Greencloak – Chapters 1-3

Hello there! If you’re here from my kickstarter, welcome. I promised a preview of the book, so here are the first three chapters for you. Without further ado… enjoy!

Chapter One

It’s dangerous, knowing something, Suken thought as he looked down from the rafters at the crying girl and her kidnappers. These idiots know their plan is foolproof. Know that the girl’s parents will pay any ransom to get her back. Know that the abandoned dye factory they’ve chosen as a hideout is safe and secure.

They were so secure in their knowing that the thought of anything going awry was unthinkable. Unplanned for.

And something was about to go very awry. The best up-and-coming bounty hunter in Adunare was about to spectacularly ruin their plans, and all the knowing in the world wouldn’t help them.

There are only two of them. I’ve faced worse odds, Suken thought, flipping a thin golden prayer-coin across the backs of his knuckles. The edges were smooth from the fingers of all the bounty hunters who had used it to ask for the Lady’s favor, the symbols on front and back nearly worn away.

This job was supposed to have been a simple missing persons case, but in Suken’s admittedly limited experience, nothing was ever as simple as you expected it to be. A runaway child, the warrant had said. When he’d discovered that she’d been kidnapped, he should have brought that information to the Bounty Hunter’s Guild. But if he did, he’d have to share the reward, fame, and prestige a successful rescue would bring. He needed to pay off his uncle’s debts to the cartels, but more importantly, he needed his reputation to spread.

It’s not like the girl’s in any real danger. Criminals they may be, but even criminals aren’t going to kill a ten-year-old girl. Especially not when keeping her alive will get them more ransom money.

Suken looked at the girl again. She huddled against an empty vat fifty feet away from the box of crystallin where the two men were sitting, playing cards. She watched them and sniffled quietly, a purple bruise blooming on her left cheek. He couldn’t remember her name, so he named her Flower.

“What we waitin’ for?” One of the men asked, tapping a deck of cards on the box of crystallin. Suken wouldn’t sit with a box of that flammable shit between his legs for all the aerans or prayers in the city.

Add another point to the stupidity tally, he thought, rolling his eyes. And, to make matters worse – or better– they’d left a metal-bound dagger lying on the table. Silver inlaid into the steel of the blade and wrapping the hilt indicated that the weapon was imbued with stored power by some mage or another.

The man began shuffling, thick fingers deftly maneuvering the battered cards. His arms were muscle-bound and covered with remembrance blooms. Looks like he could squeeze the piss right out of you if he managed to get those arms around you, Suken thought, pulling a heavy cloth from his belt and pulling it tight around his mouth and nose, tying it behind his head. Python, then.

“We got the girl, don’t we?” Python continued, dealing out a hand to his partner. “What else we need? I could go now, deliver the bloody ransom note, and we could be hittin’ the Rum Tub by midnight.”

Suken unslung his crossbow from his leg and pulled a bolt with a silver tip from the case at his belt, placing it into the channel, careful not to touch the silver.

I’ll only get one shot at this. But then, when have I ever needed more than one shot? He couldn’t toss a prayer to Lady Chance; not now. But he mentally promised the goddess her rightful tithe, knowing that she’d hear him. That done, he crouched down and waited for Descent, his heart thundering in his chest.

“I’ll deliver the note,” the second man said, and as the words left his lips, his face ran like melted wax, shifting and changing into that of a nondescript man in his early twenties.

Suken grinned, clenching his fist around the prayer in his left hand. Bringing in a pair of kidnappers and saving a little girl was great and all, but a shifter? That would put him up to rank three at least.

“You’re being paid well for your time,” Shifter continued.

“Not well enough,” Python said, examining his cards. “’specially when I ain’t heard what we’re ransomin’ for. How much we getting’?”

Shifter threw him a dark look over his hand of cards. “You’ll get what you were promised, and not an aeran more.”

Right on time, the beam below Suken’s boots began to vibrate. Below, the kidnappers braced themselves, placing their hands on their possessions so they wouldn’t rattle off of the box.

Suken reached down and tapped on the little nub of silver protruding from the back of the bolt with one finger.


Tiny white and purple sparks began to spit from the silver as the convergence activated, bouncing off the crossbow’s wooden handle.

Outside the windows, Suken saw the familiar mist beginning to roll through the streets as the city descended deeper into the perpetual cloudbanks shrouding the rainforest below.

Four. Three. Two . . .

The shuddering stopped, and the lights in the dye factory flickered and went out as the city drew upon all remaining magical energy to stabilize.


In the moment of darkness, Suken released his pent-up breath and squeezed the trigger. The string released with a twang and the bolt whistled towards the box below as Suken’s hands, quick as caal-fire, yanked back the lever to reset the string and drop a new bolt from the magazine into the channel. This new bolt wasn’t metal-bound; it was too dangerous to keep those in a magazine.

Suken heard a thud as the metal-bound bolt implanted into the box. Then the lights came back on.

For half a heartbeat, Shifter and Python stared at the new decoration gracing their table. Then they scrambled away as blue-white energy crackled from the bolt to arc over the scarred wood and across the metal of the dagger, activating whatever convergences had been stored in the blade in a dull whump. The box went up in a great gout of fire which smelled of bad fish. The explosion rattled the rafter Suken crouched on.

Bad luck for you, boys, Suken thought with a grin hidden by the cloth. Excellent luck for me. As usual.

Dust poured from the ceiling following the concussive blast and smoke rose from below. They met in the middle like two stormclouds crashing into one another, shrouding the factory in an acrid, swirling fog mirroring the mist outside. Between the smoke and the afterimages dancing in his eyes, Suken didn’t see if either of the men had been knocked unconscious by the blast. Oh well. He’d find out soon enough.

He kicked the coil of rope lying beside his foot. It unraveled down towards the floor as shouts of alarm and pain began below.

Suken hung his crossbow from the hook on his belt and grabbed the rope in both hands, lowering himself hand over hand into the roiling smoke. One of the two of them was roaring at the other, and Flower’s panicked cries joined the cacophony.

Hold on, Suken thought. I’m gonna get you out of here, kid. As soon as I knock your new buddies around a little.

He dropped to the floor, the cloth blocking the worst of the smoke. His eyes stung and watered, making it difficult to make out which blurred shape in the billowing clouds was which. Flower let out a loud cry, followed by a bout of coughing.

Suken knelt and waited, listening. Nothing. Apparently the kidnappers were waiting, too.

Well, he couldn’t sit here all night. The smoke was going to clear out eventually. Time to throw a prayer and hope the Lady likes me today.

“What kind of idiots,” he called, “would choose a dye factory for their base of operations?”

A grunt, and footsteps to his right.

Suken raised his crossbow, tracking the footsteps with it. “All the good locations already taken by the real criminals?” he continued. “You know . . . the ones not resorting to kidnapping ten-year-old girls?”

Python burst from the smoke and skidded to a halt, his eyes widening, staring at the loaded crossbow pointed right at him.

“Hey,” Suken said. He loosed the bolt towards the man’s leg. A shattered kneecap was a damned good way to keep a mark from making a run for it. But Python took a hurried step backwards, tripping over a broken chair. Suken’s bolt, intended for the man’s knee, buried itself in his abdomen instead.

“Damn it,” Suken said through gritted teeth. Such a wound was often fatal, and Suken wasn’t the type of hunter who brought his warrants in dead. Criminals were assholes, yes, but it wasn’t Suken’s place to pronounce guilt or sentence them. That that was for the law to decide, no matter what the warrants said.

He hurried forward and knelt beside Python. The older man groaned, both hands pressed over the wound. His shirt was already soaked through with blood.

“Stop pressing on it,” Suken snapped, reaching into a case at his belt and pulling out a little vial of bloodweir. The stuff was worth a mage’s ransom, but Suken could save up for another couple months and get more. This man would die without it. He pulled the stopper free with his teeth and yanked the bolt from the wound, then poured the bloodweir over it to mix with Python’s blood.

It wouldn’t stop the bleeding completely, but it would slow it enough for Python to get medical care in time to save his life.

He heard the footstep behind him a half a second too late.

Something slammed down onto Suken’s shoulder with a blinding burst of pain. Suken swayed for a moment, the already hazy smoke-filled world growing dim and unfocused. He gritted his teeth against the pain and lurched his way into turning to face his attacker, then dodged back to avoid a broken piece of wood lashing at his face. The jagged end of the broken chair leg Shifter was wielding knocked Suken’s wide-brimmed hat off backwards, but it blessedly missed damaging anything important this time. Suken dropped to his hands and knees, then darted to his right into a thick bank of smoke.

Shifter tried to follow him, but he wasn’t quick enough. Suken dodged back and forth through the smoke, blinking and trying to ignore the pain in his left shoulder. He took a moment to try to lift his arm, and managed to get it to shoulder height before a wave of blinding pain shot from his shoulder up his neck. He gasped and let his arm drop back to his side. Not good. He pressed his back to a stack of boxes and peered around the corner. No sign of Shifter. Suken rested his crossbow against the ground, bracing it with one foot so he could pull the lever back with his good hand to reload it. He’d nearly finished when a dark shape loomed out of the smoke to his left.

Suken ducked under Shifter’s first clumsy swing, spinning and bringing his crossbow around to crack against the side of the man’s head. Shifter took the hit, reeling back into the smoke bank. He didn’t reappear. Suken glanced at his crossbow, but in the smoke he couldn’t tell if it was damaged.

No time to worry about that now.

Shifter probably wasn’t feeling too great after that blow to the head, and Flower wasn’t screaming anymore, which could be either very good, or very, very bad. Suken had thought that Shifter wouldn’t risk killing a ransom. Could he have been wrong?

He shoved those doubts aside and concentrated on the present.

The smoke was beginning to clear, blown to wispy shreds by a warm, wet wind smelling of ash and rot from the nearby incinerators. Suken saw the curved wall of one of the vats looming out of the smoke, and darted over to press his back to it, his shoulder alternating between throbbing and jagged bolts of pain. He winced and braced his crossbow against the ground again. The lever pulled back harder than usual, and the weapon made a strange clunking noise as the bolt fell into the chamber.

Suken winced. That didn’t sound good.

“You’re not bad,” a gruff voice called, then coughed. “Whoever you are. But you’re not good enough.”

Shifter. The smoke had dispersed enough for Suken to see that his hiding spot was little more than a narrow alleyway between two huge vats, closed off on the far side by the outer wall of the factory. The voice had come from the other side of the vat he had his back pressed against, the same area where he remembered seeing Flower.

Chances were good that Shifter had no idea where he was. He could use that. He reached down into the prayer-pouch hanging from his belt as the man continued, “This ends here, hunter. Come on out, nice n’ slow. Lay down your weapons, and no one needs to die.” The girl cried out, then the factory went silent save for her muffled sniffles.

Suken hesitated, the thin beaten gold of the prayer warm against his fingertips. He wanted to take these men, but even he wasn’t willing to put anyone’s life at risk to further his career, especially that of a little girl.

