24 Weeks of Bond: Diamonds Are Forever

Art by Dick Bobnick

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: Diamonds Are Forever, released in 1971 and directed by Guy Hamilton, who also directed Goldfinger (previous) as well as two future Bond films. Written by Richard Maibaum and Tom Kankiewicz. This is one of the few Bond novels I actually read, and so I can point out a few fundamental differences: namely, that Blofeld got kind of shoehorned into the film as the Big Bad mastermind (this is the film that follows Blofeld ordering the hit that murders Bond’s wife, after all), and that it is a LOT more action packed.

The plot centers around James Bond being tasked with infiltrating a smuggling ring, only to find that it has greater ties to his old nemesis, and a much more dangerous plot to the world, including developing laser weapons.

THE BOND: Sean Connery! Connery famously retired from the role after You Only Live Twice, but George Lazenby’s agent convinced him to do a one-and-done with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, confident that the Bond franchise was on its way out in terms of relevance. Connery’s return was 4 years after his last portrayal of Bond. He was 32 years old in his first portrayal (Dr. No), 37 in You Only Live Twice, and 41 in Diamonds Are Forever. His hair is noticeably thinner (as it always been), he’s a bit paunchier, and he’s slower both in his line delivery and his movements. It ALMOST looks like he doesn’t want to be there, but he needed the money and the studio offered a lot of it, and there is a certain charm in seeing him return to the role he made relevant. This would be his final turn as James Bond with Eon studios. He portrayed James Bond six times with Eon and one time with another production company (Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball, in 1983 when he was 53 years old), and for many he IS James Bond.

THE GIRLS: There are two main Bond girls in Diamonds Are Forever, although special shoutout to Trina Parks as henchwoman Thumper, for beating the living hell out of James Bond.

But more important to the plot are Lana Wood’s Plenty O’Toole, a gambling woman with an eye for rich men (and one of the cheekier ridiculously named women in the franchise), and Jill St. John’s Tiffany Case, a diamond smuggler who gets in over her head with the deadly organization at the plot’s center.

Tiffany is a fantastic character, a highlight of the film. She is funny and set in her ways until she realizes her ways will absolutely get her killed. She was isn’t as deadly as Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, or as dramatic as OHMSS’ Tracy di Vicenzo. She’s a survivor, who knows how to make ends meet and get by and who occasionally finds herself in dire straits.

THE VILLAINS: Eschewing the Spang brother villains of the novel, the film puts Ernst Stavro Blofeld forward as the main villain, the third real film to do so. He is, after all, head of SPECTRE, the great criminal organization and the man responsible for Bond’s greatest losses. He is played here by Charles Gray, who is a stupendous actor but unfortunately follows a much more dynamic and threatening performance in the same role by Telly Savalas.

Blofeld’s main henchmen this time around are holdovers from the book: Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as Mister Wint and Mister Kidd, a pair of sadistic killers implied to be in a relationship with each other. Maybe I just like hitmen characters, but they were a fascinating part of the film as they went about their business clinically, efficiently, and enjoying themselves.

There is also Joseph Furst, who plays the SPECTRE-funded laser refraction scientist Doctor Metz.

Credit also to Jimmy Dean’s Willard Whyte, a rich, socialite sort who gets manipulated and used by SPECTRE. He’s not the most willing villain, but he’s used for nefarious purposes. Bruce Cabot plays his villainous casino manager Bert Saxby, in what would be Cabot’s final film performance.

THE LOCATIONS: Part of the reason Guy Hamilton was brought in to direct was because the studio wanted a Brit who could capture the British way of their British characters, but also someone who was familiar enough with America/Americans to capture the scene in authentic way. As the film centers around a diamond-smuggling conspiracy, the bulk of the film was shot in the locations the diamonds were to have originated from and gone to: the Netherlands, and Las Vegas.

There is a ton of cinematography set in the Dutch countryside and the Vegas strip, a lot of scenes in nice establishments. It’s not the most glamorous Bond film, but it does a good job conveying the idea of precious stones coming from a more humble source to be funneled to a glamorous den of crime and lavishness.

There were also extensive shots in England, of course, as well as some filming in Chicago, California, and France as needed.

THE CARS: With so much of the film set in America, there are a lot of Chevrolets and Cadillacs, Dodges and Fords featured in the film, including a 1968 Cadillac Funeral Coach Superior Sovereign Laundaulet for a particularly gruesome smuggling sequence. The 1968 Aston Martin DBS makes a brief appearance. The 1970 and 1971 Ford Customs are featured prominently throughout in a number of different types of appearance. There is also a beautiful red 1971 Ford Mustang Mach 1. There is a particularly thrilling chase on some Honda ATC 90s, a moon buggy made just for the film, and more. You can find a full list here.

THE GADGETS: After the grounded reality of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever returns to the realm of gadget-heavy spy fiction. Blofeld utilizes both extensive and futuristic plastic surgery to create doubles for himself (triples? More?), as well as healing mud baths and a futuristic personalized escape submarine.

Bond uses a mousetrap/finger trap device in the inside of his coat as a lure for people trying to disarm him. He also has a grappling hook (he used a similar one in Goldfinger), a voice changing device, and an aqua zorbing sphere to survive and travel underwater.

Q also devised an electromagnetic RPM controller device, ostensibly to cheat at the slot machines, whereas Tiffany Case has her own method of getting rich via a transportable fingerprint machine.

THE MUSIC: John Barry returned for his sixth time scoring a James Bond film. The Bond theme was done in electric guitar as a sort of celebration for the (brief, one-time) return if Sean Connery in the role.

Shirley Bassey ALSO returned to perform the title track, having done so once already for Goldfinger. This time she performed Diamonds Are Forever, the lyrics written by Don Black. In addition to being a beautifully crafted and performed piece on its own, it is probably also, maybe even more famously known as being sampled for Kanye West’s track “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.”

THE SUPPORT: Desmond Llewelyn returns as the gadget-crazy quartermaster Q, and Bernard Lee as Bond’s handler and the head of MI6, M.

Lois Maxwell returns as Moneypenny, briefly. She had been holding out for a pay increase and was originally not going to be included in the film, but as it was Connery’s return to the role, her inclusion was decidedly important. Her single scene was written in late in the production, and her lines included qnd shot separate from Connery’s own. Her last onscreen interaction with Connery was actually in You Only Live Twice.

Norman Burton puts in a solid performance as Felix Leiter, making him the fourth actor in four appearances as the character. He isn’t as charming as Jack Lord, nor as bureaucratic as Cec Linder. At this point, I think Rik Van Nutter did the best job.

Leonard Barr plays Shady Tree, a comedian/smuggler. His role is a bit more expansive in the novel, but he literally saves Bond’s life in the film, so his importance can’t be understated.

The same can be said for Joe Robinson’s brief turn as Peter Franks, a smuggler whose identity is integral to Bond’s mission.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Diamonds Are Forever is critically divided, and I think that’s probably deserved. The plot goes from grounded to ridiculous, the villain of the past films is shoehorned in to give Sean Connery some closure. Connery doesn’t act like he really wants to be there, though he still exudes charm when he wants to. The gadgets are fun, but coming off a solid, gadget-free story in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it feels almost campy.

Charles Gray is a good actor whose Blofeld doesn’t measure up to the weirdness of Donald Pleasance’s or the menace of Telly Savalas’. But the music is killer, the Bond Girls are memorable and properly fleshed out, the action sequences are fun, and Wint and Kidd are fascinating villains.

You Only Live Twice was a fine send-off for Connery. He didn’t need to return for this film, but he did, and it was a middling result with some high moments.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

24 Weeks of Bond: You Only Live Twice

Art by Paul Mann

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: You Only Live Twice, released in 1967. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert (Sink the Bismarck!, Alfie), who initially declined but accepted after being reminded how big of a blockbuster the 007 series was.

Most surprising to me was the fact that the screenplay was written by Roald Dahl, a close friend of Fleming’s who nonetheless said it was Fleming’s worst book, and was more a “travelogue” than a movie-worthy source of material. Though he created a lot of original material for the film, he still kept an extended Japanese wedding sequence and focused quite a bit on Japanese culture, keeping in line with Fleming’s work.

The movie itself sees an American spaceship hijacked by another craft, unknown but suspected by the Americans to belong to the Soviet Union. The British believe the Japanese may be involved, and they send Bond undercover to meet with government connections in Japan to try to uncover what’s going on.

While there is plenty of positive aspects to the film (gone are the artificially sped-up action sequences of Thunderball; Japan is an incredible setting; the plot is mostly exciting; the final action sequence is flat-out incredible), I just can’t help but think how poorly the sequences of Bond getting skin pigmentation and eye surgery to go undercover as a Japanese man have aged.

THE BOND: Sean Connery returns for his fifth outing as James Bond, and he looks great, although he was bored with playing the role and had a terrible relationship with the producers of the film. It was announced during filming that this would be his final turn playing Bond, although future years would see him return for one more film with Eon (Diamonds Are Forever, which I will cover), as well as a single film with another production company (Never Say Never, a remake of Thunderball, which I will not cover).

In terms of the film, there are some notable absences of Bondisms. He doesn’t wear a tuxedo, nor does he drive a car, and the martini he accepts from his host is (mistakenly on the character’s part, but intentional for the film) stirred and not shaken. He does, however, wear his Navy uniform, and he does also welcome some warm sake.

THE GIRLS: The first of You Only Live Twice’s Bond Girls that we’re introduced to is Ling, played by Tsai Chin. She doesn’t get much screen time, but she is central to an opening sequence that seemingly sees Bond killed. This isn’t the first time the films have done this to us, but it remains startling.

More prominently featured are Aki (Akiko Wakibayashi), a Japanese operative that Bond first meets during a sumo match, and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), an ninja operative who “marries” Bond to maintain his Japanese cover. Kissy Suzuki’s name is not uttered in the film.

It should be noted, too, that this is the second Bond film to end with him canoodling in a life raft, proving he really does live twice.

And then, of course, there is femme fatale Helga Brandt/Spectre No.11, played by Karin Dor. She crosses Bond’s path a number of times and attempts to kill him. Her role in SPECTRE, however, hinges entirely on her ability not to fail.

THE VILLAINS: In addition to Helga Brandt, SPECTRE is all over the place in this film.

Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada), a Japanese industrialist, works with SPECTRE to retrieve and cover up the stolen space shuttles and urge the U.S. and Russia closer to all-out war. In a neat piece of trivia, his henchman who fights Bond in his office, is played by Peter Maivia, grandfather of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Burt Kwouk and Michael Chow play SPECTRE henchmen (#3 and #4 respectively), while Ronald Rich plays Hans, Blofeld’s imposing bodyguard.

But it’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld/SPECTRE No.1 who really steals the show. After spending three films visually obscured save for the occasional back of his head, and the hand stroking his white cat, we finally see Blofeld’s scarred face. He is played by Donald Pleasance, who never blinks when on screen, and his ruthlessness is on full display. His massive volcano lab, filled with secret entrances, deadly piranhas, trapdoors, armored rooms, rail tunnels, and scores of armed men cost nearly as much to build a set for as it did to make the entirety of Dr. No, Bond’s first film adventure.

Pleasance’s appearance here would later serve as Mile Myer’s visual template for Dr. Evil in his Austin Powers spoofs.

THE LOCATIONS: This is the first Bond film not to show MI6 headquarters. Instead, the film really only shows two locations: Hong Kong, China, in the beginning; and then primarily Japan for the rest of the film (Kagoshima, for the most part, although some scenes were shot in Tokyo).

While part of the fun in Bond movies is seeing all the exotic locales the secret agent is traveling to, keeping the majority of the film set in Japan allows it to have a unique flavor (Bond would say it’s like Peking Duck). The entire movie is steeped in culture, from the food to the drinks, the bathhouses and the samurai/ninja mentality and training, the nature and the customs, and even the sports. However ill-advised Bond’s method for going undercover is, the rest of the movie does exude a true love for Japan.

THE CARS: As I stated above, Bond doesn’t actually drive any cars this go-around, let alone his now-signature Aston Martin. As to be expected in a film set primarily in Japan, there are a lot of Japanese makes and models featured here: Toyotas, Subarus, Nissans, etc. You can find a full list here.

But that doesn’t mean Bond doesn’t get some exciting machinery! Instead of the streets, he takes to the SKY for a thrilling helicopter chase that was reportedly difficult to film. Bond flies the Wallis WA-116 Agile Series 1 gyroplane, nicknamed Little Nellie. Q outfitted it with offensive and defensive capabilities, of course: machine guns, flamethrowers, aerial mines, rockets, and a pair of heat-seeking missiles!

THE GADGETS: Aside from Little Nellie, most of the gadgets are relatively mundane here. There’s a flip-up trap bed (not so different from normal folding beds), a purse with a microphone in it, a camera controlled by a typewriter, and an x-ray screen built into a desk. Tiger Tanaka has a chute trap that leads to a sofa in his office.

Bond gets a couple things to work with: a cigarette with rocket ammunition built to fire from the tip, and a transportable safe-cracking device.

Most of the rest is built into Blofeld’s volcano lair: hidden compartments and collapsible bridges, armored blinds and a retractable roof to hide from the forces of justice.

Also there are a ton of samurai and ninja weapons. I wouldn’t exactly call those gadgets.

THE MUSIC: This is the fourth Bond film to be scored by John Barry, and he did so while trying to incorporate Eastern music styles, finding them elegant. For the theme, he composed “You Only Live Twice” with lyricist Leslie Bricusse. It was offered to Frank Sinatra, who passed, and then his daughter, Nancy, making her the first non-British vocalist for the 007 series. She was reportedly so nervous it took her upwards of 25 takes to perform, with the final version being pieced together from the best takes.

THE SUPPORT: Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell both return as MI6 head M and his secretary Moneypenny, respectively. This would mark the last time Lois and Sean Connery shared a scene together, as their encounter in Diamonds Are Forever was filmed separately. Also, with no MI6 headquarters in this film, they make do with a portable office set up aboard an aircraft carrier, a hilarious and appreciated design.

Desmond Llewelyn returns as the incorrigible gadget master, Q, while Charles Gray plays British contact Dikko Henderson in a small but pleasant role.

Most important to the film is Tetsurō Tamba’s Tiger Tanaka. What Felix Leiter is to the USA, Tiger is to Japan. His jovial nature and reliability in a pinch make him invaluable to Bond’s mission in Japan, and Tiger is instantly memorable for both his sense of humor and his combat prowess.

FINAL THOUGHTS: You Only Live Twice is one of the more memorable ones for me: the sumo match, the ninja warriors, Little Nellie are all stand-outs. Some folks might not like the parts near the middle that run a bit slow, but as I’ve grown older, I find I focus more on what those longer sequences add to the film it’s in. As much as I enjoy the action in Bond films, they were never really supposed to be the kinds of movie that, say, the Mission Impossible series has turned into. These films are about style and espionage, charm and culture as much as anything else.

That said, there were were action sequences that really stood out to me here. The first, obviously, is the final battle in the volcano base. Ninjas rappelling from the ceiling, police officers and terrorists shooting it out, grenades blowing up left and right, shuriken flying, Bond nearly dying repeatedly, and even getting trounced, and the explosive finale. It’s astonishing in its scale.

The other scene that comes to mind is a foot chase across a long rooftop, where Bond is being pursued by several gangsters. As he flees from superior numbers and pauses to hand out a beating or two and then flees again and then fends off the enemy the camera pans out further and further. I thought it was a really cinematic moment, and I was transfixed.

Anyway, this movie is important to the Bond mythos because of SPECTRE’s overt presence and because it’s the first time we see Blofeld really, and the first time he takes a direct hand in the conflict at hand. The slower parts in Japan mixed with the insane final battle in a massive lair almost make it seem like two different types of films jammed together, but it works more than it doesn’t.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

24 Weeks of Bond: Goldfinger

Art by Dick Bobnick

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: Goldfinger! I love this movie. Terence Young, who directed the first two 007 movies, moved on to something else, so he was replaced by Guy Hamilton, who actually knew Bond’s creator Ian Fleming from intelligence work in the war.

Goldfinger, released in 1964, sees Bond put on an investigation of gold magnate and suspected smuggler Auric Goldfinger. Bond, unable to help himself, immediately gets more heavily involved and discovers that there is much more to Goldfinger than expected. Namely, that he seeks to infiltrate Fort Knox and destabilize the world’s economy.

This film is considered the first blockbuster Bond film, was adapted to target American audiences specifically, and also introduced a lot of Bond staples, including elaborate gadgets and the Aston Martin as his “official” car of choice.

It would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Effects/Sound Effects.

THE BOND: Sean Connery returns as Bond. This particular venture sees him at his most flirtatious, it feels, and at his corniest, with some baddie-death-related one-liners. It should also be noted, though, that Bond gets thoroughly trounced almost entirely throughout this film, showcasing a vulnerability that was lost at times in the preceding films.

THE GIRLS: Shirley Eaton doesn’t get a lot of screentime as Jill Masterson, and yet is one of the most iconic Bond roles in the entire legacy. Playing Goldfinger’s employee, she went from helping him cheat at cards to cheating herself…with Bond. That would be the factor leading to her untimely demise, but it’s HOW she dies–covered entirely in gold paint and left to suffocate that creates a simultaneously horrifying and fascinating visual impossible to forget.

Tania Mallett has an equally short role as Jill Masterson’s vengeance-seeking sister, Tilly Masterson. Though her luck with Goldfinger goes no better, she does have a memorable time not giving Bond any attention despite his best efforts.

Most famously, perhaps, is Honor Blackman’s performance as Pussy Galore, an expert pilot and the leader of an all-female flying squad called her Flying Circus. Blackman had previously starred as Cathy Gale on the British spy show, The Avengers, and was chosen for her charisma and her judo talents, both of which she utilizes to great effect in this film.

THE VILLAINS: Goldfinger features two of Bond’s most iconic bad guys. Auric Goldfinger, played by German actor Gert Fröbe, has become rich dealing in and smuggling precious stones and minerals. He is greedy, manipulative, destructive, and he will do anything to win, including cheating at every opportunity. He has one of the single greatest exchanges in the Bond series, when he has 007 strapped to a table, a cutting-edge laser slowly working its way toward bisecting him:

Bond: You expect me to talk?

Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

Goldfinger’s henchman is Oddjob, a monosyllabic Korean killer played by Olympic silver medalist weightlifter Harold Sakata. Oddjob’s weapon of choice is a bowler hat with a metal brim capable of breaking necks as he flings it like a circlet. Even without it, he’s a formidable foe and spends most of the film absolutely dominating Bond and beating him mercilessly. Sakata was burned badly while filming his death scene, committing to the moment even after the cameras stopped rolling.

Character actor Martin Benson plays Mister Solo, a mobster who disagrees with Goldfinger’s audacious plan; and Burt Kwouk (Cato, in the excellent Pink Panther films) plays the Chinese scientist who supplies Auric with the bomb he needs.

THE LOCATIONS: The film opens with a brief action sequence largely unrelated to the rest of the film and sees Bond disrupting a drug operation. It’s supposed to be set somewhere exotic (Serbia?), but was shot in England. Likewise the scenes set inside Fort Knox, as filming crews weren’t allowed inside the United States’ most famous depository.

The film also takes Bond to Miami, Florida (where he first encounters Auric Goldfinger), London to get properly outfitted for his assignment, the Alps and resorts of Switzerland, and ultimately to Kentucky and Fort Knox itself. While the Switzerland sequences seemed the most exotic this go-around, the sunny poolside in Florida and the impressiveness of Fort Knox gave the United States a glowing look.

THE CARS: You can find a comprehensive list of the cars in the film here, but the two most notable are Goldfinger’s beautiful (and gold) Rolls Royce Phantom III Sedance de Ville, and James Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin DB 5. Bond mentions that his beloved Bentley is nowhere to be found, and he is instead given a modified Aston Martin loaded with gadgets. The Aston Martin would go on to be heavily tied into promotional materials and would itself become a staple of the Bond franchise.

THE GADGETS: Goldfinger really turned up the gadget ratio, from the seemingly mundane (an underwater breathing apparatus designed to look like a seagull) to the Aston Martin. The car was fitted with revolving license plates, a GPS tracking device, bulletproof windows, an oil slick and a smoke screen to be released from the rear, machine guns that came from the front, tire slashers that extended from the wheels (Bond inexplicably and irresponsibly uses these to try and pick up a woman), and a passenger ejector seat!

Bond also utilizes a grappling gun, a tracking device that fits in the heel of his shoe, and a larger magnetic tracking device he stashes in Goldfinger’s car.

Oddjob has hit steel-rimmed hat weapon, while Goldfinger has his industrial lab, a private plane with spy holes looking into the different chambers, and even an atomic bomb.

Though Goldfinger doesn’t have a lair like, say, Doctor No, he does have a ranch house that he’s tricked out. In addition to dungeon-like prison cells in the basement, his rumpus room is designed to completely transform. The window panels fold down, a massive map drops from the ceiling, and the floor even slides apart to reveal a massive model of his Fort Knox target.

And while that’s impressive, he also proves that it’s deadly when he uses his controls to seal the room and release a deadly nerve gas.

