Champions of Aetaltis Author Copies

Cover by Mitchell Malloy

Cover by Mitchell Malloy

While I was disappointed to learn that the beautiful handwriting on the package came from Marc Tassin’s wife instead of the Mechanical Muse himself, several gorgeous copies of Champions of Aetaltis reached my door today. And there was much rejoicing.

The book is a thing of beauty, with lovely design, gorgeous cover art, and a spectacular map by master cartographer Mike Schley.

If you love heroic fantasy with that classic 80s/90s vibe, you owe it to yourself to snag a copy.

1,000 Words

Every time a talented artist illustrates a character I’ve created (or written, in the case of the Devil Dogs, Aurora, and a very special dilettante I’d like you to meet early next year), I’m knocked out. Two illustrations in particular blew me away by not only capturing the character but doing so in a way that made me feel as if I were seeing him for the first time.

Black_Wolf

Art by Terese Nielsen

The first was when the incomparable Terese Nielsen illustrated Talbot Uskevren. She’d actually done so twice before, on the cover of The Halls of Stormweather and on the first page of “Thirty Days,” my contribution to the anthology. The latter was an unfortunate spoiler, totally not her fault. While selling me the painting, she confided that she found the excessive reference material from the art director annoying. It seemed prudent not to mention that I’d given him all those images of the New Globe! The painting holds a position of honor in the Tom Gross Memorial Cinema, while a sketch of Talbot resides in our library/game room. I don’t think I have the interior illustration, although I recently surprised myself by finding a sketch to Lord of Stormweather while tidying the archives, so who knows? I can no longer trust my memory, which is great for finding treasures during spring cleaning.

Art by Eric Belisle

Art by Eric Belisle

My second Eureka! moment in illustration was when I first saw the astounding Eric Belisle’s illustration for Count Jeggare. This art predated the first Radovan & the Count novel, appearing with the web fiction short story “The Lost Pathfinder.” I’m not a fan of the enormous ears on Pathfinder elves (sorry, ear fetishists), so I was glad to see something closer to “Vulcan” or LOTR ears on the half-elven count. His striking elven features surprised me for some reason, but the instant I saw them, as well as his haughty expression and posture, I thought Eric had nailed the character. I’ve seen him this way ever since.

I haven’t been keeping count (sorry), but I think Radovan and Varian might both have about three full-color illustrations outside of book covers now. Including the novels, the count might be one illustration ahead.

Do you have a favorite? Or do you have an actor in mind who personifies one of the boys?

Creative Colleagues: Mike Myler

Mike Myler

Mike Myler

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Mike Myler and I have a few friends in common, but I had no idea how much our tastes overlap until we chatted about Mists of Akuma. Film noir? Check. Asian fantasy? Check. Steampunk? Well, we both like that a little, so let’s call that 3/3.

Yours is not the first Eastern Fantasy/Steampunk mashup I’ve noticed. Why do those genres go together so well?

I think that there’s a mystique inherent to both—a sense of the unknown and unexpected that pairs nicely. Also there’s a sort of ramshackle quality both genres can have which resonates when the two interact. The order of descriptors for Mists of Akuma is intentional: eastern fantasy first, noir second, and steampunk third.

It’s an eastern world with dark overtones, and there happens to be steampunk in it, but it’s not an overwhelming presence. I’m a Warhammer 40k junkie, and I adore the relationship that universe has with technology and heresy, so here we’ve combined them. In Mists of Akuma, one of the major elements of the setting are tsukumogami, objects that transform into creatures on their 100th birthday. Because most technology is from afar or antiquated, it inspires fear because that rifle you’ve got might wake up and try to kill you!

Why add noir to the mix? And what do you mean by “noir”?

I’m an early graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Film Studies, so my go-to answer on what qualifies as noir comes from a seminal article on the subject by Paul Schrader in 1971: Notes on Film Noir. You can read the whole bit here, though this link is to the specific part I’m referencing).

The thing to understand about noir is that it was a genre of film borne from circumstance. If you check out Schrader’s article, you’ll find several different stylistic things that tie all films noir, no matter how disparate, to the genre—scenes largely lit for night, a Freudian fear of water, oblique lines in the mise-en-scène. Think about Westerns with their big, wide horizontal landscapes and compare that to films noir—lots of vertical blinds, disruptive vertical shadows, and the like. These are the results of budgetary restraints and production realities, but most of the directors behind these movies (notably Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder) had fled from the rise of Nazism and were masters of German Expressionism. The lack of lighting that creates the dark ambiance of a film noir has to do with energy limits; there are stories of lighting techs breaking down into tears because their producers came down on them so hard. These are all reflective of the US wartime economy and the stylistic choices forced on those movies.

