Review: Whom Shall I Fear? by Anne Clare

Anne Clare’s debut novel Whom Shall I Fear? is not my typical read. I’m not big on realistic war fiction or romance novels. This is both of those things, and yet I found myself drawn into the characters and their dilemmas. It’s a great story and surprisingly compelling.

Why did I like it even though it falls outside my general taste? Part of the reason is that Anne Clare made her characters likable. Without that seemingly simple ingredient, there wouldn’t have been any point to the story. It is heavily character-driven. Sergeant James Milburn reminded me of male leads in classic films. In fact, while reading this I felt like I was watching something like I’ll be Seeing You or It’s Always Fair Weather. And that is a very good thing.

The relationship between Sergeant Milburn and Evie Worther is believable and charming. Achieving that is no easy feat. Is it a little cheesy? Maybe, but it ends up being a good contrast with the incredibly slimy villain.

Anne Clare also did an enormous amount of research and it comes through in the text in a big way. The attention to little details, whether it was some bit of geography, parts of a soldier’s kit, or some off-hand reference to surrounding events all made the story feel very real and solid. This wasn’t some half-hearted attempt at historical fiction. The author took her research seriously and it was clearly thorough.

Truly setting it apart from anything else that might be considered “Christian Romance” were the punchy action scenes. Sergeant Milburn doesn’t spend all of his days writing letters. He’s a soldier and the action in this book is full of tension and are executed with the precision of a sniper. And it really is war. Side characters you like might not make it out of the book.

If you are a history buff or tired of the slush typical of romance novels, give Whom Shall I Fear? a try here.

Review: The Unbearable Heaviness of Remembering by L. Jagi Lamplighter

With book 5 of the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment series, things explode. In many ways. In The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin we were introduced to a charming, magical world. By the time The Unbearable Heaviness of Remembering is over, that world has expanded and become enormously complex and the dangers more frightening and sinister. As if they weren’t already after book 3!

Many of the plot points surrounding Rachel Griffin have enormous payoff. From revelations about the Master of the World and Amber to development with Nastasia and Astrid, L. Jagi Lamplighter gives us an incredibly satisfying continuation of a series that has become one of my primary go-to recommendations. If you haven’t started this series yet, do it. You won’t regret a second of the time spent diving into this world. The characters are well-developed and feel like real people.

With the Heer of Dunderberg loosed, nasty creatures cause problems across the campus of Roanoke Academy. Redcaps and an each-uisge feature in their own little adventures and that’s one of the fun things about this series. There is a slice of life element to Rachel’s experiences at the school. They don’t detract from the story, but add to it and make the world the characters inhabit feel much more full and lively than a certain other magical school series that will illicit automatic comparisons. This series is much better than that one, however.

Most satisfying for me were the developments surrounding Rachel’s friendship issues. Hints of what might come surrounding Astrid and Nastasia took some turns I wanted to see happen and some turns that I didn’t expect (partly due to the fact that Rachel is a much more kind person than she would probably ever give herself credit for).

As a parent, the plotline surrounding Rachel, her family, and Amber was wrenching. L. Jagi Lamplighter delves into the (sometimes) horrifying consequences of altering memories and perceptions via magic. You’d have to be an automaton to not have to blink back tears while reading this volume. The moral choices that Rachel has to make toward the end are more poignant and overwhelming than anything I’ve read in other YA fantasy. Or much other fantasy in general, for that matter. I was holding my breath reading the build-up to the final stroke (or roar, in this case).

And this brings me to Leander. If memory serves me correctly, L. Jagi Lamplighter said in an interview that she prays before writing scenes involving the comfort lion. It shows. It shows enormously and helps explain why those scenes are so perfect. The mysteries surrounding Leander and Jariel come more and more to the fore as the series progresses and has become one of my favorite aspects to this ongoing tale.

And of course, there is more Siggy and Lucky the Dragon. The ridiculousness surrounding those two is always a treat.

There are angels, demons, magical lightning throwing imps, and even a masquerade. I can’t wait for the next book.

If you’re looking for a great story about a magic school, read this. Rachel Griffin is one of the most likable heroines I’ve read. Most female protagonists I’ve read don’t feel feminine or have a solid moral compass. Rachel has both and is an incredibly endearing kid that comes off as very real. If you loved Harry Potter and are looking for another magical school fix, you should find this series much more engrossing and satisfying.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Remembering challenges Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland for the place of my favorite book in the series.

Buy a copy here if you’ve read the first four books.

If you haven’t, the first book can be found here.

Happy reading!

Dinosaur Warfare! Contest!

I am currently working on a rough draft for a science fiction adventure series tentatively titled “Dinosaur Warfare!” The crew of a stolen ship crash lands on a remote planet terraformed to a include an ecosystem filled with prehistoric creatures.

Captain Ambrose Weaver leads a group of refugees in a bold struggle for survival against dinosaurs, aliens, and the unknown.

Survivors need names! What I’m looking for are names for some of the survivors and crew of The Aequitas. Man or woman, I want suggestions. Will they get eaten by a spinosaurus? Swallowed by a titanboa? Will they ride a velociraptor armed with plasma cannons into battle?

This is just for fun and winner(s) will have the name(s) I like best placed in this series. They might be side character or they might become part of the important ensemble.

Comment suggestions here or find me on Twitter or my author page on Facebook!

Review: Justified by Jon Del Arroz

Deus Vult!

Crusade!

Space knights! Laser swords! Explosions! Fuzzy alien waifus!

Bored of terrible new Star Wars movies that have nothing but contempt for you? Stories that try to tell you that heroism is stupid and futile? Tired of postmodernist dreck? Try Jon Del Arroz’s action/adventure analog for crusading… in space!

The story features Drin, a Templar who has something of an existential crisis but instead of bemoaning everything in the universe, he prays for guidance and seeks to do what is right. Anais is a space princess that gets kidnapped by degenerate slavers. The villains in this story are so slimy and awful you can’t wait for them to get justice.

Religion is taken seriously by the characters, which is a nice change from the usual fare of it either being nonexistent or a thin, phony veneer. It’s actually a pretty big deal for the plot as Drin does a lot of contemplation in trying to figure out the universe he exists in. The last time I saw science fiction treat religion seriously was in some John C. Wright and in reading Dan Abnett’s Warhammer 40k Gaunt’s Ghosts series.

Drin witnesses the horrors of war and abandons his vows in order to make sense of his world. His revelations aren’t lazily written, tired ideas. Jon Del Arroz actually throws some wonderful nuance into the tropes he explores and I enjoyed watching Drin grow as a character from his doubts at the start to the very satisfying conclusion.

There aren’t a lot of big surprise here, but that doesn’t matter. This is a book that sets out to be fun and succeeds. You get a genuinely masculine hero that pummels evil. You get a space princess that has a pretty solid character arc. Altogether, this had the feeling of a good 80s-to-early 90s action flick. Cast Dolph Lundgren circa 1988 as Drin and throw in some simultaneously awesome/cheesy 80s special effects and you’d have an instant action classic.

If you want a fast-paced, fun ride buy a copy here.

Review: Hell Spawn by Declan Finn

This is the best horror story I’ve ever read. I say that having not read the second book in the series… yet. What makes this book such an absolute win? Finn goes against the trend of so many authors in recent history and created a likable hero. Tommy Nolan doesn’t wring his hands and mope. He doesn’t sit around and curl up into existential dread. Instead we get a devoted family man, an unapologetic Catholic, and an action hero that discovers he has what are essentially super powers. He’s also funny and a genuinely good person. Good riddance to the boredom that is the anti-hero.

With Nolan’s partner Packard we get glimpses of the buddy cop genre. Always a plus. Packard might come off as annoying in any other capacity, but amid the gruesomeness of some plot points his odd, dark sense of humor helped to break up the horror elements. Nolan had a few thoughts and lines that had me laughing out loud throughout.

The supernatural elements reminded me of the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz. This is much more horror than that. The antagonist here is about the most disgusting, hateful villain I’ve seen on the page. I won’t go into detail, because I don’t want to revisit the actions of our hero’s opposite. The back cover tells you right out that Nolan goes up against a demon. And demon it is.

While the gruesome bits were hard to handle, the payoff was well worth every cringe. The action scenes were more gripping than those found in a Brad Thor novel. They gave the likes of Larry Correia and John Ringo a run for their money. Each bit of action tries to outdo the previous action scene and succeeds. They actually grab you because, as mentioned before, it’s impossible to not like Detective Nolan. When something bad happens to him, you want to keep reading to see if he comes out on top or not. And just when you think the book has hit its climax, Finn pulls the rug out and hits you over the head with a big finale.

