Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Bitterwood fantasy quartet, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, Dragonseed, and Dawn of Dragons, as well as a pair of superhero novels, Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. (Click on the titles to be taken to Amazon.) My Dragon Apocalypse series combines both superheroes and epic fantasy, and so far three books have been published, Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker. The fourth book in the series, Soulless, is still under construction, but, I swear, it will see the light of day! I've also published numerous short stories, the best of which are reprinted in my collection, There is No Wheel.

This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public.

Coming out in 2014 will be my Oz inspired novel Bad Wizard, published by Antimatter Press. I'm currently working hard to finish up another superhero novel, Cut Up Girl. Watch this space for news!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse, Book Four, 60,259 words

Okay, just a hair shy of my 10,000 word goal. I suppose I should man up and write the last 500 words I need to get there, but, honestly, my brain is just hollow after the chapter I finished today, a pivotal chapter in which Slate finds the soul of Stark Tower, the man he's cloned from, in Hell. It's a fairly dark chapter, in a string of dark chapters. I would have thought a novel set in hell would have more laughs! Seriously, I feel pretty good about my emotional exhaustion at the moment. I'm tapping into some deep places inside me to pull this story out.

Here's a brief, unedited excerpt:

Sorrow woke slowly, luxuriating in the warmth that filled every last muscle of her body. Until now, she’d only toyed with magic, only caught glimpses and hints of what it was truly like to wield true power. True, she’d experienced the raw elemental power of Rott, a destructive, nihilistic power that had almost devoured her. But in Slate’s arms, together they’d awakened something new and powerful within her, a force of creation, a power of life instead of death.

With her eyes still closed, she frowned. Where were Slate’s arms? They’d fallen asleep spooned together, his arm draped across her belly, his chest seemingly glued to her back by sweat. Now, he wasn’t touching her.

She sat up, and instantly crossed one arm across her naked breasts, as she found that she wasn’t alone. In a tightly packed circle around the silk (check this) cloak they’d fallen asleep on, a score of old men and women stood shoulder to shoulder, glaring at them with judgmental eyes.

Slate sat next to her, pulling on his pants with one hand, while holding onto the Witchbreaker with the other.

“I don’t think the sword is necessary,” she said softly. “They look too old and toothless to be able to hurt us.”

“Appearances can be deceiving in Hell,” said Slate. “It’s not their teeth I fear, nor their limbs. It’s their eyes that tear into me. I’ve never felt so… so naked.”

Sorrow put her hand on Slate’s back to comfort him. He instantly tensed up, and said, “Don’t touch me while they watch.”

She pulled her hand away, noticing the faces of the assembled crowd took on an even deeper look of disapproval following her touch. One of the old women whispered, “Whore.” A man on the opposite side of the circle whispered, “Sinners.” A third voice, too weak and trembling for Sorrow to determine the sex of the speaker behind her, hissed, “Shameful!” The word was taken up, passing among the crowd. “Shameful. Shameful. Shameful!”
“No!” Slate cried, pulling on his shirt. “You don’t understand!”
“Slate, calm down,” she said, noticing the near panic in his voice. She’d never heard any emotion vaguely resembling this in his voice before.
He turned to her, tears welling in his eyes. “We should have waited,” he said, his voice choked. “We—”
“Hussy. Tramp. Fornicators. Dirty, dirty, dirty,” murmured the crowd.
“Please,” said Slate. “It was only a moment of weakness.”
Sorrow stood up, her fists clenched. She stared into the eyes of the woman nearest to her. “You’re wasting your time here.”
“Shameful,” scolded the woman.
Sorrow shook her head. “I feel no shame. Not even the slightest. You’ve no power over me. Go away.”
The woman flickered, turning halfway to smoke, before solidifying again. He eyes now focused on Slate, completely ignoring Sorrow. “Seducer,” she said, clucking her tongue. “Shame. Shame!”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse Book Four: 50,735 words

Passed the 50k milestone. Yeah! Still didn't hit 10k words this week. I had two events as Piedmont Laureate, one Monday, the other Thursday, and a fairly busy weekend. My wife and I are training for a "Century Ride," which is a bike ride of 100 miles in a single day. (Technically, I think it's supposed to be done in under 12 hours. We're just committing to getting the ride done between dawn and sunset, on June 21, the longest day of the year.)

Fortunately, the hours I spent on my bike have been productive ones for my day dreaming. I feel like I have enough material to have a much more productive week between now and next Sunday.

The thing I don't have, unfortunately, is any kind of clear, clean ending in mind any more. The plot I thought I would be following has crashed up into the reality of the plot my characters are scripting for themselves. Gale Romer was especially willful this week. After my earlier attempt at writing her out of the main plotline for a side mission, she and her family returned with a vengeance for one of my favorite chapter sequences yet. It's making my novel messier than I had planned, since now I have four major plotlines unfolding simultaneously. I imagine things will be even messier by the 60 and 70K word mark. After that, I can probably start wrapping up the plots one by one, and still finish my first draft by the end of April, like I'd originally planned.