Why is Mists of Akuma a noir setting? The world is predicated for you to lose against a constant battle to retain your virtue. I had a hankering for a dark setting, not something borne out of old school horror but of desperation. The antiheroic roles of noir protagonists was a perfect fit, doubly so because corruption is a major part of the world. It became clear that noir was a term that fits what we want GMs and players to expect when they sit down for a game in Soburin. Victories are few, Pyrrhic, and usually involve a great deal of sacrifice.

RPG adventures come in many forms, from location-based exploration to plot-driven investigations and other variations. What sorts of adventures work best in the Mists of Akuma setting?

City-based adventures have proven the best so far, but we’re building the setting in such a way that quests will be easy to come by. To fight the demon-spewing Mists of Akuma that roil over Soburin, the Masuto Imperial Family has decreed that each of the 23 clans have “bengoshi,” functionaries able to deputize people to help keep order. There’s an obvious love for investigations, and GMs will find the detailed entries we’re focusing on very useful for those purposes. Our first stretch goal is for the DM of my youth to write an adventure to be included in the book: Will of the Palemaster, a module that takes place in a fort during a festival when the Mists of Akuma suddenly appear!

Mists of AkumaPeople who already love Eastern Fantasy are probably already sold on Mists of Akuma, but how do you tempt those who’re used to “classic” (European) fantasy?

I’d point out that this is not a steampunk world—it is a world with steampunk in it—and that Eastern Fantasy is the first descriptor because that’s what the primary focus of Mists of Akuma is. You can still get a lot of excellent use out of the samurai sacred oath, tsukumogami hunter, imperial dragons, oni monsters, 23 distinctive clans, eastern weapons, martial arts stance feats, more than two dozen new race options, character backgrounds, and more. Those who check out the free preview PDFs will find that there’s no shortage of material they can mine for a more traditional game. It’s also not hard to imagine Soburin before foreign technology arrived, so removing the influence of technology altogether won’t be difficult.

What’s a list of 10 films/comics/novels/TV show that inspired Mists of Akuma?

Jeez man, did you do a background check on me! Auugh! I’m just going to list these straight off the top of my head because, frankly, there’re so many.

Afro Samurai

Samurai Champloo

Ravenloft

Warhammer 40k (all the fiction)

Sin City (both the comics and movies)

Eberron (from WotC)

Rokugan (and the original Oriental Adventures)

Jade Empire (on the old Xbox)

The Maltese Falcon (I’ve literally lost count of how many times I’ve watched this movie—prepare for many, many double-crosses), Gun Crazy, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, Kill or be Killed, Ace in the Hole, White Heat (so sue me, there’s a lot of really good film noir)

Samurai Jack

Check out the Mists of Akuma Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: John Helfers

John Helfers

John Helfers

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

John Helfers and I first met at or between panels at the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con. (Incidentally, the Symposium is an amazing convention-within-a-convention, perfect for readers and writers alike.) While we hadn’t worked together before Champions of Aetaltis, for years I could hardly browse Facebook without seeing a mutual friend mention his latest anthology. He’s a busy guy.

Fortunately, not too busy to answer a few questions now that Champions of Aetaltis is available for purchase.

As a writer and editor, how do you adjust your approach from one task to the other? Perhaps you can offer us an Aetaltis example of how it’s different to write and edit in the setting.

The Champions of Aetaltis anthology is kind of an anomaly for me, as it’s the only project I’ve been involved with as both a co-editor and an author. Normally I don’t cross those streams on projects I’m involved in, as I want to leave as much room for the contributing authors as possible. But since this is Marc’s created world, and he specifically asked me to write a story when he first approached me about editing the project, I decided to go ahead and wear both hats.

It has been one of the best projects I’ve ever been involved with. Not only was my co-editor terrific to work with, but I got to work with some of the biggest names in the RPG media-tie in business; you, of course, as well as Ed Greenwood, Elaine Cunningham, David Farland, Mel Odom, Erin Evans, Jean Rabe, Elizabeth A. Vaughan, Steven S. Long, and many others.

