Novel Update: Yes, I’m still writing a novel

Novel Update: Yes, I’m still writing a novel

It’s been awhile since I wrote about my creative work, so I thought I’d give a year end update. I’m working on a novel called Ghets (you can find out more here!) It’s a fun, fantasy adventure about guides who lead Lord of the Rings style Fellowships on quests. My pitch is Guardians of the Galaxy meets Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve been working on it for about…three years? It’s in its third draft which is mostly polish and line edits and hopefully I’ll have a concrete launch day by the end of the year.

Ghets is not the first novel I’ve written, it’s not even the first novel that’s made it to beta readers, but it’s progressed farther than any other I’ve attempted. It’s my longest novel too, a 205,853-word behemoth that will be a big ask for any literary agent or publisher to take on from a complete unknown like myself. I’ve put off querying a literary agent a long time because of the length and angst in general.

I’ve never written a novel and not felt queasy levels of anxiety. The anxiety is detached from the work, it lurks along the edges, coiling around me and occasionally squeezing. The closer I get to querying or finally self-publishing, the tighter the anxiety grows. Like everyone who writes a novel, I want my novel to succeed, I want three years of work to cumulate in some manner of validation.

I’ve gotten good at the mechanically aspects of writing novels. I can sit down and crank out pages. I like to think my prose is decent, and entertaining. I know from my beta readers I can construct a good hook. I don’t get upset or give up in the face of sharp criticism and I’m always trying to learn to write better. I know intellectually that most novels only sell a few thousand copies and with self-publishing I’d be lucky to hit a hundred.

But something about going to the next stage, about sending out letters or trying to promote a self-published work still frightens me. I can’t tell if it’s a fear of failure or success or both. Either way, I want to share my stories. I like writing them and I think people would enjoy them. So, the first inquiry letters are going out by the end of next week. While I query, I’ll be working to finish up the line edits and trim Ghets as much as I can, hopefully getting it below 200,000-words. I’ll share more updates as they come and let you know my experiences trying to get a giant fantasy novel out there.

Next week I’ll share some of my writing goals, and I’m planning a couple of posts on goal setting and productivity for January, which might help with any projects you’re working on. Also, I finally joined twitter after resisting it for years, so far it hasn’t been that bad. You can follow me @Arthurpenwright for retweets on comic book and fantasy novels, as well as plenty of puppies and the occasional writing stuff.

See you in the new year!

Dear Beta-Reader

Dear Beta-Reader

I’ve been writing a lot about my novel Ghets recently and that’s because I’ve finished draft II! I’ve been working on this book for two years now and it’s finally ready to be shared. I put out the call for beta-readers and sent the novel to friends, family and acquaintances. The novel is far from complete at this point. I need to collect all the critiques and edits from my beta-readers and use them to sharpen the book into draft III. After draft III I’ll either be lucky enough to have an agent and publisher or I’ll need to hire an editor for draft IV and then finally publish the thing myself.

I know it’s a lot. So, let’s not get ahead ourselves. For this post I’m sharing the letter I sent out to beta-readers to thank them and let them know what I’m looking for. You might find it helpful, if you’re thinking about using beta-readers for your own project. Also I’ll never say no to people reading Ghets so if you’ve checked out the chapters I’ve posted and want to be a beta-reader too, let me know!


Dear Beta-Reader,

First, I want to thank you so, so, so, much for taking the time to read my novel. I know it’s long and it’s asking a lot of you. But just by reading this book and giving your critiques, edits and insights you are helping to shape this story. Books, like all creative works, are collaborative, the storyteller reacting to listener, feeding off their energy and emotion. It’s like a dialogue. And like all dialogues it helps to know what we’re discussing.

In truth, I will take any edits you have to offer, but please don’t overextend yourself trying to correct every spelling, wrong word or grammar mistake. There are a lot of them and I will hunt them down with the help of an editor during the next draft.

What I’m looking for right now are ‘big picture’ reactions. What about the story worked for you? What about the story didn’t? Where was the writing confusing, where you couldn’t tell what was going on? Were there any characters that felt unnecessary? And most of all, were there repetitive chapters or sections, or chapters that you felt didn’t add anything? This book is on the long side and I would love to be able to trim it down.

