellburton’s voice broke Barliman from his dream. He snapped his eyes open and stared at the captain and Mister Deschaines, both standing now, regarding him with indulgent expressions. “I’m afraid our words have tired you out, Mister Barliman.”

Barliman stood. “I apologise, sir. It won’t happen again.”

“Nonesense, man,” Wellburton said. “You are merely human, after all, and are…”

But Barliman stopped listening to the captain. He heard another noise.

Tramp tramp. Tramp tramp.

“What’s that?” he asked, inturrupting the captain. “That sound…”

Tramp tramp. Tramp tramp.

Barliman whirled around. The sound was coming from outside of the cabin. He thought wildly that he was still dreaming and that the sound in his memory still haunted him even though he was seemingly awake.

Tramp tramp. Tramp tramp.

It was real. The sound was coming from outside the cabin. Barliman drew his sword and thrust open the door to the captain’s quarters. He burst out on deck, sword at the ready and his face a mask of rage.

There it was, standing before him on the deck. Its skin was the same black gunmetal Barliman had seen before. Its body was made of segments and each segment was made up of flat planes. There were no curves to its construction. Its face was obscured by the dark, but its eyes glowed with a faint, red glow.

Barliman stood for a moment, utterly frozen with fear as the metal man continued its relentless approach. Then Barliman let out a growl and his fear seemed to move aside. He raised his weapon to strike.

“Thomas, No!” Captain Wellburton shouted from behind. “Don’t strike!”

Barliman hesitated for a moment only, but it was enough to see that the metal man was carrying something. Its metallic fingers were curled around a long spar. Barliman blinked in confusion. It was the same spar that had broken off under the weight of the cannon, the one that the fat captain had been trapped under.

“I found this on the dock,” the metal man’s voice was grating and unearthly. Barliman stared in shock. He had never heard of a metal man who could actually speak. “It could prove usefull, Captain Wellburton.”

“Indeed, it could,” Wellburton said as he swept by Barliman and stood beside the metal man. “You are a constant surprise.”

“What the bloody hell?” Barliman breathed.

“Mister Barliman,” Wellburton said, putting his arm around the metal man. “I would like you to meet another member of our crew. Say hello to Tak.”


Chapter Three

The shrill whistle of the train echoed alarmingly around Brower Station as Richard Wood stepped onto the platform. It sounded wrong to his ears and it halted too abruptly. It must be electronic, he reasoned. The trains didn’t run on steam anymore, so why should the whistles? Richard shrugged inwardly but something about that made him feel an unaccountable sense of loss.

Or perhaps it was just being back in Munden after so many years away in the North.

Richard hefted his case and moved away from the train. As he moved across the platform he looked up at the massive glass and girder construction over his head. It was like half an eggshell balanced precariously on its side and the glass and steel caught glints of sunlight, sending beams downwards to swirl and chase each other over the concrete below.

He found a newsagents and bought a paper and a packet of biscuits. There was a soldier stationed outside the newsagent looking decidedly out of place in the urban setting. He eyed Richard warily and adjusted the strap on the Gupca slung menacingly over his shoulder. Richard ignored him, went about his business like nothing was happening. The soldier’s scrutinizing gaze soon slipped past Richard and fell on some other passenger.

Richard’s hand shook as he ran it through his close-cropped brown hair. He chided himself for his nervousness. What reason did he have to be nervous? He had nothing to hide and suspicious soldiers were a ubiquitous part of life in Mund.

Richard made his way out of the station. The sidewalk along the front entrance was busy, and the street was chock full of taxis in the traditional burgundy. Richard smiled inwardly to see them sitting in a row, their drivers hopefully eyeing the pedestrians. He remembered riding in the back of one with his father on several occasions as a boy. Their “outings” his father called them. The sight of the taxis filled Richard with a warm feeling of pleasant nostalgia.

He approached one, the car’s driver leaning against the bonnet, his arms crossed and a scowl on his lips. At Richard’s approach the cabbie pasted on a smile and stood up. “Take you somewhere, guv’na?” The cabbie asked.

“Yeah,” Richard said. “Downtown. Business District.”

