Holy Calamity (part five)

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

 

…Aleck approached the Circus. A smoky haze thickened in the air. Distant sounds gradually resolved into innumerable drumbeats, cacophonous shouting, and the throbbing chant of hundreds of Herax voices. Big black crows perched at every street corner, cawing out to one another in their enigmatic counting-code. Occasionally Aleck heard screams or weeping echoing out from the buildings around him.

He passed the burning shell of a small mansion, a broken Herax warship leaning out the roof to hang its stern over the street. A dying bonfire of stacked furniture and Herax corpses smoldered in the front courtyard beside a pair of upside-down longboats. Here, finally, corpses. Aleck hurried past, averting his gaze from the burnt bodies.

He neared the end of the street. Crows crowded the rooftops, croaking into the eastern sky as though barking at the ascending moon. Herax boats and ships swarmed over the Circus like carrion flies on a hot day. Aleck walked past the carcass of a dead dog, its ribs splayed open to reveal a charred, empty husk. A sickening smell of burnt flesh and fur hung around it. Aleck gagged at the stench. Further along lay another exploded dog, with the burnt, broken corpses of several Herax warriors sprawled beside it. Aleck frowned and felt his eyes water.

Akaz walked up and nuzzled the dead dog’s head. “Good boy,” he whispered. “May you come back as a dog.”

“Akaz,” said Aleck.

Akaz looked up, cocked his head. He sniffed the air in Aleck’s direction. “Oh, it’s you!” he laughed. “Jesus, you must have really messed yourself up with that Token, kid. I thought you were Old Aleck.” He looked closer. “I guess you only look twenty or thirty. The white hair threw me. Old Aleck is more like forty.”

“I’m pissed off at you for dragging me into one screwy situation after another,” said Aleck, “and never telling me what the hell is going on.”

“Sorry,” said Akaz.

“And frankly,” continued Aleck, “I’m suspicious of your politics.”

“Whatever,” said Akaz. “I’m a vanguardist, whaddaya want from me.”

“I don’t know what that means,” said Aleck, “but you seem kinda fascist to me.”

“I’m not fucking fascist!” roared Akaz. “I’m just heedless!”

“You son of a bitch,” snapped Aleck.

“Dig, son,” said Akaz, “it’s over. As good as over, anyways. Still not safe, though, especially this close to the fighting. You should get back to the God-Dog. Whoa—” He trotted into the alley nearby. “Come on!” he stage-whispered. Aleck followed, ducking with Akaz into the shadows. Moments later, a Herax longboat floated past, hovering low like a huge, wheelless wagon.

“I still don’t understand what’s happening,” said Aleck. “The city’s like a ghost town. Where is everybody?”

“Hiding, I guess,” said Akaz. “Or ran away.”

“I saw blood everywhere,” said Aleck, “but hardly any bodies.”

Akaz did something that must have been a shrug.

“Where’s Blood Eagle?” asked Aleck.

“He took the Circus!” said Akaz, unable to contain the excitement in his voice. “The Cannibal-King has weapons even beyond what I’d hoped. Those telepathic bastards will retreat to the Herax Zone before long.”

Aleck looked towards the Circus. Crashed Herax boats littered the plaza outside the gates, some of them burning brightly. “I want to see what’s happening.”

“No way,” said Akaz, stepping in front of Aleck. “Bad idea. It’s a done deal now, chief, so you need to lay low. If you get messed up, you mess up your future self, and we lose all of this.”

Aleck heard what sounded like a machine gun echoing inside the Circus. “What was that?” he asked, walking briskly past Akaz.

“Nothing,” said Akaz, pacing him. “Come on, turn around. Get back to the God-Dog.

A motorcycle engine revved inside the Circus, followed by more gunfire. “Are you kidding me?” said Aleck, breaking into a run. “What’s going on? Where did the guns come from?”

Akaz loped alongside him. “The Cannibal-King brought them with him from his Earth. Look, kid, I really don’t think you get it. There’s nothing for you to see in there. It’s over!” He began shouting. “The only thing that could go wrong, at this point, is if you do something stupid! Like wander onto a fucking battlefield!”