I will take any critiques you have to offer. If you couldn’t finish the book because of the time commitment, that’s fine! Just tell me what you thought of what you could read. Same is true if you dropped this book because the grammar was so bad, or because the general writing was awful, or because the story isn’t your thing. You don’t need to finish it to give me your thoughts. And please, be honest! I won’t be upset. In college I had my writing torn apart by my ex-girlfriend and her new ‘poet’ boyfriend during creative writing club. If I can survive that and still want to write, I can survive anything.

Once again thank you so much!

Why an Orc?

Why an Orc?

As I wrote last post there are problem with Orcs. But despite those problems I still wanted to include orcs in my fantasy world and even make my protagonist one. Orcs are fun! Their dumb and violent tendencies can make them mischievous, even endearing if presented in a certain light. And as the ‘evil minion’ race of hundreds of fantasy novels orcs feel like the underdogs. Maybe they’re just misunderstood? Maybe what is so often seen as barbaric in orcs is just a different point of view?

Like any longstanding antagonist orcs have gone through several revisions and become heroes. Stan Nicholls novel Orcs: First Blood, tells a story of human orc warfare from the orcs’ point of view, taking a traditional band of orc warriors and making them the protagonists. Terry Pratchett’s orcs are near extinct and suffering from a case of bad propaganda. And then there’s the Warcraft games.

Warcraft started out with a traditional Tolkien set up. There was an evil army of orcs vs. an alliance of humans, dwarves and elves. The first two Warcraft games had the orcs invading from a dark portal led by evil wizards and hell bent on conquering and killing everything in sight. But with the third Warcraft game Blizzard (the game studio behind the Warcraft series) decided to do something different.

Blizzard deconstructed its orcs and the very idea of orcs as the ‘barbarian other’. They took inspiration from what happened to historical ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ peoples after they were conquered. The orcs of Warcraft III start off enslaved or kept on hemmed in reservations. Their story becomes a fight for freedom and once they achieve that freedom they desire to go back to their traditional ways. The orcs are still violent, a warrior culture, but one that is more complex and less aggressive than the conquers they used to be. They even finally defeat the demon overlords that led them astray in the first place.

The orcs of Warcraft moved from mindless evil to at worse worthy antagonists, all while keeping the things people loved about them. They’re still big and green and mean. They still have pointy armor and say funny made up words like ‘zug-zug’, but they’re given their own needs and desires. They now do stuff outside of fighting.

When coming up with my own orcs I took inspiration from Warcraft, as well as Wahammer, Tolkien and all the others. The orcs of Ghets like to fight, drink and eat meat. They have green skin (as well as purple, orange, and pretty much any color). They’re a proud warrior society, that fights in ‘hordes’. And they’re the underdogs, despised by both Aphetrria the land of Order, and Neradoom the land of Chaos. But in Ghets, the orc’s ruling body, the ‘Okkore’ is the closest thing there is to a medieval UN.

The orcs of Ghets were created by the god Kor to act as border guards, to prevent Aphetrria and Neradoom from killing each other. They take their mandate seriously, and even went so far as to conquer both lands to put an end to the millennia long war. It didn’t work, and by the time the novel begins the Orcs are trying to learn from their past mistakes.

I don’t spend too much time with the Okkore in Ghets, I’ve got more planned there for another novel. Reez is the orc that readers get to know the best, since she’s the lead. Reez is all the stuff I love about orcs with none of the baggage. She’s a carefree adventurer that’s always cursing in funny made up words: guck, gunking guckers. She loves to fight and get into trouble, but she’s not mean or even mercenary in her thinking or actions. She’s clever without being condescending and most of all she doesn’t take herself seriously.

Reez would find the abject barbarism of orcs like those in the Shadow of Mordor series to be comically over the top. Like the people she comes from, Reez is down to earth, an orc that’s good at fighting, but is into other things than just conquest and plunder. She’s got her bones in the old greenskin trope, but she’s grown out of them into her own character. I really like spending time with her and I hope you will too!

 

The Problem with Orcs

The Problem with Orcs

When coming up with my novel Ghets I wanted to create an everything and the kitchen sink high fantasy world. A world crammed with all the weird concepts I had come up with over the years, as well as my own spin on fantasy tropes like stolen Princesses, and tall, elegant elves. Some tropes I wanted to explore and others I wanted to subvert. For orcs, like my lead Reez, I wanted to do both.

Orcs are a fantasy mainstay, and like most fantasy mainstays they first came to prominence in Tolkien. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth orcs are squat, humanoid brutes obsessed with fighting and eating the flesh of their enemies (and sometimes that of their allies). Since this inception they have grown and spread with the fantasy genre becoming the stock minions of hundreds of dark lords. And have achieved a pop culture relevance equal to that of stormtroops and big head gray aliens as the baddies you except to see fall by the dozens in video games and movies.