“Righty Ho,” the cabbie nodded and opened up the boot of the taxi, then stood back expectantly. It took a moment for Richard to realize that the cabbie was not going to offer to lift his case for him. Richard pursed his lips and hefted it in himself. The cabbie slammed the boot shut and got in behind the wheel. Richard folded his lanky frame into the back seat and noted, ruefully, that the taxi’s starting fare was almost twice as high as the cost of an entire cab ride when he was a boy. The pleasant nostalgia began to fade.

The taxi lurched away from the curb and was immediately into traffic. The cabbie was a deft hand at the wheel and knew his way around the city. Richard hadn’t driven these streets in years and was soon hopelessly lost.

“Where was it exactly you wanted to go?” the cabbie asked.

Richard reached into his jacket’s inner pocket and pulled out the letter that had offered him the job. It was written on company stationary and the address was printed in blue along the bottom. “Eleven fifty One Citadel Road,” Richard read it aloud.

“Oh!” the cabbie declared. “That’s quite posh. Come into some money, ‘ave you?”

Richard let out a little laugh. “I hope so. I start work there tomorrow.”

“Cheers, mate. Good idea, checkin’ the place out beforehand, eh? I drop off there quite a bit. Silk suits. Expensive ties. Bit of a toffy crowd, know what I mean?”

“Mmm,” Richard made a non-committal noise. He was watching the city go by. So many new structures loomed over him. There was the giant ring, which he’d seen on television. It had cost several million to build and did little except break up the Munden skyline. He saw another building that looked like an exotic eastern teapot that someone had stretched tall.

“Still, not bad, eh?” the cabbie continued, seemingly unaffected by the sight of the metropolis as it whizzed by. “ Goin’ up in the world. Oh, Bloody Hell!”

This last was in reaction to a traffic snarl. Richard looked out the window and saw almost an entire block cordoned off with yellow tape and a cloudy plastic tarp. “What’s this?” Richard asked. “New building?”

“Nah,” the cabbie sneered. “It was gonna be. They dug the foundation and everyfing. Then they found the remains o’ some old building. Now they got archeologists crawlin’ around inside. Some sort o’ major historical find. Meanwhile the toff who’s gonna build goes tits up. Bankrupt. So now it’s just a pain in the arse, if you pardon my Erdaz.”

Richard stared out the window, interested now despite the cabbie’s disdain. He tried to see past the tape and the trap and the crawling traffic but could see nothing. “What did they find?” he asked.

The cabbie shrugged. “Dunno,” he said. “Bit o’ the old palace I reckon. This is where it used to be ‘afore they moved it ta Woolletsgate.”

Richard gazed around, recognizing a few of the older buildings. “This is Kingsgate, isn’t it?”

“Tha’s right,” the cabbie confirmed. “’ere we go.” He found a hole in the traffic and zoomed the taxi through, threading through the congestion like a thread through the eye of a needle. The sight of the historical dig was soon lost behind them and the business district loomed large in front.

The buildings were mostly new. Some of the facades retained the old, stately brick that used to make up the buildings in this area, but the towers behind the facades were tall steel and glass edifices to international commerce.

Richard saw the streets crowded with businessmen and women in fashionable suits, carrying briefcases and striding purposefully. There were one or two soldiers in evidence dotted amongst the crowd, but here they did not carry their shoulder slung Gupca’s. Here their hand weapons were discreetly tucked away in holsters.

The taxi pulled into the curb in front of Eleven Fifty One. The main offices of the Garon Corporation sat back from the street, giving it a heightened sense of importance. A large circular fountain decorated the expanse of concrete in front of the main stairs.

Richard exited the taxi, retrieved his bag and paid the fare, handing the driver a moderate tip. The driver thanked him perfunctorily and sped off.

The facade of the Garon Corporation Building was an impressive display of stonework and marble that harkened back to the previous century. The building itself rose high above the facade, a gleaming giant block of glass and steel.

Richard hefted his suitcase and headed up the broad stairs towards the entrance. He moved through sliding glass doors into the main reception area which was spacious and tastefully decorated. A long desk dominated the far end of the room. It sat under the Garon Corp. logo which was fashioned in steel and bolted to the wall, subtly lit to draw the visitor’s eye inexorably towards its form.

The receptionists behind the desk were all just as tastefully decorated. There were three women of differing ages, but each equally beautiful.

