The Nymph of the Shrine (part eleven)


Deep one sketch by Mike Bennewitz
Deep one sketch by Mike Bennewitz

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


…As they got closer, Aleck realized the men’s green beards were actually elaborate fronds dangling from their gill-like noses. The Deep Ones had long, webbed fingers and toes, and wore nothing but shell jewelry and fish-skin harnesses hung with bone tools. Aleck felt uncomfortably scrutinized by their huge eyes.

“That’s a good-looking dog,” said one of them, in a languid accent.

“Uh, thanks,” said Aleck, trying to hurry past without seeming rude.

“Nice scars,” said the Deep One. “You get them in a fight?”

“No, car crash,” said Aleck. “Uh, I gotta go, man, later.”

“You should walk slow,” called the Deep One after them. “Hurrying in the morning is bad luck, little Drownder.”

They walked past knots of Deep Ones chatting around displays of miscellaneous objects. Aleck saw tools, jewelry, and ornaments carved from bone and shell, arranged upon blankets or bare ground. Soon they approached the first of the booths. A wide, open-sided tent of blue silk billowed in the wind from the bay; beneath it, low wicker tables lay heaped with bizarre fish and seafood. Aleck saw fully-dressed Deep Ones paying in metal coin and staggering away under the weight of large baskets. More booths clustered beyond.

“Who are the guys with pants on?” asked Aleck.

“Servants of the Normals,” said Akaz.

“Are any of these Shallow Ones?” asked Aleck.

“These are all Deep Ones,” said Akaz.

“Shallows lack the gill-fronds,” said the Nymph.

“They’re a different species?” asked Aleck.

“No,” said Akaz. “They hack them off.”

Aleck winced. “Can they still breathe water?”

“A bit,” said Akaz.

“Just ‘a bit’? Why the hell do they do it, then?” asked Aleck. “Does it hurt?”

“They prefer to more closely resemble the Drownder tribe of the Normals,” said the Nymph. “They believe doing so will make them happy.”

“Sounds insane,” said Aleck.

“No shit,” said Akaz. “Look, enough amphibian anthropology. We’ve got Nubiles to find.” The crowd around them thickened. They heard criers ringing bells in the distance. “How did they take them?” asked Akaz.

“With nets,” said the Nymph.

“What?” asked Akaz. “Why didn’t they just turn to water and flow through the mesh?”

“Apraxos carried the Skull of Kaios,” said the Nymph. “He tamed them into solid form. Did you know the Skull has been broken in halves?” she asked.

“Yeah,” muttered Akaz. “I hope we can still use it. If we can even retrieve it.”

“Use it for what?” asked Aleck.

“I hope you neither obtain nor use it,” murmured the Nymph.

Akaz ignored her. “Old Aleck and I need it for our project,” he said to Aleck.

“Why don’t we just go get it now,” said Aleck, “while we’re saving the Nubiles?”

“We’ll see,” said Akaz. “I hope we can. But it’s not going to be that easy. They’re probably in the Herax Zone by now.”

“So?” said Aleck. “What about the robes?”

“The robes make the wearer innocuous, not invisible,” said the Nymph.

“We could get into the Herax Zone by way of the tunnels under the city,” said Akaz, “but even with robes, I don’t know how you’d get out. Keepers don’t just wander freely around the Herax Zone, climbing in and out of tunnels.”

An approaching bell-ringer called: “Nymphs of the Shrine at the Circus today! Nymphs of the Shrine on display!”

“Well, there ya go,” said Aleck. “Weirdlucky, no?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Akaz.

The Nymph stood weeping with her face in her hands.

“He means that stadium you showed me this morning?” asked Aleck.

“The Circus of Burnt Skulls,” said Akaz. “A lot easier to get into than the Zone of the Herax, but again, I don’t know how we’d get back out. It’ll be full of Herax, and we’ll be dragging a herd of giggling Nubiles.”

“Nymphs of the Shrine,” cried the bell-ringer, “Nymphs on display! Come to the Circus today!”

“Where is it?” asked Aleck.

“Up the river,” said Akaz, gesturing with his snout….


table of contents

The Nymph of the Shrine (part ten)


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

What Aleck thinks of when he hears the words "Reality Patrol.”
What Aleck thinks of when he hears the words “Reality Patrol.”

“…There’s more to it,” said Akaz.

“So spill the beans!” said Aleck.

“I didn’t want you to know,” grumbled Akaz, “because if you meet them, there’ll be trouble. Something could happen to you and change their past. And, on top of that, the Reality Patrol might notice such a paradox, and you definitely don’t want them to show up.”

“‘Reality Patrol,’“ said Aleck.