Orcs have largely remained the same since the Lord of the Rings. They’re often violent cannibals, swinging crude axes and clubs, dressed in pointy armor or covered in furs and bone necklaces. Like all villains they speak to us on a subconscious level. Their origins found in mythological creatures like trolls, ghouls and goblins. They are the manifestation of the ‘other’. The wicked, warrior tribe that lives over the hill or across the sea. They are backwards but conquer and kill everything they come across.

Orcs are something of melting pot of every fear of barbarians that western Europe has had since the fall of the Roman empire. They swing axes and have fur lined helms like Vikings. They fight in ‘hordes’ like the Mongolians. They wear war paint like Celts or Native Americans. Most problematic of all, they are often called ‘savages’. And have traits and inhuman practices that mirror accusations European conquers levied against locals in the Americas, and Africa, like low intelligence but brutish strength, and the eating of human flesh.

Orcs are also, often, exclusively male. This usually happens because they don’t get much character development, merely being the big bad invading armies in vaguely medieval worlds where the majority of warriors aren’t women either (I know that’s dumb, in Ghets women fight alongside men and nobody cares). But some universes do take the whole ‘orcs are all dudes’ thing to a ridiculous extreme.

In Tolkien Orcs are pulled from the earth using vile magic so theoretically the orcs are all gender neutral? Though they do call each other ‘boys’ and use male pronouns. The same thing occurs in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universes. In 40K Orcs are like a type of fungus and grow and spread by sprouting? (look I wish I was kidding). Usually this lack of women goes hand and hand with another problem with orcs. Nobody writing their fiction considers: what do orcs do when they aren’t fighting?

The most egregious example of this is the Shadow of Mordor series. Shadow of Mordor is a video game series loosely based on the works of Tolkien. In it you play as Ranger who is leading a resistance in Mordor against Sauron. The games are all about you hanging out with the orcs, either stalking, battling, or subjecting them. Orc society in the game is cartoonish, all they do is hunt, drink, kill each other, and enslave things.

In Shadow of War, the second game in the series, you come across different orc locations like villages, mines and fortress, but there’s no difference in what’s going on in each location. They’re all just backdrops to stab more orcs. The orcs have rival tribes, but you don’t know what they’re fighting over, there’s no real resources or territory and no one explains why one orc would be part of one tribe or another since they aren’t born into them. In fact, no one explains where they keep on getting more orcs, since you murder hundreds of them, like hundreds of hundreds them. If the game was Lord of the Rings cannon, then there wouldn’t be a need for the Fellowship. By the end of Shadow of War Mordor would be vacant.

And yet, even with none of these questions answered I liked the orcs of Shadow of Mordor series. I liked all the orcs I mentioned. Tolkien’s and Games Workshop’s too. Orcs are fun, often because of how thinly drawn they are. They’re all the things we like about Vikings and barbarians, the fighting, drinking and looting, without any real-world consequences. They’re so dumb, greedy and violent that they become comical. Bad guys that are destined to lose, in facet deserve what’s coming to them and often don’t seem to mind the outcome.

But there can be more to orcs, ways to take what we like about them and make them richer, more complex characters. Some franchises and writers have already done that, and I will discuss how and how I’ve designed my own orcs in next week’s post: ‘Why an orc?

Ghets Chapter 2

Ghets Chapter 2

If you want to read Chapter 1 please check out my Ghets Preview page where I’ll be storing all the chapters I post.

Thanks!


Chapter

In the beginning, there was no Dienomachy. There were no gods. There was only the Ether.

From the Ether two gods emerged. Apherria, goddess of Order and Neradogtha, goddess of Chaos. They were each other’s opposite and should have hated one another other; but did not. They felt a deep need for the other. They embraced and blended and all of existence was them, a swirl. The light chasing the dark, the dark chasing the light. The churn of creation.

In the churn the goddess came to understand themselves and each other, and love emerged. The first emotion, the most vital. Apherria and Neradogtha loved one another. They were still opposites, they would bicker and argue and fight, but they didn’t war. Instead their conflict helped them to grow and create. Apherria created the sun, but Neradogtha grew bored with it and kicked it across the sky creating night. Neradogtha made fire, but it was too hungry and wouldn’t stop eating so Apherria created water to douse it.

