Category Archives: Writing

Lodestar

Polaris

Here’s a “Word of the Day” exercise, using the word “Lodestar.”

For a refresher, “lodestar” means:

1. Something that serves as a guide or on which the attention is fixed

2. A star that shows the way

3. Polaris (a.k.a. the North Star)

Obviously, what that word needs is a zombie apocalypse.

 

Lodestar

“Mama, I thought you said we were there.”

I pat Bitty’s shoulder while scanning the horizon. The sun is setting behind naked trees. The sky is glowing orange and red. My fingers clench around the shotgun pump.

Nothing on the road but our wagon. Nothing in the trees. No moans on the wind. We still got a chance.

Jonathan, my eldest, pipes up. “This is Lodestar, ain’t it?”  O.B. gets excited.

“Daddy’s getting that all sorted, Ji. You boys hush now. Watch your sis.”

Bitty fell out of the wagon yesterday and split her lip. Nothing serious, but her crying attracted attention. Dad only had seventeen shells left, plus a few boxes of nine-mil. Can’t be wasting it ’til we know for sure.

Knockers whinnies and stamps his feet, eager to be on the move. His ears twitch at a sound nearby.

I hear the voices now and then. The men on the wall don’t sound friendly. Dad isn’t happy neither.

“Supplies, at least,” he says. “That’s all we’re asking. Give us a chance to buy or trade.”

Can’t hear the response, but I hear the laughter, and it’s enough.

I pat Bitty again, I think to comfort me more than her. She sucks her thumb and looks around.

It isn’t even the husks I’m worried about. Can’t trust people anymore neither. You meet someone out in the open, you best keep eyes on target and hand on steel, because you know they’re looking for a clear shot at your back.

I see the bodies again. I try not to, but they keep floating to the top of my mind every time I stop watching the land. Found what looked like a family of six today. We told Bitty and O.B. to close their eyes… told them it was the husks. We told Ji too, but he’s too sharp to believe that.

I’m sure he saw the tracks. Boot prints. Probably saw the bullet wounds and clean-cut flesh. Husks got claws and teeth and that’s it.

Ji’s smart, no way around it. At least he had the good sense not to talk about it in front of the other two.

Everyone’s got needs, I know. I just wish folk could be folk again, with welcoming smiles and warmth in their eyes. Lord said “the love of many will grow cold.” But I don’t think no one expected it to be this bad.

I try not to think about the sweet smell of barbecue that comes wafting our way on the breeze. This town might eat well tonight.

Well… not ‘well’ maybe, but they’ll eat their fill for a change.

The silence catches me off guard. I panic for a moment until I hear Dad plead with the gate-men. He’s carrying, and they know it. They won’t pick a fight with him.

Probably.

Ain’t seen any husks in four days, at least. Even then it was only a handful on the horizon. Nothing creeps me out more than the slow pace as we roll by in silence, eyes glued, watching them for a reaction. That time, they just lumbered around out there, near a farmhouse. Think I heard a few pigs squeal.

Guess even husks can’t resist bacon.

“What’s so funny, Ma?”

I hear Dad getting angry at the men. “Sorry, Ji. Right now, not a damn thing.”

I already know what’s next. I hear him stomping our way, cursing under his breath.

He hops up onto the driver’s seat and takes the reins from Ji. “Idiots. ‘You got nothing we need.’ Pish! How about extra hands to work the land? Extra weapons to hold the wall at night?”

Ji’s shoulders sag. “This ain’t Lodestar, is it, Dad?”

Dad sighs. Sounds like Jesus giving up the ghost. My heart breaks, and I hear him sniff.

No, no tears. Can’t have that in front of the kids.

“I’m sorry, hon,” I blurt out. “I thought I might’ve read the map wrong.”

He doesn’t move, but I hear him take a deep breath.

“This ain’t Lodestar, boys,” I explain. “We’re almost there, but it’s still a few days north. I thought we made better distance than we did these past few, and I got messed up.”

Ji squints at me, but O.B. lights up.

“Think they’ll have rabbits there,” he asks, “like back home? I wanna get a big fluffy grey one, name him Mister Carrots!”

Bitty laughs, and I manage a smile.

“I bet they just might, O.B. Let’s get moving and we’ll know soon.”

The wind picks up. The sky is all deep violet and maroon. We’re further north than we ever expected to be. Well into Canada by now, or what used to be Canada back when names and borders meant something.

“Tell me ’bout Lowstar!” Bitty squeaks.

Dad inhales deep, ready to put the burden back on his shoulders. Then he turns, red-eyed but grinning.

“It’s going to be the best, Bitty.”

He speaks in a hushed tone. We need to give the kids hope. We need to avoid attracting husks too.

He’s trying.

“It’s where everyone’s headed… all the good folk. They got walls a foot thick and taller than trees, to keep the husks out. They got fresh water, ’cause there’s a stream running right through the town. They even have some greenhouses to grow fruit.”

“Mmmmm!”

“You remember strawberries, Bits? I bet they got big red strawberries. Maybe even a raspberry patch like back home.”

They keep talking kind of quiet, and I reminisce. Home. Seems like ages ago that we pulled out of Alabama. Summer seemed a good time to travel, and all the talk said Lodestar was in the West Virginia hills. Then we got there, and they said it was on the shore of Lake Erie. Then we got there, and got a new map.

Not that we needed a map, really.

The sky above is almost all black.

