Wednesday 27 December 2017

List of Lists ... Seven

I did this last year, the year before, the year before, the year before, the year before and the year before ... I'm doing it again! (this is a list of lists of lists)

2017 has been kind to Red Sister!

Below are the 36 'Best of 2017' lists that I know of featuring Red Sister (presented in chronological order of publication). The two main reasons for assembling this list of lists are:

i) A thank you to the reviewers in question. It's a labour of love maintaining a book blog.

ii) You're probably here because you liked Red Sister. These reviewers (or in one case, these 200,000+ voters) appear to share your taste in one book, perhaps you will enjoy the other books on their lists.

Emma Lee Gough (mathematically it's still a list if it contains only one member)
The Audie Awards
Fantasy Book Critic
Library of Wonders
Reddit Stabby Awards
The Royal Library
Fantasy Book Cafe
The Tattooed Book Geek
Lynne's Books
Epic Grit
Laura M Hughes
Tome and Tankard
Grimdark Fiction Readers
Joseph Mallozzi's Weblog
The Bibliophile Chronicles
The Blogin' Hobgoblin
The Orangutan Library
The Grimdragons
Parmenion Books
Fantasy Literature
Reading Frenzy
Smorgasbord Fantasia
A Hair Past A Freckle
Books of My Heart
Book Geeks Uncompromised
Scifi and Fantasy Reviews
Pat's Fantasy 
Fantasy Book Review
You and I Books
Kristen Loves To Read
The Passionate Foodie
Quill To Live
Barnes & Noble 
Goodreads Choice Award for Fantasy 2017

Sunday 24 December 2017

The L-word.

It is traditional that every now and then the fantasy genre make some sort of overture toward literary fiction. Be they sarcastic, self-deprecating, humorous, or outraged, the common core to all of these gestures is a desire for recognition. A desire that the "ivory tower academics" recognize that the best of the SFF genre stands worthy of their attention and praise.

Magical realism appears to have crossed the divide but the received wisdom seems to be that the moment a sword or laser gun enters the narrative all claim to literary worth flees the page.

SFF books that I have read recently that definitely qualify as literary fiction include Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Nod by Adrian Barnes, Master Assassins by Robert V.S Redick, and Robin Hobb's Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

Fantasy books are more accessible than literary fiction, they attract a younger demographic. They have fandom. Online this can lead to partisan behavior. We put ourselves down using the language borrowed from those same professors on university creative writing courses that won't touch a fantasy story.

My readers have an average age of 35. I have more readers in their 50s than I have readers in their teens. I imagine that series such as Bakker's Prince of Nothing and Abercrombie's First Law have similar demographics. But I see "written for edgy teens" as a commonly used insult regarding those books. This is the weaponizing of common prejudice for use in fandom-wars.

One thing every decent writer learns is that description serves two purposes simultaneously. It illuminates both the thing being described and the character giving the description. Nowhere is this more true than in insults. When one person attacks another using insults the choice of words almost always says more about the source than the target. The person describing Prince of Nothing or First Law, written by a forty-somethings, and read primarily by thirty-somethings, as "for edgy teens", is trying to establish their own maturity. Often they will be trying to break free of their own perceived recent naivety. 

Last month a student at Yale, Lauren Ribordy, asked me for input on a semester paper she was doing for an English course on science fiction. The assignment was to make the case for a new book to be included in the curriculum. Her choice was King of Thorns.

Answering her questions and reading the resulting paper made me think in more concrete terms about the literary undercurrents in my work.