THE MUSIC: John Barry returns to Bond once again to score this film, including the theme song, “Goldfinger”, with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. While the films have had a stylized credit sequence since the beginning, with Dr. No’s technicolor and feminine introduction, and though From Russia With Love had a bit of the theme song sprinkled in, Goldfinger really kicks off the tradition of having an elaborate credit sequence with the theme song performed over it (in this case, by Shirley Bassey). The soundtrack album would go on to top the Billboard 200, while the Goldfinger single would reach 8th in the Billboard Hot 1000.

I love that song.

THE SUPPORT: Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell return as M and Moneypenny respectively, of course, and serve well their usual roles of giving Bond his orders and flirting with him.

New in the role of CIA agent Felix Leiter is Cec Linder. Jack Lord, who played Leiter in Dr. No, had worried some executives for looking “too cool” and potentially taking attention away from Bond. Lindner, by comparison, is older and stuffier, looking more like a bureaucrat than a slick spy peer.

Desmond Llewelyn returns as the Quartermaster, but instead of being called Major Boothroyd, this films seems a transition into referring to him as Q for short. His inventiveness and surly nature is always a delight.

FINAL THOUGHTS: There is a lot to love about this film. The villain is single-minded and dismissive of Bond, and for large parts of the film, he should be. Bond’s arrogance and recklessness sees him overcome at almost every turn, even rendering him inactive for large parts of the middle and the end, a prisoner biding his time and hoping his peers will put clues enough to rescue him in the nick of time. In that sense, it’s unusual to see Bond do so little, even with the advantage of his new gadgets.

The Aston Martin’s many functions are exciting to see, as something like that was still relatively new to cinema, as was the industrial laser death weapon Goldfinger uses, which didn’t really exist at the time. The music is superb, and the many gold motifs throughout the film give a visual theme to match the title and villain.

Pussy Galore is a compelling anti-hero, a Catwoman-esque character, though I wish we had seen more of her Flying Circus. And Oddjob is perfect all around. All in all, one of my favorites.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

24 Weeks of Bond: From Russia With Love

Art by Dick Bobnick

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

The Movie: From Russia With Love, directed by Terence Young (who also did Dr. No), adapted by Richard Maibaum, Berkley Mather, and Johanna Harwood, and with cinematography by Ted Moore (A Man For All Seasons, 1981’s Clash of the Titans, several Bond movies), the film was released in 1963. While reviews were initially mixed, retrospectives have proven this to be critically enjoyed and one of the more beloved films of the franchise.

The story centers around James Bond being sent to secure the defection of SMERSH (Bond’s fictional Soviet counterintelligence group) agent Tatiana Romanova and to secure a cryptographic device.

Romanova believes she is a double-agent for the Soviet Union, but does not realize that her handler belongs to the terrorist organization SPECTRE. Likewise, Bond does not realize that SPECTRE is seeking revenge for the death of their agent in the previous film, the titular Dr. No.

The Bond: Sean Connery revises his role as 007 and brings with his second adventure a newer sense of confidence. This film sees Bond move with surety, mingling with locals in foreign countries, engaging in spontaneous gunfights, even transitioning from his manipulations of Romanova to outright anger when he feels she’s betrayed him. This is a secret agent comfortable in his own skin and in working in enemy territory. It is also reportedly the performance that finally won Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, over on Sean Connery.

The Girls: Eunice Grayson briefly reprises her role from Dr. No as Sylvia Trench, intended to be a recurring love interest but ultimately left by the wayside. Instead, Bond spends most of the film with double-agent Tatiana Romanova, played by stunning Italian actress Daniela Bianchi. Due to her thick accent, she was dubbed over by Barbara Jefford. Tatiana, ostensibly a Russian spy, is neither particularly dangerous nor exactly a damsel in distress. Instead, she plays more a genuine love interest for the better part of the film, also assisting in the procuring of the cryptographic device. At the age of only 21, she is also the youngest “leading” Bond girl.

The Villains: This film has a few bad guys, playing up the mention of Spectre from the first film by giving us a look behind the scenes. This is the first appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played physically here by Anthony Dawson (who played the late Professor Dent in Dr. No). You don’t see Blofeld’s face here, but you see his hands, stroking his white cat, a move that would spawn imitation after imitation from Inspector Gadget’s villainous Dr. Claw to Michael Meyers’ buffoonish Dr. Evil. We also hear Blofeld’s voice (Eric Pohlmann), one that lets us know he is in command and that he does not tolerate failure.

We also see two of his commanders. There is Chief Planner Kronsteen, a master chess player portrayed by actor Vladek Sheybal. Vladek did not originally want to be in a Bond film, fearing that a spy/action film might hurt his career, but Sean Connery, a friend, convinced him to take the role. More interesting about Vladek Sheybal is that he lived through the occupation of Warsaw and actively fought in the Polish resistance, twice escaping concentration camps, and only deciding after the war to pursue a career in acting.

Lotte Lenya was a Tony-award winning (The Threepenny Opera) and Academy-Award nominated (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) actress who here plays Rosa Klebb, SMERSH commander-turned-SPECTRE operative.

And finally, the hitman Donald “Red” Grant, a highly trained spy and killer spent to tail and eventually eradicate Bond in order to retrieve the Lektor cryptographic device while also eliminating the threat from England that Bond poses. He’s played by Academy-Award nominated (A Man For All Seasons) actor Robert Shaw, who you may know better as the shark hunter Quint in Jaws.

The Locations: While there are a few scenes shot in England involving MI6’s involvement and Bond’s vacation, and a couple scenes (notably part of the boat chase scene near the end) are shot in Scotland to get the scenes they wanted, the bulk of the film takes place in Turkey and was shot on location in and around Istanbul.

While not necessarily as vibrant as the Jamaican scenery of Dr. No, Turkey is exotic in it’s own right, and we get to experience the culture through gypsy parties, markets, old and crumbling architecture, and sweeping hills and background scenery as Bond and Tatiana try to escape to Bulgaria.

By filming in Turkey and having Spectre as the guiding force behind the conflict, it was also a way to capitalize on the tensions of the Cold War without making the Russians the outright villains.

There is also a brief, beautiful moment set in Venice, Italy toward the end of the film.

The Cars: While there are several cars used in the film (you can find an entire list here), including a 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, this film is notable for, to my recollection, being the only Bond film where he drives a Bentley (his preferred car in the novels; a 1935 Drophead Coupe here) instead of the Aston Martins he would become famous for. Additionally, while not a car, a massive chunk of the back end of the film is set aboard a gorgeous train.

The Gadgets: From Russia With Love still stays pretty grounded with the gadgets, although they did notably have a pager-like device to contact agents in the field before the pager was actually developed.

Bond is given an attaché case that remains one of my favorite multi-purpose tools in the 007 series. Through its many secret compartments and latches, it contains two tubes of spare ammunition, a collapsible Armalite AR-7 rifle, a hidden knife, an exploding tear gas cartridge, and 50 gold sovereigns attached to the interior straps.

Bond also uses a tape recorder disguised as a camera, and a small bug detector to find that his room has been compromised.

SPECTRE has a remarkable mask-making technology that they’ve used to create Bond-lookalike masks for the sake of Red Grant practicing the kill (this predates Mission Impossible by decades and yet they never use it again, I don’t believe). Red Grant makes his kills with his own gadget: a wristwatch with a garrote wire.

Rosa Klebb has her own gadget of sorts, a shoe with a poisoned blade hidden in the toe, an assassination weapon based in reality.

And, of course, the Lektor decoding machine is the McGuffin that the whole plot centers around, as Russia, England, and Spectre all try to gain and keep possession of it.

The Music: This is actually the first Bond film to feature a theme song beside the James Bond theme. “From Russia With Love” was composed by “Oliver!” composer Lionel Bart and sung by Matt Monro during the film and over the end credits. John Barry took the reigns for the rest of the film’s soundtrack composition with music pieces matching many of the major moments throughout the film.

The Support: Bernard Lee returns as M., Bond’s superior. He’ll be a common name in this section. Likewise Lois Maxwell as M’s secretary and Bond’s target of doomed affection, Moneypenny. Desmond Llewelyn, meanwhile, makes his first appearance as Boothroyd/Q., replacing Peter Bothroyd as Bond’s quartermaster. Llewelyn would return to the role over the course of sever Bond actor transitions.

Bond’ major ally in From Russia With Love is the Turkish-born head of MI6’s Turkish intelligence branch Kerim Bey. He is a charismatic man with 15 children and a gypsy lifestyle and is brought to life here by the late Pedro Armendáriz. In a sad twist, Armendáriz took this role while he was terminally ill with cancer so that his family would be left financially secure. When his illness grew too severe, he shot and killed himself in the hospital. He was one of the most well-known Latin American stars in the 40s and 50s and, years later, his son Pedro Jr. would star in a Bond film of his own.

Final Thoughts: While I remembered the opening murder scene, Rosa Klebb, and much of the train sequence,I found that I had forgotten much of what made this film great. Connery really feels like he fits in the Bond role here where it felt a little stuffy in Dr. No. Bianci and Armendáriz are pure charisma as Romanova and Bey respectively, and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant cuts an intimidating figure, opening with an act of shocking violence before hovering around like a looming threat of death.

The film takes its time, enjoying its setting and earning its relationships, while brief moments of frantic action punch through periodically: a gunfight here, an explosion there, a sudden murder. And while the film ends with not just one, but two exciting action sequences (a helicopter chase AND a boat chase), it’s the extended, brutal close quarters fight on the train that really sticks in your mind. This movie has some romanticism flavored of its time, and plenty of thrills. This was a pleasant surprise to come back to, and I can see why so many people place it among their favorites.

Other Bond Breakdowns:

Dr. No

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

24 Weeks of Bond: Dr. No

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

With that said, let’s get into it!

The Movie: Dr. No. Released in 1962, this movie sees Agent 007 James Bond traveling to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent. Upon arrival, he finds that he is not the only government agent with a keen interest in the goings-on in the area, and before long he becomes tangled up with the mysterious Dr. No and his privately-owned island, Crab Key. The film was directed by Terence Young, and was made for just over a million dollars.

The Bond: Sean Connery, who is notoriously very Scottish, leading to Ian Fleming’s initial disapproval of the casting. Connery donned a dark hairpiece and affected a passable English accent for the role. In Dr. No, he is both charming and effectively dangerous. “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.” There are a lot of nice little touches throughout the film that show Bond’s spy expertise: a hair across the closet doors to see if they’ve been opened, choosing an unopened bottle of liquor upon returning to his room instead of the opened bottle in case it was poisoned, his investigative work at the home of the missing Strangways.

The Girls: “Bond girls” are as much a staple of the franchise as anything else, ranging from love interests to femme fatales to damsels in distress. There are three women of note in Dr. No that could be suitably considered Bond girls. Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench is the first woman we meet, and its through her love of gambling that we also first meet James Bond, as he cleans her out playing baccarat against her. Zena Marshall plays Miss Taro, an eavesdropping secretary with ulterior motives that Bond seduces all the same. But, of course, the star woman of the film and the first recognized “Bond Girl” is Swiss actress Ursula Andress as the shell-collecting blonde bombshell Honey Ryder. At the time of her casting, she spoke almost no English, and so all of her lines (spoken and sung) were dubbed over by Nikki Van der Zyl.

It’s worth noting as well that all three women survived the film, although Strangways’ briefly seen secretary did not.

The Villain: Dr. Julius No, who is Chinese, as played by Joseph Wiseman, who is not Chinese. But! Wiseman does lend a fantastic amount of gravity to No. No is megalomaniacal but is muted about it, reveling in his actual scientific genius and what he perceives to be his superior sophistication. He also has metal hands. This not only makes him immediately memorable, but his ability to crush items (and people) with his prosthetic strength grants him some physical deadliness in addition to his brilliant mind.

The film also includes the “Three Blind Mice”, a trio of Jamaican killers, a corrupt scientist, and the criminal organization SPECTRE gets namedropped, a hint of grander villainy to come.

The Locations: Aside from a brief appearance in England (a casino, MI6 headquarters), the film takes place almost entirely in Jamaica. We see resorts and beaches, jungles and marshes. This was actually the first feature film to be filmed on location in Jamaica, and it was still a British territory at the time, right up until just about when the film released in theaters.

Dr. No’s mountain lair on Crab Key is also a notable location as it’s absolutely ridiculous. Part mine, part nuclear rocket station, and subaquatic, it is utilitarian in look and function with the exception of No’s own apartments and dining arrangements, which look downright luxurious by comparison. It truly set a standard for supervillain bases.

The Cars: There were several different cars in the film, including a Chevrolet Bel Air, an El Camino, an Impala, a Cadillac Eldorado, a Cadillac Fleetwood 60 Special, and plenty more, including a custom-made marsh buggy contraption rigged to look like an armored dragon.

Most notable is Bond’s car. Instead of the Bentley’s book-Bond is fond of and the Aston Martin’s movie-Bond would become known for, Connery’s Bond drives a 1961 Alpine Sunbeam Series II in Dr. No.

The Gadgets: Dr No has his mechanical hands, of course, replacements for the ones he lost working with nuclear power, but Bond is relatively light with gadgets of his own for his first outing. He really only gets a Walther PPK to replace his favored Beretta. There are also Geiger counters, hidden communication devices, and cyanide cigarettes in the film, as well as the multi-tide of high-tech features in No’s lair.

The Music: Dr No is relatively light on music, although we get to hear the first occurrence of the iconic James Bond theme, written by Monty Norman and arranged by John Barry. Also heard are a Calypso version of “Three Blind Mice”, “Jump Up” by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and “Under the Mango Tree”, which is the first and only song to be sung by James Bond in the films.

The Support: And finally, we come to the remaining players in the film. Bernard Lee plays M, Bond’s no-nonsense handler who gives Bond his assignment and makes sure he leaves with a more reliable weapon “The CIA swears by”. Lois Maxwell plays the ever reliable Miss Moneypenny, and her chemistry with Connelly’s Bond is delightful. Peter Burton makes a one-and-done appearance as Major Boothroyd (effectively Q’s role). Jack Lord plays Felix Leiter, Bond’s CIA equivalent who will eventually become a close friend and ally. And John Kitzmiller plays Quarrel, an islander who works with both the CIA and Bond to uncover the dark secrets of Crab Key.

Final Thoughts: I had remembered Dr. No feeling overlong (it’s actually among the shortest three), and wasn’t looking forward to kicking off this project with what I expected to be a dull affair. I was pleased to find that it’s a much more charming film than I remembered. I did find that I wished Joseph Wiseman had more screen time as Dr. No, but all in all it was a strong first outing, and Connery really carried the charisma and danger of Bond. Jamaica is beautiful, No’s lair is stunning in its scale, and Bond managed to switch from stealthy spy to man of action effectively. All in all, a good movie, and I’m excited to be doing this.

Other Bond Breakdowns:

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

My Birthday, Your Story

It’s my 30th birthday today. I had a dream about a story, so I woke up and wrote it. Hope you enjoy:

On a low hill in a quaint hamlet in the center of a very small island, there sat a tree. It wasn’t a very remarkable tree, though it was tall (three man-heights) and broad (three man-widths) and its two branches, like arms, stretched out and away and upwards toward the sky. The wood was gnarled and grey, for it was old (though no one knew how old) and wise (for wisdom grows in the roots of the land, and this tree’s roots were very long and very deep).

Leaves would go on this tree, always green and always rich. When autumn came to the island and to the hamlet in the center of it, the leaves did not wilt, nor did their color fade into the yellows and oranges of the season’s sunsets. They stayed green, like raw emeralds, and they kept their wide, hearty shape. When winter came, they would simply disappear, a few at a time, until the coldest days arrived and frost coated the dirt roads and the fields, and those twisted arms of the tree and its long, grey neck stood bare. No leaves littered the ground; they simply ceased to be, until spring brought buds and those buds brought leaves, rich and green and full of life.

This tree did not have a name, but though other trees (smaller, with more color, whose leaves did what leaves are supposed to do throughout the year) existed down near the water and in the yards fenced off and tucked away in yards behind quaint little homes, when someone wanted to go “out by the tree”, everyone knew it was the tree on the hill.

Picnics were had underneath the tree, and first kisses, and hounds would be taken up to play (though even the hounds knew better than to spoil that majestic trunk). Weddings were officiated there, and vows exchanged, and new lives began. It was a good tree, and a reliable one, and a wise tree, down to its deep, deep roots.

And every so often, every five years or so, that tree, in the center of its trunk and in the dead of night, would let off a peculiar light-blue glow.

Because this was a deliberate action on the tree’s part, there was no pattern to the glow’s arrival save for the whim of the tree. Though it was a fierce and beautiful shining light, it would sometimes go unnoticed. Though it always happened at night, the tree cared not for where the moon sat in the inky black sky. It would be discussed and questioned, but no one approached. To the hamlet it was a mystery, and mysteries were terrifying.

Now, this is a story about the tree, but it is also a story about a boy who grew. And before he grew, many years ago, he was just a boy who was, acting as boys do: impulsively and confidently and with little fear at all, through the mornings and deep into the afternoons, all up until late one night when he saw a thing that he maybe wasn’t quite ready to see.

Oh, he had heard about the light in the tree. From his parents and their friends, in hushed tones over an evenly-cooked dinner. From the older boys who were certain of what they would do should they see the blue glow in the dark. From the wizened old men and women who spoke in short sentences as they looked upon the hill with wistful eyes.

But one night, long after his mother had tucked him in under the scratchy warmth of his woolen blanket, that boy crawled over the ledge of his window and into the rocky little roads of his hamlet. He ducked and dodged through the shadows, sure that no one was awake and outside but cautious enough not to take a chance, until he reached the edge of the homes, back near the base of the hill.

Once out there, his eyes searched for more. The edge of the island, perhaps, and the waves there that lapped against the shore. Or a stick, maybe, with which to draw symbols in the dirt to confound the others once they woke. Instead, his eyes found the tree, that wizened, winding watcher on the hill, and as he looked a light began to form, faint at first but swiftly growing into a brilliant blue.

Before that night, the boy had never considered what he might do should he be the one so lucky as to see the light in the tree. Truth be told, he did not even know then, and so it was fortunate, perhaps, that his feet acted on their own accord. Left foot in front of the right and then the other way around, over and over until he had climbed the hill and stood directly in front of the tree. That close he could see clearly where the glow was coming from: four lines that appeared to have been cut into the trunk. Four lines that formed a rectangle, twice as tall as the boy stood. The light pulsed with a life of its own, and then flickered as the boy reached out his hand.

It died completely as the tips of the boy’s fingers touched the rugged wood, and the four grooves had disappeared completely, as if they had never been there at all.

“No,” the boy whispered, and it was all he whispered, as the rest of the words had snuck out of him as easily as he had snuck from his own bed.

The boy walked back to his house, the ocean forgotten, the stick forgotten, the light in the tree the only thing in his mind. He climbed back over the ledge of his window, climbed back under his thick blanket, and though he was not tired, he quickly fell asleep.

He did not dream.

That boy grew. He grew into a young man who learned to fish and found he loved it. He fought, once, his only fight, over the a woman he did not truly love and came away with a purple eye and a split lip. He learned early that pride was not as important as knowledge, and he learned many things about himself.

He grew into a proper man who learned to repair homes. His hands grew calloused as he prepared houses for the storms that came late in the year. He managed his tempers and frustrations. During the days without work, be stared longingly at the waters, wanting one day to take his boat out beyond the horizon on a journey with no set end. During the nights, he would look up at the tree on the hill. It had refused him once, and it would not glow for him again.

One afternoon came along, and as he looked at the frothy waves and the fish that would sometimes jump from them through the air, he found himself joined by a woman with hair kissed by the sun. She was a farmer’s daughter with strong shoulders and soft hands, and she would become his wife within a summer’s time. They married beneath the tree.

Though he loved his wife, though she stole the breath from him every time she walked through a doorway to greet him, he looked often at the trunk during their ceremony. At the space where lines had once creased it, and where once blue light had lit upon his face. His distraction did not go without notice, but his wife knew his love for her and knew he would tell her his secret when he felt comfortable.

He tried often, but felt foolish. He worried that she would not believe him, or that she would and think the fading of the light was an ill omen. He tried often, but said nothing of the tree. He spoke often of his love, and she was content.

He would grow into an old man with children of his own–two daughters and a son, all of whom were as impulsive and confident and with little fear as he had been. He nurtured them into adults and taught him what he knew of fishing and love and temperance. They asked him about the tree and he repeated the same stories he had heard as a child. A handful of people in the hamlet claimed to have seen it over the years, in the middle of the night. None had approached. It was a wive’s tale, and a husband’s tale, and a tale for children that few truly believed. His children had children, and he enjoyed afternoons bouncing them on his knee by the fire and carving for them small wooden toys with joints so that they moved and rocked and posed.

One winter the farmer’s daughter passed away. She was warm when she went, and sleeping, a half-finished scarf draped across her lap. Her knitting needles had fallen from her hand to the floor. One had rolled up against the side of her foot. The boy who grew found her as he prepared to bring her to bed. Though his heart fell, like the knitting needles, and though his hand shook, he simply bowed his head and ran his fingers through her hair.

The ground was difficult to shovel, but her funeral was nice. Warm in the cold winter day by the bodies of the hamlet, who had all turned out to pay their respects.

The winter was hard and dark. The children of the boy who grew checked on him but spent most of their time with their own young boys and girls. The days passed, and the weeks, and the spot in his bed that had belonged to the farmer’s wife grew no less empty.