Bitty whispers, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…”

And there it is. The North Star, pointing the way to hope.

Dad is putting on a strong face, and Elizabeth is happy, so the boys are content even in the midst of all this. They huddle in blankets and watch in awe as the sky fills with stars.

I wish I felt the same sense of wonder, but I can’t shake one thought:

We’re running out of “north” soon.

Walking Death: Ch. 1

As promised, here’s the first story excerpt. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Walking Death, Chapter 1

The year the Empire fell began like any other in recent memory: celebration.

The Assassin knew the night would end with blood.

She crouched at the edge of the cliff overlooking the city of Veneshal. Black strands of hair brushed her tanned cheek, and she swept them away, eyes fixed on her goal far below. She peered into the distant shadows and dove.

Her grey cloak whipped behind her as she plummeted three hundred feet toward the highest tower of the magnificent building below. A cloud of black dust burst around her, and she froze in the air a hand’s length above the stone. Her foot touched down with serene poise.

The Assassin observed the rooftop below. She stood invisible in the night, hooded and covered in loose grey fabric, hidden from the city lights. Glimmering rings sat on pedestals around the manors of nobility. They twinkled in the night like stars fallen to the earth.

   Refocused magic. Arcanists are present.

The contract required a public killing, so the Assassin expected confrontation with a magic-user. She felt neither fear nor excitement at the challenge. She merely noted the complication and planned her reactions.

Throughout Veneshal, ornate paper lanterns hung above commoners’ doorframes in such great numbers that the few clouds and the rippling bay around the port city glowed like amber.  Music and the clamor of the New Year’s celebration rose to the assassin’s ears.

But no celebration echoed as loud nor building shone as bright as that on which the Assassin now stood. The Baricund dominated Veneshal’s skyline, both a fortress and the grand mansion of the Condral family, nobles with blood ties to the Emperor himself. Tarrandin Condral oversaw all trade that came through the docks, so he possessed enough wealth for frivolity. He held feasts and diversions year-round. Tonight’s celebration surpassed them all. Based on the plan the Assassin had been given, several thousand favored attendees would be inside the Baricund. The crowd outside doubled that number.

   Irrelevant to the mission. The ground exits are a worst-case option. Not even a team of Arcanists can keep up with me once I get outside.

There were fifteen guards in the courtyard below, sweating in shining plate armor. The unlucky few assigned to crowd control. Probably another score of guards within.

No one watched the rooftop.  The cliff face jutted out high above the Baricund.  Rappelling down was impossible.

   Then again, no one has seen powers like mine.

She gazed down at the stone roof and pictured the floor plans she memorized.  Tarrandin would have withdrawn to the private ballroom by now, surrounded by four hundred chosen guests.  His top lackeys and businessmen, most likely. Anyone connected to Hazfis Ral.

Ral’s criminal ties spread throughout every major city and town across the Empire. On receiving her mission, the Assassin wondered whether the enigmatic figure that indirectly purchased her services was Ral himself.  Counting Tarrandin Condral, four of her last seven targets worked in Ral’s network.  He’s cleaning house, or someone is sending him a message.

But the Assassin was not concerned about Hazfis Ral.  The man with the money does not matter. I have a contract; I will fulfill it.

She picked one stone on the rooftop and reached out in her mind.  Shadows stretched and oozed like spilled ink running across a sheet of paper. At her command, the darkness gathered in a slow swirl around her chosen stone until she could not see it. A whip-crack broke the silence as the stone shattered. The pool of shadow exerted tremendous force on the adjacent stones. Jagged lines spider-webbed out from the edges.

The hidden figure sprang from her perch, extending her hands toward the roof below.  Lines of fine black dust appeared in the air between her and the mass of darkness.  The ceiling crumbled. Stones plummeted and smashed the ballroom’s hardwood floor. The Assassin slipped through the new-formed hole, followed by the swirling plume of dark flecks left behind as the pool dissipated.

Partygoers froze. The orchestra stopped. All eyes turned toward the ceiling.

As the Assassin fell, she Stretched a new jet of shadow downward, pushing away from the ground to soften the impact. At the same time, she Pooled again, pulling a mixture of darkness and rubble into a funnel around herself.

When her foot touched the ballroom floor, she released all that she gathered. Broken rock sprayed out from the swirling cloud in every direction. Fabric and flesh tore with equal ease throughout the room as the Assassin Scattered all she had Pooled.

Screams echoed in the chamber. Men and women scrambled over each other in a dash to the exit. The Assassin scanned the crowd for anyone pushing against the human tide. Tarrandin’s bodyguards fought the panic and frenzy of the crowd, jostling their way through the rush of bodies. They wore no armor to speak of; they were still guests at a banquet and so were dressed in formal attire. Three wore eyeglasses. Three Arcanists. Manageable.

Pureblood human Arcanists used eyepieces called Oculars in order to manipulate magic. The potential energy of inanimate objects could be bound by the eyepiece, Refocused into a new form, then loosed in combat against a foe. Arcanists were the most destructive force in the Empire’s employ, but the Assassin felt no fear or worry. One at forward-left. One at forward-right. One at right flank… and weapons all around.

The Assassin’s powers could not touch an Ocular. She did not fully understand why. But the people wearing the devices were just flesh and blood. Jets of shadow dust reached out past the approaching bodyguards and Arcanists to yank several chunks of fallen rock toward the Assassin–through her foes.  Bloodstained stones thudded on the ground at her feet, followed by eight bodies. Two wore Oculars.