One of the genre's more cerebral reviewers, Pornokitsch, had this to say about The Broken Empire:

"As a result, I am reviewing this book differently from the other DGLA finalists to date - not as an epic fantasy, but as literature.
Before my fellow fantasy fans start keelhauling me on social media, I merely mean that the genres (treating 'lit-fic' as a genre) are reviewed and discussed differently. Epic fantasy is discussed in terms of story and character and plot and setting. Is the setting cool? Does neat shit happen? Are the characters interesting? Can I escape into it?
As far as discussing this series goes, the above criteria don't apply. When considering the Broken Empire series, I immediately gravitate towards the themes of the book. These books have messages. They have a philosophy. Most epic fantasies... do not."
In Ribordy's paper for the Yale course she addresses the themes of futurity, free will, prediction, and memory within the trilogy and its forebears in science fiction.
"Lawrence uses Fexler Brews, an artificial intelligence, as a tool by which to explore the nature of human development."
She notes parallels in the mathematical predictions that hem Jorg Ancrath in and those of Asimov's Foundation series. She notes the focus on memory as the core of the human condition and the interest in the consequences of editing experience either artificially or naturally.
"Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Dick’s Ubik both center memory as a crucial element of futurity."
"In 'Memory Matters in the Digital Age,' Van Djick comments on the nature of memory, postulating that memory is recreated, not retrieved, and that any new experiences will affect how memories are recreated (Memory Matters in the Digital Age 354). Van Djick’s characterization of the human brain allows us to better understand why excising certain memories can lead people to view every aspect of the world in new ways. One example in Ubik that predicts this conception of memory is when Joe Chip thinks of Pat Conley as his wife, even when he knows memories of them being together are merely remnants of “the ghostly shroud of a marriage [that had] been abolished” (Ubik 176). This theme of memory affecting outcome is detailed throughout King of Thorns."
Looking at the body of my published and upcoming work I see many repetitions of the question, what does it mean to be human? It's a question that can only be explored rather than answered, and I attack it on several fronts. 
I take extreme humans and examine the consequence of cutting away different elements of morality. When a man's compassion and restraint are pared away ... is he still human? Does it matter how he came to that state or simply that this is where he now is? Nature vs nurture. Does it matter that he is a child? As we grow do we remain the same person? Is the man responsible for the sins of the child. He wears the same skin but is he bound to the crimes of someone who may now seem a stranger?
Emperor of Thorns
‘Jorg?’ and Fexler’s image rose above the ring, painted in whites as always, not quite opaque. If the Builders had set themselves the task of recreating ghosts from the stories told to children they could have done the job no better.

            ‘Who’s asking?’

            He focused on me as I spoke, his image growing sharper. ‘Can’t you see me?’

            ‘I can see you.’

            ‘Then you recognize me. Fexler Brews.’

I laid my hand flat across the book. ‘It says here that a prediction will diverge from the truth. The further the prediction is carried, the larger the discrepancy. Wraps it all up in statistics and bounds of course. But the message is clear enough. You’re a prediction. I doubt you’re anything like the man I saw die any more.’

‘Untrue,’ Fexler said. ‘I have the original data. I don’t need to rely on fading memories. Fexler Brews is alive in me as true and clear as ever.’

            I shook my head and watched him. The shadows danced everywhere but across him. On me, on the walls, the ceiling, only Fexler constant, lit by his own light.

            ‘You can’t grow if you’re constantly defined by this collection of frozen moments that you keep returning to. And if you can’t grow, you’re not alive. So either you’re Fexler, and like him you’re dead. Or you’re alive, but you’re someone else. Something else.’

            ‘Are you sure it’s me we’re talking about?’ Fexler raised a brow – very human.

            ‘Ah...’ It closed on me like steel jaws. The worst traps are the ones we lay for ourselves. All these years and it took a nothing, a web of numbers, to show me to myself. I could count on one hand the brief and personal passion plays that nailed me to my past. The carriage and the thorns. The hammer and Justice burning. The bishop. Father’s knife jutting from my chest. And at my hip, in a copper box, perhaps one more. ‘I liked you better before, Fexler. Why are you here?’

I return to the issue of memory many times. 

"Memory is all we are. Moments and feelings, captured in amber, strung on filaments of reason. Take a man’s memories and you take all of him. Chip away a memory at a time and you destroy him as surely as if you hammered nail after nail through his skull."

