The Skull of Kaios (part seven)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

…Grabbing a harpoon line, Blood Eagle swung himself onto the ship and hurled himself upon the first Herax he saw. With one hand on his prey’s neck, Blood Eagle tore off his breastplate and flung it aside. Other Herax closed in, climbing the rigging or the tilted deck, stabbing and slashing any part of Blood Eagle they could reach. Ignoring them, he wrenched open his victim’s ribs and buried his face in the gaping chest cavity.

“Oh my fuckin’…” said Aleck.

Plumes of fire erupted from the wounds in Blood Eagle’s body. He whirled around and a huge cloud of flame burst forth from his mouth, engulfing the Herax around him and spreading across the deck of the ship. Fire caught in the sails and rigging.

The harpoon lines burned through, allowing the raft to fall away. The five Herax on the raft with Aleck seemed to notice him. They raised their weapons with inquisitive looks on their faces. Aleck dove over the side. As he fell, he willed the raft away from him, up towards the light of the burning ship. He plummeted into darkness. I hope the raft doesn’t hit Blood Eagle, he thought. A moment later, he heard the raft smash into the ship. He sped the raft back down, flipping it end over end to dislodge any remaining Herax, hoping it would catch up to him.

He fell in darkness. After a time, he saw a pale light approaching from below. Had he somehow turned around, to fall back towards the ship? No, that doesn’t make sense…. Before long he saw Thresner floating in the middle of the Well, standing in the air, arms crossed angrily. The pale blue glow from his glass head revealed a dozen Herax, armed and ready. The wreck of the longboat hovered behind them. Aleck huddled into his robe, praying they didn’t notice him.

He fell through the group of Herax and kept going. Before long he slowed, stopped, fell back towards the Gravity Switch and through them again. Soon he came to rest in midair directly among the Herax. He peeked out from under his hood and into the eyes of an angry soldier.

“Oh,” said Aleck. “Hello.”

The Herax snarled, raised his knife, and grabbed Aleck’s robe.

The raft flew down, edge-on, and smashed the Herax out of the air.

Someone nodded to Aleck from the shadows. Aleck recognized the Cook, one hand wrapped in a bloody rag, a bloody Herax knife held ready in the other.

A charred Herax body fell past, and another. Aleck looked up and saw the burning Herax ship, far but approaching fast. More burned and mangled Herax bodies fell, some smashing into living Herax or the wreck of the longboat. Aleck swung the raft over his head in time to hear an armored corpse crash onto it.

“To the walls!” shouted a Herax. “To the walls!” echoed the rest in unison. Aleck watched Blue Thresner and the living Herax attempt with little success to swim through the air, away from the middle of the well, as more charred bodies fell among them.

Aleck peeked up around the edge of the raft to see Blood Eagle, his body wreathed in fire, standing on the prow of the burning, falling ship. Aleck flipped the raft vertical and flattened himself against the wall with it. He heard the roaring conflagration fall past, plowing through bodies and debris. Looking down, he watched the ship slow, stop, and fall back up towards him. He huddled behind the raft, listening to the ship fly past again and finally come to rest in the middle of the Well. He could feel its heat even from behind the raft.

Aleck peered out. The burning wreck rotated in midair. Blood Eagle held in each hand a burning Herax heart, dripping boiling blood. “Doom advances upon the Herax!” he roared. “The true Cannibal-King approaches, and his Heralds walk among you!”

The remaining Herax launched themselves off the walls, weapons flashing in the firelight. “We come as one!” they bellowed. Blood Eagle wolfed down one Herax heart, then the other. His body shuddered. Flames spat out of the innumerable wounds covering his body, and an ear-splitting howl erupted from his mouth, echoing up and down the Well.

Aleck heard a metal clang, felt a blast of wind; his ears popped painfully, then he heard nothing. Blood Eagle’s howl disappeared and the roaring flames fell silent. The light grew dimmer, the fires on the burning ship quickly dwindling. Aleck realized he felt desperately short of breath. Gulping for air, he found nothing in his lungs. The Herax fell on Blood Eagle in a tangle of mayhem.

Aleck’s heart raced. He scratched a tickle in his nose and his finger came back bloody. By the orange light of the ship’s smoldering embers he watched the Herax and Blood Eagle stabbing and slashing each other. Thresner hid behind the wreck of the Herax longboat, his glass head glowing in the dimness; he hovered there, rigid, arms outstretched, palms together, a determined look on his withered face.

Aleck shot the raft across the Well at him. A thunderclap erupted in the Well. Aleck reeled, ears ringing, lungs heaving. Flames roared to life upon the Herax ship. The raft hovered across the Well, the headless metal body of the wind-wizard floating beside it.

“Fuck you, cyborg!” hollered Aleck….

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The Skull of Kaios (part six)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

…Aleck tucked the spew-coated Jawbone into his belt and grabbed the Circomangkus. Flinging the raft into the warship’s mainsail, he levered the ship over sideways. Some of the Herax upon it grabbed rigging; others fell. Aleck heard the unmistakable echoes of bodies hitting solid ground. He ran to the parapet. No Well of Apraxos here: this side of the tower overlooked craggy rocks and stunted trees. Broken Herax lay squirming. Aleck stood there, staring down at them. “I did that,” he whispered.

