The Debt

It has been a long time since I shared fiction on this page. I have been in a bit of a sword and sorcery mood of late. Something about the visceral fantasies of the pulp era — especially those of R E Howard — inspires me. It is a kind of fantasy that has waxed and waned in popularity, but with the current trend toward the grim and gritty in fantasy it seems to be having something of a resurgence. So, without further ado, I present my take on the genre: The Debt.

Zendja climbed the rugged mountain path. Her legs were strong but had been made for long strides across flat plains. Now they ached with each step. Her back ached, too, hunched as she was with the straps by which she dragged the litter pulled over her shoulders for leverage. She flexed her arms with each step, trying to get blood to flow into her cold hands.

“Damn Golgot,” she cursed the sorcerer’s name for the hundredth time that day and probably the thousandth since she began the climb. “I would kill you, if you weren’t already dead.”

She raised her face and immediately regretted it. The mountain path climbed ever upward ahead of her, so steep and so long she could not see the end of it. She swore again and then looked at her feet and willed them to go one in front of the other. By the time her will was no longer sufficient, the sun had dipped below the mountain.

Zendja let loose the straps and flopped onto the ground. The rapidly cooling air dried the sheen of sweat she wore and sent shivers through her exhausted limbs. She wondered: if she were to close her eyes and fall asleep right then and there, would she die of exposure first or would the wooly mountain men said to serve the sorcerers kill her? Fueled by anger more than self preservation, she forced herself to her feet and went to the litter.

She stood beside the body of Golgot. He was wrapped mummy like in a winding length of oiled burlap, tied around him with criss crossing twine. The twine was in turn wrapped with a long, thin silver chain. She gave the dead man a sneer and a kick. Then, she knelt down and rummaged through her pack, which also lay on the litter along with parcels of food, two leather canteens, some firewood from farther down the mountain and her bow and quiver of iron tipped arrows. She wore her little hatchet on her belt, just in case.

She drew her big gray coarse poncho out of the pack first and pulled it over her head. She did not know if the sorcerers that lived on the mountain really kept wooly men, but she did know that soon the cold would be enough to kill her on its own. Once that was done, she opened a parcel and tore off a hunk of dried venison to chew while she prepared a fire. The wood would not last much longer and up here there was only scrub grass and stunted, twisted bushes covered in thorns that would not catch alight.

Would wooly men be afraid of fire, or drawn to it, she wondered.

Wrapped in her poncho with a belly full of meat and a few swallows of the fiery liquor she had lifted from Golgot before wrapping his corpse, Zendja pulled her knees tight up into her chest and buried her head in her arms. The ache in her body was dissipating with occasional tired spasms and her head was cloudy with approaching sleep when she heard the voice from across the fire.

“Zendja,” mumbled Golgot through his shroud. “Wake up, Zendja.”

No, thought Zendja. You are dead and I do not have to put up with your incessant, infuriating, imperious prattle any longer.

“Zendja!” barked the dead sorcerer.

Her head snapped up reflexively. “Damn, you Golgot!” She sneered and spat into the fire. “I am trying to sleep.”

A rasping laugh came from the gloom. “Sleep when you’re dead.”

“Why don’t you?” she muttered back but sat up unhappily anyway. The fire had burned very low and only the pale red light of the embers illuminated the wrapped body. When the wind crossed the embers it made them glow briefly and in that undulating gloom Zendja imagined the sorcerer’s body moving beneath its shroud. Or, she hoped she imagined it.

“How many steps today, Zendja?” asked the rasping voice of Golgot. “Ten thousand? A hundred thousand?”

“Shut up,” Zendja hissed. There was no conviction in it, though. She had had this argument every day since they had passed through the twin obelisks that marked the beginning of the trail to the temple at the mountain peak. Every night since then the body stirred and dead Golgot woke to torment her. Only Golgot or the gods knew why. She was keeping her promise to return him to his temple. What more did he want?

“–when the sleep never ends, then you will know,” the corpse was saying. She had not realized he was still talking, which was much the way it had been when he was alive. “Walk away. Return home. Then you will know.”

Zendja’s head snapped up. “What did you say?” she asked.

A croaking laugh came from the body. “Only that you can break your oath, Zendja. You never believed in curses, only in blade and bow. Test it and see if I always was a liar, as you said so many times.”

She frowned and spat again into the dying fire. Golgot was right about that. She had never really believed in his magical powers. When he threw flame from his lips or sent men to hell clutching their throats, she guessed it all tricks. She had seen many oils and powders and other alchemical tricks in her day and Galgot did nothing a deft charlatan could not have accomplished. Or, at least, nothing she could not convince herself had not been managed through trickery. For all his talk of consorting with demons to learn secrets forbidden to mortal men, Golgot had showed precious little power in their time together. Even so…

“I keep my oaths,” she said flatly. “No one can say Zendja the Hawk is not faithful to her promise or her price.”

“True enough,” whispered Galgot. The dead voice sounded weaker and farther away. Zendja glanced up to see the first cold light of dawn. “But who would know, here? If Zendja the Hawk left me for the wooly men, would word ever spread to the ports of Chano or the war camps of the Khanjit? What is the weight of an oath to a dead man?”

The corpse was silent. Zendja was not sure whether those last were Golgot’s words or her own thoughts. She was still exhausted, as if she had not slept at all — had she? — but dawn had come. With a heavy sigh she stretched her aching limbs and prepared to climb again.