"A man is made of memories. It is all we are. Captured moments, the smell of a place, scenes played out time and again on a small stage. We are memories, strung on storylines--the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves, falling through our lives into tomorrow."

"There are truths you know but will not speak. Even to yourself in the darkness where we are all of us alone. There are memories you see and yet don't see."

"Nothing can be cut away. Even the worst of our memories is part of the foundation that keeps us in the world."

This theme is even there in a thriller I wrote recently:

“Pop quiz,” I said. “If you committed a crime but had no memory of it … would you feel guilty.”

“Well, yes I’m guilty,” Mo said. “They should put me in jail before I do it again.”

“That’s not the question. Do you feel guilty? In your bones. I mean, memory is all you are. We’re just a collection of memories that we spent our lives stacking up in an order we’re happy with. If that’s taken away … if your memory of doing it is wiped clean … then it wasn’t you that did it. Not really.”

The idea that we are stories we tell ourselves is explored further in The Red Queen's War, and extended to include the notion that we can fall into the stories that others tell about us and become trapped within them.

I'm not claiming to have written great literature here. I am simply pointing out as others have before that literary fiction and SFF overlap hugely. If you write a book that is all about story and plot, that's not literary fiction. If you write a story where in addition to the plot you also explore themes, focus on character, and try to use the unfolding events to cast light on some question concerning the human condition ... then you are writing literary fiction regardless of whether the characters in question are holding a sword, or a laser gun, or casting a spell. To say otherwise is just snobbery and prejudice. The only question of any importance in this context is not whether the novel is wearing the trappings of SFF or set in the real world but simply whether it is good literary fiction. As a reader of fantasy you are exploring a genre that has many examples of good literary fiction within it. Enjoy.

Sunday 17 December 2017

A Year in Numbers ... Seven!

It has been a very good 2017 all told!

Following on from similar posts at the same time in 20162015201420132012 and 2011 I record a year of ups and less ups. I take a minute to do the sums and raid the scrapbook.

High points include the release of Red Sister and the extended Road Brothers. Red Sister turned out to be my seventh novel in a row to make the Goodreads Choice Award semi-final. Another high point was when The Wheel of Osheim made the finals of the David Gemmell Legend Award!

Red Sister was part of an Amazon promotion and made it to #3 in Fantasy! And would have been #1 but for some book called ... A Game of Thrones.

2017 has been the year of the omnibus, with the Broken Empire special edition from Grimoak selling down to 152 from the initial 1000, and the issuing of omnibuses in Hungarian and Brazilian Portuguese (a particularly lovely edition) to join those in French and Italian.

I also signed deals for 6 more books! A trilogy in the same world as the Red Sister / Book of the Ancestor trilogy, and another trilogy that is set in 80s London, centering on a D&D group with some scifi stuff going on!

Progress on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse card game has been incredibly frustratingly slow but the project now really does seem close to completion. Ragnarok no longer have any role in the project and the reins have been taken up by Gallant Knight Games who hopefully are living up to their name by riding in to save the day.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics to follow:

Prince of Thorns sold its 500,000th copy in English this year.
The second Book of the Ancestor, Grey Sister, comes out in April 2018 ... you should pre-order that!

I now have almost 200,000 Goodreads ratings and nearly 500,000 'books added'! The numbers boggle my mind.

I also established a rule of thumb linking Goodreads ratings to sales, which tells me that I have now sold 1.5 million books in English! 

& some Amazon stats
The blog got its 2 millionth hit in 2017, though for the first year there has been a slight decline in traffic (the Russian bots have been less busy). Must try harder!
Blog traffic since inception.

This year I joined Instagram. Pintrest, and Tumblr! And exceeded 10,000 followers on Goodreads.

And finally, Twitter, where I'm threatening the 20,000 follower barrier!
Which is really very small beer in the world of tweeting.

Oh, and thanks to an Amazon Goldbox promotion Xmas came early!