“They bust people,” said Akaz, “who do things like try to meet their future selves.”

“There’s a ‘Reality Patrol’?” asked Aleck.

“Worst case scenario, you could even trigger a pan-dimensional Train Wreck.”

“‘Train wreck,’“ whispered Aleck.

“That’s what happens when you stretch the membrane between the worlds to the breaking point. Crossing or looping too many lines of Fate — like meeting a goddamn version of yourself from another time, for example, or from a parallel dimension.”

“What’s the ‘train wreck’ part?” asked Aleck.

“A big frickin’ mess is what,” said Akaz. “Gates popping open like holes in Swiss cheese, all sorts of motherfucking things jumping in and out of them. I’ve been in a Train Wreck, and I don’t aim to repeat it.”

“Whoa,” said Aleck. “Okay, okay.”

“Come along!” said the Nymph, turning and continuing down the strand towards the markets. Aleck and Akaz followed.

“The way it is now,” said Akaz, “we know you grow up into Old Aleck and come back here. If something changes the course of your life, you might not come back. We can’t have that. We need him.”

“What for?” asked Aleck. “What’s he doing here?”

“That’s what I’m telling you!” said Akaz. “I can’t tell you or it’ll skew things! Deviate from your destiny, you slip on a banana peel and break your neck, and he disappears like was never here — because he wasn’t. And I need him.”

“That could happen whether I run into him or not, though,” said Aleck. “I could die a year from now, back in New Jersey, in my bathtub.”

“But you don’t,” said Akaz. “We know that. Your future self is here.”

“So what do we do?” asked Aleck.

“My first choice was, ‘Don’t tell the kid,’“ said Akaz, glowering at the Nymph. “Because who knows how that knowledge is going to affect you now. I bet this very moment you’re thinking you can meet them anyway, and it won’t turn into a disaster.”

“No I’m not!” said Aleck, too hastily. He paused. “Where are they?” he asked.

“See?” sneered Akaz. “He’s off somewhere quiet, finishing his book, and wherever he is, you’re not going.”

“He’s writing a book? I mean, I’m gonna write a book?”

“Yeah,” said Akaz. “A guidebook to the city. That’s what he came back in time for.”

“Why?” asked Aleck.

“Look, how about you focus on making sure you don’t run into him,” said Akaz as they caught up to the Nymph.

“He should have a Keeper robe,” said the Nymph.

“What’s that?” asked Aleck.

“The Keepers of the Archive,” said the Nymph, indicating her nondescript gray clothes, “enspell their garments with a charm of innocuousness.”

“The who what’s their what with a what?” asked Aleck.

The Nymph pulled her hood up and walked to the edge of the water. Aleck stared at her.

“Wait, tip of my tongue,” he said. He turned to Akaz. “What was I about to say—?”

“Beats me,” said Akaz, laughing.

“What’s so funny?” asked Aleck. He looked up and down the beach. “Hey, wasn’t your friend here?”

“Who?” said Akaz.

“I forget…” said Aleck.

“Then how the hell am I supposed to know who you’re talking about?” laughed Akaz.

“Your underwater friend!” snapped Aleck. “She was just here! Wait, who’s that?” He pointed at the Nymph.

“That’s just one of them Keepers,” said Akaz. “They’re harmless, everyone knows that.”

“Who are they?” asked Aleck.

“Monks,” said Akaz. “Scholars.”

“Oh,” said Aleck. He stared at the Nymph. She turned around, pulled back her hood, and started walking back to them. “Hey!” said Aleck. “There you are!” He made a face. “Wait, what the hell just happened?”

Akaz laughed.

“The robe is magic, as I described,” said the Nymph. “It makes its wearer innocuous.”

“Holy smokes,” said Aleck. “You could shoplift watermelons with that thing.”

“Speaking of which,” said Akaz, “here’s the market.”

Up ahead, Aleck saw a walkway of weatherbeaten old boards. A handful of green-bearded men with blue-green skin sat there talking.

“Watch out for spies,” said Akaz, shrinking to the size of a german shepherd. “And watch out for Old Aleck. You see him, you just walk the other way. I’m serious.”

The Nymph put up her hood. Now that he knew, Aleck could keep track of her, with effort; but the magic of the robe continuously tried to omit her from his awareness….


table of contents

Cannibal-King coming in December

Cannibal-King, the final installment of the City of the Watcher trilogy, will be available in softcover in December, 2015 and eBook soon thereafter.

In Weird Luck, young Aleck Woad survives the catastrophic Battle of Melkhaios. In his thirties, in Time Traveling Blues, Aleck goes back to change the course of history – or try to, anyway.

