The place where she was rang hollow and empty, alone. An alone-place. It
The Sword hummed and shook, but her grip was sure. Even in exhaustion, even at the edge of night, she would never let it go.
She fell on a stack of tiles, the ceramic crumpled underneath the weight. She folded her body around the Sword, rags falling over her thin form and ash-covered face. Sleep came just as her heart still beat – slowly, painfully, without the promise of rest. It was a thing that happened, easier and easier to ignore.
The Bellinora slept. But the Sword did not.
A group of children passed an empty house, it had been abandoned for several years. They had taken to throwing rocks at it in idle moments, but today the house seemed different. Peter lobbed a pebble absently while Dala and Wrench were clambering over the broken fence. His pebble shattered a snaggle-tooth window, as his bullets had a dozen times before – but something seemed different. A thrill went through his stomach, and Peter felt afraid. As if some great beast had made the abandoned house its lair.
Peter grabbed his friends and dragged them protesting away from the house. His mother had taught him well. ‘Humans can take no chances, Peter’ she had said. ‘Every hand is turned against us. You feel funny or worried, even if you can’t see the reason. You get as far away from it as possible.’
The three human children trotted away from the house, further into their neighborhood, the claptrap shanties and hovels that their race was bound to.
Peter did not mention the house or the feeling of fear. But he did not forget.
[Just a little bit I wrote for my Pathfinder campaign today. I liked it and I haven’t updated blog in a bit so HERE YOU GO.]
[Hit a big ‘end of disc’ moment in current Pathfinder campaign. Here’s the first little bit of the next story, and a fond adieu to some of the characters off on new adventures.]
Back in black I hit the sack
I been too long I’m glad to be back
Yes I am
Let loose from the noose
That’s kept me hanging about
I keep looking at the sky cause it’s gettin’ me high
Forget the hearse cause I’ll never die
I got nine lives cat’s eyes
Using every one of them and runnin’ wild
Cause I’m back
Yes I’m back well I’m back
Yes I’m back
Well I’m back back
Well I’m back in black
Yes I’m back in black
– Trollkin Drinking song, Traditional – Bard Unknown
The hounds and the thieves fell back into the world like a sack of potatoes tossed on the floor — all eyes and with a loud whump.
Several of the party coughed, as hot air and gritty sand blew into their mouths. They were surrounded on all sides by dunes made of yellow sand. They had landed in a small hollow between the dunes that gave some protection from the wind, but none from the heat. The wide face of the sun was well on its way to the far horizon, it would be night soon.
There was no sign of their quarry, the strange woman and her perilous sword. Only on the crest of a dune a few hundred paces to the west, a black discoloration could be seen in the sand.
Zed, or rather Bowman as it would soon become impossible to keep the Zeds straight without reverting to their Rainscour nicknames, shrugged the bound wizard, Janus, onto the sand as he stood up, putting a hand over his eyes to shade them.
“We didn’t see what we just saw. It’s preposterous. There’s no way we just saw the actual Sword of Ruin, right?” the notorious thief asked. “Someone please reassure me, just lie to me if you would be so kind.”
The other Zed, Dagger, laughed and hopped up as well. “If you like. It was just the Saber of Major Unpleasantness.”
The desert wind blew across the thieves and hounds alike, bearing with it the faintest smell of ash.
Lysander’s eyes popped open. For the first time in days his head felt clear – so frustrating to be in a wondrous place like Rainscour and then the starry void between worlds with a headache brought upon by dimensional distortion. The cleric sat up and looked around.
A few of his companions were nearby, most still unconscious from their escape from the shattering constellations. The only others awake were their savior, the steel-touched traveler Crim and and the tengu, Fletch. The magus Ozmen snored loudly against the bright blue tile of the plaza floor.
Lysander looked around – they were in a a plaza, not too dissimilar from the one they had sheltered in the strange streets of Rainscour. Where that city had been filled with rain, this place seemed to almost riot color and sunlight. The only water burbled joyously in the fountain, ringing against the sides of the marble with tranquil rhythm. Off in the distance, the cleric could make out the sound of construction – hammers on wood, hammers on stone, voices shouting instruction and derision as they went about their work.