He won’t kill her, Suken reminded himself. If he does he’ll get no ransom, and he’ll be bumped up from a fourth rank warrant to third. Maybe even second. No one’s stupid enough to risk the scaffolds for a kidnapping.

If I let Shifter walk away now, he’ll go to ground with her. He’ll give her father his ransom demand, and the old man’ll pay it. But Shifter won’t hand her over. Why should he, when he can continue to bleed a desperate father dry?

Suken read stories like this in the broadsheets twice a month. Honesty wasn’t a trait that the criminals of Adunare held in high regard, not when there was a rain-barrel full of aerans to be made.

Suken didn’t care about how much money the kid’s father stood to lose. But he did care about Flower. An experience like that would scar a kid for years, if not a lifetime. He’d already irreparably scarred one child in his life. He wouldn’t see it happen again, not if he could stop it.

He balanced the coin on the back of his thumb and his bent index finger, whispered a prayer to the Lady for luck, and flicked it.

The coin flipped end over end towards the far side of the factory before hitting the ground with a dull clink and bouncing across the wooden floor. Suken stood and stepped around the curve of the vat, his crossbow already raised. He adjusted his aim as Shifter came into view, kneeling with the girl in front of him, a knife to her throat and his head turned towards the place where Suken had thrown the coin.

Suken took a half-second longer to aim than he usually did since he didn’t have his other arm to support the bow, then squeezed the trigger.

As the string released, the bolt jammed in the channel, wood splintering and flying in all directions. The string snapped with a dull twang, one end whipping back to slice across the back of his hand, lashing through his thick leather glove and the skin beneath it. Suken dropped the weapon on reflex, and it thunked to the floor.

Shit, he thought with a wince. Of all the bloody–

Shifter whirled towards him, hurling the knife he’d been holding to the girl’s neck. Suken ducked back behind the vat, panting. That had been a near miss. He’d felt the wind of the knife’s passing. Auriss’s kiss, his uncle had always called it.

He edged close to the side of the vat again and peered around the rounded corner. The smoke had dissipated enough to give him a clear view of Shifter and Flower. The kidnapper faced him, his eyes narrowed, one hand clutching the girl’s shoulder. He must have drawn another knife from the bandolier slung over his shoulder, for he had it pressed against the girl’s throat again.

Suken took a deep breath and stepped out into the open. He raised his right hand, palm out. Blood soaked his sleeve from the gash in the back of his hand, staining the cloth the crimson of a sicario’s tattoo.

“Don’t hurt her,” he said, spotting his crossbow lying on the ground a few feet away. It was too far for him to reach without giving the man ample time to part the girl’s skin and let her life drain out all over the floor. Oh well. Not like the weapon would have done Suken much good with a snapped string and a jammed bolt anyway. He’d have to rely on brains instead of brawn. Thankfully he was almost as quick with his wits as with his hands.

“Get out,” Shifter snarled, his eyes fixed on Suken. The hand holding the knife was rock-steady. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”

“I’m stopping you from making the biggest mistake of your life,” Suken replied.

Shifter tightened his grip on the girl. “I’m leaving,” he said, “and she’s coming with me.”

He had the look of an animal backed into a corner. His eyes were a little too wide, his posture too still. Suken had seen that look before, and knew better than to make any moves that the man might construe as threatening. He bit back the gibe that rose to his lips, instead taking the time to consider his words and the effect they would have on the man standing in front of him.

Shifter had reasons for what he was doing. Money, probably. It was almost always about money down here in the Valley. He probably needed it to pay off the cartels, and unlike Suken, he didn’t give a monkey’s diseased shit who he hurt in the process so long as it saved his own skin.

The girl shuddered, her red-rimmed eyes fixed on Suken’s face. Tears had tracked clean lines through the dust caked on her face. She knew that Suken would help her. That he’d save her. He saw it in her eyes.

Suken wasn’t about to let her down.

“You’re not getting out of here,” Suken said. “Not with her, or without her. But if you let her go and come quietly, you won’t be charged with the murder of a child. The child of a rich lord, I might add. Old Garron’ll be able to buy any judge in the damned city. Kill her and you won’t live to see daybreak.”

“Lord Garron,” Shifter snarled, “isn’t who he pretends to be.”

“I don’t give a damn who he is,” Suken said. “The way I see it, you’ve got two choices.” He lifted one blood-stained finger, ignoring how his hand throbbed. “One, you drop that knife and get charged with kidnapping and aggravated assault. Two,” he lifted a second finger and pitched his voice down, “You kill the girl, and I make sure that you regret that decision before I turn you over to the guards. You’ll keep regretting it until they march you to the Arrival Circle and fit the noose around your neck.” He took another step forward, lowering his voice still further. “It’s not too late. No one has to die here today.”

Shifter’s eyes darted to the closest door and back to Suken.

Suken saw what he intended in one moment of horrified realization.

He’d known that Shifter wouldn’t kill Flower.

But knowing things was dangerous.

Shifter grabbed the girl’s wrist and whirled her around, pulling her arm up. Suken started towards them, but he was too far away. He’d only made it two steps before Shifter sliced the girl’s arm from wrist to elbow, digging the knife into the flesh and along the vein. She screamed, blood beginning to spurt from the open wound.

Shifter dropped the girl and ran for the door. Suken let him go, dropping to his knees beside Flower and pulling his cloth from his face.

“Hey,” he said, giving her a smile as he grabbed her wrist and pressed the fabric of the cloth against it. “Look at me, kid. Everything’s going to be all right. You hear me?” Warm blood suffused the cloth alarmingly fast. Flower didn’t reply. She cried in huge gasping sobs, tears streaming from her face.

He reached for his case, but cursed when he realized that he’d already used his only vial of bloodweir on Python.

Suken glanced towards the door. There would be people out there by now, drawn by the smoke and the shouting. Probably standing around chatting with one another about what was going on inside.

“I need help in here!” he shouted. “Someone, please!”

The girl kept crying, and Suken kept pressure on the wound, but no one entered the door.

Bloody Valley district, Suken thought, gritting his teeth. Someone ready and willing to fuck you over on every street corner, but Chance forbid you ever find yourself in need of some help.

He heard a groan to his right, and turned to see Python roll to his hands and knees, crawling towards the door.

He was going to lose them. Lose them both.

But that didn’t matter. Not anymore. There was only one person in this warehouse Suken was concerned with losing now.

“We’re going to go and get you help,” he told Flower, giving her his most reassuring smile. “But I’m going to need to pick you up, and while I do that I need you to press down hard, right here where my hands are. Can you do that for me?”

She met his eyes, her crying fading into hiccupping sobs. She was growing pale, little red splotches standing out on her pale cheeks. “I want my d-daddy,” she whispered, her lip trembling.

“I know,” Suken said, feeling as if his heart were constricting in his chest. Somehow he managed to keep that reassuring smile on his face. “I know. We’re going to go and find him. But to get to him, we have to play a game. To win, you have put your hand here, and press down real hard. As hard as you can.”

She looked down. At the sight of the blood coating his hands and soaking her dress, her eyes rolled back in her head and she went limp.

Suken swore under his breath and looked at the door again. Still no one. Lady’s breath, he’d seen at least fifteen people out there from the roof before he’d come in. Someone had to be within hearing distance.

“Help!” he tried again. “For fuck’s sake, there’s a little girl dying in here!”


He shook his head and turned his attention back to Flower. Putting pressure on the wound was helping, but not enough. She was still losing blood. He had to get her to an ardein. The closest Temple was a half hour pathway ride away, but as long as she held out until they got there, the ardein could save her. The guild could pay the damn fee out of his wages. He didn’t care . . . as long as she lived. He hesitated another moment, then took a deep breath and pulled his hand away, tying the cloth as tightly around the girl’s arm as he dared. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said to her unconscious form as he pulled the knot tight. “You hold on until I get to an ardein, and I’ll make sure the bastard who did this to you gets a pounding he won’t forget. All right?”

Her eyelids fluttered, but didn’t open. He lifted her, ignoring the pain in his left shoulder, and starting loping towards the door. He exited into the warm wet air of the Valley District and the reek of trash, urine and soot. What he could see of the buildings lining the street through the mist were dirty and rundown, mostly abandoned factories or warehouses with their windows boarded up. One leaned forward over the street like a drunkard, half of its second floor collapsed inward. People in soot-stained uniforms or beggars’ rags wandered by, giving the dye factory a wide berth. They ignored Suken and the blood-soaked girl in his arms, and he wished them all the Rotting Death.

He began to run through the Valley District. Buildings and beggars, slaves and pickpockets lurking in dark alleyways all blended together as he ran. He ignored his pain, ignored the wary looks the poor gave him, ignored the piles of trash he leapt over and the calls of whores and the taunts of men lounging outside of bars.

He ran as fast as he ever had chasing a mark, but it wasn’t enough. Halfway to the pathway station, he felt Flower give one little shuddering breath and cease breathing.

He stopped in the middle of the street, panting, staring at her. People walking by gave him furtive looks as they passed. Suken set Flower down on the soot-stained cobblestones, uncertain of what he should do. He tried untying the cloth, planning to put pressure on the wound again, but as he did, he saw that the bleeding had stopped.

There was no longer a heart beating to drive it.

He looked up at the people walking by him. Some threw him disdainful looks, but no one stopped. Another dead kid in the Valley . . . nothing to write a broadsheet story about. Not one of them cared.

I care, Suken thought, reaching up to press a finger against Flower’s chin to close the girl’s mouth. He brushed her hair back from her still face, then reached into the pouch at his belt and pulled free a prayer, unable to wrench his gaze from the girl’s face. With trembling fingers he took her hand and placed the prayer on her palm, closing her fingers over the blood-smeared gold.

Her hand was so small. Like his brother’s had been, the last time Suken had seen him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, bowing his head and closing his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”

He sat there holding her hand in the middle of the street until the guards finally showed up an hour later.



Chapter Two

Suken made his way down a narrow street towards the edge of the merchant’s district in the bright light of early morning, houses and stores looming over him on either side. Suken barely noticed the crowds of people as he walked, head down, wide-brimmed leather hat pulled low to hide his eyes and the bruise blooming high on his right cheek. People glanced at him as they passed, but they didn’t stop to question him or ask if he were all right, despite the blood spattered on his tan pants and soaking the sleeves of his off-white shirt.

The crossbow probably had something to do with that. Citizens recognized a bounty hunter when they saw one, and knew that it was a good idea to keep their distance. Even from one as young as Suken.

A lot of good the bloody crossbow did me last night, he thought, kicking at a loose stone as he walked. Chance, the girl’s mother . . . her eyes, when the guards had told her . . .

