May 2019


“Hmph, a succubus?” The demon spat on the ground, where wisps of smoke soon began to rise from the abyssal iron. “Weaklings. Trash from the gutter.”

“Oh?” Nuby crossed her legs daintily, the metal sequins lightly jangling. “Tell me then, Daot, how my kind are ‘weaklings’ and ‘trash.'”

“An orgy is all well and good. I’ve had plenty in my time. But you’re obsessed with it. So hungry for constant carnality that you can’t think of anything else. Can’t plan worth a damn, always flighty. And of course, strength.” The demon took up a metal chair and bent it nearly in half, with the metal squealing and heating cherry-red as he did. “Here, the weak do what the strong tell them to do. You succubi are weak, and you’ll never be able to hold a thought in your head for long before sex crowds it out.”

“I see,” Nuby said evenly. “And what would a real demon, like yourself, one who is neither weak nor trash, comport himself?”

Daot puffed out his chest. “I take what I want from those that are too weak to stop me,” he said. “When I want an orgy, I do it, but I don’t allow that to get in my way. I’m not constantly mewling for sex, not when there’s things to plan, things to think of, and skulls that need a bashing-in.”

“I wonder,” Nuby said. “Do you remember a little get-together in the Brass District some months back?”

“Huh?” said Daot. “Sure. Fun party. Thirty people in five beds. That was a night.”

“You said something to the same effect that night,” said Nuby. “That succubi were easily distracted, weak, unable to plan, all that nonsense.”

“Hmph,” the demon snorted. “Was it nonsense?” He dipped a great paw into his vest and procured a watch, checking the time. “Now, if there’s nothing else, hand over the money and let me be on my way.”

“Of course.” Nuby handed over the satchel with Daot’s protection money, letting it jangle to the floor. “A word of warning, though. I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.”

Daot seized the bag and began greedily rifling through it. “What would you know,” he snorted. “There are no orgies in the bag, so you are FAR outside your realm of experience.”

“Oh, I’m sure.” Nuby examined her nails nonchalantly. “You know what would be a pity, Mr. Daot? It would be a pity, a real pity, of some go-getter of a succubus overheard your blustering that night and thought to learn you a thing or two about strength and focus.”

Looking up, eyes narrowed, the demon showed his full set of teeth. “It would be a pity if I had to rip her to shreds for it.”

“And do you know what else would be a real live tragedy? If that succubus murdered one of your bagmen, one of your little errand boys, and you didn’t even notice because you’re so disconnected from your own extortion business. The idea that such a rough, tough, FOCUSED demon like Mr. Daot could let something so slight slip through his fingers…embarrassing, to say the least.”

Daot looked up. “Perhaps, but an embarrassment that is easy to deal with thanks to a snapped neck.”

Nuby smiled. “Ah yes, but what if your new bagman took it upon herself to concoct a poison? Why, think of what a waste it would be to have every one of those loot bags dusted with a fractional dose of something that, at the right potency, means a screaming death even for a denizen of the abyss?”

Again, Daot looked at the succubus. “What’s that?”

“Imagine the last dose, the last fraction, working its way up through the miserable ranks of Mr. Daot’s pathetic and ramshackle excuse for an organization. Bagman after bagman dropping dead with Mr. Daot’s coin in their hand and on their lips.”

When she glanced up, it was just in time to see Daot topple to the floor, hard enough to dent even the iron. Angry-looking fluid was already beginning to leak from his mouth, his eyes. Nuby rose and sauntered over to him, kneeling down to look him in the face. “Perhaps you’re right about succubi being too distracted by sex to see the larger picture, Mr. Daot,” she said with an icy chill. “After all, I’ve spent months rather single-mindedly obsessing over how best to screw you.”

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Elwyn Morrowshire was not pleased to the Duke’s goblins in her vegetable patch.

“The Duke offers protection to those who accept his rule and pay their taxes,” said their leader, who held a rusty broadsword in one hand and a sack of Elwyn’s fresh-dug potatoes in the other. “If you fail to do so, why, there’s no one to protect you from all manner of unsavories. Like us.”

Planting herself in their path, with a sickle in one hand and a scythe in the other, Elwyn responded tersely. “I accept the Duke’s rule,” she said. “I pay my taxes. There’s a sack of potatoes just like that at the Duke’s manor.”

“Ah, but that’s just what a rebel and an anarchist and a tax-avoider would say, isn’t it, hmm?” replied the goblin. “I have it on good authority that your burg here has been deficient. Even if you did fork over your measly mealy potates, if your neighbors neglect to do the same, your crops are just as forefeit.”