From a nearby building with wide arched windows, a broad head topped with red hair furiously shout through with gray appeared. It appeared again at the next window, then the next, as if the person was making their way towards the entrance, but couldn’t resist looking out each window as he did.
At last, the short and stout figure of a dwarf appeared at the entrance, trotting with exuberance that belied his age towards the party. Crim stood up sorrowfully and waved, but most of his attention was focused on the shattered Jump-Node that he held in the crook of his elbow.
“Well, hellacious day, travelers!” the dwarf boomed as he approached. “You just made every doodad and scrying stone I have go bonkers. Hell of a leap you must’ve made from wherever you came from.”
Ozmen helped Fletch to his feet, both blinking their eyes at their strange new surroundings and the garrulous greeting party.
“Where is here?” Lysander’s mind reeled. “We’re from the world called Cynus, and we kind of jumped blind from the dimensional void. Is this Cynus, is this home?”
“Or could this be Turn?” Crim asked without hope. “I never met any dwarves there before but…
“Sorry, my new friends,” the dwarf smiled. “You’ve fallen victim to the Thief, I’m afraid. Our world is so greedy, it’s always plucking strays from all over the place. This is not your world, traveler – but we’ll do our best to make you feel at home. My name is Bragg – and while our world has many names, this city has but one. Welcome to Kythera! The City of Wonder left by the Precursors for us to explore. Now come on! You’ve got some stories to tell I imagine, and the tea just came to a boil before your portal got everything squawking at me back in the lab. They do have tea where you came from, I trust?”
Lysander felt himself smiling despite the strange situation. “Depends, do you have sugar here?”
“We do, lad. We do.” Bragg nodded sagely.
The lost travelers followed the dwarf to tea, and off into their own story which will find its own time to tell.
And then things got a little weird. As often happens, Mike surprises me with a design that I love, but has very little connection to what we had originally been working on.
Now, I love this illustration. We had some discussions about going with a very evocative image on the cover, instead of something directly related to the plot. The mystery transpires in the Manor of the Heart-Broken Lion in the novel – and Mike really responded to that. We ultimately decided to go back to the original trajectory, but SPOILER ALERT: this sketch will find its way onto the back paperback cover of the book and potentially tattooed into my flesh at some point.
[Sketches for the cover illustration of The Riddle Box, my upcoming novel. I’m showing off the design process and sketches this week before the final reveal of the cover.]
And so it begins. I am beyond excited to reveal the cover to my upcoming novel, The Riddle Box…but I have been over-quiet on the blog of late – so I’m going to need to ramp up to it. Just clog up your feeds with me for a few days, that’s basically what I want. I thought it might be fun to show a little bit of the process by releasing the sketches that lead up to the final design, before revealing the final cover on Saturday.
First the OG cover design, made by yours truly. YES, bask in its awfulness.
I think it’s safe to say that this cover is amazing. Sadly it requires a refined artistic sense to truly appreciate, so it’s probably for the best that I went for something a little more mass market.
All of the art you will see henceforth in this series will be from my illustrator, Mike Groves. [poopbird.com]. You should immediately click over there and take a gander at his work – it is delightful and amazing. The sketches I’m sharing here are rough and you should do yourself a favor and look at more of his finished stuff. He is the perfect person to draw zombies or robots for you. Fans of the first book will immediately recognize his style from the cover of Spell/Sword – I was really fortunate that he had time in his hectic schedule to work on the cover for The Riddle Box.
And now – the first sketch.
I can tell you, my heart skipped a beat when I saw this thumbnail. The book’s lived in my head for so long, to see even this sketch of my heroes got me ludicrously pumped. The final design came a long way from this starting point – here would be a good point to thank Mike for his patience with my endless vague emails and texts during the design process.
Stay tuned throughout the week for more sketches and then…DUN DUN DUNNNN…the Final Cover Reveal.