“Nice job, kid!” said Akaz. Aleck turned around. Akaz and Blood Eagle stood side by side, both of them bent and panting heavily. Herax stood around them, at the ready.

“I’m not a killer,” said Aleck.

“News for ya, kid,” said Akaz. “Hey, look out!” He leapt back into Blood Eagle’s mouth, and Aleck spun around. The Herax warship had torn its sail free of the raft and righted itself, pulling up close enough for soldiers to swing themselves down from the rigging. As Aleck backed away, the nearest Herax fell with a spear in his neck, and the next with a spear through his waist. Aleck turned and ran away, bringing the raft in, passing Blood Eagle as the Giver picked up two more spears.

“Let’s get out of here!” shouted Aleck, swiping the raft around them in a circle to fend off the encroaching Herax, then bringing it up beside him. He and Blood Eagle jumped on. The Herax closed in as the raft sprung into the air, then scattered to their respective vessels. Aleck sped the raft back down into the Well of Apraxos.

Akaz leapt out of Blood Eagle’s mouth and sat down heavily. Panting, he growled at Aleck, “What about the rest of the Skull?”

“Here,” said Aleck, holding it and the Jawbone out to him.

Akaz gulped down the front half of the Skull, sniffed the Jawbone, and swallowed it as well.

“Where the hell did you go?” asked Aleck

“You saw me,” said Akaz. “I went in through his mouth. To give him my Sovereign Shield and stuff.”

“You do me a great honor, O Akaz,” said Blood Eagle, kneeling deeply and bowing his head to the deck of the raft.

“You have a False Sovereign Shield, too?” asked Aleck.

Blood Eagle looked up and scowled at Aleck. “Blaspheme at your peril, boy.”

“I just thought only the Cannibal-King had a Sovereign Shield,” said Aleck, backing nearly off the edge of the raft.

“The Cannibal-King gets his,” said Akaz, “from me.”

“What?” asked Aleck.

“Great Akaz speaks the truth, child,” said Blood Eagle.

“Let’s just get out of here,” said Akaz.

The raft plunged into pitch blackness. Cursing himself for forgetting, Aleck brought the raft to a sudden stop. “I can’t see,” he said.

“I’ll guide you,” said Akaz.

“No way,” said Aleck, “we need to go fast! It’s too risky! I want a light, now!”

“I decide what’s risky!” snarled Akaz. “Having a light is risky! Go!”

“No!” said Aleck.

Akaz’s eyes flashed bright with flame, casting vague shadows upon the walls of the Well. “That’s the best I can do for now,” he growled. Aleck lowered the raft as swiftly as he dared. Akaz lay down.

“Why are you so tired?” asked Aleck.

“I’m bending Fate, you idiot!” whispered Akaz. “Haven’t you noticed?”

Bright light washed over the raft. Aleck looked up to see both Herax vessels soaring straight at them, shining great lanterns down the Well. Silhouettes of soldiers clung eagerly to the rigging. Aleck dropped the raft faster.

“They’re catching up,” said Akaz.

Aleck looked up and saw the Herax boat quickly gaining on them, the two-masted ship lagging behind it. Aleck stopped the raft abruptly, knocking himself and Blood Eagle hard to the deck. The Herax boat shot past, cracking its mast across a corner of the raft. The raft flipped upside-down and then right-side-up again, one of its timbers falling away; its three riders clambered to stay aboard as it righted itself. The Herax boat veered and smashed into the wall, Herax soldiers flying loose from the rigging and tumbling down the Well. As they plummeted away, Aleck saw them draw long knives from their belts, and heard them call, in fading unison, “We come as one!”

“And there you go as one,” said Akaz.

Aleck laughed.

“Don’t laugh,” said Akaz. “They’ll be waiting for us halfway down.”

Before these words could fully register, Aleck realized the two-masted ship was directly overhead. Shrieking, he let the raft fall freely. The ship fell with it. Staring upward, Aleck’s eyes locked with a those of a Herax, an old sailor standing in the prow, leaning forward against the rail, his face a grimace of intense concentration. Aleck steered the raft with his peripheral vision, unable to take his eyes off the sailor’s.

Two great crossbows in the ship’s forecastle fired harpoons through the wooden raft. The ship slowed to a stop. The harpoon lines stopped the raft; Aleck swung the raft from side to side, trying to dislodge it, but the lines held fast. Herax soldiers dove down with spears and knives. “We come as one!” they shouted. Aleck pulled his Keeper robe around him.

“Eat their hearts!” snarled Akaz.

“I will not!” shouted Blood Eagle.

Akaz leapt into Blood Eagle’s mouth. Blood Eagle staggered as the Herax crowded around him. Like hands belonging to the same body, four Herax feinted in combination; Blood Eagle dodged expertly, but landed in a vulnerable position. The fifth reached in and stabbed his flank. Another set of feints set him up to be stabbed in the other side. The Herax held back for a moment to taunt him.

“You are fast, Blood Eagle!” snarled one.

“And unpredictable,” growled another.