“I have the Nymph’s robe,” said Aleck. He stopped. “Plus, honestly, I don’t care what you want, O Great Akaz. I’m not your pawn anymore.” He gave Akaz the finger with both hands and ran towards the Circus….

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Holy Calamity (part four)

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

 

…Aleck ran towards the kitchen. The Nymph’s robe lay folded beside the steps. Beneath it, Aleck found his sneakers, jeans, and t-shirt. He grabbed them and ducked inside.

A mob of Corpsewater cooks cheered him. Soaking wet, clutching his clothes to him, without a word Aleck pushed on the right side of the door and stumbled dizzily down the back steps of the Sign of the God-Dog.

The waxing crescent moon hung fat on the horizon, haloed by mist, casting eerie dream-light into the clearing behind the God-Dog. A cacophony froze Aleck’s blood. Scores of wolves howled up at the night. Innumerable crows hopped in the dark trees of the Spiral Mounds, cawing. He saw naked, painted Wilders everywhere: drumming, smoking pipes, play-fighting with the wolves. He watched Wilders change into wolves, crows, bears, deer; animals changed into Wilders or other animals. Everyone roamed freely back and forth across the Spiral Ride. Aleck feel electric excitement filling the depth and breadth of the clearing.

None of Aleck’s Earth-clothes fit his new body except for loosely-tied sneakers worn as slippers. He threw on the Nymph’s robe. Putting the hood up, he walked among the Wilders and wolves. Some sniffed at him as he passed, some eyed him warily, but most seemed not to notice him. He searched for Akaz and the Cook but spotted neither. Anticipation grew in Aleck’s gut and tingled his extremities. Distant howls came on the night-breeze, and around the edges of the crowd more wolves and Wilders arrived, while others departed. The broad crescent moon glowed hazily.

At the far edge of the clearing, Aleck saw Wilders gathering up bows and sheafs of arrows from haphazard piles. Once armed, they disappeared into the trees. Aleck followed, but immediately lost sight of any shapeshifting wild folk. Cutting across the Spiral Mounds, he climbed over wooded ridges dappled in moonlight. Occasionally he glimpsed Wilders moving in the shadows.

Beyond the third ridge he descended to a neighborhood of crumbling stone buildings and twisting dirt streets, partly overgrown with vines and shrubs. He walked past many houses with well-tended vegetable gardens, but he saw no one, neither Wilders nor townsfolk. What the hell happened? How long was I out for? Smashed doors hung askew on their hinges. Shutters lay broken in the street beneath gaping, empty windows. Now and then he heard voices wailing in lamentation. He saw bloodstains everywhere — pooled on the street, splashed on walls — but no bodies. Crossing a small plaza, he passed an ornate fountain, filled in with dirt and planted in concentric rows; beyond, another fountain, intact but plain, featured a statue of Goromath spouting water from both hands. A large wolf lay in red water at the statue’s feet, bristling with Herax javelins. So they don’t change back to normal form when they die, like a werewolf, he thought. Or… what’s normal? Aleck nervously watched the sky.

Behind the Goromath statue stood a wall of fitted rubble ten feet high. It stretched to either side as far as Aleck could see, and atop it ran a catwalk between heavy wooden railings. He smelled smoke. Through a wide arch in the wall he thought he saw firelight dancing on the paving-stones of a courtyard. He passed through and found himself in the New Market. The booths looked abandoned, as did the aisles threading among them. The only sound came from the crackling embers of a crashed Herax ship and a dozen burned booths around it. He thought he saw charred bodies and looked away. Aleck saw numerous columns of smoke elsewhere in the Market rising from other wrecks. Behind the Senate, he noticed the glow of living fire pulsing in the sky.

He made his way through the Market, cowering into his hood and keeping to the shadows. A faraway voice shouted, “Where are you? Where are you?” Aleck stepped in a cold puddle and cursed, then recognized it for a pool of blood. Cringing, he looked around for a body, but found none. He saw many more pools and trails of blood before he reached the Senate building, but no corpses.