The sisters, the lovers, the first gods, worked like this. Creation was a game they played together, a language which expressed their love. They created the old gods, their first children, gods of stone and mountains, gods of wind, gods of moon, and many more. They raised their children together and taught them the language of creation.

But unbeknownst to Neradogtha or Apherria, a third god had emerged from the ether. This third god lived alone, lost, unaware that there was anything like him in the universe. This god, Kor, the wandering god, traveled the vast nothingness of the ether, searching for a home. He eventually found the world. And found the goddesses.

No one knows who Kor met first, Apherria or Neradogtha. But he met them separately, Apherria during the day and Neradogtha during the night. And for reasons only the gods know, both fell in love with Kor. The goddesses didn’t tell each other about this new god either. It was their first betrayal. Kor was different, something neither had created and that intrigued them and made them covet him. It is said the goddesses felt ashamed about their secret, and knew it was wrong, but they kept seeing Kor. Apherria during the day and Neradogtha at night. And Kor never revealed that he met another god either, for he was foolish and only wanted only to be loved and feared returning to the lonely ether.

The old gods, Apherria and Neradogtha’s first children, grew alarmed at these rendezvous and conspired to reveal the truth to their mothers. Moon and Sun entered the same sky, creating the first eclipse. Apherria and Neradogtha both came out to meet Kor. And he revealed himself to both, not sure if it was night or day. The sisters were confused to see each other, but then realized what had happened. The love that they coveted was not theirs alone, their sister had stolen it.

Apherria and Neradogtha were angry and aghast at each other and themselves and most of all at Kor. They banished the wandering god to the sky and they both retreated to opposite corners of the world. If it all ended there then maybe they could have reconciled, as they had done in times past. Maybe they could have even forgiven Kor and all three gods could have lived in peace and love. But it did not end there.

For Neradogtha and Apherria were both pregnant with Kor’s children. And the birth of those children would lead to the first atrocity and from that would bloom a hundred upon hundred more. The world would be rent in two, with each god taking half, turning it into their own lands.

Apherria founded Aphetrria and gave birth to seven daughters, the Elfraye, goddess of civilization, whose descendants would become the Elves. Neradogatha founded Neradoom and gave birth to Zaevas, a son who would live nine lives. In his first life Zaevas molded the Dairkkul out of living Doomcotta.

Ever since their creation, the elves of Aphetrria and the Dairkkul of Neradoom have been at war. It has lasted since the world was remade and it will last until the world ends. The Deinomachy is the way of things.

…………..

For more chapters check out my Ghets Preview

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

After years of toiling on two drafts of Ghets, my latest novel, I proudly declared on Facebook that I was looking for beta-readers. Friends and family immediately requested copies, showering me with support. I felt loved and ready to share…but then had to stall. There was just one little problem with the latest draft of Ghets, about half the things in it were missing names.

I love worldbuilding: creating towns and creatures, different legends and cultures, but I absolutely hate naming them. It’s not that I can’t think of names, it’s more that I want to get the name absolutely right and nothing will gum up your writing flow quicker than trying to come up with a name on the fly.

My practice for name generation is to brute force it. Open a fresh word doc and start writing down ever name, sound and spelling that comes to mind. I start with existing names and words to build my new name out of, like Elisette, Odvid and the Uldritch Pit Lords. Maelator, my chief antagonist, I got from chopping a bunch of different words up and mashing them together. I was going for a name that sounded like the big bad from a Saturday morning cartoon and I think I nailed it.

Once I created one new name, it led to others. It make sense that people from the same group would sound have similar sounding names. The chief god of my orcs is named ‘Kor’ so there’s a lot of ‘kors’ and ‘or’s in their naming scheme (maybe too many) there’s the fortress of Korragorra, and Kaikor Reez and her brother Kalighor.

My biggest stumbling block to name creation turned out to be Google. I would come up with the perfect name only to google it and find out it was already the name of a small village in India or the last name of some guy in Uruguay or was in use on the World of Warcraft forums (or all three).

It got to the point where I would spend my writing time for that day playing with different names or tweaking the spelling to create something un-google-able. Finally, I had enough. When I came to a person, place or thing that needed a proper name I just wrote ‘BLANK’ in all caps. It was a revolution.

I was back to writing, back to creating. My writing flow was coursing again uninterrupted. The Angular fish people of the Dark Sea were the BLANK, as were the lizard-like citizens of the Underraod who they fought and raided with the help of the BLANK pit lords. Markus’s magic sword BLANK clashed against Maelator’s magic sword the Jaws of BLANK. And then there was the time BLANK grabbed BLANK’s BLANK and bashed BLANK into the walls of BLANK cathedral.

