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Chapter 7. 

A Free Road

The entire caravan consisted of Pepper Domo and an iron carriage pulled by a green-skinned tiger. Svetlana had spent the night comfortably in one of Domo’s guest rooms. She said goodbye to Gehosopha over breakfast. Domo had yet to show himself when the hyep departed. Perhaps the Apothecary had drank too much Andromedan last night and required more recovery time than the Composite Being, who could spread a hangover across several brains at once. Svetlana was eager to begin the next leg of her journey, but only Domo knew the way.

“Can I trust this Apothecary?” she asked Gehosopha as he left.

“He is a fair and honorable trader,” Gehosopha answered. “This cluster will miss your company, Svetlana.”

She had no idea how to approach embracing the cluster of heads that was Gehosopha’s middle body, so she simply nodded and offered him an awkward bow.

“Thank you,” she said.

“We will hire a replacement sentinel before leaving Nil,” said the Composite Being. “I hope you find your missing offspring.”

Svetlana wanted to weep, but she took a deep breath and saved it for later. She waved as the Composite Beings lumbered down the street, the tops of their central stems loaded with crates full of fresh serums. The bizarre crowd soon swallowed them up.

Domo’s carriage came rolling from the stable behind his shop. The body and four wheels were made of black iron, the roof lined with a short fence for securing luggage and trade goods. A silver trim formed arabesques across the single entry door. A curtained window on the opposite side of the coach showed drapes of red velvet. The barrels and trunks containing Domo’s serums had been loaded onto the top of the vehicle, tied into an impressive pyramid by a net of strong ropes.

The tiger’s meaty shoulders stood level with Svetlana’s chin. Its fur smelled like wild grass in summer, and she longed to run her hand through it. She resisted the urge as it turned to sniff at her, showing its magnificent fangs. She heard a rumble deep in its mammoth chest, and its big pink tongue licked at her boots. The servant who had brought the carriage around leaped off the driver’s bench and ran back to the stables.

Svetlana had arrived early in the yard with satchel, cloak, sword, and pistol. Ready to go at sunrise, as requested. She stood before Domo’s waiting carriage awhile. Apothecaries and their wavy-eyed servants rushed up and down the streets, but it was too early for much customer traffic. Both suns were up and the heat was rising fast. For a moment she considered climbing into the driver’s seat of the carriage and taking off without Domo. If she had any idea where to go, how to find Creep City on her own, she might have done it. Instead she crossed her arms and leaned against the side of the shop. The tiger took her cue and lay itself before the carriage, crossing its front paws and resting its chin. The traces that bound it to the coach were polished leather hung with silk and jewels.

“You must be the new muscle.” A deep voice from the other side of the carriage.

Two large, booted feet were visible. The coach hid the rest of whoever stood there. Svetlana moved behind the vehicle to get a look at the new arrival, but she found nobody standing there.

“Slow,” said the voice. “Too slow.”

Behind her. She whirled and something darted from her line of vision. It was inhumanly fast. She reached for Takamoto’s sword and cursed. The handle wasn’t there above her shoulder-blade where it should be. The scabbard was empty.

“Looking for this?” She turned.

The gleam of Takamoto’s steel she recognized immediately. The figure holding it took awhile longer. One of the reptoids that served as the guardsmen of Nil leaned against the doorjamb precisely where she had been standing seconds earlier. His scaled body was covered by form-fitting silvery armor, mostly along the limbs and midsection. Svetlana identified seven points of weakness in that first half-second: ankles, knees, wrists, elbows, underarms, groin, and neck. None of those areas was covered by the silver metal, but each spot did have dense and scaly skin to protect it. Then there was his head, handsome in its own grand ugliness.

A twin set of bone ridges lined the top of his skull. A pair of vertically slitted eyes gleamed yellow above a sloping snout that ended with flared nostrils. The reptoid’s fangs were miniature versions of the tiger’s, but his toothy grin was altogether human. A forked tongue darted in and out between the fangs. His scales were an uneven blend of green and black, or perhaps they were of a green so dark that it resembled black.

A pistol hung at the lizard-man’s side, and a rifle lay across his back. Neither of his weapons looked like those of Svetlana’s world, but their shapes were unmistakable. Her own pistol was made of dark metal, but the reptoid’s gear was polished silver like his armor. She took all of this in while the reptoid stared at her and twirled Takamoto’s sword, taunting her like a child who had stolen a toy.

“I don’t need that sword to kill you,” Svetlana said.

The reptilian smile widened. “You didn’t even know I was here,” he said. “You’ll have to be more alert if you’re going to work for Domo.” He reversed the sword, offering her the grip while the blade lay naked in his palms. It could have been a dare to use it against him. If it was, she didn’t take the bait.

“Who are you?” she asked, sheathing Takamoto’s blade.

“Bruno,” said the reptoid. His yellow eyes flashed in the sunlight. “I work for Domo. Sixteen years now. He tells me he hired you to join this caravan. I say ‘Yes, Boss,’ but we both know he doesn’t need another guard.” The reptoid’s face came near to her as Bruno leaned forward. “So I ask myself: Why did he really hire you?”

“You’ll have to ask him yourself,” Svetlana said. She turned away from Bruno and put her back against the wall again. How much longer would Domo keep her waiting?

The reptoid continued staring at her. “I say he feels sorry for you. I say he’s sweet on you. Can you even fight?”

Svetlana closed her eyes.

When she opened them, Bruno had backed away. He inspected the ropes that tied the baggage onto the coach roof. Men had tried to bait her before, and she had learned to ignore it. Once they saw her skill at the hunt or in defense of the community, they gave her respect. This is how warriors bonded. If she was going to travel with Domo, she would have to establish a warrior’s bond with the lizard. Unless the customs of his own society prevented such a thing. Then she would have to make the entire journey enduring the heat of his scorn. She might have to kill Bruno if it came to that. A hundred such lizard-men would not keep her from finding Dima. She waited and kept her mouth shut. Bruno took his spot on the padded driver’s bench, and the tiger woke from its nap yawning.

Pepper Domo appeared in a cloud of powder, perfume, and flying silks. The front door of his shop burst open at the hands of two servants, and he swept through it in a robe of nine colors and carrying a scepter of gleaming glass. Whenever he took a step the air was filled with the tinkling of glass vials like tiny bells. His eyes at the end of their stalks blinked at the brightness of morning.

Spreading his arms wide, staring at his carriage fully prepared and the two bodyguards awaiting his pleasure, Domo sang in a high voice. The servants kneeled about him in reverence. The tiger purred like a great engine. Domo finished his song and the servants withdrew. The Apothecary turned his eyes to Svetlana and smiled with his sideways mouth.

“Good morning, my dear,” he said. “I see you’ve met Bruno.”

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Chapter 6. 

The StoneFathers

The shrine of the StoneFathers lay deep beneath the walls of HearthHome. The cavern was far older than the stone towers that grew from it like trees growing from hidden roots. Harmona stood amid thirty-nine faces set along the curving walls, each one three times her size. Beards of green ivy hung from their craggy chins, and the hollows of their eyes were dark with shadow.

The flame atop her staff lit the chamber in hues of emerald. The faces of the StoneFathers stared at the center of the shrine, where Harmona stood on a dais of marble. She sang the words of Waking, Reverence, and Gratitude.

The stone faces opened their eyes, weeping rays of amber light. The green glow diminished in their collective brilliance. Harmona wiped at the tears drying on her cheek. “Ancient Ones, we need your help,” she said. Even now her thoughts raced back to Dorian, legless and bleeding on a cot in the infirmary. Possibly he was already dead. She could do no more for him than the physicians could, and this errand could not wait. The girls had not seen their father’s condition yet, but there would be no hiding it from them.

A granite mouth opened with the sound of grinding of stones. A deep voice filled the cavern. “Be brave, little one.” Harmona turned to the Seventeenth Father, the first to speak. She spilled out the details of the attack on the hunters, but the voice cut her off.

“We know.” The words sank in the chamber like stones in deep water.

“What’s happening?” Harmona asked. Despite her determination to stop weeping, her eyes would not play along. She rubbed them with the hem of her sleeve.

“This day was foreseen by us,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“The Yicori have found you,” said the Ninth Father.

“Do not despair,” said another. “This was foreseen.”

“We will guide you, child,” said the Seventeenth, “as we have always done.”

“You knew?” Harmona said. “All this time we’ve been here and you knew these things were out there?”

“We know everything about this primitive world,” said the Fifteenth Father.

“Do not despair,” said the Eighth, coughing out a bit of sand.

“You brought us here,” Harmona said, “you and Wail. You told us it was safe. You said Gaeya would be our home. Ours.”

“So it has been,” said the Fifteenth.

“So it is,” said the Seventeenth.

“We have planned for this,” said the Third Father’s face. Harmona spun to face it.

“Your plan did not including warning us? You waited years for them to start killing us, and now you’re telling me not to worry about it. Where is Wail? I want to speak with Doctor Wail.”

“You ask too many questions at once,” said a face.

“And make demands of us,” said another.