No excerpt his week. Too brain dead to find a passage that holds up out of context. Maybe next week.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse Book Four: 44,801 words

I end the week with two more chapters behind me, and a whole lot of plot threads getting tangled together. I'm finding it a little difficult to write scenes with Cinder, Infidel's daughter. I'm still finding that she lacks much in the way of personal goals. She becomes a more driven character over the course of her story arc, but in these beginning stages, I'm finding it hard to articulate why she would ever agree to go along on such a dangerous quest. Oh well. There's nothing to do but move forward, and hope that the more I write about her, the more I'll understand her.

In this excerpt, Father Ver's ghost and Cinder have come with a knight named Pyre to meet Pyre's spiritual leader, a dragon named Brother Wing, who will be familiar to readers of the previous books by different names: Relic and Brokenwing. Brother Wing is now leads the Church of the Sacred Flame, dedicated to the worship of Greatshadow. Father Ver has asked for Pyre's help in rescuing Slate, Sorrow, and the Roamers from Hell. This leads to a revelation that might be of interest to readers of the first few books, a previously unknown connection between Sorrow and Brokenwing.

Same disclaimers as always. First draft. Not edited. Might change entirely.

“I don’t dispute that you believe the threat is real,” said Brother Wing. “I just feel the problem is somewhat… abstract. Meanwhile, the problems this settlement faces are far more concrete. The world beyond these shores grows less inhabitable by the hour. The bay at Commonground is a mass of ships now, as Wanderers seek shelter in the last unfrozen waters to be found. They carry with them refugees from the other lands. Some are upon the ship because the Wanderer’s felt mercy, others because, even in the face of Doomsday, there were still Wanderers with enough love of commerce for wealthy men to buy passage to safety.”

“Now,” said Pyre, “It’s only a matter of time before these men leave Commonground to find new homes upon the Isle of Fire. While we would welcome with open arms anyone who comes in peace to help us build, we know that many of these men will come with war in their hearts, and see our humble settlement as ripe territory for starting a new empire.”

“So you see why I am reluctant to have Pyre join your quest,” said Brother Wing. “Reluctant… but not completely unwilling.”

“I will go where you wish me to go,” said Pyre. “But… why do these people trapped in hell matter to us?”

Brother Wing sighed. “Because I know them. Some of them, anyway. In the Palace of the Inquisition, I dined with Slate and Sorrow. While I’ve never met the Romers personally, in the time I lived in Commonground, I learned of them from the minds of their fellow wanderers. The world will be poorer for their absence.” He paused, looked as if he were weighing something further, then said, “I should also say that I know Sorrow much more intimately than from a single dinner.”

“My mother knew Sorrow,” said Cinder. “I’m told she was very driven. And very angry.”
Brother Wing nodded. “Traits that I found very much to my liking, back then.” His eyes seemed less focused, as if he was lost in memories. “My father cast me aside as a fledgling, my wings broken, with every expectation I would die. But I killed the lava pygmies who came to collect my body. From their minds, I caught the faintest glimmers that there was a larger world beyond the jungle. I filled my belly with the bodies of the lava pygmies, but they couldn’t satisfy my intellectual hunger. Driven by a desire to understand more of the world… and more of myself… I descended the mountain and made my way to Commonground.”

“Even in a city of half-seeds, I cannot imagine they welcomed a dragon there with open arms,” said Father Ver.

“No,” said Brother Wing. “I was met with hostility and violence, driven back into the wilds weeping and wounded. However, as a telepath, I quickly learned to hide myself from the gaze of men. At first I merely hid in shadow, but soon I learned the art of disguising myself in rags. Moving among the crowds of the city unmolested, I drank in the minds of those around me, and soon mastered human languages. I had left the jungle feeling deep emotions, emotions I had no words for. But soon after I arrived in Commonground, a woman in a cloak of fine green silk walked past me. Instantly, she caught my full attention, for here was the first human I’d encountered who felt precisely the same emotions that I’d known since being discarded by my father. She was filled with hatred of her own father, and a deep and abiding desire for revenge against him. In her, I’d found a kindred spirit.”

“And how did she feel about you?” asked Father Ver.

“She never knew me. She was too intently focused on revenge against her father, and the religion that had shaped him, for me to ever hope of winning her over to my cause. Plus, she came to Commongroud at the summons of the Black Swan, who’d hired her to make use of her talent as a sculptor. I stayed near her, always just out of her range of vision. At night, I’d slink into her sleeping chambers and stand by her bedside, exploring all she’d learned. It was from her I learned the basics of necromancy and soul catching, which allowed me to craft my first golem, Patch. Alas, he proved to be a flawed creation, not even lasting through his first fight.”

“I find it very disturbing that you would read her mind as she slept,” said Cinder. “That seems like a horrible violation of her privacy.”

“Oh, it was inexcusable,” said Brother Wing. “I’d never engage in such a thing now. My years upon the Island of the Inquisition exposed me to many, many arguments about what was moral. My most steadfast companions were, I fear, rather hedonistic, and would have argued I’d done no wrong to Sorrow, since I’d never done any actual harm to her. You don’t harm a flower by gazing at its colors or smelling its aroma. I didn’t harm her mind by combing through her secrets.”