The boy who grew would stand in his doorway in the middle of the night, skinny arms wrapped across his chest. He looked up at that gnarled tree, gray and wise on that hill, and he begged often with his eyes.

“Why?” his eyes would ask. “What did I do wrong? Why won’t you come back for me?”

And the tree was silent in its wisdom, and patient, and it waited. The days passed, and the weeks.

The boy who grew would weep sometimes at night, though he was filled with love. His children were strong. His wife was at peace. The bed was still empty and the oceans still called.

One night, when the skies were at their clearest and the stars were bright and smiling, he left his home and walked up the hill to the tree. He had had picnics there and married the love of his life. He had seen his children and his grandchildren play with the hounds. He stood before the tree and placed his palm against the rough bark of the trunk.

“I am tired,” said the boy who grew. “And I am cold. And for my mistakes–the ones I know and all those I don’t–I am sorry. But for all that, I have lived a good life to the best of my ability, and I am proud of those in it. Through it all, through every dark night and bright day and all of both that fall somewhere in the middle, you have been there. Thank you.”

And the tree was warm. And it knew it was time.

Lines began to form in the trunk: four, forming a square, with the hand of the boy who grew touching square in the center. It was not so big a square this time, as the boy had become taller and the tree had stayed the same, but the square was still large enough for him.

The light flickered to life, blue like orchids, blue like forget-me-nots. It washed over his face and his chest, warming him in the winter chill. The creases in the trunk, he realized, hand on the wood, formed a door. Should he knock? wondered the boy who grew. Or was the return of the light in the tree, now, in his twilight days, welcome enough?

He pushed and the door swung upon. The light grew brighter. As the boy who grew looked beyond, a single tear trailed down his cheek to catch on the turn of his smile.

“Thank you,” he whispered, and that’s all he whispered, for the rest of the words had walked away from him as confidently as he had walked up the hill.

He stepped inside.

The next morning, the hamlet wondered at length where the old man (once a boy, many years ago, who grew and grew and grew) had gone. When he never again turned up, they went on to grieve and to place a little marker down by where the farmer’s daughter lay. And up on the hill, that wise, gray, twisted tree sat with its roots deep down in the ground.

Stray Dog Rut

The beginning of the end kicked off in Belize City courtesy of a little cabana bar down by the ocean. The water there wasn’t the crystalline blue you might see in travel advertisements. It was brown and frothy, slapping at the thick plastic barriers that kept it from engulfing the sidewalk just beyond. Not much to look at, really, but I was lost and I was hot and the sign outside the little hut promising cheap beers just spoke to me.
The interior was nicer than I expected. Several low tables spread around a medium-sized room. A short bar off to the right with a handsome black man tending it. He smiled at me, shining teeth standing out. I smiled back. It wasn’t a bad start.
The windows — really just clear plastic stretched over and bolted into wooden frames — were all open, rippling softly in the afternoon breeze. Records hung up on the wall next to the bar, paired with portraits of the reggae artists who recorded them. That same music, easy and relaxing and very Caribbean, played through speakers I couldn’t spot.
At the bar I ordered a bottle of the local beer. There were signs every ten feet throughout the city advertising it, so I figured what the hell? When in Rome. I asked for a shot of one of the local rums as well, and the tender slid a plastic cup full of light gold liquor next to the beer. A small bowl with two salt and two slices of lime followed.
“What, am I supposed to drink this like tequila?” I asked.
“You drink it however you like, my man. It is your drink.” He leaned across the bar and extended his hand. “Rámon.”
I took his hand in my own and shook it. His palm was coarse, callused. He did more work than pour drinks. I liked it.
“Jack,” I said, which was close enough to the truth. “This your place, Rámon?”
“My father’s place. He and I take turns here and on the boat for fishing tours. Do you fish?”
“I do not.”
I held up a finger to pause the conversation and took the shot. It went down smoothly but tasted a little too sweet for me. I left the salt alone but bit into one of the lime slices.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think I’ll stick to the beer.”
Rámon laughed and grinned at me again. I couldn’t tell if it was because he thought I was genuinely funny or he liked me or he was just doing his job. I was a pretty decent. Picking up hints coming the other way? Whole different story. Two more hours and twice as many beers only made the issue fuzzier.
And then the storm hit.
Now, tropical storms aren’t unusual in Belize, and especially not at that time of the year. Blue skies turn to dark gray clouds at a second’s notice. Rain starts pummeling down. Perfectly normal, lasting anywhere from ten minutes to several hours. This storm, while not particularly ruinous, was one of the latter. I helped Rámon close and strap shut the windows; the plastic wraps fluttered violently in the wind but held tight.
“These going to be good?” I asked when we were finished.
“They will hold. Thank you for helping. Next round is on me.”
“Suits me, because I’m not planning on walking out in that shit.”
My idea wasn’t original. Even as I posted back up at the bar, a group of people rushed in looking to escape the rain. There were six of them: four women, two men, all tourists like me. They were too bright-eyed for a place like Belize City. Hadn’t had enough strangers yell at them yet.
It was impossible not to eavesdrop on them when they shuffled up next to me at the bar; if proximity hadn’t been an issue, the decibels would have sufficed. They were American — again like me — and young, though I suspected most of them were able to drink legally back home. They were a diverse group, vacationing down from some college I had never heard of. I raised my beer in a toast.
“Wait ’til we get ours!” one of the young men shouted excitedly. He had a pronounced nose and slicked-back hair. A real partier by the sound of him.
Rámon loaded up a mixture of cocktails and beers for the group. They each took turns tapping my bottle and then filed off to a table in the back corner. One of the girls — blonde curls and full lips — walked backward, her eyes on me.
“Why don’t you come join us?”
“I don’t want to be that creepy older guy crashing the party.”
“You can’t crash the party if you’re invited. You’re American, right?”
“More or less.”
“Well, it’s pouring rain outside and you look lonely, so why don’t you come over and tell us where you’re from?”
“Sure,” I said. “Maybe in a few.”
My beer was empty. What number was this one? One less than was necessary at the very least. I ordered two more.
“Looks like you’ve made new friends, Jack,” Rámon said. He placed the two beers down, one in front of the other.
“I don’t know about all that.”
“Maybe you should take another look.”
I turned around and gave the group another glance. The blonde was staring right back. She crooked a finger. She gave a wink. Rámon might have seemed a mystery, but even a clueless idiot like me could pick up what she was throwing down. I grabbed my beers and headed over.

*****

“Do you want to see a magic trick?”
The words came out of my mouth mumbled, more for myself than the groggy girl nestled in the crook of my arm. The words were habit. A welcoming call to strangers on the street approximately 120 seconds before I hustled them out of some cash.
The room around us moaned in response. I had stayed in worse places, but not many. The chipped turquoise walls sucked the light out of the single exposed bulb on the ceiling. The ceiling itself angled inexplicably downward, creating a hazard for even the average-heighted person. But the girl (Jennifer? Jessica? No, Jennifer.) hadn’t seemed to mind, so neither did I.
“What did you say?” she murmured into my chest.
“Magic trick. You want to see one?”
“Mm. Mmkay.”
She placed her palm equidistant between my nipples and used it to help herself up into a sitting position. I reached down to the floor — there was no room for any kind of nightstand — and snatched up my pack of cigarettes. I tapped one out for myself, then offered her one.
“I thought this was a No Smoking room.”
“It is.”
“Won’t you get fined or something?”
“I don’t care.”
And that was true: I didn’t. It wouldn’t take much for me to get rid of any lingering smoke or smell, but considering how much I had paid for this shithole, I thought just as much about setting the whole bed on fire.
Jennifer took a cig and placed it between her lips. I scooted my ass a bit so I could face her better and then touched the tips of my middle finger and thumb together in front of her cigarette. She looked at my hand, bemused, going a bit cross-eyed in the process. I checked a chuckle.
“You ready?”
She nodded.
“Alright. Presto fucking amazo!”
I snapped and a light purple flame danced at the tip of my thumb. I was disappointed. Outside, in the dark of night, it would have looked beautiful. With the shitty paint job of my hotel room as a backdrop, it came off washed out and muted instead. She gasped all the same, and I used it to light her smoke and my own.
“Blow it out,” I said. When she tried, I willed the flame away. She sat back, any trace of the lethargy she had shown vanished just the same.
“How’d you do that?”
“Trade secret.”
“Butane?”
“Sure.”
“It’s just like the movies!”
*That* made me laugh. “Yeah. Just like it.”
The next couple hours went like that: her asking what kind of things I could do and how. Me politely deflecting. She talked. I listened.
No, I didn’t. Who was I kidding? I was too busy asking myself why I showed her the flame trick in the first place. Was it just out of sheer boredom? Or, even worse, *nostalgia*? It was a blessed relief when she finally lay her head back down, this time on a pillow.
“Goodnight, Jennifer,” I said.
Several long beats of silence passed. She slowly rolled over so her back was facing me.
“Jessica.”
Dammit.
I kept still until I was sure she had fallen asleep, wary that jostling her might provoke a stronger rebuke. My mind wandered, away from the room, away from the country entirely. I found myself missing home. New Orleans. The Big Easy, though I never called it that. Found the nickname insulting, if we’re being honest, to everybody who had to scrape through the days.
I had been one of them once upon a time, back during the best years of my life. Hustling catty-corner to trumpet players crooning for bead-bearing tourists. Keeping track of just how much more money I had to earn for a cheap bowl of gumbo and to kick up the line for permission to keep using the gift. I missed the hot weather, the beautiful women.
I glanced down at Jessica. Belize checked off those last two boxes at least.
But what had happened back home? How did things go so wrong? Now it seemed like everyone I knew was either trying to kill me or were ratting me out to the people trying to kill me. What the hell happened to friendship? Pinky swears used to mean something. Blood pacts used to mean a whole lot more.
“What’s the matter, tiger? Can’t sleep?”
“Uh.”
Jessica’s voice startled me. I hadn’t registered her waking up, and she had spoken in a lower octave with some gravel in it, like she was trying to tell a campfire ghost story. I turned to look at her and she slowly rolled my way until she was laying on her back, only her head turned my direction. Her pupils had dilated so far that I couldn’t make out any other color in her eyes, just two black pits in little white seas.
“What’s the matter, Jacob? You look concerned.”
That voice again. I could feel goosebumps rising.
“It’s Jack,” I said dumbly. “Wait, is this because I called–”
“Your name is Jacob. Or tiger, if we’re feeling frisky.”
And then suddenly something clicked in the back of my mind with all the subtlety of a grenade going off. The words came out of Jessica’s mouth, but it wasn’t her saying them.
“Milo?”
“Ding ding ding!”
Jessica (or her body, anyway) tried to smile. Her lips slowly spread apart, exposing her teeth. Her cheeks retracted. Instead of the inviting expression that hooked me at the cabana bar, I got a rictus grin.
“What the fuck?”
I didn’t mean to, but I could feel myself drawing out each of those words as if I were speaking in slow motion. It had nothing to do with the hinky hoodoo going on in my room; I was just shocked because I had only heard of the spell I was witnessing the results of, and it didn’t work out well the last time someone tried it.
I rolled out of bed and began scrambling for clothes. Pants? Necessary, check. Shirt? Got it. Socks? I’d buy more later. I did a quick pat over my body to make sure I had my wallet and passport, then reached for the door.
“Jake,” Milo croaked through Jessica. “Meet me at the big studio. You know the one. One hour. One hour, tiger.”
I damn near ripped the door from its hinges.
#
There isn’t a cool story behind my discovering magic. No candle-lit basement sacrifices. I didn’t wander into the back room of a Santerían shop and meet a skull-faced death goddess. No blood moon on my birthday; it was a waxing crescent, the week before Thanksgiving. How boring is that?

No, what happened is I was lucky enough to be born with the gift — more people are than you might think — and I stumbled ass-backwards into it about the time I hit puberty. Most with an innate ability to use magic go their whole lives without tapping into it, or they don’t even notice when they do. See, some spells require ingredients to prepare, while others need a clear verbal invocation. Some spells just need intent and the right gesture, but you still have to do it correctly.
My experience was… well, you know how some kids would pretend to telekinetically bring something closer or throw something away? It was basically that, but after getting my ass kicked for wearing a purple windbreaker. Eighth graders are savages.

I remember getting up from the field, mud dropping off the front of me in chunks, mixing with the blood I had spit all over the ground from two split lips. I made a gesture with my arm, awkward because my whole body hurt, where my fingers curled and my wrist turned at an odd angle. The gang of hooligans saw none of it as they walked away, thank God; their laughter would have finished what their fists and feet started. They also didn’t notice the filthy puddle next to them until it rose up and drenched them head to toe.

I ran as fast as I could in the other direction, saving my laughter until I was home.

By the time I got there, though, I had almost talked myself out of being responsible for the splash. The thought persisted anyway, keeping me up late into the night: what if I *had* caused it? The day had been calm. The puddle had been deep but still. I couldn’t come up with any other explanation, so I caved to my ego. I decided I needed to recreate what happened.

That weekend I went back out to the field. The mud had dried but the puddle remained, and I stood still next to it until I was certain no one else would be wandering by. Two straight hours of failure followed as I flailed, gesticulated, and windmilled to no effect. I clenched my jaw and squinted at the water. I tried to project my mind at it.

Nothing. I trotted home, dejected.

I would learn later that I was off base in more ways than one and just had no idea. I was missing intent, for one. For another, my gestures were completely wrong. But my biggest misconception? I thought I had affected the water and tried to do so again. It was actually the *air* around it.

I spent the next month nearly mindless. My schoolwork suffered. I suffered, too, at the hands of the same bullies. In times of boredom or loneliness I would fling my arm out again, always in a different arrangement, but my heart wasn’t in it. By the time the semester ended, I was thinking about what I would need to do to drop out of school without anyone getting on my case. My dad was dead and my ma might as well have been, so it was just the school and the state I had to worry about. Plots and schemes to get aroune them were going through my mind when I heard my name from the front of the class.

My science teacher, Mister Artur Cormier, held my test paper up. Even from the back of the room I could see the fat red F he had drawn in the middle of it. He was saying something about how unbelievably poor I had done, that it must have been deliberate, and then he began to read off some of the answers I had written.

I didn’t hear anything after that. Rage consumed me. My temples pounded. My arms shook. I flung one of them out and muscle memory I didn’t knew I had contorted my limb into the proper gesture. A gust of wind rose up in front of Mister Cormier’s desk, scattering the tests of my classmates and ripping mine from my teacher’s hands.

As the papers floated down to settle on the floor, the classroom was stone silent. Most of the kids had turned to stare at me. A few had turned to look at the windows, which were closed. Sorry, guys. It was me.

I reached down to grab the backpack slumped against the front leg of my desk. I didn’t say anything as I walked out and nobody said anything to me. That was the last time I stepped foot in a classroom.

Instead, I devoted the bulk of my newfound free time to scouring the library and the internet for anything and everything I could find on telekinesis, element manipulation, and — eventually — full-blown motherfucking magic. I read for hours at a time, sifting through nine parts bullshit to find that one part goldmine. I memorized rules and legends from the worlds of magic and visited every hoodoo, voodoo, and black crafts store in the city. I discovered new spells and practiced the ways to move my body so I could cast them. All of this I did alone, mostly in secret. It was a lot like masturbation, sure, but more fun and informative.

I learned, for example, that air magic was the most accessible for beginners because air is all around us. I branched out from there into related magics and then sub-branches of *those*. That’s how I discovered illusory crafts. My first love, the one that pulled me fully away from the tatters of my old life and moved me into my new one.

If you head into any city with a lot of foot traffic, you’re bound to find a hustler or two working a crowd. ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ is an expression for a reason. It isn’t always stupid people that fall for it, either: there are a healthy amount of bright, brilliant people that believe they simply *can’t be tricked*. Their wit and observation is greater than your petty sleight of hand. Your base deception. Sometimes they’re even right! But most times, people can’t outfox a hungry thief with thousands of hours of practice.

So I bought a half a dozen decks of cards with money I pilfered from my ma while she was on one of her benders. I got a bag of marbles and some red plastic cups. I practiced. I got good, *really* fucking good. Then I tossed some magic in the mix.

First it was basic illusion work. You’re looking for a Queen of Hearts, but suddenly it looks like a Ten of Clubs. You think you saw the marble roll under the left cup, but did it really ever move at all? From there, I graduated to full on displacement magic and moved the card or the marble wherever the hell I wanted it.

Sleight of hand stacks the deck against you. Magic yanks the carpet out from under your feet. I left school when I was 13 years old. I left home three weeks before my 15th birthday. I celebrated Christmas that year by tricking nearly three grand out of drunk tourists with no sense and no better place to be.

Weeks passed, then months, then years. The money was good but seemed to disappear just as quickly as I made it. Fancy meals, designer clothes. Nice hotel rooms when I didn’t feel like camping outside somewhere, tucked away just off the street, in an alley that smelled like spoiled milk. It sounds bad, but even that had its charms. There was a three-circle Venn diagram I found myself a part of: the street people, the street hustlers, and the street practitioners. All of them had a magic about them in some way, and they became the family I had lost when my father passed.

I narrowed my studies to refine my craft. I was no wizard or warlock, no sorcerer. I wasn’t a magician with a pretty assistant and a collapsing rod or a hat with a bunny in it. I was a young man with a gift and a vagabond life. I was a grifter guru and, “You want to see a magic trick?” was my mantra.

“You want to see a magic trick?” And people did. And they put their money on the belief they could outwit me. And I twitched the right fingers, turned the right palm, put the right feeling into it and came away richer for it. Things were good.

Then, for better and worse, Milo came along.

I was still learning what it meant to be a man with the gift in Louisiana. I had learned a lot but knew next to nothing. So, eighteen months or so before Uncle Twist and Inchpatter dragged me through a bone tunnel, read me the Cold Word, and drew my blood, all I saw was a handsome mark making his way toward my table and me.

Milo had three days’ worth of stubble — the perfect amount — when I first met him. His dirty-blond hair was cut short and messy near the back. A cowlick he could never quite tame. I noticed his gray eyes and enjoyed them, but it was the devil in his smile that I picked up on most.