If you like the horror genre, you can’t do much better than this. Do yourself a favor and buy a copy for yourself and a few for your friends right here.

Libra Mortis

This is the other short story I wrote for the cancelled anthology.

—–

All of the bodies were dead. It was an even number, so that was good. Numeric balance. Nitor ran his hand through his golden hair, trying not to feel nauseous. The four deceased men spread around him lay in various states of brokenness. They had been surrounding that poor young woman. God knew exactly what they were thinking. Nitor had a pretty good idea as well. They had to be stopped.

But he didn’t exactly like confrontation. Or violence. The spike of adrenaline was unpleasant. Even with his mental training to steady himself and regain his balance, Nitor still felt the lingering effects of the powerful rush.

Raised in the Schola Libra had taught him how to use his powers well. Before Nitor had been spotted, he had created a localized gale and forced the first thug’s head into the plascrete surface of the alleyway. Even with the massive blue-green moon of Carthus gazing down with clear brilliance the alley was dark and quiet. The second had taken his focus off the young woman when the first fell. Surprise and distraction. That just made it easier to steal the air from his lungs. He collapsed, eyes bulging, as the last two turned on him. One produced a pistol that began to hum and glow an angry red, an ugly contrast to the moon’s ethereal glow. It was a weapon that was far too expensive for an ordinary street thug to afford.

An odd detail, that.

Nitor pushed a burst of air into his legs to unsteady him and simultaneously pushed the other way against his head. Nitor’s vision was speckeld with white dots as he made the effort to use his Element. The flip was violent and the man let out a startled yelp before his forehead met the pavement. The last thug was charging forward with a knife. A long, serrated weapon. Six inches od sharpened steel. Nitor pulled the air to himself, yanking him out of the way. His shoulder hit the adjacent building and throbbed in pain. But it saved him from being gutted.

Another push of air brought Nitor behind the thug. A third quick push and he sped forward like a rocket. His fist connected with the side of the thug’s skull just as he was turning, and sent him sprawling. Exhausted from using so much of his Element, Nitor drew his own pistol. Not a fancy plasma-run device like the one that was now laying in a puddle of what he hoped was only water. It was a simple, semi-auto holding twenty rounds in its extended magazine.

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” the thug stammered. “We have to… we need the girl. Before…

Nitor gestured to the patch on his shoulder, wordlessly cutting him off. The symbol of gold scales against a black backdrop was clean and plain to see. Nitor’s uniform was black with gold edging and gold buttons up the left side. It was a vaguely militaristic look, one that gave an air of authority and determination. The man’s mouth opened and closed like a fish.

“Libra Mortis,” Nitor said. “I know exactly what I’m doing.” The action of pulling the trigger was calm and emotionless. These men had disrupted harmony and tried to tip the scales of justice that he had sworn to uphold when he left the Schola a dozen or so cycles ago.

He would call in the incident after checking the bodies and making a proper assessment. Nothing interesting with the first body. A few tattoos, probably gang related. He made a note of them. Chances were good the corpse was on file and wanted for some unspeakable crime. Nitor checked Fancy Gun next.

Not a ganger. No tattoos. Cleanly shaved.

Very dead.

Unfortunately, Nitor recognized him. He had been on videopix and flashscreens. A local something. Low-level bureaucrat? Worked for a city news agency? Meteorologist? Nitor couldn’t remember exactly. People knew him. His blue eyes were just starting to fade to a lifeless, gauzy hue. Saggitarius, then. Interesting.

He nudged the body with his boot, expecting it to burst into flame. Sometimes those of a fire Element did that. Saggitarius, Leo, Aries… Annoying when you needed evidence from a body and it caught fire and turned to cinders. It only happened to Nitor once, but he knew other members of peacekeeping organizations that had dealt with upwards of twelve burnaways.

Nitor took a break from examining the bodies.

“This isn’t a good scenario,” he said aloud to the shaking young woman who stood nervously at a distance, watching his every move. Had she run he would’ve given chase. She had to anwer some questions so he could wrap this up neat and clean. Well, as neat and clean as was possible at this point.

She didn’t respond.

“You know any of these guys?” He could see her shake her head. So chances were slim that it was personal. It was late, but not that late. Not the safest part of the city, but not the most dangerous either. He began to mull that over.

Back to the bodies.

The other men gave up some money and paperwork. Was this supposed to be a business transaction? Trafficking? Nitor’s blood began to boil. Out of habit he started mental routines he had learned at the Schola to keep him calm. Not necessarily detatched, but rational and even-handed. He was born a Libra, but the Scholam trained him to be a Libra.

Calmed, he stuffed the cash into his uniform coat’s pocket.

He walked up to the young woman. Slowly. She was very young. Probably just out of her own Schola. And she was very pretty. Nitor enacted another mental routine.

Asking if she was okay would have been a stupid thing to do. Of course she wasn’t. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying. Her short red hair was disheveled, her dress torn at the shoulder, but she seemed unharmed otherwise.

“You are safe now,” Nitor said as reassuringly as he could. Her eyes darted nervously at his shoulder patch and she bit her lower lip. He had killed those men so quickly, calmly, with no more thought or care as squashing bugs. She bit her lip harder. “I’m only really scary for the bad guys.” He tried a smile. It seemed to help a little.

Neon signs flickered and buzzed back down the alleyway. There was a roll of thunder in the distance. An electric storm would be passing through within the hour. Clouds were starting to roll in front of the moon and smother the light it gave. Nitor have to wrap things up quickly, get back to his hotel room, and find some rest.. Using that much of his Element so rapidly and brutally had left him feeling winded.

“What’syour name?” He asked conversationally, his tone mellow and even.

“Luna,” she replied quietly, hugging herself. He couldn’t decide whether or not the name was a fake and there was nowhere on her to carry or hide an ident. So he went with it.

Another rumble of thunder.

“Luna. Who were those men?”

There was a fizzle of electricity. One of the neon signs? A second spit of electrical fire flashed off the wall of the alley. Plasma fire. A scorch mark appeared on the adjacent building, inches above the girl’s head. Ozone and burning metal. The scents raked Nitor’s nose as another blast nearly took off his arm.

Without a word Nitor grabbed Luna and flung them both down. Two shadows were approaching the alleyway, glowing pistols in their hands. This was not some chance mugging he had happened across. The dumpster a few yards behind them suddenly had several glowing holes in it. Nitor blindly returned fire with his pistol, barely looking as he scrambled back up, directing Luna to run down the alleyway. He must have winged one of them because he heard a yell and a curse.

The woman could run fast. She was yards ahead of him, nearing the opposite end of the alley. It was a dark T-intersection that stopped abruptly and gave one the option of going behind the medieval-themed inn or the curio store. A hulking brute stepped out from the left, a gargoyle of a man with biceps the size of Luna’s head. She gave a pitiful yelp as he grabbed for her. Nitor summoned a reserve of his already-depleted energy and used his Element. The burst of air forced the gargoyle’s hand back into his own face. The distraction gave Nitor time to aim and he placed two quick rounds into the man’s chest. The second round went right through, bounced off the plascrete wall behind and lodged back into something critical. He went down with a thud.

Nitor’s vision swam and he stumbled as the plasma fire resumed from behind. A searing beam of energy grazed his left arm and he gasped at the pain and at the revulsion of smelling his own flesh burn. Luna ran right. Nitor followed, keeping low and trying to make himself a smaller target.

When they were around the corner and out of sight he stopped and leaned up against the back wall of the curio shop. He peered around the corner. The lighting was bad. Handfuls of stars were muted by the city’s light pollution. Clouds had almost completely blanketed the moon. A few neon signs from storefronts illuminated the backs of the two men shuffling cautiously down the alley. They wanted to get shot about as much as Nitor did. That left him a little time to think.

Not a mugging. Too dedicated and driven and well-funded to be ordinary traffickers. And experienced. The last one, the gargoyle, had a hand that was all wrong. Mutated, perhaps. Bargaining with certain forces could… change humans.

The Libra Mortis made it a habit of exterminating those that bought and sold people as if they were a commodity. This went further in some regards. The scenario suddenly made complete sense. He squeezed his eyes shut. The tattoos. They weren’t ganger art. Not exactly.

“Luna,” he rasped.

“Yes?” she whispered in reply.

“Are you familiar with Saturn?”

Luna blinked at him as if he were an idiot.

He squeezed his eyes shut again.

“The god, not the planet,” Nitor said.

“Oh. Yes… somewhat.” She sounded uncertain.