“But you don’t feel this way now?” asked Cinder.

Brother Wing shook his head. “No. Now, I inform people when we first meet that I can see into their minds. It is their choice if they wish to stay near me. I gave her no choice. What’s more, with the wisdom of twenty years of hindsight, I understand that the emotional bond that drew me to her, her unquenchable anger, was a poison to my own soul. It took me many years to forgive my father, and come again to love him.”

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse Book Four: 36,487

Not my most prolific week. Chapter 7 was a bear to get through, Chapter 8 was even worse. I'm really, really, really hoping these will be the two chapters that I come back to in the rewrite that strike me as perfect. That happens to me a lot. Chapters where I feel the flow, where everything is just coming together easily, are sometimes just painful when I get to the rewrite stage. Chapters where I slog and sweat and dribble out words can later seem brilliant. I honestly never know immediately after I've written something.

The difficulty in Chapter 8 was one of the characters just not wanting to cooperate. It's a Slate and Sorrow chapter, and I went into the book with a grand master plan on how their relationship would progress. There's one conversation they desperately need to have, and I planned for that conversation to come much, much later in the book. But, it turned out that the character wanted to hash things out in the first third of the book. I'm happy because I think the scene has the emotional weight I wanted. I'm nervous, because... what's next? This scene was supposed to be the climax of their story arc, not an opening scene. Oh well. Hopefully things will work out.

No excerpt this week. Hopefully, a nice long one next time!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse, Book Four: 30426 words

Things are zooming along! I stop this week in the middle of chapter seven. I'm probably a quarter of the way through the book, maybe more. A lot depends on how thoroughly I flesh out some of the subplots. This week, the Romer and Slate and Sorrow part ways, with the Romers planning to sail to the Sea of Wine to escape from Hell, but Slate and Sorrow choosing to stay behind. The Romers have a role to play in the plot, but I currently don't have much in the way of personal story arcs for them. The focus will be on Slate and Sorrow. Later, the Romers do return to take part in a big, climatic battle. But how much time I focus on their side quest is likely to determine whether this is a 120,000 word novel, or a 150,000 word novel.

In this short, raw, unedited excerpt, Slate and Sorrow have ventured forth into hell in the company of a demon guide named Fester. Fester hasn't spoken much before now, and in this scene Sorrow discovers that some demons have annoying verbal quirks:


They watched as the Freewind vanished around a bend in the river.

“There’s no turning back now,” said Sorrow.
“As any demon will gladly tell, no one may turn back from Hell,” said Fester.

“I had no intention of turning back,” said Slate, looking at Fester. The muscles of his left cheek twitched as he forced himself to keep his eyes on the devil. “Walker said you’d guide us. He also said you could read our minds. You know where I wish to go. Take us.”

“I know where you wish to go,” said Fester. “But your lover’s wishes are not so.”

“Okay, first of all, we’re not lovers,” said Sorrow. “Second, if Slate wants to find Stark Tower, I want to help him.”

“You would find that quest a bother,” said Fester. “The soul you search for is your father.”

Sorrow felt the blood drain from her face. “Then… it’s true? He’s here?”
“In the dark vale of despair, where he breathes the poison air.”
She crossed her arms. “How did he die?”
“This news will truly make you weep,” said Fester. “For he died quietly in his sleep.”
She frowned. “But… he’s here? Why didn’t he leave when Tempest opened the gates?”
“Your father believed that sinners should burn,” said Fester. “He fully grasps that now’s his turn.”
“If you want to go see him first, Stark Tower can wait,” said Slate.
She shook her head. “It’s… I don’t know what I would say to him that would do me any good. It sounds as if he’s finally getting taught the lesson I wanted to teach him. I can only imagine his shock at going to sleep thinking himself a saint and waking up in Hell.”
Fester shook his head. “Of this fact, you’re father long has known the truth. His soul was black, and each man he hung was proof.”
“He knew?” Sorrow ran her hands along her scalp, feeling as if this revelation didn’t quite fit inside her skull. “If he knew, why didn’t he change?”

“He gave his soul for a greater good, as you also think you should.”
Sorrow turned her back to Fester. She gave a deep sigh.
“I… I don’t need to see him. I don’t want to see him. Slate’s quest should come first.”
“Perhaps it’s due to birth, how easily lies pass through your lips,” said Fester. “But as you've judged its worth, we’ll set forth on your lover’s trip.”

Sorrow started to protest the second use of the word ‘lover,’ but held her tongue. I could have just been in the demon’s nature to try to get a rise out of her. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

“Which way should we go?” asked Slate, surveying the hills around them. Sorrow looked around as well, realizing that landmarks she’d been unconsciously cataloging were already gone. The hills were moving, so slowly for the naked eye to notice, but rapidly enough to rob her off all sense of direction.
“We must go toward the snow,” said Fester.
“There’s snow in hell?” Slate asked, surprised.
“Since Tempest’s allied with Hush, half this kingdom is cursed slush.”
“We really should stop asking him questions,” said Sorrow. “If I listen to one more rhyme, I think I’m going to scream.”