I should have known then that it was trouble and called it a day right there. I used to have good instincts for that, back when I was getting my ass kicked into my throat three times a week. But I was 20 and I had magic and I had yet to discover my talent for fucking up a good thing.
#
I moved through the Belizean night like a phantom, sticking to shadows where I could and pushing a little magic out for cover when I couldn’t. What scattered lights there were cast a pale orange shroud over the street. I was careful to watch each step, though the ground wasn’t uneven.
In fact, the sidewalks were actually pretty well built, thick concrete squares settled into the sides of the road. It was just that every so often, one of those blocks would be missing completely, leaving a two foot drop into filthy water for the unwary. All matter of gross stuff could be found in those holes: plastic bottles and chip bags, holey socks and dead animals. I saw a condom floating in one; that was enough to convince me to pay attention.
My hotel shrank behind me as I moved and disappeared from sight completely after the first corner I turned. I felt kind of bad about leaving Jessica there, but I didn’t know what Milo would have done to her if I had stuck around. I didn’t even know he could pull off what he did! It was best just to leave and hope she would wake up before checkout to do the same.
The buildings around me leaned in conspiratorially. Unlike the sidewalks, these were crooked and wore their years like a bad suit. Doors had slivers missing from them. Windows were just holes: the glass, the frames, everything was just gone. Where there was paint, it was chipped. Hell, the buildings themselves were chipped and crumbling.
In the daytime, there would at least be a little life in the area, people sitting on steps, blaring music from their yards, walking to and from work or school. It might not always be fun in Belize City, but it was certainly busy. The quiet and empty streets now were, dare I say it, spooky. I felt like I was about to be mugged.
As if sensing my fear, a small figure darted out from behind a car on my right, and I nearly shat myself. I reeled backwards into some kind of shoddy fence, not wanting to fight but ready if I needed to. Which confused the sad-looking mutt standing in the middle of the road.
“Oh,” I said. “Hey. What’s up, dude?”
He cocked his head at me and then trotted back in the direction I had come from. A half dozen vehicles back, he tucked himself under the bed of a truck and lay down. Stray dogs were rampant in this city, drinking out of gutters and picking through garbage. I would feel worse about it if I hadn’t felt so much like a stray myself lately.
“He scare you, white boy?” asked a voice from behind me.
“Jesus fuck!”
I whirled around. The fence I had been propped against was a horrendous alternating mix of chain link and slats of corrugated metal. A man with skin like charcoal stood on the other side in an empty lot, looking at me through the links. His hair was draped over his shoulders in two long gray dreads. He gave me a gap-toothed grin.
“So now what is scarier? The dog? Or me?”
“You, old man. What the fuck?”
“Someone who smells the way you do should be careful of the language they use.”
“I just had sex, that what you smell? Why don’t you mind your own business?”
The man laughed at me. It sounded like a wheeze and held no mirth as far as I could tell. He pointed a gnarled finger at me. “You people, you are halfway to an animal.”
I didn’t know if he meant white people or Americans, but it didn’t matter. “That’s rude,” I said. “But true. I never had to flip off a child for aggressively panhandling before I came down here, though.”
“And you were a good child?”
“I wasn’t bad!” I thought about that for a second. “Grew up to be a bit of a bastard adult, I suppose.”
The old man wheezed again. “That must be why you smell, then. Not sex, boy, but, like bad magic.”
“That ain’t me,” I said, trying to ignore the chill in my blood. “I don’t *do* bad magic.”
“You just the type that dance near it.”
“Not if I can fuckin’ help it.”
“But you can’t help it, can you?”
I bit the inside of my cheek while I tried to come up with a good answer. None came to me. “Apparently not.”
“Get on, then. And after you do what you are set to do, maybe you leave the city.”
“Maybe.” I started to turn away, but one last thing was bugging me. “Hey, you scary old dick. What’s this trashy fence even for? Of all the eyesores in this city, this monstrosity circling nothing might be the worst. What was here before?”
“This place?” He grinned at me again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Was a house. Not for everybody, only a few. It was a place for the in-between.”
“What, like ghosts?”
“Meaner.”
“Meaner than ghosts. Alright.”
“Twenty years ago, just about, two men come. White, like you. Stink of bad magic. Like you. They tear the house down. Then they leave, but you people? You are not very smart. The building? Gone. The power remains. This fence, it is a warning, not an obstacle: stay out or you might catch the Bad Wind.”
It was like every thing he said found a new way to creep me out. “You know, I don’t really like it here.”
“What a coincidence. We don’t really like you here, either.”
“Yeah, fair enough.”
That was enough of that. I left the man and his lot behind, feeling no better but suddenly clear on one thing: I wasn’t skipping town. Not yet. When I had left the hotel, it was to try and keep Jessica out of the line of fire, but actually going to meet Milo had been up in the air. If I really whiffed of bad magic the way the old man said, though, I needed to address the issue. I had already let it go three years since Milo put me in the shit the first time.
Belize City was never going to be home to me, but I had got to know it pretty well. It was my routine any time I wound up in a new place to walk around as much as possible, no matter how many people offered a taxi ride by yelling at me. You get a better feel of the culture by walking, and the people, and you get a passing familiarity for the layout of the streets which could really help out in a pinch. That’s how I knew which turns to make and roads to follow to get to the studio Milo mentioned. Yeah, I did know which studio he meant.
After all, it was my favorite building in the city.
The studio had seen better days. Not a single one of the windows — glass set in twenty-four gridded slots per frame — had all of their squares intact. A railed staircase running along the side of the building up all three stories was littered with buckets and bags full of trash. A second staircase wrapped around the side and back with no railing for support and wood that looked like it could go at any moment. A third staircase rose directly into the building to the second floor through a hallway painted red. The rest of the building was mostly purple-black, meant to signify outer space, with huge chunks of dirty white wood clawing through like old bones. The painted stars dotting it had faded almost completely away.
I loved it all. The dance studio must have really been something in its heyday.
Now Milo was up in there, waiting. It had been three years since I had last seen him. My friend. My lover. The son of a bitch who used bad magic on a poor girl who just wanted to sleep with a degenerate.
My heart sailed its way up under my Adam’s apple and set anchor.
#
Regulations on magic are kind of a shit show, but they’re something you need to know if you have the gift and plan on using it. Groups band together. Organizations… organize things? Territories create clearly defined boundaries, some with rules and restrictions to moderate magic use, some without. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear Texas is without and that things get more than a little hairy out there among the cacti and casual racism.
Louisiana has the Cold Word, an 150 year old creed scrawled, for some reason, across a preserved sheepskin. I mean, Jesus. But the rules are solid, even smart, and breaking them within Louisiana territory was grounds for consequence up to and including execution. Being cut off from your gift was on the table, too. Some spells could do that, known only to a few, and many considered that to be a punishment worse than death. Once you have access to weird powers, forced normalcy is like getting chemically sterilized.
The only problem with regional restrictions, of course, is that people with the gift are *people*. Outside of the higher-ups in a territory’s regulatory council, nobody gives a shit about catching anyone up on all the Dos and Don’ts. They see someone who can do the same things they can and either want to hang out or have a piss fight.
That’s pretty much why I wasn’t introduced to the concepts of acceptable magic and *bad* magic until I was 22. Milo, a couple years older, was equally oblivious. We had been friends for a year and a half at that point–since he correctly called me out when I tried to game him with the cups and marble–and been a couple for nearly a year. Milo was the first man I ever slept with. He had treated me with patience and respect, and I loved him for it.
As we got to know each other more, the gift became a frequent topic of conversation between us. He wanted to know how my illusory magic worked in detail; I refused him. I demanded he help me branch out in elemental crafts, but the most notable thing he did was arm me with my little purple lighter trick (which, admittedly, I would get a lot of use out of). Typical couple spats.
It was on one of those many evenings we were together–in every sense of the word–that we were rudely interrupted by a sharp rapping at the door. We took our time dressing as a passive-aggressive Fuck You to the knocker, one I would never think to try again with the man at the door knowing what I know now.
Besides his signature wide-brimmed hat, it’s impossible to describe Uncle Twist. Or you’re not supposed to. Or you really can’t, I’m not quite sure. His illusory magic is on an unfathomable level, mostly because it’s literally designed to leave you staggered. I had met a good number of people with the gift on the streets of New Orleans, but none of them began to touch the power of the man at my threshold.
“Uh, hi,” I said. The clothes I put on made me feel no less naked.
“May I come in?”
“I mean, sure.” As if there were any other answer.
“My name is Twist, called Uncle Twist by some of the youngers. Are you two…”
“Together?” Milo asked. “Yes.”
“That makes this easier. No secrets, and I can cut to the chase: you both have the gift and have been using it for some time without any oversight.” He held up a hand before either of us could say anything. “Don’t worry. I didn’t come here to be an earth-shaker or bear any bad news. Y’all are fine. That said, it has come to my attention that nobody ever ran y’all through the ropes, told you what would fly and what wouldn’t. It’s best for all of us if we fixed that. Does that make sense to you?”
“I… yeah?” I managed.
“There’s an oversight committee?” Milo asked.
Uncle Twist shifted his weight to one leg and put his hands on his hips. “Son, you could start a fucking forest fire with your hands. You don’t think oversight might be a good thing?”
“When you put it that way…”
“Right. You boys from around here?”
“I am,” I said.
“Oregon,” said Milo.
“Alright,” said Twist. “Very good. If you’re planning on using your gift, at least in Louisiana, there are some guidelines you need to follow. So’s I can get an idea of where y’all stand on magic in general, why don’t you tell me exactly what you know already?”
I offered Twist a seat while Milo and I spoke, but he declined and leaned against the wall instead. Still on edge about the intrusion, we did our best to come clean about everything, backtracking and correcting each other when necessary so no detail was left out. We covered our individual discoveries of the gift, our first times using it, my con jobs and Milo’s accidental arson as a teenager. We rattled off the books we read and were reading, the areas we were dabbling in, the areas we wanted to pursue next. Twist just listened, nodding to himself until we were finished. He took his hat off and held it in front of his belt buckle.
“Well, it seems like you boys have a pretty good handle on things. We’re pretty lax on most activity here in Louisiana. There are a couple big things I just want to cover: don’t use flagrant displays of magic in front of people without the gift. Your card and cup tricks seem fine, but setting a car on fire, something like that, that’s not good. Don’t use your gift to kill anyone, accidentally or otherwise. You want to commit murder? Use a gun and don’t tell me about it. Most importantly, absolutely no use of bad magic is tolerated.”
“What the hell is bad magic?” Milo asked.
Twist blinked in surprise. “You ain’t never heard of bad magic? Alright. It’s any type of spell, enchantment, or other kind of general mumbo jumbo that directly affects the control of a person’s body. So no mental intrusions, no possessions. Stay the hell away from any kind of necromancy or post-mortum divination.”
“You can do those things?” Milo asked, eyes wide.
“They’re possible, but you *can’t* do then. That’s my point.”
“Understood,” I said.
“Yeah? Well, alrighty then. Just one last thing.” Twist fished around in his back pocket and came up with a card, which he handed to me. It was the darkest black I had ever seen and completely blank, save for an address printed in maroon. “Meet me there in a couple days, say around five. We’re just going to have you sign a few papers basically covering what we did here. We file every agreement to the Cold Word. Think of it like visiting the customs office when you land in a new country. Easy as pie. Oh, and there is sort of, hm, let’s call it a membership fee for using the gift in Louisiana. We’ll go over that when I see you next.
“Uh, okay,” I said. “Two days.”
“So are you, like, basically the guy who runs Louisiana’s magic department?” Milo asked.
“Oh, I got my bosses, too,” Twist said. He put his hat back on and headed for the door. “People just seem to prefer meeting ol’ Uncle Twist.”
#
I can tell you one thing: signing an accord with the Cold Word was not like going to a fucking customs office. Customs employees don’t meet you in the basement of a butcher shop, for one, nor do they bag your head until you’ve fully entered a secret second basement, then lead you down a tunnel packed with bones for support structures. There aren’t rules written on a piece of dead animal, and they sure as shit don’t cut your arm open and make you sign your name in blood.
That’s how we met Inchpatter for the first time. Uncle Twist described him as one of Louisiana’s enforcers. Break the rules, you might find Inchpatter ringing your bell. It was funny to think about because he didn’t look like much: wiry figure, terrible haircut, and not much more than five feet of length to him. His eyes, though, that’s where he sold you. They were flat, hard. Once, Twist called him “the funniest sumbitch” he knew. I never saw that side of him.
After all the skull and dagger, secret society ritual shit was over, Inchpatter helped us up from our knees. Twist bandaged our arms and handed us a pair of pamphlets.
“That’s basically an FAQ right there. It should clear up any lingering questions you might have.”
Milo slapped his into an empty palm. “Couldn’t you have just handed us this and had us sign the papers, instead of…” He gestured around the room. “The spectacle.”
“Welcome to magic for adults,” Inchpatter deadpanned.
“Christ.”
And that was pretty much the end of it. What had been a terrifying, nearly traumatic hour for Milo and me had been routine for our two companions. They sent us on our way with what basically amounted to well wishes and a pat on the ass.
We took turns showering when we got back to the apartment, then changed each other’s dressings. The cuts were shallow and would heal quickly, but we didn’t want to risk getting any blood on the bedsheets. Then, clean and proper and tucked in, my boyfriend and I went through one of the pamphlets together.
To be fair, it was a lot more than an FAQ. It was actually a pretty handy resource for two young gifted like us. There were lists of magic shops and relevant bookstores. A glossary for magic terms and techniques we had never heard of. Even a two-page spread that went into further detail on what was prohibited under the definition of bad magic.
I hadn’t noticed Milo’s expression when Uncle Twist said those words to us for the the first time. If I had been more observant or less self-absorbed, maybe things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. As it stood, warm in bed, I was oblivious to the fact that even though Milo and I were reading the same pages, we were seeing vastly different things.
#
I stood facing the door to the studio, annoyed. The steps leading to it had all groaned loudly as I walked up them, announcing my arrival as effectively as screaming from the street. I wasn’t sure how much of a point there would have been to sneaking up on Milo, but I had been hoping for at least some time to deal with my thoughts and feelings when I saw him.
Still, I had come this far.
The doorknob didn’t fight me when I twisted it, so I stepped inside and closed the door gently behind me. The first thing I noticed about the interior was that the air was *old* despite all the broken windows. It hung in the halls and doorways, full of dust, pressing down on my clothes. I waved a hand in front of my face before taking a breath and hoped there wasn’t asbestos or something similar in it. No magic in the world had figured out cancer yet.
I found a long hall that curved to the right and walked down it carefully, avoiding empty bottles and unidentifiable pieces of scrap metal. Posters advertising dance performances from years ago hung from the walls and littered the floor, faded and tattered. A room — some kind of office — sat on my left. The door was missing and the space was empty except for a desk that leaned heavily to one side.
Everything opened up once I rounded the corner, and I found myself in the massive hexagonal practice room you could make out from the ground. Papers and glass were strewn everywhere. Mats once meant for dancing and tumbling on were stacked in one corner, ripped, their color dulled. At the back of the room, peering out through a shattered window, stood Milo. He waited a few seconds of awkward silence before turning around, but when he saw me, he smiled.
His hair was lighter than I remembered, but his skin was more tan. Signs of good time spent in the sun. He had lost weight and his toned frame spoke to a primal, sexual part of me. The eyes, though, I had a hard time recognizing, and the bags beneath them; they were a little too dark.
“Hey, tiger.”
That’s all it took. Two goddamn words and I found myself traveling through time.
Our first kiss, on the boardwalk after a movie. We had been flirting for some time, but I never would have made the first move. It was dark, and I was looking over his shoulder, admiring the moon on the water. He leaned in and I froze until our lips touched, and then my legs nearly abandoned me completely.
Watching him sleep. The way his mop of dirty-blond hair fell over his eyes and the light snoring that accompanied his deep rest. The way he couldn’t fall asleep unless one foot stuck out from beneath the blankets.
That last vacation we took, just before everything went to shit. The concert in Portland and how everything was so vibrant, how we felt the music in the marrow of our bones, how the lights painted us with colors we didn’t have words for. Not because of magic, but because we bought some ecstasy off some kid that hadn’t showered for three days.
I went on that journey just on the inflection of Milo’s words. Like the concert, no magic was at play. Just the tricks of an aching heart and a whiff of the Good Ol’ Days. Like any good thing, it passed quickly enough.
“You’re a fucking asshole,” I said.
“Really, Jacob? Three years and the first thing you say, you call me an asshole?”
“I’d have told you sooner, but I was busy hoping I would never see you again.”
“That’s a bit harsh.”
My jaw dropped. “You framed me for *bad magic*! You put a girl in a goddamn coma the last time you tried the trick you pulled tonight. I can’t go home, Milo!”
“You wouldn’t have had to leave at all if you had just trusted me.” He stepped away from the window and held his arms out. I went nowhere near them. “Things were bad for you, sure, but they would have blown over. I was working on a solution. You leaving… complicated things. Considerably. Inchpatter is dead.”
I felt my throat go dry. “How?”
“Several gunshot wounds. A random act of violence as far as anyone’s concerned.”
“Right. And now you’re here to, what, bring me home? Clear my name?”
Milo look confused. “No, I’m here to kill you, Jake. I could have cleared your name years ago, but you didn’t trust me. Me! That torched my heart, tiger. Then you pissed in the ashes when you left me behind.”
“Fuck you! What you did–”
“Nobody has ever hurt me like that,” he interrupted. “But now, now if I bring you back, the council’s investigation ends. Their culprit is dead after being on the lam and any suspicion lingering on the guy that brought him in slowly fades away. Like magic.”
What I was hearing was so unfathomable it might as well have been a different language. I had loved this man, and here we were… here I was. On my own. Of all the things I had imagined for tonight, fearing for my life hadn’t even been on the list. But what else could I have expected once Milo reared his head? Some people find a limit when they break bad and retreat from it. Milo had always been too curious for that.
“Speaking of magic, you bring me back reeking of it to Twist and the gang, it’s not going to do you any favors.”
“Did you not hear what I said about Inchpatter?” Milo reached into his pocket and came out with a neat, shiny little revolver.
I’ve had my ass kicked more times than I can count. Had a few knives pulled on me, even got stabbed in the leg once. This was the first time I had ever had a gun pulled on me. A small voice in the back of my head was telling me that of course it was going to be someone I knew, someone I cared about. You spend your life cheating people, you’re going to wind up on the wrong end of a bad play.
The thing is, I had spent three years being persona non grata in the only home I had ever really known. I had been drinking my way through cheap bars and fucking my way through cheap hotels, but my head was always on a swivel. You don’t spend that kind of time being hunted by others and not learn a few things. Everyone thought I cast bad magic? Well, I didn’t, but I could still get a little dirty if I had to.
“If that’s how things are,” I said, “can you at least answer a question for me? It’s been eating me up.”
“Of course, Jake. As long as you know how this is still going to end.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve made that clear. I just want to know… you want to see a magic trick?”
I was almost too cheeky for my own good. I saw Milo’s eyes tighten, concerned, and I saw him raise the gun to fire. I had been working my spell while I was talking, though, and I came out just ahead.
My air magic had improved considerably since my middle school days. Though the effort took a lot out of me, notably in my shoulders and the square of my back, I was able to use the thick air in the studio to raise and hurtle the mats from the corner to the space before me. Milo’s gun roared. A sound somewhere between a rip and a thud came from the mats and I was quite relieved to not be dead.
My next move was even trickier as I cast two spells nearly simultaneously. I snapped my fingers and brought up the purple flame on my thumb. A swift gesture and a hard blow on the fire essentially turned it into a flamethrower, lighting the mats ablaze. Immediately after, I brought the tips of my fingers into my palms and thrust my arms out in front or me; a gust of wind pushed the thick, flaming mats and sent them flying in Milo’s direction. He fired again, again to no effect.
Those weren’t easy spells to cast. They required physical energy and a certain level of precision that had never been my forte. I had taught myself the basics but hadn’t had much opportunity to practice them. I was proud to have pulled them off.
That said, I am also kind of an idiot and had not considered the consequences of setting a fire in a condemned wooden building.
The studio *erupted* in flames. I darted back down the hall, around the corner so I wouldn’t be an open target if Milo was still set on shooting me. Smoke spread like ivy, tendrils twisting and wrapping through the room. Though my eyes stung and my tears made it difficult to see (whether I was crying from the smoke or Milo’s newest betrayal was a mystery to me), I peeked around the corner, looking for a glimpse of my former lover.
A glimpse, I got. Milo staggered toward the hall, his arm pressed over his eyes, the gun still in his hand. Then he disappeared as the floor collapsed beneath him.
I turned and ran for the door. Ripped it open. Bolted down the stairs, gulping for air, clean air that felt like barbed wire when it mixed with the smoke and dust in my lungs. I rounded the corner, angling for the ground level entrance, hoping I could still reach Milo. The door was already aflame. Fire belched out through the windows next to it. What little glass had remained in the studio was blowing out and raining down. There was no entry. There was no escape.
My mind was having trouble processing everything that had happened and was happening. The drinks from several hours ago were a distant memory. The sex, with the girl, in the hotel… that was all gone. My favorite building in the city was collapsing in on itself with my favorite person in the world inside. I tried to remind myself that he had framed me, hung me out to dry, and tracked me down just to kill me. I still felt terrible; love is a bitch.
I walked backward, eyes on the inferno, until I reached the sidewalk a safe distance away. It wasn’t long before a sizeable crowd joined me.
“You got a big way of dealing with bad magic, white boy.”
I turned to look over my shoulder. The old man from earlier was standing a few feet behind me, tugging at his dreads. He grinned at me. Some of the teeth that had been missing had miraculously returned. I was exhausted.
“You ain’t going to scare me like you did before, Grandpa.”
“You know the man you met in there?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“But you deal with him anyway. Maybe I misjudged you, boy.”
I turned away from Milo’s funeral pyre to face the old man. I just couldn’t get a handle on the guy. He was slippery, like Uncle Twist, but with airs of a magic I had never encountered before.
“Tell me something,” I said. “Does BelGuatamala territory have any rules against accidentally killing someone with magic?”
“No, boy. Nothing for that.”
“Then I don’t really give a shit what you think of me.”
The old man wheezed his laugh at me. I turned and started walking away, what energy I had left spent pulling the shadows of Belizean night closer to my body. Sirens sounded in the distance. Whatever the fire department managed to save, I knew a healthy chunk of me wouldn’t be included.
As I walked, a runt of a mutt fell in step beside me. Droopy ears, watery eyes, tail tucked down near its legs. I didn’t know what it wanted and I didn’t care. Right then, it was my only friend in the world.

Absolute Zeroes Chapter Three

Prologue
Previous
Chapter Three

Things (Metaphorically, Hopefully) Blow Up
   The Causeways. Rips in space that granted faster-than-light travel to galaxies that had – for millennia – gone undiscovered until the Unveiling. Nearly a thousand years previous, astronomers on Terra Prime and the surrounding colonies looked to the stars in bafflement as black holes around the universe either disappeared entirely or transformed into something… else. Something quite different. These new creations existed as shimmering portals of sorts that defied scientific laws and explanations.

   Panic had set in at first as the news was relayed to the general public. Alarmed, intensive studies followed when nothing else happened immediately. Scientists struggled to figure out what this new development meant in the cosmic sense. Was their galaxy doomed? Was death around the corner?

   And still nothing seemed to change.

   More experiments kicked off. Satellites were sent out to test the gravitational pull around the anomalies. They found no pull at all. More satellites were sent to test for elemental compositions. None of what they found registered on any comprehensible scale. Obviously the next step was to shoot things into it, so rockets with video and recording devices were sent into the tears. They passed through without trouble at first, but as streaks of light seemed to pass by at unfathomable, unceasing speeds, the cameras gradually broke down. The rockets were lost soon after.

   It took decades and billions of dollars to design a machine capable of withstanding the strange energies existing within the rifts. Further and further, the spacecrafts would push through. And then, one day, an unmanned shuttle dubbed Heritage 12 found itself in another galaxy.

   Another thriving, populated galaxy just as confused as Humankind’s own.

   Things moved quickly after that. The Dyr – a race of Humanoids (though they would resent this description) evolved from animals close to those on Terra Prime, and from a homeworld equally similar – were the first to make return contact, reverse-engineering the hardware that allowed travel through the breaches. War broke out soon after, then halted as more races began to arrive, and then war began again.