“But you cannot outmaneuver–”

“–five sets of eyes–”

“–attached–”

“–to–”

“–one–”

“–mind!”

With that, the Herax moved in again to strike. Blood Eagle disregarded them and jumped straight up….

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The Skull of Kaios (part five)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

…Akaz leapt through the air and into Blood Eagle’s mouth. Blood Eagle staggered backwards and swayed. Aleck stared, unbelieving. Instinctively, he looked around the roof, but Akaz was nowhere to be seen. Blood Eagle looked bigger.

Huge crossbows mounted in the fore and aft of the boat swiveled to fire at Blood Eagle. Their javelins flew directly at him, reversed in midair, curved in their flight back to the circling boat. Tracking their way back to the gunners, the javelins skewered them each through the middle, pinning them to the deck.

“I cannot move!” shouted one.

“I feel pain!” screamed the other. “This cannot be! I feel pain!”

“Be silent!” commanded their leader, severed braids and scalps swaying from the crest of his helm. “The enemy wears a False Sovereign Shield! Attack on foot! Do not throw or fire upon him!”

We come as one!” shouted the Herax in unison.

The boat slammed into the edge of the tower, spilling Herax onto the roof. Aleck watched them leaping easily down, or tumbling gracefully to their feet, spears ready.

The mostly-empty boat pulled away and continued circling around. A crow landed on the rail and turned into the tall, naked Cook. He flung a Herax soldier over the side, grabbing the knife from his belt as he fell. The Cook shoved the knife into the neck of the closest Herax, dove overboard, and flapped away in crow form.

Aleck stared at the Herax trying to pull the knife from its own throat.

Blood Eagle inhaled a huge breath and blasted a gout of white-hot flame across the faces of the two nearest spearmen, charring their heads into hollow sockets. He held onto their spears as they fell. Stepping forward, he spat the last of his lungful into the face of the next Herax. Skin and eyes burned away. The faceless soldier staggered backward, shrieking, “I ‘eel ‘ain! I ‘eel ‘ain!” Blood Eagle stood with a spear in each hand, panting.

Aleck gagged, retched, and fell to his knees, puking directly onto the Jawbone of Zebdod. Great, he thought, through the haze of nausea. Typical. He heaved again and, swinging his head to avoid the Jawbone, vomited on his hand instead.

He spat, spat again. “‘Weird Luck.’ Great.” Picking up the Jawbone with his spew-covered hand, he stood up and gave it a violent shake.

“Ah!” exclaimed a Herax, very close. Aleck looked up to see a spearman bearing down upon him, his strike interrupted by a sudden eyeful of vomit.

“What the heck?” said Aleck, backing away. Something slid out from under his foot, and he sprawled back on the raft. The Herax’s spear flew over his shoulder and thudded into the wooden deck. Grabbing his amulet, Aleck abruptly flipped the raft upright, catching the soldier’s chin with the edge and flinging himself backward onto the roof. Ignoring his new bruises, Aleck shoved the upended raft hard away from him, sweeping the Herax into the Well.

He saw the object he had slipped upon: the face half of the Skull of Kaios. He clung to it and the sticky Jawbone.

Blood Eagle danced wildly across the roof, forcing the Herax to chase him. Leaping onto a spearman, he took a huge bite out of his head — helm, skull, and all. Taking his victim’s spear, Blood Eagle spun and hurled it. The spear passed entirely through the shoulder of a Herax soldier and kept sailing, piercing the stomach of the spearman behind him and landing finally in the hip of a third. Aleck saw bodies strewn about; the stench of burnt meat and bones hung everywhere. Blood Eagle picked up two more spears. Holding one by the end like an absurdly long sword, he swung it around in a wide circle — slashing one Herax across the throat, the next across the face, and bashing a third in the side of the head.

“Hold your ground!” shouted the Herax officer, lying up against the parapet with a broken spear haft sticking out of his belly. “We are coming!” The Cook appeared, wrenched the spear out of him, and plunged it back into his face. Herax soldiers turned and threw. Four spears flew in quick succession. The Cook became a crow in an instant, dodging, but a fifth spear caught him in the wing. He fell.

Blood Eagle stood with a spear in each hand, panting.

A big Herax warship, with two masts and three dozen spearmen, rose up from behind the tower. “We come as one!” bellowed every Herax in sight: whole, wounded, or dying….

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The Skull of Kaios (part four)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

Thresner concept art by Mike Bennewitz
Thresner concept art by Mike Bennewitz

…The raft sped down at the gray castle. They peered over the edge, Aleck lying with the Jawbone in one hand, the Circomangkus in the other. “The Skull is on top of that,” he shouted over the wind, pointing to a flat-roofed tower overhanging the edge of the Well. The whole House of the Watcher looked abandoned.

“We just land on the roof, get the Skull, and take off,” said Akaz. “Couldn’t be easier.”

“‘Fortune favors the bold,’“ Aleck recited listlessly. Blood Eagle chuckled.

Aleck dropped the raft straight down to the roof, landing it in a clutter of detritus. A pedestal squatted in the center; a trapdoor, broken from its hinges, lay beside a stairway spiraling down. As Aleck disembarked, small creatures scurried and slithered away from him. Holding the Jawbone before him and carefully following its tug, he kicked his way through the debris littering the roof.