This was the opposite of Stretching, an ability she called Flexing. She could use the shadow to pull at an object. A large object could serve as an anchor for the Assassin to propel herself through the air. A small object could be Flexed or Stretched at high velocity as a projectile weapon.

The third Arcanist still stood unharmed. The stones she flung toward him splashed to the ground, Refocused into muddy water.

Six guards rushed her. Arcanist first.

She drew two long curved knives and leapt into the fray. The Assassin spun, parried, dodged, and slashed at the guards, but always her eyes remained fixed on the man with the Ocular. Her blades became a blur, her cloak a swirling shadow.

   They can only Refocus what they can see. Be faster than sight.

The ground under her softened like quicksand. Not fast enough! The Assassin Flexed at a nearby guard, pulling herself into the air and shoving him down into the puddle of liquid stone before it solidified around him. She landed with a slash across another guard’s arm, and he dropped his sword. This she Stretched toward the Arcanist, but the blade shimmered into droplets of metal. They sprayed past him and splattered across the wall.

She felt no frustration at this failed attack. The distraction served its purpose.

With a flick of her wrists, two silvery spikes flew toward the Arcanist. He swept at them with his arm, but they flew straight and remained intact. His eyes widened. Yes, they’re warpsilver too. You’re not the only one with fun toys.

The Arcanist fell to his knees, clutching at his eyes. A fist-sized stone on a stream of shadow dust punched into his chest and slid him across the floor.

The Assassin recovered the precious spikes, then turned her attention to the remaining guards. She Pooled shadow around herself. The guards grimaced, muscles straining against the sudden weight. None of them fled from her, a credit to their bravery.

   They should have.

The first two bodyguards reached out to capture her. To the assassin’s eyes, they looked like tired men slogging through a swamp. Their fingertips reached for her, and she exploded in motion. She punched out with both fists, knocking the breath from their lungs and bending them over. Then she sprung onto their shoulders, pushing them downward while jumping over their falling bodies to snap a sharp kick into the throat of a third guard.

In the midst of the chaos, one of her enemies raised a monocle to his eye. The Assassin smiled. You were wise to keep your power hidden until now.

Her foot brushed the ground and her leg spun around to sweep the third guard into the air. Then she Stretched, launching him at the new Arcanist. Thought so… you can dissipate a rock or blade, but you won’t risk hurting your ally. The Arcanist hesitated, and the guard crashed into him. Both went down in a heap of limbs.

Two bodyguards lunged toward the crouching Assassin, and she Stretched against the ground. The floor could not be moved, so the Stretch tossed the Assassin into the air between the guards. Her knives flashed, slicing into their necks. Then she Scattered, sending them away with a wave of force and black specks.

The Arcanist regained his footing, about to unleash the Refocused fireball in his hand. The Assassin threw her knives, speeding them along with a Stretch. He quickly shifted elements from fire to air, pushing the knives off course with a howling wind. The blades flew wide, curving behind the Arcanist. Then the Assassin Flexed, yanking them back point-first.

The wind stopped as the man fell. Bloodstains formed in his chest where the knives nearly pierced clean through.

The last bodyguard had the good sense to run. The Assassin gave no chase. Witnesses are part of the plan.

A third of the guests remained, eyes fixed on the action. In the center of the ballroom, the Assassin was alone with Tarrandin. He slouched at the table with heavy-lidded red eyes. The empty glass on its side clearly was not his first. This will be over soon.

The Assassin stepped forward, drawing two more knives.

Then Tarrandin grinned. Slurring in an alien language, he lifted a steak knife from the table and sliced his palm. He painted a small symbol on his forehead with the blood.

   So the rumors were true. He was a Kem’neth, a human filled with demonic power. She recognized the symbol. The sign of Deceit.

She paused in her approach. Ninety percent reduction in likelihood of success. She felt no sense of defeat, no fear of failure, and no exhilaration at the surprising challenge she now faced. Only an observation that she could very well die.

She brandished the knives and lunged.

Story Excerpts

Dear readers,

I greatly appreciate the attention you’ve given the various rants and ramblings on my page.

We all have dreams that drive us to do something more. I think there’s a wide range of intensity to those drives, from

Gee, it would be nice to…  to I really want to… to the “Bucket List” style I will do this before I die.

For example, I started playing piano when I was five years old. I took eight years of lessons, and then stopped because I wouldn’t practice anything unless I wanted to learn the song. “Bach? No. Guns ‘n’ Roses November Rain? Sure!”

In 1998, a friend urged me to start writing songs for church. “Not me,” I protested. “I can’t do that.”  I barely believed I could even sing in public.

“Be it unto you according to your faith,” he challenged, referring to Scripture. “Little faith, you reap little. Big faith, you reap big.”

That afternoon, I went to church early, before the worship team practice, and sat down at the piano. Okay, God, I prayed. If this is really something for me, then fine. I want to do it. Whatever You have for me to do with this ability, I want to do it.

Essentially, it was a Gee, it would be nice.

I wrote four songs that afternoon.

Nothing tremendous or breath-taking or #1 hit on the Billboard charts or anything. But it was something new for me, and a confirmation that there was something more worth pursuing.

Since then, I’ve written over 100 songs. Many of them have been for use in whichever local church my wife and I were attending at the time, related to the messages the pastors preached. Again, no chart-toppers or big concerts or anything. But there’s a gift there, and I know the purpose for it.