Getting back to your question, my basic editorial rules were still in full effect each time I sat down to edit one of these stories: help the author make their tale the very best it can be. That’s pretty much my first and only rule, but for Champions, it went further than that, as I also backed up Marc in making sure that the stories stayed within the boundaries of his created universe. With such a talented, experienced group of authors, my editorial work wasn’t difficult at all; in fact, it was a joy. Everyone was eager to make sure their stories were the best they could be, and all were very comfortable discussing suggested edits and comments on their stories.

I was also the last author to write a story, as both Marc and I wanted to make sure that ours filled in places or parts of Aetaltis that hadn’t been covered by other authors. Of course, being the co-editor on the project made this part easy, as I got to see where everyone else had set their stories before tackling mine. Fortunately, the town of Thornwall (covered in incredible detail in the Aetaltis game supplement Heroes of Thornwall) was still available, and I used it as the setting for “True Monsters,” a story involving an orog (a huge, ogre-like creature that’s also a PC class in the world) and several of the townspeople’s children. It was a blast to write, and I think it holds up very well among everyone else’s wonderful stories.

What’s good about having a gaming background when writing fantasy fiction? And what are some pitfalls to avoid when thinking like a gamer?

I first met Marc through Jean Rabe, the previous organizer of the Writer’s Symposium, at Gen Con several years ago. He was a long-time gamer who was just starting to work on the business side of what would eventually become his company, Mechanical Muse. Of course, now he’s doing an amazing job of organizing and running the Symposium, and his company has been taking off as well.

In my opinion, the best thing about being a gamer and a fiction writer is the flexibility that roleplaying gives you to explore potential scenarios and outcomes in your story. Since you’ve already gotten experience playing characters that are (hopefully) different from yourself, it is much easier to take that experience and utilize it in creating characters and plots for your fiction.

The downside is that sometimes a game world or RPG scenario can bleed too much into whatever fiction you’re writing and actually become a constraint. If you’re having to bend over backwards to ensure that your plot makes sense due to how you think it should turn out (because that’s how you would have played the scenario out), or if you’re adhering too much to particular rules that you’ve created for your setting, and the world or story suffers as a result, that may be the time to step back from your writing and try to look at it more objectively. In the end, you may have to modify those restrictive rules that are hampering your story or find a different way for your protagonist to accomplish whatever they’re trying to do.

Cover by Mitchell Malloy

Cover by Mitchell Malloy

As an anthologist, what do you feel are the advantages (and otherwise) of sticking to a strict theme? With an anthology that’s linked only by setting, how do you choose the order of stories? Are you looking for rhythm? An interlocking of themes? Something else?

The main advantage of a themed anthology is that it points everyone in the same general direction; authors and readers alike. A good theme sets the mood for everyone—if you pick up an anthology of urban paranormal stories, you know in advance what you’re getting. Setting a collection of short fiction in a clearly defined setting such as Shadowrun or Aetaltis sets up some parameters without restricting the authors too much. With Champions, for instance, both the title and cover practically scream classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy—which is exactly what Marc was going for, of course.

Also, the lengths writers often go to create unique stories with their own creative spin is incredible. Every so often I get a writer who asks, “What have you gotten so far? I want to make sure I don’t inadvertently copy someone else’s idea?” My answer is always the same: “Don’t worry about it, just write the best story you can come up with.” Even when two authors happen to choose a similar theme, 9 times out of 10 their approaches to it are wildly different, so both stories can fit into the volume without concern that they might overshadow each other.

Once the stories were all in, then Marc and I sat down to figure out who was going where. Generally in a themed anthology, an author’s name is fairly important (both for status in the field as well as their potential audience), as well as the length of their story, as you typically don’t want to two longer pieces placed next to each other. Then there’s the rhythm of the stories themselves—some are quieter and more reflective, others are heart-in-your-throat nonstop thrills and action. Some contain sly humor or devastating emotion, others exult in the action and setting, featuring daring heroes pulling off incredible feats against impossible odds. And then some fall somewhere in between all of those. Sorting out who goes where is always one of the enjoyable challenges of assembling an anthology.

On the other side of the coin, when I had the chance to do an “unthemed” anthology called Recycled Pulp over at WMG Publishing with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith as part of their Fiction River series, I thought it’d be fairly easy…but the reality was quite different.