“Many bones,” said Blood Eagle.

“Glad we have the Jawbone,” said Akaz. “It would take a long time to sift through this mess.”

Aleck broke out of his reverie and realized the roof was covered with brittle, heavily-gnawed bones. He stopped in his tracks, cringing.

“People-bones,” said Blood Eagle.

Akaz sniffed. “Diggers and Deep Ones,” he said. “Very recent. Souls burned out of them.”

A chill crept up Aleck’s spine. “Can you smell the Skull of Kaios?” he asked, gingerly stepping back the way he came.

Akaz sniffed again. “No, not even this close up. Where are you going?”

Aleck got back onto the raft. “I can’t deal with this.”

“What does the Jawbone say?” asked Akaz.

“I don’t get why you can’t smell the Skull,” said Aleck.

“Apraxos enchanted it a long time ago so I wouldn’t be able to find it,” said Akaz. “It’s probably bad luck for me to even try.”

“How come I can find it, then?” asked Aleck.

“It’s hidden from me specifically,” said Akaz. “Me and the Nymph and a few others who might use it against him. But he never anticipated Aleck of Earth.”

“Oh,” said Aleck. He looked around. “This is fucked. What did he do, just herd a bunch of people up here and eat their souls?”

“Obviously. What does the damn Jawbone say?” Akaz repeated.

“Fuck that. Fuck that fuckin’ jerkoff.” Aleck held the Jawbone and concentrated. “Both halves of the Skull are somewhere over by that pedestal,” pointing.

“Let’s get them and get out of here,” said Akaz.

Squeamish, Aleck skimmed the raft a few yards across the roof and set it down beside the pedestal. Spiders, rats, and snakes fled amid the scattered bones.

“Someone’s coming,” said Akaz.

A clanking came from the stairs. A glowing glass sphere emerged, followed by a humanoid metal body. Inside the sphere floated a severed head.

“It’s a fuckin’ cyborg,” said Aleck.

“Hey,” said Akaz, “I know you.”

The metal man stood there, stunned.

“Didn’t I kill you?” asked Akaz. “A couple hundred years ago.”

“I am Blue Thresner the Undying!” he shouted, his hollow voice resonating from a fluted hole in his chest. Thresner spread his arms wide and then slammed his hands together with a loud clang. Wind blasted across the roof, showering the intruders with bones and live vermin, knocking Aleck off his feet. “Wha—!” He sprawled painfully, the Jawbone knocked from his hands. “—ow!”

Blood Eagle, bent double against the wind, marched steadily towards Thresner.

Back!” shrieked Thresner. The wind narrowed to a gust directed at Blood Eagle alone, staggering him backward. Blood Eagle ducked and dove flat under the gust, grabbing Thresner by the feet and flipping him onto his back. An ear-splitting shriek emanated from Thresner as he flailed his clanking limbs, trying to get up. Blood Eagle grabbed him by one hand and one foot and flung him off the roof. Thresner’s shriek faded gradually as he fell the length of the tower and down into the Well.

Aleck stared at Blood Eagle.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Akaz.

“Amen.” Aleck scrambled around on hands and knees, looking for the Jawbone, and found, instead, the back half of the golden Skull of Kaios. When he touched it, an eerie tingling sensation ran up his arm and through his body. “Akaz!”

“What?” snapped Akaz.

“Here!” Aleck tossed him the back half of the Skull. Akaz snatched it out of the air and swallowed it. Aleck quickly resumed his search.

“They’re coming,” said Blood Eagle. Aleck turned and saw the Giver backing quickly away from the edge of the roof. A Herax longboat rose into view, its square, red sail billowing above two dozen armored spearmen….

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The Skull of Kaios (part three)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

…A long while later, Aleck spotted a speck of pale light far overhead. It grew steadily. Soon he could clearly see the jagged edges of a cave mouth. The sky beyond looked overcast. Faint light trickled into the Well of Apraxos, revealing the vague, dark forms of Akaz and Blood Eagle. Aleck jumped, startled at the sight of a lump on the corner of the raft, before he realized it must be the Cook, motionless and silent. Aleck looked up at the cloudy sky. “Sky?” he asked.

“Slow down,” said Akaz. “The House of the Watcher should be right next to the mouth of the Well. I doubt anyone’s expecting intruders, but who knows what defenses he’s got. And as soon as a Herax spots us, he’ll know where we are.”

“Huh?” asked Aleck. “Who’ll know where we are? Apraxos?”

“Yeah, ‘Apraxos the Watcher,’ get it?” said Akaz. “He can see through the eyes of any Herax.”

“How the fuck is that?” asked Aleck.

“The Herax have a hive mind,” said Akaz. “Controlled by the Eyes of Kaios. Apraxos and Goromath have the Eyes. Two of them, anyway.”

“Hive mind?” asked Aleck.

“Telepathic,” said Akaz. “There’s a hierarchy. Any Herax can see through the eyes of those below him. Some authoritarian bullshit like that, anyway. So, Apraxos and Goromath can see through all of them.”