“Doctor Wail brought you to Gaeya at our instruction,” said the Seventeenth Father. “We built this citadel for you, opened the nine wells. We taught you how to live in this place, revived the basic survival skills that your race had long forgotten. You would have died in a matter of weeks if not for our intervention. We built HearthHome for you, and you have done well. Your numbers grow. Yet you do not live outside of time as we do, so you must always contend with elements of change. Your temporal existence demands the chemistry of evolution. Change creates conflict and conflict creates growth. Your people have done well so far. Now they must grow.”

“Or die,” said the Thirty-Ninth Father.

“So it’s not a paradise after all, is it?” Harmona said. She sat down on the top step of the dais. The black staff leaned across her knees as she rested head in hands. The anger had come and gone in a flurry of emotions, and now she felt numb. Something significant was happening. Something that would change everything. Forever.

My husband is dying.

The tears welled again, and she shouted through them at the faces.

“I don’t understand!”

“Calm yourself, child,” said the Fifth Father. “The time has come for you to know the truth. This world is not yours alone. The Yicori dwell in the high trees of the far ranges, where your people have never hunted until now. We anticipated that one day the New Organics would have to take this world from these primitives. So we made HearthHome far from the Yicori territories, giving your people time to grow their numbers, adjust to their new lives here, and learn the hunting skills that will make them excellent warriors.”

“Warriors?” Harmona said. “You brought us here to make war on these creatures? To fight for dominance like animals in a pit?”

“We brought you here to free you from the Potentates of Urbille,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“You could never have fought the Potentates for dominance,” said the First Father. “Here you have an excellent chance to establish a permanent foothold for your species.”

“We saved your kind from annihilation,” said the Seventeenth.

“You have adapted well here,” said the Thirtieth Father, “with our aid.”

“You think I forget this?” Harmona said. She forced herself to stand again. Her knees were unsteady, so she leaned on the staff. “You want to forge us into the defenders of paradise. A paradise we have yet to earn. Will this blood buy us peace? Why can we not live side-by-side with these Yicori? There must be another way. Something besides war and death and suffering.”

“The Yicori have great appetite for human flesh,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“It is true,” said the Thirtieth.

“A hundred thousand years ago they existed in great hordes all over this continent,” said the First Father. “Voracious and strictly carnivorous, they devoured every other mammalian species into extinction. This created a series of massive die-offs, as the remaining tribes turned to cannibalism. This last tribe of Yicori has survived for a thousand years by preying on the myriads of avian species in the worldforest. When times are lean they still revert to cannibalism. Yet now they have discovered another mammalian race to prey upon, and the appetite consumes them like a fever. There is no other way. The New Organics must fight to survive on Gaeya. It is the next stage in your extraordinary evolution.”

“The Yicori must be destroyed,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“Every last one of them,” said the First.

“Only when this is done,” said the Seventeenth, “will this world belong to you.”

“I understand,” Harmona said. “But I don’t have to like it.”

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Chapter 5.
Special Dispensation


The Ministere de Justice was a monolith of glass and steel. It stood atop a crowded ridge overlooking the red valley of the Rusted Zone. Most of the buildings along the avenue were recycled institutions from the city’s various architectural eras, from Organic to Late Gothic to Retro-Modernism, so the result was a melange of old and new construction.

The crude angles and iron superstructures of the past mingled with neospires of steel and glass; nanotech smartdomes melded together by macrofiber networks; new and glistening skins grown over decrepit understructures thousands of years old. Architectural recycling at its finest, a baroque blend of styles influenced by a thousand different worlds. This was the Reclaimed Zone, where modernity overshadowed mouldering antiquity, and the Ministere de Justice was the perfect icon of that modernity. It sparkled white and blinding in the first light of morning.

Sunbeams pierced the windows of the lorrie. Crag awoke in the back seat at the prodding of a gendarme’s rifle butt. He kicked at the soldier’s head but didn’t really try to connect. The gendarmes moved away from the vehicle and allowed him to slide out. Crag wavered for a moment, the heat of good nitrate oils still burning in his belly gears. He turned back to grab his top hat. The Tribune was a stickler for appearances.

Crag adjusted his bronze face, pressed the hat down upon his skull, and followed the garden path toward the massive outer stairs. Statues lining the courtyard were made of bronze, faded and tarnished by age. The plants thriving here were synthetic recreations of real foliage, creations of the Ministere de Science whose personnel maintained the building. The banner of the Potentates hung crimson and black at the top of the steps, between pillars of silver and milky quartz.

The guards didn’t bother to nod or salute Crag as he passed. He was beneath their notice, just another tool of the Tribune like themselves. Crag tried not to look at the trio of jade gargoyles above the entrance. The sculptures always gave him bad vibes, yet he could never avoid staring at their reptilian faces. They stared back at him with green stone eyes, their mouths grinning with crooked tusks. Crag entered the central corridor through an open pair of immense doors. The walls were sterile, built of white alloy and stainless steel. The chairs were ornate, carved of ancient wood, lined with deep velvet. Porcelain-faced Beatifics stood along the walls in their finest coats and hats, waiting for access to the Tribune’s court. Some wore shackles at wrists and ankles with silent gendarmes looming at their shoulders.

Crag approached a second pair of doors somewhat smaller than the first. These were carved of ancient wood with intricate swirls and arcane patterns. A gendarme opened the right door as Crag approached. He was expected after all.

Inside the golden bench of the Tribune stood on a raised platform above the twin stands of prosecution and defense. Eight plastic couches sat below in two orderly rows for the comfort of observers. In all his years serving the Ministere de Justice, Crag had never seen anyone sitting on those couches. The Tribune heard cases and made judgments without an audience. Crag wondered why the couches were even there if nobody was ever going to use them. He slumped down on the rearmost couch. His coils sighed and his leg gears unlocked.

On the left wall stood a door marked ABSOLUTION. An identical door on the opposite wall read PUNISHMENT. Prisoners brought into the court were judged, sentenced, and dragged through one door or the other. In all his years at the Ministere de Justice, Crag had never seen anyone get the door of absolution. He wondered if anyone ever had walked through it, and if it led anywhere at all.

The Tribune’s gavel fell with a boom. Two gendarmes escorted a condemned Beatific from the bench to the door of punishment. As the door opened before him the man lost all sense of dignity and began screaming for mercy. They always did that. The gendarmes wrestled him through the portal, and the door slammed shut. The shrieks of the condemned man echoed for awhile from the other side, gradually fading into silence.

The Tribune finished scribbling something on a scroll with his peacock quill pen. The Ministere de Justice had a real taste for old-fashioned customs. That is to say Tribune Anteus had a thing for old-fashioned things, because he was heart and soul of the Ministere de Justice. This was the House of Anteus. Everyone here answered to the Tribune, and the Tribune answered only to the Potentates.

A miniature version of the Potentate’s banner hung above the Tribune’s high seat. The opaque veil that hid the Tribune’s face matched his spotless white robe. A long powdered wig hid the rest of his head. The walls of the court were etched with mosaics of ancient Beatifics wearing those types of wigs. Despite its external modernity the place was a bastion of tradition, a crucible of frozen history, and the only source of order in the grand chaos that was the Urbille. Crag was a part of that order. He was good at his job, even if he’d lost the heart for it.

The Tribune waved his long fingers, and the precious stones of his rings sparkled.

“Inspector Crag, you may approach.” A voice familiar as the Urbille itself. The Tribune’s regular speeches, delivered via high-frequency transistor, were the voice of the Potentates. It was a voice Crag had known all his life. Yet did anyone really know the Tribune? Crag reported to him directly on a case-by-case basis. He preferred to avoid it whenever possible. The urge to strangle the man until his pulpy brain oozed from his optical sockets had left Crag years ago. That wouldn’t have been any good for Caroline.

Crag stood before the high bench in the place where accused criminals were also made to stand. The Tribune had all his meeting like this. A constant reminder that he sat above everyone else, even his fellow agents of order. Anteus drummed his sharp nails against the golden bench as he spoke.

“Splendid work tonight,” said the Tribune. “We can always count on you, Crag. Was the apprehension difficult?”

“No apprehension,” Crag said. “The killer was sick. He had to be put down on the spot.”

The veiled faced stared at him.

“It was a matter of life and death,” Crag said.

“Very well,” said the Tribune. “You’ll find no dispute from me this time. We have more important things to discuss.”

“What’s more important than keeping the Urbille’s children safe?”

“Whatever serves the interests of the Potentates, Inspector.”

“Yes, sir.”
“In this case the matter does happen to involve the youngest members of our population. Perhaps it is related in some way to the case you just solved, but that is not for me to say.”

Crag waited.

“Are you familiar with the notorious highwayman known as the Surgeon?”

“I’ve read the reports,” Crag said. “Renegade Beatific, roams the Nexus robbing and murdering travellers; horseman, swordsman, handy with a pistol; supernaturally gifted; responsible for at least a dozen murders a year for the past decade.”