Zendja met Golgot in a village called Fulg on the edge of the cairn covered hills of Ashon. She was travelling aimlessly after too many months in the western wars working for whatever side would pay her. Nearly all that pay was gone and she would soon have to return to mercenary work or turn to thievery again in order to survive. Golgot appeared just then, tall and gaunt and mysterious and, to all appearances, rich. “I need a guide into the hills,” he had said. “I seek to plunder the cairns of ancient kings.” She had disliked him from the first, but his money had her attention, so she joined him on his quest.

The memory of the things they saw in the those cairns still haunted her. She had killed plenty of men in her day, but at least they had had the grace to stay dead. The kings of Old Ashon, however, were not so well mannered. Nonetheless, they survived and came out of Ashon laden with torques and crowns and other treasures, and Galgot with the teeth of the king he had sought. However strange, pompous and fickle the sorcerer seemed, he promised Zendja two things she craved: an abundance of treasure and a dearth of boredom. So she agreed to accompany him when he decided to go east to the necropolis of Ku.

“There is one condition of your continued employment,” Golgot had said one day. “If I am to perish on our journeys and you live, you must return me to the mountain sanctum that made me.” She had shrugged assent, sure that when the time came she would leave his moldering bones wherever they fell. “This is no lightly made promise,” he had said suddenly and harshly, staring into her with his cold, white yes. “This is an oath you must make, on pain of a curse on your very soul!”

Zendja had again shrugged and assented. She had not believed in curses any more than she believed in keeping her word to dead men. But as the years passed and they travelled from one strange land to the next, she saw things that made her wonder. And when Golgot finally fell to the sting of the ghost asp while they hunted for the vaults of Dum-gha in the jungles of Pek, she was uncertain enough to wrap his corpse as he had instructed and carry it back to the mountain.

“Do not let the moon turn thrice, Zendja,” the sorcerer had said. “If it does then we are both damned.”


The pile of shit in front of Zendja worried her. It did not look like the dropping of any animal she could think might live on the rugged mountain slope. It look like a man’s shit, except that of a very large man. A wooly man? She crouched and examined it. It was cold and dry. Old, then. Even so, she scanned the mountain for any signs of movement. She saw none but the short thorny scrub waving in the incessant breeze.

The mountain trail seemed endless. She trudged up the steep slope every day, dragging the wrapped corpse behind her. Every night, she listened to the dead man taunt her and press her to leave him on the mountainside, to abandon her oath. She could not say for certain whether it was real and half believed his gabbling to be just a cruel trick played by her own mind. Golgot did not deserve the effort of pulling him up the mountain. Zendja did not think her soul would be damned with his if his body did not make it back to the temple of sorcerers. But despite all his incessant squawking and the unending toil, she kept at it. No one would say Zendja the Hawk did not fulfill her promise, least of all the shade of a fraud.

That pile of dried, frozen shit was the last straw, though. She released the straps suddenly and let the litter slide a dozen paces back down the trail before wedging itself against a rock. She poked at the pile and then suddenly screamed in rage and kicked it. Zendja stalked down to the litter and kicked Golgot’s corpse over and over. It was like kicking a bag of dried branches. She heard the crack of his bones and when she had exhausted her rage the mummy was bent oddly in the middle.

“You want me to leave you here?” she spat between deep gulps of the thin air. Her head was swimming and she could not seem to catch her breath, even after so little exertion. “I should, you lying devil. I should…” Her eyes landed on the thin silver chain she had so carefully wound in the precise manner Golgot had instructed. “I should take some payment! Haven’t I labored long already?” A snarl twisted her face and she descended on the broken body. “Yes. This will do for my troubles,” she said and began to unwind the silver chain.

The fact that she was kneeling beside the litter saved her life. Her bow was only inches from her hands as she furiously worked the chain from the twine. She had kept the bow strung, too, just in case. So when she heard the sound of cloven hooves pounding against loose stone she did not hesitate. As if of its own accord the bow lept into her hands with an arrow knocked and she spun. By the time she had turned and loosed the arrow the thing was on her. Its curled ram horns struck her in the shoulder just as the bow string sang. She want flying back and away from the litter, pain radiating from the dislocated joint, even as the monstrous goat-man tripped over Golgot’s body and landed heavily in the gravel, face down.

Zendja tried to raise the bow, despite not having another arrow in hand, but her arm would not budge. She howled in rage and pain and tore at the small hatchet to free it from her belt. Her cry was met by one from the wooly man. It pushed itself up and bleated a grotesque sound that could almost have been a word. It touched its neck where Zendja’s arrow was sunk to the fletching. It bleated again, it’s eyes wide with wrath, and lowered its head. It leaped forward at her in bloodlust. Too exhausted, too out of breath, in much too pain to dodge aside, Zendja tucked and rolled forward at the beast man. Her body slammed into its powerful legs and she felt ribs crack even as her injured shoulder seemed to catch fire anew,. But the move sent the wooly man sprawling and as he fell Zendja swept the hatchet out in a wide arc with all her might.

The wooly man bleated again but it was a gurgling, pained sound. It struggled against its own weight but too much blood had already poured out from the wound Zendja’s hatchet had torn across its belly. It writhed in its own spilled entrails for a moment before going still.

For her part Zendja lay on her back in agony. She gritted her teeth and tried to move. All she could manage was an tortured scream that echoed across the mountain.


“Wake up, Zendja.”

Her eyes snapped open, taking in a view of the sky full of stars. It was night time. She had passed out and been unconscious for hours. She moved to sit up but her body pulsed with agony. She made a hissing, growling sound through clenched teeth. Rasping laughter crawled spider-like over her from where Golgot’s body lay. Zendja managed to turn her head enough to see it there, a shadowy mass against the mountainside.

“What is so damned funny?” she seethed.