“Do we have any idea where the Skull is?” asked Aleck.

“In the House of the Watcher somewheres,” said Akaz.

“And how are we supposed to find it?”

“Old Aleck got us this,” said Akaz. He hawked and spat a human jawbone of golden metal onto the deck of the raft. “We picked it up just before you got here. I figure you can probably use it like a divining rod.”

“What?”

“Try it, see if it works.”

“What the hell is it?” asked Aleck.

“The Jawbone of Zebdod,” said Akaz. “Zebdod’s an evil spirit that Apraxos made from the Skull of Kaios. He’s one of the False Skulls. The Astral Web was another.”

“I understand everything up to the word ‘jawbone,’“ said Aleck.

Akaz tapped the Jawbone with his nose. “Look, just do the fuckin’ thing.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do?” said Aleck.

“Pick it up,” said Akaz, “and try to find the Skull of Kaios with it.”

“This is your plan?” exclaimed Aleck.

“Do the thing,” growled Akaz.

“And if it doesn’t work, then what?” scoffed Aleck. “We search Apraxos’s castle, room by room, until we find it?”

“Well if you have to do it that way, you’ll be glad to have Blood Eagle and the Cook to help with any trouble,” said Akaz.

Me!?” shrieked Aleck.

“Just try the damn Jaw. You don’t know how magic works. I do.”

Exasperated, Aleck picked up the Jawbone of Zebdod and held it in both hands, teeth facing up. “This is goddamn stupid,” he said. He took a deep breath and visualized a golden skull.

The jawbone tugged sharply upward, towards the mouth of the Well. Aleck jumped, almost dropping it.

“Whoa, I felt something,” he whispered. “Hate to admit it.” He pointed towards the rim of the Well.

“Told ya,” said Akaz.

Aleck furrowed his brow and tried it again. The Jawbone half-chomped upwards.

“That’s how magic works,” said Akaz. “Use the fake jawbone to find the real Skull. It makes sense, if you think about it. They’re connected.”

“Now what?” asked Aleck.

“Hang on to that Jawbone,” said Akaz. “I guess just fly up really fast and hope no one sees us.”

“‘Fortune favors the bold,’“ repeated Blood Eagle.

“Let’s try it,” said Akaz. “Don’t stop until we’re about a mile up.”

“Are you serious?” asked Aleck.

“Dead serious,” said Akaz. “Do it now. Top speed. Lay flat so you don’t fall off.”

Reluctantly, Aleck stretched out, and wished the raft upward. It sped faster and faster, the wind beating down until Aleck feared it would peel him from the surface of the raft and fling him into the abyss. Blood Eagle stood beside him, staring up. Abruptly they hurtled out through the mouth of the Well of Apraxos and up into the warm gray sky.“Slow down,” said Akaz after a few moments. “Nobody saw us, I think. Why don’t you check that Jawbone again.”

The air was hot and thickly humid. Aleck brought the raft to a stop in the mist. Lying flat on his back, holding the Jawbone by its two ends, he envisioned the Skull of Kaios. The Jaw dipped toward his face, presumably indicating the land below. Peeking over the edge of the raft, Aleck’s eyes went wide in awe at the creepy vista. A small castle perched on the edge of the bottomless hole: the House of the Watcher. A landscape of poisonous-looking lakes and barren crags stretched a couple of miles around till the mist shrouded everything. If they were inside the hollow earth, Aleck couldn’t tell; for all he knew, they were in a huge cavern. “Though that wouldn’t explain the gravity switch,” he whispered to himself. This is fucking wacko.

He looked up. Through twisting veils of mist, he glimpsed a huge, round mass of darkness in the center of the Hollow Earth. The black globe pulsed, casting out half-shadowy, half-fleshy tendrils which stretched out like plumes of black smoke from burning little green plastic army men, then coiled and fell back into it. It was incomprehensibly beautiful. Aleck felt that he might lose his mind if he looked at it too long.

“The Earth Dragon,” said Akaz.

Blood Eagle stretched his arms up towards the dark sphere. “O Black Sun!” he groaned. “Iä! Mother of creation! Blessed am I past imagining to have such a Fate as this, to behold you directly with my outer eyes! O Earth Dragon! Iä! Every being I slaughter is for Thee, for Thee! May their bodies feed the endless incarnations of your ten thousand young! Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” He lowered his head and stood in silence.

Akaz glanced up at the Earth Dragon, then over the side of the raft. He shuffled his feet a moment. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Shall we?”

Blood Eagle looked over at him. “Yes,” he said. “Let’s.”

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The Skull of Kaios (part two)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

…Blood Eagle paced around. Aleck sat quietly, more or less in a trance by now, snapping into anxious awareness at Akaz’s occasional course corrections. The Well of Apraxos sank on and on. For a while now it had felt as though the raft no longer plummeted, but hung motionless in the dark, a constant wind howling up around them from below.

Blood Eagle stumbled again. “Careful, boy-cub!”

Aleck covered his head, expecting the Giver to strike at him again. Blood Eagle shouted and sprawled full upon him. Aleck scrambled out from under the massive body and found himself skidding headlong across the deck, screaming. He grabbed wildly for something to stop his inexplicable slide. Nothing. He flew off into the darkness, hollering in terror.

