Four years ago, while my brain was still in shock from the shocking US election results, I took a picture of the Rocky Mountains with the intention of taking another one from pretty much the same spot after four years of official climate change denial. What did I expect to see? A return of the brown cloud. Back in the eighties, Denver had an ugly greenish-brown haze of pollution hanging over it. Pretty nasty. One of the first things I noticed when I came back to the state in 2005 for a visit was that it was gone, and the air was really nice. Living here now I know from long experience that it comes and goes with the weather, but that’s still a vast improvement over the constant stinkiness of before. Now it’s mostly from high ozone days, not emissions from dirty industries. Anyway, what I didn’t expect was three years of what they call “exceptional drought,” an insanely rapid expansion of new subdivisions in the area once contaminated by Rocky Flats, and some absolutely epic wildfires. I wound up taking several pictures from good old Highway 128, most of them downright shocking. I’ll grant you no individual human is responsible for drought and wildfires. But policies, people! Policies. The ones that say “extract every bit of resource from every source imaginable at as fast a pace as possible with no regard for the future” and other stupid crap like that. I can definitely blame that sort of policy for accelerating the pace of climate change. So here you go, a series of Rocky Mountain photos taken from the same general area of Colorado. And yes, I swear, the mountains are really there. Take my word for it. They’re too dang big to pick up and move, they don’t have feet, so they are actually still there.
Well, would you look at that! I finally did something.
The Apex Mage is now live on Smashwords, and “in review” over at Amazon! They always take their own sweet time about setting a new release loose in the world.
Talisha Eldridge, mercenary mage of the Concordance School. For over twenty years she earned her living through fighting in the Central Lands, watching humanity’s best attempts to destroy itself after the extinction of its Elmothran overlords. Tired now, Talisha longed to put away her armor and spell shards and find the comfort of a home. A peaceful place, where war need not touch her. A place big enough to bring her dearest dream to life and found a mage school. When the approaching winter ended the year’s fighting, Talisha yielded to an impulse and rode north for the first time in her adult life. Curious about the Highland region since childhood, she had the chance to investigate it, and the money to hold her over the cold season. Besides, she’d heard rumors of trouble, hints of a conflict brewing. Conflict, in her world, meant the certainty of employment come spring. Talisha never expected to find her heart’s desire up in the frigid Highlands. Much less did she expect a dark mage, holding a terrifying and impossible power, to snatch it away from her again. But who better than a lifelong mercenary to take on an ancient evil in a struggle where the fate of the world hangs in the balance? And perhaps more important, Talisha’s chance for a home and family. Who ever said retirement would be easy?
Talisha found the Captain up on the battlements again. This time she called for him to come down. She’d gotten plenty of exercise on this day, damned if she’d go trotting up there to see a man that had a problem with her authority.
“Yes, Fuguarrain?” Captain Ludec asked. His tone was polite, if rather distant, but his expression still had that hint of distaste. Damn the man’s prejudice, anyway.
“You and I need to question our captive mage,” she said, “and discuss plans for bandit hunting. Those bastards are raiding in the town, and I’ll not have it.”
“We have a captive mage?”
“Taken in battle while you were away. Let’s go.”
The cell down on the third sub-level was about what she expected of a castle holding cell. Deep underground, dark, damp on the walls, and plenty of rats. Nasty. The front of it was open bars, though, letting in light and warmth from the fireplace set up for whichever unfortunate fucker had the watch.
Talisha looked over the watchman with a combination of curiosity and dismay. The poor fellow was ancient! What was he doing down in this pit, rather than enjoying a warm pensioner’s apartment?
“Who are you?” she demanded. The old man looked at her, sharp blue eyes out of place in the age-spotted, wrinkled face. He sat in a wooden chair by the fire, leaning on a table, reading a book by the light of an oil lamp.
“I had a name, but I forgot it,” he wheezed, then chuckled at her expression.
“That’s Alfrecht, Fuguarrain,” Ludec said, a note of respect in his voice she hadn’t heard yet. “Now let him be. If you want to question this mage, we should get to it.”
Talisha gave Alfrecht another disbelieving look. Surely he was old enough to have seen Them in person!
“Fuguarrain, are you?” the old man said. “May you be better than the last.”
She let Ludec divert her to the mage, who sat on the hard, narrow cot pushed hard against the wall. The scorched and somewhat tattered robe still gleamed a bit in the firelight.
“Who are you?” Talisha demanded again, this time of the mage. It was a man, rumor had gotten that much right. And he had brown skin. A southlander!