Thursday 7 December 2017

In other news ... I'm on Instagram now!

Check me out!

I do puppies, cats, book giveaways, news, all sorts! Follow me, why not?

Wednesday 6 December 2017

#2 Chapter 1 critique

To understand what we're doing here check out Chapter Critique Corner.

To reiterate a key point - this process depends on audience participation. I'm just hosting, not taking part in the critique.

I converted this one from the original pdf so some formatting oddities may have found their way into the mix for which the author is not responsible. 

You can offer your thoughts in the comments - these are moderated and I will pass "tough love" but not anything that I feel crosses the line into meanness or mockery. So, rather than waste your efforts, do bear in mind that the object of the exercise here is to help. That said, robust critiques are encouraged and I guess we will just have to find our level as we go.

You can also email critiques to me and I will see if they can be transferred to the blog post in a way that preserves their editing markups.

Chapter 1
The cold of death touched Isabel first. Icy tendrils that crept along her alabaster skin, raising goose bumps despite the cool humidity of the tomb. She suppressed a shudder and continued the incantation without distraction.
The body on the stone slab before her twitched a fraction. A finger, then a leg, then the entire muscular torso of the newly deceased guardsman’s body. The sight sent a thrill coursing through Isabel’s mind. Again, she suppressed her emotions, her physiological responses. The ritual was too important. The slightest distraction could be disastrous.
The guards naked body writhed on the cold stone until Isabel thought he might fall from the slab completely. As the incantation came to an end however, he stilled. The body remained motionless for a long time, limbs twisted at odd angles. Isabel held back, her breath still. For a long time the young guards body was frozen. Then she felt it.
A familiar connection blossomed within Isabel’s mind. She sensed the dead man’s thoughts, still fresh from living. A hint of who he had been, his desires, his ambitions. And then there was the hunger. It came in a rush. A desire for living flesh, for warm flowing blood. Perhaps born of a memory of what it was to be truly alive, twisted into a keen hunger for these things he no longer possessed.
“Can you hear me?” Isabel whispered into the darkness of the mausoleum. The eyes of the corpse flickered open. Pale blue witch-light glimmered faintly in the half light. He turned to her, watching from under long strands of mouse brown hair. Waiting.
“Get up,” Isabel commanded.
The corpse sat up, like a puppet on a string, he simply folded at the waist, spine as straight as a rod. He moved mechanically, not with the fluid motions of the living, his limbs stiff as he swung his legs over the end of the slab and rose to stand still and silent before Isabel. Strangely his eyes fixed on her own. It was difficult for Isabel to return that cold unblinking stare. When she did, the ravenous hunger she saw there terrified her.
“Why do you watch me like that?” She asked, cursing the quiver she failed to keep from her voice.
The thing did not answer. It just stared.
“Look away,” she hissed, her nerve giving way beneath those cold eyes. The dead man obeyed, looking beyond her at the darkness.