Crag had an optical for detail and an excellent memory. Caroline always said it was what made him good at his job. A half-dozen special agents had tried to track, entrap, or gun down the highwayman in the past ten years. Nobody ever found him. And nobody who went looking for him ever came back alive.

The Tribune waved a sheaf of papers. “Yes, yes, but have you seen the Red File?”

Crag reached up and took the folder. He opened it and scanned the document inside. It was marked CONFIDENTIAL: TRIBUNE ONLY in red ink. A list of dates and names; times and places; most of them along the Greater Thoroughfare, the others in and around the Urbille itself. Abductions. Some singly, some in groups.

Crag read the notations and recognized his own name on several cases. He slapped the folder down onto a wooden podium. “Missing persons cases from the last 12 years. Some of them were my cases. All of them unsolved…”

“Two hundred and sixty four unsolved cases,” said the Tribune, “and we suspect many more unreported losses. Do you see what all of these cases have in common?”

Crag had already noticed it. “They’re all minors. Young Organics. Pre-Conversion citizens of the Urbille.” He checked a row of data. “Seventy percent were stolen from Beatific families, the rest from Clatterpox.”

“And what does that suggest to you?”

“That somebody’s stealing children from the Urbille and he doesn’t play favorites.”

“That somebody is the Surgeon, Inspector,” said the Tribune. “And these are only the cases of youths taken from the Urbille itself. It doesn’t take into account hundreds more who were stolen right off the Greater Thoroughfare. Taken from the families of travelling merchants and private expeditions. Even an acting troupe lost four Young Organics who were travelling with them as apprentices.”

“So the Surgeon is stealing kids,” Crag said. “Children of all ages. He’s not murdering his victims for their wealth. He’s robbing them of their children.”

“He takes whatever wealth he can as well,” said the Tribune, “but we now know that his primary target is and always has been our children. He’s never taken anyone who has undergone Conversion.”

“No one under the age of sixteen,” Crag said. “Why? What is he doing with them all?”

“Now you’re asking the right questions, Inspector. I knew you were the man for the job.”

“What job, Excellency?”

“This child-stealer is no better than the child-killer you just eliminated,” said the Tribune. “To understand his motives, we must look at the man behind the reputation. You remembered that the Surgeon is a Beatific. What else do you know about him?”

“Not much. Rumors and whispers. Some say he’s a devil from Hell, others say he works for the Potentates. I’ve even heard it said that he’s not human at all.”

“No, Crag. The Surgeon used to be Doctor Aimon Wail, a gifted physician specialized in Conversion. Ranked extremely high among the Masters of Conversion Arts and Sciences. He earned six doctorial degrees in biomechanics and won three Adept Scrolls. He served the Potentates in the Ministere de Science for over two hundred years, during that time Converting thousands of Organic youths into magnificent Beatifics. A job so important one might see it as a sacred calling.”

“What happened?” Crag asked. “Something must have sent him over the edge.”

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Welcome back!

Chapter 4 returns us to Svetlana, who crossed through a strange portal back in Chapter 1 and found herself in an alien desert. A big THANK YOU to everyone who’s reading and spreading the word.

In case you missed a chapter:
Chapter 1   Chapter 2   Chapter 3

Chapter 4.

The Apothecaries of Nil

At first she thought they were some kind of strange trees. They rustled and shambled in the distance like a pack of lazy spiders. It might have been the hot wind that moved them, but the wind had died down hours ago. The tiny white sun had set, but the big orange sun never changed its position. It blazed across a quarter of the crimson sky.

Svetlana had stripped the lining from her parka to make a scarf that covered head and shoulders. She had never known such heat, not even in the brief depths of summer on the tundra. She dripped sweat and staggered forward with a dry mouth, rationing the rest of her canteen water. She half-believed she would find Dima, but also half-believed she would die trying. If she did find him in this boiling hell, he would need water too. She would need to find more of it, or something else to drink.

Several times she considered going back. She fell to her knees on the seamless pavement where the blowing sand would not drift. She wept and wailed at the bloody sky. But going back was not really an option. The eelheads would kill her as she came through the gate. Even if she survived their torments, she’d have to live with abandoning little Dima.

You’re not going back.

Get up and follow that damned angel.

Follow him to Dima, or to death.

A mother’s fierce heart.

So she got up, that time and the next time. She prayed that dusk would fall and the red sky would fade to the cool touch of night. But night never came in this place. All three of the moons had set and risen again, but no darkness came. There was no night here, only a time when one bloated sun ruled the sky, and another even hotter time when the smaller sun rose to join it for awhile.

Her stomach growled and her throat was raw. She ignored the hunger like a wound, a pain in her gut for which she could do nothing. She walked the endless road and her skin turned to red then brown. Her body ached. There was no way to measure the passing of time since night and day had become meaningless concepts. She saw nothing alive here, no plants, not even the tiniest lizard. Nothing but sand, bare rock, and red sky, until she came upon the creatures.

Heedless of danger, drunk on heat and light, she stumbled closer to the trembling things. They were far taller than she imagined. If they were vegetable in nature, they might have fruit for her to eat. If they were some kind of animal, she might kill one of them and eat its flesh. She drew Takamoto’s blade and walked on, too exhausted for a cautious approach. They weren’t spiders at all, at least not earthly ones.

Their central bodies were like clusters of colossal grapes, a mass of fleshy ovoids hanging from a central stem, gathered into a “bunch” by clinging transparent membranes. From that central stalk rose nine segmented appendages, arcing into the air above the cluster-body, and swiveling downward at the third joint to impact the earth. These leg-like appendages formed a crude “cage” about each of the body-clusters. Each leg ended in a single talon long as a sword, and these talons clacked against the road or dug into the sand as the creatures walked.

The color of their flesh ranged from black to purple to lavender with veins of white, and their strangely pleasant odor blew on the wind. Svetlana inhaled it and came close enough to walk beneath the nearest of the creatures, who seemed entirely unconcerned with her presence. The point of her blade dug a furrow in the sand beside her; she couldn’t find the strength to raise it.

She examined the crab-like legs as she walked between them. One of the creatures swiveled its many eyes at her. They blinked violet and gleaming from the body-cluster, two eyes set in each of the hanging ovoids. She fell to her knees again, not because of the high-pitched garbling of the creature, although it pierced her ears like a siren. What forced her to the ground, humbled her with impossibility, was its cluster of faces.

The creature’s central body was composed of a dozen or more suspended ovoids, each one with its own two eyes, nose, and mouth. They were human faces, some of them bloated and stretched, while others hung limp and drooling. Some of its faces were beautiful in their androgynous simplicity. Others were rotten and half-decayed. A horrible cluster of heads, most of them warbling something vital and unintelligible.

A warning? A greeting? Svetlana couldn’t begin to say.

Other clusters of heads regarded her from outside the cage of legs into which she’d stumbled. She lay on the sand now, directly below the hanging cluster of heads.

Now these things will kill me, and it will be over.

I tried, Dima. Forgive me.

In the cool shadow of the creature’s body, the only shade she found since coming through the gateway, she fell unconscious. An instant later, or perhaps many hours, the chill of liquid on her lips awoke her like a shockwave. It sluiced into her mouth and overspilled her cheeks. Cold, pure water. She drank it down, deeply and greedily, until her stomach felt bloated and her head ached. She wiped the excess over her face and hair, and her vision cleared.

One of the cluster-headed beings kneeled beside her on seven folded legs. Its last two appendages were what passed for arms. They rose from the central stalk like the other seven legs, but were contracted now to half their length, drawing into the central stalk. Among the glistening heads staring at her from the creature’s mid-body, there were three that seemed entirely human. She avoided looking at the decayed heads and the distorted ones. Perhaps some of the thing’s heads were dying, rotten fruits clinging to the vine. Three pairs of healthy eyes stared at Svetlana while the pointed arms poured water from a glass orb. The three heads spoke simultaneously, and she could not understand the language. It sounded like the singing of insects, but much louder.

Svetlana checked her body. She lay unmolested next to the kindly being, her sword left on the sand a short distance away. The rest of the head-cluster beings milled about nearby, as if waiting for Svetlana’s caretaker to give a sign. Surely they wouldn’t give her water if they intended to kill her. Yet there were worse fates than death.

The being’s dual appendages sat down the glass globe and reached above its main stalk where a bundle of provisions sat tied with strands of rope. The creature’s arms found what they were looking for: a tall glass vial of murky liquid. It clanked against several other glass containers as the being removed it from the rope-net above its head-cluster.

It offered the vial to Svetlana with a few blithering words, and several pair of blinking eyes. One of the side heads vomited an orange mucous, but the three pleasant faces smiled at her. Their eyes were orbs of gleaming purple, and their lips were that same shade. None of the heads had any hair, since they were connected to the other heads by shared membranes where a human might grow healthy locks.

Svetlana touched the vial. She had been dragged from the road proper to the camp of the head-cluster beings. The razory tip of an appendage came forward and punctured the big cork that sealed the vial. It pulled the cork free with a popping sound, and motioned for her to drink.