“Saturn, Chronos… Baal… Moloch… basically the same monster. Liked human sacrifice. A demonic titan that ate children. His symbol was a sickle. One of those guys who was grabbing you had a big ol’ sickle tatted across his chest along with a zodiac sign.”

“They were going to eat me?” Luna gasped.

“Actually, I hadn’t thought of that. Umm…” He wasn’t very good at lying. He also didn’t want to scare the woman more than she already had been. Best not to mention that the last guy had tentacles for fingers. “Maybe… not… no,” he said with a surprising amount of conviction.

Another peal of thunder. Much closer this time. He could feel it in the ground and in the air. The air was moving, changing. It was invigorating. Nitor almost felt strong enough to stand properly upright once more. He gave it a try and his vision didn’t go black. A good sign. But the rain was coming. Water. Lots of it.

“In short you got kidnapped by what is essentially a death cult. I’m guessing you were being carted off by one of the… group? Cell? Er… by one of the heads of this particular clan.”

“But I didn’t do anything… Why…?”

“That’s probably why, actually. Death cults prey on the innocent. Usually they grab people who won’t be missed or people who will be overlooked. Orphans, people without a lot of family, people who aren’t inducted into a Schola… that sort of thing. But you… Hold on.”

Nitor peered down the alley and shot at the two shadows who were getting a bit too close. He wasn’t a bad shot, but it was dark and leaning out, exposed, was dangerous. He didn’t hear his shots smack anything fleshy, but the sudden shock of sound and danger would have at least slowed them down. Hopefully.

“Let’s move,” Nitor whispered as he directed Luna down the back of the alley. He had a rough plan. They could try to break in through the back of the curio shop, but that’d be noisy and slow. There was an adjustable metal ladder leading up to the roof. Again: slow. There were some boxes and discarded crates piled against the back wall of the shop. A broken pallet leaned against the wall. And it was just starting to rain with urgency. Perfect.

Nitor grabbed the metal ladder and slammed it down, sure to make some noise. Then he grabbed Luna and shuffled in among the boxes and crates. He carefully moved a busted crate, blocking view from a casual glance. It wouldn’t do much against a close examination. But it was dark and raining.

A moment later they could hear the scraping sound of footsteps lumbering down the alley, carefully, but with little expertise in the art of sneaking. Nitor held fast to his pistol and, in spite of his training to maintain calm, his heart raced. He felt guilty for it. Sometimes he felt like he had failed the Schola Libra.

The rain was great cover. It helped muffle Luna’s frightened breathing, as well as his own. But it was water. It subdued his Element. He could maybe flick a raindrop at somebody if he really worked at it, but until the rain passed his only effective weapons were his pistol and his fists.

He caught snippets of low conversation. Phrases that sounded like “up the ladder”, “stuck on the roof”, “not stupid.” Luna pressed against him, soft and warm. The Schola had nurtured his natural love of justice, honed it; turned it into something he could use for good. It had trained his mind, taught him to be even-handed, gracious, and diplomatic. But training and mental exercises could only do so much against human nature. He allowed himself to enjoy the moment in spite of the possibility of meeting a violent death shortly. It allowed him to forget about the sick feeling in his stomach he got whenever he had to act violently and decisively.

The footsteps got closer and stopped. There was a mumbled exchange and the two took off running down the back alley. Nitor breathed a little easier, but waited a few extra minutes to make sure they were missed. It had absolutely nothing to do with having an attractive young woman pressed up against him. Some days he almost believed the lies he told himself. He rose quietly, reluctantly but gently pushing Luna off of him.

A burst of thunder was accompanied by a deafening electrical crackle. The sky opened up into what seemed for a moment like a Biblical deluge. Nitor gasped, his Element essentially killed for the time being. He could hardly lift a hand without conscious effort. But the red-headed woman seemed unfazed. That was when, while gasping vaily for air, he noticed her eyes giving a faint white glow.

Nitor struggled to his feet. Luna held up a hand and the flood of water immediately around them subsided slightly. It was enough that he could move and think a little better. His clothes were still soaked through. They felt like leaden weights wrapped around him. But he could breath again.

They made their way toward the front of the inn, wordlessly. They wouldn’t have been able to hear each other over the relentlessly pounding rain anyway.

Nitor’s room was already waiting. Had he holed up in any other inn he wouildn’t have stumbled across the evening’s fete. He ripped off his soaked uniform shirt and took a deep breath. The inn was medieval-themed, but that didn’t stop the owners from installing a ceiling fan in the room. A few centuries off, but handy under the circumstances. Nitor flicked a lever and the fan began to spin, circulating air. Beautiful, God-given, miraculous air. A little bit of focus and the air was directed to begin drying things that needed drying.

As he dried his clothes, Luna disappeared into the bathroom. That was just as well. He needed to record his observations. Nitor tapped a concealed button near his left collarbone and within seconds was speaking into the tiny speaker that communicated directly with his ship’s computer systems. When he was done the rain had already let up and his clothes were reasonably dry. He shrugged his uniform shirt on just as Luna emerged from the bathroom wearing her tattered and torn, but very dry dress.

Of course, Nitor thought, instdriers… just like Thomas Aquinas used back on Earth.

“Thank you,” Luna began, timidly.

Nitor held up a hand. “You’re Element is clearly water. Untrained, but a reasonable talent… I’m guessing you ran away from your Schola, didn’t you?”

She gave a shadow of a nod. The look on her face said she feared reproach. Others may have scolded her. Nitor didn’t care. He liked his training, but the rigidity of the system could be hard to live with. There wasn’t any legal punishment on Carthus for not completing formation at a Schola, and plenty of people found work as craftsmen and traders. It was the social stigma that could get to people. There was esteem in going through official routes.

“So you left and before you knew it… Chronos death cult grabs you. When they try to hand you off to their… What? Death elder? I get in the way and make them dead instead.”

Luna smiled at that. A real, genuine, momentary forgetting-of-fear smile.

“I wasn’t any good at… art,” she said. “I wanted to be… around books. The Schola wanted me to teach art. But I’m not very good at… people.”

She stared at the floor.

There was a low rumble of very distant thunder.

“We’ll get you some books after I finish my job.” He adjusted his uniform, drying it off a bit more.

“Job?”

“Getting you to safety was just part of it. Those two that tailed us back in the alley… I’m going after them. If they really are part of a death cult, that means they need you. They won’t have gone too far for the simple fact that they can’t really go anywhere without you. On top of all that, they know you don’t have friends or family to go to. Stay here. This will be about as safe as you can get right now. If anybody else shows up… ignore them and make like you aren’t here. But make sure you bolt the door when I’m out, too. Just in case.”

Luna nodded. A few quick jerks of her head.

Nitor hated to leave. She needed help. Reassurance. They wouldn’t have touched her, not before the sacrifice, but the trauma of being captured. How resigned to death had she become? Had she held out any hope at all of being rescued?

They would pay for that.

He turned and opened the door.

“One last question. Is that your real name? Luna?”

“Yes,” Luna said, “it is.”

#

The air after the storm was crisp. Carthus was a fairly dry planet. Its storms were quick and violent and signs of them disappeared quickly. Some humidity remained and heavy pools of water remained where plascrete was cracked or dipped into shallow bowl shapes from being set incorrectly. A few snake-like creatures flitted on iridescent wings, surrupticiously lapping up the water with long, forked tongues. They scattered when Nitor whispered by.

It didn’t take long to pick up the trail left by those two. Ripples in the air, muck from bootprints, unnatural scents. They wouldn’t stray too far from the site where everything went wrong for them. They needed their quarry for something unspeakable. It was a quiet night and they had plenty of time to run her down. Boxes and crates in the back alley were overturned. The pallet was on the ground now. They had retraced their steps and found the hiding place. They’d be fuming at their own negligence. Hopefully that would make them reckless.

The roof was empty but for a few discarded smoke sticks. The cloying narcotic scent lingered in the air. At least the roof gave a good vantage point. Handfuls of men and women were walking home from a late shift or making their way to a bar or nightclub. A handful of natives walked the streets as well, towering a head or two higher than the visitors, their eyes glittering in the neon light. The Old Earth section of the city was a mishmash of anachronisms and novelty. Nearly every building had some theme designed to draw people in. Some were shut up for the evening. Others declared themselves with eye-searing neon.

As the clouds dispersed into thinning streamers, the enormous blue-green moon revealed itself again, humbling the garrish city lights with its natural beauty. Nitor breathed in deep as a gust of wind blustered the roof. Refreshing. Then he leapt, commanding the air to lower him gently to the ground.