“I’m Richard Wood,” he told one of them, a raven-haired woman of middle years with an exotic, dark look. “I’ve just been hired.”

The woman smiled and consulted a notebook on the desktop. “Of course,” she said, smiling. “Welcome to Garon Corp.” She stood up and led him through a hallway into the main offices of the firm.

As neat and professional and serene as the reception area was, the inner offices were a chaotic jumble of people, chirping phones and paper. The receptionist handed Richard over to another woman named Rita who was in her forties, short, wide and with ginger hair. Rita acknowledged the receptionist with a thinly veiled contempt but took charge of Richard. Richard watched with a touch of sadness as the receptionist turned and walked back to her well ordered world of calm and welcome.

Rita gave him the barest of nods along with a glance that, although brief, somehow managed to take his measure and come up with an assessment that felt less than flattering. “’ello, Luv,” she managed to say before a voice shouted in her direction.

“Rita!” a younger man, harried and disheveled, bustled up to her. “We got a call from Mister Garon’s office. He needs a couple of toys.”

“Wot’s he need ‘em for?” Rita asked.

The young man shrugged. “Couple a’ kids he just met. A young boy and his sister, he said.”

Rita grimaced as if something were causing her physical pain, then she turned back to the young man. “Grab a Betsy Fashion doll and one of them new jet planes from promotions, there’s a good lad. And get me a tea!”

The young man nodded and dashed off to do as he was told. “It’s always like this around ‘ere,” Rita said. “So, you’re startin’ with us, eh? Product development?”

“Yes,” Richard confirmed.

“Those offices are on floor sixteen. I’ll take you up.” She led him through the chaotic inner office and down a short hallway that emptied into a smaller, nondescript lobby with a bank of elevators. “Service entrance,” she said. “For employees, actually. Once you get a key you can come in through the side door and use these lifts and avoid the reception area.”

Richard nodded and grunted an acknowledgement, though he secretly doubted that he would use this entrance. The idea of seeing the smiling receptionists every morning was just too entrancing.

“Rita!” another voice called from down the hall. “We need your signature!”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Rita muttered. “Just take the lift up to sixteen,” she said, waving in the direction of the elevators before scurrying off back to the inner office.

Richard touched the lighted button that would call an elevator. As he waited he examined his reflection in the metal door.

He looked gaunt and tired. His dark gray suit looked clean and somewhat pressed, but his tie sat slightly askew around his neck. He reached up to adjust it when the doors opened and he was standing in front of short man with wild hair, thick glasses and the scruffiest moss of a beard that he’d ever seen.

Richard hesitated. He did not want to share the elevator with this creature who looked as unhygienic as meat that had been left out of a refrigerator for too long.

“You must be Richard,” the man said, then held out his hand. “I’m Jeremy. Product Development. We’ll be working together.”

“Ahh,” Richard managed and shook the man’s hand. He finally stepped into the elevator with his bulky suitcase. He bumped Jeremy’s legs once before managing to slide it out of the way. “Sorry,” Richard muttered. “I’ve just arrived in the city, you see. I haven’t been to the hotel yet.”

“Right. Right,” Jeremy said and reached out and pressed the button for floor twelve.

Richard scowled. “Sixteen,” he said.

“Hmm?” Jeremy asked.

“Uh… Rita said it was floor sixteen… for Product Development.”

Jeremy shook his head. “That’s just the business office. Your offices are on floor twelve. That’s where we’re working on the Mages project.”

“Mages project?” Richard asked.

“Did no one tell you? Garon Corp. is developing a hot new property. Mages. It’s brilliant!”

Richard shook his head. “I’m sorry. No. I hadn’t heard…”

The elevator’s chime sounded and the door opened on floor twelve. Jeremy got out, but Richard hung back. Jeremy turned and regarded him expectantly. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Shouldn’t I go up to floor sixteen? I mean, just to let them know that I’m here and I’ve started work?”

“Nah,” Jeremy sneered. “Nothin’ up there but secretaries and paperwork. The real work’s here. Come on. I’ll show you. You can fill in paperwork later.”