Aleck reached the entrance he and Akaz used before. Thick tendrils of smoke curled around the lintel to climb the wall like ivy; through the gaping archway he saw the air inside was chokingly thick with smoke. He backed out and wandered around the side of the building, nervously crossing the river on a stone bridge hugging the Senate wall: the water below churned furiously.

The sky glowed over the Circus of Burnt Skulls. Aleck snuck down the abandoned street. This time, with no crowd pressing around him, he took proper notice of the neighborhood; these buildings were larger and in much better shape than those in the slum he’d just passed through. Many extravagant mansions overlooked the street, heavily weathered, each unique, richly ornamented with a technique that made them seem carved from a single huge stone. Smaller buildings clustered between them in a sort of monotonous imitation, each sprouting the same clutter of inelegant fixtures and finials. More splashes and trails of blood decorated this part of the city, but still no bodies….

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Argawarga Press at FOGcon

We’re thrilled to be tabling at the Friends of the Genre science fiction & fantasy literature convention (FOGcon), March 11-13 at the Marriott in Walnut Creek, Calif.

not actually FOGcon; it hasn't happened yet
not actually FOGcon; it hasn’t happened yet

We’ll be selling & signing our books, comics, and zines, including the newly-released novel Cannibal-King, the moderately earth-shattering finale to the City in the Watcher trilogy. We’re also thrilled to say that we had to do a second print run of Weird Luck #0, our oddball 70s-style horror comic (which stands alone, but also serves as a strangely tangential prequel to the upcoming science fiction webcomic by Mike Bennewitz, Nick Walker, and Andrew M. Reichart, coming later this year). We’ll also be debuting issue #4 of the Weird Luck Tales zine, featuring a previously unpublished backup story by Andrew M. Reichart with the earliest written appearance of Akaz the god-dog.

We’ll be sharing a table with our dear comrades at Wonderella Printed. Should go without saying we’d be psyched to see you, but just in case: we’d be psyched to see you! \m/

Holy Calamity (part three)

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

 

…Aleck jumped to his feet, bumping his knee. The Cook crouched beside the rock, green braids bright in the sunlight. “She had to grow your body to compensate for the Token,” he said. “Your legs are longer.”

“What?” said Aleck. Was his voice deeper? He looked at his hands. Bigger, older, more weathered. Why more weathered? he thought. Weathered from what, if my body’s freshly-grown? He knelt down on the rock to look into the pool, painfully bumping the same knee. His reflection had white hair, an unshaven scruff of white whiskers. His scars looked much less severe. He turned to face the Cook. “How old do I look?” His voice was definitely deeper.

“I’m not the one to ask,” said the Cook. “I’m no good at guessing mortals’ ages. Can’t count very high, truth be told.”

“What?” asked Aleck. “You don’t know how to count?”

The Cook shrugged. “Why bother? Especially something irrelevant like years.” He gestured at the Sign of Death’s Door. “I picked the habit up from these folk, but I can’t count any higher than thirty-seven.”

“Thirty-seven?” said Aleck, laughing involuntarily. “Why thirty-seven?”

The Cook frowned. “I am thirty-seven years old. I remember each cycle of the seasons, and if I think on them one by one, I can count to thirty-seven. But, really, it’s a senseless ability. At least something like masturbation serves a purpose. But counting? It’s not even fun.”

“Counting is fun,” said Aleck, then wondered if it was true. “Kind of,” he continued.

“Shitting is fun,” said the Cook. “Counting is more like holding in shit when you don’t have to.”

Aleck laughed.

“It may feel good, but it’s not necessarily good for you,” concluded the Cook. He knelt beside the pool and repeatedly slapped the surface of the water. “He’s awake!” he bellowed down at the pool. Ripples spread across the pool and softened. No response came.

The Ostler burst out of the kitchen and stumbled down the stairs. “Oh, you’re awake!” he shouted, giving Aleck a big hug. He cocked an eyebrow. “You look so different. You must be starved, to have grown so much so suddenly.” He turned and ran back into the kitchen, announcing, “Everyone! He’s awake! And he’s hungry!”