   For a hundred years, the universe was in conflict as members of several species, all alien to each other, struggled to gain dominance even as they failed to understand their evolving situation. It was unity through ignorance that finally slowed the bloodletting. Dialogue was opened. Resources were exchanged. Slowly, a Council was established.

   Once a relative peace and understanding was established, the richest in resources among them set out to make the Causeways safer to travel through. Massive floating arches were crafted and carefully placed on either side of every breach they could find, to help prevent hapless travelers across the cosmos from flying into one unprepared. Specific ships were fitted with the failsafe technology required to survive passing through. Each race devised their own name for it in an effort to take ownership: Humans called them gate guards; the Dyr called them latchkeys; the Murasai referred to them as sal harnak. The only holdouts were the Ilo Eronites, who were powerful but few in number and had little interest in petty power struggles or naming conventions.

   Soon the vastness of space found itself moderately congested by these black-turned-wormholes. Lines formed, waiting for the arches to flash a confirmation that it was okay to pass through. There had been no documented crashes in a Causeway yet. Nobody knew if it was possible, or what would happen should a collision occur. No one wanted to find out.

   Lines. Flashing green lights. Wait times.

   Behind the pilot’s controls of the Sol Searcher, with Archimedes snoring in the seat behind him, Grey Toliver flashed a rude gesture towards the massive freighter in front of him. “Least slagging favorite part of this slagging job,” he muttered.

   The lights on the arch flashed red, caring not at all about the plight of couriers.
*****
   “Now say ahhh…”

   The little girl on the table opened her mouth wide and followed the instructions loudly and to the letter. She giggled when the depressor hit her tongue, and then winced when it was taken away. Her hand shot up to her throat, rubbing it gently.

   Nimbus patted her young patient on the leg. “You did very well, Fiona. Thank you for being so brave. How does your throat feel? Does it still hurt to swallow?” The girl nodded. “Would you like a citrus drop?”

   Fiona brightened. “Yes! Yes, please!”

   Nimbus smiled and stood. Her bright blue latex gloves came off and tumbled through the air to the trash can. She thumbed a plastic-wrapped lozenge out of a jar on the edge of the sink and handed it to Fiona’s mother to unwrap.

   “It’s a little red back there. Her tonsils are a bit swollen, but I believe it look like a cold right now and not anything more serious. Keep her home from school for a couple more days, stick to cold medicines and cough drops for now. I’m going to prescribe some antibiotics just in case, but don’t pick them up unless she gets worse or she’s not better within a week.”

   “Thank you, Doctor Madasta. Truly. I cannot tell you how much happier we are with you than we were our last physician.”

   “I’m just happy you and Fiona have a place where you feel you can be comfortable. All I want is for her to get well quickly and for both of you to get back to having fun. Now, did you have any other questions or concerns for me before I set you two free?”

   Fiona’s mother shook her head. “I don’t think so, Doctor. If something comes up, I can call?”

   “Absolutely. Please do.” Nimbus smiled again and opened the door for the woman and her daughter. “Goodbye, Fiona!”

   “Guh-bah, Doggtor,” the girl managed around the cough drop.

   The doctor closed the door after them and then set about tidying up her exam room. The box of sterile gloves went back into a large white cabinet by the door. Rubbing alcohol, gauze, swabs, and a pack of tongue depressors went in with them. The thin paper pillowcases and sheets on the exam table went into the trash without a replacement; Fiona had been her last appointment for the day, so the table would be fine as-is until the next morning. Once she was finished, the lights were turned off and the door left unlocked for the cleaning crew.

   At first glance, Nimbus Madasta was the very essence of aristocracy. Even in doctor’s scrubs. Even without make-up or jewelry or any of the other glamorous trappings one would expect from the entitled. She just held that aura of refinement, that sense that she floated across the room, removed from the petty problems of the ‘common’ people.

   Until she smiled, anyway. Then it slid away, the gentleness running from the corners of her lips all the way up to her eyes igniting the same kind of warmth one would get by the hearth after coming in from a frosty night. Nimbus embodied compassion, as anyone who spent more than a minute with her would say. The very essence of humble gratitude, her station left at the door, never to be brought up or considered when dealing with the infirm. Her patients were her first concern. Her only concern.

   She was very popular at the hospital.

   Any good feelings she had there, however, did nothing to prepare her for the sight of Talys Wannigan leaning against the pillar just outside the hospital’s front doors. She was struck with the sudden uneasy assumption that he was there to see her. His face lit up at the sight of her, confirming her suspicion, though now she was at a loss for a reason why. Sure, she had met the man a few times, but it was always in passing at some sociopolitical event she had attended with Euphrates. Hardly any words had been shared between them, but she couldn’t forget the… slimy impression he had left behind.

   “Councilman,” she said cordially. “This is a surprise.”

   “I know, I know.” Talys pushed himself off the post wearing a smile that, much like his outfit, was much too large to look natural. “Truth be told, I wasn’t planning on coming here. Not specifically here, anyway. I go on walks when the stresses of the workplace become overwhelming, and my walk took me in this direction today. It wasn’t until the hospital sign came into view, though, that my mind got to working on a possible solution to my current woes. But my apologies: how have you been, Miss Madasta?”

   “Doctor Madasta, if you please,” she corrected. “I put in the years and racked up the debt. The least I could get in return is the honorific.”

   Talys gave a bow that didn’t necessarily look sarcastic but sure felt like it. “My apologies, Doctor.”

   “Think nothing of it. What brings you to my hospital, Councilman?”

   “Well, you see, I’ve been having some trouble reaching a colleague of mine. Euphrates. It’s become a bit, ah, I don’t want to say irksome. Inconvenient? Inconvenient. But then I recalled that my friend isn’t so much the lone wolf he pretends to be, and that the love of his life just so happened to work at the hospital I was passing by. Long story short, Doctor, I stopped by to see if you could help me get in touch with Euphrates.”

   Nimbus hooked a rebel strand of hair behind her ear and shifted her weight. “I’m afraid I don’t know where he is, Councilman. I wish I could be more helpful, but alas.”

   “He didn’t tell you where he was going? Perhaps I could meet him there.”

   “He did not.”

   “That doesn’t strike you as odd?”

   “Euphrates is not a pet that I would keep him on a leash. As you well know, he has a job that requires a tremendous amount of attention and energy. If he isn’t responding to your calls, it may very well be that he is simply out for a walk, overwhelmed by the stresses of the job.”

   Try as he might, Talys couldn’t quite keep from smirking at that. “You might be right. If that’s the case, maybe you could–”

   “Councilman, let me stop you right there. In the same way Euphrates would never deign to come into my exam room and diagnose one of my patients, I would and will never involve myself in his work. He is my lover. I am not his secretary.”

   A dry moment of silence stretched between them. The poli smiled slowly and gave a bow. This time, it was deeper and meant more as an acknowledgement of respect.

   “That has never been clearer to me than now. My apologies, Doctor Madasta. May the rest of your day be easy.”

   “And you, Councilman Wannigan.”

   Nimbus’ lips stretched tight in a smile born from practiced courtesy. She walked past the man with a grace that belied the tension in her body, keeping her eyes on her vehicle. Talys hadn’t threatened her, nor did she feel threatened, but there was something there all the same. Something off. A tickle at the back of her mind made her suddenly worry for Euphrates. Talys watching her as she drove away served only to make that feeling worse.
*****
   Archimedes’ mind was aching with focus as he tried to make sense of the battlefield in front of him. His opponent was a clever one. One wrong move would surely spell his quick destruction. Every decision needed to count. With the weight of that responsibility fully settled on his shoulders, he took one trembling hand and moved a black horseman three circles to the left.

   Caesar’s eyebrows lifted at the same time Archimedes’ fingers did. “That’s your move? Huh. Okay. If you want to change your mind, though, I’m willing to make a one-time exception to the rules.”

   “I know what you’re trying to do.”

   “Hey, if you’re sure, I don’t want to–”

   “You’re playing mind games. Mind games typically come into play when somebody’s feeling scared.”

   Caesar laughed. “Yeah, alright, Carnahan. What’s to be scared of? You’ve never beaten me. That’s not a mind game, it’s a fact.”

   And it was, despite hundreds of games spread over nearly two decades. Ever since Archimedes and Caesar had found an old dakarrat board at a yard sale in their neighborhood. It had come cheap as several pieces were missing. Grey helped them fashion replacements out of scrap metals but had little interest in the game itself. It became Archimedes’ and Caesar’s pastime, one they both grew savvy at, but though there had been a handful of occasions when he had come close, Ark really had never beaten his friend.

   “I feel good about this one.”

   “You say that at least once every game.”

   “And yet I notice you still haven’t made your move.”

   “I’m savoring the moment,” said Caesar, though his furrowed brow was telling a different story. He reached out and hovered his hand over a blue chaplain, but pulled back without making contact. The second time, he caught himself before his hand reached a piece but it still revealed his indecision. Maybe Archimedes had a shot after all.

   The intercom in Caesar’s room crackled to life. Grey’s voice piped through, moderately concerned. “Hey, I need you guys in the cockpit.”

   “We’re a little busy at the moment,” said Archimedes.

   “Busy your asses to the cockpit!”

   He shut the intercom off, leaving Archimedes and Caesar to stare at each other in silence. Caesar moved to put the dakarrat pieces away. Ark slapped his hand.

   “Don’t you dare. You’re not getting out of this that easy. If you still can’t figure out a move, though, maybe you can get some pointers from our esteemed pilot.”

   Caesar grumbled and pushed him out of his room.
   Grey glanced from the control board out into the space beyond the viewports of the Sol Searcher. The traffic that had congested the entry point to the Causeway had dissipated not long after the crafts all passed through the rift, with ships headed to different planets or moons. Some would continue on to another Causeway and another galaxy beyond. Others would go searching for new asteroids to mine or a spaceport to conduct business in. With so many different directions to go in, it served as a reminder that the universe was very, very vast. It wasn’t long before they found their ship alone again.

   Or maybe not. His eyes flicked back down to the blinking orange light to the left of his steering rig. He hadn’t noticed it going off until after the Searcher had passed through the Causeway and had no idea how long it had been active. That could be a problem.

   “What’s the big deal, Toliver? I had ol’ boy on the ropes.” Archimedes ducked into the cockpit. He peered through the viewport but turned to his friend when he saw nothing of interest. Caesar stood behind him, rolling his eyes.

   “The comm signal has been going off. For a while, I think.”

   “Who’s trying to hail us?” Caesar asked.

   “No idea.”

   “Have you tried directing the signal back? Hailing them instead?”

   “Yep. Nothing.” Grey scratched at his jaw. “The thing is, I don’t think they’re trying to communicate with us at all, whoever it is. They’re just using the signal to target us. It’s less alarming than say, a weapons targeting signal.”

   Archimedes looked thoughtful. “They’re locking on to the ship so they can follow us, then. Authorities?”

   “No,” Caesar said. “The authorities would hail us, stop us, and board us if they were really interested. But why would they be? We’re not breaking any laws. We took a job to deliver a package. We haven’t absconded with it or even opened it.”

   “Maybe they know something we don’t.”

   “That still doesn’t explain why they don’t just stop and board us.”

   “Caesar’s right,” said Grey. “Whoever it is, it isn’t the cops.”

   Archimedes frowned. He leaned in towards the passenger’s seat and craned his head, trying to get a glimpse of space behind the Searcher. It was a futile effort; the craft’s body extended out to either side to compensate for the narrow hallways and crew bedrooms that made up the interior. Normally the ship’s control board would have a video display running for the top-mounted camera, but the lens had broken months ago. It was yet another item on the not-inconsiderable list of pending ship repairs that were needed.

   “Do you have any thoughts on who it might be?” he asked.

   “Sure,” said Grey. “They could be rival couriers. Scavengers. One of your vengeful ex-girlfriends. But they’re probably something else.”

   “So what do we do?”

   “Well…” Grey pointed a finger at Caesar. “You keep shooting me down every time I suggest arming this bucket, so we aren’t going to be manning the guns. I guess we’re just going to have to haul our asses to Peloclade and hope our tail is content just to follow.”
*****
   As a child, Euphrates could never sleep while on the move, and certainly never while on a spacecraft. Growing up in poverty, the idea of stars just outside the metal walls he was pressed against excited him, and the unfamiliar jostling during take-offs and landings kept him skittish and more than a little nauseous. With car rides across the country, it was a little bit different; his impatience to reach his destination kept him energized and awake until his young body couldn’t take it anymore and finally succumbed to exhaustion.

   It took years for him to discover the usefulness of an in-transit nap. Not everything could be solved with a video call or a holo-meeting. His obligations both legal and otherwise had grown to encompass so many different things that he found himself traveling constantly. Catching a brief moment of shuteye gave respite to a mind that was constantly turning over, relentlessly searching for opportunities to exploit. By the time his foot hit pavement after a long drive or he descended an off-ramp, he was back to operating at full capacity.

   His return to Thorus after his meeting with Serrano was no different. The bounty hunter’s involvement effectively took the package off of his list of concerns until the time came that it was actually in his possession. He was able now to devote his full attention to the trade issues with the Ryxan.

   “Who is driving?” he asked the steward once the craft had landed. He pulled a cushioned ring from around his neck and tossed it onto the seat next to him. His briefcase was pulled from beneath his seat, the latches checked to make sure they were secure.

   “Rollo, sir.”

   “Good. Call ahead so he’s ready. Tell him I’ll be going to the CED.”

   The steward led the way to the door of the aircraft and pulled a lever next to the open portal. A thick box at the base of the entrance slid away from the craft and unfolded into a thin staircase leading down to the ground. Euphrates stepped out into a bright, cool day. A smattering of gray clouds in the distance hinted at the possibility of rain later in the afternoon.

   That would be fine. The planet could use some water, and he planned on being in an office for most of the day, anyway. The Center for Element Distribution was a notoriously droll place full of scientists who wanted little to do with politics, but Euphrates had demanded an emergency meeting. He needed to know what the absolute bare minimum amount of the Ryxan’s oil was necessary to prevent any serious problems for Human industry.

   All this for oil, he thought and scowled. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

   The left side of his chest vibrated. Left inside pocket. His personal comm unit, then. Rollo stood by the back seat of a long, dark blue car and held the door open. Euphrates waved at the driver with his left hand and retrieved the comm with his right.

   “This is Destidante.”

   “Hello, my love,” purred the voice from the other side. His body flushed with a sudden warmth. “Are you home?”

   “Just landed, actually. What’s going on? Did you manage to get in a break from work?”

   “I got off early today. Which was nice, honestly. I love my patients, but sometimes I just need an afternoon to myself.” Nimbus took a deep breath as if she were about to add something else, then held it. She let it out a moment later, off to the side, away from the comm. Euphrates heard it anyway.

   “What’s wrong?” he asked. He slid into the back seat of the car and waved Rollo to the front, opting to close the door himself.

   “Nothing. Well, I was just thinking… I was hoping to expand the gardens this summer. I was given some new strains to plant as a gift from some of the ladies in the office.”

   Safely far away from her view, he raised a hand in bemusement. “What– yes, of course. You don’t need to ask me for things like that. It’s your home as well, Nimbus.”

   “Even so, I wanted to talk to you about it first. I think communication in a relationship is important, even for things like this.” She paused again. Euphrates half-expected her to ask what color flowers he would prefer she plant next. Instead, she said, “Talys Wannigan stopped by today.”

   Euphrates felt the world freeze around him. He blinked a few times, sure he had heard her wrong. She added nothing to convince him. “He stopped by. Stopped by the house?”

   “The hospital.”

   “He came by your work?” He heard his voice crack with incredulity and cringed. “What did he say to you?”

   “He wanted to know where you were and why you were ignoring his calls.”

   “That’s it?”

   “Yes.” Concern edged into Nimbus’ voice. “Is everything alright, Euphrates? Is something going on?”

   “No, nothing is going on. What did you tell him?”

   “I told him I didn’t know where you were, because I didn’t, although even if I did I hope you trust that I wouldn’t just tell somebody that.”

   “Of course I know, love. Of course I do. Look, I’m going to let you go. I’ll see you tonight at the house.”

   “Is everything alright?” she asked again. Euphrates bit the inside of his cheek.

   “Everything is fine. I love you.”

   “I love you, too.”

   Euphrates switched off the call and slid the comm unit back into his pocket before he could throw it against the window. His hands clenched and unclenched around the leather curvature of his seat. He took deep breaths. He counted to ten. He continued on to twenty.

   Once he felt enough control had returned to him, he called up front to Rollo. “We’re going to have to reschedule with the CED. Take me to Parliament instead. Another meeting his suddenly taken priority.”
*****
   The three co-captains of the Sol Searcher stared fixedly at a blue screen in the center of the control console. The screen displayed a graphic representation of their ship with a grid overlay indicating the separate shield panels. It also functioned as a proximity alert and an indicator for any nearby energy signatures. It was how they kept the Searcher from crashing into anything while their external camera was damaged.

   It was also how they knew that the ship pursuing them had grown uncomfortably close.

   “They’re really gunning it,” murmured Grey. “They’re pushing their ship harder than I would trust this hunk of junk to do.”

   “It’s a hunk of junk that you picked,” Archimedes pointed out.

   “And one that I love.” Grey shot back, “but I’m not going to pretend it’s something that it isn’t.”

   Caesar cleared his throat. “Is anyone else wondering if they’re going to tell-” The comm finally crackled with activity. “Never mind.”

   “Couriers,” said the voice over the comm, sounding like rocks in a tumbler. “Couriers, come in. Come in. Are you receiving this message?”

   Caesar sat down in the co-pilot’s seat so he could access the switch that allowed him an outgoing response. “We hear you loud and clear. This is Captain Anada of the Sol Searcher. Who am I addressing?”

   “You’re addressing the Captain of the Grim Pagoda. Glad to let you know ahead of time that we’re planning on slagging you all into oblivion. You boys got any last words?”

   Grey smirked and leaned in toward Archimedes. “I think I know who this is.” Louder, into the intercom, he said, “Taghrin, isn’t it? How are the gonads I kicked up into your belly, they still sore? Or what do you call them? What’s the Bozav word for balls?”

   Beside him, Caesar held his hands out in the universal sign for What the hell?

   Taghrin’s voice came back in, rougher even than before. “The only downside to blasting you into pieces is that I can’t personally pluck your eyes out while you’re still alive to hear me eat them.”

   “Hey, moron. You realize you can’t blow us up, right? If you do, the package goes up with us and you’re out of a payday. So how about you just keep on following us to Peloclade and we can let the authorities help us hammer out Right of Possession?”

   “Or we could just knock a hole in your hull and grab the package after you freeze to death.”

   Archimedes nodded to himself. “That would probably work.”

   “Shut up, Ark,” Grey and Caesar both snapped. The static of the intercom disappeared, indicating the bandit’s ship had ended the transmission. The blinking light went dead with it.

   “They’re all talk,” Grey said after a moment. Caesar shook his head.

   “You do recall that one of them has a rap sheet for murder, yes?”

   “Bah,” said Grey. “Killing someone planetside is one thing. Wrecking a ship and murdering the crew is different. There are audio logs and travel records involved. It would take some serious balls, and we’ve already established that I kicked-”

   The rest of his sentence was drowned out by an obnoxiously loud buzzing sound. Archimedes slapped at a button to shut the alarm off. The control panel was awash in red emergency lights, a secondary alert that took the captains’ hearts and dropped them into the pits of their stomachs.

   Weapons had just been locked on the Searcher.
*****
   Rollo pulled the car into the private lot beneath the Parliament building. Several spaces were open – most of the politicians gone for the day – and he found a spot to park near the elevator. Euphrates was out and moving before the vehicle was fully stopped. A woman held the elevator door open for him until he was able to get inside.

   He glanced over to give his thanks and realized he knew her. Carol Sharma. She was some kind of custody lawyer. Euphrates had purposefully made her acquaintance on the slim possibility he might one day need to know the best way to leverage someone’s children against them. Euphrates nodded at her and pressed the button for Talys’ floor.

   “Councilman Destidante,” she said, beaming. “I’m surprised to see you here so late in the day. How are you?”

   “To be honest, Carol, I am positively seething with rage.”

   “Oh, I… okay.”

   The rest of the elevator ride was quiet.

   Euphrates reached his destination first and stepped out without a word. He strode through the rows of desks and straggling workers with a singular focus. At the back end of the floor was Talys Wannigan’s office. A young woman with bleached-blonde hair sat just outside the door. She was setting the phone down when she caught sight of him. Her eyes widened.

   “Councilman Wannigan is busy right now,” she said, standing. “If you want, I can-”

   “Quiet, intern,” he responded, breezing past her. His hand gripped the doorknob and it twisted freely in his grip. It occurred to him in a fleeting thought that it would have looked absurd had a locked door stopped his righteous indignation in its tracks.

   “I’m not an intern, Councilman. I’m a full-time–”

   He closed the door behind him and turned the deadbolt, muffling her response. Talys Wannigan was standing over his desk, examining a handful of reports. He looked up at the sound of Euphrates’ entrance. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it.

   “Why, Councilman Destidante, it’s good to see you. I’ve been looking for you all day. It’s lucky you caught me before I left.”

   “It wouldn’t have mattered,” Euphrates snarled. “I would have found you. I always know where you are.”

   “Is that so?”

   “It’s so.” Euphrates rounded the desk and approached the other man. Uncomfortably close. Dangerously close. “You are audacious, Talys, to invade my lover’s work.”