Richard grimaced inwardly. He was rather looking forward to meeting more secretaries. Even if they weren’t as fabulous looking as the three downstairs, even if they were sweet old nannies who plied one with tea and biscuits, he thought it might be a more pleasant diversion than getting right down to work. Nevertheless, he stepped off the elevator, banging his case against the door as he did. The doors closed and the lift continued on. Richard gave the metal door one last, regretful look then plunged into the offices on floor twelve.

He passed through a short hallway containing offices, most of which were bare and unused. The hallway ended up in a larger space that would normally have held cubicles and a busy staff. Now it was mostly empty. There were a few old wooden desks scattered around the floor, their surfaces scuffed and stained from many years of use and abuse. There was a coffee machine in the corner beside a stainless steel sink and an old kitchen table and chairs situated nearby.

It the middle of the space were three desks all facing each other in a kind of circle. Two of the desks were occupied by young men, each as scruffy and wild looking as Jeremy. One of the young men had gingery hair that was very curly and very thick glasses. The other was a short, thin rat of a fellow with black hair, black clothes and even blacker expression.

“This is the team,” Jeremy said. The ginger fellow was Adrian and the ratty man was Conner. They acknowledged Richard with vague nods and expressions that were somewhat distrustful.

Jeremy turned to Richard and smiled. “So, what do you think?” he asked.

Richard thought that he had gotten himself into a horrible position. He had felt that this job would hold much promise for him personally. Now he just wanted to turn around and walk out. He thought that there was still time to go back to the train station and find another train. He thought that perhaps it was not too late to get his old job back.

He did not say anything about his thoughts. He merely smiled and nodded nervously. “Yes. Well…” he muttered. “It’s a bit… uhm… I’m, uh… Good to… meet you… all.”

“Show him the product.” Conner said.

“Yes! Cool!” Jeremy said, running to his desk and opening up a cardboard box sitting on the floor beside it. “We’re really excited about it. It’s a very new thing. Wait till you…” he trailed off but his excitement was still palpable as he pulled several small figures out of the box. They were plastic figures with articulated joints. Each stood about 6 inches tall and each was dressed in some sort of rustic costume.

Richard stepped forward, interested despite himself. He picked up one of the figures. It was the figure of a man with wild black hair and a small black beard. He wore a robe that was sculpted in plastic and made to look like it was being whipped by the wind. “What are these?” he asked.

“These are the mages,” Jeremy explained. “That one you’ve got is an Air Mage. This one’s an Ice Mage.” He picked up a similar figure sculpted in light blue and sporting icicles and frost. His hair was similarly wild but it was white.

Richard looked over the other figures. Jeremy named each as he held it. There was a Metal Mage, a Sand Mage, a Fire Mage and a Wood Mage. The wood mage was the only female figure of the group. There was also a dark, scary looking one. Jeremy said that was a Death Mage.

“Ah,” said Richard. “He’s the villain, is he?”

“See, I told you people would think that,” Adrian, the gingery one, spat at Conner. Conner did not reply, merely sneered derisively.

“No,” Jeremy said. “They’re all magical beings, but their magic is related to a different element. We’ve got some others on the go as well.” He turned to Conner. “Show him the sketches.”

Conner pulled up a large leather folder that he unzipped and unfolded. Inside were several beautiful drawings. Conner was clearly talented, but his manner as he showed them off was furtive, as if he were offering up stolen property.

“Did you draw these?” Richard asked. Conner merely nodded and Richard saw an expression in the young man’s eyes that he could not place. “They’re wonderful.”

Amongst the sketches were different poses and variations for the figures he’d just seen as well as designs for other mages – Sword Mages, Animal Mages, Earth Mages and Water Mages. There were also other sketches showing the mages using their powers. There was a sketch of other elements as well and several cities. There was a floating city, a city in the desert made entirely of glass. There were buildings incorporated into trees and castles with fire around them. There was a series of sketches of a dark, horror-movie city which were all labeled Necropolis.

“These are incredible,” Richard said as he flipped through them. “Who came up with all this?”

The three men glanced at each other, somewhat nervously, Richard thought. “We did,” Jeremy said. “Adrian and I came up with the concepts and wrote the scripts. Conner did the designs.”

“Script?” Richard asked.

“For the cartoon,” Adrian said. “Show him the cartoon.”