The concept was relatively simple: I wanted to do a project that harkened back to the glory days of the pulp magazines, when stories were often written to order at an editor’s request, sometime with them supplying a title and the story written to order around it. I used an online pulp story title generator to create 250 titles like “The Spider Beyond the Stars” and “Beneath the Screaming Monolith,” total pulp stuff. The attendees of that year’s workshop selected three numbers at random, and those were the three titles they got. They then had to select one, and write a story using that title in any genre they wanted. The catch was that it couldn’t be a pulp story (hence the “recycled” part).

Well, I got some terrific stories, more than enough to fill the volume. But when it came time to actually put the book together, I realized I had kind of edited myself into a corner. I had to find some way to make all these disparate genres—from softboiled police procedural to urban fantasy to traditional fantasy to dystopian science fiction to even a Twilight Zone-kind of story—and figure out how to put them all together in a way that allowed each one to shine, but didn’t break the flow of the anthology as a whole. It wasn’t easy, but I persevered and came up with a table of contents that worked for me and, I hope, for the readers as well.

And that’s another thing I enjoy about editing anthologies—each one is different, every single time: different voices, different challenges. It’s never the same thing twice.

What are some current or recent non-prose fantasy stories (TV, comics, film, games, whatever) that you particularly admire? Is there a particular creator of fantasy fiction who’s done something new or distinctive to inspire your work or to change the way you view the work of others?

I haven’t had a lot of time to read recently (unfortunately) so I’m going to mention two television shows that might stretch the definition of fantasy, but which I still think both qualify, and then come back to one of my all-time favorite fantasy novel series.

For live-action television, my wife and I just finished watching the first season of Jessica Jones, and we were both blown away by the virtuoso storytelling, casting, and acting. The protagonist definitely has her own problems, including dealing with what is possibly the most dangerous villain I’ve come across in recent media. She does the best she can, but (along with her friends) makes mistakes and inadvertently causes a good deal of collateral damage, which the show actually deals with, instead of ignoring it or writing that incident or person out of the story entirely. I certainly hope the producers and writers can keep up that level of quality in the next season.

On the animated side, we also recently started watching Rick & Morty, which I would classify as falling into more of a science-fantasy cross-over. Again, the stories that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland come up with, mixing out-of-this-world adventures (and danger and terror) with a B-story that often involved much more banal, everyday family life, and mashing all of that together into something that is quite simply unique in its take on family, relationships, growing up, love, aging, life, and well, just about everything. Beneath its madcap antics is a show that’s all about heart, and that’s the biggest selling point to me.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to a seminal series that affected me as a child, and was quite possibly the biggest influence on me as a writer, and that’s Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Instead of the vast scope and bombast of other fantasy series of the time, Alexander’s books felt more intimate, and on a smaller scale, even though they dealt with many of the same themes: honor, self-respect, heroism, friendship, fear, courage. They just seemed to effortlessly written, yet were so deep and moving. Apparently Disney is beginning pre-production on films of them (of course, they did the not-very-successful Black Cauldron animated film back in the 80s)—I hope they go live-action this time (and not muck around with the story too much); done right, those novels would make magnificent movies.

Back to Aetaltis, which I think of (in a good way) as a kitchen-sink setting—that is, one in which you can find a wide variety of subgenres within heroic fantasy—what qualities make the setting its own coherent entity? Another way of asking that is, what makes Aeltaltis distinct from other kitchen-sink settings like Golarion, the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and the rest?

I completely agree with you regarding the term “kitchen-sink setting,” as it refers to Aetaltis.

I think the best RPG settings, particularly new ones, give players a combination of classic tropes they can really get behind, combined with something new that gives that particular world a different feel from everything else. Keith Baker’s Eberron setting did just that, using a backdrop of war, and adding a careful mix of technology into his world to create something very different from the standard fantasy settings.

In my opinion, one of the best qualities of Aetaltis is Marc’s careful attention to the world’s backstory, giving enough flavor for a reader/player to get a distinct sense of how this world came to be, which makes it feel both real for what he’s setting up in his game universe, yet distinct from other fantasy worlds. Even the hint of science fiction introduced with the gates, and the distinct new races, like the newardin, juxtaposed with the more classic fantasy races give the setting a different, fresh feel while still holding true to the best fantasy tropes.

The other interesting take is the continent’s slow recovery after a massive natural disaster, which has also served the double purpose of reintroducing evil back into the world as well. So the stakes are twofold—making sure that the various civilizations keep surviving and thriving while seeking to limit the damage that has been wrought by the Cataclysm, as well as mustering heroes and forces to battle the encroaching evil that threatened to overwhelm everything that is good in the land. All in all, it’s everything an RPGer would want to see in a game setting—but I may be a bit biased on that score.