It took another fifteen minutes of searching, reading the air before the trail furnished anything. From the sloping roof of a restaurant he probed. It was the third roof he had checked, making sure he had a concrete picture of the city’s streets.

Two figures had just ducked into a building down the street. Their movement was hurried compared to the leisurely pace of other shadows trekking across the streetways. Faint narcotic stench wafted from that direction. It could be nothing, but instinct and anger said otherwise. He had always been warned against holding a grudge. People born under the Righteous Sign were said to fall prey to self-pity and unforgiving tendencies.

He had been shot. The burn still hurt. It would continue to do so until he could get to a proper medicus. But self pity didn’t figure in. Personal pain he could deal with. They had kidnapped a young woman and the evidence suggested that the best case scenario was planned human sacrifice. Holding a grudge was an easy thing to do. He didn’t bother repressing it.

Nitor hit the ground with a bounce and took off toward the business. It was a small drinking establishment. No real theme and it had a bland, unmemorable name. The sort of place that most people would gloss over when walking by. He went in.

The air was musty with the smell of smokes and beer. There were a dozen round tables set up around the floor, seemingly random in their placement. Only one was free of occupants. Patrons sat one or two to a table, listening to a duo at the small back stage pluck out chords and sing to a simple folk tune. Nitor had to admit to himself that they weren’t half bad. They’d likely be even better if they were sober. He walked over to bar and got the barkeep’s attention.

“Business?” the barkeep asked. He was a tall man in his early forties, balding, and dressed smartly. He evidently took pride in the way he presented himself and his business. The way he adressed the agent of the Libra Mortis so easily suggested he had dealt with other peacekepper types and wasn’t bothered much by the dark, militaristic dress and air Nitor presented.

“Unfortunately, yes. Agent Nitor Shan. I saw a pair come in here a moment ago. I was the only one to enter after them. I’d appreciate you pointing them out to me.”

“I really don’t want any trouble in my bar,” he said with a resigned sigh.

Nitor raised an eyebrow.

“You’ve had trouble before?”

He nodded.

“Last time anyone of your sort come in here there was a bit of a scuffle. Some Libra Ordo… Scales of Somethingoranother… Scared off a couple patrons.”

“I’ll do my best to avoid… trouble.”

“Table eight.” Nitor nodded and was about to say something when the barkeep continued. “Please avoid breaking the tables. They’re… not cheap.”

Nitor nodded again and said “thank you.”

He slid in to table eight across from two men that didn’t seem anything extraordinary. They were both wearing buttoned shirts with the sleeves rolled up. The one on the right had the suggestion of a sickle tattoo peeking out from under his left sleeve. The one on the left had a blue shirt with a couple dark stains on it. Possibly from blood, but it was hard to tell. They had neatly trimmed facial hair and were sipping their drinks peacably, though they looked purturbed.

They looked up and nearly jumped out of their seats when the agent of the Libra Mortis sat down at their table. They quickly calmed and waited, watching the grinning peacekeeper with barely masked rage.

“Not hard to find you two. Almost thought I’d gotten the wrong cultists, but the sickle tattoo on your arm there was a relief.” Nitor nodded to the arm. The cultist worked his sleeve lower to cover the marking as if that would magically undo the accusation. “Finding a worthy sacrifice has got to be a bit harder though, right? Pretty redheaded maiden. You weren’t expecting me to just barge in like that and… Well…” He shrugged and somehow made it look diplomatic.

“Where is she? We need the girl, more than you can imagine,” Tattoo rasped bitterly. “Do you even know what we do? Who we are?”

Blueshirt was much more calm and collected. Almost disinterested. His collar moved in and out. Like breathing.

“I know what you are,” Nitor said, dropping his voice pointedly. “Come out of here without trouble and restore balance to the Sacred Scales. Give us information on your leaders and contacts and we can make a deal with you two. Turn youselves in to the city’s peacekeepers. They’ll be a hell of a lot easier on you than…” Nitor used his Element and nudged Blueshirt’s mug of amber beer.

“Really?” Blueshirt muttered, condescending amusement painting his tone and expression. He waved a hand and the mug skittered back a few inches and sloshed on Nitor.

“What?” Nitor gasped. The shock of an injustice-serving air mover froze Nitor for a moment. They were supposed to be intellectuals, diplomats, peacekeepers and teachers. The thought that one would willfully go against that nauseated him. It shouldn’t even be a possibility. An abrupt burst of air toppled him over backward.

Tattoo and Blueshirt turned the table over and Blueshirt began a push air on it to crush Nitor. The agent pushed back. Hard. The table creaked. The woodgrains looked nice. It was probably imported. Maybe even had its origins on Old Earth. The barkeep was going to end up being upset after all. Tattoo pulled his pistol and it began to glow.

Nitor shifted his effort’s focus and the table spun toward Tattoo. Nitor let go of the air he was using, but Blueshirt did not. The change in force sent the talbe spinning wildly away, missing Tattoo by inches. It crashed into a neighboring table, spilling the drink of the patron sitting there. He yelled and cursed as his beer splashed him. The music suddenly stopped and the duo eyed the unfolding mayhem.

Tatto had the humming pistol trained on Nitor, its angry red glow accompanied by the faint scent of ozone. Nitor willed a localized burst of air and nearly blacked out from the effort. There was a small thunderclap as Tattoo’s hand swung up during the process of squeezing the trigger. Half of his head disappeared in the close-range burst and a crater was left in the ceiling. Blueshirt didn’t hesitate. He drew the table back around and threw it directly at Nitor who still hadn’t risen. The tabletop clipped him on the forehead and bounced away.

The agent grunted and rolled with the blow. The pain was incredible and the tavern lurched in and out of focus. The cultist was starting to lash at him with brutal cracks of air. His collar was unbuttoned and Nitor caught a glimpse of the discolored gill flaps and extra eye. Evidence that Blueshirt had killed in the name of his cult before.

Patrons in the bar were yelling and scrambling to leave. One man tried to rush Blueshirt, but was bowled over with a quickly placed gust of air. It bought Nitor time to roll into a crouch and steady himself.

Blueshirt wasn’t as well-trained as Nitor, but what he lacked in training, theory, and finesse, he made up for in pure brute force. Nitor deflected the attempt at ramming air down his throat and making him choke or worse. But it was a frenzied onslaught and he was already tired. Blueshirt kept at it, making it hard for Nitor to breath. To focus. To…

His pistol had flown from his grip early in the exchange. It was only a yard away. A clumsy whirwind brought it near his hand. Nitor grasped it and brought it up. Blueshirt’s eyes widened. One could do plenty of things moving air, but stopping a bullet wasn’t one of them.

Nitor fired just as a heavy glass mug impacted against his hand. The shot went wide, bursting Blueshirt’s shoulder instead of hitting center mass. Nitor cursed. His hand throbbed. His head felt like somebody had placed it in a drum machine and forgotten to turn it off. The gun wobbled in his battered hand. Squeezing the trigger was so hard. Blueshirt went down on his knees as the bullet tore into his right thigh. But he wasn’t stopped.

A crude tempest erupted from the cultist, thrown at Nitor. The sudden blast of angry air tore into him and lifted bodily from the ground. He went through the bar’s window. More injury. Glass flew outward in a violent cascade. Nitor’s uniform was cut in a dozen places. He bled from numerous fresh lacerations.

He willed himself to stay upright, precisely used his Element, and landed clumsily on his feet, his boots crunching over pieces of the shattered window. Nitor spat out blood that had weeped into his mouth from a cut above his right eye.

Blueshirt stood at the window.

Nitor flicked his wrist and a hundred pieces of glass flew forward and embedded themselves in the cultist. Blueshirt fell over without further complaint.

“Ouch,” Nitor said to himself. He said and thought numerous variations of the word and theme as he hobbled back to the bar’s entrance. The doorway had been left wide open. That was good. It was better than good. The agent wasn’t sure he’d have the dexterity to fumble with the door’s latch. He limped up to the bar and sat down on the nearest stool.

“Why?” the barkeep said as he stood up from hiding behind the bar.

“Evil men. Sorry about the damage. We’ll… oww… take it out of the cult once they’re… processed to the full extent of our abilities. I’ll be sure to… hnng! To… commend you for your cooperation. Table’s a shame, though… Old Earth?” Nitor said, looking back at the broken table that had nearly taken his head off.

“Yup…” the barkeep sighed.

“Knew it.”

“Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Thanks, but I’m still on duty.” Nitor hopped down from the stool and immediately regretted it. He nearly doubled up in pain. Then he noticed the smears of blood he left on the stool and bar. “Sorry about those, too. The Libra Mortis will be in touch.”