The laughter stopped and in the darkness the black mass that was Golgot shook suddenly. Terror clenched Zendja’s guts. She could see the silver chain dangling in the moonlight, no longer wrapped so tightly or precisely around the shroud. “Golgot,” she managed to push up her dry throat and out her trembling lips.

“No,” said the shadow. The body shook and flopped and rolled off the litter. Then, with a tearing sound, a pale arm pushed through the burlap and clawed at the night air. “No,” said the voice again, “not Golgot.”

Senseless fear took hold of Zendja. She scrambled as well as she could away from the burlap horror. Her boots scraped the loose stone and her ribs shifted and stabbed her middle and her shoulder caught fire and she moved perhaps an inch or two. Meanwhile the shroud flopped and shook and then another arm tore free. Through the haze of her terror she recognized that the arms did not match. The first to emerge was thin and pale while the next was dusky and musclebound. When the third arm emerged she screamed. This one was covered in black fur and bore a clawed, four fingered hand.

“We are not Golgot,” said not one voice but many from within the shroud. “Golgot treated with us, then cheated us and bound us.” The arms reached out and found purchase in the rocks. They dragged the corpse up the slope toward Zendja. “We will have our revenge on Golgot. And upon you, Zendja the Hawk.”

“No,” she gasped and tried once again to scramble back. The pain and stiffness from lying on the mountain made her weak. She could not escape the approaching monstrosity, especially as another arm slithered out of the shroud, this one boneless and slimy. “I did nothing to you!” she pleaded.

“You did!” cried the voices. The crawling shroud was close now. “You sought to cheat us of our vengeance. You sought to deliver this liar’s body to the safety of his temple and save his soul. No, Zendja the Hawk, his soul is ours and now so is yours!”

The furred claw grabbed her ankle and Zendja kicked and cried but it was no use. The weird tentacle wrapped around her other leg while the dusky arm reach up and dragged her closer. She screamed and the pale hand clapped over her mouth. Beneath the burlap something moved, as if it was a bag full of rats. “Finish what you started,” said the voices. “Free us.”

Her eyes went to the dangling silver chain. One tug and it would come undone. “Free us and we will only kill you.” She imaged the shroud breaking open and a legion of monsters emerging. “Free us and your gods can keep your soul.” The hand of her uninjured arm reached for the silver chain. It would be easy, and then the nightmare would be over. Her fingers found the chain and her fist closed and then the chain was out of her grip and the bag of rats was off her.

Zendja could not see but she could hear: the howls of rage from within the shroud, the crunching of hooves against stone, bleats of rage and pain, demonic curses and a sound like wind rushing through the trees just before the sky opens in a torrent. Then there was only silence, save for the sound of Zendja’s heart pounding in her ears. She tried to calm it but she could not. Her breath came in huge gulps of the cold mountain air but it was never enough. Her vision contracted and everything became shadows except for the stars wheeling overheard until they became a blur of starry lines.


Morning sun on her cheek woke Zendja. When she opened her eyes she found she was braced against a low wall out of the wind. Her arm was in a sling and bandages wrapped her torso. A fire was down to embres in front of her and a pot containing some sort of stew or soup hung over it. Across from her a wooly man sat staring at her.

“Good,” said the wooly man in a voice that sounded like something between a growl and a bleat. He stood suddenly and walked away, heading up the mountain path without another word.

“Wait,” she called out, but the wooly man did not stop or say anything else. She tried to pick herself up and follow but her body was too tired and sore.

She looked around. Her puck was nearby, looking as though it were stuffed full, as well as her bow and quiver. Of Golgot’s corpse there was no sign. After a few minutes, having no other options she tested the soup. It was good and restored warmth to her and eased her pain.

She stayed at the little camp for two days. She saw wooly men come and go once but they would not speak to her. On the third day she felt well enough to travel. She gathered up the pack, with was full of provisions, and her bow and quiver and drank the last of the soup.

Up the trail, perhaps another day’s climb, she could just make out a structure built into the bones of the mountain. Her keen eyes caught movement on its walls and before its gates, both the big forms of wooly men and the slighter forms of what she presumed were sorcerers like Golgot.

Zendja gave the temple a rude salute and started back down the mountain, vowing never to have dealings with sorcerers again.


Star Wars: A Galaxy of Subgenres

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am a Star Wars fan. For as long as I can remember, the adventures of Jedi, smugglers, X-Wing pilots and weird alien heroes has enchanted me. It isn’t the kind of fandom that involves editing Wookiepedia or memorizing every species homeworld (not that there is anything wrong with those things) but rather a simpler, joyous kind of fandom that had me tearing up when I first heard the theme played in a theater in 1997 when the Special Editions were released. I first saw Star Wars sometime in the early 1980s on Betamax tape and had been re-watching the trilogy and (perhaps more importantly to my love of Star Wars) gaming in the universe by way of West End Games role-playing game. And, of course, there were comics and novels and video games.

The question as to how and why Star Wars managed to become such a powerful pop cultural force based on one ground breaking but ultimately indie sort of film is both interesting and probably unanswerable. No doubt many have tried and much has been written by both experts and amateurs alike. I won’t both injecting my voice into that discussion. Rather I want to talk about what it is I find so compelling about Star Wars and how it informs the direction of my own creative energies.

In brief: Star Wars, while representing a single milieu, contains within it many different subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. Just on its face, the original 1977 film is both a spaceships-and-laser-guns Science Fiction film AND a heroic journey, swords-and-wizards fantasy film. There are alien horrors weird enough to make H.P. Lovecraft proud as well as World War II ace combat. Lucas borrowed heavily from all kinds of film and fiction and so too did the people that followed him, from the earliest Marvel comic books to the current games and cartoons. Star Wars is inclusive, allowing it to tell different kinds of fantastical stories.