This time, though, the tale is told by the Cannibal-King himself. His perspective is vastly different from either Young or Old Aleck’s. And he witnesses the battle’s true aftermath….


Cannibal-King “sountrack”

neurosis - times of grace
Neurosis, “Times of Grace” (1999)

Here’s a youtube mix of a Cannibal-King soundtrack of sorts. This sort of heavy music (black doom crust prog sludge metal) may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but never fear, you may like the book just fine. This is just what Andrew was listening to while he wrote the book.

If these songs do suit your musical taste, though, they may add an extra dimension to your enjoyment of the book.

The Nymph of the Shrine (part nine)


Akaz vs. Reagan -- Akaz illustration from the cover of the comic book Weird Luck #0, superimposed over the covers of essential U.S. hardcore punk compilations
Akaz vs. Reagan — Akaz illustration by Mike Bennewitz from the cover of the comic book Weird Luck #0, superimposed over the covers of four great early-mid ’80s hardcore punk compilations: Not So Quiet on the Western Front, Let Them eat Jellybeans, Peace/War, and New Jerseys’ Got It? [sic]

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

…In the distance, the beach met the mouth of the river. Beside the river, under the cliffs, sat what looked like a hundred colored tents.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Those are the booths of the V’Ghulia Markets,” said the Nymph. “The Bayside Market of the Deep Ones, and the Riverside Market of the Shallow Ones.”

“What’s the difference between Deeps and Shallows?” asked Aleck.

“There are cultural differences,” said the Nymph. “The songs of the Deep Ones celebrate friendship and simple pleasures; whereas the Shallow One culture seeks to imitate the Normals in their display of wealth, and even to outdo them.”

“What does that mean?” asked Aleck.

“It means they’re assholes,” said Akaz.

“You cannot condemn an entire people,” said the Nymph. She limped ahead. “Their lives are out of harmony, but they suffer for it.”

“I can goddamn well condemn two entire peoples,” said Akaz. “Shallows and Normals are both assholes.”

“Their songs have led them away from the heart of life,” said the Nymph. “The Shallows and Normals prefer elaborate pleasures, and have forgotten the source of true joy.”

“What’s the source of true joy?” asked Aleck.

The Nymph turned, looked him in the eye, and smiled warmly. “You will know it in your heart if you earnestly seek it,” she said. Then her frown returned. Turning around, she hastened onward, her limp easing as she walked. They followed her down the strand towards the river.

The far canopies of the V’Ghulia Market drew slowly closer, and Aleck discerned distant figures moving among them. The beach turned sandy as they approached the river. He kicked off his sneakers, enjoying the cold sand on his bare feet. “You’re still no better than Hoover,” he said to Akaz. “You’re keeping secrets and telling me what to do. That’s totally his deal.”

“Then go on and get out of here!” snapped Akaz.

“That’s still telling me what to do, jackass!” said Aleck.

Akaz growled.

“My point,” said Aleck, “is that both sides in a conflict can be wrong.”

Akaz scowled. “What are you,” asked Akaz, “Some kinda Post-Structuralist Deconstructionist French fuck?”

“No,” said Aleck, having no idea what Akaz said but feeling pretty certain nonetheless. “I’m a White Panther, motherfucker.”

Akaz laughed so hard that flames came out of his nose. It took him a full minute, and several attempts, to regain his composure. Finally he shook it off. “When are you from, again?” asked Akaz.

“Nineteen-seventy,” said Aleck. “Seventy-one.”

“Man oh man,” said Akaz, “you’ve got it good. When I was on Earth, in the goddamn eighties — you know Reagan, Governor of California?”

“I heard of him,” said Aleck. “Isn’t he a McCartneyist stooge, right?”

“In the eighties,” said Akaz, “he becomes President. You’re lucky, man, if you make it back to your own time. The seventies rocked. The eighties sucked, unless you were rich. Though there’s a lot of great underground music if you can find it.”

“Not as good as Black Sabbath,” said Aleck.

Akaz looked him in the eye. “Maybe,” he nodded. “Black Flag? Big Black? Maybe some, yeah. Maybe close.” Akaz paused, pondered. “Nah, guess not. But still great.”

“Wait,” said Aleck, “what do you mean, ‘if I make it back to my own time’?”

“Huh?” asked Akaz. “Oh. Uh, never mind.”

“Tell him, or I will,” called the Nymph over her shoulder. Aleck noticed she now walked tall and strong down the sandy beach, without any limp at all.

“Forget about it,” said Akaz to both of them.

“Tell him about Old Aleck,” said the Nymph, forcefully.

“Damn it,” said Akaz to the Nymph, “why did you have to bring it up again? After I managed to change the subject!”

“You are the one who reminded him,” said the Nymph, “by speaking of your Time of Eighty and the music from underground. Tell him.”