She sniffed at the mouth of the bottle. A sour-sweet stench. Definitely not water. But they had shared their water with her already. Why do that if they were only going to poison her? She blinked at the three smiling heads, tried to ignore the rotting skulls higher up on the beast’s cluster-body, and tipped the vial above her lips.

It burned going down, and she coughed some of it back up. The creature took the bottle immediately, deftly re-stoppering and re-storing it. Svetlana writhed and spat and cursed in the dirt beside the road. The heat expanded from her tongue to her fingertips, then from her belly to her brain, and her vision swelled with colors she could not name. She gnashed her teeth and wretched, but there was no food in her stomach to throw up.

The world turned to a mess of hot blurs, and she feared the drink had blinded her. She’d heard stories of the eelheads blinding men to make them more docile slaves. The roaring in her ears finally ceased, and her eyes regained their sight. She blinked at the many-headed creature.

“…not specifically an elixir of telepathy, but one of understanding. A liquid-form course in celestial linguistics, if you will. It should be working by now.” She realized a voice was addressing her with words that actually made sense. Of the three handsome heads that hung near her, the closest two were speaking with simultaneous words. “Are you feeling better?”

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Why release Chapter 3 so early?

Because I can.

I make the rules here, not some distant publishing company. That’s the whole point of this experiment. And it feels gooood.

I also wanted to get the first three chapters out as soon as possible, so that readers can meet all three main characters. Their separate narratives entwine as the book goes on, but we’ll keep visiting Svetlana, Crag, and Harmona individually until fate brings them together. (No spoilers, dude!) Chapter 3 introduces Harmona and the New Organics. 

A big THANK YOU to everyone who’s reading and spreading the word.

In case you missed a chapter: Chapter 1    Chapter 2



Chapter 3.


The world was green and good. Harmona watched the sun rise from the top of the Hearthtower. The stone beneath her bare feet grew warmer in the first light of day. The last hint of night faded from the sky and clouds rolled above the worldforest.

The tower’s top was flat and entirely seamless. Its diameter was wide enough to hold a hundred or more people, but nobody had followed Harmona up here this morning yet. She relished these rare moments of quietude, when the only sounds came from the great flocks of birds soaring above the trees. This was the only place where she could look across the treetops, a green ocean of leaf and palm that blanketed the continent as far as she could see.

Ten years living on Gaeya and her people had yet to locate the edges of the great woodland or the farthest shores of the continent. She knew there was an actual ocean out there somewhere, a place where mighty rivers emptied themselves and solid land gave way to the chaos of open waters. Some enterprising wanderer of a future generation would discover it. She was content to stay here at the heart of the green world, to watch the sun rise above the pinnacle of HearthHome.

The morning wind tossed the curls of her hair and whipped the mothsilk gown about her legs. She inhaled the fragrance of a million blossoms on the breeze, the comforting scents of leaf and bark, and beneath it the everpresent musk of raw earth. Somewhere under that canopy of endless green, Dorian and his band of hunters were on their way back home.

Ten years ago she would never have imagined him as an archer, a huntsman, a wood-roaming champion of his people. Yet back then she would have never imagined herself standing atop this tower and staring at a new world of bounty and freedom. She raised her hands to catch a ray of sunlight, like picking fruit from a low branch. The golden light played across her knuckles, her upturned palms, the pale brown skin of her forearms. These simple pleasures would have remained unknown to her if she had not come here.

Gratitude swelled like a raw flame in her breast, ready to burst from her skin like sunbeams. The wind caressed her face. She hoped Dorian would return soon. It had been six days since she felt his warm skin against her own. She trembled, anticipating the heat of his lips, the strength of his arms wrapped about her waist.


Harmona turned to meet her daughters as they topped the spiral stairwell from the tower’s uppermost chamber. Elodie, her youngest, had been the first to call out. Harmona couldn’t quite believe that six years had already passed since Elodie’s birth. Astrid and Sabine, Elodie’s eight- and nine-year old sisters, followed her onto the tower-top, grinning into the wind. Elodie blinked into the glaring sunlight as she leaped into her mother’s arms. All three girls still wore their sleeping gowns. Like Harmona, they hadn’t bothered to change before coming up to enjoy the dawn.

They stood together along the short circular wall that enclosed the roof. Harmona lifted Elodie so she could see over the edge.

“See how green the world is,” Harmona said. She brushed Elodie’s hair back from her round face.

“The sun hurts my eyes,” Elodie said. She buried her face in Harmona’s neck.

“You can’t look directly at it,” Astrid said. “You’ll go blind.”

Harmona smiled and rubbed Astrid’s head.

“Who told you that?” she said.

“Father,” said Astrid. “When he took us to the Sacred Grove.”

“Is it true?” Sabine asked. She was the skeptic of the bunch. Wise beyond her years. The firstborn and the first to question what was given or said to her.

“Yes,” said Harmona. “The sun is made of fire. If you touch a hearth fire your hand will burn. The sun will burn your eyes. Yet without it we’d all be stuck in darkness.”

“No we wouldn’t,” Sabine said.

Astrid gave her a dirty look. “Why not?”

“Because of the moons,” Sabine explained. “Six moons greater and lesser to light our way through the darkness.”

Harmona smiled. Sabine had learned well from her tutors.

“Can you name all six moons?”

Sabine rolled the names off her tongue rapidly. Astrid joined in with the names of the last two, mimicking her sister.

“The sun also gives us heat and warmth,” Sabine said. “There are six moons, but the nights are cold. Why don’t the moons give us warmth, Mother?”

Harmona pinched her eldest daughter’s cheek. “You are full of questions,” she said. “The moons only reflect the sun’s fire. They are bright but cold.”

“What are the moons made of?” Astrid asked.

“Stone,” Harmona said.

“Like HearthHome,” said Elodie.

Harmona kissed her daughter’s forehead. “That’s right, precious girl.”

Mother and daughters stared across the green world for a moment. A flock of white birds reflected the sun’s gold from their plumage.

“Tell us about the place you came from,” Sabine asked. “You never talk about it.”

Harmona frowned. Sabine’s curiosity went hand-in-hand with her intelligence. She cherished this quality in her oldest, but sometimes it made for difficult moments.

“It was an old world,” she said. “Nothing like this one. It was dark and grey. Cold.”

“Were there six moons?”

“No,” Harmona said. “Only one.”

“The nights must have been dark there.”

“Yes,” Harmona said. “Very dark.”

“Tell us more,” Astrid said.

Harmona sat Elodie down at her feet. “Your father is better at telling tales than I am. He’ll be home in a day or two. You can ask him these questions.”

Sabine sighed. She was used to her mother’s avoidance of this topic. Dorian had a way of explaining things to his girls that softened the cruelty of the past. He turned everything into a lesson or an entertaining story. When Harmona thought of their life before Gaeya, she felt like weeping. She didn’t want the girls to see her like that.

“Father’s coming home?” Elodie asked. She jumped and ran around the rooftop, shouting her joy to the wind. Children had no filters for their emotions. Already Harmona felt the shadow of Sabine’s question fading. She smiled and embraced her two eldest.

“Let’s go down to breakfast,” she said. “We’ll have honey and wheat-toast, and there’s loamberries and wingfruit fresh from the gardens.”

“I’m hungry!” Astrid said. Sabine reluctantly agreed to receiving nourishment over knowledge. The girls followed their mother down the spiral stair into the suite of bedchambers that served as home to the HearthMother. They changed into soft tunics of plant fiber dyed to colors of earth, leaf, and sky, set with golden trim at sleeves and hem. Each daughter presented herself and passed inspection.

Harmona took up her staff of black metal, her touch igniting the emerald flame that danced above its head. A circlet of beaten gold inscribed with a pattern of leaf and vine marked her status as HearthMother. It had taken her years to get used to wearing the circlet, but now she hardly noticed its presence about her forehead. She thought of it as little more than a device to keep her mass of dark curls from obscuring her face. The staff was a reminder of the world from which she had escaped. One day Sabine would ask for the story behind the staff. One day Harmona would have the strength to tell her everything. But that was not today.

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Back at ya!

The response to Chapter One has been so positive and supportive, I decided not to wait a whole week to release Chapter 2 of the novel. Here you’ll meet the second main character CRAG and discover the bizarre (and often terrifying) city known as The Urbille. I’m thinking I might release Chapter Three a bit early as well, since I want readers to meet all three main characters as soon as possible. Special Thanks to everyone who shared my announcement about Chapter One. In the words of Ozzy Osbourne: “I love you all!”

Let’s rock…



Chapter 2.
Blood in the Rust


It was raining in the Urbille. The gutters sparkled with tiny rivers of black foam. Usually the Rusted Zone was a maze of red fogs and clouds of metallic grit, but the rain had cooled the streets and cleared the air. Heat rose from the pavement in curtains of steam. The stars were lost behind a canopy of curling smokes.

Crag walked through a slurry of rust and mud between the husks of ancient foundries. Most of the factories in this precinct were abandoned long ago. The broken bones of the buildings lay in the shadow of crumbling smokestacks. This was the ass-end of the Zone, a place even the Clatterpox avoided. A perfect place for murder.