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed and was very impressed. this was hardcore military sci-fi in the Star Wars universe. The grit and relative realism presented in the novel juxtaposed well against the action-adventure melodrama of The Force Awakens. I don’t do reviews, but I will make recommendations: if you like Star Wars and you like gritty military sci-fi, Twilight Company is definitely worth your time. I could give or take the flourishes in the audiobook — music and sound effects, primarily — but they did not reduce my enjoyment. But more to the point, Twilight Company stands as a useful example for how Star Wars, while remaining fantastical space opera, became a successful vehicle for another genre. Like super hero comic books, Star Wars takes so much inspiration from so many other sources that it is a genre chameleon.

I like blurry genre lines. It is one of the reasons I am drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction, I think. Whether it is Gamma World, Thundarr or my own ReAwakened World, futuristic and unrealistic PA fiction is freedom to play with elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, westerns and more. Star Wars does that too, and very likely instilled that sensibility upon me (along with the aforementioned super hero comics).

My first novel Elger and the Moon is available for Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in print from Amazon.

Found Fiction: The Final Word

By The original uploader was Fredrik at English Wikipedia [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By The original uploader was Fredrik at English Wikipedia [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Found Fiction” is the name I am giving to old stories I find buried on my hard drive, Google Docs or elsewhere. Many are unfinished and nearly all are in first draft form. I write a lot of stories just sitting down and starting typing, with little or no idea what I am doing. That is a habit I am trying to break , by the way. In any case, some of this Found Fiction is worth sharing — not good enough to polish and try and sell, but perhaps there is a core idea I think worth sharing or I just like the way the prose came out.


This story is an End Of The World tale. I have written a lot of these — or at least started them. Because I obsess over what we — mankind — are and why we are here, I think a lot about what would happen if we went away, and how we would react to knowing it in advance. This story is a pretty perfect example of my thoughts on the matter, or at least what i find interesting enough to create a narrative for.


Note: this is the draft in its raw form, presented just as I found it. I do not remember when I wrote it.

Editorial: The Final World


In this, the last issue of the nation’s longest continuously published newspaper, we have dedicated tens of thousands of words to your stories. Over the last weeks, since confirmation of the impending Minefall Disaster (for which I must apologize, as it was one of our headlines that created the name that stuck), we have talked to you. We have talked to you online and over the phone and in the streets and in your homes. We believed it important to tell your stories at The End, to be preserved forever in a space age, diamond version of microfilm that hopefully one day some future (or even alien) civilization will find and decipher.

But yours were not the only stories we wanted to tell. From the time this issue hits the internet and the newsstand, you will have nearly twelve hours to peruse it. While we wanted you to meet the end with understanding for your fellow reader, we also wanted you to read the words of our greatest thinkers and our most beloved, and even detested, leaders. In these pages you will find the words of celebrity activists and Nobel laureates, presidents and prime ministers, religious leaders and scientific visionaries, even terrorists and despots. This is, after all, the final view of mankind, and here at least, we believe in telling the whole story.

Among all those voices, the mundane and the famous, there is one we know that you all, everyone in the whole world and anyone who might come in the future, will want to hear. We managed to secure an interview with that very person in his final hours last night, so that his words, his explanations and excuses, would also be preserved forever in diamond microfilm.

Some have suggested we not run that interview, that we should not give acknowledgement to the man that ended our entire civilization, perhaps our entire species. We here, however, chose a different option. If it is our jobs as journalists to tell all sides of the story, then we must be compelled to tell his, too, no matter how twisted or vile we might find them. By setting us on this path, by very directly bringing about Armageddon, this man, Tobias Hossler, has become the most significant figure in human history.

While everyone on Earth now knows the name Tobias Hossler, allow me to introduce him for those we presume to one day find this story: he was a genius in both technology and economics who built a multi-billion dollar company from nothing in the heady first decades of the Internet. Unsatisfied with mere bits and bytes, Hossler moved into the real world, first in commerce and research and development, and then into the energy sector and the global commodities trade. Even this was not too big for a man of his vision, and his final project, the one that would turn into all our Final Project, was to mine the Moon for its precious resources, turning the Rare Earth minerals that drive our technological society into Every Day Earth minerals with just a little push out of the lunar gravity well. Most impressively was this: he did it. To all our doom. A full biography of Tobias Hossler can be read on page 7.

What no one realized about Hossler wa that everything he did, every step he took on the ladder of success, was a step toward a most terrifying and nefarious goal. Hossler desired nothing less than the complete eradication of humankind from the face of the Earth, and he hatched a plan that would allow him to achieve it. However ridiculous that sounds, however Hollywood and Comic Book, it is true, and now, today, we all face down Hossler’s success. How he did it is unimportant (though we did detail the process on page 13). The real question is, and has been since it became public, “Why?”

There is no one better suited to answer that question than Hossler himself:

In his cell, the day before he was to be taken to the receive his lethal injection, I personally sat down with Tobias Hossler. We talked about a great many things, but it was only mere minutes before his death, that Hossler told me the answer to that question.

He said, “I don’t think it was any one thing that did it. But, even so, I remember this day in early 2011. I was in India, promoting our Asian Initiative, and a news story broke about the gang rape and murder of two fourteen year old girls on a train to Delhi. The thing was, it did not break in India. There, it wasn’t news, because it happened so often. It was all over CNN and the other American cable stations. The thing was, I realized it was only on the news there because the girls were white. They were British kids that got on the wrong train after a field trip.”