Fester said, “Screaming here would be—”
“By the pure metals would you just shut up?” Sorrow shouted at the demon.

“—unwise,” finished Fester. “It would draw the gaze of dangerous eyes.”

“Oh,” she said, biting her fingernails. “Then, I guess I should just keep quiet. Sorry.”

“Too late for regret, I fear,” said Fester, gazing toward the ridge of a nearby hill. “A gibbering guardian now draws near. Should you wish to survive this eternal night, draw your blades, for now, we fight.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse Book Four: 18952 words

A decent week thanks to a snow day, though I would have liked to get more done. A lot of my time during the weekend was spent playing publisher instead of writer. I had to finalize the Witchbreaker cover and get the ebook files uploaded across several platforms, and, of course, the second I did I found an error in the text, a small one, but I still had to fix it and go through all the uploads all over again. Sigh. Anyway, it takes a few days between the upload and the book showing up in various markets. I'll reveal the cover and talk more about the new edition later in the week.

Fortunately, thanks to the snow day, I met my goal of 10,000 words for the week, plus a few thousand extra. Even better, I like the way things are shaping up. I've been carrying stuff around in my head for a while now, and sometimes ideas that seem great in my skull just crash and burn the second I start typing them. So far, things are flowing nicely.

As promised, here's a sample from this weeks work. It features Cinder, a major player in the final book. Due to unusual circumstances surrounding her conception, she has the power to leap between the material world and the spirit realms. It's a power she'll be getting to use a lot as the book progresses.

Please note, this is raw first draft. It even contains a note to myself, to go back before the second draft to research the physical description of a character last seen in the first book. I use notes like this quite frequently, to help maintain momentum.

Excerpt: (This is from a few pages into the chapter, as Cinder has left the village of the pygmies to search for her mother, and paused for a while to watch long men building a settlement on the shore.)

Cinder turned away and headed back into the maze of brush. Her mother would likely be returning soon from her hunt. Perhaps she could still catch her before she reached their home village.

By now, the chirps of the morning birds in the brush had changed from a song to a cacophony, loud as a waterfall. She didn’t hear the huge boar rustling along the pathway until she turned a corner and found the beast less than ten feet away. The boar was one of the largest she’d ever seen, six feet long from tusks to tail, its powerful muscles bulging beneath a rust colored hide. She skittered to a halt, startled. The boar was as surprised as she was. Half the time, a startled boar would bolt and run. This was not one of those times.

The boar lowered its head, it’s tusks pointed like twin spears as it charged. Cinder met its charge by lowering her spear, planting the tip into the beast’s shoulder. The spear caught in the mound of thickened skin that protected the beast, failing to hurt it. The boar’s momentum ripped the spear from her hands and at the last possible second she leapt, lifting her legs above the slashing tusks, using the creature’s back as a springboard. She landed on the path behind it and ran. With luck, the boar wouldn’t give chase.

Around her, a thousand birds took to the air as the boar spun in its tracks, let out a deafening squeal, and lunged forward in pursuit, its heavy hooves thundering on the volcanic rock.

Cinder was the fastest runner among the Jawa Fruit tribe, but the boar quickly closed the small lead she’d started with. She could hear it panting mere inches behind her, but dare not look back. She still had a hundred yards to cover before she reached the edge of the forest, and the hope of leaping for a branch to clamber skyward beyond danger.

She had no choice. Though her mother had forbidden it, she would have to escape to the other place. Stretching her arms before her, she grabbed the air, then tore it. She ran through into the chill gray landscape her action revealed.

She stopped as the boar ran through her now ghostly form. All around her, the berry bushes lay dead and withered, there leaves gone. The sky, pink with the morning only seconds before, was no dark and starless. She could still see into the living world, the shapes there wraithlike, more shadow than substance. She saw the boar charge on a few more yards before halting, spinning around, its rage changing to bewilderment. The shadows of birds flitted into the air to the left of the boar, their cries of alarm muffled and distant.

The source of the bird's distress quickly revealed itself as Cinder’s mother leapt from the bushes beside the boar. Her mother was the tribe’s greatest hunter, a titan five and a half feet tall. At fifty, she was one of the oldest members of the tribe, though her body was still athletic, hardened by years of constant use. Like other members of the tribe, her skin was dyed green, with her hair a lighter shade of lime. Unlike other members of the tribe, she wore more than just a loincloth, concealing her torso with a vest of leather.

She carried a spear like the one still stuck in the boar’s shoulder, but her mother had far more experience in the proper use of the weapon. With a grunt, her mother drove the stone tip between the beast’s ribs. With a howl of rage and pain the boar spun, its tusks slashing the air, as Cinder’s mother leapt back from their path. Then she calmly reached out and grabbed Cinder’s spear, plucking it free. As the boar slashed its tusks toward her once more, she drove the spear into the beast’s left eye. Bringing all her weight to bear, she drove it deep into his skull. The creature’s body fell dead.