The wind kicked up and Crag almost lost his top hat. He pulled the lapels of his waistcoat tight across his chest. He was following a hunch. The first six bodies had all been found within a two-kilometer radius of this place. Old Brickyard Avenue wound through the southwestern corner of the Zone. The victims, each one mutilated and headless, must have been killed here before being dumped into seven different rubbish bins. Nobody would hear children screaming in these decayed lots. Crag had studied a map of the Zone until a spark of inspiration ignited in the back of his skull. The spark led him here.

His opticals scanned the sodden pavement, looking for footprints in the shifting layers of sludge. The rain actually helped his search. Not even a lumbering Clatterpox would leave tracks for long on a dry street. The wind would blow any such marks to oblivion in seconds. But wet mud held prints intact for awhile, especially the rust-enriched ooze of the Zone.

Crag walked for an hour through the slurry as the downpour lessened to a steady drizzle. He had almost given up finding anything when he spotted the tiny trail of crimson rushing along a gutter to swirl down a drainage grill. He followed the gutter to its source at the curb of a derelict foundry, and a puddle of red at least a meter in diameter. It lay directly in front of a sliding iron door built high enough to admit a cargo lorry.

A smudge of red blood along the edge of the door almost resembled a handprint. It stood slightly ajar, and Crag felt the spark in his brain again.

The tiny gears in the fingers of his right hand clicked as he pulled the pistol from its shoulder holster. The door’s lock had been lost long ago, and the killer hadn’t bothered to replace it. Inside was a vast chamber of darkness, but a few stray beams of moonlight fell through the corroded ceiling. A tangle of rusted metal shards, iron vats, and  hanging chains filled the dark. Two sets of stairs led toward a gallery level above what was once a busy factory floor.

Crag stepped across the scattered debris. The trail of blood drops led deeper into the darkness. Nobody bled in the Urbille except children. Crag had found what he was looking for here. A muffled cry resounded from the walls as he reached the foot of the left stairwell. The red droplets led upward. The killer’s seventh victim was already dying.

Crag climbed the stairs as quietly as possible, hoping the killer was too busy with his prize, too secure in his privacy, to be alert. The next cry wasn’t so much muffled as torn from a tender throat. The stairwell vibrated with minute reverberations as the scream’s echoes died away. One more step and Crag’s head broke the plane of the gallery level. Deep within the shadows a flame flickered orange and golden, surrounded by the remains of extinct machinery.

Crag didn’t need to follow the drops any longer to know they led directly to the flame. A third scream, raw and animalistic, rang through the rafters. Crag moved forward, arms extended at chest level, pistol gripped in both hands. Finger light against the trigger.

There he was. The killer with his seventh victim. The smiling porcelain face confirmed what Crag had suspected: the killer was a Beatific. The lips of the alabaster face were painted blood red, and its opticals gleamed with emerald light, focused entirely on the young, bleeding Organic. The kid was probably twelve years old, four years from Conversion and adulthood. The killer kneeled before his victim at the center of a spreading circle of crimson.

Of course it was a Beatific. No Clatterpox could ever be this insane. Forty years of hunting his own kind had convinced Crag that the worst crimes were always committed by Beatifics. In all that time, he hadn’t established a theory as to why that was true. It was just something he knew deep in his coils. His heart-cogs increased their speed as the killer’s face lifted to regard him.

The elastic skin of the killer’s hands was drenched with the kid’s blood. A hooked knife gleamed dripping in each of those hands. Flames danced in a tin bucket nearby, the only source of illumination besides the killer’s green opticals.

“Don’t move,” Crag said. He aimed the pistol at the sweet spot just between the killer’s opticals.

“Inspector Crag,” said the killer. The child lying before him whimpered. Its small body was criss-crossed with a dozen preliminary wounds. Crag may have saved his life, but the boy would bear the scars of these wounds until his Conversion Day.

“You know me?” Crag said, stepping closer. Another two meters and there was no way he’d miss the head shot. Keep the creep talking.

“Of course,” said the killer. His fixed porcelain smile flashed in the gloom. “You’ve been in the papers. Chasing me down. I’ve been reading about you.” His dark waistcoat bore a white rose on its lapel. Strangely, it bore no sign of the blood that stained his coat and trousers.

Crag couldn’t see the kid’s face, but he could tell the boy was only half-conscious. The pain had been too much for him. Crag could almost remember what that particular sensation was like. It had been too many centuries. He barely remembered physical pain, but he knew the other kind well. The kind of pain that eats you up from the inside, the kind that started in the heart-cogs and travelled straight to the brain in its silvery casement. The pain of loss and loneliness and bitterness. He’d gladly trade that for some simply physical agony. But that was not how the world worked.

“Why’d you do it?” Crag asked, taking another step closer. Almost there.

The killer laughed, brandishing his bloody knives like conductors’ batons.

“I assume you mean the killing not the reading,” he said. “Do you really want to know, Inspector?”

“Tell me,” Crag said.”Why children?” One more step.

The green opticals glowed at him. The killer looked down at the kid’s body.

“They’re so young and pure,” the killer said. “So sweet and tender. I would call them innocent, but there’s no one innocent in the Urbille. I’m saving them, Inspector.”

“Saving them from what?” Crag was in range now. One pull on the trigger.

Something stalled him. Morbid curiosity.

“From becoming like us,” said the killer. His porcelain cheeks gleamed orange in the flamelight. “From losing everything that makes them human. Instead of dooming them to live forever inside a mechanized constructs–prisons!–I set them free. That’s all these clever bodies are, Inspector. Prisons. Surely you know that.”

“Drop the knives,” Crag said.

The killer’s left hand obeyed. Its knife clanged on the foundry floor, but the right hand retained its weapon. The killer’s left hand reached up to caress his own porcelain chin. With a deft movement he detached the Beatific mask and pulled it away, revealing the bare surface of his silver skull. His green opticals gleamed brighter.

“This is what we truly are,” the killer said. “Machines built from silver and tin, aluminum and copper, iron and steel. These faces we wear, they’re lies. Each one of us dies on the day of our Conversion. You don’t really think the brains inside our skulls are still alive do you? We’re all damned souls, trapped in our personal hells. So I free the little ones before they walk into the same prison that holds us for eternity.”

The spark jumped again at the back of Crag’s skull.

“It doesn’t matter whether you wear a porcelain visage like mine, or a bronze face like yours, we are all the same beneath the veneer of society’s masks,” said the killer. “We can’t even show our true faces in public. We are masked prisoners, spirits locked inside clockwork engines. I’m sparing the little ones this awful fate. Do you understand? Tell me you do.”

“Why torture them?” Crag said. He didn’t move at all. Kept the pistol trained on the sweet spot. The kill shot. Any second now. Why hadn’t he already pulled the trigger? Maybe he simply had to know what drove a Beatific to such horrible acts of violence.

“Torture?” the killer said. “No, I’m preparing them for the journey. Unlike us, their umblemished souls get to leave the Urbille. They travel who knows where–into the next universe or the next life. Suffering is good for the soul, so I prepare them for the journey by making their flesh suffer. I set them free.”

“What about the heads?” Crag asked.

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Welcome to my brand-new novel, A FEW ODD SOULS. I’ve decided to release it on my website, one chapter per week for 22 weeks. Each chapter will be accompanied by an original illustration by Yours Truly.

Why am I doing this instead of publishing through “traditional” channels? A few reasons:

1) How many authors ever reward their fans with a free novel? A FEW ODD SOULS is for the fans of my Shaper and Tall Eagle books. (see sidebar for samples and ordering info) Thank you for reading my work, now here’s my latest and best — for you, for free.

2) I want to interact with the fans as they’re reading and consuming the story. So please drop me an e-mail after reading each chapter: 

3) Releasing a complete novel for free subverts the entire publishing industry model. It cuts out all middle-men, gate-keepers, and bean-counters that stand between YOU and ME (Reader and Writer). I’m not in this for the money–I wrote for years before making any money from it. I’m in it to tell great stories, and to reach as many people as possible with them. 

4) It’s also a chance for me to re-ignite my dormant artistic skills. I used to dream about drawing comics for a living when I was a kid, and about twenty years ago I did draw a graphic novel (NECROMANCY: A DARK ROMANCE, later released digitally as SKULLS). However, that experience made me realize that I’m a much better writer than comic-book artist, so I haven’t drawn much in the past two decades. Now I’m going back to doing art that supports my story. Every chapter will have one relevant illustration that I’ve completed specifically for this purpose. Mostly I’ll be working with pen-and-ink.

A FEW ODD SOULS is my Weird Fantasy Epic. It combines several genres but remains weird all the way through. What does that mean? Well, you’ll just have to read it to find out.

Chapter 1 introduces SVETLANA, one of three main characters. In Chapter 2 you’ll meet INSPECTOR CRAG, while Chapter 3 introduces HARMONA. As chapters continue, the viewpoints of these three central characters will alternate from chapter to chapter, heading toward an inevitable collision that defies space and time itself. 


John R. Fultz
March 27, 2019
Fairfield, CA



Chapter 1.
The Faceless Angel


The dead city was alive tonight.