“Where do I start?” asked Akaz. “Tell him what, exactly, without making an even bigger mess out of this situation?”

Aleck stopped walking. “Tell me what you mean by, ‘If I make it back to my own time!’“ exclaimed Aleck.

“Okay,” said Akaz, facing him. “Pay attention. Earth and the world of Kaios aren’t in sync, chronologically speaking, you dig?”

“You said that before,” said Aleck. “And I still don’t get it.”

“Time passes differently in the two places,” said Akaz. “They don’t even always go in the same direction, relative to one another. They’re totally independent.”

“I don’t get it,” said Aleck.

Akaz turned and called after the Nymph. “This is pointless.”

The Nymph looked back at them. “Your future self is here,” she called to Aleck. “Right now. He came back in time with his wife. Your wife. I recognized you by the scars of your face. He is decades older than you, but the scars are unmistakable.”

“Wow,” said Aleck. “Far out.” He looked at Akaz. “That wasn’t complicated,” he said….

table of contents

The Nymph of the Shrine (part eight)


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

…Akaz turned to Aleck. “Come on.” He followed the Nymph.

“Tell me,” said Aleck, not moving. “What the hell is going on? How does she know my name?”

“Later,” said Akaz, staring down at Aleck with eyes like hot embers. “Look, you can trust me for now, and we can go save the Nubiles, or we can sit here and have history class while they get eaten.”

“Tell him as we walk,” called the Nymph, waiting for them at the crest of the mound. “It does no good to keep it secret.”

“Wrong!” snapped Akaz, turning to catch up with her.

“You’re a jive-ass motherfucker,” said Aleck, climbing the slope of rocky dirt.

“Excuse me?” growled Akaz, looking over his shoulder.

“You’re just like Nixon,” said Aleck.

“What?” snarled Akaz.

“Or J. Edgar Hoover. You’re just a control freak who doesn’t trust people.”

Akaz laughed. “Hoover?”

“Motherfucker killed Martin Luther King,” said Aleck. “And Malcolm X.”

“When are you from?” laughed Akaz.

“What?” said Aleck.

“What year is it, back on Earth?”

“Nineteen-seventy,” said Aleck. “Seventy-one, I mean. It’s New Year’s Day. When did you live there, the Fifties? Forties?”

“No,” laughed Akaz. “Eighties and Nineties, mostly.”

“What?” asked Aleck. “How?”

“Time flows differently in different places,” said Akaz. “Anyway, Hoover was more like Apraxos, I’d say. If anyone’s Malcolm X, it’s me. Except for getting assassinated, that is. Let’s hope, anyways; strange aeons, though. Strange aeons.”

“Whatever,” said Aleck. “Are you going to tell me why everyone already knows me?”

“It’s hardly ‘everyone,’“ said Akaz.

“Tell him,” said the Nymph, leaning against a tree, her voice insistent despite her weakness.

“Shut up,” muttered Akaz. They met at the crest. “We need to catch up to the Nymphs.” He led the way down the other side of the mound.

“Wait,” said Aleck. “Didn’t we just cross the spiral thingy?”

Akaz cocked his head at the Nymph. “It’s her spell, dude. We’re kinda exempt when she’s with us.”

Like that makes sense, thought Aleck. But he gave up and followed along.

A rocky beach ran alongside the bay. Boulders lined the edge between beach and forest, rising gradually into low, craggy cliffs with stone houses atop them. They walked down the thin strand of beach. The Cook circled distantly overhead.

“How did they get the Nubiles?” asked Akaz.

“They flew in and took them,” said the Nymph.

“They flew down out of the sky and under the water?” asked Akaz.

“Yes,” she said.

“But Herax hate water!” growled Akaz. “How did they breathe? You’ve kept your spell from Apraxos, right?”

She nodded. “I have kept it from him. But he summoned such a wind around the ship that a bubble of air enclosed it.”

“Fuck,” breathed Akaz.

They walked in silence for a while.

“When he had finished healing himself,” she said hollowly, “and stole my Nubiles, Apraxos announced to us that he scoffed at our Cannibal-King. He said that he was taking the Nubiles to punish us.” She looked at Akaz. “‘To punish you damned rebels,’ he said.”

Akaz made a sour face.

“You understand what this means?” she asked, through clenched teeth.

“It means he’s a vengeful prick,” said Akaz.

“It means that he sought to punish me for your deeds, Akaz,” she growled, her eyes welling with new tears. “I have given hospitality to Old Aleck and his wife, but I have nothing to do with your Giver army or its prophecies.”

“‘Old Aleck’?” squealed Aleck. “‘Wife’?”