“It’s an animated film,” Conner said, derisively. “It’s not a cartoon. Would you call Hitari’s Legends of the Air a cartoon? Would you call Apple Street Blues a cartoon?”

“Uh… this isn’t quite up to that quality,” Jeremy said, brandishing a disc.

Richard shook his head. He’d never heard of either of those films.

Jeremy activated the computer that sat on his desk. “We can watch it on this,” he said as he slipped the disk into the reader. He activated the viewing program and stepped back, gesturing for Richard to sit in the desk’s chair.

Richard hesitated for a moment, then sat. A small window popped up. Jeremy adjusted a setting and the window expanded to take up the full screen.

The Garon Corporation logo flashed up briefly, and then the film began. Animated lightning flashed against a dark sky and a woman’s voice began to speak.

“I am the Goddess,” the voice said. The screen then showed a drawing of a beautiful woman. Richard thought she looked a bit sexy to be in a cartoon. “My body created the universe,” the voice continued. Suddenly the screen was filled with flashing swords and the woman’s body was swiftly cut into a hundred tiny pieces.

“Oh,” Richard exclaimed. “That’s a bit violent. Isn’t it? Even for today’s kids?”

“Shhh. Watch.” Adrian commanded. Richard turned to see them all staring in rapt fascination at the screen.

“My body was scattered throughout the world. From the pieces sprang forth magical life. Each piece gave birth to a race of mages, each with control over a different element.” Now the screen showed animated versions of the figures that Richard had just seen. Fire mages. Ice Mages, Wood Mages. All were introduced and given barely pronounceable names that Richard immediately forgot.

As the story unfolded the different mages met each other, fought for a while, then became aware of another threat that forced them to put aside their differences and team up. Non-mages were gathering an army to combat the magical beings. A scary looking general with an eye patch and scars led the non-mage forces.

The length of the day, the long journey by train, meeting new people all seemed to catch up with Richard at once. He began losing the thrust of the narrative. The garish colors all seemed to blend into one. He felt his head drop once or twice as sleep began to overtake him.

Before he knew it the video was over. He’d completely lost the thread of the story and only barely remembered that the general with the eye patch was being manipulated by someone else who may, or may not have been a mage himself. The video ended with a quick scroll of credits. Adrian shut off the machine and then turned to Richard who found himself blinking his eyes to try to get the sleep out of them.

“What did you think?” Jeremy asked expectantly.

“Oh,” Richard said, covering his tiredness with a broad smile. “Brilliant. Absolutely. I’m amazed.”

“So what do you think you’ll come up with?”


Jeremy scowled. “For the ads campaign. We’ve got to do print, radio and television in the next month. Plus the stores will need flyers and product brochures. And the toys will need packaging.”

“Right,” Richard said, nodding vigorously. That was what he’d been hired for and normally he would have been able to spin off about presentation and market presence without batting an eye, but this had all come on him so suddenly, and the product was so different from anything he’d done before that he felt completely at a loss. “Well,” he shrugged. “These things take time. I’ll have to think about it.”

Richard saw Conner shoot Adrian a dark look. Adrian shrugged.

Richard stood up and he felt that the weariness had a firm grip on him. “Look… It’s been a long day, and I’m not even officially supposed to start until tomorrow, so… let me find a hotel room and get some sleep and we’ll come at it fresh in the morning, eh?”

Jeremy nodded sympathetically. “Of course,” he said. “In the morning.”

He looked at the three young men staring back at him with crestfallen expressions, as if he had come as a great disappointment to them. Richard felt a black anger at them. They were punk kids who had some talent, true, but they were looking at him with the disdain that teens get when their elders just didn’t “get them”. Richard didn’t “get them” at all, but he’d be buggered if he was going to let that stand in the way of coming up with a persuasive ad campaign. He was a professional and he would show these snot-nosed brats what a professional can do.

But not now. Not tonight. He just wanted a comfortable bed and a clean hotel room and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

“Right, well…” he said, still staring down the loaded barrels of their discontented expressions. “I’ll be off, then. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Richard took the lift down and did not bother with the main lobby, exiting through the ‘tradesman’s entrance’. He was on the street, trailing his suitcase, his coat slung over one arm striding purposefully when he heard a voice behind him. “Do you have the time?”