Now I come to writing. I love writing, but never would have presumed I had something that would interest a wide audience. And yet I have ideas bouncing around in my head, story lines that beg to be told. They started out as campaign ideas for a tabletop role-playing game group, and have grown and evolved over the last five years.

I’d like to start sharing them with you all.

If you like what you see, tell me so. If parts seem unclear or poorly structured, let me know. I can only get better with feedback.

I hope to make this a weekly post for a little while, to see how it goes. I’ll be presenting three story lines for now.

Worldmender – In a land broken and scarred by ages of war and misused magic, a slave and a runaway aristocrat try to repair the damage, one twisted site at a time. Their unique gifts grant them ever-increasing favor and fame, until they meet the legendary King whose bold plan might set everything right again… or destroy all they have worked to achieve.

Walking Death – During the last days of the greatest empire in history, a remorseless assassin is filled with unexpected doubts. Forced to question all she knows about herself, her powers, and her masters, she searches for answers and does not like what she finds. On the run from former targets, employers, the organized rebellion, the whispers of Deceit, and the full resources of the Emperor, even the shadows she calls home are no refuge.

Prophecy of Cora – Five reluctant but competent adventurers accept the call of the Lord Mayor of Aulivar to form a swift-strike special tactics unit. When their first real mission proves far more challenging than expected, they must determine which is the greater danger: their external foes, or their internal struggles. The truth has a way of rising to the surface, even the secret sins of the distant past.

I look forward to sharing these worlds with you.

Bordermarches: Curses

I’ve introduced many of the features of the Bordermarches so far: magic, science, the Divine, and Gracemarks.

Now I’d like to present the opposition to the Divine.

Though I do enjoy good vs. good storylines, I also have a place in my heart for the “simple” clear-cut good vs. evil conflict.

Given my intent to take advantage of biblical themes and perspective, my evil is a lot like Tolkien. It doesn’t create anything new. It corrupts that which was originally made pure.

There are seven Daemons working against the purposes of the Divine in this fantasy setting.

In response to Light and Truth, there is Deceit.

To oppose Strength and Passion, there is Rage.

Nature and Growth are countered by Corruption.

Justice and Order are pitted against Chaos.

The rival of Knowledge and Creativity is Ignorance.

Love and Beauty struggle against Hatred.

The foe of Eternity and Life is Destruction.

My good buddies Merriam and Webster tell me that “Daemon” probably comes from a Greek root that means “to distribute.” The term implies oversight of a thing. These seven Daemons are no different, distributing a Curse similar to the Gracemarks of the Divine.

Serving darkness is not without benefits…

There are key differences. While a Gracemark is under the control of the bearer, the Curse, or Kem, can take control of its host. When this happens, the bearer is more like a husk or shell, a puppet on strings pulled by the influence of the Daemon. Once under the sway of the Curse, the bearer’s true form is revealed, that of a massive horned demon twice the size of the average man.

How YOU doin'?
Kem’neth should look like this, even if it’s blatant stealing from Legend… because Tim Curry is amazing.

Gracemarks are given either as a divine favor or as a symbol of acceptance from a religious order, and they are not transferable. Curses, however, can be granted as a gift of power to a servant of evil, or they can be transferred to an individual who kills a Cursebearer. The person who slays a Kem’neth (or Cursebearer) is usually given the option soon afterwards to accept or reject the Curse. Some people are exempt from the offer: Devoted of the Light and Soulforged of Justice are two examples.

Gracemarks generally give two or four powers associated with their Aspect of the Divine. Cursebearers receive all seven powers, one related to each Daemon, although they each have one strongest power.

No one man should have all that power…

Deceit inspires followers to buy in to the Cursebearer’s lies. But more than that, Deceit allows the Cursebearer to appear to be in two places at once during combat, projecting false images into the minds of enemies.

Rage incites bloodlust and murderous intent in the hearts of others. It also grants the Cursebearer terrible strength.

Corruption warps the hearts of others to serve the Cursebearer’s purposes. It can also twist creation to serve the Cursebearer’s needs, turning Nature against the Cursebearer’s enemies.

Chaos allows the Cursebearer to release bolts of uncontrolled energy. In pseudo-science terms, the Cursebearer tweaks physics on a quantum scale.

Ignorance keeps minions in check and muddles the minds of enemies.

Hatred permits the Cursebearer to detect and track particular enemies over long distances.

Destruction allows the Cursebearer to draw on non-sentient life nearby in order to regain energy or empower magic.

Everything floats down here!
Kem’neth should also sound like Pennywise… because Tim Curry.

There’s only one way to kill a Kem’neth…

The one other advantage of the Kem is a limited immortality. Having given themselves completely over to the service of the Daemons, the Cursebearers are only vulnerable in their hearts. Even if decapitated or torn in half, a Cursebearer will eventually regenerate; the heart must be destroyed in order to put the Cursebearer to death.

Kem’neth can come in both genders and all races, but humans are the predominant race.

That statement doesn’t mean much unless I introduce the various races in the Bordermarches, so I had better do that next.

Worldview

The term refers to the way we see and understand the world.

But it amazes me how easily this becomes a blinder on our eyes, a tinted lens that colors and distorts everything else we see.

Worldview

You claim to know what’s best for me
Submission under your control
You say these truths will set me free
I bear them as chains on my soul
These fortress walls, you call protection
Inside it feels like a cell
The mental shackles now in fashion,
You think that they fit me so well
In fear you shut out so-called darkness,
Whatever can’t fit your view
Your shelter has become a prison,
The only inmate: you.