Aleck sat down on the rock. He looked around the clearing, then looked at his hands again. “What the hell do I do now?” he said.

“It seems your portion of the prophecy has run its course,” said the Cook. “Your fate now resumes its mystery, at least for a time.”

“Whaddaya mean, ‘for a time’?”

“Until you return here as ‘Old Aleck,’“ said the Cook. “Perhaps for now you are free to choose. Me, I go to Melkhaios, to fight.”

The Nymph of the Shrine burst up out of the pool, splashing them with water. She landed on her feet beside them. “Aleck!” she shouted. “You are awake.” The scar on her forehead seemed to have reopened into a bloodless gash.

“Hi!” said Aleck. “You’re free of the Bay! How’d you get free? What happened to your head?”

“Where is my Token?” snarled the Nymph.

“Uh….” said Aleck.

“Blood Eagle took it to the Cannibal-King,” said the Cook.

“Why didn’t you stop him!” shouted the Nymph.

“My apologies, Queen of Heaven,” said the Cook, bowing his head. “The true Cannibal-King has arrived in our world. The time to strike is now.”

“Imbecile!” snapped the Nymph. “You cannot stop war with war!”

“When we kill Goromath and Apraxos,” said the Cook, “our island will be free. I go now to fight alongside my kin.” He stood and walked to the kitchen.

“You have forgotten the true meaning of cooking!” the Nymph shouted after him. He closed the door. The Nymph stared after him.

“The true meaning of cooking?” asked Aleck.

“Cooking is love,” muttered the Nymph. She frowned down at the pool. Aleck noticed the Corpsewater Nymph floating just below the surface of the water. “How dare you heal that murderer!” shouted the Nymph of the Shrine.

The Corpsewater Nymph stuck her skull-head out of the water. “Which one?” she hissed, nodding at Aleck.

The Nymph of the Shrine looked at Aleck, then back at the Corpsewater Nymph. “I tell you, sister, that Giver will sow only seeds of evil,” she said.

“The fields of Fate are endlessly planted and reaped,” said the Corpsewater Nymph. “You must transcend your fear of death, sister. Death comes even for we who do not age.”

“Even you don’t understand!” sobbed the Nymph of the Shrine. “Even you.” Aleck thought the gash in her forehead had started to bleed, but he realized that clear water was leaking from it at both ends.

“Death means nothing,” smiled the Corpsewater Nymph. “Sister, do not cry.”

The Nymph of the Shrine screamed in frustration, the third eye opening in her forehead. She clenched her fists, and blinding yellow light burst forth from her three eyes. She leapt up into the air and flew out of sight, still screaming, her voice trailing into the distance. Clouds immediately whirled in and blackened the sky; thunder shook from horizon to horizon, and rain poured down in a sudden torrent….

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Holy Calamity (part two)

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

 

“…You’re me,” said Aleck.

“Yeah,” said Old Aleck. “So be careful, or you’ll botch my whole life up. I’ll fly you over to the kitchen, man.”

“We have the Skull of Kaios,” said Aleck.

“I know,” said Old Aleck. “I remember. That’s why I’m here. It’s time for me to do the thing.”

“Here,” said Akaz. He spat out the halves of the Skull and the Jawbone of Zebdod. Old Aleck gingerly picked up the pieces of the Skull and stared at them, his face ashen.

“What’s wrong?” rasped Aleck. “We almost died getting those!”

“Those,’“ said Old Aleck. “Plural. It’s still broken.”

“Were we supposed to fix it?” asked Aleck.

“Retroactively,” said Old Aleck. “Not you. Me and him.” He nodded towards Akaz.

“Come on,” said Akaz. “We have shit to do. Did you finish your book?”

“Kind of,” whispered Old Aleck, dropping the parts of the Skull on the ground.

“The book’s fine,” said the woman who looked like the Nymph. “Come on, baby, pick up the Skull.”