Suken tried to shove the memory away, but it lingered like a bad hangover. He hadn’t been permitted to go with the guards to deliver Flower’s body, so he’d followed them and waited across the street, concealed in the shadows of a vine-covered glass awning. He’d watched as a servant opened the door, then ran to fetch Flower’s mother and father. Suken had a horrible suspicion that that mother’s eyes filling with horrified disbelief and tears would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Flower’s father had stared in disbelief. He’d reached out once, his fingertips brushing against his dead daughter’s cheek, then turned and walked away, leaving his wife to collapse to the floor, screaming in anguish.

Lord Garron’s not what he seems, Suken had remembered Shifter saying.

From where he’d stood, Lord Garron had looked like any parent would after hearing that they’d lost a child.

After he’d left, Suken had stopped at one of the many remembrance artist’s parlors dotting the merchant’s district. The woman had asked no questions, going about her business in quiet efficiency, the lei-powered machine buzzing as she added another remembrance bloom to the ever-growing garden climbing up Suken’s left forearm. This was the fifth bloom he’d gotten, the inked lines tracing memories and regrets across his flesh.

He stopped at a pathway crossing as a rail-car swept along the silver tracks set into the street, bluish white streaks of magical energy trailing in its wake. The pathways crisscrossed the floating city like a spider web, looping over and under the streets to convey their passengers from place to place. Like most things in Adunare, they were powered by the energy mages bound into metal. The wind from the rail-car’s passing pulled at his serape, and he raised his uninjured hand to hold the brim of his hat. Suken glimpsed faces staring out of the well-lit windows; barely blurs, suggestions of eyes and hair and hats. The last car swept past with a rattling shriek and one last rush of warm, humid wind, revealing the fifteenth precinct of the City Guard.

The precinct was a riot of activity even this early in the morning. Suken opened the door, ignoring the twinge of pain in his shoulder, and held it for a guard in iridescent armor dragging a criminal through the doors. The guard nodded to him, and Suken lifted his bloody fingers to the brim of his hat in response. The criminal, a brawny man wearing a scarred leather vest and a ragged shirt and pants, growled curses under his breath as he struggled against the chains binding his wrists behind his back. Suken followed the two into the lobby of the station, glancing around. The benches lining the walls were full of hunters and civilians, waiting to sign up for warrants or fill out paperwork. There weren’t enough seats, so the rest stood in a loose crowd near the front desk, where a harried-looking young woman sat, surrounded by stacks of paper. A few guards filtered through the crowd with papers clipped to wooden boards, calling out names. The only guard wearing his armor was the one with the brawny criminal who had now made it to the front desk. The others wore well-pressed grey uniforms under their iridescent cloaks.

The hunters were simple to pick out due to the weapons they carried. Some wore small crossbows like Suken’s, but just as many favored metal-bound knives, clubs, or swords. One man in the corner had a spear. Idiot, Suken thought as he followed in the wake of the guard and his catch. Hunting was difficult enough without a weapon like that sticking up over the heads of the crowd, giving away your position to every potential mark in a ten yard radius.

He took a deep breath of the warm air and let it out slowly. He wasn’t looking forward to this report, but it had to be done.

Suken waited as the young woman behind the desk, Kora, directed the guard to an open cell. Suken stepped forward. She looked up at him, the necklace of glass beads around her neck catching the light of the luminaries in flashes of various colors. Those beads must have cost her a pretty prayer – they were mage-glass, unless Suken was mistaken. Kora was pretty, with a heart-shaped face and full lips and thick dark hair pulled back into a braid. Unfortunately, that prettiness was soured by a scowl.

“Anisaria,” she said flatly.

“You remember me,” Suken said with a forced smile, resting his elbow on the counter and lifting the brim of his hat. “I’m flattered, Kora. You know–”

“State your business.”

Suken allowed his face to fall. “Can I at least ask you how your vacation was?”

“Do I look like I have time for chit-chat?” She gestured to the crowd of people in the lobby. “State your business.” She picked up a stamp and slammed it down onto a piece of paper so hard that it made Suken flinch, then handed it to a guard who approached her from the side.

“Here to make my report on last night’s job.”

Kora gave another piece of paper a mild concussion with her stamp. She set it down and pulled an unbludgeoned piece of paper from one of the stacks, handing it over the counter to him. “Take this and have a seat. They’ll see you when they can.” Suken turned, scanning the crowd. All the spots on the benches were occupied. He took his form and walked over to an empty stretch of wall between two benches.

Filling in the form and returning it to Kora took ten minutes. Suken spent the next hour leaning against the wall with his sketchbook open in one hand and his pen in the other.  Sketching usually helped to clear his head. He started with Kora, removing that scowl (it added about ten years to her looks. She looked much better with a smile) and moving on to a quick sketch of Flower, smiling as she played with a puppet. Maybe he’d deliver it to Flower’s mother, anonymously, of course.

“Suken Anisaria?”

Suken sighed and snapped his book closed, wondering how much of a chewing-out he was about to get.

A guard in a pristine grey uniform gave him a disinterested look over the top of his clipboard. “This way.” He turned, and Suken pushed himself away from the wall to follow him, muttering apologies to the people he pushed past in the crowd as he went. The guard led him through a thick wooden door and down a narrow hallway lined with open and closed doors. The open ones displayed rooms small and large, most holding only a single desk and two chairs. In one, a guard leaned forward over a table, his face red and cords standing out in his neck. The criminal he was staring down looked back at him across the table with a smarmy smile and a relaxed posture. The next room boasted a gigantic map of the city, taking up the whole wall and criss-crossed with colored strings. Notes and warrants were tacked haphazardly to the wall around it. The guard paused outside of a closed door and rapped on it once.

“Come,” a muffled voice from within said. The guard opened the door, then stood aside so Suken could step in. As he did, he the floor began to vibrate in Ascent. The empty ceramic mugs on the man’s desk rattled and several pieces of paper fell from the corner of the desk. The man sitting behind the desk muttered a curse under his breath, reaching out to steady a framed picture. It was clearly a family portrait; similar to the one Suken had hanging in his own study. A much younger version of the man behind the desk stood in the center of the drawing, with his arms around the shoulders of a pair of little girls, their hair bound in twin braids and their faces lit by huge smiles. A woman stood behind him, her dark hair hanging loose to below her shoulders.

It was a decent drawing. Suken could have done better. Outside, the mist faded into sunlight and the vibration of Ascent ceased.

The man himself was a stark contrast to the disorder of the room. His grey uniform was neatly pressed and he wore three knots of rank on the shoulders. Three knots, Suken thought with a sinking feeling. That’d make you Corporal Niden. The highest-ranked officer at the precinct.

That didn’t bode well.

Niden’s ash-blond hair was held back in a tail at the nape of his neck, and his short beard was meticulously trimmed. He was paler than most people Suken knew, his skin nearly as light as cream. Niden glanced up at Suken, his eyes hard and cold as brushed steel.

“Anisaria,” he said. “Sit.”

The guard who had led Suken here closed the door, trapping him in the room. As Suken sat down in a hard-backed wooden chair, Niden turned his gaze back to a piece of parchment in front of him, picking up a simple pen. “You’re making a bit of a name for yourself,” he said.

“Just a bit?” Suken said, though his nerves felt like exposed metal-bound silver. “Pretty sure I’m the youngest hunter ever to receive his license, and I brought in more warrants in my first year than–”

“Four low level cases,” Niden said, flipping one of the papers in front of him over and looking at the back. A remembrance bloom of his own peeked out from the hem of the sleeve of his uniform, mirrored by another on the other wrist. “Two mid-level, not counting the ten or so rank fives you brought in before you got your license.” He looked up. “Clearly, you have talent. So perhaps you can enlighten me as to why such a promising young hunter with a sterling record wouldn’t come to us for backup as soon as he knew that he was outnumbered?”

Suken winced. “I thought I had a better chance of taking them out on my own, sir.”

“Not a mistake you’ll be making again, is it.”

No, Suken thought, looking down at his blood-stained hands. No, I won’t be making that particular mistake again.

“I see from your report that you tracked the girl to the factory, where you managed to take down three of the four men,” Niden said, still not looking at Suken.


“Your report claims that the fourth, the one who escaped, was mage-born. A shifter. Are you certain?”

“Yes, sir. Positive.”

Niden’s expression soured a little at that, but he only nodded. He picked up a pen and began scribbling something on the paper in front of him. “Anything else you can tell us about him? Physical identifiers, other than his face?”

Suken gave him as good of a description as he could, and Niden jotted it all down, though Suken had included a sketch with his report. He waited a moment as the corporal finished writing, then took a deep breath. “Sir,” he said. “The man who I shot. . . is he all right?”

“Yes, though it wouldn’t have been a great loss had he died.” The corporal sifted some sand over whatever he’d been writing to blot it. “He’s worked as a sicario for the cartels in the past.”

Suken let out a little breath in relief, feeling as if a weight had lifted from his shoulders. “I was hoping,” he said carefully, “that I might be able to continue on this case. I know that it’s probably a rank two now, but seeing as how I was the only one who actually saw him. . .”

“You’re being pulled to work on a different case.”

Suken blinked. “But, sir–”

Niden speared him with a hard look.

Suken swallowed and closed his mouth.

“All hunters not currently on assignment are being assigned to the Greencloak case,” Niden continued.

Suken looked up. “All the hunters?”

“That’s what I said.”

“I. . . thought Greencloak was a rank one, sir.”

“He’s been given priority,” Niden said, sliding a copy of the Greencloak warrant across the table along with a signed permit. “Word came down from the High Mages last night.”

Suken had seen the Greencloak warrant a hundred times, tacked up on walls everywhere hunters were likely to show up. The sketch was vague and shadowy, depicting a man in a cloak with his face half-hidden in the depths of the hood. Below the picture, a block of cramped text listed the man’s crimes.

Larceny. Grand larceny. Forgery. Several counts of each. In the case of grand larceny, the number was in the double digits, almost a hundred.

And three counts of murder.

That’s new, Suken thought. The thief had been getting a reputation in the past couple of years as being uncatchable. Rumors about him flew more thickly than flies around a rotting fruit. But Suken had never heard anything about the thief killing anyone.

He looked up. “Sir, about the shifter–”

“Forget it,” Niden interrupted. “If I see you walk in the door with that shifter before the Greencloak case is closed, you can kiss your license goodbye, Anisaria. This is your highest priority. Any information you find about Greencloak, you bring directly to me. Understood?”

Guy’s wound tighter than a cocked crossbow, Suken thought. Well, at least I’m not being demoted a rank, or having my license taken away. His relief was tempered by a touch of anger that the shifter was going to be free to run around until Greencloak was eventually caught.

“Understood, sir,” he said.

“Dismissed,” Niden said, turning his attention back down to the clutter on his desk.

As he walked out of the precinct, Suken paused to pull a prayer from the pouch at his belt, thinking.

Word among the other hunters was that Greencloak was well-nigh uncatchable. Dozens of first rank hunters had tried to find him, and had as much luck at it as trying to catch a cloud in their bare hands. Suken had never tried, being fifth rank. But now that he had a shot. . .