 

Keep up with John’s latest work at his website.

Champions of Aetaltis Release Day

Cover by Mitchell Malloy

Cover by Mitchell Malloy

Champions of Aetaltis is here! Originally funded by backers on Kickstarter, the heroic fantasy anthology edited by Marc Tassin and John Helfers is now shipping to backers and is available for everyone to purchase. I mention this not only because Marc and the entire Mechanical Muse team are great folks, but also in the self-interest that comes with having a story in the anthology.

I’m delighted to be in such lofty company as Elaine Cunningham, Richard Lee Byers, Mel Odom, Jean Rabe, Ed Greenwood, and Erin M. Evans. In that respect, it’s a regular Forgotten Realms reunion, but we’re fewer than half of the contributing authors to this massive tome. Check out the Table of Contents below, as well as the first page of my story, “The Undercity Job.” (Thanks to John Helfers for saving the title.)

In addition to the cover art and ToC, Melanie Meadors organized a first page of each story for us to share with you. Greedy as I am, I asked for more, and Marc okayed my sharing the first big section of my story with you. It’s a little less than a third of the finished story, so if you like it, you know where to get the rest—and plenty more stories to boot.

There’s something a little peculiar about the band of heroes I introduce in “The Undercity Job,” something I’ve done only once before. The first person to identify the previous story, what it has in common with this one, and post it here before the end of May 2016, I’ll send you a little prize. Hint: You won’t find it under my usual byline.

So check out the Table of Contents, then the first layout page of “The Undercity Job,” and keep scrolling down for the first big course of the story.

ToC

CoAetaltis-DGross-p1

The Undercity Job

Dave Gross

“Are you sure this is the place?” Wren clutched Norda’s arm. Even through armor, the sprite’s touch felt warm. Her huge eyes and tufted, fawn-like ears gave her an expression of perpetual innocence—a look balanced by the wicked angles of her coiling horns.

Norda grunted an affirmative. Judging by appearances, they stood at the mouth of Labor Lane.

Human men and women she took for hiring agents stood on either side of the narrow alley. Some operated out of the back doors of shops, others beside tables spotted with bird droppings. A few had posted signs, but most just called out the type of work they had to offer: “Porters,” “Carpenters,” “Mudders,” “Diggers,” and so on.

Norda eyed a rosy-cheeked man leaning beside a sign that read Guards. Returning her gaze, he noted the headless axe handle dangling from her hip, rolled his eyes, and shook his head. She bit down to suppress a swell of irritation, less directed at the man than at the reminder of her lost blade. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t the agent they wanted.

A human girl no taller than Norda dashed down the alley, dodging adults on either side of a runnel of waste. She held a scuffed leather ball out of reach of the three younger children chasing her, leaping the filthy stream to evade their grasp.

The children split to either side of Norda and Wren, who had to do a little dance to avoid stepping into the sewage stream. The smallest child bounced off the wooden shield slung over Norda’s back.

“Sorry!” she peeped.

“Watch where you’re going!” snapped Norda. “There ought to be a rule about children running in the streets.

With a wild grin, Wren started after the children. Norda grabbed the sprite’s doe-skin jerkin to hold her back. Wren wriggled out of her grip and pouted. “They were having so much fun.”

“We’re not here for fun,” said Norda. She realized she’d lost sight of their other companions. “Where are the Wiseacres?”

“Wherever they went, I bet they’re having fun.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Norda glanced up at the blue sky visible between the roofs. It took her a moment to spy Thistle perched on the eaves. The fairy was no bigger than a doll. Folded to her sides, her butterfly wings resembled a blue-and-gold cloak.

Norda crossed her wrists and wriggled her thumbs, their sign for the frisky halfling twins. Thistle pointed down the lane, indicating the side opposite her perch. She held up a number of tiny fingers. Norda squinted to count: eight.

Norda and Wren wound their way down the lane, avoiding the muck and the people seeking work. All of them were human. Norda hadn’t noticed anyone but humans since they had entered Hawk’s Crest. The dwarf and her diminutive companions stood out.

The only other small person in the lane was another young girl in a dirty frock. Her arms and legs looked as thin and fragile as twigs. She held up a lump that looked like a punctured leather ball to a man calling out for porters. When he shook his head, she tottered over and offered it to Wren.