The tops of its towers had crumbled. Most of its avenues were lost beneath a sea of rubble. A forest of weeds and creeping vines sprouted from the devastation every summer, only to die and rot in winter. A hundred years had passed since people had lived here. Most of their bones lay deep beneath the rot and ruin.

Omiska, they used to call it, those who had raised its towers and paved its roads. Those who were less than memories. Only the city’s name had survived, whispered by elders in campfire tales across the tundra. In time even that would be forgotten, as all things must be.

Yet tonight there were lights in the dead city.

The pale glow of those who had destroyed it.

Svetlana crouched behind a mossy boulder on the lower slope of the mountain. She watched the lights swim through the ruins like schools of phosphorescent fish in water. They glided toward the center of the wreckage. She could not see what was calling them together. She would have to get closer for that, explore the canyons of debris on foot.

The moon rose above the frosted peaks behind her. The gliding motes of radiance concentrated themselves at the heart of the dead city. A few stragglers drifted in to join the gathering. Eelheads. At least fifty of them, possibly more. She recognized them by the glow of their rubbery skins. Nothing else alive glowed like that. They were the ones who had conquered the city when her grandfather was young, as they had conquered every city across the world. They had built their own strange cities after wiping out most of the human population. She had no idea what drew them now to this forsaken place.

Svetlana had heard all the stories. She only half-believed that her kind once ruled this world, that millions upon millions of human beings had once existed. It seemed impossible that her people could breed in such great numbers, or that the eelheads could decimate so many of them. Yet the remains of great cities like Omiska — human cities — provided evidence that she couldn’t ignore.

In the books kept by the wise ones there were pictures of the human cities when they were alive with colorful multitudes. They had seemed to her younger self like visions from another world. Yet Svetlana’s father had taught her that the pictures were of true things, lingering visions of a lost glory. She had seen only one other dead city, a lesser version of Omiska whose name had been entirely lost. The eelheads had ignored that lesser ruin since destroying it during their great conquest.

She didn’t know what brought the eelheads swarming into Omiska tonight, but it must have something to do with the angel. The silver-winged angel without a face that had stolen her child. She moved down the slope, leaving tracks in the shallow snow. She didn’t dare to light a torch, but moved by the grey light of the moon. The wind whipped at her long braid, tearing loose strands of black hair that danced across her face. She stopped every few hundred meters to hide behind a rock or slip into a dry gully.

She avoided the yellow-barked trees heavy with bulbous veiny fruits. They were eelhead trees. They had spread across the world after the conquerors had claimed it. To eat their fruit brought madness, death, or worse. To walk within range of their stalks would attract their strangling vines. The trees fed on the blood of any living thing they could snare. Svetlana had seen too many men die in the grip of those thorny vines. The wise ones called them dyirevokrov, blood-trees. They drank lives in seconds, yet the eelheads could walk among them with impunity. Their poisonous fruits were a delicacy among the conquerors.

Svetlana climbed into a ravine and followed it toward the foot of the mountain. There might be sentinels at the rim of the ruins, but they couldn’t see her moving along the bottom of the crevasse. She moved across the uneven ground with caution. Her hands twitched, anxious to draw Takamoto’s blade from its sheathe across her back. She forced herself to wait. Even in the crevasse moonlight might glance from the blade and give away her approach.

She rested a hand on the grip of a pistol holstered at her thigh. It was a relic, an antique from the time before the eelheads came. Her father had kept it clean, oiled, and functional, passing the rituals of its maintenance on to her when her brother had died. A bandolier slung across her right shoulder held forty-six rounds. She had sold the last of her other keepsakes to buy the ammunition in Kirishni a week ago.

Tonight she could not use the gun at all. Its thunder would draw the eelheads in great numbers. If that happened, she wouldn’t stand a chance. She must be quiet and remain unseen. A mystery glowed at the center of dead Omiska. The key to that mystery would lead to her son wherever the angel had taken him. Not for the first time she wondered at connection between the eelheads and the angel. According to the oracle at Kirishni, she would find the answer here.

Svetlana had found the oracle sitting in a dim cave. The old woman sprinkled dust and bird-bones into a small fire. The oracle was old and toothless with skin like ancient leather. At some point the crone had eaten the fruit of the dyirevokrov and somehow survived it. A mass of fleshy tendrils grew curling from the side of her face. Her left arm had been deformed by the fruit as well. It writhed across her matted robe like a pale serpent, and a flower-like blossom sat where her hand used to be. She had gained magical sight by daring the madness and deformity of the blood-fruit. The oracle of Kirishni had paid a horrible price for wisdom.

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It’s here! WEIRDBOOK Annual #2 is available at last. A massive tome of all-new weird fiction—and poetry—all inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. 

A diverse assortment of eldritch horrors and terrors from beyond awaits the intrepid reader.

Includes my story “The Thing In The Pond.”

WEIRDBOOK Annual #2 – Table of Contents

•”The Shining Trapezohedron” by Robert M. Price
•”A Noble Endeavor” by Lucy A. Snyder
•”Ancient Astronauts” by Cynthia Ward
•”The Thing in the Pond” by John R. Fultz
•”Enter The Cobweb Queen” by Adrian Cole
•”Tricks No Treats” by Paul Dale Anderson
•”Ronnie and the River” by Christian Riley
•”Cellar Dweller” by Franklyn Searight
•”Yellow Labeled VHS Tape” by R.C. Mulhare
•”Tuama” by L.F. Falconer
•”Mercy Holds No Measure” by Kenneth Bykerk
•”Treacherous Memory” by Glynn Owen Barrass
•”The Hutchison Boy” by Darrell Schweitzer
•”Dolmen of The Moon” by Deuce Richardson
•”Lovecraftian Limerick” by Andrew J. Wilson
•”A Wizard’s Daughter” by Ann K. Schwader
•”The Shadow of Azathoth is your Galaxy” by DB Spitzer
•”Ascend” by Mark A. Mihalko
•”The Solace of the Farther Moon” by Allan Rozinski
•”The Stars Are Always Right” by Charles Lovecraft
•”Daemonic Nathicana” by K.A. Opperman
•”Asenat” by Ashley Dioses
•”The Book of Eibon/Le Livre D’eibon” trans. by Frederick J. Mayer

Get Your Weird On.

Forbidden Futures #3

Art by Mike Dubisch [Click to Enlarge]

FORBIDDEN FUTURES is a unique celebration of dark fantasy art and storytelling. The third issue features a “high fantasy” theme, but don’t expect the traditional fantasy fare as weirdness and horror are more likely to show up than “sweetness and light” in these adventures.

All the stories are based on artwork by the sensational Mike Dubisch, and the esteemed Cody Goodfellow serves as contributing editor. My story “Tears of the Elohim” appears in this issue, alongside one of Mike’s many superb illustrations.

You won’t find another magazine like this out there, blending voices of fantasy and horror prose with fantastic artwork from a single illustrator’s visionary palette.

Get your copy right HERE.




Darren Coelho Spring’s spectacular film explores the life and legend of Clark Ashton Smith–one of fantasy’s greatest talents, and one of the 20th Century’s most enduring “outsider artists.” [Art by Skinner]

I missed the World Fantasy Convention this year because I was too sick to travel. Feeling much better now, but still disappointed that I missed this terrific convention–it’s been my favorite yearly con since I attended my first one in 2009. (Wow! That was almost ten years ago! Time does fly…)

Front cover of the DVD.

So how did I get over the heartbreak of missing WFC? I watched CLARK ASHTON SMITH: THE EMPEROR OF DREAMS, the brand new documentary spotlighting the life, the work, and the legend of my favorite fantasy writer.

I can’t say enough good things about this film, so let me just hit you with a few of the highlights:

  • The interviews with CAS experts are insightful and get more fascinating as the film continues.
  • The visuals are extremely well-done, as is the haunting and ethereal soundtrack, two elements that work together to create an almost supernatural presence as the story of Smith’s life unfolds.
  • Seeing the actual landscape that inspired “City of the Singing Flame”–one of Smith’s most admired tales, and one of his few fantasies that touch upon the “real world” in addition to his usual fantastical realms.
  • Some parts of the movie achieve an acid-trip style quality; filmmaker Darren Coelho Spring was obviously trying to evoke the weird wonder of reading a CAS tale–and he succeeds at this goal. This bio-doc gets totally “trippy” in a way that is delightfully unexpected.
  • After loving CAS’s work for decades, I now have a true understanding of the MAN behind the literature–the human being behind the cosmic poetry–the wizard behind all those wonderful narrative spells.
  • It traces Smith’s life from the beginning to the end, and provides a living context for his wildly fantastic work and his transcendent mastery of the written word.
  • One of Harlan Ellison’s last interviews is included, and he has some terrific observations about Smith’s work and legacy. Fittingly, Harlan even gets the “last word” in the documentary, exhorting the timeless quality of CAS’s work.
  • The film expertly captures Smith’s status as an “outsider” or “maverick” artist who never sold out, never chased after fame or success, and never once compromised his immense artistic vision.
  • CLARK ASHTON SMITH: THE EMPEROR OF DREAMS is the next best thing to sitting down with Smith himself and discussing the arc of his life in superb detail.