Bordermarches: Gracemarks

You can’t go around hoping that most people have sterling moral characters. The most you can hope for is that people will pretend that they do. – Fran Lebowitz

We all know the logic of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Our initial impressions of a thing may be way off once we look closer. That’s never more true than when dealing with the complexities of people.

But what if you could tell a person’s character at a glance?

What if you could know with near certainty?

That’s the idea that sparked my plan for how the Divine interacts with the populace of the Bordermarches.

This is the fifth in a series about the fantasy setting of the book I am writing. So far, I’ve introduced the world in general, the views of its people about science, the way magic works, and the various Aspects of the Divine.

Story is about people, not the pantheon of gods.

To be fair, stories about the gods, like Greek mythology, are more about exaggerations of people than about the Divine. The gods are like us writ larger than life, and their squabbles mirror those common to humanity. (My atheist friends would gently remind me that they see this as true about all faith.)

Even without a pantheon, even in a setting with only one God (or none at all), there are certain values or ideals that receive greater attention from one person than another. Where those values differ, there is room for conflict and story between characters.

Still, explaining the Divine in the Bordermarches serves to better explain how characters are empowered by their faith. Divine power is a common element of fantasy, just like magic. And just like my thoughts about a magic system, I do not want a Divine power system that boils down to “I can do these things because miracles!”

In my post on magic, I referred to Brandon Sanderson’s thoughts on explaining magic systems in a story. Here’s the link to the First Law, which I find very useful.

My thought process is this: If magic and Divine empowerment are commonplace experiences in this world and have been for all of recorded history, there has to be some knowledge in place about it. People would develop common terms for important parts of the system.

There may still be some mysteries, but there’s a generally understood “way things work.”

For the power of the Divine in the Bordermarches, that “way” is called the Gracemark.

The Gracemark is a symbol on the back of the individual’s dominant hand that normally looks like a tattoo about the size of an apple. There are seven marks, one for each pair of Aspects of the Divine. Individuals usually only have one mark, based on their primary passion or desire.

This mark glows electric blue when the power granted by the Aspect of the Divine is in use.

There are two types of Gracemarks, depending on the source:

1. Gracebrands are granted by the appropriate religious order upon a successful selection process. The nominee is examined and questioned and approved (or not) based on their known character and their perceived merit. The religious orders have devices that can track or sense the use of Divine power through a Gracebrand. This gives them some oversight of those individuals who do good or evil in the name of an Aspect.

At any given time, about forty percent of the populace of the Bordermarches has a Gracebrand.

2. Gracemarks appear spontaneously on approximately ten percent of the population. There is no definite trigger, but Gracemarked individuals in every case show an unwavering passion and zeal for something related to the Aspect whose mark they receive. Usually these individuals have been overlooked or rejected by the religious order’s selection process. The methods the orders employ to track and sense Gracebrands do not work on Gracemarks.

The commonly accepted explanation (of course unproven) is that Gracemarks come directly from the Aspects of the Divine.

The big question is, what do these Gracemarks actually do?

I borrowed from the words of Jesus, when asked “what is the greatest commandment?” His answer is that the first great commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Gracemark powers fit into one of those four categories.

Heart: This usage is called a Pulse. It releases Divine power externally, inspiring or strengthening a target other than the Gracemarked individual. Perhaps it might promote loyalty (Love/Beauty), or cure a person suffering from poison or disease (Nature/Growth). It can inspire others toward purity (Light/Truth) or against evil (Justice/Order). It can even heal (Eternity/Life).

Soul: This usage is called a Glimpse. The soul is the seat of emotion and will, and Glimpsing provides the Gracemarked individual with an emotional internal sense about a given thing. This is more an impression than an analysis of data. For example, one could sense the resolve or unwavering nature of another (Strength/Passion), or get an overall impression of another’s moral purity (Light/Truth). A Gracemarked person might have a sudden revelation about what is taking place in another person or in the world around them (Knowledge/Creativity). They may get a generalized idea of the past or future state of a thing (Eternity/Life). In every case, it is a non-empirical and vague intuition based on the particular Aspect for which the individual is marked.

Mind: This usage is called a Gaze. It is another internal revelation power. But the difference between this and a Glimpse is that the information provided by a Gaze is like empirical data to be analyzed. This enables special tracking skill, as the Gracemarked individual sees evidence of their quarry’s passing (Nature/Growth). It can enable an internal “compass” that points to someone the Gracemarked individual is bound to (Love/Beauty), like a spouse and children, or perhaps subordinates in a military unit.  This enables detection of evil (Justice/Order), or simply detection of life (Eternity/Life). It also enables a Divine sort of lie detector test (Light/Truth). It may even be used to get clairvoyance or prophecy (Knowledge/Creativity).

Strength: This usage is called a Strain. In almost all cases, it is an internal boost, an imbuement of Divine power that strengthens the Gracemarked individual. The Gracemarked person may exhibit superhuman strength (Strength/Passion), which is no surprise. They may heal themselves by setting their bodies and wounds back to the way they should be (Justice/Order). They may receive special knowledge about how to do a particular thing they’ve never been trained for (Knowledge/Creativity). They can seem to slow time by dramatically increasing their reaction and movement speed for a brief period (Eternity/Life).

The exception to the internal rule is the Gracemark of Light/Truth, which enables single-target healing. These individuals use their strength of devotion to Strain on behalf of another in need.