“Look,” snarled Akaz, “I’m sorry he took the kids, but you’re in this. I’m doing it for you, goddammit!”

“How could even you, in your madness, imagine that to be so,” scoffed the Nymph, “when I have begged you again and again to stop?”

“Let’s just get them back,” said Akaz, “and we can debate wartime ethics after.”

“The means determine the end,” she snapped. Then she sobbed. “I am certain he intends to perform the Rites of Augermath upon them,” she said, her voice cracking, “and use their souls to power an evil spell.” She grimaced, and tears spilled down her cheeks. “Only in opposition to your bloodthirsty plot!”

“You know as well as anyone,” growled Akaz gently, “that Apraxos has used the Rites without provocation.”

The Nymph closed her eyes.

“How many did he get?” asked Akaz.

“Five,” said the Nymph.

“So only a few,” said Akaz. “That’s not so bad.”

“They are each unique!” snarled the Nymph, glaring at him. “Just as every creature or spirit! Unique and irreplaceable!”

“Okay!” said Akaz. “My point is there’s only so much damage he can do with five.” He pondered for a while as they walked down the beach.

“Did Apraxos hurt you?” Aleck asked softly.

The Nymph smiled at him again. “Only my feelings, dear boy,” she said.

Aleck didn’t think she looked well at all, however. “Are you sure?” he asked.

She smiled wanly. Aleck looked at Akaz, who walked along in silence….


table of contents

The Nymph of the Shrine (part seven)


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

…Aleck and Akaz stood at the water’s edge. The Spiral Mounds sloped into the bay. The dark waters spread before them, with darker hills silhouetted beyond. Aleck saw pale light sparkling on the bay, and turned to see that the sun had risen behind them into the lower fringes of an overcast morning sky. A faint crescent moon faded over the bay.

“Wait!” said Aleck. “We didn’t walk all night, no way! That felt more like an hour!”

“Time moves funny in the Spiral Mounds,” said Akaz. “Plus the Ride’s broken, so who knows how that affects it. Let’s hope we only lost the one night.”

Aleck stared at the water. “Isn’t there a quicker way we could have come?”

Akaz gave him no heed and stared at the water.

“Why would she have healed him?” asked Aleck. “It doesn’t make sense,” said. “I don’t get it.”

“She might not do it voluntarily,” grumbled Akaz pointedly.

“Oh,” said Aleck. He wondered how that worked. He looked at Akaz. Akaz stared out over the water. Eager to rid the situation of its gravity, Aleck said, “Breathing water was cool, back in Corpsewater, but I didn’t exactly get a chance to enjoy it. What do I do?”

Akaz stared at him for a moment, then abruptly shook his head, his ears flapping. Stared again. “Repeat after me,” he said. “This is a stanza from the Book of the Cannibal-King:”


For the Drownder can pray to the Nymph of the Shrine
And she gives him the strength to breathe water
And she, the Dragons’ first daughter
Will upon him her Victories shine:
The gift of the Nymph to the Drownders above,
The spiritual act of physical love.


As Aleck stumbled through the last line, a woman emerged from the bay, clutching a nondescript gray robe around her. The first direct sunlight of the day broke through the clouds to fall upon her. Pulling back her soaked hood, she stared at Akaz, shaking. Her skin and hair were blue-green. On her forehead was a lateral scar, two inches across, its edges jagged from being crudely sewn shut long ago. Despite her strange appearance, Aleck was most struck by her deep frown and the intense worry in her eyes. He had never seen anyone who looked so devastatingly sad. She was still dripping from the bay, but he felt sure that also tears were pouring down her face. Her gaze remained on Akaz for a long while.

“Did you see my Nubiles?” she asked, eventually.

“Yes,” said Akaz. “I’m relieved you weren’t among them.”

“I am touched by your compassion,” she muttered with cold sarcasm.

“I can help you find them,” said Akaz.

The blue-green woman stood there for a long while, looking around at nothing in particular, arms crossed tightly.

“Apraxos was injured,” said the woman. “He was…insistent…that I heal him.”

“I am sorry,” said Akaz.

“Do you know how he came to be injured?” she asked, giving Akaz an intense stare.

Akaz looked away. “Wasn’t me,” he muttered.

The woman looked past Aleck’s shoulder. “You!” she snarled, pointing savagely. Aleck turned and saw the Cook flapping away.

Aleck turned back to her. “I can help you find your Nubiles, too,” he said quietly.

The woman looked at Aleck, and to his surprise, she smiled. “You are here so soon, Little Aleck,” she said.

“Yeah, well,” Akaz said to her, “that’s Weird Luck for you.”

“Wha—?” asked Aleck. “How do you know my name?”