Back cover of the DVD.

One caveat: This documentary is really for those who are already fans of Smith’s fiction, poetry, and other works of art. It’s not a CAS “primer” built to woo new fans. As Harlan Ellison elucidates so very well, Smith doesn’t need to chase fans; they find him.

If you are already a fan of Smith’s work, this documentary will amaze, enlighten, and entrance you.

You can watch the movie online HERE.

You can order a copy of the DVD HERE.

I rented it, watched it, and immediately ordered a copy of the DVD. It will make a terrific edition to anyone’s collection of CAS books.

I’m already itching to watch it again.


Finally, here’s a link to a comprehensive look at Smith’s greatest epic poem, THE HASHISH EATER (or THE APOCALYPSE OF EVIL) that I wrote for Black Gate a few years back. This poem is given a special place in the documentary, as well it should be. There are few if any poems that can match its phantasmagorical imagery.

Ever since the great Tanith Lee passed away, I’ve been meaning to make time for going back and 1) reading some of her important works that I may have missed, and 2) re-reading some of my TL favorites. Now that summer is in full swing, my reading season is here at last.

In the past few years DAW has done a terrific job of releasing much of Tanith’s early back catalog, including the 1976 fantasy classic THE STORM LORD, and it’s two sequels. I’m reading that now and really loving it.

Looking at the great covers this book has been blessed with for over forty years, you can see from these images alone what a powerful story this is. A few years back I found and bought a huge paperback called WARS OF VIS that collected the first two books, but these days I’ve grown used to reading on my Kindle (for various reasons), so this gave me the chance to get all three VIS novels as e-books.

I’m glad to see that DAW has plans for even more Tanith Lee reprints, and they have already released new editions of the TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH series–which many consider to be Tanith’s greatest masterpiece. However, THE STORM LORD was written directly before she started writing the first of the Flat Earth books, so it’s a look at her creative genius still in its formative stages. She was writing at a breakneck pace in the 70s, and that period is my favorite of her long and distinguished career.


Click to enlarge

The second Magtone story, “Clouds Like Memories, Words Like Stones” is appearing in the pages of WEIRDBOOK #39, on sale now.

Magtone of Karakutas is a poet-thief and a reluctant wizard, the lone survivor of a doomed metropolis. On his trusty flying carpet he soars across a world of lost kingdoms and fading civilizations, ever in search of Odaza, City of Walking Gods. Along the way he meets quite a few interesting folks–in “Clouds” these include a noble tribe of lion-folk and a raging dragon older than mountains.

Each Magtone story is self-contained, but reading them in order will give you the sense of a bigger picture. The first one, “The Veneration of Evil in the Kingdom of Ancient Lies” appeared two issues back in WEIRDBOOK #37.

Table of Contents for WB #39:

•HORROR AROUND THE BEND, by Franklyn Searight
•A TINY CUT, by Samson Stormcrow Hayes
•POSTHUMOUS, by Marlane Quade Cook
•PAGES FROM AN INVISIBLE BOOK, by Darrell Schweitzer
•THAT NAME WAS EVOC, by Lorenzo Crescentini
•MISDIAGNOSED, by Jackie Bee
•DOG DROOL, by Frederick J. Mayer
•SPAWNING GROUND, by Hannah Lackoff
•MONIKA UNRAVELING, by Rebecca House
•CRAWLING WITH THEM, by Jason Zwiker
•SEVEN SISTERS, by James Machin
•THE HOUSE IN THE MOUNTAINS, by Michael Washburn
•EYES WITHOUT A FACE, by Thomas Vaughn
•CLARTLEY CHOWDER, by Richie Brown
•DIVINE WIND OF THE DARK, by Frank Schildiner
•SKRIK, by Bekki Pate
•DEMIURGE, by Mark A. Fitch
•UP THE LAZY RIVER, by Adrian Cole

Poetry and Short Stories
•EA CARPE NOCTIS, by Frank Coffman
•THE CURSED, by Julio Toro San Martin and Hank Simmons
•BAD NIGHT, by Lucy Snyder
•SONGS OF THE QUAIL, by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
•SYLVAN SIMALCRUM, by Chad Hensley
•MISTER DORTON’S CATS, by Russ Parkhurst
•MISKATONIC ETUDES, by James P. Roberts
•THE AUTUMN PEOPLE, by Kurt Newton

Get Your Weird On.

Summertime Rolls…

Art by Frazetta

It’s summertime again, me hearties! Time for ol’ Fultzy to get “back to the drawing board”– or in this case, the “writing board.”

I’ve been researching and soul-searching lately to figure out what I’ll be writing this summer. Consequently, I’ve changed my original plans:

I will not be writing a third TALL EAGLE novel this summer. Instead, I’m going to focus on writing a new batch of short stories for various markets.

To explain the staggering irony of this decision, a little background: This year I’ve written more short stories than any single year since 2012, when my first novel was published. So I’m kind of on a roll short-story wise.

Writing novels is very different from writing short stories–it requires an entirely different mindset. It’s not as easy as you might think to “shift” back and forth between those two mindsets. Novels require weeks and months of intense concentration on one idea, and expanding that idea to its ultimate potential. With a short story you can do the same thing–explore an idea to its ultimate potential–in a day or two. Of course some stories take way longer to write than others, but no short story takes as long to write as a novel. (At least not for me, anyway.)

Art by Frazetta

Sales of the TALL EAGLE books has not been what I’d call impressive. Reviews are all great, but reviews don’t sell books–regardless of what Amazon tells you. I’ll say it again: Reviews don’t sell books. Especially when those books aren’t being distributed to bookstores all over the world (my first trilogy WAS distributed to bookstores all over the world, so it actually sold a decent number of copies for a relatively unknown writer).

This means there is no real demand for more TALL EAGLE books — at least not right now. I do hope that changes someday, because I’d love to write more about Ispiris and its strange wonders. Maybe the TE series will find its audience eventually, and at that point I’ll come back to it. But right now there is practically nobody waiting/expecting/demanding a third TALL EAGLE book. However, there is always a demand for good short stories.

About ten years ago, I decided to quit writing short stories and focus on novels. After two or three years I had produced my first novel, SEVEN PRINCES, which got me my first Big Writing Contract, and I turned that novel into a trilogy that I’m very proud of. It didn’t set the world on fire, but it did establish a firm fan base of people who really dig The Shaper Trilogy–a fan base that is still slowly expanding from year to year. I got into writing novels because I realized that nobody can build a writing career on short stories alone.

Now, I’ve come full circle–hence the gigantic irony–I’m back to writing short stories because I can’t rely on novels to sustain my writing career. There’s not much demand for my novels–oh, a few people every month still discover the Shaper Trilogy or the TALL EAGLE books–but it’s nothing like a vast audience.

I’m just glad that all my novels are still in print and will be in print (and ebook format) for the forseeable future. That means that all five of my novels are just sitting there–online and offline–waiting for me to drive readers toward them.

THE AUDIENT VOID #5 features two of my latest stories: “Love in the Time of Dracula” and “Oorg.”

Every time I get a short story published, it gets exposure for my name and for my other work. Not every reader will enjoy a story and seek out a novel by that same author–but a lot of them do. I know I’ve always done that as a reader myself.

So every time I get a story published, I get three benefits from it:

1) I get paid. Short stories don’t pay a whole lot–especially in the smaller and indie markets that dig my writing. But I get something in my pocket for all my hard work. That’s nice.

2) As long as I keep writing short stories, as long as I keep getting BETTER at it, there’s always a chance of cracking into a top market (i.e. a high-paying story market).

3) Every published story promotes my novels. The novels are the pillars that support my writing career. But the short stories are foundation stones–they helped me build up to writing novels–and now they help me promote and expose those novels to new readers.

So I’m going to focus on writing short stories for awhile. Short stories that allow me to flex my creative muscles, to grow and experiment, to take various ideas for a ride and see where they lead me. Stories that promote my catalog of books simply by having my name on them.

Weirdbook #37

I’ve started the Magtone Saga already in WEIRDBOOK. This is a cycle of tales chronicling the exploits of a wandering poet-thief transfigured by sorcery. Magtone first appeared in the pages of WB #37. The second Magtone tale, “Clouds Like Memories, Words Like Stones” will be in WB #39–set for release sometime in the next few weeks. A third Magtone story called “Impervious to Reason, Oblivious to Fate” has been accepted for WB #42 (which will be the first issue of 2019). Although Magtone himself plays a key role in all of these stories, each tale introduces new characters, realms, and concepts, fleshing out a phantasmagorical world of magic and mystery.

I’ve also written two new Cthulhu Mythos stories: One for Darrell Schweitzer’s forthcoming MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS REVEALED anthology, where global warming and climate change meet the eldritch horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic — with a sci-fi twist. My contribution is called “The Embrace of Elder Things,” and it takes place mainly in a future moon colony that is the last bastion of human civilization.