Instantly, the creature’s spirit was a solid thing standing before Cinder. The ghost glared at her with its one intact eye, shuddering with rage. Before Cinder could take any action to defend herself, the creature turned and bolted, turning to smoke as it ran, vanishing from sight.

“Perhaps pigs have a hell of their own,” said a voice from behind.

“Oh,” she said, turning around. “You followed me? Why didn’t I see you?”

The man standing before her shook his head. “I didn’t follow you. I followed her.” He nodded toward Cinder’s mother, who squatted over the fallen boar, freeing Cinder’s spear. She studied the now mangled leather strapping that held the obsidian spear tip in place with a scowl. Cinder knew her mother would recognize the spear as one of her own, and deduce who had to have planted in the boar’s shoulder. Other members of the Jawa Fruit tribe used spears almost half the length of those her mother preferred.

“Tell her I must speak to her at once,” the man said.

“She’ll kill me if she finds out I came to look at the long men,” Cinder said. “She’ll kill me if she finds out I came here!”

“You engage in hyperbole,” the man said. “She will scold you, nothing more.”

“We should wait,” said Cinder.

The man scowled, though his scowl wasn’t much different than his normal expression. Dead men seldom looked happy, but this one’s face seemed permanently set to a look of disgust, as if merely speaking to Cinder was a loathsome task.

In life, he must have been a tall man. (Check Greatshadow description.) His face was thin, his scalp bald, and he wore long black robes, unlike most other dead men she’d met, who were normally unclothed. He differed also from other dead men in his gaze. Most of dead she’d met had wandering eyes, confused expressions, as if they couldn’t quite comprehend where they were or why they were there. This man’s expression was focused, unblinking. He seemed to have no doubt as to the where or why of his existence.

In the living world, Cinder’s mother stood up and shouted, “Cinder! Cinder!”

“She thinks the boar has harmed you,” the man said. “It would be cruel not to tell her you’re unharmed.”

Cinder sighed and nodded. “Wait here.”

“Where else am I to go?” the man asked, sounding both annoyed and amused.

Cinder once more tore the air before her and stepped through. The humid jungle air washed over her, rich with a thousand scents, flowers, berries, bird droppings, and, above all, the scent of blood as the boar bled out from the slit her mother had carved in it’s throat with her obsidian knife.

“Cinder!” her mother cried out again, facing away as her daughter emerged from the land of the dead. The worry in her voice could be plainly heard now that it was no longer muffled by the veil between the lands of the living and the dead.

“I’m here,” said Cinder, softly. “I’m okay.”

Her mother spun around. “Cinder! I found your spear! I thought… I thought you had… what on earth were you doing out here? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?”

“I’m fine,” said Cinder. “I was looking for you.”

“Looking for… why? What was so urgent it couldn’t wait until daylight?”

Cinder placed her arms behind her back. “There’s… there’s a ghost who’s come to see you. He says he knows you from a long time ago.”

“Stagger?” her mother whispered, her eyes growing wide.
“It’s not father,” said Cinder. “Though his name is Father. Father Ver.”
Her mother’s face fell. She wiped the boars blood from her obsidian knife against her loin cloth, shaking her head slightly.

“You’ve been to the other place again, haven’t you?”

“I had to go there to escape the boar.”

“And the long men,” her mother said. “You say you came here looking for me, but you really came to look at the settlement again. Again! After I forbade it.”

“No. It’s just… I knew since you hadn’t told me you were going to go hunting, you must have come hunting here, on the edge of the settlement. Father Ver says his business is urgent.”

“He’s dead,” her mother said, sheathing her blade. “He has all of eternity to wait.”

“He says eternity is shorter than it used to be,” said Cinder.

Her mother sighed. “Fine. Let me talk to him.”

Cinder held out her hand. Her mother hesitated, then took her offered grasp and looked around, seeking the visitor. Her mother’s eyes locked on a nearby form, invisible in the material world, but plain to Cinder’s eyes.

“Ver,” her mother said. “I never expected to see you again.”
“Infidel,” said Father Ver. “It would be a dark day in Hell before I came to you for help. A dark day indeed, but a day that has come.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dragon Apocalypse Book Four Progress: 6058 words

This morning I finally started writing the fourth book of the Dragon Apocalypse Saga. My goal now is to crank out 10k words a week and ten weeks from now, at the end of April, to have a roughly 100k word draft. As I roll forward, I plan to update my word count here each Sunday, and maybe include little snippets from the work. Today's snippet is on the long side, nearly 3000 words long, but I think it flows rather quickly. Please note this is raw, unedited first draft. It's possible that every word here could wind up cut from the final draft. I'm notorious for never getting my first chapter's right on the first attempt. Still, I feel pretty good about this one:

Chapter One

Wind lashed the white bear and the Black Swan as they marched across the frozen waves toward the Keep of the Inquisition. In the gloomy darkness, the white bear paused, rising on its hind legs, its purple silk cape flapping behind it, the ends threadbare and tattered after weeks of non-stop storms. Its nose twitched as it turned its head first to the left, then the right, sniffing the air, then releasing its breath in great clouds of steam.