He turned his head and saw a young woman following him, doing a little hopping sidestep to try to keep pace with him and stay in his line of vision. She wore a pale blue anorak, which sported holes all around it. Her thin legs were bare and her red hair was tousled and matted. She wore a pair of lace up army boots with heavy woolen socks peeking out over the top. Richard’s immediate impression was that she was a junkie and his next thought that it was a shame that someone so young had thrown her life away and was now living on the streets and begging him for money.

“Do you have the time?” the woman insisted, still doing her hopping sidestep. “Do you know what time it is?”

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” Richard said, keeping his eyes forward and trying to increase his pace. He honestly did not know the time, though he could have easily drawn back the coat that was over his arm and covering his wristwatch, but that would mean slowing down and stopping and then having to deal with the inevitable demands for money. Best to just keep going. Hopefully she’d become discouraged and fall away, leaving him alone to find a hotel in peace.

“Don’t you have the time?” she asked, more insistently.

“No,” Richard replied. “I don’t.”

“I think you’ll find that you do,” the woman said.

Richard did stop now. He pulled back his coat and glanced at his watch. “It’s three forty-five,” Richard snapped, angrily. “Now will you please go away?”

Richard looked up and the girl was gone. He was standing on the street corner speaking to no one.

He glanced around, but saw no sign of her. Richard felt a sudden chill spread over him and a sense of…something. He could not quite define it.

He shook himself and continued on.

There were businessman’s hotels not far away. Richard found one that looked appealing. It had a fountain with statues of golden dolphins splashing happily in the cascading water outside the front doors. He went in. The lobby was plush and comfortable and was full of businessmen just like himself, many carrying briefcases, some dragging suitcases, others relaxing in the lobby with port and cigars.

He walked up to the registration desk and asked for a room. He was assigned a moderate suite and was advised as to the locations of the restaurant in the lobby as well as the proximity of other restaurants and nightclubs. Richard smiled his thanks, but at this point was only interested in a comfortable bed and perhaps some room service later on.

He was told the price for the room and reached for his wallet intending to dig out his credit card.

His wallet was not in his back pocket. Neither was it in his suit jacket breast pocket or in any of the other pockets. Nor was it in his jacket or his suitcase. “Oh, no,” Richard breathed as he rummaged through every pocket he could find. “Oh, bloody hell, no!”

The wallet was gone. There was no doubt about it. But how had…?

The woman. The street woman – the junkie. She’d lifted his bloody wallet. The bitch! Richard shook his head and looked back to the man behind the registration desk. He was regarding him with a neutrally sympathetic expression, but Richard could sense the contempt beneath it, as if a man who’d had his wallet stolen was some sort of pathetic freak from a sideshow, or disgusting like a messy drunk.

“I’m sorry about this,” Richard said. “I’ve lost my wallet.

The man raised an eyebrow. “No matter,” he said, purposefully hitting a few keys on his computer, effectively canceling the transaction, canceling out the possibility of a comfortable, warm bed.

Richard felt his face flush red with embarrassment and with rage. He turned and left the front desk. He strode through the lobby, out over the miles of plush carpet, out past the happy dolphins whose happy grins now seemed to mock him, out onto the street where he stood for a moment, uncertain as to which direction to take, or even what to do.

He had a little money in his shirt pocket. Not much, though. Just enough to buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich at a lunch counter down the street. As he sat and drank the coffee and ate his sandwich, not even minding that the lettuce was as far away as it could get from being crisp without actually being thrown away, he tried to come up with a plan.

His credit cards had been in the wallet. He’d have to cancel them. He’d had a substantial amount in cash as well. It would have been enough to see him firmly ensconced in a hotel right now. He could call his bank. They could issue him new cards. Except that it was nearly five and the banks were all long since shut.

He made a little mental list of his assets. He had his wristwatch. He had a pair of gold cufflinks. He had a gold chain that he’d gotten from an old girlfriend several years ago. He had a brand new camera in his suitcase.

He finished his sandwich and drained his coffee. He sighed inwardly, left the little bit of cash he had on the counter and dragged his suitcase out onto the street. He knew the direction he’d have to head – the part of town that boasted of seedy dives, cheap hotels and a plethora of pawnshops.

That it had come to this did not bode well for his first day back in Munden.


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