“Never mind that,” said Akaz.

“You have not explained to him…?” asked the Nymph, astonished.

“You let me do my thing my way,” said Akaz, “and I’ll help you get your Nubiles back.”

“How?” she scoffed. “Will you send your apprentice up against Apraxos?” She nodded towards Aleck.

“What!?” asked Aleck. “Is that how the Cook got hurt? You sent him to fight what’s-his-name for you?”

“NO!” snapped Akaz. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he muttered.

“You knew, then,” said the Nymph. “You knew he was hurt, and that he might therefore seek me.”

“Yeah,” muttered Akaz. “This is us coming to warn you.” He lowered his head, squinting up at her. “Sorry we’re late.”

The Nymph clutched herself more tightly, clenched and unclenched her jaw. “I’m sure I will forgive you,” she whispered. “In time. As always.”

“Can we go save the Nubiles?” asked Akaz.

“Yes,” said the Nymph. “And come along swiftly, if you speak the truth about aiding me. I am weak away from my Shrine or my River.” She struggled up the side of the Mound, stood silhouetted against the dawn with the trees….


table of contents

The Nymph of the Shrine (part six)


How to Kill Herax
How to Kill Herax by Andrew M. Reichart

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

…Aleck listened, but heard nothing. “What?” He saw a black blur as the Cook dove into the trees and disappeared.

“Look out!” snapped Akaz, sprinting behind the shrine. Aleck looked around and saw nothing, although in the distance he heard something, possibly someone screaming. He ran for the shrine, keeping one eye on the road. As he ducked behind a bush he saw the three Normal boys from the God-Dog come around the bend, sprinting full-tilt back down the road.

Behind and above them, between them and the starry night, flew a one-masted boat, shaped exactly like the anti-Herax shrine. This one, however, was lacquered in gleaming black, and manned by two dozen living Herax covered in black leather armor. The boat glowed with torches and lanterns. Aleck saw a cage on the deck, in which several women howled in lamentation. Their skin looked blue in the light. Aleck cowered behind the bush. A Herax soldier in the bow flung a harpoon, spearing one of the boys through the back. Soldiers hauled the screaming boy onto the deck and dove onto him. There came the unmistakable sound of them eating him alive. Aleck gagged, forcing down his vomit lest he give himself away.

Broad-winged crows erupted from the dark trees on either side of the road, flapping and cawing, soaring at the boat. As they neared the torchlit deck, they turned to huge wolves in midair, snatching Herax soldiers by the wrist or throat in their snarling jaws and wrestling them overboard. Falling wolves turned back into crows while the Herax dropped to the road. On the ground, more wolves piled onto broken-limbed Herax, tearing them apart. Blood slicked their fur.

The Herax boat veered off the road. As it passed overhead, Aleck saw water dripping heavily from the hull. The crows flew at the boat again, but all turned aside at the last moment. They attacked again, and again turned abruptly away, deflected by some unseen force. As the longboat flew away towards the Zone of the Herax, Aleck saw a robed figure in the stern, gloved hands outstretched in a warding gesture.

“There’s Apraxos,” grumbled Akaz.

Aleck looked back and forth between Akaz and the vessel. “So… that’s how Wilders attack a Herax boat.”

“Yeah, that’s one way,” said Akaz. “I have to admit I didn’t expect you to see it quite so soon after it came up.”

“And were those the Nubiles, in the cage?”

“Some of them,” said Akaz.

“Was the Nymph there?”

“I’m not sure,” said Akaz.

“How come the spirits didn’t come out of the sails?” asked Aleck.

“I reckon it’s because the Ride,” Akaz snarled quietly, “is broken.”

The Cook flew down to them and changed to man-form: bark-gray skin, leaf-green hair, naked. “Apraxos,” he snarled. “With the Skull. Even with it broken in two, he could use it to tame us aside.”

“Skull?” asked Aleck. “What skull?”

“The Skull of Kaios,” said Akaz. “He can use it to control spirits. That’s how he trapped your spirit in the astral plane, when you were on your way in.”

“He’s got, like, Kaios’s actual Skull?” asked Aleck.

“Yeah,” said Akaz. “There’s them kids.” He pointed his nose at the two boys from the God-Dog. “The remaining ones, anyway.” The Cook leapt into the air and flapped away on black wings.

Aleck saw both boys wandering in the road, crying. One was the boy who had threatened him. Both had lost their walking sticks, and one had dropped his backpack as well. “What should we do?” asked Aleck.

“Hey!” shouted Akaz. “Go home!”

The boys ran for cover, then recognized Akaz. “You have to help us get Stathan back!” pleaded one of them.