"We’re close," said the bear, its voice a gruff growl. "I smell someone."

"Alive or dead?" asked the Black Swan.

"Alive," said the bear. "Though they’re wearing so much perfume, I can only barely detect the hint of sweat beneath the floral miasma."

The Black Swan climbed to the peak of a frozen swell, the spikes in her iron feet skittering on the rock hard ice. Her diamond eyes whirred as she adjusted their focus, until at last she spotted the white robed figure standing atop jagged rocks on the nearby shore, ghostly in starlight.

No, not standing. Dancing, gracefully, arms lifted, toes barely touching as the figure leap from rock to rock.

"Zetetic?" asked the white bear as he climbed the swell beside her.

The Black Swan shook her head. "Equity Tremblepoint, I think."

"Has she lost her mind? She’ll freeze in this wind."

"I’m not sure anyone who dwells within these walls can be called sane," said the Black Swan, as she slid down the swell and continued toward the Keep.

White flowers of frost crunched beneath the Black Swan’s steel toes as she ascended the pebble beach toward the front gate of the fortress. She glanced back across the trackless ice they’d just crossed, praying to no god at all that their journey had been worth it. It felt like an eternity had passed since they’d fled the Silver City, the air thick with the stench of burning flesh. The last of King Brightmoon’s elite guard had thought to push back the tide of Tempest’s unliving armies by pumping burning oil from massive jets atop the palace walls to consume the seemingly endless hordes of the marching dead. Instead, the burning corpses had continued their march, the front lines crushing against the heavy oak of the wooden gate until it charred, then burned, and finally crumbled. The burning army had surge into the palace, bringing death to all that remained of mankind that could reasonably be labeled civilization.

Reaching the gate, she pounded on the frost-covered wood, hoping her knocking could be heard above the howling wind. Her hope was rewarded almost instantly as unseen chains clattered within the walls and the gate began to rise.

After weeks without seeing the sun, she had to raise her hand to block the radiance that flowed from within the castle. She stepped into the great hall, brightly lit with a thousand glory stones floating in silver cages that filled the torch sconces. After the chill of the frozen ocean, the warmth of the hall felt like a furnace.

The bear stood once more on its hind legs, then shrank until it took the form of a woman with gray hair. For an instant, the frost that had tipped the bear’s fur glittered like diamonds against her nude skin until her purple cloak fell around her. She took a step forward, stumbling slightly.

"Are you okay?" asked the Black Swan.

"I’m fine," said the woman. "After walking on four legs for so long, going back to two feels strange."

The Black Swan moved further into the halls, gazing at the paintings that covered the walls and the eclectic statuary set into alcoves every few feet. It was difficult to discern a theme among the artwork. Paintings depicting church-like piety hung above marble nudes of mixed genders locked in graphic depictions of depravity.

The woman in purple silk paused before a painting of a white haired woman wearing pure white armor. The resemblance between the faces of viewer and subject was striking.

"Queen Alabaster Brightmoon," the Black Swan said.

"With paintings like this around, it’s surprising it took us all so long to realize Infidel was a Brightmoon."

The Black Swan shrugged. "I knew it all along. I just thought the information might grow in value as long as I held it secret."

The white haired woman shook her head. "Does anything have value now? Both of us have spent our life in pursuit of wealth. My estate on the Silver Isles makes this island fortress look like a cottage. You’ve got enough treasure stashed away to purchase the obedience of kings. And in the end, what’s all that money worth? Absolutely nothing."

"I can still buy your loyalty, at least," said the Black Swan.

"You might have got me back into the game with promises of a fat pay day, but, honestly, don’t you think at some point your quest to stop the end time became my quest as well?"

"So I don’t need to pay you when this is all over?"

"A contract’s a contract."

"Of course," the Black Swan said. "It’s good to see that some things remain true even in these--" The Black Swan stopped in mid thought as a drawing of black ink on stark white paper framed in glass caught her attention. It was a likeness of herself, naked, or at least unclothed. She didn’t know if the bareness of her iron shell constituted nudity or not. In any case, she now wore pants of black leather and a blouse of black silk to conceal her metallic form. A broad brimmed hat concealed her hairless scalp. Only her iron feet, fingers, and face revealed her mineral shell.

She picked up the frame, studying the intricate detail of the drawing. Beside the depiction of her current form, dozens of gears, pulleys, and braided iron wires were laid out, along with a pair of bellows. These were what passed for her internal organs these days. Beside these sat a small white skull.

"When did you pose for that?" asked Menagerie.

"I didn’t," she said, the lenses in her eyes clicking into ever sharper focus, until she could be certain that the black lines weren’t soaked into the paper as ink, but instead sat slightly raised upon the surface, crafted of pure, rustless iron filaments fine as hair. "Sorrow’s been here. She sculpted my current body. These were her final plans, the ones I approved." She shook her head slowly. "The breasts look so much better on paper than the final product."