The sprite ruffled the girl’s tangled hair and pointed. “Your friends went that way.”

“I’m hiring,” said the girl.

Norda eyed the child. Her hollow cheeks spoke of hunger, but that was a loaf of bread in her hands, not a ball. The girl held it to try to conceal the bites she’d taken out of the other end.

Wren was already looking up at Norda with the big, sad eyes routine. With a weary sigh, Norda removed the purse from between her breasts and dug out their last two silver coins. She handed them to the girl. “Go buy something hot to eat.”

“But that’s not—”

“Somebody gives you a gift, you say thanks,” said Norda. “That’s the rule.”

“Thanks. It’s just—”

Norda walked away, pulling Wren by the arm.

The strong smell of stale lager and tobacco wafted from the door Thistle had indicated. Inside, Norda saw a room full of casks, chains of sausage, and wheels of cheese. Through an open door on the far wall, she saw the taproom. Two big figures lounged near the untended bar. Only three other figures resided in the center of the room.

A woman with long flame-red hair leaned back in a chair, her heels hooked over the edge of a table. Beside her, a long spear with a head like a sword blade leaned against a pillar. On the table lay a few parchment pages and a wand with a bulbous head tipped with two horny spikes.

Across from the woman, the Wiseacres took turns interrupting each other as they made their pitch.

Norda cursed. The last thing she needed was for Darbin and Findle Wiseacre to make the first impression on the hiring agent. If they didn’t need the money, she might have left them there to humiliate themselves.

She glanced back up to see Thistle fluttering down to perch on the opposite roof. The fairy nodded at Norda, who nodded back. Despite the reputation of fey creatures as flighty things, Thistle was the one lookout she could count on. The others were far too easily distracted, as the boys were proving at that moment.

“Here they are!” said Wren. She dashed in to join the halflings.

Norda followed and took a better look at the men at the bar. Neither was human, and each was taller sitting down than the dwarf was standing up.

The bald orog rested his bulk across three creaking bar stools. A domelike head squatted neckless between round shoulders. The bar groaned under the weight of an iron-studded club. The brute chuckled, a line of spittle connected his two upper teeth with the three remaining on the bottom. “They’re all wee things!”

The drothmal leaned against a pillar, his face etched into a leonine snarl exaggerated by the swirls of primal tattoos on his cheeks and forehead. Where his companion was all bulk, the barbarian’s lean frame wound like wire around a sword’s grip. Norda nodded at him, one warrior to another. He looked away as if bored.

She turned back to the woman at the table, taking her for the hiring agent. The redhead glanced at the new arrivals before turning her amused face back to the halflings, whose body language told Norda the woman had them wrapped around her finger. The dwarf also noted that the woman was barely half a foot taller than she. That was something. In Norda’s experience, tall people looked down on her and her friends, figuratively as well as literally.

Norda’s relief turned to alarm when she spied the spider perched on the woman’s hand. Its hairy legs moved as the woman turned her wrist, but the worst part was the eyes. Instead of the glossy black beads of normal spiders, this one had eight grape-sized eyes with pupils and irises surrounded by bloodshot whites. The irises were matched pairs: two brown, two gray, two blue, and two yellow.

“Is it looking at me?” said Darbin.

“Don’t be afraid, little darlin’,” said the woman. “They’re just having a look-see.”

They?! Norda shuddered. She looked down at Wren who was looking up at her, mouthing, They?!

“I’m not afraid of spiders,” said Findle. He tossed his head to shake the curly hair out of his eyes and held out his hand. “Can I hold it?”

Darbin tossed his own head and held out a hand in echo of his twin’s gesture. “No, me first! I’m not afraid either.” The more competitive the boys became while trying to impress a pretty woman, the more they seemed connected by invisible strings.

The orog guffawed and slapped the bar top. “They’re barely snacks. Better feed it both.”

The Wiseacres stepped back in unison.

The redhead giggled and raised the weird spider to her shoulder. It crawled onto her leather pauldron and raised a pair of legs to the woman’s neck. She stroked its abdomen and nodded as if listening to its whisper.

“Don’t you worry none. They’re not hungry. Anyway, I reckon we’ve got business. Which of you boys is the boss of your little group?”

“Neither of them,” said Norda, shoving the halflings aside.

“Aw…” grumbled the Wiseacres.

Wren pushed between them. “Mind your manners, or I’ll pinch you both.”