Could he find Greencloak? He had a lot of contacts in the Valley, where Greencloak was rumored to operate. And he was good, better than most of the first rank hunters who had tried, despite what the guild believed. Suken started idly flipping the prayer along as his knuckles.

If I catch him, he thought slowly, the reward will be. . . well, more than I’ve earned on any of my other jobs combined. Not to mention the marks towards my rank. It’d definitely put me up a rank, maybe two.

But what about Shifter? Suken flipped the coin up and caught it, looking at the symbol carved into the gold. Seven lines, forming a crude crown shape. Suken closed his hand around the coin. Something heroic, eh? He thought. What could be more heroic than bringing in the killer of a ten-year-old girl?

But he couldn’t show up here with the shifter before Greencloak was caught.

So I’ll find Greencloak first. While I’m chasing him, I’ll ask around after Shifter. I’ll get a few solid leads on the shifter, bring in Greencloak, then get the jump on any other hunters on Shifter’s trail. He’d be able to kill two birds with one bolt: secure his career and reputation as the best hunter in the city, and bring Shifter to justice.

He’d just have to make sure that he found Greencloak quickly. The sooner he brought the thief in, the sooner he could begin chasing Shifter in earnest.

No one stays uncaught forever, he thought, starting down the steps and tossing the prayer back over his shoulder. Not even Greencloak.

Chapter Three

Fletch Greencloak glared at the iron chain leading from the manacles around his wrists to the ceiling. He sat on a cold stone floor, wearing only a pair of thin cotton breeches and shirt. The chains gave him enough leeway to lie down on the unforgiving rock floor, but he couldn’t move farther than a foot from the wall. The manacles around his wrists were locked on so tightly that he’d long since lost the feeling in his hands, and dried blood from the gash in his head had stiffened the back of the thin cotton shirt his captors had given him.

“You know,” Fletch called to the locked door across the room, “You could at least have the common decency to pay me if you’re going to tie me up like a fetishist’s plaything!”

No response. Either his guards weren’t out there, or they were ignoring him. As usual.

Footsteps coming down the hall pulled him from thoughts of his discomfort. Fletch turned his head slightly towards the wooden door, the muscles in his neck and shoulders protesting even that small movement. The footsteps grew closer, then stopped, only to be replaced with the metallic jangling of a ring of keys. The door swung open inwards to reveal two stocky men wearing black cloth masks over their faces flanking a young boy carrying a platter. The boy’s skin was grey with shifting patterns of black, like smoke. Vethin, the boy, wore a similar outfit to Fletch, with the addition of a steel collar around his neck. Behind them strode a man wearing Fletch’s own damn cloak, the hood drawn up to cover his face. The cloak faded from dark green at the hood to leaf green at the bottom hem, the inner lining a deep midnight blue so dark it was nearly black. As usual, the man wearing it leaned back against the wall, arms folded, silent. All three of them wore dark brown clothes, unremarkable in every respect. In short, nothing that would give Fletch any sort of indication as to their identities.

“If it isn’t the asshole squad and their silent fucking guardian,” Fletch said, leaning back against the wall. “So what’s it going to be today? Questions about my career? My history? My bloody love life?”

One of the two guards flicked the chain leading from his hand to the boy’s collar, and Vethin flinched.

Don’t give them the satisfaction, Fletch thought savagely.  When he’d first been brought here a week ago, he’d refused to eat or drink, or to answer their stupid questions. A day later, they’d brought Vethin in. They hadn’t said anything, just nudged him forward with the food and water, then met his eyes. Fletch had understood the threat. Cooperate, or the boy would suffer. Fletch had no idea how they’d known about the boy’s connection to him – but then, Fletch had no idea how they’d captured him, either. All he remembered was kneeling at the door of a mage’s house, pulling out his lock picks. . . then the world blacking out around him. No sound, no pain, nothing out of the ordinary. And then he’d woken up here, chained to a wall, his head aching and all of his clothes and personal belongings stripped from him.

After they’d brought in Vethin, Fletch had begun eating and drinking, and feeding them lies in answer to their myriad questions, each more outrageous than the last. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before they grew tired of him jerking them around, and then the serious threats against Vethin’s well-being would begin. But in the meantime, he took savage pleasure in keeping them guessing as to which of his answers were real, and which were fake.

Hopefully by the time you get tired of my attitude, I’ll have figured out a way to get out of this shithole, Fletch thought, his eyes fixed on the guards. And I’ll be sure to leave you bastards with a few parting gifts on my way out.

Vethin straightened his back and glared at the guard, who rolled his eyes and gestured towards Fletch. “Go on,” the guard said, his voice muffled. “Feed the bastard.” His eyes shifted to Fletch and crinkled at the corners in what was probably an unpleasant smile behind that mask. “Maybe this time you’ll give us some straight answers, thief.”

“I’d say it’s about as likely as you turning around and ramming your partner’s sword up his own ass,” Fletch replied.

The guard’s eyes narrowed. Fletch didn’t know exactly what the men wanted of him. He’d been approached by an operative of one of Adunare’s many criminal organizations – he wasn’t sure which one, not that it had mattered to him at the time – the night before his abduction. The hooded man had asked him to take part in some sort of plan, something that would supposedly pay well and required his particular talents. Fletch had promptly told him to go piss off the side of the city. He worked alone, always had, always would, and there was no way he was letting the bloody cartels get a chain on him.

But they’d managed to get a chain on him anyway. A real one. Fletch shifted position slightly, his numb hands resting in his lap.

“Where were you born?” the second guard asked.

“The moon.”

“Who were your parents?”

“The fire god and his favorite pet bitch.”

The guards shared a look. “Where do you keep your stolen goods?” the second guard tried.

“In a warehouse on Farris Street,” Fletch said.

Both of the guards blinked at that. “Really?” one asked.

“No,” Fletch said. “Also, fuck you.”

“If you don’t give us serious answers,” the guard said, “we’re going to have to do things we’d rather not.” This one was softer-spoken than the first. The old good guard, bad guard routine. It was as old as a mummer’s play and just as likely to fool Fletch into thinking it was real, but at least they were finally getting around to the legitimate threats.

“It’s about time,” Fletch said. “I was getting tired of the foreplay.” He grinned viciously at them and lounged against the wall, crossing one ankle over the other. “So where are we starting, then, boys? I prefer whips to branding, but I’m willing to make concessions.”

“Bloody thief,” the bad-guard muttered. “Don’t know why we bother. I think we should kill the both of them and be done with ‘em.”

“What fun would that be?” Fletch asked. “Any cartel henchman worth a shit knows that you can’t pull answers from a corpse’s lips. C’mon. . . torture’s clearly the way to go. Your boss’ll approve, I’m sure.” Come on, Fletch thought savagely. Come within grabbing distance. I dare you, you bloody bastard.

The guards ignored him, as usual. So did their silent hooded partner.

Fletch narrowed his eyes, trying to peer into the shadows of the hood. It was made specifically to keep anyone from seeing the wearer’s face, and unfortunately it worked as well for the strange man as it did for Fletch. Does he have any idea how expensive that bloody thing is? If he puts so much as a mark on it, I’ll have him gelded.

Vethin shuffled forward and set the platter down on the stone floor beside Fletch. A simple clay cup of water. A wooden plate with a wrap filled with rice, beans and pork. The same thing he’d eaten every day for the last three days. Enough to keep him alive, but not enough to restore any modicum of strength to his limbs. Fletch met Vethin’s eyes, asking silently if the boy were all right.

A small stubborn smile was his reply. Fletch took the water, grasping it awkwardly with his bound and numb hands, and downed it in one long gulp. He ate the wrap next, careful not to waste a bite. He’d need every bit of strength he could muster for when the opportunity to escape presented itself. And it would. If there was one thing Fletch had learned, it was that new opportunities always presented themselves. Eventually.

Vethin gathered up the empty tray and started to stand. But he lost his balance briefly and fell forward, jamming his shoulder roughly into Fletch’s chest, the tray clattering to the floor and the plate rolling across the stone towards the wall. Fletch let out a pained cry, but the pain wasn’t jarring enough to keep him from noticing Vethin dropping something on the floor. Fletch shifted slightly to sit on whatever it was, hiding it from the guards’ view.

“Git off him,” the guard growled, yanking on the chain. Vethin fell on his side, barely avoiding the kick the guard aimed at his ribs. He rolled to his feet and edged away from the guard, who snorted and tugged on the chain.

“C’mon,” he said. “We ain’t got all day.”

Vethin bent and picked up the dropped tray and plate, meeting Fletch’s eyes long enough to drop him a wink. The guard shoved Vethin out into the hallway, followed by the good-guard and the man wearing Fletch’s cloak. Fletch stared at the wood of the closed door for a long moment, listening as the footsteps receded. Once he was certain that they were gone, he shifted his weight and looked down at the object Vethin had brought him.

A lockpick. Gods bless the bloody kid, he’d managed to palm a lockpick. And not just any lockpick, either. It was one of Fletch’s own.

Ten minutes later, Fletch massaged his wrists, the blood returning to his hands with dull tingles and frequent sharp jabs of pain. If these bastards damaged my hands, he thought, I’ll not only kill them, I’ll kill everyone they ever loved. Gods below, I’ll kill everyone they ever met.

As the hours went by, he forced himself to stand and begin pacing the room, continuing to rub the life back into his fingers. He didn’t know why these people had taken him, but it obviously wasn’t for the damned bounty on his head. If it had been that, they’d have turned him in to the cats or the pearls by now. The questions he’d been asked hadn’t given him any clues either. They’d asked everything from his opinion on politics to his favorite foods.

He couldn’t figure out why they would want to know things like that. It was a mystery, but not one Fletch wanted to know the answer to badly enough to stick around and find out.

By the time he heard keys jangling down the hall, he almost felt back to his old self again. Fletch stood with his back to the cold stone, his heart beating a staccato rhythm in his chest. His hands were still a little numb, but he could move them easily. It would be enough. It would have to be.

“Bloody stupid, if you ask me,” one of the guards said, his voice muffled through the locked door. “Ain’t he got enough by now?”

“Don’t know. Maybe it’s harder than he thought,” the other guard replied. “Thief is a bloody sharp-tongued bastard.”

“So? Ain’t like anyone knows him.”

“Someone must.” The footsteps stopped right outside the door. The keys jangled again. “Ain’t nobody got no friends or family.”

“Other than the kids?” A snort. “Why’d we have to take one of the mongrel ones, anyway? I heard they got diseases. You know if they got diseases?”

Fletch bent his knees a little, the metal of the lockpick cold in his hand. He ran the ball of his thumb along the edge of the metal. It was thin, but the edge was sharpened to a razor edge. He heard the key slide into the lock, then the familiar thunk as the tumblers fell into place.