“Are you my wife?” Aleck asked her, imagining the ridicule of his racist classmates. His integrationist parents, on the other hand, and his White Panther brothers Billy and Mikey, would thrill at the revolutionary implications of him getting with a Black chick. He wondered if that was maybe kinda fucked up too, though.

“I’m his wife, honey,” she said, pointing her thumb at Old Aleck. “You can call me Beth. And that reminds me: one thing before you go. When you meet a girl you like, just be yourself. You don’t have to try to impress anyone.”

Aleck didn’t follow. “Huh, what?”

“Beth,” said Old Aleck.

“I’m just trying to help you act like less of a dumbass when we meet,” Beth laughed back. “And another thing,” she said to Aleck. “Don’t worry about whether or not you’re going to get in a girl’s pants. You will or you won’t.”

“All right!” snapped Old Aleck. “Stop messing with him!” Gripping the Circomangkus in both hands, he hoisted Aleck and Blood Eagle’s raft into the air. The raft flew across the clearing towards the God-Dog.

“Don’t make me go through that gate again,” moaned Aleck, feeling faint.

“First Herald, is that you?”

Aleck tried to orient towards the voice. Was he floating? No, dreaming—

“You look much the same,” said the voice. Blood Eagle.

Aleck heard birds. He wasn’t dreaming. He had been sleeping dreamlessly, and the voice was real. He opened his eyes to see Blood Eagle’s bald head, engraved with jagged scars, framed in a halo of sunshine and trees. Aleck lay naked on a rock beside the Corpsewater pool. He sat up. His body felt healthy, even euphoric. “I feel like a million bucks.”

“I cannot vouch for the bravery of bucks,” said Blood Eagle, crouching beside him. “Ask the Cook about those and bears and other wood-beasts. Humbly, though,” he spoke softly, “perhaps a million is too many, even for you, slaughterer of multitudes.”

Aleck gulped.

Blood Eagle spoke loudly: “I would sooner name you for our desert-kin, the trapdoor spider.”

Aleck stared at him sleepily. “What?”

“I praise you for your strategy, Trapdoor Spider,” said Blood Eagle, standing back up and thumping himself in the chest with his fist. The Circomangkus and Token of Time Dilation dangled around his neck. “In bringing me here, you have bypassed every Herax between us and the Cannibal-King effortlessly. I go now to deliver the Token and rafts to Him.”

“‘Him’ who?” asked Aleck.

“The Cannibal-King. I invite you to join us at war when you are able. Thank Great Akaz for me if you see him.” He stepped onto a raft. Aleck saw the rest of the rafts standing upended around the clearing, leaning against nothing. Blood Eagle’s raft leapt up into the sky; the rest followed, except the battered one they had taken into the Well of Apraxos. It hovered slightly, fell to earth, and toppled over against a tree. Aleck watched Blood Eagle fly away, his ghost-fleet in formation behind him. Aleck closed his eyes and tried to focus his mind. What the hell is going on. What the hell am I supposed to do now.

“Good morning,” said a voice behind him….

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Holy Calamity (part one)

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

APPREHENSION ORDER

Suspect(s):
EA00005-23175AMW aka “Alexander Metatron Woad”
EX00023-37618BAW aka “Beth Ali Woad”

Coordinates:
KX00023, aka “Kaios-X23,” 19º59’12”x27º43’38”, 05:17:23 ABS

Warnings:
See Suspects’ files. BRIEF ENTIRE TEAM. Of special note are several items (following).
MODERATE: Suspects both affiliated with Order of Eight Directions, ITO (i.e., Interdimensional Terrorist Organization).
EXTREME: Suspects both possess ECSS (i.e., Extreme Chronic Synchronicity Syndrome).
EXTREME: One known possible temporal recursion at apprehension site (i.e., Suspect AMW’s former self).

Recommendation:
One full Interceptor platoon, minimum. All enhancements.

Ordered by:
EX00023-08018BZX
Belial Z. Xax, Field Agent

Aleck flew them out through the demon head.