After I finished Draft II I reread the novel and realized that it was unreadable to anyone, but myself. By some miracle I had remembered what all the BLANKs referred too, but it was a mess. I spent several days creating random fantasy names and waded back into the novel replacing BLANKS with names from my list or giving them more generic ones. I’m still at it even now. I have a hundred pages still to go, hunting down the BLANKs.

But I don’t regret the decision to BLANK myself. When creating drafts, especially rough ones, nothing is more important than just writing. What I do regret is not going with a name more often, no matter how bad or just using one that’s already taken. Everything is already a name, it’s not like Jose Duomarco from Uruguay is every going to read my novel and realize that I used his last name for a port city.

Readers will forgive a good character with a bad name. Besides, it’s only draft II, names can change! And speaking off, anyone have ideas on how to make really good fantasy names? I still have more BLANKS to fill.

Ghets Chapter 1

Ghets Chapter 1

A wall.

A month-long job, involving a journey of close to seven hundred miles, (most of which they had to walk, the closest gate was gucking Valenbrook), bribes, forged documents, trips through secret passages, a fight with bandits in the Raskul woods, Trolls when they tried to cross the Roor river, numerous close calls, and one of the most twisted supply networks Reez ever had to fashion and it was all going to end up a big fat failure because of a wall.

Reez the Orc, Ghets captain, and sore loser, was standing on a hill next to the get-a-way wagons. She was staring at a ridiculously long wall that encircled a manor house and its accompanying farm and pasture lands. The manor house, by the way, had a far more appropriate sized gate around it too.

Elise the elf, one of Reez’s Ghets, and a friend, was leaning on her spear sighing. “See the wall? Guess, we’re like not getting that return bonus, or whatever.”

              “How can anyone not see that gucking wall?” Reez grumbled, “Who puts a wall like that all around their place? It must of cost more than their gucking house! Those gatehouses are huge!”

Elise shrug, “Yeah, sucks”

Reez tapped her foot. She felt her sword, Kiki, warm on her back. Reez was getting anxious and thinking about doing gunk she knew she shouldn’t. Reez was a Ghets, her job was to guide fellowships from Neradoom, the land of Chaos, or Aphetrria, the land of Order, across the border to where they wanted to go. But what they did once they got there was supposed to be their own business. It was important that Ghets remained neutral, that’s what allowed them to function and prevented Reez’s home, Ghetshaven, from being obliterated by some angry Dairkkul Pit Lord or Elven Emperor.

There was no doubt that the Dairkkul which Reez had guided on this journey were up to some shady doings. The Dairkkul came with three big pit fiends, each close to seven feet tall with all black skin, padded feet and big sharp claws. The fiends were designed with piercing yellow eyes that granted them excellent night vision, but no mouths. It was a look that screamed assassin.

Their Dairkkul handlers had been modified too, they’re legs bent back and twisted to give them more power to leap and scale walls. Their leader was old with white hair twirling around her long antelope like horns. She went by ‘Crow’ an obvious code name, but it suited her. She had a crow’s cackle and sense of humor. When Reez pointed out that Crow was a funny name for a Dairkkul since there weren’t any crows in the Dairkkul’s home of Neradoom, the old woman laughed and said that’s why they had chartered Reez and her Ghets to lead them into Aphetrria, to go bird spotting.

              Crow’s two other Dairkkul campions were a lot younger. Apprentices, if Reez had to guess, based on the way they shadowed Crow and followed her orders. One was named ‘Nightingale’ and the other ‘Hummingbird’. ‘Hummingbird’ was kinda a guck up, (not that it was any of Reez’s business, but the orc was horrible gossip). Hummingbird got spooked easy, and let information slip, like how they were working for a big time Pit Lord named Maelator. Crow had a fit when she heard him say that.

Whatever this group of spies and assassins were up to it was bad, but not too bad. The Ghets had strict codes and contracts which had to be signed before any job could start. Crow had personally assured Reez that they weren’t going to kill anyone…well, unless they had to, which was only fair.

The shadowy bunch where probably going to steal something. Both sides made a big deal out of these Fellowships: fancy quests, dire language about the fate of the world, all that gunk. But Reez knew it was just a big game. Stuff like this had been happening forever.