   “It was hardly an invasion. I reached out to you multiple times and you didn’t respond. I feared for your well-being. I happened to be passing the hospital and I thought she might be able to ease my concerns.”

   Euphrates resisted the urge to grab the man by the neck. “There are some unspoken rules in what you and I do. They are important ones. Especially as regards to dragging unaffiliated family and friends into conflict. Whatever your problem is with me, it should stay focused on me.”

   Any sign of geniality left Talys’ face. “It doesn’t work like that, Destidante. Not with a snake like you. It’s important that you understand I see you exactly for what you are.”

   “Stay. Away. From Nimbus.”

   Talys leaned in until their noses were nearly touching. “Or what?”

   There was a thin metal rectangle in Euphrates’ right pocket. His finger traced the outline of it through the fabric of his pants. A small button on the side, when pressed, would release a sharp little blade from one end. Carbiron. It would cut through flesh like paper.

   It would be quick, he thought. A swift blow to the solar plexus to knock the wind out of him. Hit the carotid, twist the knife. That’s all it would take.

   The right side of his chest vibrated, pulling him out of the fantasy. Other thoughts rushed to mind: the secretary, Carol Sharma, surveillance cameras. It would be difficult to guide the Human race from a prison cell. His lip curled in disgust.

   “And here I thought you were at least smart enough to know that when you see a snake, the last thing you should do is step within striking distance.”

   Euphrates backed away, out of stabbing range. It was time to leave. If Jeth Serrano was calling him already, it had to be something important, and he gained nothing by prolonging this pissing match with Wannigan.

   “No foreplay and only ten seconds of action?” Talys called after him. “It’s a wonder Doctor Madasta stays with you at all.”

   The barb meant nothing and Euphrates let it fall behind him as such as he headed toward the elevator. The secretary tried to admonish him for barging past, but he simply barged past again. Once the doors of the lift were closed, he pulled the comm from his pocket and snarled into it.
*****
   “What?”

   Euphrates sounded pissed. Jeth glanced across the cockpit to his partner, but Crajax was focused on the action through the viewport.

   “There’s been a development.”

   “What kind of development?”

   “Well, it wasn’t hard tracking down the couriers. We’re through the Causeway and partway to Peloclade, but it looks like, ah, it looks like somebody else has it out for these guys. There’s an unidentified ship currently lighting them up.”

   There was a sharp inhalation of breath on the other end of the line. “I already told you what I wanted. Make sure that package isn’t destroyed. Reach me when it’s finished.”

   The call cut off abruptly. Jeth tucked his comm unit away and gripped the steering rig of his ship, the Mathra D’abai. Crajax pried himself away from the one-sided dogfight to look at his partner.

   “What did he say?”

   “He said proceed like normal.”

   Crajax smirked. “Whoever is flying that courier rig is a hell of a pilot.”

   “I do not care. We’ve still got to bail him out.”
*****
   “Now!” cried Archimedes.

   Grey jerked the controls to the right and a set of blaster bolts streaked past the Searcher. Archimedes was watching the display intently, waiting for signs of energy output spiking behind them. Grey was using his prompts to make evasive maneuvers. They were still alive, but they hadn’t been able to dodge everything, and their shield panels were on their last legs.

   “What’s that?” asked Caesar, pointing at the bottom of the screen. A larger blip had popped up where there was nothing before.

   “I think that’s another ship,” said Archimedes.

   “Is that good or bad?”

   “How the hell am I supposed to know? Left, Grey! Now!”

   Grey shifted the steering rig but he wasn’t quite fast enough. A bolt connected with the back end of the Searcher and a shudder rolled through the ship. The navigation system blinked out, replaced by a blank black screen. The image returned a few seconds later, this time flickering intermittently.

   Once the bandits had started firing, Grey knew it wasn’t likely that they would make Peloclade without a miraculous intervention. There were a few planets on the way, though, and he had picked up speed in their direction, hoping he could reach something before they were disabled or destroyed. He could see one of them coming up on their starboard side.

   Archimedes leaned closer to the control board. “Energy output on the screen… it looks like the newcomers are firing on our bad guys!”

   “That’s great,” muttered Grey. He glanced past Caesar, through the viewport. “But it doesn’t mean anything. What’s that?”

   “What?” asked Caesar, eyes wide. Behind them, the bandits banked their ship hard to one side right as the third party fired again. Two more crimson blasts passed them by completely and slammed directly into the Sol Searcher’s hull. Lights flashed across the control console. A low shriek sounded from the engine room.

   “Planet,” shouted Grey, dragging the word out. “What. Planet. Is. That?”

   “Uh. Um. Based on the duration of our trip and our relative location between the gate we came through and Peloclade, it’s probably one of two planets. Maybe.”

   “You sound confident,” said Archimedes, his voice tight. “Go on.”

   “It’s, um, either Taggrath. Primarily a Dyr-occupied planet.”

   “Oh, good. Because the Dyr love us so much. Or?”

   “Or Astrakoth. It isn’t occupied, so far as I know, save for maybe a science base or two.”

   “Even better,” growled Grey.

   “Why is that better?” asked Caesar.

   “I was kidding. Both are bad. We’ve got to go down there, though. We’re too vulnerable in space.” There was a loud cracking noise and the Searcher shuddered hard.

   “Stabilizer’s out,” warned Archimedes.

   “Yep.” Grey turned the ship away from their pursuers. They broke the atmosphere moments later. Flames licked up the front of the craft and it felt like every part of the ship was shaking independently.

   “Zast! Move, Caesar!” Archimedes yanked his friend up from the co-pilot’s seat and strapped himself into place. “Get in the back! Buckle in quickly!”

   As Caesar staggered out of the cockpit and towards the extra crew quarters, Grey continued to wrestle with the steering rig. “I was going to bring us down so we could do better evasive maneuvering, but I’ve only got about half of the control we need.”

   “To do what?” asked Archimedes. He flipped a series of switches, rerouting emergency power to the flight controls. Grey laughed humorlessly.

   “To pull us back up. I’m thinking it’s not an option anymore.”

   “Great.” A jagged crack stretched across the main viewport. The cockpit began to heat up and a shrill whistling caused both men to wince. “There’s a split in the windshield!”

   “I can see that” Grey snapped back. “It’s right in front of my face.” His eyes lit up with a sudden idea. “Toggle the Peregrine drive.”

   Archimedes stared at him. “Come again?”

   “Stagger the Peregrine! One second intervals. The start-stop might let me balance us out.”

   “It might also blow the whole engine! Or rip us in half! Triggering a speed drive during a dive – a speed drive, mind you, that is not a Peregrine, but a patchwork monster you made that has never had that kind of duress – that’s a mad plan, Grey.”

   “Look, the Searcher might be our ship, but she’s my baby, right down to the drive. I know her better than anybody, and I’m telling you: we either try this and maybe die, or we don’t try it, crash into the planet nose-first, and definitely die.”

   Archimedes let out a mouthful of air with a curse. “We’re going to feel mighty stupid if we told Caesar what great pilots we are just to blow ourselves up.”

   Grey grinned.

   Trying not to think about the many, many things that could go wrong, Archimedes reached one unsteady hand across the control console and let it hover over the switch that activated the Sol Searcher’s speed drive. It was a marvel that something with enough power to propel a spacecraft across the cosmos at high speeds was regulated by a simple metal lever. Giving in to reckless abandon, he began to toggle it back and forth.

   The ship began to undergo a series of jolts, jerking the two pilots back and forth in their seats. Grey yanked the controls back, struggling for some semblance of control even as two more cracks in the viewport split off from the original. Below them, the world flashed by in streaks of color. The Searcher began to level out but continued to descend without slowing.

   “Grey,” Archimedes said worriedly. He kept the Peregrine off and gripped the co-pilot’s controls.

   “This is as good as it gets, man. I’m aiming at that clearing up ahead.”

   “What clearing?”

   “The one! There!” Grey flapped his hand at the display screen. A chart had recalibrated automatically to show the clearest flight path, the surrounding terrain, and the nearest plausible landing options… of which there were none.

   “That’s not a clear– there are trees down there!”

   “Do you see a better alternative, Ark? Because I am open to options!”

   Archimedes’ eyes flicked from his controls to the viewport to the monitor. He reached over and pressed the ship’s comm button. It lit up immediately. At least that wasn’t out of order.

   “Caesar, you hooked in back there?” he asked.

   “Yeah,” came the tinny response. “What’s the situation?”

   “We’re going down. Prepare for a crash landing.”

   “Oh, god.”

   “Whichever one you pray to, pal.”

   Archimedes flipped the button back to its inactive position and focused on the matter at hand. He and Grey gave a single nod to each other and then strained to steer their ship towards the clearest patch of forest available to them.

   They plunged into the foliage like an apocalypse. The sound of trunks snapping around the wings of the Sol Searcher was near-deafening. Greenery rustled against and stained the viewport. The spacecraft moaned in distress and then slammed into the ground with calamitous purpose.

   Archimedes’ shoulder belt tore at the buckle, launching him forward. His forehead slammed into the corner of the control console. There was a brief moment where he could hear the sounds of scared and angry wildlife, and then he knew only a blackness deeper than space.

A Captain’s Duty Part Four

This is the final entry to A Captain’s Duty, the failed fantasy piece I was commissioned for. You can find the first three parts at A Captain’s Duty Part OneA Captain’s Duty Part Two, and A Captain’s Duty Part Three. At the end of the chapter, I’ll also break down where the other two parts roughly would have gone.
Chapter Four:

The Path of Man
   The Serpent’s Spine mountain range was dense with jagged boulders and considered largely uninhabitable due to the carnelian stones’ tendency to absorb and emit the heat of the sun. There were several known hiking trails but the best of them turned in circles. The worst led to a labyrinthine series of paths ultimately culminating in a dead end. For that reason it was widely regarded that these mountains were ones best to be avoided and circled if they needed to be passed.

   Mathias Kolter claimed differently. Upon waking, he maintained that there was a passage through that would shave days off of their journey. Korkarin did his best to ignore the human, but Bren took him aside before they left Trome to put some weight into the man’s words.

   “Let’s check it out,” she said.

   “What? No. Why should we?”

   “Because if he’s telling the truth, it will help us get to Wrane more quickly. We can use every little bit of extra time we can get.”

   “Sure, but what if he’s not telling the truth.”

   Bren rolled her eyes. “What does he have to gain from lying? If an ambush were in place, this would have been the place to do it. While we were coming. They could have just tossed our bodies in the pile with the rest.”

   “Who’s to say the idiot isn’t just making something up to try and appease me? You know how their kind are. Leeches, always looking for the first thing that might give them a little more. They always want more. More status. More money. More favors. Watch him lead us into some chasm simply because he can’t stop talking long enough to watch his step.”

   “Let’s go check it out, Tal. We’ve got to skirt the range anyway if we end up going around. We’ll see if it looks like the real deal. If we get a bad feeling, I’ll lead us out the way we came.”

   “We could lose half a day that was,” Korkarin objected.

   “Lose half a day and get rid of the extra baggage. That’s one outcome, sure. Or we save time and gain a new ally, chatty as he is. That alliance can be as long or short as you want it to be.”

   The captain scowled at her after a long pause and Bren smiled at his back because she knew she had reached him. That scowl was his go-to move when he refused to admit his defeat in anything. He had been using it since they were kids.

   Bren let Kolter ride behind her on her horse after a stern warning to watch his hands. Andigar’s disapproval was writ in his face, but he said nothing. He reminded himself that his place in this party was to follow. If his friend was okay with the plan, he would stand by her until the end.

   They rode with little conversation between them save for the human’s directions. It took just over half a day to reach the mountains. They ate as they traveled – dried and salted meat – and when they stopped, they treated themselves to some water. Kolter was allowed to partake and he thanked the group profusely until Andigar finally told him to shut his mouth.

   The Serpent’s Spine towered above them, all serrated edges and colored like dried blood on fine dirt. There was a faint whistle as the air slapped and danced through the peaks. It appeared every bit as unforgiving as the venomous creature that had given it its name.

   “Here we go,” Kolter said. “The pass doesn’t have an official name, but it has picked more than a few nicknames over the years. The Crooked Belly. The Swiftest Strike. I was always partial to Longtooth Pass just because it doesn’t make any kind of sense.”

   Tal narrowed his eyes and focused on the exterior of the mountains. “Where is it, Mathias?”

   “It’s right… hold on.” Kolter walked up an incline of loose rocks and directed both his arms towards what had appeared to be a solid cliff face. The human stuck one arm behind a break in the wall and the optical illusion became clear. “It starts here. The light gets you, right?”

   “I’ll be damned,” Bren whistled.

   “It still hasn’t proven anything,” Korkarin muttered. Louder he asked, “How’d you know about the passage?”

   “I’ve spent most of my life trying to make a living in Mekan, Captain. Things aren’t always easy for my people. We stab each other in the back about as often as we look out for each other. Sometimes we’ve got to get away from it all. Regroup. Remind ourselves why it’s so important for us to stick together and maintain our identity. This little traipse through the mountains, it’s one of the few things we have that is wholly ours.”

   “Is it dangerous?”

   “Isn’t everywhere? The pass isn’t any more dangerous than any other place.” Kolter grinned. “The mounts should fit fine coming through, as long as they’re doing so single file. The baunkar might be a tight fit.”

   “What did you say, you skinny little-”

   “Darian,” Bren said, placing a hand on Andigar’s forearm. “Easy. It was a joke.”

   The baunkar’s scowl relaxed and lost some of its flushed hue. “You’re… you’re right, lass. It’s the damn heat. It’s got my head all twisted up.”

   “Are you good to ride or do you need more water?” Korkarin has dismounted his horse and come up beside them.

   “I’m good, Captain.”

   “Then let’s go.”

   They walked their mounts up the incline and through the passage, following Kolter. It was a twisting, narrow entrance with the jagged edges of the canyon wall holding like jaws prepared to strike. Korkarin caught his sleeve on a rock around the third bend and came away with a thin slice. He hissed.

   “Tal?” Bren asked.

   “I’m fine. Keep going.”

   The sky was only just visible through the leaning walls. It was clear of clouds, bound to be another scorcher. A pair of spotted vultures circled overhead, their sizable wingspans casting nasty shadows. The vultures had once been exclusively scavenger birds, preying only on the dead and dying. A hundred years of adapting to desert settlers and more prepared travelers had led them to evolve into something much larger and much more aggressive. It wasn’t unheard of for a single bird to fell a grown man.

   They moved slowly and carefully, shuffling their feet. The hard rocks beneath their boots gradually transitioned into a fine tawny sand. The encroaching walls that boxed them in began to taper outwards. The light of day found itself no longer obstructed and fell upon them.

   After two hours of travel, the path had widened enough to allow them to walk three bodies across. The canyon walls remained rough but had smoothed out enough that they were no longer in danger of an accidental puncture wound. Four times they came to a fork where a second path would wind in the opposite direction. Kolter never hesitated as he led the group. He simply whistled a maadmi drinking tune, sweating profusely but otherwise merry. Andigar was nonplussed.

   “Here, hold on a second,” the baunkar called out. “You’re draggin’ us every which way through these mountains. How do we know you’ve got any clue where we’re going?”

   Kolter smirked and crossed his arms. “Do I look like I’m lost?”

   “You look like someone who hasn’t taken enough fists to the mouth.”

   The human laughed and walked back, past the group, past the animals. Bren sighed and ran to catch up with him. She grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. Before he could say a word, she pushed into his chest, driving him back until he hit the wall.

   “Listen to me,” she said. She kept her voice low, keeping the conversation between the two of them. “I’m the one who convinced Tal that this little detour of yours was worth checking out. They could have killed you, abandoned you, or cut out your tongue. I made sure that didn’t happen. I made sure you were allowed to tag along.”

   “And I appreciate that. Cut out my tongue? That seems a bit harsh.”

   “It would have been to keep you from spreading misinformation about Trome.”

   Kolter blinked. “I don’t understand.”

   “Everyone in that village was killed. That’s what you showed up too late to discover. That’s why we were talking about dead men’s houses. We don’t know who did it, but whoever was responsible is still out there. They’re running around somewhere with their own plan, a plan we can’t begin to fathom. Tensions are a bit high with us. Do you understand that?”

   Kolter swallowed hard. “I do now.”

   “Good. Tal’s a nice enough guy on his best days. This isn’t one of those days. Darian, well, he’s not a nice guy on his best days. And today? You see where I’m going with this?”

   “I think I can piece it together.”

   “Figured so. The boys, they don’t think you’re too bright, but I see a light or two rolling around behind those big dopey eyes of yours. I would appreciate it if you stopped jerking us around and gave us a straight answer. One, hopefully, that won’t make me regret letting you have some of my water.”

   “I was doing that when you grabbed me. In order to properly illustrate, though you’ve got to follow me back a little bit. The next one isn’t for a while.”

   “The next what, Mathias?”

   He grinned. “Trust me for another hundred feet?”

   She didn’t like his smile. Part of it was just his face. The roundness of a human’s face made even the slim ones look fat. It added to their slovenly reputation. She didn’t even want to think about the way their ears resembled the cropping punishment reserved for sultani slavers. Humans were ungainly and unpleasant and a happy one just made her think of a hog in the midst of a mud bath.

   Kolter’s smile had another issue, though. It was too confident. Too free of burdens. It bothered her that they were plagued with so many questions and uncertainties while this degenerate seemed to be enjoying himself.

   Bren pushed his shoulder hard into the scratchy stone and then released him. To his credit, the human hid his wince. He brushed the dirt from his clothes and continued back the way they came. A flippant wave of his hand beckoned them to follow.

   Andigar and his pony stayed where they were (“I ain’t moving again until I know what’s going on or where I’m supposed to be heading”) but the sultani trudged after Kolter while trying to ignore the heat on their necks and the rivulets of sweat running under their thick clothes.

   They didn’t have far to go before their guide pulled up short and pointed up at the canyon wall. Bren spotted it first. She shook her head in mild confusion and then pointed it out to Tal: twenty feet or so above the ground, a small pattern of swirls and dashed had been painted. Whoever had left it there had used a coat only slightly more yellow than the rocks around it.

   “What does it mean?” Korkarin asked.

   “It’s human code,” Kolter said, waggling his fingers in exaggerated mystique. When he saw the dearth of amusement on his companions’ faces, he sighed. “It’s an instruction. A direction. It would take too long to teach you how to read it, but it tells me which crosspath to take and how many paces until I should keep an eye out for the next one. This travel route has been around for over six hundred years, Captain. Back when my people had more of their own to speak of. Some strong, enterprising men decided a little thing like mountains weren’t going to be enough to stop them from getting around easily. They carved their way through, set up some dummy paths, and made a code. It used to connect two human cities. Real cities. Time passed. Human influence faded. The cities disappeared. The path – and the paint, shockingly enough – remained.”

   “How did you say you learned all this?” Bren asked.

   “I didn’t say, but come on. Humans talk to each other, you know. We’re not animals. I read a lot, too. Love reading.”

   Korkarin’s brows rose. “Where did a human get books in Mekan?”

   “If we’re going to prostrate for you, or the maadmi, or the baunkar, or whoever else in hopes of landing a career and a real life, we better make sure we’re actually useful. That means education. Knowledge. A skill. Where did I get books? I’m a human, Captain, so I did what humans and sultani bureaucrats do: I stole them.”

   He winked and started back towards Darian Andigar. Bren and Korkarin looked away from the symbol on the wall to stare after him.

   “What do you think his skills are?”

   The captain shrugged, exasperated. “Whatever they are, being a nuisance has to be near the top.”
   It turned out the Serpent’s Spine wasn’t quite as devoid of life as they had been led to believe. Over the hours they spent moving through the mountains, the party caught glimpses of three different kinds of lizards, a short-eared hare and some type of rodent with long legs and large feet. The coos of a bird – Kolter had called it a club-breasted thrash – drifted softly through the air, but its nest was tucked away deep in a recess somewhere and they caught no sight of it.

   As they traveled, they kept conversation to a minimum. Bren and Darian would occasionally recall and share a memory from their time doing missions together. Bren and Korkarin would similarly bring up something from their childhood. Andigar didn’t speak to Korkarin. Nobody spoke to Mathias, but the human continued whistling mirthfully, unfazed. They kept to the shaded areas as best they could, but the heat found a way to beat down on them regardless. They rationed their water, staying mindful of their mounts. Andigar’s pony faltered once; they rested the beast and continued on fine from there, but it left them uneasy.

   It was almost a relief when the sun finally dropped and the moon, red-eyed and resolute, took its post in the sky. Korkarin pointed out a small compression in the canyon wall and they settled in there for the night.

   Their next obstacle was the cold. It was the desert’s great mystery that a place with such malicious heat could transition into a vindictive freeze once the stars came out to play. The drop in temperature was not unexpected but was no more tolerable for the knowledge of it. As Kolter’s supplied had been left behind with the dead horse he had abandoned (“I always planned on returning to get it once I found out what you were up to,” he had said. “Things obviously turned out differently.”), there were only three sleeping bags between them. Bren volunteered hers to Kolter and took first watch. Korkarin gave his to Bren during his own shift.

   Now it was Andigar’s turn to stand guard. Kolter snored softly by the animals while Bren and Korkarin shared the captain’s bag. The male sultani slept with his arm around his friend and the baunkar, draped in his own sleeping bag, marveled at the vulnerability his fellow mercenary was showing. He had known Bren Dendalion for several years; vulnerable wouldn’t have been in the top thirty adjectives he would have used to describe her.