[This isn’t going to make much sense – shocking for my blog, I know. I wrapped up a Pathfinder campaign last night, and this was the framing device for the final game – the tale as told by a bard, long after the heroes have vanished across the dunes. Over the next few days I’m going to be focusing the blog into Self-Promote Mode to ramp up to the release of The Riddle Box – which means I’ll be posting more often and also not slapping down random, vague stories and odd snippets – so bonus both ways!]
Sleep in the sand and tell me what you dream
Dance in the air and sing me what you seem
Burn in the sun and draw me what you fear
Drown in the sea and remember me, my dear.
Riddle me lies and cry me bright truths
The unquiet shepherd is dead
Kiss me with cold and hold me with steel
The black and white book has been read.
At the heart of tomorrow in the shade of Forget
We danced in the Eye of the Dream
I see you and steal you and break you alone
Please tell me you hear me scream.
Drown in the sand
Burn in the air
Dance in the sun
Sleep in the sea
But please remember me, my dear.
Oh, please remember me , my dear.
Won’t you please remember me, my dear?
“That’s a strange song,” said the child. “What does it mean?
“It means I’ve had too much to drink,” said the bard, “And you should hurry to fetch me another.”
“But you promised me the tale, the tale of the Six Heroes…and the Titan!”
“Ach – that is a weak song, child. It is shorter than is proper, but still seems tedious. What little sense it has is brittle and shatters like sugar-glass if you lean on it. It has no proper villain, more questions than answers, and it muddles up more than it means. And the ending – sand and shade, child! – it is a preposterous hogwash that even an old talespinner like me has a hard time speaking with a straight face.”
“But…”the child insisted, “It’s my favorite story.”
“Oh, is it now?” the bard’s eye twinkled.”I suppose every story is some poor fool’s favorite story. Who am I to begrudge you yours? Sit down, child – and I will tell it then. I will tell the tale of the Descabellado, the Bastard Sands – of the Wind Thief, the Blank-Face Beauty, the Frog Knight, the White Wanderer, the Furious One, and the Unknown Gunner. I will tell the tale of the Titan, of the Red Sword. Now lean in close and listen, for this tale is not often told and the sun hungers for night…
[And here the whole campaign happened. Highlights include the party accidentally destroying two sites of holy power on the same day, a machine city ruled by psychic dragon cultists, awkward sexual liaisons with said psychic dragon cultists, a prolonged period of several weeks that may have been a dream, a robotic turkey mount with laser eyes, lots of talking, murder, unexpected betrayals, more talking, and a final battle against an insane Void Dragon where half the party died and continued to fight the beast in the Spirit World. You know, D&D stuff. ]
During the story, a group of children gathered to hear the bard. For all his protestations, he told it well and they were spellbound until the last words fell as the Titan vanished from the world of mortals.
“…and that is the end of my tale, if any tale can truly be said to end.” the bard concluded, and took a long swig from his wineskin.
“But, wait – I still don’t understand” said a dwarven child. “ What did it all mean?”
“It meant what it means,” the child who has demanded the tale in the first place retorted. “Stories don’t need to mean anything.”
“But what about the Heroes, what happened after?” an elven girl with red hair scratched her nose.
“Oh, so demanding!” the bard chuckled. “Proper tales don’t usually have epilogues, but this is hardly a proper tale. Tell you what – each of you can ask me one question. And I promise I’ll only lie twice!”
[Here the players took on the role of the gathered children and asked their questions about the future of their world. Their secrets are their own, and I will not share them here.]
The children quickly thought of more questions and they begged and pleaded with the bard to answer them, or to give them hints about which were the lies and which were the truths. He only took a long draw from his wineskin until the last dregs were gone and laughed all the harder as he pushed his way through the crowd of children.
“Decide for yourself, young ones. That’s the best way. If there’s any moral at all, I guess that’ll have to do!”
The halfling pulled up his ratty cloak and stumbled out into the street, still laughing. He left the children and the questions all behind and whistled a strange tune to himself as the shadows of evening settled on his back.