Some Aphetrrian Fellowship might be sent across the broader to destroy a Dairkkul magic ring, to boost morale back home. The Pit Lords would retaliate by sending their own fellowship across and steal a magic sword some gunk pulled from a stone. This gave the Aphetrrians an excuse to send another fellowship over to get the sword back. And on and on it would go until the stupid war between both lands was over. And that was never going to happen ‘cause the whole mess was started by the Goddess in the first place.

As long as neither Neradoom or Aphetrria sent an army over the border and restarted the Deinomachy or ‘Gods’ War’ everyone was happy with the game. Powers in Aphetrria and Neradoom got to do symbolic quests to distract the masses and appease their respective churches and the Ghets got to make some decent coin. Fellowships paid more than your standard merchants or pilgrims. It was good work, when there weren’t gucking walls ruining everything.

Reez left Elise to watch the wagons and headed down from the hill. Reez’s second in command, Odvid, was sitting by the road reading. Odvid had hung a lantern by a sign post as a signal to the Dairkkul when, or if, they made it back from the manor house. Odvid’s cover was supposed to be that of a beggar, the type you didn’t want anything to do with. His gray skin, hunched back and odd proportions, made it easy to believe he had some sort of incurable disease, like super leprosy or inverted gigantism. He closed his book when he heard Reez.

 “I take it this is about the wall?” He asked.

“Yes! Did you see that gucking wall?!” Reez said.

“I did. It’s hard to miss. I read that it was installed by the third Earl, Gregory of Lunderbik. He raced horses and wanted the wall to incorporate his training track.”

“So, he could train horses while under siege!?” Reez said crossing her arms.

“It’s good to have hobbies.” Odvid offered.

Reez rolled her eyes. “Where’s Jaques? I want to talk to him.”

Odvid motioned towards the woods. “Up a tree keeping an eye on their progress.” Odvid said, before turning all serious “But Reez don’t do anything. We’re already more involved than we should be. The contract was just to lead them to Paluentok and meet them back there once the ‘quest’ was complete. Now we’re their get- away?”

“I know Odd, I know.” Reez said,

“Plausible deniability.” Odvid lectured.

‘Plausible Deniability’ was the creed every Ghets swore by. Ghetshaven was neutral in the Deinomachy, siding with neither the Dairkkul of Neradoom or the Elves of Aphetrria. It was the only place in the whole world were peoples of all species and lands where welcomed. Anyone could come to trade or hire Ghets for guides, extra muscle, or to lead your Fellowship to go pester the ancient enemy like Crow did.

Reez frowned. She knew she was making trouble again, going above and beyond for some fellowship. The Ghets would be paid if the fellowship’s quest succeeded or failed. It wasn’t supposed to matter to her.

“But they’re helpless Odd!” Reez pleaded, “Did you see Hummingbird this morning? He almost left his pack behind! And their original plan was to have a fiend watch the horses? Do fiends even know what horses are?” Reez asked,

 “Not these ones, probably,” Odvid said thinking about it. “But—“

“But what? You know what’s going to happen if they get caught? Torture and execution. Odd you’re a healer, you wouldn’t leave them behind if they got sick, torture’s no different,” Reez said.

Odvid looked down at the cracked pages of his book. “I understand Reez. I don’t always like these jobs, but there is danger in helping them too much.”

Reez punched Odvid in the arm. “Promise I won’t go off and burn down the gatehouse or nothing.”

“Please don’t” Odvid pleaded.

Reez gave him her big orc grin, the one that showed off her neat rows of sharp teeth. And went to find Jaques.

Jaques was Reez’s scout and what she liked to call a ‘Fur’. A ‘Fur’ wasn’t any one type of thing, but rather a mixture of furry peoples all blended together. Jaques looked most like a weasel. He had a long neck, and slender body, but also pointed ears on the top of his head like a jackal’s. Being a mixed blood mutt from a bunch of different fur covered people gave Jaques some keen senses. His hearing was sharper than any creature Reez had ever stumbled upon. And his eyesight and sense of smell weren’t so bad neither.

“Why are you creating a racket in the woods mad orc? You’re supposed to be by the wagons.” Jaques hissed. Jaques had a bit of accent, a smooth growl that gave his voice a dark edge and made his ‘R’s rumble. It might have been attractive, if he wasn’t such a butt-spider. He had a stupid gucking nickname for everyone on the team. Reez’s was ‘mad orc’.