#

“Luna,” Nitor breathed as he tapped on the door to his hotel room. He wanted to get to his bed and pass out. He’d see about the injuries tomorrow. None of them were life-threatening, even if there were many cuts, scrapes, and bruises. There was also the matter of mental fatigue from overworking use of his Element. Recovery might take a while.

Luna opened the door a crack and let out a surprised noise.

The door closed again.

“Does it look that bad?” Nitor slurred. His voice sounded hollow to his own ears.

There was the sound of the door’s chain sliding. Then the door swung open.

Luna’s eyes were wide. Nitor limped into the hotel room and began taking off his uniform shirt. It was tacky with his blood and had an unfortunate lingering scent of cheap beer clinging to it.

“Probably should’ve gotten some whiskey from that bar…”

“Are you okay?” Luna asked, reaching a shy hand toward his shoulder. He swayed and she snatched the hand back.

“I’ve been… ow… better,” Nitor wheezed.

Luna turned and rapidly left the room. Nitor limped over to the desk, one of the room’s few furnishings, and slumped into the adjacent chair. He struggled with his boots. It was almost as if the things had been glued to his feet. But no, that was just a little bit of swelling, spilled beer, and of course the blood. Luna returned a moment later with a glass of cool water. She set it down nervously on the desk, floated over to the bed, and sat on the edge. Dozens of emotions and thoughts flickering through her head and across her face.

Anxiety, wariness, thankfulness, curiosity.

Nitor finally managed to get his boots off and reached a shaky hand for the water. He took a long drought. The glass was mostly empty when he was through. It wasn’t whiskey, but it’d have to do.

“When is your backup going to arrive?” Luna asked, nervously glancing at the door.

Nitor flinched. He was hoping to avoid those sorts of questions. He didn’t like to lie. He was terrible at it. Lies made him feel contaminated, foul like the monsters he had sworn to eradicate.

“Yeah… I kind of am the backup.” The truth.

“What do you… you…?”

“Umm… I am Libra Mortis. Just me.” More truth.

“But you said…” Luna’s face looked surprised and worried. Nitor’s stomach dropped. Usually he was able to simply slip away and take off after he rescued people from gangers, muggers, would-be rapists, and the like. He hadn’t bargained on a girl with no family or Schola-inducted occupation.

He sighed. Getting clobbered and bloodied hadn’t been part of his plan either.

“I ran away from my Schola when it came down to choosing a proper occupation. I wanted to be a peacekeeper. My Advocates… thought I was too indecisive. That I wasn’t good with conflict resolution.”

“So you… ran away? Like I did?”

“Like you did,” Nitor said, “but with more violence.”

“So you’re a vigilante?” she breathed. She sounded almost… excited? Luna’s eyes were almost as big and wide as the blue-green moon circling the planet outside the hotel room window.

Nitor flinched.

“I don’t like that word.”

“But…”

“Yeah, I know. Frowned on in most cities… most planets, really.” Nitor said the last almost to himself. “Technically I have a license of sorts. Grants me some… leeway. Keeps me from too much trouble as long as I’m not too reckless, generally abide by local codes… that sort of thing. It’s weird, too. I just… stumble into things. Don’t have to search much of it out. Hopefully the busted up bar wasn’t crossing too many lines…”

“And you took out a cult to a demon that demands human sacrifice.” Luna’s tone was serious. Impressed.

“Not as such,” Nitor said, slowly, painfully shaking his aching head. “A few members. I think I figured out where they hold up, though. Pretty sure that little curio store was where they were bringing you.”

Luna hopped off the corner of the bed.

“Then let’s get them,” Luna said. She was animated, genuinely thrilled by the prospect. Nitor quirked an eyebrow. Even that hurt. He opened his mouth, about to say something, but Luna interrupted. She held her hands together, pleading. “I learn quick. I wasn’t good at what my schola wanted me to be good at. They tried to train me to be what they wanted me to be like, but it just wouldn’t take. I like learning, investigating. I could help. Maybe… be a secretery and learn to shoot stuff. I could… please?”

“Learn to… shoot… stuff?” Nitor couldn’t help the faint smile that tugged at the corner of his mouth. She was so insistant. And she knew his secret. Maybe her offer could be beneficial. Maybe it could be the start of an actual organization. A Libra Mortis made up of more than one person. It was a lonely occupation. He didn’t much like that aspect of his work.

“I don’t…” Luna began. Nitor waved a hand, cutting her off.

“I’ll sleep on it.” Luna’s eyes twinkled. “If you want this, really want to join in on helping people who can’t help themselves, punishing monsters… etcetera… you’ll be working for me. That means no nonsense.”

“I have no nonsense.”

“Good. Think about it. Think about it hard. We’ll get started in the morning if that’s what we decide. You take the bed. Get some sleep.”

“Thank you!” Luna chirped. She turned to the bed, excitedly yanking at the covers, wondering how she’d even get to sleep. She was far too excited. But, if she took the bed… “Where will you sleep?” She asked.

Nitor had fallen silently off the chair and was already hard asleep on the ground, face down. Luna grabbed one of the sheets off the bed and spread it out over his unconscious form. His faint smile was still there. Luna couldn’t help but imitate it.

Ruled By The Sun

This is one of the two short stories I submitted for a zodiac-themed anthology. The anthology was, sadly, cancelled. I am posting it here that it might see the light of day and might be enjoyed. This was the story centering around the Leo zodiac sign.

—–

I am not crazy.

Nobody believed that I can see a tiny lion that has stars for eyes.

I’m not sure I would have believed me.

When I was born the sun was busy burning things. It was the middle of August, a Sunday. My parents made a fuss about how their little daughter was the “perfect Leo.” It was a big deal to them, certain I had some grand destiny to fulfill. All according to the miraculous star sign. The excitement didn’t last very long. I made the mistake of telling them about the little lion. Early on it was cute that I had an imaginary friend. But it went on for years. When I turned eighteen and still maintained that Konstantin was real they were already looking sideways at me like most other people in our village.

My village was invaded and taken over by a group of skeletal, alien creatures calling themselves akathis. I tried to hide, but I was not very good at it.

Then I ended up in the asylum.

I was trying to plan a daring and cunning escape. The first had failed, miserably, but that didn’t dampen my spirits. My cell was comfortable and I was fed well enough, but I didn’t belong in the asylum. I wanted a proper bed and proper food. I wanted Freedom. It was something the akathis didn’t really seem to understand.

Aliens are weird.

The seven-foot-tall being sat across from me. He looked vaguely like a human skeleton, but made of thorns and twigs. His head, like all akathi, was a thin skull, similar to a man’s. His eyes were of watery, glowing amber, deep set and intelligent. They were known to be a conscientious people, smart, dignified. I knew them to be insufferably pedantic.

“It says here that you tried to escape, Irina.” The akathi, named Argktk, inflected his dry, rustling voice with feigned surprise. It wasn’t a natural inflection. It was something a few of them had picked up from their human subjects. He set the sheet of paper back down on the small stack of identically tedious reports and straightened them with far too much care and attention. Leaning forward and steepling his fingers together, he asked, as if genuinely concerned, “why?”

Sitting across from his desk in the tiny room wasn’t comfortable. I was balanced on a small folding chair, bound in a shirt that was essentially a giant, sleeveless belt. My red hair barely reached below my ears from when they shaved it. The air was a touch too cold. I shivered.

There weren’t any windows in the small, sparsely furnished room. It was just me, the skeleton creature, his desk, and the small, creaking chair. The environment was meant to put me ill at ease, off balance. At first it had worked. I learned the rules of their game quickly and was getting better and better at playing.

“I would rather be somewhere else,” I said sweetly. Not a lie.

“I… see…” He tapped his reedy fingers together. They made a dry clacking sound. “And how did you even get to the wall? Your door was locked. We have orderlies that should have spotted you. All in all, your effort was impressive.”

“Thank you,” I said with a smile.

Argktk didn’t look pleased with my gracious response. He wanted me to mention Konstantin again. But that never went well. It always ended with me getting hauled away and left in my room. The akathi really didn’t like invisible talking lions. Or humans.

“How did you get to the wall?” Argktk repeated the question, more sternly this time.

I had to give him something. Refusing to answer questions also frequently ended with me being unceremoniously dumped into my room. Sometimes they would hit me or ‘forget’ to give me a full meal.

“I… It is important that I get out of here. The planet’s future depends on me. Something is coming. Something… er… big and scary! Really big. Big enough to scramble you brains and make you go completely insane!” Not exactly a lie.