Elwyn straightened her back. She was not a short woman, nor was she slender; a lifetime of work in the fields had given her a powerful stocky build to go with her height. “And why is that? They made the decision to break the law, I made the decision to obey it.”

“But you also made the decision not to encourage them to do what was right. You did not convince them. So you are as guilty as they, don’t you see?”

“I think the Duke has hired you as mercenaries to shake even more money and food out of people who have already given all they can.” Elwyn said. “I think you’d better leave my meager potato field, which I work alone with my bare hands, and never return.”

The goblin leader waved his followers forward with his sword. “Take all she has. If she resists, cut her down.”

He didn’t even have time to utter a surprised squawk when Elwyn brought her scythe sweeping down and cleaved his head from his body. The nearest of his posse found themselves sorely put upon, with one sent flying by the butt of the scythe and another hooked in the ear with the sickle and badly bloodied.

“I’ve raised, and buried, three children on this land,” Elwyn growled. “I’ve met, married, and buried two husbands here as well. Nearly sixty years I’ve been quiet and loyal to your duke, and this is my reward, eh?”

Casting aside her farm tools, Elwyn picked up the fallen goblin leader’s sword. It was rusty and dull but well-made. She took a few practice swings as the remaining goblins circled her warily, trying to get a feel for how the thing balanced. She remembered the few sword strokes her first husband, Mougin, had taught her thirty-five years ago—strong strokes for self-defense from a man who had been at war.

Without their mouthy leader, the goblins attacked in a disorganized fashion, one at a time. Elwyn crushed the first one’s skull and took his shield. The second instead unslung a crossbow and crannequin, circling and cranking before loosing a bolt. Elwyn’s shield took the blow, her skills as an occasional hunter of small game on full display. Before the goblin could fire again she was upon him; he escaped with his right arm broken, dangling, and flopping uselessly at his side.

Elwyn Morrowshire did not know if then, but she had taken her first step to becoming Grandmother Elwyn, the most skilled and feared rebel in the history of Solanshire.

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“Let me tell you about mercenaries,” said Haemnuk. “A mercenary will fight for money, and they will fight well–for a poor fighter receives no pay. They will willingly endure dangerous situations, and understand that they may die.”

“Then how are they any different from other soldiers?” snapped Duke Solen.

“A mercenary will willingly endure a dangerous situation, but not a hopeless one. If they believe they are being sacrificed needlessly, they will abandon you, change sides, rout. The surest way to break the back of mercenaries, even well-paid ones, is to make them think they are in a hopeless fight.”

The duke wiped meat juice from his chin. “Are you lecturing me on the art of war, goblin?” he sneered. “I hired your people because you showed up starving, armed, and looking for work. Don’t make me regret my kindness.”

“Oh, nothing of the sort,” said Haemnuk sweetly. “Just see that the situation does not become hopeless, and there will be no problems.

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“The Anilef are funny things,” Serena said.

“I’ve never met one. Guess I should have read up on them.”

“Well, they’re a minor power at best. They tend to trade their skills for raw materials and finished products. They do remote tech support via galactic network. Ever have a support call with NerdCorps? Maybe the Eureka Bar?”

“You’re joking,” said Anika. “That was the Anilef?”

Serena smiled broadly. “Yeah. They’re really good at distributed cognition, but they almost always use a computer generated avatar. To keep people from being alarmed, you know, by their appearance.”

“Is it that alarming, though?” Anika said. “I thought they were just big sponges.”

“More like coral, I’d say, with a little Portuguese man’o’war mixed in to taste. But they go the extra mile in trying to fit in with others.”

“More than the Haxge, who just wear that environment suit?” laughed Anika. “Or the Yarub, who just swirl there and dare you to stare at them?”

“It’s a bigger sacrifice than that, I’d say,” Serena said. “The Anilef put down a skeleton as they grow, and it serves as the center of their distributed consciousness. They can send their polyps out as free swimmers to manipulate things, but…well, let’s not get too into how it works. This is a financial meeting, after all.”

“So…?”

The doors slid open and revealed the Anilef in its travel capsule. It was growing in the rough form of a humanoid, with a shimmering purple membrane where skin ought to have been. A forest of gently undulating jellylike tentacles stood in for hair, and as Anika and Serena approached, the “face” lit up, with chromophores lighting up to simulate eyes, nostrils, and mouth.

Words came over the speaker through the translation program, in time with pulses of light playing across the Anilef’s “skin.” It rendered the complex interplay of visible light, invisible light, and water-soluble pheromones into comprehensible language.