Outside Billycutter’s Tunnel waited a hundred Herax ships like a swarm of giant, angry bees. Thousands of voices buzzed in the air around them: We come as one. We come as one. His mind spinning at the scene, Aleck absently wondered how far up into the sky they could be heard.

“Bad,” said Akaz.

Aleck put the Token of Time Dilation into his mouth. A wave of panic swept him up; his heart rattled frighteningly fast. The Token tasted foul and toxic. Clenching his teeth, he flew the rafts as fast as he could towards the God-Dog, cutting straight across the pattern of the Spiral Mounds. He landed them under the trees at the edge of the clearing and spat out the Token. Lying curled on the raft, he retched, whining in pain.

“Aleck!” said Akaz.

Aleck whined.

“You rule!” said Akaz. “That was awesome. Come on, I need you to fly these rafts into the kitchen.”

Aleck looked up at him grimly.

“Come on. I’m sure you can fit them in at an angle,” said Akaz. “Then we’ll take you right to Corpsewater, and you’ll feel all better. But we need to bring the rafts with us.”

“No,” whined Aleck. “I can’t go through that gate.” He dry-heaved a few times, then flopped over on his back. “I can’t imagine feeling any sicker than this.”

“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about!” snapped Akaz. “Do it now, before the Herax figure out we’re here!”

“Excuse me,” came a man’s voice.

Akaz jumped, and Aleck looked up in terror. Caught. Two robed figures stood beside them among the trees. Aleck reached weakly for the Token. “Don’t do that, man,” came the voice of the other stranger, a woman’s voice. Aleck protested weakly as she took the Token out of his hand. She shrugged off her hood to reveal matted salt-and-pepper braids. She looked exactly like the Nymph of the Shrine, but with deep brown skin instead of blue. Upon reflection, now, Aleck could picture the Nymph’s broad nose and full lips — but, with her blue skin, she had never registered to his mind as having African features. This woman, however, was unmistakably Black.

“What the—” whispered Aleck.

The other stranger crouched down to take the Circomangkus. “I’ll fly the raft,” he said, pulling back his hood. “I remember how.” The man had shaggy white hair, a scruff of white beard, and scars crossing half his agitated countenance….

 

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The Skull of Kaios (part eight)

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

…Fresh Herax corpses tumbled slowly through the air, trailing streamers of blood. Blood Eagle leapt wildly around the zone of the Gravity Switch, launching himself off of wall, wreck, or body to fly at Herax after Herax, rending with his hands, biting out chunks of flesh and bone, and snatching weapons to use them savagely upon their owners. Now and then the wounded Cook would spring forth from the shadows, swipe open a Herax throat, and fling himself back into darkness. The Herax soldiers threw themselves after the Giver and the Wilder, always a step behind, their numbers dwindling one by one until Blood Eagle dispatched the last of them.

The burning ship slowly turned in place, orbited by torn and broken bodies. Akaz jumped out of Blood Eagle’s mouth and floated across the Well, eyes flashing with flame, smoke billowing from his jaws. Blood Eagle convulsed, then grew still. He lay unmoving in the air, covered with cauterized wounds, his eyes rolled back and mouth hanging open.

Akaz looked at Aleck. “Let’s go,” he rumbled. “Grab him. We need to get him to the Corpsewater Nymph.”

“I as well,” said the Cook, returning to Crow form. He paddled towards Aleck with his one good wing.

Aleck climbed onto the battered raft, swept up his companions, and flew away from the drifting carnage. Akaz sniffed the air. “You’re going the wrong way,” he said.

“Which way is that?” asked Aleck, seated beside the sprawling body of Blood Eagle.

“We’re going in,” said Akaz. “That’s no good.”

Aleck begrudgingly halted the raft and dropped it, he hoped for the last time, through the scattered bodies. As he turned the raft over at the Gravity Switch, his face and chest passed through a floating ribbon of blood, splashing him with a stripe of grue. “Great,” said Aleck. “Great.” They sped upward in the dark, Akaz’s eyes shedding just enough light for Aleck to avoid the walls. Blood Eagle moaned and muttered. The Cook perched on the corner of the raft, staring up.