I asked him if he was destroying the world because two white girls got raped and murdered on a train in India. He scoffed at me. “Don’t be ridiculous. Like I said, that is just a thing I remember. It sort of cemented the realization of how bad we really are. Us. Our species, I mean. All of us. Not just in the abstract, but each and every one of us. Everyone, some time, thinks and maybe even does horrible things to one another. It is our nature. It is inescapable.”

Tobias Hossler says many more things about human nature, the human capacity for evil and whether the ultimate murder is somehow justified in the complete interview on page 25. I know there are some of you, many of you probably, who don’t want to sift through his diatribe and justifications. I don’t blame you. Sitting through it when it was coming out of his mouth was almost too much to bear.

I asked Tobias Hossler why he believed the bad in humans was so bad that it outweighed the good in us. He answered with this:

“At my heart, I’m a mathematician. I do the numbers. I actively considered all the joy and love and beauty in a given life. I realized that these things were precious because they were rare. If they were routine, they would not be worth cherishing and remembering. Once I realized that, realizing the corollary, that the vast majority of life was not full of love and joy and beauty, and much of it was filled with the opposites, was easy. No matter what we did, not matter how ‘good’ we made the world, we could not make it worthwhile. I thought about that and thought about it until it was keeping me up at night and driving me crazy.”

He smiles wryly here, like he knows what I wanted to point out. I resisted the urge and let him continue.

“In the end, the math wins. There is, and always will be, more pain and anguish and ugliness than joy and beauty. The net gain would always be bad. So I decided to solve the problem.” He laughed here, a genuine amused laugh, cold and terrible given the circumstances of the interview. “I had already started work on my lunar mines. It would be a small matter to keep the world in the dark and set a huge chunk of lunar rock into an Earth crossing orbit that could extinguish most high life forms, including, very probably, every human being on the planet.”

Tobias Hossler died precisely eight minutes after that. He chose to stop talking. We shook hands and I left his cell. I watched him up until the moment they took him from his cell to the death chamber. As far as I could see, he never once broke down and cried or prayed for mercy or any of the other common behaviors exhibited by the doomed.

It was part of my job to watch Hossler die. I can not say in good conscious that a part of me, the angry part that feels robbed of not just my future but the future of the entire human race, did not enjoy watching him die. But another part of me, deep in the recesses of my mind, sort of agreed with him. Yes, we would be dead and gone, and the world would lose much for that. But at the same time, no two little girls will ever be held down and brutalized, then murdered, by a group of strangers ever again.

As I hit “send” to get this editorial in on time to meet press time, I have somewhere around 13 hours to live. My wife and kids are in the living room, just a few doors down from this study, burning through every Pixar movie ever made. My brother and his wife are gone: they committed suicide with about 200 other people a week or so back. My parents died years ago. All over the world, friends of mine — and when you are a journalist and then editor for a paper like this one, you make a lot of friends in a lot of places — are preparing themselves however they see fit to meet their End, and perhaps their Maker.

Just like you all.

In these last moments, I suppose all I ask is this: prove Tobias Hossler wrong. Be good to one another.

Good bye, and thank you.

The World is a Phoenix: The Post-Post Apocalypse


I love the Post Apocalypse. I love mutant bears with lasers coming out of their eyes. I love libidinous frog men trying to keep Rowdy Roddy Pipe down. I love spike covered muscle cars and psychic dogs and cross country treks in tricked out APCs and the rockabilly battles of Old Vegas. But as much as I love the post apocalypse, it is really all prelude, because what I really love is the post-post apocalypse: when civilization rises from the ashes like the titular mythical bird of this post.


Stories about the end of civilization are fun. Characters are given permission to go native and lose their inhibitions, and in the context of games (both tabletop and electronic) you are too. It’s cathartic, blasting mutants and zombies and cyborgs and mutant-zombie-cyborgs. But it is also ultimately limited: the world is dying and man is fading and no amount of weird super-science or gritty survivalism can change that. But when the spark of renewed hope appears, when it looks like the world might just crawl out of the crater, that is when things get interesting. I would contend that much of the best post apocalyptic fiction is actually post-post apocalyptic, because it is not about the End, but the New Beginning.


Let’s take for example a pinnacle of the genre: Fallout. Across many games and some tie-in media, the world of Fallout is celebrated as a perfect post apocalyptic story. Except it isn’t. From the very first Fallout game, it is a story about hope: can you find the water purifier chip and save your people. Along the way, it turns into a story about how new powers are trying to control the new world and usher it into a new age. That doesn’t sound like a whimper or a bang. Fallout 2 is more explicit in its metaphor, casting the player as an uncivilized tribal that enters and embraces the new civilization. By the most recent Fallout 4 you actually create, manage and preserve civilization in the form of settlements.


When post apocalyptic stories center around creating a new world order, abolishing the monstrosities of the past, reclaiming lost knowledge or otherwise building something new, they transform into post-post apocalyptic ones. Now, sometimes it is a bit of a bait and switch: The Walking Dead, both on the small screen and on the page, is a post apocalyptic story. it flirts with hope but ultimately smashes it with a baseball bat or devours it with a horde of the cannibal dead. The original Mad Max qualifies as well: there is no real sense that things are going to get better by the end of that film; they gangs will just keep fighting one another until all the gas is gone. Interestingly, The Road Warrior transforms into a post post apocalyptic tale just at the very end when we hear the narration of the feral boy grown into an aged storyteller: there is hope and a world beyond Max’s diesel powered Hell. Both Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road are, like the later Fallout games, more explicit in their embracing of the post-post apocalypse. Each of those films promises a future.