“Deadwood, about a mile to the west of here. Do you remember it?” If the undead thing recognised the name, it did not show it. “You used to live there.”
An agonising drone filled the chamber. It was like the grinding of old bones, whispering together in the darkness. Dread filled Isabel as she realised what it was. “Not I.” It spoke with the lips of the dead man, but the voice was otherworldly. It carried the promise of the grave.
The voice unnerved her, but Isabel refused to allow it to show in front of this new aberration.
“But you know of where I speak.”
A nod. The eyes returned to watch her.
“I want you to go there. Avoid being seen. If you are discovered, make sure they don’t live to tell about it.” No answer. Isabel continued. “Go to the tower on the hill. Von Dinkler’s lair.”
Mention of the name drew a response. The guards eyes flickered, the pale blue light growing bright for a moment, the hunger replaced momentarily by rage, then it was gone. “You know of where I speak?” A slight nod. “Good. Go there, don’t get caught, bring me the stone there.
A large green rock, the size of a fist.” She held her hand up for emphasis. “It will be guarded.
Do you understand?” Another nod. “Then go. Be back tonight. If you are not, I will terminate our connection, and you will return to wherever it was you came from.”
The undead guard moved at her command. The piercing cold stabbed at her arm as it brushed past her toward the crumbling arch that led from the mausoleum. Isabel clenched her teeth against the terrible presence she felt from the brief contact. She ignored the sensation and turned to watch the creature go.
She allowed herself a grim smile of satisfaction when the thing disappeared into the shadowed halls, then began preparation for her servant’s victorious return.
Several hours passed. Isabel remained in the dark, a scattering of candles holding the shadows back. She kept to the edges of the candlelight, eyes on the black archway, waiting.
The shuffling steps of the undead thing preceded it’s return to the mausoleum. It emerged into the half-light more broken than it had left. Its right arm was missing, the stump a torn and bloodied mess, congealed blood oozing down the remains of a guard’s shirt. Interesting that it had thought to cover its nakedness. Shame was not a concern for the unliving. But Isabel supposed enough of the guardsmen’s own mind remained to know a naked man is more conspicuous than a clothed one.
Its left arm was whole, though its shirt here was torn also. In its hand it carried the stone, casting a green and ominous glow across the walls of the crypt.
The broken thing shambled to the centre of the room and stopped. It watched Isabel with that same tormented hunger. She thought it looked different somehow. Something had gone dramatically wrong, that much was obvious from the damage to the corpse, but the eyes were different. They held a cunning beneath the hunger. Something Isabel had not imbued the creature with.
She emerged from the shadows, drawing alongside the broken monster. “What happened to you?” She asked herself more than the creature. The intelligence to form proper sentences another trait she had not imbued it with.
But then it spoke. That same broken voice that came from another place.
“Von Dinkler sends his regards.” The stone fell to the floor as the creatures one good arm shot forward, its hand encircling her throat with a speed and strength Isabel could scarcely believe.
The frozen grasp of the undead stilled the blood in her arteries. Pain shot through her skull, blurring her vision, wiping all thought from her mind. As she slipped into oblivion, sheer instinct drove her hand to draw the double-barrelled pistol from beneath her inner jacket. Both barrels unleashed a torrent of flame and metal against her traitorous creations sternum, blowing bits of bone and blackened organs across the opposite wall. The force of the blast blew the dead guard backwards across the stone slab of its resurrection. It rolled backwards onto the floor, where it struggled with little success to rise once more.
Isabel gasped for breath, rubbing her aching throat tenderly, attempting to return some blood flow to the ice damaged flesh.
The dead guard gave up trying to rise, and decided to simply crawl using its one remaining arm, toward Isabel.
With a flick of her wrist, Isabel cracked open the pistol. Two expended cartridges ejected automatically, and she slid two more in their place.
Her throat still ached, but she straightened, rounded the stone slab, and unloaded one more round into her servant’s skull. Isabel dropped the pistol, clamping her hands to ringing ears.
“Fuck!” she screamed. Her voice didn’t penetrate the ringing in her ears.