“Dunno,” the second guard said as the door began to open. “Never heard one way or–”

Fletch spun towards the door as it opened to slam the lockpick into the guard’s eye. It sank in as easily as a knife into hot butter, the eyeball beginning to ooze a white mucus. The man’s other eye widened. Before he could let out a cry that would alert any other guards to what was going on, Fletch yanked a knife from the guard’s own belt and used it to slash the man’s throat from ear to ear, spilling a flood of warm blood over his hand. The man began to stagger, gurgling as his lifeblood spurted from his neck. Fletch stepped back, lifting one foot to kick the dying man in the gut. He fell back into the second guard, who was cursing and struggling to pull his sword from his scabbard. Fletch glanced at the knife in his hand, noting the thin traceries of silver that marked it as a metal-bound blade. The uninjured guard opened his mouth to shout a warning, but Fletch leapt forward, slamming him against the doorjamb and pressing cold metal-bound silver and steel to his throat.

“Now,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, “normally in this sort of situation you and I would have a long discussion about who hired you, how you found me, and how you caught me. But I don’t know how many of you there are, and even if you told me you two came alone today, I wouldn’t trust you. Don’t take it personally.” Beside them, the first guard collapsed to his knees, his hands scrabbling at his throat in a vain attempt to staunch the bloodflow. The eye Fletch had punctured was slowly deflating, clearish mucus oozing from it. The other was wide, terrified. The guard with Fletch’s knife to his throat watched as his friend fell to his side on the stones, the spurts of blood from the jagged wound in his neck coming slower, more sporadically.

“So this is how this is going to work,” Fletch said. “You’re going to tell me where the boy is, and where my personal effects are. If you do, I’ll kill you quick instead of leaving you to bleed out in agony for the next three hours.”

The man’s dark eyes darted back to Fletch’s face. “Please,” he whispered. “I’ve got a son, he’s only–”

“Should have thought of that before you took this job,” Fletch said, a hard note creeping into his voice. “The boy, and my things. Where?” He pressed the knife hard enough to draw a bead of blood.

The guard let out a strangled sound, his adam’s apple bobbing above the blade. “S-second door on the left,” he whispered, his upper face pale. The lower half was still shrouded by his dark cloth mask. “The boy’s there. Your things are in the next room down. But please. . . please, my son. . . he’ll be alone, I–”

Fletch reached up to grab the man’s hair. He pulled the guard’s head towards him, then slammed it back against the stone wall with a dull thwack. The guard’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he slid to the ground bonelessly. Fletch stared down at him for a long moment, then he knelt and began methodically stripping the guard of his clothes.

“Don’t think I spared you for your own sake,” he muttered to the unconscious man as he pulled his boots free. “Just don’t want another bloody orphan to take care of. I’ve got more than I can handle already.”


Each step was agony. The adrenaline from the attack had worn off before Fletch was even done pulling the guard’s outfit on, leaving Fletch exhausted, his limbs trembling.  He hadn’t realized he was as weak as he was. He forced himself onwards, though. He was used to being weak. He’d experienced enough of it in his youth.

Dim light from luminaries set in the walls illuminated the tunnel he found himself in when he exited his cell. He was obviously in the undercity, the twisting warren of tunnels which bored beneath the city of Adunare like an anthill. Fletch knew a good portion of the tunnels under the city, but this part was foreign to him. They were probably under the Mage’s District somewhere, given the fact that the stone had been covered over with dark wood paneling both on the walls and the floor. The ceiling had been left uncovered, exposing lichen-encrusted damp rock.

As Fletch reached the second door, he paused. When men feared for their lives, they were considerably more honest. But there was always the possibility that this guard had lied. There could be fifteen armed men behind this door.

He knelt and knocked lightly on the door in a predetermined pattern. He heard the gentle pad of a thief’s footsteps from the other side of the door, then a series of knocks came back to him. He nodded. Vethin was in here, and alone. Good. He picked the lock deftly. He could have taken the guard’s keys, he supposed, but that would have seemed like a slight against his professionalism. Two heartbeats after he’d begun (one longer than it would have taken him if his hands hadn’t still been shaking), the door swung open to reveal a room containing a small bed with a threadbare blanket. Vethin stood in the middle of the room, grinning. His teeth were startlingly white against his soot-grey skin.

Fletch glanced around the room. “Terrible accommodations,” he said. “I think we can do better. Don’t you?”

“Lady’s breath, yes,” Vethin said, the grin widening. “I got the right lockpick, then?”

“Guess you were paying attention in Peshyn’s lessons after all,” Fletch replied, twirling the little tool around one finger. “Where’d you get it?”

Vethin gestured to the wall to his right. “The room next door,” he said. “It’s the same one as where they keep the food n’ water. Saw your things in there while I was waitin’ for ‘em to hand over the tray, so I spent the first two nights pullin’ that paneling out.” Fletch glanced at the indicated board, his mood darkening as he saw the dark blood staining the edges of the wood panel. The kid had worked at it until his hands were torn and bloodied. No wonder he was hiding them behind his back like that.

“Took hours,” Vethin said, the pride apparent in his voice.

“You’re lucky there wasn’t a stone wall between the rooms,” Fletch said.

“Nah. Rooms’re too close.” He looked up at Fletch, all big dark eyes and aching need for approval. Fletch nodded to him.

“Good job.”

The smile that spread over his face could have lit the room with light to spare. Fletch turned and stepped back out into the hallway, glancing to his left and right. Empty. Good.

“So now what?” Vethin asked, bobbing up beside him.

“Now,” Fletch said, “we collect my things and get you home.”

The boy beamed and hurried ahead of Fletch to the closed door of the store-room, which wasn’t locked. Fletch opened it to find a small room well stocked with stacks of dried meat, flatbread, a wooden barrel half full of water, and a disorderly pile of pouches, leather scabbards, and cases. Fletch heaved a sigh of relief and picked up the pile. He’d spent the last five years commissioning these tools and knives from various merchants around the city, never using the same merchant twice. He’d have hated to have to do all that work again.

He pulled the belt around his waist and cinched it tight, then searched the rest of the wooden shelves, though he didn’t have much hope of seeing his last missing item.

“Cloak?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” Vethin replied from the hallway. “The quiet one was always wearing it when I saw him. I didn’t like him. He felt. . . wrong.” Fletch glanced back over his shoulder at the boy. Vethin had remained out there, staring down the hall with an intent expression.

Keeping a lookout. Good. According to Peshyn’s reports, this one had been a particularly quick learner.

Fletch turned back to the shelves, looking a little more carefully, just in case. This search was as futile as the last. Damn. He turned back to Vethin. “Were there more than two guards and the bastard wearing my clothes?”

“Yes,” Vethin replied, turning his completely black eyes to Fletch. “I saw at least four others, and another one who wore a hooded cloak sort of like yours all the time. Never saw any of their faces. Dunno if they all stay here, or sleep somewhere else.”

Fletch stepped out into the hall. “We’ll–”

The twang of a crossbow interrupted him mid-thought. Without thinking, he leapt forward, shoving Vethin against the wall. Hot pain seared into his calf. He didn’t have time to stop and inspect the damage. He whirled, keeping his weight off of his injured leg, hands darting to the hilts of the short throwing knives in his belt. A man stood in the hallway ten paces away. He was pulling back the lever on the crossbow in his hands, his brow furrowed, his eyes darting back and forth from the weapon to Fletch.

Crossbows. Stupid weapons. Took too long to reload to be much good for most people. Well, this idiot’s penchant for the newest moronic weaponry would be his undoing.

Fletch pulled the knife he’d taken from the guard from his belt and twisted his body, throwing it with all his meager strength. It whistled through the air, but Fletch’s aim – not very good at the best of times – was off, and he barely nicked the man’s shoulder. He cursed, reached for his other knife. . . and found the scabbard empty.

Vethin ducked around Fletch, his hand darting out, Fletch’s knife leaving it in a bright flash. This knife caught the attacker dead in the chest. He cried out and dropped the crossbow, staggering back a step. Fletch lurched forward as quickly as he could, crashing into the attacker in a chaos of flailing limbs and grasping hands.

He didn’t bother punching, not at this close of a range. Fletch wasn’t much good at it anyway, and he knew it. Instead, he raked his fingers across the man’s face, aiming for his eyes. When that failed, he rammed the knee of his uninjured leg up into the man’s groin and was rewarded with a moan of pain. He managed to work his hands past the attacker’s flailing fists, gaining a couple short rabbit-punches to the ribs and an elbow to the eye for his trouble, but it was worth it as his hands closed around the other man’s windpipe.

The stranger’s struggles grew more feeble as his air supply dwindled, then ceased entirely. His arms fell limp to his sides, his fingers twitching once or twice as his eyelids fluttered closed. Life bled from him like aerans slipping from a cut purse. Fletch held on long enough to be sure that the man was dead, then stood shakily, his sides burning and his eye slowly swelling shut, and turned.

Vethin stood near the door, staring at Fletch’s leg, his eyes wide.

“Get those knives,” Fletch said. “And search him, see if you can find anything else, like a letter or some sort of identification.” Vethin rushed to obey. He fished through the man’s pockets, then looked up, shaking his head.

“All right,” Fletch said. “You go on ahead of me.” He took the knives from Vethin, tucking them into his belt, and pressed one hand against the wall. The luminaries in the walls around them wouldn’t continue past this section of tunnel, so he pulled one of his own from one of his cases and tapped the silver nub on it. The little glass sphere burst into light as the metal-bound energy reacted with the chemicals contained inside it. He tossed it to Vethin, who caught it nimbly, then Fletch pulled another out and hung it from a thin silver chain around his neck, activating it and pointedly not looking at his injury. As long as he left the bolt in, the blood loss probably wouldn’t be bad enough to kill him. Probably. He felt warm blood running down his leg, filling the boot he’d stolen from the guard. It squelched as he stepped forward, using the wall to help keep his balance. A flare of bright, stabbing pain shot up his leg, and he winced.

The boy stood there, staring at him, the luminary held in one dark hand.

“I said go,” Fletch said between gritted teeth. “I’ll meet you at the den.”

Vethin didn’t answer. Instead, he made his way to Fletch’s side and ducked so Fletch’s arm was over his shoulders.

“I said to go,” Fletch said as the kid grabbed his wrist.

“Ain’t leavin’ you,” Vethin said.

Bloody stubborn kids.

“This is how you’re going to die, you know,” Fletch muttered as he reluctantly put some of his weight on the kid. The phrase was part of a ritual all the kids knew – Fletch had taught it to them himself. It was the only thing he had taught them personally. Determine your weak point, don’t deny it, he’d told them. Denying your weaknesses got you killed. Facing them made you stronger. “You die from not bloody doing what you’re told.”

“Nah,” Vethin said, holding Fletch’s wrist and throwing a grin at him. “I’m gonna die jumping from one rooftop to another. Gonna miss and wind up with a broken back or neck in some alley. Besides, ain’t you always told us not to listen to anyone ‘cept ourselves?”