Narratives more easily recognizable as post-post apocalyptic are often set much longer after The End. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a recognizable example of this, if a bit less fantastical and weird science than much else in the genre. The tabletop role-playing game Numenera from Monte Cook qualifies, too, along with the upcoming (and awesome looking) Horizon: Zero Dawn Playstation game. In each of these examples, enough time has passed that the world is on its way to healing (although usually things are still much more primitive than they were prior to the apocalypse). Here the events of the apocalypse and subsequent rebirth serve as a stage for whatever drama is to follow, rather than the plot itself. The slate has not only been wiped clean but new social, political, religious and cultural structures have been built and these worlds often have similar features to second world fantasies. My own upcoming novel Elger and the Moon fits into this category.


There is an optimism in the post-post apocalyptic genre that makes me happy. I like to think that however badly we screw it up, humans are just smart, tenacious and lucky enough to avoid completely destroying ourselves. The struggle to survive is interesting but it is also exhausting, and with all the things in the real world that seem so hopeless sometimes, a dash of hope in my leisure-time adventures is much appreciated.

Elger Update: The Words, They Are Written

It has been a long time since I mentioned my novel Elger and the Moon, which I began in earnest a little over 15 months ago and finished the first draft of just less than a year ago now. Well, the last day of 2016 turned out to be the day I finished the editing process (which I did with the input of a good friend who is also a professional editor). That means the book is done!


Well, the words anyway. It seems there is a lot more work yet to be done. I hemmed and hawed over whether to submit it to publishers and agents, or to self publish. I finally decided on the latter. I am not especially good at selling anything, let alone myself, but I am even less patient and the prospect of waiting years to find a publisher and then see it published was too daunting. So instead I will cinch up my mantaloons and do what I need to to get it out there and seen. From there, it is up to, well, you guys.


Over the next weeks expect to see more news about Elger here as well as other things. Table top (or virtual table top) gaming is still a huge part of my life and I have much to share on that front, as well as thoughts and opinions of everything from the awesomness that is the newest Star Wars to my complete and utter spasmodic anticipation for Horizon: Zero Dawn. Long story short: expect more geekiness out of me than you saw in 2016, as well as a little of the promotion (which I am no good at).


Happy New Year!





The High Guard

A decade ago, the dragon Zaskettr returned from the grave and in a rain of fire and death killed the High King, destroyed the capital and thrust the island nation of Maroester into chaos and ruin. There were those sword to defend the king and the realm, but they had grown aloof and self interested. Their great battles were won, they thought, and they retired to their villas and their self interests. They were not there that day when the dragon returned. they were not there for their king.

Maroester was discovered 250 years ago by the Vastlund Empire. The local inhabitants — called the paku, or halfling in the Vastlund tongue — were quickly pacified and assimilated while Vastlund’s slave race — the uyghur, or “orc” — was imported to build the Empire’s newest colony. This island held secrets, however, and in the wild forests and deep mountains and jagged dells there lived other beings. These were the races of the fae, the Fair Folk — haughty and wicked elves, crafty and suspicious dwarves, wild and mischievous gnomes, dark and murderous goblins and many more besides.

But neither the paku nor the fae races were the first to settle Maroester. Something older lived there, something woven into the land and tied to the fabric of magic itself. Ruins cover the island and deep within them lie secrets far older than either mortal or fae, and far more dangerous than either.

Nearly a century years ago, the Empire retreated from Maroester. Some calamity befell the Empire at home and the fleet and the legions left. Only the Margraves — something like barons — and there sworn retainers were left to maintain order. It was not enough. The island quickly devolved into civil war as the Margraves fought one another for control, the orc slaves rebelled and the fae worked their dark tricks on men.

Margrave Emrys Wellard became High King of Maroester when he killed the dragon Zaskettr and used its hoard to consolidate power: some Margraves he bought off and others he raised armies to defeat. He freed the orc slaves and gave them there own lands in the rugged center of the island and he brokered peace with those elves and dwarves who might treat with him. After a seven year campaign, he forged a prosperous nation that could survive the abandonment of the Vastlund Empire. Among his most trusted allies and favored servants were the High Guard — heroes of their own lands and regions and people that gathered under his banner to bring peace to Maroester. they were diverse in kind and objective, but all chose willingly to serve the High King for the sake of Maroester.

For forty years the High king ruled and peace reigned. The High Guard subdued rivals and defeated monsters from the wilds, tamed wild fae and delved secrets in the ancient ruins. But eventually peace got the better of them all and they parted ways and retired. That was when Zaskettr struck. No one knows how the wyrm returned from the dead , but it came back more powerful than it had ever been. It destroyed the capital of Bishop’s Gate and killed the High King and his court. The smoldering ruins of the king’s castle are its lair and the Molten Throne is its most prized treasure. And with the death of the High King, the unified land of Maroester crumbles. The Margraves fight amongst themselves while the old animosities between men, halflings, orcs and fae reignite. Dark monstrosities in the wilderness walk freely and the dragon’s presence sends magical energies and ley lines into choas.


Now more than ever, Maroester needs the High Guard.


Embracing the Virtual Tabletop


Thanks to Fantasy Grounds, I have officially slain my inner Luddite.

I am not a technology averse individual. I am as tethered to my smartphone as much as any modern person. I own computers and tablets and gaming consoles and weird robot ladies that live in little black towers that play music when I want. But one place where I consistently resisted embracing technology was table top, pen and paper roleplaying games. Certainly, whenever I would run the Pathfinder RPG I made use of the extensive on-line SRD and associated apps, but I refused to actually play online. I resisted the siren song of Maptools, Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, despite having friends that successfully used each, as well as simply getting together to game on Google+ Hangouts or Skype.