Reez squinted in the dark. Jaques’s jet black fur made him hard to spot at night. He rattled the branches of the tree he was sitting in and Reez came to its trunk.

“You see them? Did they make it in yet? Any alarms? Did you see that crazy gucking wall they got?”

“I don’t know why I agree to these gigs; you micro-manage.” Jaques grumbled.

“Just tell me already you gunker” Reez said

“They’ve begun their robbery.” Jaques said, “Hummingbird slipped on the walls, but one of the fiends caught him. They made it to the gate of the manor. I didn’t see them go in yet. I think they are looking for an entrance; doesn’t matter.” Jaquesed growled. “They won’t be coming out.”

“What do you mean?” Reez asked, punching the tree’s trunk.

“Hmph” Jaques snorted. “They picked a bad night. There’s some party going on; carriages, guests and more guards at the manor. Guards everywhere, and if an alarm goes up they’ll be trapped by that wall.” Jaques gave a low groan. “We should leave soon. Once they catch the Dairkkul they’ll sweep the woods.”

“They’re not catching anyone, quit being a cynic.” Reez said, getting more anxious. Why did she bother talking to Jaques or Elise or Odvid for that matter, they were all a bunch of moody grumps. Reez was in dire need of an optimist on her team.

Jaques gave a growly laugh, “You don’t know anything orc. There’s guards out now with lanterns. They’re searching for something. No alarm yet, but their movements are too random for patrols.”

Reez didn’t like that. She could see Hummingbird messing up, maybe dropping something that arose suspicion. “Can you see the gatehouses? The farthest one from us? They got horses there?”

Jaques paused for a moment. “Yes. Inside the wall close to the gate, there’s a small stable.”

 “Good” Reez said leaving.

Jaques shouted after her. “Mad Orc what are you doing?”

“You’ll see!” Reez shouted back. “Stay up there and get ready to move when you see my signal. You won’t miss it.” Reez grinned. She knew Jaques couldn’t see it in the night and that Odvid would murder her afterwards, but at least this would be fun.

Reez could hear bells ringing and shouts of alarm in both Loir’ve and Common by the time she made it to the gatehouse. She had to work fast. She wrapped her scarf around her mouth and forced her red dreadlocks into her hood. She couldn’t risk letting the guards see her face.

She checked to make sure she had enough ‘green stuff’ for a truly fantastic fire and then unsheathed Kiki. Reez could feel the sword’s excitement, little glowing embers spotted her blade.

“No killing tonight” She whispered to Kiki as she secured the sword to her back and started to climb. Reez felt Kiki sizzle in response. Reez shook her head; that was the problem with magic swords, so demanding. “Don’t worry girl we’re still getting into trouble. Gotta take some blood to get a nice fire going.”

Reez found her trouble quick. Guards raced up and down the gatehouse steps, chainmail banging against their undercoats, pole-arms gleaming in the moonlight. They swarmed without direction or reason like buzzing wasps spilling from a recently poked nest. The second Reez was on the wall she crashed into a pair of them. There was some fighting, some cutting, mean words were exchanged. Reez’s bloodlust started to pump through her veins and threatened to turn her into a crazed orc woman, burning and slashing until the guards overwhelmed her. Luckily, she got it under control and escaped the battered pair with only a thin slice along her forehead.

She kicked open the door to the gatehouse’s top floor and dumped the green stuff. She then whispered to Kiki and a small fire ignited along the sword’s blade. Reez thrusted Kiki through the wooden floorboards making sure her fire caught before getting the guck out of there. Reez and Kiki rushed the stables stealing a horse and riding as hard as they could into the night. Reez didn’t want to be anywhere near the gatehouse when the fire reached the ‘green stuff.’

There was an explosion. Even on horseback thundering away from the wall Reez could feel the heat of it. Embers and smoke chased after Reez into the night. She looked back to see the south gatehouse blazing like a bonfire. Reez hoped it created enough of a distraction to keep Crow and her people from getting caught. At the very least Reez had ruined Earl Gregory’s stupid gucking wall, so that was something to smile about.

Odvid was not smiling when Reez road back up to the wagons on the hill.

“So not burning down the gatehouse?” Odvid said as he took the reins of Reez’s stolen horse.

“Did they make it back?” Reez said ignoring him. They were going to have plenty of time to fight about this on the journey home.

“They’re in the wagons. Jaques’s pulling the covers over them now. You’ll need to drive the big one.” Odvid said reverting to business as usual, but not losing any ‘huff’ in his voice.

“I thought you were driving?”