Eyes clamped against blurred vision, ears ringing from gunshot, Isabel felt her way to the stone slab and slumped against it. The cold stone soothed her head, but she knew she needed to keep moving. She didn’t have long before…
clack… Clack… CLACK…
Slowly she registered the strange noise. A cold knot forming in her gut, Isabel’s head snapped up to see two very tall, very skinny figures enter through the decrepit arch. They wore long black robes that reached to their booted calves. Hoods hung low to cover their faces, but their long skeletal hands protruded from the end of loose sleeves, and betrayed the illusion of mortality. Skeletons. Held together by magic and sheer will. They were conspicuous, but more effective, full of dark magic, and wicked intellect.
They were clapping. Their fleshless hands sounding more like two bunches of dried sticks beating against each other. Following the two bone men was another, shorter fellow. This one was alive, and quite covered in flesh. It hung from him in rolls, expensive materials straining across a round stomach, thick thighs, and flabby arms. His bald head balanced precariously upon roll after roll of chin that connected without passing along a neck, directly to his shoulders.
Von Dinkler.
He wasn’t clapping. He saved the ironic gesture for his skeletal goons.
“Well done, I must say.” He looked rather like a toad, Isabel thought. Even his skin held a faint green tinge, perhaps from his years of studying the rotting flesh of his subjects.
Isabel backed further into the dank crypt, until she felt the slick stone wall press into her back.
Though no signal was given, the two robed skeletons moved forward, circling the stone slab in the centre of the room, cutting off Isabel’s movement. Von Dinkler stood between Isabel and the entrance, placing his fat arse on the stone slab with considerable effort.
“It took me forty years to raise my first subject,” he spoke dispassionately, as if recalling what he had for breakfast. “I had to put that one down, too. Though through my own inability rather than any loss of control to another summoner.”
“Are you trying to console me, Von Dinkler?” The pistol was heavy in Isabel’s hand, but not heavy enough. She was painfully aware of the single remaining shot in the twin barrels. Von Dinkler’s gaze twitched to her left hand uncomfortably.
“I am impressed. Though I am also rather disappointed a newcomer to our profession decided to try out their formidable skills to burgle me. But you knew I would come, didn’t you? You are aware of who I am, after all.” It wasn’t a question.
“I know.” Isabel fingered the dual triggers, deciding which of the targets before her she could bring down before they were on top of her.
“And yet, here we are.” Silence stretched between them for an uncomfortably long time. Von Dinkler watched her with an unreadable expression. The two bodyguards remained motionless, depthless sockets staring into oblivion.
“You may live.” Isabel jerked at the sudden statement, surprised. “I have been searching for an apprentice, and I think you will serve me well.” Isabel quirked a single brow. “Your powers may prove useful. There are many tasks which have become tedious to one such as I. But it would be good practice for the likes of you. If you can behave yourself.” Von Dinkler hopped off the stone slab, and motioned for Isabel to follow. He moved passed his guards, who remained as still as stone, waiting.
“Crendal.” Isabel whispered. The word dropped to the chamber floor like a stone in the dark.
Von Dinkler stopped. He breathed a great sigh, and he seemed to deflate as the air left him. He grabbed the arch of the mausoleum, leaning heavily against crumbling old stone. “So you’re not here looking for a master?” He sounded disappointed. “No matter how fast I run, my past always seems to catch up with me.” When he turned, he seemed to have aged a dozen years in an instant. “How do you know about Crendal?”
Isabel started shaking. Not fear. It was something else. Memories of her home, her family, came pouring back after more than a decade of pushing them away. “It was my home.”
“Impossible!” Von Dinkler snapped. “Everybody was killed…” He seemed to realise what he was admitting to, and stopped himself. He paced back passed the stone slab, coming to stand a few feet from Isabel. “You were not there,” he hissed.
Isabel held Von Dinkler’s gaze. A torrent of rage, and sorrow, and fear washed over her. A flood of old memories. Of her mother, her sisters, her baby brother. Memories that had lived in a corner of her mind, buried behind a mound of grief and denial for over a decade.
She lifted the pistol.
Faster than she thought possible, Von Dinklers two bodyguards rushed forward. The one on the left grabbed the Necromancer, and thrust him sideways. The one on the right reached for
Isabel’s hand, so she fired.