I think my resistance was based on the way I perceive myself as a Game Master. When I run a game, I rarely sit down. I see my roll as referee and storyteller, but most as entertainer. It is like an interactive one man show or stand up comedy for a select group of hecklers. Though I am not sure I ever articulated it in my protestations to VTT enabled friends, I thought that my style of GMing, what I literally brought to the table, would not translate to a microphone and computer screen. And if I am being honest about it, how I perform as a GM is embarrassingly important to me.

What finally made me reevaluate using a VTT was when I realized I wanted to play more often with people who lived far away. Once a year I drive 500 miles to cram 30 hours of table time into 4 days to continue a campaign that has been going on for 20 years and counting. It is awesome. No gaming experience matches it for pure immersive fun. But it is also limiting. That world and its stories are told in annual event stories. Little is accomplished outside of those events so the characters don’t get the kind of small scale, personal stories that created the foundation on which we still play. It turned out that the game system we use for that campaign, Mutants and Mastermind 2nd Edition, was not supported by Fantasy Grounds, but the newer 3rd Edition is.  I decided to give FG a try, to see if we could use it and then whether we wanted to make that edition transition. Somewhere along the line, I happened to accidentally fall in love with running Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

Fifth Edition is fully supported by FG and even free, at least in its Basic Rules form. Being completely unfamiliar with FG but very familiar with 5E I decided to mess around with FG using the 5E rules. With the help of the friend who had been successfully running games on VTTs for years, and who was ever berating me for avoiding the technology, I learned just enough to be dangerous — to my wallet. Fantasy Grounds is not an inexpensive platform for the GM, especially when it comes to running D&D. A quick check on Steam shows that you can get the Complete Bundle for D&D at a cost of over $300. If you want to be able to host players without them having to buy the software, add another $100 for the Ultimate License, or pay a $10 monthly subscription fee. I tend to view the purchase of gaming materials not from a “how much does this one thing cost” perspective but a “hours of enjoyment” perspective. Even at the high cost, if I use FG even half as much as I plan to it will come out to be some of the least expensive entertainment ever.

As an aside, I think that is true of table top RPGs in general. Sometimes books do cost a lot, and sometimes they sit on your shelf, but if you actually play an RPG regularly its cost per hour of entertainment can’t be beat.

After that initial exploration of Fantasy Grounds, I quickly fell in love with it as a platform. I invited far flung folks with whom I have and/or currently game to give it a shot. That resulted in almost universal excitement. Now I have more potential players than I know what to do with and am developing a new campaign world — about which I will blog in the near future. There are still technical hurdles to overcome — we have gone through a couple VOIP solutions so far — and scheduling is likely to be a bear. Even so I am excited for what the future holds: how long before it is a VRTT*?

*Virtual Reality Table Top

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right

About a year ago, I wrote a little post about Superman versus Cthulhu.  It was not merely an idle musing on how to marry the bright four color world of superheroics and the hopeless ennui of eldritch horror — it was the thesis for my work on the Strange Arcana universe from Sigil Entertainment and Aaron Acevedo. At the time, I was seriously considering doing some RPG self publishing and knew I would need some art for any such project. I tossed out a call on Facebook to get recommendations for royalty free art. Aaron, with whom I had worked in writing a story for his Maelstrom fiction anthology, suggested we team up and the rest is history. Strange History, in fact.


I did my first professional RPG writing for White Wolf Publishing (who didn’t, right?) on the kitchen sink, dialed-up-to-eleven epic fantasy RPG Exalted. Later I did some work for the d20 reboot of the famous post apocalyptic science fantasy game Gamma World. Unfortunately, real life got in the way when my kids arrived and I could not sustain a freelance RPG career. I always missed it, though, and when Aaron proposed an opportunity to get back into that world, I was ecstatic. And terrified.


It wasn’t easy. Writing for games is entirely different than writing fiction, and I had spend the intervening years focusing on fiction in hopes of one day Making It Big. (Spoiler alert: I am still hoping.) What was originally supposed to be a short turn around job has become a year long odyssey through this world of super heroes and malevolent forces. While the idea and the world belong entirely to Aaron, I feel a sense of kinship with the world we have developed. Both super heroes and Lovecraftian monsters are easily misused — both are subject to tired tropes and cliched stories. But I think our little team, which has grown well beyond Aaron and I, has found a way to make both new and fresh while simultaneously creating a world that blends the two and is more than the sum of its parts.

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right is only the first piece of that world we want to share with you. It is a fiction anthology, culminating in a beautifully illustrated comic book, that introduces the weird world and strange heroes. It will be followed in early 2017 with the Strange Arcana RPG for Savage Worlds (and, if we hit our goals, hopefully Mutants and Masterminds and FATE as well!) and, we hope anyway, a long line of support.

I love fantasy and I love post apocalypse and I love cosmic horror, but no genre hits all the cylinders for me like comic book super heroes. It draws on all the genres we love and at the same time remakes them. And more than any other genre, it demands complex characters — those secret identities, love interests and recurring villains are there for a reason, after all. With the infusion of its own take on eldritch horror (far more than a simple Lovecraft retread) Strange Arcana promises to reinvent the super hero genre for years to come.


Get in on the ground floor. Back Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right Kickstarter. I guarantee that by the time you finish the anthology you will be clamoring for more.

On the Value of History in Storytelling

Source: Official Marvel Website

You may have heard about a couple small films that came out this year: indie darling Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and a little joint called Captain America: Civil War. Many have discussed these two films, both individually and in relation to one another, and many good points have been made. The long and short of it seems to be that BvS was overblown tripe and CA:CW set the new gold standard, or something to those effects anyway. I won’t belabor the point or retread well worn ground. Rather, I want to talk about what these two movies underscored for me as a viewer, a fan of the source material and a writer. Namely, how a real sense of history informs storytelling and how a thin veneer of it can be worse than none at all.