Not that it came as a surprise. The southlands held no prejudice against mages, and the training was easy to pick up for anyone with the aptitude.
“If you think I’m going to tell you everything just because southlanders should stick together in these barbarian wilds, think again.”
“Huh,” Talisha said. “Nice accent. How long’s it been since you left Brieland?”
The mage responded only with a sneer.
“We need to know where your base is,” she said. “Talk, and I’ll see you across the Vialy.”
“You think I want to go back there? You’re crazy.”
Talisha stepped close to the bars of the cell, peering into the dimly lit space. Neither fire nor oil lamp could compete with the stygian hole. She made a gesture at Ludec, hoping he would understand it was his turn. The mage inside gave her a dismissive glance, turning his attention to the firelight flickering on the wall.
Ludec got the keys to the cell from the old man. “I suggest you speak, Brielander,” he said, approaching the cell door. His decent, careworn face looked odd in the flickering firelight, settled into menacing lines.
“Or what, you’ll hurt me?”
“No, not I.” The Captain nodded at Talisha, who placed her hand ostentatiously on her belt with its crystal armament. “Her. I’ll let her use her magic on you.”
“If you want to threaten me, find something else,” the mage said, sounding bored. “No proper little southern mage with props and incantations can scare me, not after seeing the glory that is my Master.”
“What do you mean?” Talisha demanded. “What Master?”
Ludec opened the cell door and stepped inside. Quick as a flash, the mage made a fireball, and Talisha slapped up a spellwall before the ball could leave his hand. If nothing else, her reflexes were faster than his. But…
The man hadn’t used a spell-shard, or a crystal.
“Where is your camp?” Ludec asked.
He hadn’t used anything but his will.
Talisha flicked little sparks at the mage’s feet, trying to irritate him into throwing another fireball. She did it the only way she knew, the only way any human mage knew. She focused her will on a specific, tuned crystal shard, with a mental command word to release the energy from the glowing red fragment tucked into her belt. Part of her wished she had her full arsenal, most of which sat safely in a chest upstairs. But she didn’t really want to kill the man, just make him talk.
“Out with it, Brielander. What Master?”
The enemy mage backed away from the sparks. His robe smoldered in several places, sending up thin threads of smoke before going out.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he sneered. “The Apex Mage will rule the world.”
Talisha pushed her spellwall forward, flattening the man up against the wall. She stroked another crystal, this one much larger. “Want to live? Then you’d better tell us everything. Who are you, where is your camp, who is your Master?”
How the fuck did you throw fire like that?
The spell nested in the thick, smoky crystal wasn’t a particularly nice one, but it got results when interrogating prisoners. It created a vise of air, slowly tightening around the entire body of the mage.
Unexpectedly, he laughed.
She would never forget the sight, and she suspected Ludec wouldn’t, either. Flickering firelight. Smoky air. Mage, face twisted in pain, cackling like a madman.
Then his eyes flew open, and another intelligence looked out of them.
“Fool,” he said, voice somehow echoing hollowly. “You will know pain and death before I am through with you.“
“Master!” he screeched in his own voice, then burst into flames.
The nagging of my conscience couldn’t do it, but a bit of extra public embarrassment worked. I wrote today!
Only 250-ish words, true, but that’s a couple hundred more words than I wrote yesterday.
Also, I’ve set myself a goal for my day off:
Saturday, I intend to finish formatting The Apex Mage. I will also complete the update on my website, and get the new version off my damn hard drive. It’s not doing anyone any good there, and the time is rapidly approaching when I need that sucker fully current and functional.
Oh, and by the way, because everything is online this year, I actually get to participate in Mile High Con! Yay for virtual author tables!
I’ve been taking more writing classes again, and have come to the conclusion that I’m lazy. I keep whining to myself that I never get anything finished, yet I keep blowing off the daily writing thing. So I will now publicly embarrass myself by admitting it out loud: I play ESO when I should be writing!
There. I said it. Now to break the bad habit and start writing daily again.
Next bit of randomness: a smoky sunrise today. Never mind the dumpster, it insisted on being in the shot.
And the other bit of randomness: my camper got stolen. 😿 All that’s left is the wood I had the tongue resting on.
Sometime about a zillion years ago, I decided to get back into writing about writing. I made a few posts about writing, how I generate worlds, and such, but I was just too damn sick to keep up with the idea.
Well, I got fixed. Literally. And now my body is finally returning to normal. I even caught myself feeling sane last week! (I know, right?)
Anyway, all babbling aside, I feel better these days. So I’m going to get on with the writing about writing thing.