"Please don’t get started on that again," the white haired woman said with a sigh.

"Yes," said a faint voice from behind the two women. "Please don’t start a discussion of breasts until I’m close enough to hear the details."

The turned and found an ancient man hobbling toward them, supported by a stave decorated with carved serpents spiraling along the length. The old man was toothless, his right eye a pure white, sightless moon. But his left eye sparkled as he regarded the two women.

"Ah!" he said, sounding delighted. "I had given up hope of seeing an actual woman again before the world came to an end."

"What of the woman outside?" the woman in the silk cloak asked.

"Equity? She’s no woman. At least, I don’t think she is. Or he is." He shook his head. "Pronouns are the simplest thing in the world until Equity takes the stage."

"Why’s she dancing?" asked the Black Swan.

"To say good-bye to the world, of course," said the old man. "It’s ending within the hour, you know. If we make haste, and disrobe along the way, we can still reach my chambers in time to—"

"If you finish that sentence I’ll disembowel you," said the woman in purple.

The old man frowned.

"We’ve no more time to waste," said the Black Swan. "We must see Zetetic at once."

"Zetetic isn’t taking visitors, I’m afraid."

"Tell him the Black Swan is here to see him."

"And Menagerie," said the woman in purple. "He knows me. We were companions during the quest to slay Greatshadow."

The old man smiled. "As long as we’re naming names, I’m called Vigor."

"I know who you are," said the Black Swan. "You’re an authority on reptiles."

"Yes," he said. "Though my specialty is dragons."

"If you know about dragons, do you know why?" asked Menagerie. "Why are they doing this?"

Vigor cocked his head. "You mean destroying mankind?"

"What else would I mean?"

Vigor shrugged. "I haven’t a clue. Zetetic hinted he knew, but I haven’t had a conversation with him in the last five years where I understood a single thing he was talking about."

"Then let us talk to him."

"As I said, he’s not taking visitors."

The Black Swan’s arm sprung out with spring-driven force and locked iron fingers around Vigor’s throat. "Take us to him now or I’ll throttle you."

Vigor smiled weakly as he managed to gasp out, "Threats aren’t… terribly effective.. in the hour before the world… comes to an end."

The Black Swan opened her fingers. "But it won’t come to an end if Zetetic takes action. Why hasn’t he stopped this already? With a snap of his fingers, he could undo all of this! He could send Tempest’s armies back to Hell. He could free Abyss from Hush’s control. He could at least tell us what happened to the sun, and how we might put it back into the sky!"

Vigor rubbed his throat. "I don’t know why he hasn’t stopped it. I hold out the faint hope that Equity’s sense of stagecraft has rubbed off on him and he’s waiting for the moment of greatest possible peril to make a grand entrance and turn back all the horror."

"It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse than they are at this exact moment," said Menagerie.

From outside the still open gates, above the howl of the wind, came a bone shivering, high pitched shriek. The Black Swan cut her eyes toward Menageries, her iron eyebrows knitting together.

"I knew I was tempting fate the instant the words left my lips," Menagerie said.

Equity Tremblepoint stumbled though the open gate into the hall. Her white robes were torn to tatters as she collapsed dramatically, her figure framed by the darkness behind her. She arched her back and placed the back of one hand against her brow, while her other hand extended to point into the darkness, trembling, as she exclaimed, "The dead! They’ve found us!"

The Black Swan ran to the gate. A trio of dead soldiers stood in the darkness barely a yard away, with shreds of Equity’s white robes still dangling from their skeletal fingers. One carried a black blade that stank of sulfur as he raised it overhead, preparing to chop the Black Swan in twain.

There was a slight tap on the Black Swan’s shoulder as a squirrel used her for a launching pad to fling itself toward the sword-wielding corpse. By the time it reached the warrior, the squirrel had changed into an enormous silverback gorilla. It grabbed the lead corpse by the wrist and swiftly disarmed it, in the most literally meaning of the word. Then, using the dismembered limbs as clubs, it knocked the skulls free from the shambling forms flanking the first corpse.

The gorilla picked up the black blade and turned back to the Black Swan.

"Go! Find the Deceiver! I’ll hold them off!"

The Black Swan peered into the starlight, at the ragged forms lurching over the frozen swells. Their numbers were uncountable, an army so large it was as if Hell had thrown up the damned souls of everyone who had ever died, which, of course, was precisely what was happening. She knew from interrogating the few demons that had been captured that the undead hordes had been promised the earth once the last of the living perished. With their leaders bearing blades forged from the gates of Hell, as each living man fell, the ranks of the damned swelled. As far as the Black Swan was aware, the last living inhabitants of the earth could be found on this small island far removed from any place that could be called a place, occupied only by madmen.

"Why hasn’t he stopped this," whimpered Equity. "I thought he would stop this!"

"Fall back!" the Black Swan shouted to Menagerie. "There’s too many of them. Get back inside the gate."