Fletch rolled his eyes. Leave it to Vethin to turn Fletch’s own words against him. Well, no use arguing, not when they might have more guards arriving at any moment.

They made their way deeper into the twisting tunnels. The wood paneling stopped after about a hundred feet, transitioning into the more familiar stone walls, moss, and dripping water. Fletch tried to keep an eye out for familiarities, but as time wore on he had to focus more and more of his concentration on putting one foot after another.  Once or twice he thought he heard voices and running footsteps echoing in the tunnels, but Vethin guided Fletch into darker, less upkept tunnels until the voices passed, hiding the luminaries in a closed hand. The voices could have been people Fletch knew, but they were far more likely to be thieves who wouldn’t hesitate to slit Fletch and Vethin’s throats and rob their corpses of every last item they owned.

The pain grew with each passing minute, and after what felt like a mile of lurching, limping steps Fletch noticed the world beginning to fuzz at the edges, like a slow mist creeping in through the alleyways of the Valley. Whenever the mist began to encroach on him, Fletch brought his full weight down on his injured leg. The resulting surge of pain cleared away some of the haze, but each time it retreated less. It wouldn’t be long now before the darkness claimed him, and if he fainted down here, he’d certainly die.

“Fletch,” Vethin said. Fletch looked up blearily. How long had it been since the last time he’d looked up? He wasn’t sure. He’d been concentrating too hard on holding the unconsciousness at bay. Vethin pointed.

The dim light of their luminaries illuminated a stone carved into the form of a willowy woman set into an alcove in the tunnel wall ahead of them. The denizens of the undercity had painted her in several garish shades of red in mocking imitation of the Empress of Tyrodames, the desert land to the east. The Red Lady pointed the way towards the surface, her slim hand extended to point eastward.

“We’re almost home,” Vethin said, worry hovering at the edge of his voice. “Can you make it?”

“Yes,” Fletch said. It felt as if he were hearing his own voice from somewhere far, far away. “I’ll. . .” He swayed, the world spinning around him. “I’ll. . .”

The pain faded. The mist encroached, and Fletch smiled in relief as darkness claimed him.


On Learning European Longsword

Time to take a break from talking about submissions to talk about something else that’s been going on in my life and that relates to writing: I’ve started taking lessons in European Longsword. Fellow aspiring fantasy authors, if you want some amazing source footage for how to write sword fights as they ACTUALLY would have been fought, look no further than this video.

I used to watch films to try to get an idea for how people fought with swords. Troy, Braveheart, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Hero were all favorites to revisit, depending on the style I was going for. But I’ve come to realize through the course of these lessons that films just… aren’t a great way to study this, not if you want any degree of realism. How MUCH realism depends on you, of course. Maybe you just want to write a really cool scene with lots of witty banter between blows and cinematic elements. That’s totally legit. It’s one approach to a problem that has a multitude of solutions. But for myself, I like to try to research as much as I can for my books to get things as accurate as I possibly can, and martial arts are no exception.

Watching and reading can only teach you so much, though. Nothing substitutes for actually learning something, for getting your hands dirty (or in this case calloused), for feeling how the sword moves. What it feels like to block an oncoming strike, even when that strike is pulled for the sake of safety, or how heavy a sword is when you’ve held it in a guard for an extended period of time. What is possible in terms of body movement, and what’s not. Footwork. Guards. Strikes, thrusts, and parries.

So about six weeks ago I started learning. The specific style I’m learning is German Longsword. You can read a bit more about it here, or here. I also took a couple of seminars in broadsword and long & short form quarterstaff/spear, but those were specifically for stage combat, so for historical and writing purposes I’m focusing on longsword.

I’ve always been fascinated by swords, since I was little, so this has been a bit of a dream come true for me. Not only am I enhancing my writing, I’m getting to realize a life-long dream, which is pretty badass. Once my introductory class is done I’ll post up a video of a choreographed routine between my instructor and I, but for now I’ll leave off by saying that if you’re looking to add a touch of realism to your fight scenes without taking lessons yourself, look up half-swording (maneuvering your sword with two hands, one on the hilt and one holding the blade). This is something I rarely see in fantasy novels, and has a lot of historical basis. You can see it a few times in the video I linked above.

Current Submission Status

Well, here goes. The Forgotten Soldier has been submitted. Hitting the “send” button on any submission is hard, but this one was harder than any I’ve done so far.

Fanart from this novel by a dear friend. Click to view on the artist’s deviantart page.

This book is my darling. My Dark Tower. My Stormlight Archive. It represents 14 years of rewrites and revisions, building this story up from what started out as a simple retelling of a D&D campaign. I’ve torn it all down and rebuilt from the ground up so many times now that only the barest bones of what I started with remain. The initial drafts were completely different books, save for some shared names and one big event that has never been cut.

I know this world better, in some ways, than the real one. I know about its trade agreements and economics. I learned some basic physics in the process of building the magic system and studied the psychology of PTSD and repressed memories. I know its history, its legends, its games and plays and the divinities working behind the scenes both worshipped and forgotten. I constructed languages and laws and drafted maps and created just about anything else you can imagine, but for me, the most important part will always be the characters.

I love these people as if they were real. I weep with them when they fail and cheer when they prevail. I know them inside and out, but they still manage to surprise me sometimes as little bits of their past or personalities swim up from some unconscious well of knowledge buried in my brain. I’ve spent more time with them than almost anyone I know in my life, including my husband. They’re a part of me, and they always will be. I want others to get to know them, to love them as I do. I want them to help others as they’ve helped me.

The book’s in the hands of an agent now, an agent I adore and whose opinion I trust. She made some of the best revision suggestions I’ve ever received on the last novel I submitted, and her enthusiasm was a boon to me when I first decided to take this seriously four years ago. I’ve come a long way since she last read my work, so I’m hoping that I’ve improved enough and that this project excites her enough to want to be involved. In a way, it’s like handing a newborn to a stranger and standing there wringing your hands, praying they know to support the neck and don’t drop it.

Wish me luck, guys. I am terrified and excited and nervous and everything in between.

In addition to this, Greencloak is still out on submission to TOR. I don’t expect to hear anything back on that for several months yet. I’m also anxiously awaiting word on the short story anthology I submitted to – they should be replying in the next ten days.

While I wait, I thought I’d share a few things I found in my last hectic revision pass of Forgotten Soldier that made me laugh. These are mostly notes from my writing group.

(For those not in the know, this character is very, very gay.) I wound up having to cut this section, but Meg’s comment was too funny not to save.

Some beta reader reactions:

And finally, one of my favorite comments, again from a beta reader. This one never ceases to make me laugh. There is no greater compliment than a comment like this about one of your characters.

On Cutting the Puppy in Half & Taking the Leap

In 2004, I wrote a book. It was a pretty long book, even then. Over 100k words, if memory serves. I thought, in my Junior-in-college naivete, that it was pretty good. Over the course of the next nine years, I kept returning to it. I revised. And revised. And revised. I started from the ground up at least three times, completely rewriting it. Changing the plot. Removing characters. Adding characters. You name it. And then… finally… I felt like I had something truly special. Five years ago, after nine years of (admittedly sporadic) work, of editing and polishing and worldbuilding and tweaking of characters, I decided that I was going to try to make my dream a reality and actually be an Author. I was going to write every day! I was going to go to conventions and listen to writing podcasts! BY GOD, I WAS GOING TO GET PUBLISHED. And I had this novel already finished! And it was good!

There was just one problem. It was 350k words.

To put that into context for you, if you’re not steeped in the writing field:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 198k words.
  • A Game of Thrones: 292k words.
  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy: 454k words.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s latest foray into Roshar, Oathbringer: 460k words.

“So?” you might be thinking. “Those other authors did it, so can you!”

Yeah. No. Here’s the thing. No one’s willing to risk taking on a project that large as a debut novel. Most of the time, when an author approaches a publisher with a book this long, they’re already established in the field. There’s a good writeup about word counts and what publishers are looking for here, if you’re interested in reading more about it. Basically, for fantasy sci-fi, they’re looking for 90k to 125k. I have literally been laughed at by people at conventions when I mention my wordcount.

“So cut it in half,” you say. “Seems simple enough.”

I once emailed Patrick Rothfuss about this, asking for his advice on the subject, as I’d heard that some overseas publishers had tried to cut his book into parts. “Cutting a book in half isn’t like cutting a pie,” he told me. “It’s more like cutting a puppy in half. You can never expect it to work the same way after.”

I took this to heart for a long time. The character arcs wouldn’t be complete if I split the novel in two. The plot would be incomplete. It wouldn’t be Right. I couldn’t cut my puppy in half! I loved it too much! So I decided that my best course of action would be to start another book, a spin-off in the same world that I hoped would be shorter and more marketable. “And,” I thought to myself, “if this trilogy does well, I’ll have a fan-base already built for the other novel! They’ll be excited to dive back into the same world, and surely that will make it more appealing to a publisher.”

So I started working on Greencloak, then titled “Prayers to the Wind.” My concept for it was a crime drama with elements of comedy and romance set in a high fantasy world; a buddy-cop comedy in which the protagonists slowly come to realize (in between the snarky banter) that they have feelings for one another. I’ve been submitting Greencloak to agents and the occasional editor for the last three years, with little glimmerings of hope which are always quickly extinguished. Some agents have requested the first three chapters, which I know is better than most people get. One requested the entire book once. I got a letter back from an editor at a major publishing house saying they enjoyed it but they had too many similar novels right now. Meanwhile, my beta readers were building me back up from each rejection, reminding me that the book was good. Very good. Better than some published stuff they’d read. Some of these beta readers were folks in the industry, so I felt buoyed, validated that this book actually WAS good, that I wasn’t just over-inflating my own ego, thinking too highly of myself. I kept submitting. And getting rejected.

The usual advice in a situation like this is to trunk the novel and move on to another. And I HAVE been working on other things (more on this later). But I know this book is good. And, more than that, I want this book to get into the readers’ hands because I’m doing something with it that I don’t see terribly often in mainstream fantasy novels regarding LGBTQIA representation, and I think that’s a damn shame. No one’s giving it a shot. I have one last hope before I go the self-publishing route – but that shot is a long one.

It’s TOR.

I never submitted to TOR, even though they’re my dream publisher and I’ve been writing non-fiction for them for a few months now. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading novels with that little mountain on the spine. My dad loved fantasy and sci-fi and almost all of the books in his office were TOR novels, back in the early 90s. I cut my teeth on this stuff, and to have a novel with them would be more than a dream come true. It would be THE dream, what I’ve always wanted, what I’ve been working towards since I started writing fantasy in middle school.

So I didn’t submit. Because I was terrified to. I was so scared that they’d reject me, and then the dream would be dead.