Norda left the Wiseacre wrangling to Wren, who relished the task. “It’s a recovery, I hear. Who’re you, and what’s the item?”

The redhead offered such a pretty smile that Norda could almost forgive the smitten Wiseacres. Despite her brutish companions and that horrible spider, she had a certain charm.

“I’m Haley Green,” said the redhead. “And this here’s what’s missing.”

She turned around the top parchment. On it was a pastel sketch of a box inlaid with white gold in web patterns. Red and purple gems nestled between the threads like captured insects. “Contract’s for recovery undamaged and—now this is the important thing—unopened. The pay is  …”[1] She thought for a moment. “Two hundred.”

“I heard it was four.”

Haley shrugged. “Half pay for half size.”

The orog slapped his thigh and unleashed a terrifying belly laugh. Even the drothmal’s grim mouth turned up on one corner.

The spider leaned against Haley’s ear, stroking her neck as it whispered. Norda felt bile rise in her throat. She hated spiders.

“Also, they want the thief,” said Haley. “Intact.”

Norda frowned. “For the city guard?”

Haley shook her head and gave a lopsided smile. “Uh-uh.”

The drothmal cracked his knuckles.

Norda didn’t like to imagine what those bruisers would do to a thief. She looked straight at the weird spider and said, “We aren’t bounty hunters. And we’re not cut-rate anything.”

Haley glanced at her shoulder. The spider rubbed the tips of its palps together like a moneylender calculating risk. It whispered again. “Bringing them the thief’s what you call non-negotiable,” the redhead said. “Shame. You’re just the right size for where he’s run off.”

“And where’s that?”

“We got a deal?”

Broke as they were, and without better prospects for a job, Norda shook her head. “No deal.”

Haley looked surprised, and perhaps a little impressed. The orog looked confused, the drothmal bored. Before Haley could say something else, Norda walked out, trusting Wren to bring the Wiseacres.

Back out on Labor Lane, they formed a half-circle against the back wall of a chandler’s shop. Thistle flew down to perch on the top of Norda’s shield. The rustle of her delicate wings reminded Norda of the spider so close to Haley’s ear, but the fairy smelled of ripe blackberries.

Darbin wiggled his fingers. “One pass down this street can net us enough coin for supper.”

“Not on this street,” said Findle, eying the people looking for work. “Everyone looks as broke as us.” He peeked through the window of the chandlery. “But if you distract the shop owner, I can crack the cash box and—”

“No cracking cash boxes! No picking pockets!” said Norda. She looked around to see a few of the hiring agents looking her way. She lowered her voice. “No stealing from regular folk.”

“What if we take only half the cash?” said Findle.

“No,” growled Norda.

“What if we return it after we get a new job?” said Darbin.

“No!”

Wren giggled. Norda shot her a warning glare. The mercurial sprite could shift roles from Norda’s enforcer to the Wiseacres’ enabler in the wink of an eye. “No stealing from regular folk,” said the sprite, mimicking Norda’s gruff voice. “That’s Norda’s rule!”

“You have so many rules,” sighed Darbin. “Sometimes I forget them all.”

“Not if you know what’s good for you,” said Norda.

“Hello again, cutie,” said Wren, turning outside their circle. “I’m Wren. What’s your name?”

The girl had returned, once again holding the sad-looking loaf in a futile attempt to hide the bites she’d taken—including two new ones. She held up the two silver coins Norda had given her. “I’m Myna. I want to hire you.”

Surprise gave way to regret that Norda hadn’t paid attention to what the girl had said earlier. Norda hated it when taller people dismissed her; she shouldn’t have done the same to Myna. “What’s the job?”

“A re-trie-val,” said the girl, pronouncing the word carefully, as if she’d only recently learned it. “I want you to re-trieve my big brother, Hebbet.”

“Where’d he go?”

The girl pointed down.

Norda glanced down the dirty runnel of waste water to the grate at the end of the lane. Norda frowned. The sewers were bad enough, but she’d heard rumors of the ruined city of Norentor, an ancient Alliance city, lying beneath the foundations of Hawk’s Crest. “What’s he doing down there?”

“People were chasing him because he was trying to sell a box.”

Norda glanced back at the tavern, but no one seemed to be eavesdropping on their conversation.

She took a bite of the pathetic loaf before passing the bread around. Her comrades each took a nibble before passing it back to the girl. Norda took back her silver coins and returned them to her purse.

“Deal.”

#

Continued in Champions of Aetaltis, now available.