The imperfect shot tore into Von Dinklers body. It shredded his jacket, and exposed the flesh beneath his fat belly. In the instant before the second guard bore her to the ground, Isabel thought she saw bone.
The skeleton wrestled the gun out of her hand. Every touch from the evil thing stabbed her with grave-cold, leaving her limbs numb, sluggish. Fortunately, the skeleton was literally a bag of bones. Beneath the heavy robe were bones, and nothing more. Isabel placed her boot against the skeletons hips, and thrust the thing over her head. It landed on its crooked, between wall and floor, and collapsed into an odd shaped pile.
With a grunt, Isabel pulled herself onto her backside. Von Dinkler’s remaining bodyguard was rising from the crumpled form of its master. She cracked the pistol, reloaded two shells, and flicked it closed.
As skeletal hands reached for her throat, Isabel unleashed a torrent of flame and lead that tore the monstrous collection of bones apart before her eyes.
Isabel reloaded her twin barrels and advanced on the prone Von Dinkler.
“Please! I’m not that man anymore. That wasn’t me!” His flabby arms beat the cold stone ineffectually as he tried to crawl away from her. A trail of blood followed him across the floor.
Isabel knelt down, putting her knee into the old Necromancers lower back. He stopped crawling. “You killed my family. My baby brother.”
Von Dinkler whimpered. The rolls of fat that spilled above his collar quivered with terror.
“This is the great Necromancer?” Isabel couldn’t believe this wobbly mass of flesh was the same man who brought the Empire to its knees a decade ago. “What happened to you?”
Von Dinkler snivelled into the dirt. Isabel dug her weight further into his back, waiting for an answer.
“Please!” He groaned. “I’ll tell you. Just let me up, please.” He was crying now. Isabel rolled her eyes, and lifted her weight off him. Von Dinkler grunted as her knee lifted from his back. He rolled over, and for the first time Isabel noticed he was holding a smooth wooden rod, about a foot long, topped with a green metal cylinder. He unscrewed the bottom, and grabbed the ceramic bauble that emerged, attached to a cord that disappeared into the rod.
“Do you know what this is?” Von Dinkler puffed. He grinned maniacally, a sinister glint penetrating the fear in his eyes.
“I’ve heard about them.” Isabel backed away from the Necromancer. But if he held what she thought, there was not enough room in the chamber to escape the blast.
“Precisely. Now, I think you’re going to tell me just what you know about Crendal. The truth this time.”
“You’re mad. You wouldn’t set that thing off in here.” Isabel doubted her words.
“I’m not about to be taken by the likes of you, girl. Now talk!” He snapped into the gloom of the crypt.
Pistol still pointed at the Necromancer, Isabel’s hand trembled once more. She couldn’t think of that day without the cloud of pain and suffering she suppressed emerging, threatening to wash away all reason, everything that she was.
“I told you the truth,” Isabel ground from between clenched teeth. “It was my home. I was there when your dead men arrived. I was there when the living followed them. I saw men slaughtered, women and children violated and then following husbands and fathers to the grave.” Isabel dropped her head, loose hair falling to cover wet eyes.
“I saw my mother, my sisters…”
“Stop!” Von Dinkler shouted. “Please, no more. I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to remember anything from that terrible war.”
Bloodshot eyes shot up, almost glowing with rage. Isabel shouted, “You don’t want to remember. You don’t want to remember? What about your victims? What about the countless thousands who suffered at your hands?” She was screaming now. “It is the least you can do, you vile shell of a man, to relive the violence of your most horrendous crimes. Because we had to live through them. We had to lose friends and family in the most horrific way possible!” She spat on him. She didn’t mean to, but she couldn’t control herself. The rage blinded her to everything else but showing him how completely pathetic he had become.
“You fucking bitch.” He wiped the spittle from his straining vest with the sleeve of one arm that still held the grenade. “You have no idea the trials have suffered. What I have sacrificed for you, for everyone in this good forsaken town. In the whole fucking Kingdom!” He pulled the ceramic bauble from the wooden rod. There was a metallic click from within the green cylinder, and Von Dinkler smiled, dropping the grenade on the ground between his legs.
“It’s over,” Von Dinkler let out a great sigh, but Isabel was already moving across the room, diving behind the stone slab in the centre of the room.