“I was, but then you burned down the gatehouse you specifically told me you weren’t going to.” Odvid said heading to the lead wagon with Elise.

“Now you’re just being petty!” Reez shouted after him. She hated driving wagons. She wasn’t any good at steering animals and she didn’t like looking at horse butt all day. Plus, she was sorta hoping to take a nap in the back, starting fires took a lot out of her.

Crow was waiting for Reez. She was sitting on the driver’s bench and covered in a mess of rags. Reez frowned, if they got stopped and someone noticed Crow’s horns or purple skin then Reez was going to be in a mess of trouble.

“Get in the back” Reez said as she pulled herself onto the bench. “Whole point of this was to hide you in the wagons.”

“Not enough room.” Crow said.

Reez peeked back there. Nightingale was crammed in the wagon next to one of the fiends. The fiend was bent over with its knees pulled to its mouthless face. By the fiend’s feet was a large bundled rug. It was new, must have been what Crow was after. Reez was disappointed. The rug looked fancy, but hardly seemed like it was worth all the trouble of coming to Aphetrria for. But what did Reez know? Rugs could be magic, she’d heard of flying ones.

The rug moved.

Reez squinted and saw a mess of red hair wiggling at the end of the bundled rug. A head slowly emerged its mouth bound and eyes terrified. The wagon was moving. Crow had taken the reins. Reez shot around ready to act.

“Don’t” The old Dairkkul said, her eyes fixed on the road ahead. “Nightingale will puncture your lungs before you can reach your sword.” Reez felt something sharp poke her side. It was probably Nightingale’s knife. Reez didn’t bother to look.

“Kidnaping wasn’t part of the deal.” Reez said.

“No. It was. You just didn’t know about it.” Crow said, “Helping us with that fire, that wasn’t part of the deal and for that we’ll double the return bonus.”

“Who said we were bringing you back?” Reez asked. Kiki flashed hot ready for a fight. Reez could be quick, maybe quicker than some Dairkkul assassin.

Crow laughed, that cackle of hers was sharper than the knife pressed to Reez’s side. “Stop acting like you have principles. You knew we were going to steal something.”

“Something not some—“

“Don’t say it.” Crow smirked more vicious than amused. “Plausible deniability”

“I’m not so great at that part, did you see the gatehouse?” Reez asked.

Another cackle, “Fine.” Crow said, “If it’ll help, know that ‘whatever’ we took, it will be well taken care of. It will be treated like a royal guest and it will be returned unharmed.”

Reez hated this. But fighting now was just going to create more trouble, maybe get her and the girl in back killed. Besides hadn’t she broken contract enough? As Odvid said some parts of the job she didn’t have to like.

“Tell your girl to take her blade out of my ribs.” Reez said

Crow didn’t say anything but, the knife disappeared. Reez crossed her arms. “You really returning her?”

“It” Crow said less amused, “And yes, in a year or two after the Black Spire has a new owner.”

So, the girl was just another token, an offering to Neradogtha to show how righteous this Maelator guy was. It was petty, but that was politics for you.  “Why’d you go take ‘it’, if all you were going to do is return it?”

“Haven’t done much work for Pit Lords have you?” Crow said

“Done enough.” Reez said annoyed.

“Then you know that they take political hostages all the time. There’s nothing better as a bargaining chip.” Crow said. “Besides ‘it’ might be ‘holy’”

Reez didn’t like how Crow said ‘holy’. She couldn’t see the Dairkkul treating someone sacred to the elves with anything but hostility.

“In Aphetrria they usually exchange hostages or there’s a war and one’s taken, guck like that.” Reez said, “Stealing them out of their beds at night—“

“Isn’t any worse.” Crow said, “Now quiet. I lost good fiends and a decent man tonight. You want your coin you’ll stop with the moralizing.”

Reez frowned, she thought maybe Hummingbird and the other fiends had taken the second wagon, not died in the attack.

 “Sorry,” Reez offered.

Crow’s face was hard to read. Old lines, skin like ripe grapes, yellow eyes the color of lantern oil. “It happens. We’re at war with the other pit lords, they died saving lives and bringing peace.”

Reez lent back and didn’t say anything. She didn’t know what Crow was talking about. It probably had to do with the Dairkkul succession cycle. Neradoom was going through a whole host of civil wars. Reez just hoped the old spy was right and that stealing the girl stopped a war, ‘cause to Reez it looked like they had just started a whole new one instead.

………..

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