Each Gracebrand has two powers associated with it, depending on the particular Aspect. Those with Light/Truth can Gaze as lie detectors and can Strain to heal others. Those with Nature/Growth can Gaze to track a target and Pulse to cure poison or disease.

Gracemarks enjoy access to all four types of powers associated with their particular Aspect. This, coupled with the fact that they cannot be tracked by and do not conform to the religious orders, makes their bearers persons of interest among the political and religious elite. Having a Gracemark in the Bordermarches means having a target on your head.

When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus surprised His questioners by providing two. He followed the first by saying, “And the second is like it:”

Love your neighbor as yourself.

What happens if a Gracemarked individual violates their personal morality or their religious order’s commands?

Is a Gracebrand or Gracemark license to do whatever you want with Divine power?

Gracebrands can be deactivated by the religious order. The specifics are not commonly known, but the religious orders police their own and punish those who violate the accepted teachings of their Aspect. The process leaves a scar in the place of the brand. This clearly identifies that the individual once held favor with the Divine or the religious orders but was stripped of their access to that power.

Gracemarks have at times been known to vanish as well. However, the religious orders do not have control over these marks, and the individuals who bear them are usually unwavering in their commitment to the ideals represented by their Aspect.

If a Gracemark vanishes, it leaves a scar just like a Gracebrand.

That captures most of the details of how the power of the Aspects of the Divine fits into the Bordermarches.

Of course, what would a fantasy setting be without evil? And what self-respecting evil power would not corrupt the good into their own twisted service? Next, I’ll cover the seven Daemons and the empowering Curses they bestow on those who follow their ways.

Bordermarches: The Divine

You may never fully understand the Indescribable. You must still make the attempt.

Welcome back to the Bordermarches series.

As I considered what sort of fantasy world I want to write in, I knew that there would be some religious aspect to it. For one, clerics and paladins and such are a staple of the D&D concept that inspired the original story. Second, my faith is going to affect what and how I write, whether I want it to or not.

Sorry, no talking lions.

However, not everyone is particularly religious, and I don’t want to write a sermon. I don’t even want to write an allegory along the lines of The Chronicles of Narnia. There won’t be any Christ-figure lions. I’d rather aim for something like The Lord of the Rings, with virtues and morals sprinkled here and there to flavor the setting and the story.

I want something that welcomes skeptics and believers of all stripes.

Back when I started devising a campaign, I shared all kinds of details with my wife. (Ok, I still share all kinds of details with my wife, who patiently tries to sort out which version of which story I’m talking about this time.)

Not you guys either.
Well… not exactly.

I was reading the 4th Edition D&D books, which presents a pantheon of gods and goddesses similar to Greek mythology. Some are good, some are evil, some are neither, and have their own interests to pursue. I shared how these gods related to my campaign with Jami.

You have to understand both of us have pretty conservative streaks. I grew up in a house where D&D was a tool of Satan to make kids ready for true witchcraft. Jami is a whole-hearted convert to Christianity, and so what she knew about D&D was pretty much what the church folk said, and most of them thought it was a tool of the devil too.

She was patient and listened to my explanations. “No, it’s not witchcraft. No, we won’t be casting spells or wearing cloaks or running around in the fields with axes. Sure, some people DO that, but it’s all about how you want to play the game. You’re just a group of people telling a story together.”

She went along with all of that… until it got to the idea of all these gods and goddesses out there. We discussed that issue, and I agreed to not have other ‘gods.’

My dilemma was this: the “pantheon” approach has a lot of possibilities for conflict that will be important to the story. I couldn’t just make all of the Bordermarches into a Christian nation under one God who looks a lot like God in the Bible.

I borrowed from Deism, declaring that “the Divine” doesn’t really interact directly with creation. In fact, the Divine is something totally holy, totally “other than us,” incomprehensible and vast beyond human reasoning. Really, that fits the Christian God as well… except we believe He chose to stoop down and interact with humanity on a level we can understand.

What if this Divine did not do that?

The facets bring out the beauty of the whole.

In this world, fourteen Aspects of the Divine carry out ‘the will of God.’ They each represent a part of the Divine, like pieces of a puzzle or the faces of a diamond. There are seven pairs of Aspects that work together:

Light and Truth

Strength and Passion

Nature and Growth

Justice and Order

Knowledge and Creativity

Love and Beauty

Eternity and Life

This provides some room for the “good vs. good” conflict that I find more compelling than simple “good vs. evil.” For example, a follower of Justice may want to see a criminal pay for their sins, where a follower of Light may see a chance for redemption and mercy. (Think of Jaubert, the consummate lawman, and Jean Valjean, the redeemed thief, in Les Miserables.)

D&D 4E suggested this sort of conflict as well. Perhaps the goddess of nature might be in conflict with the goddess of civilization and progress. Neither one is really “good” or “evil.” They just have goals that are in direct conflict.

The different Aspects also allow for a variety of motivations and levels of devotion. Followers of the Light and of Justice are more extreme cases, but for the most part, people are free to choose just how religious (or not) they really are.

Strength, for example, doesn’t require acts of worship or a personal piety. To excel at what you do is worship enough. This Aspect serves as a healthy guiding force for the competitive… and a refuge for those who only care about superiority.

Similarly, Nature will not require a grand cathedral and weekly church attendance. Those who find a mystery and serenity on a stroll through untouched woodlands will perfectly serve Nature, whether they intentionally and consciously “serve” or not.

