Monday, December 17, 2018

Age of Chaos

The world of the Ancients fell in fire and blood, and the world was torn apart. Seas flooded the land, continents were broken, and death rained from the sky for a generation. It has been so long that a new world has risen on the bones of the old, only dimly remembering what came before. In this savage world, a new empire arose to dominate the eastern lands. The lords of Numarea became kings, and then emperors, until their power grew greater than any in living memory

But power is never absolute, and a stain of darkness has woven itself into the imperium. A new ruler sits upon the Ember Throne, and he is a follower of a strange religion and possesses great powers of the mind. He has imposed his will upon the empire, and the people have begun to fear him.

As in any empire, there are many who seek power, and many paths by which it may be grasped. The board is set, and the pieces begin to move in this struggle for empire.

Kurux – The Dark Emperor. Son of a lesser branch of the imperial family, he took the throne when the old emperor died and his son vanished. He follows an unspeakable god risen from the depths of the sea, a legacy of the ancient world. It has given him powers over the minds of others through forbidden science, and he will use his power to enslave the world, if he can.

Ashari – The old emperor’s favorite, she is of the race of the Sheda – a race that was once powerful, but who are now almost a myth. She is horned and walks on hooves, but she has dwelled all her life among humans, and enjoys the soft life of a court lady. That will come to an end.

Tathar – The commander of the Imperial Skylords, the knights mounted upon great birds of prey who enforce the emperor’s will. He has served loyally all his life, but now he questions the emperor, and chafes at the evil he sees daily within the palace walls. Soon will come the moment when he will have to choose.

Shath – Chieftain of a barbarian army from beyond the empire. His people were crushed by Kurux’ dark power, and he was made a prisoner. The emperor means to make an example of him, but he will escape into the wilderness. Through a land filled with ancient ruins, deadly beasts, and savage mutants, he will seek for a legendary power that will allow him to measure his strength against an empire.

This is just a teaser for the story that will start next year.  I wanted to do something that was kind of post-apocalyptic without being all Mad Max, so this is one of those where the apocalypse is waaaay in the past.  It will be a more unified story, and I am excited about it.

That's it for the year, kids.  Next Monday is Xmas Eve, and the one after that is New Years', so I will be taking a break and working on improving the site and the Patreon, hopefully.  New story begins on January 7th, so I hope to see you there!  Thanks again to all my Patrons!

Monday, December 10, 2018

And I Will Dream of Endless War

When she grew old, Queen Ruana dreamed of the north. Around her she had caused a great hall to be raised up over the scorched bones of the old. The beams were hewn from the black oaks of the forest and the roof overhead was raised high, so that when the fires blazed the smoke lay in the air like storm clouds high above the heads of the feasters. Around the hall she had forged a kingdom with the strokes of her great spear. Giants guarded her throne, and her word was the law as far as a man could sail for a week in any direction. From the jagged coastlines of the southland to the deep forest in the eastern hills to the stormy seas in the west, Ruana was Queen, and she reigned for fifty years and some believed she would reign forever.

She knew she would not. Her hair had changed to an iron gray, and when she wore it in coiled braids it looked like pattern-forged steel. She still wore her heavy wolfskin cloak over the bright mail and the polished brazen bosses, but the mail was new. Her old armor, many times rent and torn, hung above her throne beside her splintered shield. She had earned those marks in battle against gods, and she bore them on her body as well.

Always close by her right hand was the spear that made her more than mortal. The straight haft darkened by time, the bronze blade transformed gold by power and by myth. Some whispered it must be a false spear, for nothing of bronze could shine so, and nothing gold could cut or pierce and yet take no mark. It was her sword and her scepter, and she had worn a place in the floor beside her throne where she was accustomed to set the spike as she held it and passed her judgments.