“Wake up,” said Akaz. “Your friend is dead. Eaten. Not only his body, but his soul along with it, so you won’t see him in his next life, either, ‘cause he won’t have one.”

The boys wailed.

“And since it looks like they took the Nubiles,” continued Akaz, “there’s no sense in continuing your original plan, ‘cause there’s no pussy to be had. So go home, don’t come back.”

“Please!” said the other boy.

“Shut up and listen,” said Akaz. “You came down the Spiral Ride to grow up a little. Didn’t happen the way you hoped? Tough luck, take it as a gift. You’re still alive, and now you know something about real life: it’s going to end, and you never know when, and best not to have it happen because you’re doing something fuckin’ stupid. Even Kaios the Summoner died. Arguably, doing something stupid.”

“You mean Kaios Spirit-Tamer,” sobbed one of the boys.

“Go home!” roared Akaz, his voice a thunderclap. The boys fled….


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The Nymph of the Shrine (part five)


The Great Stone Face of Melkhaios sketch by Andrew M. Reichart
The Great Stone Face of Melkhaios sketch by Andrew M. Reichart

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


…They walked hurriedly down the dark cobblestone road, under a black sky cluttered with stars enough to light their way. The Cook crossed back and forth above them on his wide black wings. Their path curved endlessly to the right, between ridges of stone and soil too high to see over, overgrown with trees, past occasional cairns of stacked boulders. Sometimes they saw shrines of salvaged rubble, housing broken statues. Offerings of flowers, food, and small trinkets adorned these structures, but Akaz never let Aleck inspect them beyond grabbing a piece of fruit now and then as they passed.

“Are these the Shrines of the Nubiles?” asked Aleck.

“No,” laughed Akaz. “Those are all underwater. I told you they’re at the far end of the road. Come on.”

“If we’re in a hurry, why don’t we just go straight there?” asked Aleck. “This is taking us like fifty times as long.”

“We can’t cut across, even though the goddamn road’s magic is goddamn broken,” snapped Akaz pointedly, “because I can’t attack Apraxos directly without being cursed with bad luck. I can’t even approach him in a straight line.”

“Why?” asked Aleck, incredulous.

“It’s goddamn weird magic, that’s why!” barked Akaz. “Stop whining and walk!”

Mount Kaios, looming on the horizon, circled around as they progressed: behind them, then in front, then passing for a long time on their left with the thousand-foot-high face of Kaios staring down. The evening air grew cooler.

“He’s kind of menacing,” said Aleck.

Akaz glanced up at the great stone face. “He was pissed off,” he muttered. “Some of the Wilders want to destroy that face,” said Akaz. He gestured with his snout toward the sky. “Cook sure does.”

“Really?” said Aleck. “I thought they liked Kaios.”

“Of course,” said Akaz. “Exactly. They think it’s depressing. They think it was created in a moment of weakness.”

“So why don’t they destroy it?” asked Aleck.

“The Herax protect it,” said Akaz. “Apraxos claims it’s a ‘cultural treasure.’ In reality, though, it’s just big-watcher-is-watching-you psych terror shit.”

They walked on.

From around the bend in the road appeared a weathered wooden structure. It looked to Aleck like a large boat, prow upward, half-buried in the side of the mound. “What’s that?” he asked.

“A Wilder shrine to keep Herax away,” said Akaz.

“How do you mean?” asked Aleck.

“You’ll see,” said Akaz.

Soon Aleck could tell that the structure was, indeed, a weather-beaten old ship, not unlike a Viking longboat, prow pointing upward at the sky, stern buried in the side of the mound. Its mast loomed halfway across the road. Spears jutted from the hull like the spines of a hedgehog, pinning dozens of skeletons in place. Pelts were tacked up all over the deck. The Cook landed on the end of the mast and faced the deck, bobbing, eyes shut. Aleck watched the crow pray.

“Those are Herax skeletons,” said Akaz.

“And all the furs?” asked Aleck, indicating the pelts.

“Hides of Wilder warriors who died fighting the Herax,” said Akaz.

“Wilders? Like the Cook?” Aleck looked at Akaz.

Akaz nodded. “Wilders made the Spiral Mounds.”

“But Cook’s got feathers, not fur,” said Aleck.

“In wolf form he has fur,” said Akaz.

Aleck looked over the wrecked boat. The pelts and skeletons adorned it like the garlands on the other shrines they’d passed.

“So how does this keep Herax away?” asked Aleck.

“It’s a reminder of the truce, and the cost of breaking it,” said Akaz. “And a reminder of the magic of the Ride. The Spiral Ride was built as a sacred path to the Shrine; you’re supposed to walk it from one end to the other without stopping. Crossing the mounds is taboo. Taboo and bad luck. Even if you’re flying.”