But lately, I’ve been thinking long and hard about my writing career. I’ve been writing seriously for about five years now. (By seriously I mean working on something every day, rather than tinkering with something for a couple months then leaving it by the wayside for a year.) And what do I have to show for it? One novella which was a semi-finalist in Writers of the Future and I went on to self-publish, and five unpublished novels (one of which is, as stated above, unpublishable due to length).

I need to get my ass moving on this, and take a chance. I need to submit to TOR, if only so I finally know one way or another and can move on. It’s my own personal Schrödinger’s cat, and by god I’m going to finally open this box.

So next week, I’m printing out the first three chapters and submitting it. Finally. If it doesn’t make it, I do have a plan to self-publish, because I truly believe that there IS a market for this novel and by god if the agents and editors can’t find it, I will. But maybe they’ll see the worth in this little novel of mine, and give it a shot. I can only hope for the best.

But I’m also working on something else, something that I should have put more thought into a long time ago. Something that I held back on out of fear, and that I now see that I need to just do. I’m cutting the puppy in half. My writing group just reached the end of what used to be Part Two of The Forgotten Soldier, what I am now considering the end of the book. They seem to think that it worked well as an ending – definitely an “Empire Strikes Back” sort of downer ending, but one which leaves the reader somewhat satisfied and on the hook for the next installment. And hey – if I CAN sell this, I’ll have the sequel already done, which has to be a huge boon in this age of long waits between installments in a series. Book One now ends up at 216k words. This still isn’t ideal for a debut, but it’s not completely out of the ballpark, either. Sanderson’s debut, Elantris, was 200k.

Once I run this draft by a group of beta readers, I’ll be querying it out to agents, starting with the lovely woman who read all of Greencloak way back when it was in its second draft and gave me such wonderful critique on it. She’d invited me to query her again if I had something different, and I fully plan to. So here’s hoping that the beta reader feedback is as good as that of my writing group!

Speaking of long word counts, this is coming in at over 1k now so I’ll stop rambling. I don’t post often, but when I do, I guess I make up for it with long posts.

The Oathbringer reread starts up tomorrow at 9am on TOR, so follow along on Alice and my adventures there if you’ve already read the book. Until then, happy reading, fellow travelers.

ReaderCon Retrospective and Doctor Who

This past weekend I had the opportunity to return to ReaderCon, a local convention which I very much enjoyed last year. A friend was running the Green Room and needed some volunteer assistance, so I arrived late on Friday and stayed through Sunday afternoon.

ReaderCon is a small convention, but what it lacks in size and programming it more than makes up for in community and quality. All of the panels I attended were excellent (though I was amused that most of the panelists on the “Grimlight” panel didn’t know what Grimdark was going in), and diversity of representation on most of the panels was much improved from last year. I met so many wonderful people and had glorious conversations about everything from costuming to worldbuilding to puppies, and I even got to pet a hedgehog!

On Saturday night I was invited out to dinner with an industry professional by a mutual friend and had a long conversation that I hope might eventually lead to a request for materials, but I’ve learned by now not to count any ducklings before they’ve hatched. In the moment, I’ll get excited and optimistic, but the more time passes the more I convince myself that this door will close in my face as well. Time will tell.

Which brings me to my next point. On Sunday, I was chatting with a couple of lovely ladies about women in superhero films when I got a FB message from my friend Sal. “They announced the new Doctor,” he said.

I immediately excused myself from the conversation and practically flew to google, then let out an audible shriek as the first photo came up. A couple at our table turned, a little annoyed, and said they were trying to have a conversation.

“You don’t understand,” I said, probably half coherent. “They announced the new Doctor!”

“Oh,” the person said, a little interested now. “Who is it?”

“It’s a woman,” I said, on the brink of tears. “The new Doctor is a woman.”

Cue bedlam in the Green Room. Every new person who came in for the next couple of hours was pounced upon with a “have you heard?” “Did you see the announcement teaser trailer yet?” That trailer must have played at least fifteen times that first hour, if not more. There were smiles all around. Some people teared up. Women (and men) who had been waiting for this for their entire lives sat in a moment of stunned shock before exclaiming in joy. Some people said that they would wait to see how the writing was before getting too excited, which is a completely understandable stance, but by and large the reaction was overwhelming.

I’m so thankful that it was at a fantasy/scifi convention that I learned this news, otherwise the outpouring of hate on comment boards might have dampened my joy. As it is, however, my first memories of that moment will always be smiles and tears.

Finally, the Doctor is like me. I wish that I could hop into a TARDIS and tell ten-year-old me that when I was in my thirties, most of my heroes would finally be women.

On Life Changes, Rejections, and Articles

As usual, it’s been forever since I updated, but at least I have a good reason this time:

IMG_4152 Meet Baby S! (Yes, that is a Pink Floyd shirt he’s wearing, DON’T JUDGE ME.) He was born in late December, so my life’s quite understandably been a bit busy since then – not to mention the fact that I’ve also had convention planning to do, for the con I am staff for. Somehow I’ve also managed to squeeze in time to do another beta read for Sanderson (you guys are going to love Oathbringer. Seriously.), and before S was born, I collaborated with a bunch of the other beta readers to write a couple of articles for, which was SUPER exciting. I’ve wanted to write for TOR for a long time, so this was a fabulous opportunity.

The first of the articles was a Dreamcast for The Way of Kings, which got a LOT of buzz because we decided to stick to a mostly Asian casting for it (which is textually correct but apparently NOT what people had in their head-canon for the characters). For the Mistborn Dreamcast, we stuck to a more traditional stable of actors and people seemed a lot more accepting of our decisions.

Writing these was an absolute blast, not only because I got to have some really fun debates with fellow Sanderson super-fans, but because I got to write something in a professional capacity for a publication I greatly admire.

Speaking of publications I admire… In January 2016, Gollancz (a UK Publisher if you weren’t aware) opened its doors to unsolicited, unagented submissions. I figured it was worth a shot and sent in the first three chapters of Greencloak. As the months went by and I received no word that the package had even been received, I figured that either it had been lost in the mail or rejected outright. But then yesterday I got this in the mail:

IMG_4154It says: “Dear Lyndsey, Thanks for sending us Greencloak. We’re sorry it took so long to respond. Your submission made it to the third round. One of our assistant editors really enjoyed it and singled it out. Unfortunately we thought it not quite for us as we have a number of similar titles and wouldn’t be able to find a space for it. Your writing and storytelling are great so please keep submitting and writing. Best of luck, Team Gollancz.”

So… that’s a thing. I’m encouraged by the fact that someone else really liked it – but depressed that it came in so close and fell short of the mark. At least it fell short because the publisher already had too many similar titles and not because of poor writing or anything. I’d really love to submit to TOR, but I’d rather wait until I can talk to one of the editors in person and see if they’d be interested in it. With Baby S with us now, I won’t be able to get to as many conventions as I used to (for the first couple years anyway), so submissions may need to take a back seat. In the meantime, I suppose I can bang my head up against the revisions for book 2 some more, and I’m also working on editing Forgotten Soldier as well as my 2016 NaNoWriMo novel.

The Sliding Scale of “SJW”

(I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time, and have only now managed to gather my thoughts on it in a satisfactory manner. It’s been years – probably ten or so – since I wrote an “academic” article so please forgive any errors in attribution or non-MLA quotation. I’m afraid I have quite forgotten the rules!)


If you travel within certain social media circles, you’ve likely seen the pejorative term “SJW” (Social Justice Warrior) thrown into the conversation, whether said discussion involves the current election, fandoms, books, or even something as apparently innocuous as Halloween costumes.

If you haven’t ever seen this term bandied about, you may wonder what it means. Even those who have seen it or used it themselves may not be aware that different communities utilize the phrase differently. There appears to be a sliding scale of definition, starting with the purely derogatory. Urban Dictionary’s user-submitted definition is “A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation [1].” This, I’d like to point out, is the least heated definition associated with the phrase on that particular website, and the one which most people on the internet seem to associate with the term. (For more examples, just do a google image search for SJW.)

On the other side of the scale are those who take the term for its original, literal meaning – an individual who works towards/fights for a goal of achieving social justice and equality, usually on behalf of minorities or as members of marginalized groups.

I find the use of it by people who don’t fully understand what other ideals they are associating themselves with to be very troubling.

The origin of the phrase goes back at least to 1991. “All of the examples I’ve seen until quite recently are lionizing the person,” Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at the Oxford University Press, is quoted as saying [2]. People holding ideals similar to those of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were hailed as Social Justice Warriors – those who fought bravely, often times against harsh opposition, in order to achieve equality for the downtrodden or oppressed.

There is some debate as to when the term first began to gain traction as pejorative. While the Internet culture historians of point to a blog entitled “SJWar” with entries dating back to 2009, the blog’s author, SF&F writer Will Shetterly, has indicated that the title is a more recent development. [2].  One fact that most can agree upon is that “SJW” began to gain prominence as an insult with the rise of Gamergate, a toxic internet controversy which began around 2011 and escalated to the point of threats of violence.

With this in mind, the phrase’s current problematic use becomes more apparent. A term which was once espoused as positive has been taken by a fringe group and turned into an insult. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the evolution of “SJW” closely mirrors that of “feminist,” another word fraught with political and social implications. However, there is far less of an outcry against the use of “SJW” as there is against “feminism” when used as pejorative labels, and I believe there are two main reasons why.

First of all, one must consider that SJW means different things to different communities. In the fantasy/scifi community where most of this began (take a look at the massive backlash against people of color, women and other minorities gaining representation at the Hugo awards), SJW is a polarizing term. There are people who decry the pejorative and use the term at its original meaning, and then there are those who use it to belittle (and sometimes outright harass) those working to attain or champion equal representation. One of the biggest proponents of the anti-SJW movement is the writer Vox Day, the online pseudonym of Theodore Beale. To quote him directly, “Because the SJW agenda of diversity, tolerance, inclusiveness, and equality flies in the face of both science and observable reality, SJWs relentlessly work to prevent normal people from thinking or speaking in any manner that will violate their ever-mutating Narrative” [3]. This man and his followers’ ideas of social “justice” are revoking a woman’s right to vote [4] and calling a woman of color “an educated, but ignorant half-savage” [5].

On the Tumblr/fandom/4chan side of things, SJW is most often used to describe people who take inclusion and representation too far or believe themselves entitled to preferential treatment (as opposed to equality) because of their differences. Often they are described as not actually doing anything to attempt to fight the issues they raise. A good example of this is people who champion things like cultural appropriation when it may not be warranted or even welcomed by the affected culture. Take, for instance, this article about Japan’s declining kimono industry and how cries of cultural appropriation have hurt the affected parties rather than helping them. (Please note that I do not believe that all cases of appropriation are overblown – particularly in which “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group [6].)

The fact that people on the 4chan/fandom/Tumblr side of this are using this phrase to describe a different set of people than Vox Day’s is what upsets me. For Day and his ilk, an SJW is anyone who fights for social justice and reform, whereas the usually more progressive legions of fans on Tumblr and other social networking sites appear to be using it to refer only to those who take these issues to their extremes or rant about things without actually attempting to fix them, as in the above examples. (Who decides what is “extreme” is a huge question, big enough for a post all on its own.)