Those seeking a life full of experiences and discoveries might follow Life or Creativity. A scientist can follow the path of Knowledge without feeling tension between religion and science. Following the path of Love can be just as much the wife longing for a husband as the military commander who inspires loyalty in her company.

All of the above could be examples of agnostics or atheists pursuing their own interests apart from faith.

This intro to the Divine (and specifically the Aspects of the Divine) helps provide some background, but the story cannot be about “the gods.”

Story is about people.

But people are sometimes driven to extremes by their faith. And in a fantasy setting, people are often supernaturally empowered and marked by their devotion. I’ll explore that next.

'Marches: D&D Magic

“First, I’ll Glancebind as a minor action using the bridge the bandits are standing on. For my standard action, I’ll Loose the energy into bolts of force and hurl them at the leader. Then I’ll take another minor to Unshackle the circuit on my right hand; that will be a ball of fire that I hurl at the bridge.”

Yesterday I introduced a magic system I intend to use in my fantasci setting, The Bordermarches.

Since this setting is also where I normally place my D&D campaigns, I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate the various elements like Refocusing magic into D&D terminology.

Disclaimer: I’ve played a few RPGs over the years, but I only started playing D&D on 4th Edition. That colors how I describe the game mechanics.

Refocusing is my attempt to explain away the common use of magic in this setting. I’m not a fan of “I shoot magic in the darkness simply because I CAN.” In my system, magic users use a special eyepiece to siphon energy (potential or kinetic) from the mass of inanimate objects around them in order to power their spells.

A caster must Bind or Glancebind from a source of energy. The source must be an inanimate object; a caster cannot get energy from living things. This is a minor action (something along the lines of drawing a weapon, retrieving an item from a pocket or pack, etc). It’s up to the DM to decide whether Glancebinding affects the object the energy is pulled from… for example using a waterfall as a source of energy might dry up the waterfall for a few seconds. Using a bridge might weaken the supports, possibly collapsing the bridge.

Next, the caster can choose to Loose the energy to power an attack or spell. What type of action this is will depend on the spell. In 4E D&D, most attack spells are standard actions, which take the majority of the time you have in a turn. Thus you can only do one standard action per turn.

The caster can instead choose to charge a circuit or Shackle the energy. By spending another minor action, energy can be stored for later use in special rings of metal that a person carries or wears. These have to be a high quality of metal and craftsmanship, so they should be expensive and difficult to come by. They also glow brightly when charged, so keep that in mind if your caster tries to be sneaky.

Finally, a caster can Unshackle stored energy by draining a circuit. This is another minor action, and serves the purpose of a quick cast spell. Again, this is part of why circuits should be fairly rare — your min/max players are going to want to stroll into a horde of enemies with twenty glowing rings hanging off their vest, casting powerful spells every turn through minor action Unshackling.

This may slow down your magic-user classes slightly, as they can’t just cast spell after spell each turn. I think the pain of that energy resource demand is offset by the ability to store up a few spells based on how many circuits the character has on them.

Refocusing also requires the device that makes it possible: an Ocular, an eyepiece that grants the magic-user the ability to see and manipulate potential and kinetic energy in inanimate objects around them. This can be any sort of eyepiece: a monocle, spectacles, a lens strapped to one eye with a leather cord or strip of cloth, a special glass installed in the visor of a plate helm.

I wanted a system that requires a bit of technology to use, and I like the idea of needing a device in order to use magic. Removing the eyepiece from a caster negates their ability to cast, but the fact that it’s an eyepiece means that almost any player or NPC can have one. You don’t have to be stuck with the stereotypical wizard in a robe. The burly knight in full plate and the shifty assassin might also be able to Refocus.

And though Oculars are plentiful, they are not ubiquitous. Everyone doesn’t have a couple laying around. These should be treasured possessions that are fairly hard to come by without good connections.

The easiest way to incorporate this is to declare that the powers a magic-using character might have are unchanged; they just get energy to fuel those spells through this process. In the event of choosing a non-magic class (like the knight or assassin above), you can set it up as a Multiclass character or NPC, or simply grant access to a few powers/spells chosen by the DM and player.

One final drawback: Oculars can burn out or fail like a blown fuse. You can’t pump infinite energy through them. This is also the hard-line solution to the min/maxer who tries to cast three or four minor action Unshackled spells per turn.

I’d suggest a three strikes approach: give them a warning that the eyepiece is getting hot (and their characters would know what that means, so make sure the players know the possible consequence). Next, if they keep it up, give them some damage as they have this burning instrument near their eye.

Finally, if they refuse to back down, you can amp up their one final spell by doubling its damage or something, then shatter the Ocular. Having a piece of searing glass explode near your eyeball can definitely put some hurt on a character. It should never come to this if you’re communicating possible consequences clearly.

But players can be stubborn.

There. That’s it for now. I’ve left it fairly vague to allow for personal flavor (for example, whether objects are destroyed when power is siphoned from them, or whether this is just the explanation for the magic powers a character possesses or an open door to let the player come up with whatever they can imagine to bend reality in-game).

I’d love to hear what you think…

Does it work? Is it too powerful? Is it too much of a nerf to magic-users?

Does it flow in-game? Is it too cumbersome?

Your feedback might help me refocus my efforts.

Couldn’t resist.