   He had been a member of the Beryl Cavaliers for a couple years before Bren had sauntered into their camp. Her hands had been shaky and her skin pale, but when she spoke, it was with the assuredness of a veteran. She had demanded a place in the band, for less pay at first if necessary, but she guaranteed she would earn an equal share by the year’s end.

   Fellian – a sultani that had been cast out of Mekan for her past crimes and the founder of the Cavaliers – agreed to give Bren a trial, for amusement if nothing else. Bren’s swordplay had been sloppy, but even then she could beat anyone in an archery challenge. Fellian trained her in the areas she was weakest in. It took only five months before she was paid out the same as everyone else.

   They were a bunch of misfits, outcasts and former criminals trying to do some good. All allegiances to their races or any previous organizations they may have belonged to were severed. Racial hang-ups were disregarded. They were one group. A family.

   Even so, not all jobs they were hired to do required all members. They often found themselves mixing and matching groups to best fit the skill set needed for the contract. Additionally, some groupings paired better than others. Natural chemistry that led to almost precognizant compatibility on the battlefield.

   Bren found Andigar early on and clung to him. It wasn’t because she needed protection or because she wanted his help. She simply saw that he often kept to himself – even then, even among friends – and wanted him to have company. She had laughed off his gruffness and ignored his demands to be left alone. When he broke down and pleaded for her to go because of his troubles controlling his temper, she listened to everything he had to say. After he was finished, she refused again to let him stew in his lonesomeness.

   Once he finally decided to let her in, they became almost inseparable. They worked well together, often able to communicate with the slightest of physical cues. He trusted her implicitly, she who saw the worst sides of him and neither flinched nor turned away. He suspected that though she didn’t often speak of herself, her feelings or her past, she trusted him as well.

   She saved his life. He saved hers in return. He kept his mouth shut when she began a relationship with Gris Palmos, a fellow Cavalier. He continued his silence when it went wrong, when she took it out on their next targets, when she wept in his tent because she knew it was the only place none of the others would see her.

   It was the only time he had seen her with her guard down. It was the only time he could have used the word vulnerable. At least, until tonight. Until she had reconnected with Tal Korkarin and had dragged him into the sultani captain’s mission. There were years more between them, years unknown to Andigar. Then there was Korkarin. He was another thing altogether. It was obvious that the man had a code he stuck to, an idea of right and wrong that he stood behind. Beyond that, the man was nearly inscrutable, staying silent just as often as he pelted someone with questions. As fine a quality as that was, it also lent him a sense of condescension and superiority that Andigar doubted the captain even knew he had. Korkarin’s limited experience outside of Mekan had also bred an unsconsious racism. The captain had never benefited from a multi-cultural brotherhood. He grew up in the heart of sultani lands, with sultani practices and biases. It made him difficult to like.

   It didn’t help that the thing inside Andigar didn’t like anybody. It twisted up on itself, full of anger, full of rage. The beast inside him wanted out. There was a time when he could do nothing to stop it. He would lose feeling in his limbs, his body. The next thing he knew, he would be watching himself as if in a dream. He watched the violence unfold and when he came to, his hands would be awash in blood. Sometimes it would splash onto his chest or his face. It might go as far as elbow-deep, but his hands… his hands were always red.

   Two terrifying years passed from the first incident until he was able to bring it under some semblance of control. It still slipped out now and again, generally in times of great stress. His fellow mercenaries considered it fortuitous for a mission, though most kept him at arm’s length. They liked him, he felt, but didn’t trust him. They welcomed him but didn’t full accept him. None of them did. Except Bren.

   There was a noise in the distance that sounded like a rock being crushed. Pebbles rolling down the cliff wall, perhaps. Rocks being displaced as animals moved around, preparing for the day. Or… maybe something else.

   Andigar stood up and shed his sleeping bag. He glanced up at the sky; it was already turning a deep blue from onyx. Another sound floated forth, nearly identical to the first. He reached for his axe.
   The swords came together with a shudder and then slid apart as the two opponents moved past each other. They circled around, eyes on the tip of the other’s blade. They stood in stances they had seen others practice hundreds of years.

   Bren hooked her hair behind her ear with her off hand quickly before returning it to the hilt. “What was that, Tal? You’re going to have to step it up if you want to beat me.”

   “It’s not fair,” Korkarin said. His sword was almost comically oversized for the young boy’s frame. “You’re taller than me. You’ve got too much of an advantage.”

   “My dad said if you’re going to get into a fight, you have to create victory for yourself. You can’t blame me for you losing just because I’m growing up faster.”

   Korkarin stepped in quickly and swung his sword high. Bren ducked underneath it just to see his knee rising rapidly towards her face. She raised her left forearm up to block it; the force still sent her reeling backward. Her ankles crossed each other and she landed on her back. The sword was released reflexively.

   Before she could grab the hilt and scrabble back to her feet, Korkarin had kicked the weapon away. His own was pointed at her throat. His face was stretched into a wide grin.

   “Was that better?”

   Bren smirked. “Maybe a little. And you said you wanted to be a shopkeeper.”

   “I said it would be nice to have my own little store, and I still think so. I should know how to stop thieves, though, don’t you think?”

   “Yeah. We’ll see.”
   Several years later, he looked so handsome in his training uniform. The creases were all smooth, freshly pressed by Yana. His mouth was set in an expression of discomfort, but his eyes held boundless energy.

   “Who am I supposed to spar with now?” Bren asked, playfully tugging on his collar.

   “I have no doubt you’ll find a suitable replacement quick enough,” he said. “Try not to hurt them too bad.”

   “No promises.” Bren’s smile faltered and she sighed. “I wish your training weren’t so… isolated. I’m going to miss you.”

   “It’s only a year or two. You’ll keep busy. You always do.”

   She smiled and agreed with him, but her heart wasn’t in it. He was her best friend, had been almost since they were born. What would she do without him?
   It was five months after her father died that she demanded to be a part of the Beryl Cavaliers. It had been difficult seeing the man who raised her and taught her so much, the man she loved more than anything, waste away and die from a disease he couldn’t kill with a sword. Lungrot, the physicians had said. Her father had never smoked griproot. Second-hand smoke was the physician’s best guess and another twist of the knife.

   So she had sought the mercenary band out, wanting to surround herself with warrior types, tough men from all walks of life. People who spoke the same language she did, the one her father taught her. It was the same language Tal had spoken before leaving her to become a guard.

   It was harder than she had imagined. Even with good people there. Even with the smile she managed to plaster on her face to mask the pain. Even with, for a time, a man who had been a lover and a confidante.

   She could still remember the first man she killed. It had been with a blade, back before she had developed a fondness for archery even though archery had always come more naturally to her. Maybe killing a man with a sword is the reason why she began to prefer using the bow. She remembered the tears flowing down the man’s face. She remembered the hot tracks left by her own that night when she –
   “Fudrossi! Bren! Captain! Get up, we’ve got company!”

   Andigar’s words cut through her slumber as clear as a bell. Fudrossi. The baunkar word for “alarm”. Her eyes shot open and the weight of sleep evaporated as she rolled over to grab her bow and quiver. She caught glimpses in the edge of her eye of Korkarin and Kolter waking, but her attention was focused elsewhere.

   Ten figures – human men, all of them – were rushing down the canyon towards them. The blades they wielded were curved swords, similar to the maadmi make but crafted larger to fit the hands of the humans. Their eyes were wide, but they made no noise as sped forward.

   Bren rose up on one knee and pulled two arrows free. She nocked them both and let them fly. One hit the lead man square in the center of his chest. It sank in, but not as deeply as she had hoped. Whatever armor the man was wearing beneath his shirt kept the wound from being a fatal one.

   The second arrow had more luck, whistling past the first man’s face and sinking deep into the right eye of the swordsman behind him. He dropped like a stone, tripping up two others running behind him. Bren felt nothing, she wouldn’t until later. She simply pulled another arrow and fired it.

   Korkarin and Andigar were up and running towards the fight. The arrow sailed between them and hit the lead man in the foot, sending him sprawling. Whatever he had been wearing that stopped the arrow wasn’t enough to protect him from the baunkar’s axe when it came crashing down.

   “Mathias, who the hell are these people?” she snapped.

   “I have no idea! I was about to ask you the same thing.” Shadows surrounded Kolter’s wrists and ankles once more, but there were few places he would be able to jump to with the sun rising. He took a few steps back and eyed the frantic mounts.

   “Don’t you even think about it,” Bren said.

   She dropped her bow and drew a short knife as one of the swordsmen reached her. She dodged back from a swipe that would have taken her nose and blocked a return strike with her own blade. The man’s strength drove her back several steps. Bren bared her teeth and waved him in to engage again.
   Tal Korkarin’s sword deflected a thrust as one of their surprise attackers ran past him. He spared a glance to make sure he wasn’t in danger of any further strikes from behind; the assailant kept moving, bee-lining for Mathias Kolter.

   Interesting, he thought. Maybe they weren’t with the nuisance after all.

   He and Andigar were left with six violent, angry humans. They remained quiet still – save for grunts of exertion – giving no possible motive for the sudden conflict. Were these the ones responsible for the massacre? Were they trying to cover their tracks again by killing them now?

   Two blades came at him at once. He dipped his head to the left to avoid one and knocked the other aside with his blade. Something bit into his right thigh and he looked down to find a third man’s weapon digging into it. His teeth ground together as a sudden wave of pain surged through him.

   He slapped away the first man’s saber as it came towards his head once more and then lunged towards the third man, striking before he could fully retract his weapon. Korkarin’s sword punched through the human’s neck. The man spiraled away, dropping his blade and clapping his hands to the wound.

   “Hell,” Korkarin muttered. “This must be hell.”

   Trying to avoid the pain in his leg, the captain backed away in a circle, battling both men as best as he could. A quick slash opened up the back of his hand. Another tore open his left shoulder. He was scoring hits of his own, but his leg was growing numb. He would have to find an opportunity soon.
   “No, no. No no no.”

   Kolter never considered himself to be much of a fighter. He was a talker. He liked to talk. He was good at it. Sure, he would find occasion to throw a punch here and there. He even owned a knife that he had woefully left behind with his dead horse, so hurried he had been to catch up with the sultani. Still, he preferred trading verbal barbs to steel ones.

   When the other human broke away from the group after failing to land a hit on Korkarin, he charged towards Kolter instead. Tired, terrified, unarmed Kolter. Unarmed, but not defenseless.

   He wasn’t ashamed to run away from the swirling saber while he didn’t have something of his own to swing. The shadows cloaking his ankles swirled turbulently and he came out of the shade on the western side of the path. It was an effective evasive maneuver, but it only fooled the other man for a second.

   The human turned back towards Kolter, the latter stuck with no further place to run. The saber cut through the air with a soft whistle and slammed into Kolter’s side. A pale yellow flash sparked from a ring on his finger; the strike broke a couple ribs from the force but failed to cut flesh. The two men stared at each other.

   “You’ve got to love daevas, huh?” Kolter croaked before catching a fist to the face.

   The only thing keeping him upright while being pummeled was the canyon wall at his back. Each blow wore his daeva-infused armor down more. It came as a shock when the edge of his attacker’s blade finally broke through and cut a line across his forehead. It was even more shocking when the weapon was being pushed into his belly.

   Kolter flicked both of his hands up and outwards desperately. Blue sparks of force slammed into the other man’s face, breaking his nose and pushing him back. Kolter grabbed for the nearest loose stone and slammed it into the side of his adversary’s head until the man stopped moving.

   He was able to stay up close to thirty seconds longer than his foe. The pain in his belly grew harsher as he moved, so he staggered over to a large rock and sank down onto it. He pressed his hands to his abdomen and looked at the rest of the canyon.

   Korkarin was leaking heavily from a number of wounds but somehow was able to hold his own against the pair of men, despite their best efforts to wear him down. Bren had taken a slice high up on her breastbone, but her enemy was growing frustrated. As he watched, Andigar’s neck and shoulders grew translucent red scales. He held off two opponents by breathing fire in their direction. He swung and drove the spike on his axe into the chest of the third man facing him.

   It was so hot out. Fire seemed unnecessary. Kolter pressed his belly more tightly and sighed.
   The baunkar’s arms were wreathed in brilliant ivory bands, the same enhancement he had unleashed back in Mekan. He drove both of his living opponents back with powerful swings of his axe. Any attempts at flanking him were deterred by the tusks extending from his elbows.

   He barely saw them. He didn’t feel the injuries being cut into him. He just acted, attacked. He was violence. He was wrath.

   Andigar kicked one of his stocky legs into the pelvic bone of the man to his left. To the right, he used his axe and increased strength to shatter the curved blade of his other enemy. His own hands became empty. They grabbed the human by the shirt and shoved him to the ground. He began punching. Over and over, he struck. His ivory bands began to turn crimson.
   She didn’t see the knife. She wasn’t even aware he had drawn a second weapon until it was thrust between two of her lower ribs. Bren hissed and brought her elbow across to collide hard into the human’s chin. He fell off balance just enough for her to bring her sword back in a move that took the man’s head from his shoulders.

   Her hand found its way to the hilt in her side, but she didn’t remove it. That would be worse than keeping it in for the time being, no matter how it was grinding against the bone. Instead, she dropped her sword and retrieved her bow and quiver.

   Bren saw Kolter sitting on a rock, injured but alive and out of immediate danger. With effort, she adjusted to see the others. Darian Andigar was in one of his blood-rages. He wasn’t paying attention the man closing on him with wicked intent.

   “Arkhiang!” she yelled. Pivot.

   Andigar’s head snapped up and he stepped away to the right. The human creeping up on him missed his attack and stepped directly into the flight path of Bren’s arrow. She nodded approval at her own success and then turned to Korkarin’s ongoing battle.
   His arms were growing tired and his head was growing light. As the sun rose, the heat grew and it beat at him as relentlessly as the two thick-nosed humans. Sweat or blood rolled down just about every part of his body and he was finding it more and more difficult to spot openings where he could strike.

   Korkarin parried two more swipes but caught the tip of a blade to the chest. The man on his right stepped forward to seize on the flinch when two arrows caught him in the face and neck. The sultani captain capitalized on the surprise and ran through the last man standing. The human gasped – the most he had expressed himself since the attack started – and collapsed.

   No men remained, save for the one he had dragged along on his mission. Korkarin dropped his sword from tired hands. It stuck in the sand at a crooked angle, slick with red. He could see Bren on her knees. She had dropped her bow and sat with her hands turned upwards on her knees. She had her head tilted back towards the sky, breathing heavily in the aftermath of the fight.

   Korkarin shuffled over to a large rock across from Kolter and took a seat. He didn’t see Andigar, but his head was swimming too much for him to make a conscious effort to find him. The canyon walls seemed darker, but he chalked it up to his vision fading. The mounts… the mounts had gone, frightened off in the melee. Without a human to guide them through the paths, he suspected they would wind up lost and starving and dehydrated, just like them.

   He reached for his waterskin and found it empty, the contents having spilled out through a gaping hole in the side. He sighed and tossed it off to the side. Kolter let out a raspy laugh from where he was sitting.

   “What’s so funny?” Korkarin asked.

   “The water. Of all the things that could have been stabbed: your face, your heart, your lungs… you make it through all of that and the most devastating thrust is through the damn water.”

   “I fail to see…” The captain trailed off. Something about this was eerily familiar, but he couldn’t place the memory.

   “Brother, there isn’t any reason to greet the Reaper with a sour puss, if that’s what’s meant to be. Personally, I’m just hoping the afterlife has some ice.”

   A shadow on the ground caught his attention. Korkarin’s eyes tracked upwards to find the source until they reached the top of the valley. A figure stood atop, looking at them. It almost looked like a hariq, though the sun made it difficult to see any tattoos. After a long pause, the figure turned and walked away.

   The captain didn’t even know if what he saw was real. He had heard of mirages, illusions caused by the desert heat. The same intolerable temperature was sapping even more strength from him. His eyelids were getting heavy, and he wanted badly to take a nap. Who would judge him for a quick nap? He had fought so hard.

   As his chin dropped to his chest, he could swear that somewhere in the distance came the chiming of bells.

******************

So that was basically it. I wanted to end the first part on a cliffhanger to encourage people to want to pick up the second part. That part would begin with a group of gamla (basically nomadic camel people) stumbling across the group and nursing them back to health. One gamla leaves his tribe to journey with them, having found their mission to be worthy of going out and earning his True Name. He is immediately drawn to Andigar as the gamla – a person of peace – wants to help the baunkar find stability with the raging daeva he is host to.

Once they’re healed enough to travel, they head to an ever-shifting merchant city. Humans in this world do not have a particularly powerful culture and no capital cities like the solari (basically elves) or the baunkar (basically dwarves, who have carved out Roman-raquel cities in the mountains), so they’re resigned to making themselves useful in other ways, such as merchants, bodyguards, fools, or advisors. So the group finds themselves in this market and after asking around for information sources, they track down a suqur. The suqur are basically hawk-people, typically elegant, and I thought it would be awesome if this particular one – who hoards secrets and information and items of great worth – be obese, just a fat bird dude living life to the fullest.

This baron of sorts tells the group that the second village they were planning on visiting has been wiped out, razed to the ground. He’s still hiding information, and either refuses to divulge it or will only tell them if they pay an exorbitant price. Having been nearly killed in the mountain range, they have nothing and so they leave. Except Kolter notices an object (maybe something capable of a degree of divination) in the suqur’s tent and swipes it. The suqur notices its absence and sends people after them; the group escapes and Kolter admits the theft to Korkarin who nearly beats the shit out of him, but upon using the object, they get hints to head out to the mountain city of the baunkar.

The baunkar have a caste system of sorts with religious heads being top tier, but while they worship essentially ridiculously powerful, ancient daevas, daevics (those in a symbiotic relationship with a daeva) are persona non grata, which means Andigar isn’t exactly having a great time. The baunkar treat Korkarin and Bren fairly enough but keep them at a distance. The gamla notices this and recruits Kolter – who is hesitant after his previous experience with Korkarin – to figure out what it they’re hiding: evidence of collusion between the baunkar and the sobek (the gator people from the prologue, including the main antagonist) in building a massive war machine. The sobek steal the metal, the baunkar design and help build the parts.

Before the group can leave and warn the Singer of the Sands, the hariq (the secondary antagonist) arrives with a sobek retinue and combat breaks out during which the hariq reveals he can use arcane magic without daeva help our hindrance! They fight, the sobek are killed, the hariq is badly wounded, and the group escapes from the pursuing baunkar through tunnels those baunkar won’t or havent explored. Turns out they’re filled with horrible giant insect things with poison blood. They engage in a fighting retreat during which Korkarin is blinded by blood splashed into his eyes. They eventually reach a drop into a river (which has been done a thousand times, fucking sue me, there’s a reason this was never written). They jump.

They wash up quite a way down the river onto a mossy bed. They’re tired and beat up , and Bren tries to treat Korkarin’s eyes, which are right fucked, but it somehow awakened a daeva-enhanced secondary sight, tying in with the dreams and visions he’s been having. They realize they’re closer to the sobek than they are the Sultanate and decide collectively to try and sabotage the war machine. Kolter uses his tricks to help disguise them, but two sultani, a human, a baunkar, and a gamla are difficult to hide in a large group of gator people and they’re discovered

It is entirely due to daevic abilities and magic items that they’re able to hold off the army as long as they do, with Bren and Andigar heading straight for Graxxus. Korkarin, blind though he is, uses his newfound abilities to infiltrate and decimate the war machine with explosions. It costs him his life. Andigar – working with his daeva as opposed to Graxxus who has essentially let his take over- kills the sobek leader but loses an arm in the process. Kolter, Bren, Andigar and the gamla prepare to be overwhelmed and killed when Graxxus’ second-hand warrior stops them. Yes, Graxxus reunited the warring sobek clans, and yes, he had grand ideas but conquest had become too large a focus, and his unpredictable fits of rage and violence while he struggled with his daeva didn’t inspire many. The sobek allows the group to leave on the condition that Bren negotiates a trade arrangement with the sobek and tells them that they deliberately ceased an attack under their new, more stable leadership. She agrees, and the group leaves, taking Korkarin’s body home for a proper funeral.

There would have been some additional segments more fully fleshing out Graxxus and making him more sympathetic and nuanced, but… Yeah, there ya go. Hope you enjoyed.

A Captain’s Duty Part Three

This is the continuation of a fantasy project I was commissioned for not only didn’t get picked up but that I hated writing from the first word, outside some details. I’m going to level with you: I haven’t read it since I finished it, and that was two and a half years ago, so I don’t even remember much of what’s here. Anyway, you can find the earlier entries at A Captain’s Duty Part One and A Captain’s Duty Part Two.
Chapter Three:

Steps Forward
   The air smelled of citrus. Oranges, specifically, though he couldn’t place the region. It hung around them, clung to their clothes, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It served to mask the pungent smell of kraga grass, though the second-hand effects from the smoke weren’t at all diminished.