Akaz called to him: “Don’t worry.”

Aleck screamed and fell.

He heard Akaz again, still not far away, shouting, “Watch out for the wall.”

Aleck bashed into the side of the Well, bounced off with the wind knocked out of him. He fell, tumbling.

“Stop the raft,” he heard Akaz say. Akaz’s voice came from below him.

“Stop the raft!” shouted Akaz again, his voice further below now.

Choking down his fear and confusion, Aleck willed the raft to stop.

“Bring it back up,” shouted Akaz from far below.

Aleck couldn’t tell if his body was falling or flying. Dizzy, nauseated, he held the amulet in his hand and willed the raft to return to him.

“Careful,” came Akaz’s voice, not far away at all now. The raft slammed into Aleck. He bounced off and floated in the darkness, wheezing in pain.

“We’re at the middle,” said Akaz.

“The middle of what?” moaned Aleck.

“Halfway through the crust. We’re at the Gravity Switch.”

“What?” gasped Aleck.

“Flip the raft over,” said Akaz. “Slowly.”

“I cannot feel the Earth,” said Blood Eagle, edgy consternation in his voice.

Aleck flipped the raft over, slowly, and brought it close. Climbing onto it, he found that he barely stuck to its surface. Any movement caused him to drift up into the air.

“Now go up,” said Akaz.

“Back the way we came?” asked Aleck.

“No, no, go down, fool. The same direction we were headed before. ‘Up’ from how we’re facing now.”

“I do not understand what is happening,” said Blood Eagle through clenched teeth.

“We’re at the Gravity Switch,” said Akaz. “Halfway through the world, gravity changes direction. The closer you get to it, the less gravity. That’s why you tripped just now, and why the kid flung himself off the raft. A little further down, it’ll feel normal again.”

“I do not know what you mean by ‘gravity,’“ growled Blood Eagle.

“We’re halfway through the earth?” exclaimed Aleck. “We couldn’t have been going that fast!”

“Halfway through the crust,” corrected Akaz. “Gravity is normal on the inner surface.”

“Inner surface,’“ said Aleck.

“Inner surface,” said Akaz.

“The world is hollow,” said Aleck.

“What the hell do you think I’ve been talking about?” snapped Akaz. “Let’s go, dammit.”

Aleck lay in the darkness, head spinning, body aching. The raft rose into the depths of the earth….

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The Skull of Kaios (part one)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

Watcher, beware
The First Herald:
Flying on trophy wings,
He tilts your ships sideways.
He smells even what is hidden
From the god of the trackers.

Watcher, beware
The Second Herald:
Swallowing death itself,
He bleeds fire.
He cuts your fingers from you
One by one.

— ­from “The Song of the Heralds”
by Kaios the Summoner

The raft plummeted in total darkness down the Well of Apraxos. Akaz dangled his head over the side. Aleck huddled in the center, feeling better physically but now terrified, listening to Blood Eagle pace fearlessly in a circle around him. The Cook presumably still perched on one corner.

“Move left a bit,” growled Akaz. “You’re drifting near the wall.”

Clutching the amulet that controlled the raft’s flight, Aleck willed it ten feet leftward.

“A little more,” said Akaz.

Aleck slid the raft further across the Well.

“Not so far!” snapped Akaz. “Back a little!”

Aleck jerked the raft back, and Blood Eagle stumbled. “Careful, boy!” snarled the Giver, flicking Aleck hard in the temple with his finger.

“Ow!” shouted Aleck. “You can see in pitch dark, why don’t you fly this goddamn thing? Here!” He took the amulet from around his neck and flung it at where he thought Blood Eagle stood. The chain jingled as Blood Eagle grabbed the amulet out of the air and threw it back at Aleck, striking him painfully in the chest.

“Aleck!” roared Akaz. “Is your head on straight?”

Aleck paused, thought a moment, envisioned the amulet flying away into the darkness — the raft then diving, uncontrolled, to shatter against the wall some unknown distance below. Panic flashed through him.

“I cannot fly the raft,” said Blood Eagle, “because I am Pacing the Circle.”

“He’s generating good luck for us,” Akaz said to Aleck. “A heap of which you just used up by throwing that thing, you shit-for-brains.”

“Why don’t you frickin’ fly it?” asked Aleck.

“Any direct action I take against Apraxos,” said Akaz, “will turn into bad luck for us.”

“How does that work, again?” asked Aleck.

“His False Sovereign Shield,” said Akaz, “protects him on the luck plane as well as the physical realm.”

“‘Sovereign Shield,’“ said Aleck.

“False Sovereign Shield,” intoned Blood Eagle. “Only the Cannibal-King wears the true Sovereign Shield.”

“The false one is powered by the Rites of Haugermath,” said Akaz.

“’Rights of Haugermath,’“ said Aleck. “Isn’t that what the Nymph said Fuckface was going to do with the Nubiles?”

“No, that’s Augermath,” said Akaz. “Master of death magic. Haugermath developed luck magic.”