The world was different then, you must understand. You have never known the sound of a river or the sigh of the breeze through the canopy, you have only ever known sand and stone. The world was beautiful, you see – green and abundant with life. It was my joy to touch each green leaf with my heart and know its secret song, a melody that has grown all too quiet in these dusty days. The days that I brought, that I bought with blood and death.
You must understand. As beautiful as the world was, it was not ours. We lived and died and even dreamed at the will and sway of the Dragons. Can you imagine? Every day you served and worked at the masters’ bidding, and in your sleep not even your own brain was free to wander. They kept our dreams hedged in by their field, by their Great Dream – the better to winnow out the rebellious, the mad, those who shone most brightly that could have lead us out of slavery. You know, as a young person you find someone that you fancy, your dreams fill with simple joys – but imagine if an alien intelligence decided who you would have these dreams of, who they thought best for you to fall in love with? Every daydream was a lie, drawing you further into the comforting truth of their dominion. We sang songs to them – songs that they put in our heads, and we believed that we had created. If a man cannot even trust his own thoughts, he is nothing. Generations of us bound in their dark web, living and dying without ever truly existing. Without truly living.
There were those that worshiped our masters as gods – and even now, who am I to argue? Their power was beyond our ken, beyond anything I have truly understood. They seemed to live in two worlds, one of body and one of mind. And those that pledged themselves to the Dragon gained a measure of freedom in both, but a deeper slavery in the quiet of their souls.
And I? I was no one special. Only through pure chance did I find a way out.
I worked on a farm. I see you smile. Yes, then as now I was a farmer. Attending the slow rituals of living things was my deepest joy. Some other workers and I were sent to till a new field on the edge of a great city. It was known that it would take some time to properly prepare the land, the soil was rocky but rich. We pitched our tents on the edge of the field, and spent the first few days in simple labor and easy joy. You felt so good when you followed orders, you see. A slow pulse of pleasure that kept a smile on every face. But then on the third night, nature intervened – a boon from the Balance to save us. A storm – rain and lightning and the howling of the wind. Our tents were ripped asunder, and in casting around for shelter we found a cave.
A cavern of stone, suddenly quiet after the storm’s wrath. We huddled together and fell into an exhausted slumber.
And we dreamed. We dreamed our own dreams for the first time in our lives. Something in the stone shielded us from the psychic grip of our masters. Something in the stone set us free.
Dreams of anger. Dreams of grief. Dreams of simple oddity that the brain can unspool. But our dreams – the dreams that the Dragons had kept from us.
And I? I dreamed of the Titan.
It was just a Shape, then. But it burned into my mind like a torch.
We awoke into a new world. We could see the bars of our prison – see the bondage that all our races were under. We went about our work that day out of habit, but each of us made sure to lay our bedding in the cave. Plans were laid, each of us discovering his own intelligence, her own will. The preparation of the field took longer and longer, we delayed in every way we could, terrified to leave the only free space on the planet, as far as we knew. It was Rose that mastered her mind first – learned to keep the masters’ psychic grip at bay – at least the passive one that filled us with work-joy and kept our minds inert. She taught us all, and we each swore to teach this new trick on other farms.
We became liars and thieves and rebels. The rats in the walls. Over time, our numbers grew. We scavenged technology, we learned as much as we could about the stone that protected us, we —
Ah, I see. You grow impatient. You asked where the Titan came from, how we built it. I will explain as best I can, though you may find it wanting.
I saw it in my dreams, you see. You must understand, every night, the Shape. Vague at first, but growing sharper and sharper as I found materials and technology of the Dragons to use. I had no great skill in science – Jeffrey, Bantam, and Merrick all outstripped me there. But when I worked on the Titan, my hands knew where to go, I could see where each piece would fit. Even at the time I couldn’t explain it – except to say: the Titan wanted to be built. The Shape was already there, I just put the pieces together. And when I witnessed the power it brought to bear…
I do not know, even now, where the Titan came from. But I do understand its purpose – to set us free. To bring an end to tyranny, to break the chains of this world. You must understand, now that it is yours to wield. You must understand. You must understand.