“Greetings, friends. I am Sryvan of the Anilef, and I have made it my mission and my growing over many years to deal with your people face-to-face.”

Serena nodded at Anika. “This is where you take over. I’m just here for support and context.”

Anika stepped up to the transport capsule and laid her briefcase upon a table that had been set up before it. She pulled out a sheaf of papers and tapped them into shape.

“Very well,” she said. “Who do you want to sue, and why?”

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“I’m worried about her,” Sister said. She winced as Caleb continued changing her dressings, carefully swabbing the cuts and nicks with alcohol to keep infection from setting in.

“I think she’ll actually keep folks away for now,” Caleb replied. “And thanks to this switching she gave you, knocking you out of a pine tree and hitting every branch on the way down…well, we don’t have to think of a punishment for you sneaking out and leading Tory on a darn fool adventure now, do we?”

Sister yelped at the next alcohol swab, confirming what Caleb said without uttering an intelligible word.

“You going to stand there in the doorway, Trace, or are you going to come in and tell me what’s on your mind?” Caleb said.

Trace stepped in, red-faced. “How’d you know I was there?” he said. “I was quiet.”

“Bright light from the door in Sister’s eyes, of course,” Caleb said with a chuckle. “I’d know that silhouette anywhere, and it’d be visible for miles if we were outside.”

“Let me finish patching her up,” Trace said. “You’ve shown me how to do it, I need the practice. And-”

“And?”

“And I want to. I kinda owe her. For, you know, saving my life.”

“Don’t make me regret it,” Sister moaned, her eyelids fluttering.

Caleb scooched his stool around so he was face to face with the boy. “Tell it to me straight, Trace,” he said. “How much of you wanting to help out is real genuine gratitude, and how much of it is wanting to see Sister squirm and yelp?”

“Well, this is one time when helping her and hurting her…well, they’re one and the same,” Trace grinned. “I’d be dumb not to try getting in on that, y’know?”

Caleb rose and handed over the alcohol and the swabs. “All yours,” he said. “Should just need a dash here and there where I haven’t already replaced the bandages.”

He walked away, following the gentle slope up to the surface. A smile crossed his face as he heard Sister and Trace beginning to go at it behind him:

“OW! Stop it!”

“Do you wanna die? Cuz if you keep doing that, you’re gonna die and I’m gonna get blamed for it!”

The great mechanical colossus with Tory at its heart was resting on the edge of the settlement. Once they’d gotten the repairs done, Tory found herself able to control the machine much better, and able to hear and speak from it. She’d learned how to set it down, forming a rough staircase of knees and arms, that allowed the other children–and Caleb himself–access to the head where she was ensconced. When Caleb came upon her, all the doors were open, and Tory was letting the cool air and the last rays of sunset wash over her.

“How was it?” Caleb said, clambering up to get face-to-face with the girl without spoiling her view. “The hard ground at the Sandeval Rocks is a much better match for this thing than that soggy forest mud, eh?”

Tory looked up. “It’s nice to be able to run a bit without worrying about sinking or falling,” she said. For all that she resembled Sister physically, Tory was the opposite: gentle, deferential, contemplative. “I took Switch with me this time. He said he wanted to see how it worked, so he could get a circuit diagram going.”

“I saw him working on it just now, before I had to tend to Sister,” Caleb said. “Don’t you worry, Tory. We’ll work out how this big toy of your grandfather’s works sooner rather than later, and have you popped out of there. Maybe there’ll even be a new pair of arms and legs in it for you.”

“How is she?” Tory said. “I feel so bad about scaring her, and almost…almost…”

“She’s whining, complaining, and fighting Trace like a cornered badger with pups,” said Caleb. “And telling me how to treat her besides. So I’d say she is well on the mend.”

“Caleb…I think this thing might be why Grandfather had my bits the way they were,” Tory said haltingly. “Why they were all weak, and they came off so easily. I think he meant to put me in this thing sometime and never had the chance.”

“Maybe he did,” Caleb said. “This thing is a darn sight more impressive than a Harvester. But guessing what a dead man might have been thinking is a fool’s game, if you ask me.”

“Caleb…” Tory said again, quieter. “Am I a monster?”

Recoiling as if he’d been slapped, Caleb shook his head. Realizing how inadequate that looked, he gently laid a hand on Tory’s shoulder. “No,” he said. “I’ve know people who were real monsters, and most of them were handsome folks. This thing here? This is just a special talent of yours, like Sister’s smarts or Trace’s adaptability. Once you–once we–figure it out, you’ll be able to use it to do great things. Imagine you, with some of your sibs on your shoulders, and a spare set of arms and legs stashed away for yourself, striding across this big old ruined land looking for adventure. No one would stand in your way.”