My eyes were wide and excited. I probably looked like I belonged in the big weird coat they had me wrapped up in. Argktk leaned back in his tall leather chair and folded his hands in front of him on his desk. A wheezing sound escaped his throat. Annoyance? Anger? Amusement? With the akathi it was difficult to tell. I may have poured it on a little thick.

“Interesting,” the alien said evenly. He rose with a low, creaking sound, and strode around the desk, bony hands clasped behind his back. Intimidating behind the desk, the alien would have been terrifying towering over me if I hadn’t grown used to it. I kept my eyes focused on him.

“It is… hungry,” I said with hushed intensity.

“Hmmm…” the alien said. It was a poor imitation of human musing. It came out of the akathi as a grinding croak. Argktk glared down at me with those glowing eyes. “And this active imagination you are so bent on continuing to nurture and expanding… this is its newest concoction? It is much more radical than your earlier inventions. Humans…”

“I didn’t make this one up. I… promise?” There was a low, quiet thud on the other side of the desk. Argktk turned for a moment.

“You promise,” the thorny alien echoed, looming back over me. “This gets old.” He waved a hand dismissively.

“Does it?”

He ignored my question.

“Do you know how many times you have been in here, now?”

I thought for a moment.

“Five?”

“Six. You have been brought to me six times, Irina. Six. Once a week for processing and now… trying to escape. What should we do with you?”

“Let me go?”

Argktk wasn’t amused. I don’t think any of them had much of a sense of humor. Creatures that invade a town and seize control put laughter low on their list of priorities.

“We have twenty three humans like you in this facility. Yet you are the only one to attempt escape within the last two months.”

Was I?

“The stars are angry. If I don’t get out of here-”

“Enough!” the creature snapped. “I had hoped to see a change in your demeanor and mental state. You will remain another week until your next assessment. If things do not improve we may have to resort to… treating you.”

That was his way of threatening me. As far as I could gather, the akathi’s treatments were torture and not anything remotely resembling medicinal aid. I gulped.

I nodded my understanding.

“Good. You know the way to your cell. Your meal will be brought to you in a half ration as punishment for your transgression.” He opened the door and went back to his desk, steepling his fingers and watching me as if I were a lab experiment. Actually, I was fairly certain I was.

Light streamed in through the rectangular window slits high in the walls of the corridor. Midday. I cursed myself for not grabbing a sword during my escape attempt. If I had one, then maybe I could have fought my way out. Or maybe a torch. The akathi looked like they’d hate fire. Good, purifying fire. Then I could have torched the guard and…

“You’re sulking, Irina,” Konstantin said, appearing by my feet.

“Am not,” I retorted. Yes, I was sulking. It had been a good plan. It almost worked, too.

“It is okay to sulk, but now we must rejoice!” he said. The little lion looked up at me, eyes glittering as if they held eternity. He had helped me plan the escape attempt. We just missed the one guard. The one guard who happened to be quick enough on his feet to grab me.

“You got the key, then?” I said quietly. If any orderlies were around I didn’t want them hearing me talking to “myself”. I’m not crazy. It’s not my fault if nobody else can see Konstantin.

“I got more than that,” he said in a low, happy rumble. “I got a good look at several notes and reports. If they actually believed you about me they’d probably take better care with such sensitive information.”

“They’d probably also have killed me.”

“True. Very probably true. But they haven’t yet so we still have time.”

We passed an orderly. It looked an awful lot like Arkgkt. He was darker and slightly less thorny. Krigt was his name and he was every bit as warm and friendly as Argktk. Less talkative, though. Krigt barely gave me a glance as I loped by. I wobbled and skipped a little, giving him a good show. Acting a touch crazy helped for a while. The really defiant ones that were sent to the facility were… expedited to receive “treatment”.

Gtakn, the guard for my cell block, let me in to my small room, shut the steel barred door, then left me alone. Perfect. I sighed and let myself relax a bit, finally.

“Can you get this stupid thing off me?” I asked Konstantin.

“Certainly,” he said as he began working at the straps with his teeth and paws.

“Thanks,” I said, stretching and flexing my cramped arms. Under the jacket I wore thin slacks and a top, both thin and white. They covered me, but didn’t provide much warmth.

“You were right, you know.”

“hmmm… about what?” I said rubbing my arms.

“The stars are angry. As an avatar of Leo I share their rage. It’s why I was sent to you. Your parents were not far off, though they read you strangely, thinking the stars determined your personality. You match the heart and soul of what it means to be born under the sign. That you actually were is a coincidence. Passionate, kind, stubborn, and you don’t like it when you are not given the attention you deserve. You could practically be an avatar of Leo… If you were a star lion and not a human, of course.”

“Star lion. I called you that when I was four.”

“I thought it had a nice ring to it.”

“’Konstantin, Destroyer of Planets, Avatar of Doom’ has a good ring to it, too.”

The little lion huffed.

“Undignified. But… yes. I especially like the ‘doom’ part.”

“But ‘star lion’ is completely filled with all sorts of dignity.”

“So is being locked up in an asylum after a violent race of sapient skeleton tree monsters invades your kingdom and conquers your little town.”

“A point.” I winced. Only a year ago had anyone from my kingdom even heard of the akathi. They came like a moving forest. Disciplined. Relentless. Incredibly pedantic and powerfully condescending. Konstantin had naturally told me about them long ago, but nobody listened. I warned, I yelled, screamed, pleaded. When they finally showed up the crazy ranting nightmares of a girl suddenly didn’t seem so absurd. But by then it was far too late.

According to Konstantin, the akathi had made an unholy pact with Serpens. The constellation had sent its avatar to aid and direct them. This angered Leo, Libra, Aquarius, and others. Leo was the first to act. Unfortunately, something went wrong in sending the avatar and Konstantin got stuck with me. He was probably supposed to end up giving advice to the king or some chancellor in fancy robes. My little lion companion never complained, though. Ever the optimist.

“So what’d you find out?” I asked, pacing the length of my small, windowless room.

“You are right about the akathi not liking fire.”

“Nice.”

“They also don’t like the sun very much. It dries them out. Hence most of their military endeavors being at night, focusing on areas near to easily-accessed water.”

“Makes sense.”

“And that’s it?”

“I was able to memorize a good portion of their army’s disposition. And, on the more immediate, fun side of things: I found where their armory is.”

I gave a grin almost as toothy as the one on Konstantin’s muzzle. He also held up a brass loop with a handful of oddly-shaped keys dangling off it. My grin widened until it hurt just a little.

We had staged the escape with the fallback plan of finding a key to unlock the asylum’s gate. Konstantin’s invisible spying had figured out the lay of the asylum and pretty much the entirety of my old town, how the akathi set watches and patrols, and he had even managed to send a few anonymous messages. Unfortunately, with some experimentation, we had discovered that he couldn’t get very far from me. When he got too far it was like walking into a wall. Our bond was stronger than either of us had suspected.

Konstantin’s spying had uncovered that at least one key to the asylum gate was in Argktk’s possession. The extra keys were a very exciting, joyful bonus. Chances were high one of them gave us access to the armory. That meant I could get my restless hands on a sword.

After my meager meal we escaped. My arm fit through the bars of my cell door, so getting the key into the simple lock was easy. I got the correct key on the second try and we slipped out virtually silent. The corridors were long and tall. It was the first building the akathi erected during their occupation of Wjestra. Halls that weren’t straight, windows set too high. Floors had a rolling quality to them. Completely inhuman architecture.

The Avatar of Leo knew exactly where the armory was. Not easy to get to. It was located in the central nexus of the alien complex. Guards and orderlies abounded, but none of them detected my invisible star lion. He scouted ahead and granted me what amounted to invisibility by proxy.

Combining what had been dubbed a mad house and policing facility made no sense to me. But maybe the minds of the akathi conflated insanity with criminality and being human.

I unlocked the door to the armory and slipped inside. Unlike other rooms, this one was filled with what I can only describe as trophies. I gagged and the burning sensation of threatening tears stung my eyes. Walls decorated with human limbs. Captured weapons. Tattered, bloody clothing. For all their outward appearance of decorum, the akathi were monsters. Blocking out the horrors on the walls, I searched for something sharp and capable of efficient, deadly stabbing. There were rows of shelves, meticulously catalogued and arranged by type and size.

I hadn’t realized swords came in so many shapes, sizes and weights. The first one I grabbed was too long and too heavy. With an angry sigh I grabbed a shorter sword that didn’t feel like it’d exhaust me too fast. Konstantin had secretly trained me to use swords for years, and it was the closest thing I could see to what I was accustomed to. I’d have loved to do proper shopping and find the perfect blade, but we needed to act quickly or increase risk of discovery.