“Do not speak those names in my presence,” spat Blood Eagle. “Not even you, Great Akaz. Please.”

Aleck hung the amulet back around his neck. “Can we at least fly slower? I can’t see!”

“’Fortune favors the bold,’“ recited Akaz and Blood Eagle, in unison.

“And that’s why we’re flying to Apraxos’s house when the whole Army of the Herax is looking for us.”

“Most of them are facing the Givers, in the countryside outside the city,” said Akaz. “And the ones looking for us are all up on the surface. This is the last thing Apraxos would expect.”

“Because it’s batshit!” said Aleck.

“Fly the raft,” snarled Akaz….

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Blood Eagle (part seven)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

…Aleck flew the rafts away towards the river, feeling increasingly nauseated. Flying as low and fast over the water as he dared, he took them, single file, towards the bay. He saw a crow clinging desperately to one of the rafts. “Akaz,” he said. “Where.”

“Feel sick?” asked Akaz. He lay on his side, two legs still sticking into the air.

Aleck nodded.

“Just keep going this way,” said Akaz. “Don’t spit out that Token yet. Wait till we’re out of sight.”

“I don’t want to faint,” whined Aleck. “Crash us.”

“Don’t worry,” said Akaz. “We’re here.” The rafts shot out over the bay. “Billycutter’s Tunnel,” said Akaz. “It’s just back behind us in the cliff. We walked past it this morning.”

Aleck slowed the rafts and pulled them around in a wide circle. Glancing back, he spotted Blood Eagle staring at him. He shivered and focused on the cliff.

“See the demon head?” asked Akaz. “Just fly straight at that.”

Aleck saw a large outcropping, subtly carved into the shape of a face contorted in rage.

“’At it’?” croaked Aleck.

“Yeah,” said Akaz. “It’ll move.”

Aleck shot one of the empty rafts at it. The stone face looked solid, but the raft flew into it and disappeared. Aleck desperately followed. Have I lost my mind? he thought. Nerves frayed under the influence of the Token. He sped into the face and through it, bringing the rest of the rafts close behind.

On the other side, he found himself floating in a wide, dimly-lit tunnel. Except for a flat path down the middle of the floor, the living stone all around had been carved in bas-relief. Bodies and faces of all sizes and description erupted from intricate, abstract patterns of waves and webs. Stone of many colors striped the walls, with one thin band of glowing mineral casting its light down the tunnel.

The Nymph stood, frozen, twenty yards away.

Aleck set down the rafts, spat out the Token, and fell to all fours, dry-heaving. Akaz jumped to his feet. The Nymph came running down the tunnel towards them. Aleck rolled over on his side, panting heavily. “Are you well?” asked the Nymph, kneeling beside him. She took his hands, but suddenly released them with a jolt. She stood up, scowling, tears spilling from her eyes. “Killer!” she shrieked.

“We got your Nubiles back,” snarled Akaz. “You’re welcome.”

Glowering at Akaz, she strode over to the first of the Nubiles, grabbed her metal collar in both hands, and wrenched it open.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” moaned Aleck.

The Nymph spun to face Akaz. “Even him!” she shouted, pointing at Aleck. “Even him you corrupt!”

“It was only a Herax,” said Akaz.

The Nymph scowled and turned away. She broke the collar off of another of the Nubiles, and another.

“It didn’t seem real,” croaked Aleck.

“Frankly, I’m stunned there was as little killing as there was,” said Akaz. “The kid even went out of his way to save a bunch of Normal assholes. Rapist warrior types, your favorite.”

Ignoring him, the Nymph removed another collar. Blood Eagle stood between the Nymph and the fifth Nubile. She looked at the blood on his jaws, on his hands. “I killed a Herax,” he said.

“And ate his heart, I take it?” she asked.

“Nay,” said Blood Eagle. “I killed also a Normal, and a Troll of Apraxos; but I ate none of them, for such is my vow.”

“Indeed?” she scowled.

“I drank some trollsblood,” he said, “for I was wounded. But those beasts, despite their humanoid semblance, have no true souls, as we know.”

She shooed him aside, a sour look on her face. He bowed and stepped away. The Nymph twisted off the collar of the last Nubile, then walked up to Akaz and spat in his face. Without another word, she turned and strode away towards the entrance, followed by her Nubiles.

“It wasn’t Akaz, it was the Token!” Aleck called after her. “Nothing seemed real. Killing him didn’t seem real!”

The Nymph and the Nubiles disappeared.

Akaz did his best to wipe the spit off his face with his paws.

“O Great Akaz,” said Blood Eagle, falling to his knees and putting his forehead to the floor. “O Great Akaz, bringer-of-fire.” He sat up. “Despite her admittedly transcendent origins, she seems a disrespectful nuisance. Shall I slaughter her for you?”

Akaz crouched, head lowered, looking around at nothing in particular. “Let’s go,” he muttered.

“Where are we going?” asked Aleck.

“Down this way is the Well of Apraxos,” said Akaz. “That will lead us straight to the House of the Watcher.”

“And why are we going there?” asked Aleck.

“To get the Skull, stupid,” snapped Akaz.

Aleck looked around. “What do I do with the rest of these rafts?”