Artwork by Bob Eggleton

The other Lovecraftian story is “The Thing In The Pond“– a tale inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’s favorite Great Old One, Tsathoggua, also known as the Sleeper of N’kai. This one takes place in the early 20th Century Midwest, and it’s more of a psychological approach to cosmic horror. Scheduled to appear in the Mythos-themed WEIRDBOOK Annual #2 (Fall, 2018).

I do plan to write more Magtone tales, until that story-cycle comes to its natural end. But I also enjoy the freedom to write stories about whatever I want. The most challenging thing about doing short stories is finding a (paying) publication for them. The trick is to keep writing them, and keep sending them out. Always have something in play. One editor’s “trash” is another editor’s “treasure.” It really is that subjective. I’m glad to have a few markets that are actually requesting stories from me. I hope to expand that list and get my stories into fresh new markets as well.

Meanwhile, my novels aren’t going anywhere. It’s my job to bring the reading public’s attention to them. The best way to do that is to impress readers with short stories that make them want to seek out more of my work. In other words, it’s time to focus on short stories for a while.

Artwork by Rowena, inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Last Incantation.”

Instinct tells me that I will return to novels at some point. I love writing novels. But I don’t know when that will be, and I’m okay with it. Above all, a writer has to follow his or her inspiration, regardless of market trends or sales figures.

I want to take this short-story momentum that I’ve built up this past year and kick it into overdrive this summer. My passion for short fiction has come back in a big way, so I plan to keep that fire burning.

And at some point this summer, I hope to mix in some actual vacation-ing.

Thanks for reading…


Cover art by Brad Hicks for “Love in the Time of Dracula”

The Audient Void #5 is now available. It features two stories by Yours Truly (“Oorg” and “Love in the Time of Dracula”) as well as a bunch of other great stuff—including a story and column by David Barker plus scads of weird poetry. Complete TOC below. Order your copy right here.

Interior art by Brad Hicks for “Oorg”

It’s been out as an eBook since last December, but finally SON OF TALL EAGLE has arrived in a gorgeous paperback edition from Crossroad Press. Get your copy now–the Tall Eagle books can be read in any order.

Other news:

I plan to finish a third Tall Eagle book this summer in hopes of having it released before the end of the year. Meanwhile I’m working on a few short stories for various publications.

“Love in the Time of Dracula” appears in AUDIENT VOID #5. Coming soon…

THE AUDIENT VOID #5 will be out soon featuring TWO of my most eerie horror tales.

A second Magtone Tale is coming in WEIRDBOOK #39.

I’m also finishing up a new high fantasy tale for Cody Goodfellow’s lavishly illustrated FORBIDDEN FUTURES, which will debut at Crypticon Seattle (and will be available for online ordering).

Looking forward to cranking out more stories and at least one novel this year, and I’ve made plans to attend the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore this November. Poe City!


The first review of SON OF TALL EAGLE is in!

Over at the esteemed Black Gate website, ace reviewer Fletcher Vredenburgh has posted his review of the book. Here are a few of the highlights:

“…a model of swords and sorcery precision…”


“New peoples, deeper history, and more danger is uncovered with each new chapter.”

Read the full review HERE. 



WEIRDBOOK #37 is now available.


Don’t miss this issue, which includes the first tale of the Magtone Saga (i.e. “The Veneration of Evil in the Kingdom of Ancient Lies”) and loads of other good stories and poetry.


• “Sea Glass Harvest” by Bear Kiosk
• “The Changeling” by R. Rozakis
• “The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona” by Dale W. Glaser
• “One Million & One” by Andre E. Harewood
• “War is Grimm” by Clifford Be
• “Blood Pact” by Sharon Cullars
• “Something I Have to Tell You” by John B. Rosenman
• “The Curious Simulacrum of Dr. F” by Michael Canfield
• “A Cure for Restless Bones” by Angela Enos
• “Homecoming Corpse” by Andrew Bourelle
• “A Chorus of Shadows” by Sarena Ulibarri
• “Graveyard Wine” by Joshua L. Hood
• “My Last Sixteen Hours” by Angela L. Lindseth
• “Wide Wide Sea” by Jackson Kuhl
• “The Safari” by Michael S. Walker
• “The Water Horse” by Bill W. James
• “The Long Way Home” by S.E. Casey
• “Unseelie Things” by Taylor Foreman-Niko
• “The Veneration of Evil in the Kingdom of Ancient Lies” by John R. Fultz
• “Livingstone” by Cody Goodfellow
•  Plus a selection of poetry by Darrell Schweitzer


Get Your Weird On.

The wait is over!

The SON OF TALL EAGLE eBook is now on sale!

If you’re into eBooks, grab it today for only $4.99.

The paperback edition will be available in Spring 2018.

Also: The first Tall Eagle book, TESTAMENT OF TALL EAGLE, has moved over to Crossroad Press and is also available in eBook format.

Both books will be available in paperback this Spring, and both are stand-alone stories that can be read in any order.

Click for larger, hi-rez view

I’m happy to announce that the TALL EAGLE series is moving to Crossroad Press. I’m glad to have found a stable home for these books. Some of Ragnarok’s other former authors have already moved to Crossroad, and I’m very pleased to be joining them.

And here’s the best part: SON OF TALL EAGLE will be released far earlier than originally planned!

Ragnarok had it scheduled for June 2018, but Crossroad is anticipating a December 2018 release for the eBook–with the print version to follow shortly after. There are also indications that there will be an audio-book version of each novel.

All of this means that the odds of me writing a third Tall Eagle book (and more) just became a whole lot greater. Ragnarok will continue to offer THE TESTAMENT OF TALL EAGLE until December 1st. After that we’ll be moving it over to Crossroad as soon as humanly possible. Then SON OF TALL EAGLE makes its world premiere before the year grinds to an end.

I will announce specific release dates here (and on FB) as soon as I have them. Special thanks to John Betancourt, Darrell Schweitzer, Charles Phipps, Seth Skorkowsky, and David Niall Wilson for helping TALL EAGLE find its new home.


SKELOS #3 arrived with a bang at the World Fantasy Convention. I hadn’t been to WFC in the last six years, and I’d almost forgotten how fascinating and enjoyable this con really is. Having the lead story in this third issue of SKELOS (“Ten Thousand Drops of Holy Blood”) was a surprising synchronicity–almost like a “welcome back” to World Fantasy. The folks in Texas really put on a great convention, and the SKELOS crew made it extra-special.

Always great to spend time with Darrell Schweitzer, whose latest collection AWAITING STRANGE GODS I picked up in a gorgeous hardcover edition from Fedogan and Bremer. I try to catch all of Darrell’s fiction wherever it appears, but he is so prolific that I always miss a few tales. This latest volume is no exception, with rare dark-fantasy jewels like “The Last of the Black Wine” and “Stragglers from Carrhae” appearing alongside a strongly Lovecraftian set of stories.

The “Reading Dunsany Aloud” panel was a fantastic experience for all involved, as was the “Ancient Cultures, Modern Sensibilities” panel. I was honored to be on both of them, and the latter was the second time I’ve done a panel with the great David Drake. Also the first time I met Alex Irvine in person–his MARE ULTIMA stories made me an instant fan when I read them awhile back. Alex tells me he’s written a new tale in this setting, and hopefully he will write more of them in the future.

Overall, I met so many great people, it’s hard to express in words how vital WFC is for a fantasy writer like myself. It’s a great blend of writers (both professional and aspiring), artists, dedicated fans, editors, publishers, and fantasy enthusiasts of all kinds.

My first WFC was in San Jose in 2009, and I loved it so much I went the next year (Columbus), and the next (San Diego). Then I got so busy working, writing novels, and generally being distracted by the Art of Living, that I stopped attending. Sometimes this globe-hopping con was simply too far away, other times I was simply unable to make the trek.

That won’t happen again.

You see, if I had gone to Britain for the 2013 WFC, I would have met one of my greatest heroes and favorite authors, Tanith Lee. I didn’t make the trip to England that year, and now Tanith is gone. (Rest In Peace) Her legendary body of work remains, so part of her remains with us, but I’ll never be able to shake her hand or see her smile or tell her how much her work means to me. Who knows what I’ll miss if I miss another WFC? If my pal Darrell can make it 40 years in a row, I can too. Of course, he’s got a 39-year head start. But I’m glad to say that I’ve been to WFC four times now, and the con is better than ever.

Next year WFC comes to Baltimore, home of Edgar Allan Poe. This is a good sign for me: My first first WFC was celebrating Poe’s 200th birthday–I remember we had red velvet cake and a spot of absinthe in San Jose. My association with Poe goes back even farther: After a performace of the late John Astin’s one-man-play THE LIFE OF EDGAR ALLAN POE in Chicago circa 1997, I participated in a seance with the actor and a guest medium to call upon the spirit of Poe himself (the results were entirely subjective).

So once again the spirit of Edgar Allan is calling me, this time to Baltimore, where World Fantasy convenes in 2018.

I am so looking forward to it.