The war, that dark war that had almost sundered the lands of men apart, was now so far in the past that few lived who had seen it, save as children. Those who still bore the marks were gray and long-bearded, and they told the tales of that time with a darkness in their faces. War was still war, and men still shed one another’s blood, but that war had been unlike any other. That had been a war driven by dark powers, and now those powers were gone.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Sword Woman

Red Sonja is the best-known Howard creation that Howard didn’t actually create. The character “Red” Sonya of Rogatino appears in the historical adventure story “Shadow of the Vulture”, but she is a far cry from the chainmail-bikini-clad pop culture figure who stole her name. Sonya’s not the only example of a warrior woman from Howard’s work, though. We also have the pirate woman Valeria from “Red Nails”, and the better-known Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast”. Both of these women served as romantic interests for Conan himself. But there’s another red-headed hell-raiser in the Howard canon who doesn’t get as much play as she should: Dark Agnes of Chastillon.

Created during a period when Howard was working hard to break out of just writing for Weird Tales and into the so-called Adventure Pulps, which meant a wider market and better pay, Agnes is unusual among his heroes. For one, he wrote her in first person, which he did not do that often, and for another, she is probably the most fully-realized female character he ever created. Inhabiting her POV forced him to consider her much more completely than he usually did for his work, and it shows what he could have become if he’d had more time.

The two completed Dark Agnes tales are a ride. Definitely meant to be in the tradition of The Three Musketeers and other, similar works of swashbuckling high adventure, Howard managed instead a kind of hybrid style. He was not able to keep his trademark bloody violence damped down to Dumas levels, and so rather than classic French Romantic swordplay with clashing blades and bon mots, he produced savage, head-cleaving, limb-lopping action that is probably a much more realistic depiction of the violence of the day.

The historiocity is a bit of a mess. This is meant to be set in the 16th century sometime, but Agnes is depicted as wearing mail armor – a style that had then been out of use for centuries – and her swordplay seems much more medieval in style, with no mention of schools of dueling, parrying daggers, or other things common in the era. Also, pistols are used quite often, but with no mention of the fussy, match-burning mechanics of the contemporary weapons. It’s best to just look on these as a kind of historical fantasy.

But he got the feel just right. Not of the period, but of the stories set in the period. There is enough intrigue, treachery, backstabbing, mistaken identity, overheard conversations, ambushes, and chases to fuel an entire novel in just these two tales. Howard was an addict of fast, tightly-plotted action, and nobody else has ever done it quite as well.

Tellingly, Agnes is not a princess or a nobleman’s daughter or a lost heiress, but the peasant daughter of a drunk, abusive ex-soldier. Her tale begins with her father announcing she is to be married off, and when she objects he knocks her out and when she wakes up she’s all dressed and about to be hitched to some standard fat, ugly dude. Her older sister gives her a dagger and tells her to kill herself rather than be forced into marriage, but Agnes isn’t having any of that shit. When they drag her to the altar she pulls out the blade, shanks the groom in the heart, and then simply runs off into the forest. There she meets affable rogue/possible love interest Etienne Villiers and her adventures get rolling.

Sadly, they never had as much of a chance as they could have. Howard only completed two Agnes stories, leaving a third, “Mistress of Death” unfinished. The third tale began to include some fantasy elements, so it is possible that he was writing it more for the Weird Tales market. Neither of the completed stories saw print until 1975, almost 40 years after Howard’s death. Originally published in The Nemedian Chronicles fanzine, they were all collected in the Sword Woman anthology by Zebra in 1977, later reprinted by Berkley and Ace. The book has been out of print for a long time, but used copies can be found.

Like so much of Howard’s work, the Dark Agnes stories are frustrating because they are so good, and they moan with the lost potential of what he left unfinished. Here he showed that yes, he could write a well-rounded female character, and do it better than his imitators so many decades later. The stories have the sense of a much larger tale left unfinished, and maybe this is part of the reason why Howard’s work has been so ripe for pastiche and posthumous collaboration – seeing the shadow of the story that never existed, you want to help tell it, you want to finish it, because he never got the chance.