Aleck looked up at the Cook flying back and forth across the road, pointed: “What the hell are you talking about?”

Akaz laughed. “I don’t mean birds. Birds are free. I mean a flying Herax ship.”

“This?” asked Aleck, indicating the longboat skeleton-shrine. “This flies?”

“Not anymore,” said Akaz. “Anyway, you can only cross the spiral under special circumstances.”

“Like what?” asked Aleck.

“Like if it’s your goddamn destiny to do so, I guess,” grumbled Akaz.

Whatever that means, thought Aleck. “Aren’t we in a hurry to warn the Nymph? I thought you said the spiral was already broken. Why don’t we just cut across?”

“What, and break it even worse?” snapped Akaz. “I’m trying to salvage it here!”

“Okay, okay!” said Aleck. “Okay, so what if you don’t break the taboo? What if they just follow the road here?” He gestured down the curve of cobblestones.

“Herax can’t do that either,” said Akaz. “Not in a ship. ‘Cause the Nymph decreed that any being could freely travel the length of the Ride… that’s integral to the nature of the Shrine. So, that includes the spirits trapped in the sails of the Herax ships, who make the ships fly. Spirits go free, ships fall. It happened a bunch of times, actually, back in the day. Apraxos kept trying different enchantments, but none of them were strong enough.” Akaz stared at the wrecked boat, lost in thought. He put his snout to the cobblestones and sniffed, looked down the Ride, sniffed again. He shook his head. “Fucking damaged, all right,” he muttered.

“What happened when the ships fell?” asked Aleck, eager to change the subject. It was his destiny to break the Ride, the Cook had said. What the hell did that mean?

Akaz sighed. Little licks of flame darted out of his nostrils. “Any Herax who survived the fall would have been free to walk the length of the Spiral,” he said. “Though none ever would; they have no desire for the Nymph. So, anyone who survived the wreck, but didn’t act like a good pilgrim, would be seen as legitimate prey by the Wilders. If they didn’t attack the boat outright.”

“How do Wilders attack a flying boat?”

Akaz cocked his head at the shrine covered with skeletons. “Herax are organized, but Wilders are unpredictable. And fast.”

“There’s a lot of Wilder pelts up there, though,” said Aleck. He glanced at the Cook, still praying.

“Those are pelts from all the Wilders who have died fighting Herax. Ever. Whereas those bones are just a handful of token Herax dead. All that’s left of the hundreds they killed before Goromath gave them sovereignty of Bitchwood.”

“So where are the rest of the Herax skeletons?” asked Aleck.

“Ever give a dog a bone?” laughed Akaz.

“Huh?” asked Aleck.

“They don’t just gnaw on them,” said Akaz. “They chew them up till there’s nothing left.”

Aleck’s gaze darted from the wreck to the Cook to Akaz. “They — they ate their bones?”

Akaz laughed.

Aleck shuddered, looking at the Herax skeletons. He looked again at Akaz, and at the Cook.

“Why do you think he’s called the Cannibal-King?” asked Akaz, laughing again.

Aleck felt queasy, as though he’d just passed through another teleportation doorway.

“You gotta understand the difference between the cannibal tribes. The Wilders of the woods, the Givers of the desert, the Deepest of the water, they only eat unwelcome visitors to their lands. The Herax of the air, though, they eat for sport. They breed people for food.” He paused. “Well, Givers breed people too, but the Cannibal-King will cure them of that.”

“I don’t get why I’d want to help you summon any Cannibal-King,” said Aleck, scowling. “He sounds like the last sorta guy I’d want to help conquer a country.”

“‘Cause he’s the sorta guy who’ll stop the Givers from breeding bipedal livestock!” snapped Akaz. “And he’ll unite the good cannibal tribes against the Herax, and free the Isle of Kaios. The wild folk are the only ones strong enough to defeat them. You think the Diggers and Deep Ones are going to do it?”

Aleck scowled and shrugged. “Dunno.” He didn’t like the implication that certain ethnic groups didn’t have the will to seek their own liberation.

“Okay, picture the folks from Corpsewater fighting a flying boat,” scoffed Akaz. “It flies over the palisade. Two dozen villagers shake their sticks in the air. A hundred javelins rain down on them. Then… another hundred.”

Aleck frowned. “Don’t they have, like, bow-and-arrows?”

Akaz shook his head. “Slings,” he said. “They have slings, for hunting birds and squirrels.” He nodded towards the Cook, who still stood on the tip of the mast, bobbing. “Wilders have bows. They can put an arrow in your eye. They can fight the Herax. Especially in coordination with the Givers.” He cocked his head. “What’s that…?”


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