Straddling both sides of the issue as I am means that I see “SJW” tossed about to insult someone who is attempting reform or to draw attention to inequality (if perhaps too enthusiastically) just as often as I see people using it to describe themselves as true warriors for equality. In the former case, I cannot help but associate the accuser with the Vox Days of the world, who believe that social justice is the domain of the Straight White Man and no one else.

This is what I personally find disturbing – a fringe group who believe that social equality is not worth fighting for have won on this particular battlefront. They’ve laid claim to a term and corrupted its meaning (much like the Nazis did with the swastika), and many of the people who are using it seem to be blissfully unaware of this fact.

In light of all this, I believe that we are left with two questions.

  1. Is there another term we can use for those who take things too far or bring up issues without attempting to rectify them? In feminism, we often see people decried as “feminazis,” which – while also troubling – is at least a different term than feminist, describing a more militant and uncompromising view. Steven Barnes has suggested that the term “Social Justice Zealot” be used in cases such as this, and I wholly agree that this is a much more fitting term [7]. A warrior fights for that which they believe, whereas a zealot is a fanatic. This latter seems to fit far better than 4chan and Tumblr’s current usage of “SJW.”
  2. Should we allow this etymological perversion to continue to evolve the phrase away from its literal meaning, or should we as socially minded individuals take a stand and reclaim it as a positive title? Many in the fantasy/scifi community are doing the latter, wearing t-shirts or pins to conventions that claim “SJW and proud” or similar slogans. But has the fringe’s appropriation of the term gone too far for it to be saved?

The 4chan/Tumblr side almost universally holds to the definition stated in the beginning of this post. This group is both larger and, generally, younger than the other. Are we in the older generation clinging to a degrading definition and refusing to allow evolution of language to take its course? Perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider searching for a new term for proponents of social equality, one not tarnished by Vox Day and Gamergate.

In the meantime, it is important in our daily dealings with others (both online and in person) to carefully examine not only what we mean by certain words and phrases, but also what others mean by them and their historical precedents. An understanding of the different ways in which different communities utilize this polarizing phrase will hopefully help to bridge some gaps and foster understanding. It is also important that we examine our own place of privilege before taking a stand on such a delicate issue viewed so strongly by so many. A heterosexual, abled white man who identifies as male will have a different experience with social justice than would a transgender lesbian, a woman of color, or a man who is blind. It is my hope that before someone shouts “SJW,” they will take a moment to think about what the term has meant historically and means to others now.

Updated Cover Art for “One Last Moment of Silence”

I was never terribly happy with the cover art for “One Last Moment,” but I lacked the funds (or the contact information) for a good cover designer. Lately however, I contacted the lovely gentleman who did my cover for “Greencloak,” and he put together this absolutely stunning cover for the novelette for me!

I’m feeling much more confident about it now that it has a really nice cover, so I’ll probably be promoting it more often. Maybe I’ll even make up some flyers and hand them out at WorldCon, who knows.

One last Moment of Silence BLACK-sm

On the Greencloak front, I’m currently waiting on responses from one agent (let’s call them Agent M) and two publishers. I’ve had some nibbles from another agency (Agency J), but I’d like to wait and hear back from the people it is currently out to before I start making the big changes Agency J is asking for. This would be the second time they’ve requested I resubmit, which I view as a good sign. So… fingers crossed that I hear back from Agent M and the two publishers in the near future.

Unconscious Writing Influences

Or, “How I stopped worrying about appropriation and embraced the amalgamation of styles which is my own.”

Lately I’ve been reading all the “mainstream” fantasy novels I can find with LGBTQ protagonists, since Greencloak’s main characters are gay and bi and I need to know the market that I am attempting to break into. I started off with Kushiel’s Dart (slow, but very satisfying; great book) and then started in on Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald Mage Trilogy.

I’m really enjoying it, but the more I read, the more I realize just how much Lackey influenced my writing style. The Elvenbane (which was co-authored by Andre Norton) has been one of my favorite books for over fifteen years – I’ve read it so many times that the hardcover I pilfered from my dad way back in the late 90s is literally falling apart. (I remember bringing it up to Mercedes at a signing. She took it from me with a little knowing smile and said, “This book has been well loved,” which really touched me.)

Things that I am coming across that I have used – subconsciously – in my own writing are the use of the words Talent and Gift to denote magical ability and psychic ability, respectively (which is also something I remember Robin Hobb making use of in The Farseer Trilogy), the use of italics to denote mind-speech, and overall the character “tropes” she chooses to use. When I look at my own writing through this lens, I can definitely see the parallels.

This made me worry that I might have been unconsciously mimicking her. That my style was not my own. I did some real soul-searching on this – the very last thing I would ever want is to ape someone else’s work. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my own style is an amalgamation of that of all the writers I admire. I see Sanderson in my sparse prose and use of humor. I see Lackey in my characters and my magic system. I see Butcher and Whedon in my dialogue. I see Hobb and Weis & Hickman in my tragic, tortured character backstories. I see Jordan in my massive, epic plot lines.

And I realized that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Our personalities are reflections of our past experiences, and I don’t see why our writing styles should be any different. We naturally emulate that which we admire; we take pieces of what we love and make it our own. I’ve come to think of it like a quilt. I can see the individual pieces – each square of fabric beautiful in its own right – but the whole is something entirely unique and beautiful on its own. No author can say for certain that their writing style hasn’t been influenced by someone else’s writing, just as we as humans can’t say for certain that our past experiences haven’t changed our personalities and made us who we are today.

However! Each author I admire has one big thing which sets them apart from the others. This may not be true for everyone, but for me, I admire Sanderson for his magic systems. Rothfuss, Beagle, and Gaiman, their prose. Lackey, her characters. Butcher and Lynch, their humor and dialogue. They excel at these aspects, and no matter what other pieces of the patchwork they may borrow from other writers, these are their showpieces.

I think it’s important for us, as writers, to find that One Thing which sets us apart and focus on it. It’s important for us to be well-rounded, to understand all the parts of our craft, but we can’t be masters of everything. Every author has flaws. Every. One.

If I could offer advice to other aspiring authors, it is to find the piece of your writing you think is the best and hone it until it is as good as you can make it. This is what will evolve into your unique voice. Ignore the little voice in your head which wonders whether you’re copying all those other influences from your reading. They are the alloy in which you set the shining gem that will make you stand apart – the background which blurs into obscurity behind the object in focus.

Breaking past writer’s block & Writing Excuses

For a few weeks, I was pretty depressed. I was trying to work out the big kinks with the second draft of Crimson Intent, but I just couldn’t seem to make myself sit down and do it. I had a new outline detailing the changes I needed to make from the first draft… but these chapters just had me stymied. They didn’t feel right. And that made me feel like I had swallowed an anvil every time I even sat down to write.

But, thanks to writing group deadlines (we meet once a week and I was swiftly approaching the week where I would have to submit one of the “trouble” chapters), I finally sat down and forced it out. And it hurt. I knew that something wasn’t right, but I had to have something for group, so I submitted the chapter anyway.

And then, when I was doing something else entirely (as always seems to be the case), epiphany hit. Suddenly I just knew that that chapter I had submitted was in the wrong place. It needed to be two chapters later – and then everything made sense.

I can’t begin to tell you how big of a relief it was to realize this. I had to apologize to my group for making them read that chapter twice (as some pretty major revisions had to happen for it to work later in the story), but now it works. Thank goodness. Now I’m just hoping that the rest of the revisions to this go smooth as silk (HAHAHAHAHA -ahem-).

This “writer’s block is because there is a problem with the story” thing is something I’d heard ages ago on the Writing Excuses podcast, which leads me nicely into my next subject. Since I went two whole years without an update (feel free to play the Game of Thrones “SHAME” video clip for me next time you see me), I’ll be posting a little “retrospective” section in some of these posts to talk about some of the cool things I’ve done.

At WorldCon 2015 in Spokane, WA, I had so many amazing experiences. I got to go out to dinner with Brandon Sanderson, Peter Ahlstrom, and a bunch of other amazing people. I hugged a dalek. I gave Scott Lynch some whiskey. I caught up with my friend Ada Palmer and discussed Hugo voting with Courtney Schafer, who is absolutely a pleasure to talk to. I met some pretty amazing fellow Stormlight Archive cosplayers and met one of my writing group partners in real life for the first time (after working with him via Skype for almost five years). But the experience that tops them all for me was this one.

11889545_10153012322350811_5925570437396375017_nDoesn’t look like much, does it? But this is photographic proof of one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life. This the Writing Excuses crew (Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor) and one of their special guests. And me, sitting behind the sound-board. Running it.

“All right,” I can hear you thinking, “how the hell did you manage that?”

I’ve known Brandon for a few years now, first from the fact that I am a moderator for the Stormlight Archive subreddit. I was also his handler at a convention for a weekend, and I’ve been a beta reader for some of his works. So he knows me by name, and trusts me (well, enough to eat the cookies I make for him every time he visits New England, anyways). I was helping to carry the sound equipment in for the crew, because I like to help him out with things, and Howard or Dan (I forget which) asked if anyone had any experience running sound-boards. I did, having run sound for a few of my college theater’s productions. So I got a crash course in the sound-board from Howard, then got to sit there and monitor levels for four episodes.

“So where does it get nerve-wracking?” you’re probably thinking.

Listen up. This is an award winning podcast. Thousands of people listen to it. And they’d literally put the quality of the thing in my hands. If I screwed up and pushed the wrong button or something, I could possibly delete the recording, and then what would they do? They couldn’t very well re-record it, since they’d just spent an hour doing it before a live audience. I passed a few panicked notes to Howard over the course of the recording (“Is that red light supposed to be off” was actually more like “OH MY GOD THE RED LIGHT IS OFF, IT’S OFF, SHOULD IT BE OFF? IS IT ACTUALLY RECORDING?” in my head) and had one very bad moment at the end when we were packing up and I unplugged the power supply thinking that it was the headphone cord. All the color promptly drained from my face as I tugged urgently on Howard’s sleeve. I said something like “I unplugged it, oh god, did it save, please tell me it saved” and he assured me calmly that it was fine.

And so ended the most harrowing hour of my WorldCon. After that, asking Scott Lynch if he’d accept some whiskey as a gift was no big deal.

I’ll be attending WorldCon again this year, and hopefully this year I’ll have another cosplay. I’m going to give the Masquerade another shot (I wasn’t terribly impressed with the 2014 Masquerade in London), providing I can finish this RIDICULOUSLY OVER-AMBITIOUS PROJECT.

You know… that’s what I’ll call it, from now on. The ROAP. Stay tuned for updates on the ROAP, WorldCon, book editing, and maybe a few more retrospectives documenting the Great Supernatural Road Trip of 2015…