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“Trace! Trace, get down here!” Caleb bellowed. His rifle barked again as he tried to lead the dark, menacing form of the mechanical beast away from the tree where Sister lay unconscious.

“I can do it!” Trace shouted back. With the superhuman strength and dexterity of his mechanical arm, he had already monkeyed his way nearly to the waist of the colossus. “It’s just a machine! I can handle them! I’m like part machine already!”

“No, dammit, no!” Caleb shouted, forgetting in his anger and terror his pledge never to curse around the children. “I can lead it away! It will follow me! You need to get your sister to safety.”

Trace was still climbing, finding handholds and toeholds among the mechanical monstrosity’s many wires, crevasses, hollows. “I can do it. I can stop it!”

“Will you get down here and let me lead it away, boy?” Caleb shouted. His rifle clicked empty, not that he dared aim at the thing anymore with Trace clambering all over it. “I can’t lose you!”

“And you think I want to lose you, you old grouch?” Trace screamed back, from his perch amid the thing’s chest. It didn’t seem to notice the tiny parasite on its surface, focusing instead on its single-minded pursuit of Caleb. “I’ll take this thing apart one piece at a time if I have to.”

Upon reaching the beast’s head, Trace was shocked to find that it had no face–instead, there was an arrangement of handles and levers that looked more like a door, or an airlock, than anything a being might actually need to see or smell or speak. Grandfather had been an enthusiast, a devotee, a slavish disciple of the lever and the handle in his experiments to merge the hard and the soft, the fleshy and the steely, and Trace knew all too well how those components worked.

He grabbed the handle, and pulled hard. With a frenzies squeal of metal on metal, the door to the colossus opened wide and the spring daylight poured in.

“S…Sister?”

Trace had to blink his eyes to realize that it wasn’t Sister at all–it was Tory, her twin. She was pale, sweaty, and somehow cocooned into the monster at her shoulders and hips. But she immediately smiled, and shouted joyously.

“TRACE! You figured it out! Oh, I was trying to figure out how to tell you and Caleb it was me, but…” her joy fell to sadness, and within a moment she was weeping. “…but I messed everything up.”

The colossus stopped, rocking back on its heels. Then, as Tory wept, it pantomimed a little girl sniffling and trying to rub her nose.

Trace moved in close and put his arms around Tori. “It’s okay now,” he said softly. “It’s okay. We’re here.”

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Sister could see a stream of tracers from Caleb’s automatic rifle streaming upward like avenging fireflies, but the colossus shrugged them off as if the impacts were meaningless. It continued advancing toward Caleb, arms out, a bantam skyscraper closing in on the wings of tremblors.

Trace’s tree was one of the casualties of the titan’s advance; the ground was pulverized, roots were snapped, and the trunk began to topple as the rain-sodden ground beneath liquefied and bubbled away. Trace was blubbering in helpless fear when Sister reached him; despite every inch of both arms screaming in pain, she still was able to hook her one leg over a branch and grab Trace by the shoulders.

What was it that Caleb had said? It didn’t matter if you felt like an adult, or even acted like one all the time. So long as you could do what you had to when the time came. “Trace. We’re going to jump to the next tree. It’s going to hurt, and we’re gonna get scraped up, but we’ll make it. You with me?”

“I…I…I…” Trace stammered.

“BROTHER. I NEED YOU WITH ME.” Sister said, in her most Caleb-like affect. She didn’t feel the confidence; it was a total lie. But her brother, scared and about to die, needed someone with confidence, and there was no one else handy.

Sister’s feigned assurance seemed to calm Trace. “All right,” he said. “All right. Just tell me when and where.”

The tree was toppling now; both Sister and Trace felt the cool spring wind rushing by their faces even as the bottom fell out of their stomachs. Plummeting to the forest floor after a hundred years, the old pine would pass within a few feet of another, briefly entangling branches. Sister waited for that moment, when branches that looked like they could support the weight of a pair of partly-metal children were at hand, before calling for the jump.

“NOW! NOWWWW!”

Trace, with both his legs working, kicked off the falling trunk and launched himself into the branches of its twin. He landed roughly but not painfully, with a few minor scratches. Sister, with only a single leg, belly-flopped astride a branch, winding her and leaving her hanging like a rag doll, oozing blood from a dozen cuts and scrapes.

Trace, his fear broken, spidered himself over to Sister and dragged her, gasping, to a nook in the branches where she could lean against the main trunk. “Are you okay?” he said, alarmed at the blood on his hands.