It was a nice sword, though.

Simple grip and pommel, but the blade was sleek and curved in ways that Konstantin assured me would give me better leverage given my generally weak limbs. We turned by the next row and nearly bumped into an akathi. He was exceptionally tall. Eight feet at least, and hunched over a board of wood with papers clipped to it, yellowy eyes taking in the inventory as he made notes. A wicked-looking akathi blade hung at his side. Startled, he jerked to stand upright.

The arms on the wall. People I had known. People I had grown up with. Slaughtered by these monsters and used like we would have used flowers and art. My blade hacked at the akathi before it could reach for its own sword. Green ichor decorated the shelves and weapons. It started to scream in pain, a sound I was not familiar with. My stolen blade went up swiftly and stopped the noise. I killed an akathi.

I had never killed before.

My hands shook with the sudden thrill of adrenaline.

“Konstantin!” I rasped.

The little lion appeared. He looked perturbed.

“I am sorry! I was keeping watch to the halls and did not see or hear him. Are you okay?”

“Did anything hear it scream?”

“I did not hear anything coming from the halls. I think we’re clear but we should move on. You evidently have found a good weapon.” He moved to proceed.

“Shouldn’t you… er…”

“What?”

“Get a… ummm… oh…”

He lifted a paw and deadly, glistening daggers popped out. They were small, but somehow made my new sword look pathetic in comparison. Of course he wouldn’t need a weapon.

“Right. Claws.”

“On all four paws.”

“Right.”

We left the armory, locking the door quietly behind us.

As quiet as we managed to be, I was expecting the patrols to hear my heart thudding in my chest. We had one chance at this. If I was caught again, I was dead. It would be hard to explain away the lifeless, headless monster clerk in the armory. Argktk wouldn’t believe me if I told him that akathi had offered me the sword shortly after cutting his own head off with it. He didn’t believe me when I told him things that were true. Those claims only bought me threats and promises of torture.

Several akathi passed by in a patrol, rasping to each other in their dry manner. Each carried a blade that was as jagged and as dangerous-looking as their own thorny flesh. Konstantin and I waited until they passed, then made for what the lion assured me was a side door.

The door wasn’t locked so we slipped out into the night air.

Empty. The courtyard seemed completely void of life except for the plants. Overgrown and seemingly unattended, weeds and grasses grew up and into everything. Great arches had been set up so that vines and foreign, massive leafs could grown on and over them, blocking the drying sun. Humidity was high and the whole yard simply smelled green. Not in the pleasant way I had been accustomed to growing up. This was cloying and felt like it was seeping into my pores.

Konstantin led onward toward the gate. Patrols were few, thankfully, and the heavy foliage made hiding easy for a small girl. My red hair threatened to give me away. I snatched off a large leaf and managed to tie its long stem in such a way that it shrouded the shock of color.

Mounds of leafy plants. Rows of towering vines. It was a maze of subtle shades of greens and ever-lengthening stretches of bleak shadows. Konstantin led on through the increasing gloom. The sun was slowly gliding downward. In theory that meant hiding would be easier, but given the akathi aversion to the distant star it likely meant more of them out. With those glowing eyes it wouldn’t surprise me if they could actually see better in the dark.

“We’re almost there,” the little lion whispered. We were pressed into a large shroud of leafs growing over a massive stone trestle. At the gate a trio of akathi were marching by, each holding a long halberd. The stone tips were roughly carved as if in a hurry, but that wouldn’t make them any less deadly.

“Good, the sun is setting,” I whispered back. “Somehow that seems like a bad thing.”

“Quite. You do know what the sun is, right?”

“A star?”

“Well, yes. But do you know what a star is.”

“A thing that makes up a constellation?”

“It’s a massive ball of fire, very far away. That’s the simple way of putting it.”

“Ah. So that’s why the akathi don’t like it. They really don’t like fire at all, do they?”

“No they do not.”

“If only we had a torch, then. Running into an akathi at the gate… we could burn them real well. Maybe set the whole gate on fire.”

“Your sword,” Konstantin mumbled.

“The sword is a sharp thing. It cuts and stabs. It doesn’t burn. Pretty sure it can’t even scald.”

“There is a reason we’ve bonded. Such a strong bond, too. Other avatars don’t have nearly so strong a bond, I’m sure. But we… you really are what your parents said you were.”

“A Leo. Right. I still think it’s silly. And… other avatars?”
“Do either of your parents have red hair?”

“Ummm…” I had to think about that. It had been a while since I’d even seen them. Their images were blurry to my memory. They had sent me to Wjestra hoping the change of scenery would cure my supposed insanity. That was four years ago. “No.”

“Relatives on either side?”

“Not that I remember.”

“It’s a sign. Your hair isn’t even a very typical shade of red.”

“That’s true.” It was closer to a true red, a fire red, than the orange hues that were present on people said to have red hair.

“Just trust me. If we need it, I might have a… trick.” Konstantin’s eyes didn’t just glitter. For a moment, they burned with starlight. Intense. Destructive. Glorious.

“Doom,” I whispered, held in awe by the lion’s gaze.

He blinked and it was gone, eyes back to glittering, swirling fields of light.

“Yes. Doom.”

“Other avatars?”

“Shhh!”

I’m not sure how the lion shushed me. It came out as a vaguely growl-like sound, but very clearly a rebuke to be quiet.

More akathi were passing by. This was it. When they were gone we’d make a dash to the gate and with any luck be free of this improvised alien jungle.

A few swift, hunched steps brought me within arms reach of the gate. It was a massive structure. Mostly stone, but reinforced with iron cannibalized from local constructs and smithy workshops. Twenty feet tall, maybe a little taller. Connected to it was a thick, squat gatehouse. The akathi kept the gate free of their beloved alien foliage, presumably so that it wouldn’t entangle and keep the gate from opening and closing properly. That meant I was in the open while I fumbled the key into the big lock.

It clicked and thunked. We were almost free.

But it was never going to be that easy.

The gatehouse opened

An akathi stalked out and stopped short.

I looked at him. He looked at me. The seven-foot-tall creature actually seemed surprised. As surprised as one of them could look, I suppose. They were basically walking skeletons so facial expressions were nonexistent. But seeing a human, sword in one hand, gate key in another was well outside what it would have considered normal.

With a cry of alarm, the akathi raised its long, jagged blade. Instinctively, I raised my own stolen weapon. One parried strike would likely have thrown me bodily to the ground. Or broken an arm. Probably both. I knew that. Better to die trying to get free than allow myself to be subjected to torture.

“K-Konstantin! You said you had a trick? A good one?”

“Ummm… I hope it works?” It was the least reassuring thing I had ever heard. It was better than nothing.

He bounded onto my shoulder. The warm weight should have been a hindrance, but I felt myself grow more confident, steadier, stronger. It was as if he had somehow become an extension of my being rather than a completely separate creature.

“What… what are you doing?” I stammered. The akathi was coming right for me. Another was coming out of the gatehouse, drawing another big, deadly sword. I didn’t stand a chance.

“I said our bond was really strong. You’re a Leo and I’m the avatar of Leo Itself. It’s also our month. So I should be able to do… this.”

The remaining sunlight seemed drawn to us. Or maybe we just grew so much brighter that it drowned the light of the distant star. It seeped into my upheld sword like liquid fire. With an awkward cry the akathi charging at me faltered. I struck.

My movement was swift, inhuman. Like light itself I shot forward. The sword in my hand was no longer a simple blade. It was an embodiment of death. Like wood popping and cracking in a fire the akathi fell smoldering, cut into pieces. Like dry paper, the skeletal body shriveled and burned, cinders floating unceremoniously into the air. Mouth wide open in a shout of surprise, the akathi crumbled, edges of its wounds glowing as the flames progressed, annihilating the body.

Light began escaping from me like subtle fog.

The other akathi saw its companion fall horrifically. It bellowed and charged right at me.

“Konstantin? What’s going on?”

“You are under attack.”

“Ha. Good one super smart magic lion of obviousness,” I muttered.

“Our bond! It works! It works!”

“This was your trick?”

“Neat huh? Exhausting, though. You have become… a vessel of sorts for the power of Leo itself. Step left.”

I listened and stepped left. My arm nearly wrenched from its socket as I parried the blow from the akathi’s attack. It hurt badly, my arm going slightly numb. The akathi backed away, whirling the blade, preparing for another strike. He paused, noting the massive glowing gauge my blade had left in his weapon. Molten metal dripped where my sword had cut messily into it.