“Leave them here,” said Akaz.

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Blood Eagle (part six)

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Circomangkus photograph by Aleck Woad
Circomangkus photograph by Aleck Woad

(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

…Apraxos stood motionless, his mask facing directly at Aleck. “Herald of evil, you will never leave here alive!”

Deep, heavy laughter emanated from the huge man on the couch, who also stared at Aleck from his frozen posture.

“Get the stuff!” shouted Akaz from below.

Aleck stood, weak-kneed. His body felt fragile. The Token must be taking its toll upon me. If he spat it out now, though, he would be killed — or worse. He wondered how it would feel to have his soul eaten.

Apraxos stood immobile, hunched and tensed as though ready to pounce. The Circomangkus, an intricate golden sphere, hung from a long chain around his neck. Spears from all directions floated towards Aleck on the air. Taking a deep breath, he ducked around them and ran directly up to Apraxos. He grabbed ahold of the amulet and whipped the chain, trying to flick it over Apraxos’s head. It caught under his hood. The pale mask smirked at him. The uniformed giant laughed on.

“You will never leave here alive!” boomed the amplified voice of Apraxos. With one hand he began gradually reaching towards Aleck, and with the other, for the amulet’s chain. Aleck tugged hard, and Apraxos toppled forward. Aleck jumped aside and let him drop. Apraxos shrieked behind his mask as his body rattled to a stop, rigidly perched on toes and fingertips. The sound echoed throughout the Circus, but as Aleck extracted the chain from the hood, Apraxos’s voice abruptly fell to normal volume. “Before I am finished, you will beg me for the release of death!” he screeched, face-down in his frozen posture, awkwardly propped on arms slowly collapsing.

Shivering with terror and weakness, Aleck hurriedly patted the sorceror’s robes. He felt nothing but heavy clothing and skeletal body. “Akaz, I can’t find the Skull!” he shouted.

Apraxos cackled. “I have sent it down to the House of the Watcher, whence you will never retrieve it!”

A rumbling voice came from the man attired in black. “Why don’t you kill us, boy, now that you have the chance?” He sat on the edge of his divan, smiling at Aleck.

“Don’t!” shouted Akaz. “Shut up, Goromath! Aleck, if you do anything more to them, it’s bound to backfire! Just get the rafts and get us out of here!”

“How can you all speak to me, when you can’t even move?” shouted Aleck, drooling around the Token. He felt like his knees would soon start to buckle.

General Goromath laughed. Holding the amulet, Aleck closed his eyes and visualized the rafts flying to him. He opened his eyes to see the rafts speeding towards the balcony: like the Herax he had kicked in the face, and like Apraxos when he fell, the rafts moved as fast as Aleck could. Warriors were flung off, to tumble slowly, like falling leaves; Nubiles were dragged through the air by their neck-chains. Blood Eagle stood his ground, leaning forward into the wind.

“No!” shouted Aleck.

Akaz and Goromath both laughed.

“What?” asked Apraxos, unable to see. He slowly began to turn over. “What are you laughing at?”

“No,” Aleck whined through clenched teeth, as he watched the warriors gradually descend.

“That bit of slapstick I must confess I did not expect,” laughed Goromath.

“There goes your tournament,” shouted Akaz from below.

Goromath laughed. “I had no attachment to any specific outcome,” he said, “beyond the general category of ‘entertaining bloodshed.’“

“I reckon you win, then,” said Akaz.

“Indeed,” replied Goromath.

“You’re still a piece o’ shit,” said Akaz.

“And you, an insolent cur,” replied Goromath.

“Whoop-dee-fuckin’-doo,” said Akaz.

“What is happening?” shouted Apraxos. “What has happened?”

“It looks like Blood Eagle is escaping,” said Goromath.

“Fool!” shrieked Apraxos. “You must kill him!”

“I shall do my best,” chuckled Goromath, making his first motions towards standing up. “But I fear I am at somewhat of a disadvantage, under the circumstances.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” said Aleck. He stopped the rafts in midair and sent them back, easily sweeping up all the warriors out of the air, lowering them to the stands, and tipping them gently off into the aisles. He kept Blood Eagle and the Nubiles.

“Such compassion!” laughed Goromath. “Boy, you are a questionable asset to your prophet’s military venture. I am now even less frightened of you than I was. Though I am well amused, and offer no complaint. Despite the lessening of the aforementioned bloodshed.”

Aleck stomped over to where Goromath reclined, stood craning over him, and drooled copiously onto his face.

“Faugh!” roared Goromath.

Aleck put his face up to Goromath’s and screamed as best he could around the Token without spitting it out, “Fuck you, you faffist fucking fuck!” He sprayed some.

“Faugh!”

That took the last of Aleck’s strength. Shaking with weakness and anxiety, he brought the rafts up to the edge of the balcony and climbed onto an empty one. Looking over the edge, he lowered his raft and scooped Akaz roughly onto it, the frozen wolf tumbling like a toy.

“We will destroy you!” shrieked Apraxos.

“Indeed,” growled Goromath.

“Fuckin’ kill you,” whined Aleck.

“To the river,” whispered Akaz….

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