Nika pulled the horses to a halt on the rise just outside the city. From up here, near one of the big watchtowers, she could see everything.
Behind her, if she chose to look, at least a dozen columns of dark smoke reached for the sky. Funeral pyres. Really big funeral pyres.
To either side, the view was nearly as bleak, although less smoky. This close to the city walls, the big manors of the ultra-wealthy sprawled in safety and splendor, with regular patrols to keep them protected. Or at least that was what used to be there. Now, the big buildings remained, but most of them were vacant, some even smoking hulks where untended fires had run rampant. Shit.
Her brain felt… numb. The single word took more effort than it was worth.
Resolutely, Nika turned forward, towards the future. The wide, paved road, showing signs of neglect after two years of the Blue Death, stretched ahead of her. She’d never traveled the whole thing, not even close. When she was younger she’d been out in the field, true, but her Division had served the settled lands around the capital. This road ran right out of the Dominion, according to maps. It led through the settled lands, through precincts that long ago had been neighboring countries. In the early days of the Dominion, acquisitive rulers had developed the skills of conflict, taking over the nearby kingdoms and demesnes.
They hadn’t stopped there. They kept going, for hundreds of years, until the Dominion encompassed nearly the entire known world. A long, long way away, straight ahead on the Great North Road, she’d reach the frontier.
But would she make it that far? Whole lot of effort involved in going out of the known world. Might be better to give up, lay down on the side of the road, crawl under a bush and die. Forward, Nika demanded of herself. She nudged Wraith. The horse obediently stepped forward.
“Forward,” she said aloud, a mere faint and broken whisper. Berry, laden with supplies she’d purchased during the two days it took to get out of the enormous city, stepped into a walk with his buddy Wraith.
“Forward,” Nika said again, this time in a real voice, with real determination. She’d decided to live two days ago. Nothing had made her change her mind yet, not for real.
With the horses in motion, Nika kept her focus forward. She didn’t look back at the smoking city. Instead, she remembered how it had looked the last time she entered from this very road.
Huge. Mind-bogglingly huge. Auros held roughly a million people, the largest city in the known world. It had started as a small coastal fishing village, but grown beyond all recognition for nearly a thousand years, ever since the arrival of the first of the Shining Ones. The city spread along the coastline, up and down hills, along the wide and slow River Went. Different neighborhoods showed distinct architectural styles. Walls tried to contain the city, then succumbed, becoming just another part of the architecture. Currently the outer curtain wall served as more decoration than protection, given the estates sprawling outside it.
The horses started down the other side of the hill. Behind them, Auros vanished from sight. Nika sighed with relief, then immediately felt guilty. She shouldn’t feel relieved that her home was left behind for good. It just wasn’t right.
But she did.
Something broke into her sad thoughts, and Nika halted the horses again. What was that?
A sound, a faint scrabble and even fainter whimper.
Nika dismounted. Before she could investigate the sound, her body decided to stretch without her telling it to. Stiff already, even though she’d only been on the road two days. She felt good, though. She felt alive.
Then she dropped to a crouch, trusting the horses to remain standing, and looked under the hedgerow lining the Great North Road. A pair of eyes gleamed back at her.
“Hello,” Nika said, extending her hand.
Another faint whimper, and a dim flash of pink as the animal licked its nose.
“You’re a dog, aren’t you? Come on out, I won’t hurt you.”
A short while and a good bit of coaxing later, a bitch dog crawled out from under a bush. Hesitantly, but with confidence that increased as nothing bad happened, she sniffed at Nika’s extended hand. Big, solidly made, although quite thin. Black, with a big muscular head, short hair…
“You’re a calla-hound, aren’t you?” Nika scratched the bitch’s head, relieved when the nervous creature allowed the touch rather than snapping her hand off. Calla-hounds were a highly prized breed, capable of herding, guarding, and hunting. This one must’ve belonged to one of the big estates along the road.
The bitch whined, then licked Nika’s hand.
“You look hungry. C’mere, I’ll give you some jerky.”
Nika dug some jerky out of her saddlebag, nearly lost her hand after all as the hungry dog lunged for the food, then returned to Wraith’s saddle. Maybe the world wasn’t all that bad, not with horses and now a dog to keep her company on her fool’s quest.
The calla-hound fell into an easy jog beside the horses as though she’d done it all her life, occasionally frisking and looking cute to remind Nika that she would be happy to eat more of the jerky.
“Crazy,” Nika muttered, shaking her head at herself. “The world ends, and you decide to travel and pick up a pet. Absolutely crazy.”
But for all her mutterings, Nika felt better with another four-legged friend by her side.