“I am…oaky dokey…” Sister said with a weak smile. She pointed to her shin, where several pieces of bark were embedded into a nasty scrape. “See…?”

Trace laughed despite himself, despite the colossus and the rife fire. “It’s a pine, you huge dork,” he said.

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“He doesn’t like you.”
The lightsaber cuts swiftly
A disarming scene

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The elder Twittermund was a wise king, and he had an accord with the mousefolk of the vale: so long as they did not steal those acorns already gathered and buried, they were free to seek what they would at the base of Twittermund’s trees.

His son, however, was impetuous and fiery. Called Stubbletail by his enemies, thanks to a tail that had been reamed and hacked by a cat in his youth, Twittermund II railed against the mousefolk, branding them thieves and enemies. When his father died, caught in the claws of a hawk, the younger squirrel declared that the forest floor was now off-limits to any but his own kind. These Bushtail Edicts declared that any mouse found by a squirrel stood to forfeit its food, and possibly its life.

The Squirrel Corps, once mere lookouts to warn of approaching predators, were reformed into a militant group that began raiding the mousefolk about Twittermund II’s domain. Claiming to be “returning” stolen acorns to their rightful owners, they in fact enriched Stubbletail’s court with ill-gotten gains.

Furious, the mousefolk of the vale gathered to pool their resources and lay a trap for the tyrant. Over the course of two months they drilled their once-disparate militias into a unified fighting force, one that outnumbered the larger squirrels 10 to 1. Then they carefully laid a trap for Twittermund II, sending a raiding party to his tree.

Stubbletail took the bait. Enraged, he led his Squirrel Corps personally into battle, and pursued the mice to a copse of juniper bushes. There, where the close quarters negated his troops’ size and speed, the mice fell upon Twittermund with a vengeance. Twittermund II himself fell in battle, and the Squirrel Corps was thoroughly routed and broken forever. The next four squirrels in line for the throne died that day, and the victorious mice bore Twittermund’s personal acorns back as trophies.

This was the greatest victory won by the mousefolk since the long-ago Cottontail Raids had silenced the rabbit slavers. It also proved once and for all to the vale’s mousefolk that an organized force was needed to defend their rights. Thus were the Acorn Knights born, their aegis taken from the spoils Twittermund II had failed to protect.

The squirrels themselves were shattered after the Battle of the Bushes, never again to hold power in the vale. Their next ruler, Twittermund II’s third cousin, was so weak that he was forced to hire the Acorn Knights–the very mice that had slain his predecessor–to protect his people from the Cottontails.

Followers of the Valefaith say that the Battle of the Bushes proved once and for all time that mousefolk were the favored children of the wood. But the newer Cyclers insist that it was a warning to all with hatred in their hearts, as it was no doubt a spiteful and self-loathing mouse that had been reincarnated as Stubbletail.

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“Tell me, very quietly, what you see,” said Caleb.

Trace could only stutter, incoherent at the sight.

“I know it’s scary, whatever it is. But Sister and I are counting on you. You’re our eyes. She can’t climb that tree with that leg of hers, and I’m too big.”

The boy was hyperventilating in a panic now, wobbling in the pine tree’s crown.

“You can do it, Trace,” Caleb said. He quietly positioned himself to try to catch Trace if he toppled from the boughs. “Tell me what you see.”

“Breathe, Trace!” Sister cried. “You got this, brother!”

“It’s…it’s huge,” Trace gasped. “Taller than the trees. I see arms, legs, but they’re like…they’re huge.” He stopped for a moment, blinded by wonderment despite his terror. “Woah. It’s a giant, like in the old stories, a mechanical giant.”

“And what’s it doing?” Caleb said.

Trace looked back across the valley and his panic returned. “It’s looking for us. Pulling apart trees, moving rocks…”

The crashing and grinding noises in the distance were taking on another tenor, moving into a series of staccato beats, each louder than the last. It was as if tremendous fists were beating the bruised earth, trying to shake the last life out of it.

“IT’S COMING!” shrieked Trace. “IT HEARD US!”

“Get down!” Caleb shouted. “Get down from there!” He unlimbered his assault rifle, clicking the safety off and racking the action, hoping that the sear would hold.

Trees up and down the valley were splintering in the path of the colossus, and Trace was frozen in the pine crown, watching saucer-eyed as taller and older trunks were shattered.

Sister, though, reacted with steely-eyed determination. She was already at the trunk before Caleb had finished speaking, kicking off her mechanical blade and hauling herself up the branches with just her arms and one living leg.

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