She couldn’t be sure of much in those last instants before the explosion, but she thought something emerged from Von Dinkler. A fine mist erupted from between sagging lips, rising up into the room, faster than mist had any right to be moving. As she fell behind the stone slab, she thought she saw it shift, change direction, move her way. Almost like an animal, sniffing its prey, hunting something out in the cold crypt.
But then the explosion wiped it all away. Pain preceded darkness and so much noise she thought she would die, then she might have.
Grinding. Like the earth being split asunder. It tore through dreams of Crendal. Of times her family had played together in the waters of the Quad River.
“Come on, Izzy. Wake up!” A hand slapped her. Hard.
She reached for the offending hand, but found a piercing pain made it unbearable to move.
“You don’t look so good.” George. She recognised his voice now. Sleep was releasing its grip, but with awareness came pain.
“Ugh...” Isabel found her mouth full of dirt, and coughed up what felt like a vital organ before she could talk. “What happened?” The darkness was all encompassing. The explosion had clearly doused all light. What damage it had caused, Isabel could only guess. The sound of earth moving overhead was not a good sign.
“Come on,” George pulled Isabel into a sitting position.
“Fuck!” Her hip felt like it was full of broken glass. Isabel shoved her brother away, falling back on the debris strewn floor. “I can’t,” she panted, tasting blood.
The sound of George rummaging in the darkness, then the flicking of a kerosene lighter. Black smoke curled from the end of the flame when it sprang into life.
Her brother had been with Isabel for a decade. He had travelled with her across the breadth and width of a continent in their search for Von Dinkler. Together they had pieced together the mystery of the powerful Necromancer, and traced him to Deadwood. But in the darkness of the crypt, the flame spreading long shadows across his rotten flesh, Isabel found she was still scared shitless of George’s dead face.
The room was in worse shape than Isabel could have imagined. The roof had collapsed in the centre of the room, coming to rest on the solid stone slab there. Cracks in the stone radiated out, and through them dirt, rock and bones poured onto the floor. The piles in places nearly reached the caved ceiling, and in others it still ran like water to fill the empty spaces.
“Where is he?” Isabel struggled against the pain in her hip, rising onto her one good elbow. The other was a mess of blood and twisting parts that didn’t look all that familiar.
George ducked under hanging stone to circle the slab. “There’s a bit of a red smudge over here. It kind of covers the floor,” he looked around, “and the wall. And the bits of the ceiling that aren’t destroyed.”
“Show me.” Isabel struggled to rise. Her twisted arm screamed at her, and she in turn screamed at the darkness in pain and frustration. “Help me up!” She snapped.
“I thought you said you can’t?” George glided around the debris to stand over her. His charming smile that had endeared him to her so much in life, seemed a mocking simulacrum in death. Much of her brother had changed through the transition of living boy to undead soldier of vengeance.
Isabel held out her good hand and George took it graciously. His kindness grating on her more than it should.
The glass in her hip had not abated. It tore muscle and flesh, and made loud popping sounds as she stood. Isabel was beyond caring about the pain anymore. If Von Dinkler was dead, nothing else mattered. She just had to be sure.
George mostly carried his little sister around the slab. They stood looking down at the ample mass of Von Dinkler’s bloody remains. A leg lay crushed under a large piece of the ceiling. Much of his blood was congealing amongst the pooling sand. Some of the larger chunks of flesh wobbled in a rather undignified manner beneath the dull glow of the kerosene lighter.
“He’s dead.” A whisper. Barely heard above the sound of creaking stone and running sand.
“We really did it. It’s finally over.”
“No, sister,” George squeezed her hand gently. “It’s not over yet.”
Isabel looked up through raven hair turned grey from dust. “Yeah. Not yet.”
They walked, Isabel’s arm around her brother’s waist. His slung around her shoulders, carrying her with an ease borne of unnatural magics.
Isabel stopped at the archway. “Wait. The stone. The green rock. We need it.”
“Why?” George left her leaning heavily against the ancient stone arch. It took him a moment to find the stone, glowing eerily beneath some broken support timbers.
“It’s important,” was all Isabel would say. George shrugged. He pocketed the stone, then they resumed their egress from Deadwood’s collapsing mausoleum.

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