He took another step toward me, trying to get me to back away from the gate. My chances were better if I could get through to the city proper. It would be easier to get lost. Hide. Escape. As long as I was on the grounds of the asylum I was still their prisoner.

More light escaped from my flesh. It looked like smoke fleeing from licking tongues of fire.

I shifted my stance and shuffled closer to the gate. Then I made a lunge at the akathi. It wasn’t expecting the sudden aggression from a diminutive prisoner, even though it had just witnessed the death of its comrade. Steel flying faster than it should have been able to removed the akathi’s leg just above the knee. A flurry of cinders took to the air and the tall creature collapsed. With a flick of its wrist it tried to sever my arm. I jumped back, slammed my blade into his. It broke, falling apart into a smoldering mass.

Other voices began to take up the cry of alarm. The akathi yelled, a horrible grating sound. I brought my sword down. It went silent.

A moment later and I was on the other side of the gate, glowing. If I was going to remain unseen, that needed to change.

“Konstantin?” I breathed.

“Yes?” the avatar asked. He sounded tired, as if he were the one who had just battled two very tall, very deadly monsters.

“The glow. We need to hide and move quickly and…” and I didn’t know what else. The plan was to get out of the asylum, get somewhere safe that wasn’t occupied by the invading monsters that made an evil deal with an even more evil star.

“Right.”

The glow disappeared and Konstantin hopped down from my shoulder. His eyes sparkled like normal. A low, pleased, purring sound rattled at the back of his throat. Evidently, he was happy to see the stars again. They were flickering in the sky like a sea of diamonds, the sun having set during the brief fight. I couldn’t believe how quick that had happened. Three akathi killed in the span of what? Fifteen minutes? Twenty?

It was thrilling. They had attacked and destroyed much of what I loved. Retaliation. Justice. Konstantin had told me that lions were fierce protectors and could be utterly ruthless. Part of me wanted to go back, to end them all for what they had done. Was that the lingering of the magic bond I had just experienced? Was it from Konstantin’s animal nature, somehow passed to me? Or did the bond perhaps bring out more of that aspect of myself, traits that were defining for my guardian sign? Konstantin and I had always had a strange, symbiotic relationship. The avatar needed me to stay grounded to the planet. I needed him for similar reasons. Whatever the reason for the thrill of battle, I needed to calm myself and move on. Quickly.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Konstantin said as angry voices hurried in the direction of the gate.

“No, that’s not what I-” my voice was cut off by the sound of an explosion. It came from the asylum.

“Ah! There it is!” Konstantin sounded overjoyed.

“What did you do?”

“Argktk just opened his desk.”

“And it…”

“Exploded. I planted a surprise when I stole the keys.”

“How did you…?”

“I had a month to work on it. I’m the avatar of an entire constellation. Knowledge of things that burn is ingrained. You’d be surprised how many things the akathi keep around are highly volatile.”

“Fun.” Smoke billowed high over the tall gate to the asylum. Konstantin’s explosive must’ve taken out the entire office and then some. The tone of the shouting changed. The lion had sewn confusion amid the anger. I smiled broadly as we ducked off the roadway and into a small copse of trees.

Wjestra. The village wasn’t exactly a metropolis, but it had once been a place of growing industry. Husks of razed buildings dotted the landscape. Plenty of intact homes and shops still stood, but the fighting during the invasion had been fierce and the akathi had no reservations when it came to destruction. I hadn’t seen much of it. I had been… hiding.

A shopkeep had betrayed my location. And my supposed delusions. The akathi had found me and then executed the shopkeeper. His was one of the shops that had been broken into little more than kindling. The broken buildings remained broken. A constant reminder to the humans. Obey or suffer.

Screams continued to rise from the asylum. People began to poke wary heads out of their homes. Explosions and confusion from their overlords was unheard of. This was something new, worthy of their attention.

Sentries began striding swiftly down the streets, yelling for the humans to get back in their homes. Flames illuminated the town, the asylum quickly becoming a blazing inferno. A small sun in its own right. The prison blocks were largely stone and wouldn’t catch fire. Konstantin knew what he was doing. He wouldn’t have knowingly endangered the other prisoners.

Whether thinking the conflagration was a friendly army finally come or simply an opportunity arising, one of the townsfolk decided to act. A young man with a chair rushed an akathi, dashing from his home with a desperate purpose. The wood exploded against the akathi’s back and sent the beast sprawling. Others saw it and rushed the downed monster. Before it could rise and draw its blade, half a dozen men were on it, stomping and bludgeoning it with whatever implement they could find. Table legs, branches, rocks. The akathi’s amber eyes dimmed forever.

Other sentries noticed. There was a rush of bodies. Those that had hesitated at first joined the fray enthusiastically.

“We did this?” I whispered to Konstantin. “I… uh…”

“Yes. My thoughts exactly.”

“The plan was to escape, find help.”

“Indeed,” the little lion rumbled.

“We should do something,” I said. It came out as a question.

“Let us proceed. My claws are itching.”

Two akathi were hammering at a nearby house, their weapons brutally cutting chunks from the walls and door. The ground already had several human bodies accompanying the fallen aliens. Skirmishes, desperate and frenzied were carrying on all over the streets. Human and inhuman shouts and screams blended together.

We charged the two. Konstantin didn’t cling to my shoulder, activating our glowing, superhuman bond again. It might have exhausted him fully. Or he was simply restless and wanted to use his deadly claws as he had said. He leaped at the one on the left as it raised the dark weapon in its fist. The lion alighted and began to tear. The akathi’s weapon arm was the first to go. The green ichor that looked so bright indoors seemed like tar in the light of the stars and fire.

I ran my blade through the second akathi as it turned, distracted. Both fell to the ground, mine considerably less messy than Konstantin’s. The eyes had flared right before they went out. Did it see the lion?

People emerged from the house. I recognized them all. A tailor and his wife. A cobbler. A young boy that had been known to periodically pull pranks on one of the local smithies. They recognized me, too. My red hair was hard to mistake, even if it was short. The leaf had fallen off, I noticed. Possibly at the gate.

“Grab their weapons,” I directed. The tailor and the cobbler obeyed with relish.

“Irina?” The tailor asked in disbelief, then froze for the briefest of moments, eyes darting to Konstantin then back to me.

I nodded. He shook his head and joined the cobbler in rushing to another fight.

“They can see you now?” I asked the lion.

“Umm… perhaps an unforeseen consequence of being aggressive. And I was really quite aggressive there.”

“Ah.”

The tailor’s wife brought the boy back indoors, but not before thanking me profusely. She actually called me a hero. For years I had been thought of as a bit crazy. The switch to hero would take getting used to.

The tailor lived. The cobbler wasn’t so fortunate. When dawn broke, far too many humans had been killed. The akathi that hadn’t fled were quickly massacred. The air was thick with the stench of fire and death.

I was exhausted. The plan had never been to trigger a revolution. Getting away was the goal. Freedom. Maybe finding help. The result of breaking out of the asylum was much grander than I would have ever dreamed. Men were sent out to bring word and hope.

Konstantin and I sat huddled in front of a house. Somebody had thought to get me proper food. I was starting to feel human again.

“What happens now that others can see you?” I asked.

“Maybe nothing. I’m not sure I was ever supposed to be invisible, honestly. Maybe our bond had something to do with it.”

“The glowing and such?”

“Yes.” I wondered why we hadn’t tried it years ago. Then realized there hadn’t been monsters to kill, people to help.

“Did you expect… this at all?” I made a vague gesture to everything around us.

“Well, as the avatar of Leo I am destined to unite people and lead them. Since you are what you are… Yes. I just didn’t expect it to happen here, this quickly. I imagine in a week or so word will have spread. The akathi will learn they are mortal. They’ll know that they can be stopped, even backed by Serpens and its avatar. And we will teach others what we already know.”

“Hmm. And you mentioned other good avatars.”

“I did.”

“Of course there are others.”

“Of course.”

I sighed.

“People will listen to me now.” It was a strange thought.

“Yes. They will. That’s how it is meant to be. What would you have them hear?”

“That we won’t be ruled by the akathi.”

“And what would you have them ruled by?”

I looked at Konstantin. He knew exactly what I was thinking.

Chalk

A young maiden battling Lovecraftian horrors! Monsters! Chainsaws! Talking cuttlefish! Knights! A kitsune wielding a katana! And more!

Chalk is out now! (Actually, has been for a couple months, but… I’m terrible at blogging).

Chalk Book Cover - Final - Front

But now on Amazon