   He squinted through the haze, ignoring the voluminous figure in front of him in order to take in the interior of the tent. The walls were alternating patches of red and bruise-purple, not that they were easy to see. Tables and crates were piled high with riches and artifacts of all kinds. Piles of elaborate finery were heaped messily on the floor and the occasional chest. Ornaments dangled from the coned ceiling; he had seen plenty of the gamla dream-snares before, though he had never laid eyes on any of the nomads who made them before leaving Mekan.

   “You can’t possibly keep track of everything here. Aren’t you worried about any of this stuff going missing?”

   “I’ve got four guards outside and two in here,” said the figure splayed out on his sea of cushions. “Who’s going to take something? You, sultani? This is the closest thing humans have to a real city, and they’re making the most of it. Anyone with pointed ears would find themselves in a precarious situation should I give so much as a whistle.”

   “That’s quite the influence. You said this was the human’s city, such as it is. What gives you so much authority?”

   “If you want power over people, Captain, you have to have what they want. I have everything. Everything, including the most important commodity of all.”

   “And that is?” he asked impatiently. His head felt light from the kraga smoke.

   “It’s the one thing everyone can use, of course: I have information.”
   His eyes opened to the stars above. A deep breath pulled in through his nostrils and swelled his lungs. He stayed like that for several heartbeats and then pushed himself up into a sitting position.

   Darian Andigar sat on the opposite side of a dying fire. He broke sticks in half between his thick, calloused fingers and tossed the pieces into the smoldering red. His eyes were shadowed. They looked right through him.

    “Does your whole friendly little mercenary band have problems with watching people sleep, or is it just you and Bren?” Korkarin asked.

   “It looked like you weren’t sleeping too good, Captain. ‘scuse me for being concerned.”

   “It’s well. I wasn’t sleeping well.”

   “I was always better with my hands than my words.”

   Korkarin grunted as he pulled himself free from his sleeping roll. Bren still lay prone in her own nearby, back turned to both of them. He could make out her soft snoring. Andigar pointed to her and the unconscious Kolter and put a finger to his lips.

   “Quiet, huh? I don’t remember her being such a light sleeper.”

   “Used to sleep together, did you?” Andigar grinned.

   The captain scowled back. “Not like that. We used to camp when we were younger. Back before…”

   “Before you got a stick lodged?” Andigar laughed and when Korkarin looked fit to snap, he waved the man’s anger down. “I’m just playing, Captain. Bren, she keeps to herself most of the time. She likes to joke around with us guys. She likes to fight occasionally, too. She’s a scrapper, that one. But talk? She prefers everyone else’s stories. She likes to hear about everyone else’s lives, keeps us together that way. When she does talk, though, rare as it is, you usually pop up somewhere in there.”

   Korkarin said nothing to that. He scooted closer to the dimming fire and moved the remains of the rabbits Bren had shot for dinner out of the way. He held his hands over the embers to warm them.

   “I don’t think she mentioned you by name,” Andigar continued. “Or if she did, I missed it. She definitely didn’t say you were a city guard, though she’d drop hints at connections in Mekan. You could tell, though, from what little she did drop that your friendship was something important to her.”

   “You can go to sleep, Darian. I’ll take my shift from here.”

   “Ain’t your shift, Captain. Not for a couple hours yet. Your nightmares woke you early.”

   “Then it’s your lucky day. Take advantage of the extra rest.”

   “I ain’t tired, neither.”

   Andigar leaned into the fire and blew softly, coaxing a little more life into the pit. Korkarin sighed and rubbed at his eyes. The last few dreams he’d had refused to fade away peacefully, and they were making him irritable.

   The first day’s ride had come and gone without incident. The captain had resisted looking back at Mekan when they departed, though his companions had assured him no one was following. That didn’t mean an ambush didn’t still lay ahead, but they were outside of the city now: nothing prohibited his use of daevas out here. He knew the baunkar had a relationship with the spirits as well, and Bren was a capable fighter in her own ways. That should have put him at ease. It did for a while. All it took was one more weird dream to get under his skin.

   “She ain’t, by the way,” Andigar said softly.

   “Huh?” The comment snapped Korkarin back to their cramped little camp.

   “A light sleeper. Bren ain’t one. Us mercs, we’re on the road a lot. We’re in the middle of a fight more often than night. You don’t know when you’re going to be getting your next rest, so when you can nap, you nap hard. The body does the rest. The right word cuts through that, though, pulls them back awake in an instant. I’d tell you what the words are, but…” He nodded over to her sleeping form.

   “Right. Tell me later. What about you? Are there different words for you?”

   Andigar smirked, though the mirth he had shown earlier seemed to have disappeared. He looked down at his hands. “Nah. I ain’t got any words, Captain. I always sleep light as a feather.”

   The fire crackled loudly as an ember found something to feast on. No further words were shared between them.”
   Trome wasn’t remarkable by way of appearance. It was a small village of hundreds, the kind where everyone knew each other. It was good when everyone got along and bad when a feud developed, the latter often leading to someone finding a new little town to start up in.

   The land was mostly barren when riding down from the north or in from the west. To the south and the east, however, the area was dense with rice paddies. Vegetable gardens existed in large quantities, but these were tucked between the boxing homes that made up the village.

   It was the paddy fields that were the most noteworthy thing about Trome, the thing that caught the attention of Mekan’s leader. Rumor had it that they added something to the waters in order to bring out the unique flavors that made their rice so desired. Rumor also had it that herbs and spices were packed into the submerged soil or that daevas were involved somehow. Only the villagers knew the truth behind the secret, and as it was a truth passed down through generation after generation, it was guarded fiercely. Attempts by visitors to find out were blocked at every turn. Even those that had been driven away refused to betray the prized recipe of their ancestors.

   According to all of Korkarin’s sources, though the villagers of Trome were firm in their ways, they were also remarkably friendly. It struck him as odd that as he and his companions rode into the main avenue that cut through the village, not a single sultani came out to greet them.

   Korkarin and Andigar held their reins in one hand and placed their free hands on their weapons. Bren dropped her reins completely and pulled her bow. She nocked an arrow but didn’t draw it back. Her eyes found Korkarin’s and the captain gestured for her to keep an eye on the spaces between the buildings.

   “Hello?” he called. “Citizens of Trome? We come bearing greetings from Mekan!”

   “Tal,” Bren said quietly.

   She left the question unspoken and he acknowledged it the same way, pointing towards one of the houses on the right. Andigar moved to the left with like intention while the captain stayed in the middle of the road. There was no movement either ahead or behind them. There were no sounds.

   Bren hooked her bow over her arm and drew her sword. With her left hand, she tried the door to the home. It was unlocked. Carefully, she pushed it open and leaned inside, leading with the blade’s tip.

   “Anyone home?” she called.

   The living room was empty. A chair lay on the floor with one leg cracked nearly all the way through. Two plates were broken next to it, the food that had been piled atop them, now smeared and rotting across the floorboards. Two other abandoned meals still sat atop the dining room table. A nearby hearth was filled with dark ash, the fuel for the flames having been consumed entirely.

   She stepped carefully through the rest of the house, poking her head into the different rooms. There were no bodies, living or otherwise, though she saw several dried, rust-colored droplets that indicated at least one person hadn’t left easily.

   With little else to go on, she exited the house and closed it behind her. She scratched a small ‘D’ into the frame to mark it as searched in case they were to perform a more thorough inspection through the town. She turned just as Andigar was finishing his own mark. Korkarin looked at her for answers.

   “It’s empty,” she said. “There are signs of a struggle. Some blood, dried. No bodies, though. Whatever happened did so a while ago. The food is spoiled. Several days, maybe as much as a couple weeks.”

   “Same on my end,” Andigar said. “Didn’t see no food or blood, but there are plenty of things smashed all to hell.”

   Korkarin dismounted and drew his own sword. Bren sheathed hers but pulled and armed her bow once more. Andigar held an axe, one side curved with a thick, polished edge. The other side held a stout spike sharpened to a wicked point.

   As one, they moved through the streets. Their mounts followed dutifully behind; they kept the beasts close in case a hasty retreat was necessary. Still, no one came. Still, the only sounds were the scuff off their feet and the soft clop of hooves.

   Andigar pointed out several details as they walked. Smithing hammers dropped away from their anvils. A child’s doll covered in mud at the side of the road. Several deep grooves leading away from the homes, towards the paddies.

   A powerful smell began to assault them as they neared. It was musty and reeked of spoiled meat. The air above the field was thick with flies and weevils, creating a soft roar as they worked at satisfying their insatiable hunger. At the forefront of the crop, a trench had been dug. It was long and deep and the cloud of bugs was thickest in and around it.

   “Stay here,” Korkarin told the others.

   Bren complied, keeping watch. Andigar ignored the order and walked to the pit beside the sultani captain. They both had an idea of what they would find. It didn’t make it any easier to actually see it.

   “Reaper’s breath,” Andigar gasped. A pressure swelled in his chest and pounded behind his eyes. His hands tightened around his axe.

   Bodies were stacked upon bodies, hundreds of them in varying states of decay. Their clothes were torn and soiled, though it was hard to pinpoint which holes had come from weapons and which had ripped open from being dropped in the cold, wet ditch. It didn’t matter what had killed them in the end. The result was the same: far too many bodies, in all shapes and sizes. Bodies that came far too small in some cases.

   “What is it, Tal?”

   “It’s-” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and turned away. “It’s them. It’s the village.”

   Bren let his words wash over her like a coat of ice. “Even the-”

   “It’s all of them, lass,” Andigar snapped. “Every last one.”

   “By the Ebb,” she said. “Those poor babies.”

   “There isn’t anything that can be done for them now,” Korkarin said. “The paddy field is ruined. Murdering an entire village seems excessive just to keep the grain from the Singer’s mouth. This is a much more serious message.”

   Andigar huffed in frustration. “From who? Saying what?”

   “That’s the question, isn’t it? We’ve still got some light left, so let’s see if we can drum up an idea of what the real goal was. Maybe they left some equipment behind. Maybe we missed some kind of note.”

   “Maybe they ain’t trying to be figured out, Captain,” the baunkar said. “Maybe they didn’t leave no note.”

   “It might be that’s the case. If so, tomorrow we’ll start heading east. Wrane is several day’s travel from here and we’ll want to get there as quickly as possible in case they’re being targeted as well.”

   Korkarin’s horse whinnied and stomped its front hooves. Bren transferred her bow and arrow to one hand and grabbed the mount’s reins in the other. The beast shook its head in dismay.

   “What’s wrong with your horse?” she asked.

   “I’m not sure. Something’s upsetting her.”

    “We’re all upset, Captain,” Andigar pointed out. “There’s a bleedin’ mass grave right there.”

   “No, it’s got to be something else. She only gets upset around…” He narrowed his eyes at Andigar. The baunkar noticed and narrowed his eyes right back.

   “Around what, Korkarin? Your animal has been just fine around me since we set out.”

   “Are you using a daeva right now?”

   “What purpose do I have for-”

   “Be honest with him, Darian,” Bren said.

   “I am being honest with him, blast it. My daeva ain’t exactly-”

   “Then we’re not alone,” Korkarin interrupted. He turned away from the bodies and began to scan the houses he had thought empty.

   Shadows seemed to flicker at the edges of the buildings, in the open space between them. It started back near the entrance to Trome and worked its way closer. The pattern was unpredictable, sometimes moving in a straight row down only to suddenly appear across the street. The faintest outline of a body could be seen in the midst of the swirling darkness.

   Korkarin’s head moved in an almost imperceptible nod. Bren’s arm pulled back swiftly. Her fingers released the bowstring and the arrow flew free into the shadows. A loud curse rang through the air and a single man stepped into sight, one hand half-raised and the other clutching at the thin cut the arrow had sliced into his shoulder.

   “Whoa! Hey, hold on. Hold on, I’m not here for trouble.”

   “Human,” Bren sneered.

   “If you’re not here for trouble, why didn’t you approach in plain sight?” Korkarin asked.

   “Using the shadows is quicker. The page back in Mekan sold me a sick horse. Damn thing died three-quarters of the way here and it’s been hell trying to catch up since. He sighed and muttered, “I knew I should’ve waited for the stablemaster.”

   Andigar stepped forward briskly and slammed the haft of his axe into the center of the man’s chest. The stranger hit the ground with a wheeze and took his hand away from his wound long enough to beg the baunkar off. Andigar’s nostrils flared.

   “Who are you with? Why are you following us?”

   “I’m not with anyone, I swear! As far as I know, I’m the only one who lit out after you.” He glanced around and his forehead creased in confusion. “Where is everyone?”

   “Never mind that,” Korkarin said. “Answer Darian’s question.”

   “I told you, I’m not… look, my name is Mathias Kolter. Frankly, Captain, I’m here because of you. I want to offer my services to you to utilize however you wish in order to best benefit your career.”

   Bren snorted. Korkarin shot her an annoyed look.

   “Bind him,” he said.

   “Wait, that’s not necessary,” Kolter said. “I’m unarmed.”

 “Bind him anyway.” Korkarin shook his head and muttered, “Came after me for a job. Unbelievable.”

   “I can help!” the human protested.

   “Gag him, too. Darian, start searching houses again.”

   Andigar didn’t move until Bren had circled behind Kolter and prepared a coil of rope. The human sighed and placed his hands behind his back.
   Viskar sat with her legs crossed and her tail wrapped around her. Her hands rested on her knees, turned upwards. A thin, milky membrane covered her eyes, enough to keep them moisturized, not enough to keep the light of the candles fully out. Dozens of the waxen objects surrounded her, thin flames dancing with a carelessness that escaped her.

   Gnash. Tear. Crush. Grind.

   She couldn’t feel the heat from the flames. Not through her thick hide. Not with the daeva pressing up against her ribcage. It screamed in her mind. It begged to be released. She promised it would be soon. IN the meantime, all she wanted was a moment of peace.

   Bring them to their knees. Drive them forward. Make them crawl. Make them beg.

   The shrine to the Eroder was simple, a marble pedestal that started slim at the bottom and gradually grew wider as it rose. The powerful daeva’s symbol – a thin crescent laying on its rounded side – was carved into the surface.

   Viskar had always found a greater connection with the Eroder than any of the other major daevas. The Constant was far too passive for her tastes. It didn’t match her vision for the future. Erosion was equally inevitable but far more commanding. It was a force of nature. Something to be respected. Something to be feared.

   Break it away. Waste it away. Wear it away.

   “No,” she whispered through her teeth.

   Hers was a metaphorical erosion. A tearing away of the societal constructs that had kept her people at each other’s throats for hundreds of years. Land disputes and blood feuds. Resource wars and sport killing. Of course none of the other races respected the sobek. Why should they when the sobek tribes didn’t even respect each other.

   Until her. Until Viskar united them and resurrected the title of Nebkha. Her power was unmatched. Her ferocity unrivaled. She would usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and recognition for her race unlike anything that had come before.

   Yet even as she visualized tranquility for the sobek, for her sister Garrix and herself…even as she saw brighter days and bluer skies, she pictured skulls filled with blood and turbulent airs filled with the wails of the dying. She envisioned viscera dripping from her hands.

   Beat them. Bleed them. Slay them.

   The daeva inside her gripped at her heart. It kicked at her stomach. It plucked at every nerve from the base of her neck to the tip of her tail. She took a deep breath and tried to calm it, or at least push it down. Her hands clenched, her nails biting into the skin of her palms. She closed her main eyelids to block out the light, uttered a soft prayer and let her hands open one more.
   In the few hours that remained before the sun tucked in under the horizon, their search yielded few results, none of which were answers. They found peculiarities instead. Many of the homes had fireplaces, but the tools for them were nowhere to be found. Some places had been thoroughly looted while others had jewelry and other valuable strewn about. The crops were ruined in full. The buildings were largely untouched, save for a handful that had had their sidings stripped. There were no messages of intent nor any list of demands. It seemed to them to be mindless slaughter for the sake of it.

   Once darkness fell, the group reconvened and led Kolter and their mounts to a stable they had discovered near the outer edge of town. To their relief, there were no dead animals waiting for them. Whether they had been taken by whoever had laid waste to the village or had managed to escape on their own, they had left the stalls empty. The horses and Andigar’s pony found spaces of their own to relax and some left over grain to feed on. The rest of them bunched into a large stall at the end.

   Bren passed out dried fruit and nuts to Andigar and Korkarin. The latter fixed Mathias Kolter with calculating eyes. Kolter, for his part, had stayed quiet at the mention of a gag, though his arms had grown increasingly comfortable from the long hours of being bound. With tremendous reluctance, Korkarin unfastened the rope around the human’s wrists.

   “Thank you, Tal. Er, Captain, I mean,” Kolter said. He rubbed at the red marks the rope had left. “That feels much better.” He eyed the food with a hungry glint in his eye. “Do you think… you think I could maybe get a bite or two to eat? Just one bite would be fine.”

   “When’s the last time you ate?” Bren asked.

   “I finished off the rest of my bread yesterday afternoon.”

   “Then, no. You’ll live.”

   Andigar smirked and popped a slice of dried peach in his mouth. Kolter scowled at the baunkar in return but knew to argue was to continue a fight he would never win. He opted to change the subject instead.

   “Must we sleep out here? It smells atrocious.”

   “It’s a stable,” Andigar said.

   “I had managed to piece that together via an assortment of context clues, thank you. What I meant to say is that there are several perfectly good, perfectly warm, unoccupied houses we could be using instead.”

   “None of us are sleeping in a dead man’s house,” Korkarin said. “If you’re cold, tuck yourself under some of that hay.”

   “Or we could set him on fire,” Bren suggested.

   “Or we could set you on fire,” Korkarin said to Kolter.

   “It would keep the rest of us warm,” Andigar added.

   The human grumbled, “I prefer myself flameless. I’ll… see what I can do with the hay.”

   “Tal, what are we going to do with this guy?” Bren asked. “We can’t just drag him along with us. He’s a hindrance as it is, and I don’t trust him.”

   Andigar grunted. “We could ki-”

   Korkarin cut him off. “We’re not going to kill him. We’ll leave Mister Drunk and Disorderly here in the morning. For now, the three of us will take up watch shifts, same as usual.”

   Kolter perked up at that. “Hold on, you know who I am?”

   “It took me a bit to place you, but I remember you now. You were the man in the cell when I dropped off that boat thief. If your idea was really to track me down so I would use your services, you had to know that I would take a look at your record sooner or later when we got back to Mekan. What made you think this was actually going to work?”

   “I was only drunk and disorderly! That’s nothing!”

   “Assault was on your charge sheet, too, I recall.”

   “Those charges were dropped,” Kolter said. “I’ve never done anything but get by. Yeah, I’ve made a mistake or two, but you’re going to tell me you’ve never made a mistake in your life?”

   “I’ve never spent time in jail for my mistakes.”

   The human had a sharp retort itching to leap from his tongue, but he held it in check. Bren settled down onto her side and turned so her back faced the group. Andigar frowned in thought.

   “Captain?”

   “Darian.”

   “We don’t have time to take the human back to Mekan if we want to get to Wrane in a timely manner, and he ain’t exactly done a crime worth locking him up for anyway. If we don’t kill him, that means leaving him here. If that’s the case, you might consider how he could interpret, you know… the scene.”

   “What scene?” Kolter asked. The lack of mills? It’s strange, I’ll grant you that, but I wasn’t going to say anything. Besides, I can get you to Wrane more quickly if that’s where you’re going next. There isn’t any need to leave me and even less to kill me. I can help you!”

   Korkarin blinked. “Back up. One thing at a time. What did you say about the mills?”

   “There aren’t any. A village like this, with the rice production they’re famous for, it should have at least one mill constructed. Right? Big metal building? Mekan has some grain mills of their own that you’ve probably seen.”

   “I know what a mill is.”

   “So that’s weird, right?”

   Missing tools, missing siding, missing metal buildings,” Andigar mused. “I think I’m starting to get an idea of what they were after.”

   “Yeah, but the bigger question is who would need it? Who would kill every man, woman and child anywhere just to get it?”

   “There’s someone I know of who might be able to help you,” Kolter said. His face was earnest, his hands open. “If you’re going to Wrane, that’s, what, six days away? I know a path that can get us there in half that. On the way, there’s a merchant I can introduce you to. He knows things. He might be able to give you some answers.”

   “Nonsense,” Andigar scoffed. “There’s no passage to Wrane.”

   “Not directly, no. It cuts through the Serpent’s Spine. You could probably find it if you really looked for it. Really looked. Once you’re in though… you’d be traveling blind.”

   “Why haven’t I heard of it?”

   Kolter grinned. “Because you’re not human.”

   “I wake up every morning grateful for it.”

   “Alright, enough,” Korkarin said. “Get some sleep, Darian. I’ll take first watch. Bren’s already knocked out, so I’ll wake her up for the second.”

   “Should I take third or fourth watch, then?” Kolter asked.

   “Neither. You’re who we’re watching. I don’t trust you, Mathias. My suggestion would be to get some sleep. If you’re going to try and give me a reason to keep you alive and along, you’ll want to be rested.”

   Andigar smirked at the human and settled into the corner. Within moments, he was asleep in a seated position, his head nestled between the walls, his arms resting on splayed legs. Kolter followed suit, pulling hay over himself and muttering about the itchiness.

   Tal Korkarin watched until they had all drifted away and then stood to look out over the door of the stall. His knee popped and he considered that he wasn’t as young as he used to be. The sky above was dark and full of pearls. They cast an eerie light over the dead village, like a pack of ghosts or a funeral shroud.

A Captain’s Duty Part Four