"You’ve seen how quickly they can inside a fortress," Menagerie growled. "I can hold out longer than an eight inch thick slab of oak."

"Not alone," said the Black Swan.

"He won’t be alone," said Vigor, hobbling forward on his staff.

Menagerie’s gorilla eyebrow’s shot up. "No offense, but I’m not sure how much help you’re going to be."

Vigor began to disrobe, struggling to pull his shirt over his head.

Equity sobbing despair turned into a rueful chuckle. "There was no chance at all the world would come to an end without Vigor taking one last opportunity to show us off his genitalia."

But it wasn’t Vigor’s crotch that caught the Black Swan’s attention. It was, instead, the elaborately inked tattoo that completely engulfed his torso. The tattoo depicted a dragon in minute detail, and the dark lines seemed to pulse with light as Vigor pulled a small flask of powder from a pocket as he tossed his robes and staff aside.

On wobbly legs thin as sticks, he shouted to Menagerie, "Do you think you’re the only person who ever studied blood magic? For three long years I lived with the scion of Greatshadow. I collected blood frequently, telling him I was studying the effects of the various medications I gave him to heal the wounds he had suffered in infancy. He had no reason to suspect I had plans to study draconic biology from a vastly improved perspective."

He popped open the cork on the vial and tilted his head back, shaking the powdery contents into his open mouth. The wind snatched away much of the dark black powder, giving the air the scent of blood. Vigor coughed as he strained to swallow the dusty mouthful. Red spittle flew from between his lips. He coughed again, more violently, and a jet of flame shot ten feet out from his open mouth. The flames seemed to have melted his face, which grew longer, more narrow, and the heat covered his skin with vivid red blisters, crusted with black. His body bulged as he dropped to all fours. With a horrible rip, his paper-thin skin split along his spine and two long red wings unfolded from between his shoulder blades.

In ten seconds, the transformation was complete, and a dragon larger than a bull with wings the size of mainsails stood facing the armies of the damned. He opened his crocodilian jaws and roared. An inferno billowed over the waves, incinerating the front ranks of the undead army.

Menagerie grabbed the Black Swan by the shoulders, refocusing her attention.

"Go!" the gorilla shouted. "Only Zetetic can stop this now!"

The Black Swan nodded, turning, grabbing Equity by the waist and slinging her over her shoulder as she ran into the hall.

"Where can I find him?" she shouted.

"Put me down before I throw up!" Equity shouted back.

The Black Swan put the aged thespian back on her feet. Equity responded by pointing at a stairway at the back of the hall. "Zetetic dwells in the uppermost chamber of the main tower!"

"And you’re sure he’s there?" asked the Black Swan.

"Of course not. He’s probably long gone into an abstract realm. Even if you find his body, I don’t know that his mind will be with it. But what choice do we have but to try?"

"I’ve been asking myself that for close to two hundred years," grumbled the Black Swan as she ran toward the stairs, he feet clanging like hammer blows on the marble floor. She took some comfort from her certainty that Equity was wrong. If a portal to an abstract realm had been opened within the last few days here on the island, she’d still detect the echoes. As someone familiar with traveling to different realities, she had a sense, just a bare pressure in her head, faint but unmistakable, whenever she was near a dimensional veil that had been breached.

She raced up the steps to the floor above. Flames flickered through a window. She quickly glanced out to see Vigor nearly a quarter mile out on the ice, spewing flames, spinning as he blasted the armies massed against him. Unfortunately, from her higher vantage point, the vastness of the army behind the flaming corpses was revealed. As large as the dragon was, he couldn’t protect the Keep from being overrun by the advancing army.

She ran on, resisting the temptation to look further upon the battlefield. Her only hope lay at the top of the stairs. Her tireless legs moved with machine precision to propel her upwards, leaping three steps at a time.

At last she reached a locked door. She hoped beyond this she’d find Zetetic. She pounded on the door with her fist. "Open up! It’s the Black Swan! You owe your life to me!"

When no reply came, she threw herself against the door. The thick wood cracked, but held. She threw herself again, then again, until the door came apart and she stumbled into the chamber beyond.

It was a room lined with paper. White as snow, in sheets large enough to drape a bed, the walls and ceiling and floor had been lined with the material. In the center of the windowless room, devoid of all furnishings, sat Zetetic, cross-legged, his head in his hands, staring at a small object before him.

She stepped closer, and saw it was a pencil.

"Zetetic?" she said, softly.

He said nothing.

"Zetetic, it’s me. The Black Swan. You know me. You know I’m the one who paid King Brightmoon to spare your life when you were captured by the Church of the Book all those years ago. I greased the palms required to let the king trust you with saving the sun, and paid the necessary fees to have you take possession of this keep. You owe me a favor."

Zetetic didn’t even look up.

She moved to a few feet away. She crouched, her iron joints squeaking. Studying his face, she saw he was awake. He blinked, but never lifted his face to acknowledge her.

She reached for the pencil.

The Deceiver’s hand shot forward and grabbed her wrist.

"It would have been far better if the church had hung me," he whispered. "I owe you nothing."