Source: Bleeding Cool

The above pages from The Dark Knight Returns, the seminal comic book by Frank Miller from which director Zack Snyder took inspiration fro BvS, underscores my thesis. The captions which present the antagonists’ thoughts ooze history between the characters, making the battle between them important far beyond its spectacle or the late night nerd sleepover question of whether Batman could ever beat up Superman. This history is earned in DKR, sprouting from decades of team-ups and crossovers between the characters. Batman and Superman were friends once and it shows. their battle is not simply about anger or revenge, it is about an ideological rift between two genuinely heroic figures. Every World’s Finest comic book and every episode of Superfriends produced was leading to this moment. At least, Miller was able to convince us of that. He did not have to wipe the slate clean in order to justify the conflict between the Big Blue Boyscout and the Dark knight Detective. Rather, that deep connection was what made such a conflict possible and compelling in the first place.


Similarly, the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War was earned. perhaps not by decades of comic books but by years of big budget, very well made tent pole blockbusters. The architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wove each of the properties together and did not waste appearances by one character in another’s film. Moreover, the Avengers films that brought the characters together did so in a way that solidified relationships and established history. Due to the nature of film release, there is not a huge body of work in the same way there is in comics. It would have been lovely for Cap, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor to all have TV series that crossed over regularly with one another and the rest of the ensemble, but in a world where it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to do these characters justice on screen, that is a vain hope. Even so, I think the collective creative powers of the MCU managed to create that history without relying too heavily upon unrelated comics or cultural connection the way BvS did.


So what is the lesson? The lesson for me is informed by years of playing tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. I know. I was equally surprised.


RPGs share a lot with other episodic and serial forms of entertainment such as comics, television series, long book series (ex: Dresden Files), and of course movie series. In an RPG the continuity between sessions is a major component of the fun for the players. Not only do players watch their characters grow in wealth and power, they watch the world in which their characters operate grow, with recurring villains and subplots and themes. In other words, they develop a history within the context of the campaign. That history feeds itself. Every time a recurring villain shows up or an old ally reappears, the value of that historical element increases exponentially. You know you have succeeded as a Game Master when the revelation that the bad guy behind this adventure is the party’s old enemy elicits both cheers and jeers. They players are invested in a way they cannot be when presented with new threats, no matter how cool.


That same is true of other forms of entertainment. Comic book movies often make the mistake of killing off the villains at the end. Writers, directors and producers think, I believe, that audiences demand closure and in an action move, closure amounts to a bullet between the eyes or falling off something exceptionally high — preferably into something fiery and/or explodey. Television and comics fare far better on this front, though even comic book inspired shows like CW’s The Flash rely heavily on the death of the villain as the climactic event. It is not an insurmountable problem, of course, as Civil War displayed: the protagonists then must shoulder the responsibility of history. If recurring villains are not on the table, then it must be recurring heroes, along with non-villainous rivals and other supporting cast, that must do the heavy lifting in this regard.


Ultimately, what a sense of history provides is a reason for the audience to care.  There are a lot of ways to attract and then sustain a reader or viewer’s attention, but getting them emotionally invested is much more difficult. One surefire way to succeed is to tug on those emotions tied to the history between two things or organizations or participants. Few people gave a shit about Batman fighting Superman because that conflict failed to say anything about the emotional relationship between those characters. There was no history there. The fight between Captain America and Ironman, on the other hand, was much more well received and inspired a lot more emotional investment from the audience because the people in the seats not only knew who those characters were, as they did with BvS, but actually knew those characters and their motivations and what could drive a wedge between them. They knew these things because they had been invested enough to go see, rent, own or pirate all the MCU things that came before.


I am not saying there is no place for stories that are told in a single unit of storytelling, whether one novel or one film or one RPG session. Rather, I am suggesting that history and its weight plays a large role in our tendency to care about the fiction we consume. Acknowledging that will make us both better consumers of storytelling and purveyors of it.


The Family That Geeks Together…


It’s fall and that means a new TV season. The show I have most anticipated the return of is The CW’s The Flash. Not only is the titular hero one of my favorites and the first super hero I encountered in comics — by way of the 1989 television show — but it is also the best super hero show that has ever been on television. Ever. (Okay, possible exception for Batman: The Animated Series, but it is a close call.)


There are a lot of good reasons to love The Flash on television. The effects are wonderful. It homages the comics in a way that is both respectful and fun. The cast is amazing. The story lines are unquestionably “comic-booky” while still being well done.  It is a CW show so there are love triangles and angsty subplots, but they at least move. But most of all, the thing that makes The Flash so good is that it eschews the grim and gritty tone of its sibling show Arrow and the rest of the cinematic DC Universe. That sense of humor, fun and hope makes it a joy to watch. yes, there are dark moments and some uncomfortable story lines, but they serve to underscore the optimism inherent in the eponymous hero and the show at large, not obscure or drown it.


This leads me to the point of this post: I decided I wanted to watch The Flash with the kids. My son is 12 and well into the realm of PG-13 (thanks Revenge of the Sith) but my daughter is 9. While I certainly would have watched The Flash at that age, I was uncertain with her. But, I asked and she said she would like to give it a try. I “spoiled” her on the scary stuff so she knew going in and reminded her that the gun play was just pretend. She took it all in stride and even rolled her eyes at me a little (which I take as a good sign in this instance).


How did it go? When the pilot was over, she said — and I quote — “I wish we could take a whole Saturday and do nothing but watch this show!”


I already force my poor wife to watch the current season and I am hoping my son decided he would like to join us in watching Season 1, but even if it is just us, I can’t imagine a cooler way to spend some father-daughter time.