They raced upward, wind drying Aleck’s squinting eyes.

In time, a speck of paler black appeared overhead and expanded into a patch of starry sky. “Almost there,” said Aleck. He hastened their ascent. “What next?” he asked Akaz. “Corpsewater by way of the God-Dog?”

“This timing is bad,” said Akaz, almost to himself. “Bad. Bad timing.”

“What do you mean?” asked Aleck.

“I hadn’t planned on a goddamn side trip to Corpsewater right before the battle,” said Akaz.

“Battle?” asked Aleck.

“Never mind, we’ll make it work.” He looked up. “Uh-oh,” he said.

Aleck looked towards the mouth of the Well. Moving black shapes blotted out the stars. A faint murmur came from above. “What the hell is up there?” he asked.

“Fuck. Get us up into Billycutter’s Tunnel,” said Akaz. “Fast.”

The black shapes resolved into silhouettes of Herax longboats. Four descended in formation towards them; behind came four more, and another four behind that, each formation offset from the others and rotating slowly, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise. Behind them came a many-masted ship. The murmur grew until Aleck could distinguish the words echoing down the Well. Hundreds of voices chanted in unison: We come as one! We come as one!

“Is this the battle?” asked Aleck, frantic.

“Keep going!” snapped Akaz.

Lanterns blazed to life on the front of each longboat, illuminating the forlorn raft. A victorious shout rained down from the Herax. Aleck saw them, dozens upon dozens, hanging in the rigging, waving their spears and knives.

Aleck pointed towards a patch of darkness on the wall. “Is that the Tunnel?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Akaz. “Go!”

Aleck sped the raft towards the entrance to Billycutter’s Tunnel. The Herax boats dropped faster. For a moment, Aleck thought he would out-race them; but when they saw his goal, they veered to block his way. Aleck stopped the raft, a formation of four longboats silently hovering by the mouth of Billycutter’s tunnel. Each moment, more longboats and warships obscured the stars above.

“Now what,” said Aleck, in disbelief.

“Not sure,” muttered Akaz.

“You gotta be kidding me.” Aleck looked up at the growing crowd of Herax boats, out of ideas.

“We could ram them,” said Akaz. “Kamikaze style. Take a few of them with us.”

“That’s it!” whispered Aleck. He clutched his amulet.

“Just kidding!” shouted Akaz.

“Hang on,” said Aleck, and sped the raft upward, hugging the wall.

“Aleck!” barked Akaz. “Stop! Fortune favors the bold, not the suicidal—!”

Aleck flew the seven other rafts out of Billycutter’s Tunnel, ramming them into the masts and sails of the boats blocking the way. The boats listed wildly, tumbling Herax soldiers down the Well. Aleck spun the empty rafts in place like paddleboat wheels, snapping spars and rigging, tearing away sails, knocking more Herax down the Well. Their magic sails destroyed, the four boats fell end over end past them and down into darkness. Aleck slipped into Billycutter’s Tunnel.

“Wow, kid,” said Akaz. “Outfuckinstanding.”

“Will they be able to follow us?” asked Aleck.

“I think those boats are too big,” said Akaz. “Leave a couple rafts behind, in case.”

“What, for them to follow us in?” asked Aleck.

“No, leave ‘em spinning!” said Akaz. “Traps! And just a couple. I want to get as many of these as possible to the Cannibal-King.”

Aleck furrowed his brow in concentration. Though he couldn’t see most of the rafts, he could sense their location and movement. He stopped the hindmost one, started it spinning in place, then set another orbiting it like a giant flyswatter. He felt a strange internal sensation of ‘letting them go,’ and the rafts kept moving without his concentration.

“Even if they can’t follow us,” asked Aleck, “won’t they be waiting for us when we come out?”

“Billycutter’s Tunnel is magically hidden,” said Akaz. “I’m sure they never knew about it until now.” He paused. “I guess we’ll see if they figured out where the other end is.”

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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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