Bordermarches: Magic

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

That’s Brandon Sanderson’s “First Law of Magic.” His comments on the subject are well worth reading (as is any book he has written, in my experience). He has a Second Law posted as well, and in that post he explains a great deal about limitations, weaknesses, and costs associated with magic.

I presented a broad introduction to the world of the Bordermarches, and I later posted an explanation of how science relates to the setting. However, my goal has always been to write a fantasy setting, and that almost requires some form of magic.

Magic can be very vague, something “out there” that the populace is aware of but no one really understands. The Lord of the Rings is a great example; there just isn’t a lot of detail about what sort of powers or limitations are placed on Gandalf.

Then again, Gandalf’s magic isn’t the point of the story or the solution to the conflict.

Magic can also be clearly delineated, almost a “science” of sorts for the populace in a given setting. I think of Sanderson’s Mistborn series as an example of this, where most of the “rules” are well-known or at least are discovered in the course of the plot. I’d even toss Wheel of Time into this category to some extent, as those who use the One Power are usually taught specific patterns and weaves which accomplish various goals, almost like combining precise amounts of chemicals to get a desired reaction.

I loved Mistborn (and most of Wheel of Time), so I’m not surprised that I automatically wanted to come up with an explanation for magic and a system to lay out most of what is possible by its use.

What I wanted to avoid is the ubiquitous “I can do anything because *poof* MAGIC!”

Video games can use systems like “mana” or “willpower” to explain and limit how much magic a person can wield at any given time. But for my taste, that doesn’t work well in writing. I can’t really see writing, “Lyllithe wanted to cast a spell, but she was tired.”

Tabletop RPGs have their various systems as well; in old school D&D, your wizard had to choose from the spells he or she knew and memorize a few for the next day. The character would only have access to those spells, so the player had to guess what might be useful for the next few encounters and choose accordingly. In the newest D&D, your wizard has a few powers that are “easy” enough that he or she can use them all the time, but the really powerful abilities still have to be chosen on a daily basis.

Still, I can’t see writing, “Lyllithe had already used up her memorized spells that day, so she took out a dagger and began stabbing Deviols.”

And again, most of these are systems that let you use magic simply because you can.

I wanted a somewhat technological “magic” for the Bordermarches, and I wanted something more pseudo-science than just “Magic does whatever I want.”

So, in a butchering of the physics I learned in school, I thought about potential energy and kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the energy of a thing in motion; potential energy is the energy that could be released if the object is set in motion. Borrowing from Wikipedia’s explanation, think of a roller-coaster. As the coaster is lifted up to the top of the hill, it builds potential energy. Something is working against gravity to raise the roller-coaster. So when the coaster stops at the top, it has its maximum potential energy. When it goes over the edge, it has kinetic energy, and at the bottom, its kinetic energy is greatest.

Matter (or technically the mass of matter) has energy.

Magic in the Bordermarches is about “refocusing” that energy from a body of mass into… well, whatever. It can be refocused into different mass — turning a sword into liquid, turning a rock into a ball of fire that the caster hurls at enemies, making the stone floor of a building temporarily gelatinous in order to trap an enemy when the stone reverts back to its original form.

Mass is energy is mass, so you can shift one to the other to another using whatever resources are available to you. Imagine siphoning the kinetic energy of a waterfall into a super-heated stream of fire you spray toward your foes. Picture “catching” and refocusing the arrows of your enemies into balls of lightning you throw back at them.

There has to be a limit to this world-bending. 

I came up with a few.

1) If you’re a natural human, and thus not tied by blood to the elemental races (more on that later), then you have to have an eyepiece called an Ocular in order to manipulate magic.  I liked the idea of an eyepiece because it can be almost anything: a monocle, a pair of glasses, a special lens installed in a plate metal helm, a glass suspended over one eye like a pirate’s patch, and so on.

An eyepiece can also be removed in combat, rendering the caster ineffective. And these eyepieces are numerous, but given the “fallen empire” setting of the Bordermarches, the means of making new Oculars has been lost. There’s a limited number of devices out there.

2) Having an Ocular doesn’t give you access to limitless power. The quality of the device affects the amount of energy it can refocus. Push too much energy through it, and you risk burning it up, like a blown fuse.

3) Your available power also depends on what resources you’re willing to use. The exchange from one form to another is not favorable. The thousands of gallons of falling water in the waterfall may fuel a stream of fire for mere seconds.

4) Perhaps the most important limitation is that you cannot take energy from a living thing; you can’t refocus a person into a puddle, or turn a dog into a fireball.  Only inanimate objects can be used for refocusing.

So how does Refocusing work?

First, the caster takes energy from a source he or she can see. Since I like the idea of borrowing from Christian themes and concepts without going full Narnia-style allegory, I chose from Scripture (with my wife’s help) the terms of binding and loosing. The wearer of the Ocular looks at a source of energy and Glancebinds, drawing energy into the Ocular, up to the device’s inherent limit.

The caster can choose to draw on more energy than the Ocular can safely handle, but this risks great pain, permanent injury, and probable destruction of the device in the process.

After Glancebinding, the caster has a choice. They can Loose that energy, turning it into a different kind of mass or energy. This is how they can liquefy a stone floor or turn a waterfall into a fireball.

They can also Shackle the energy instead, charging up a ring or circuit of metal on their person. A wealthy caster might wear several circuits, and a wise caster will keep all those circuits charged, ready to be Unshackled as a source of immediate energy in time of need. The drawback is that charged circuits glow bright, so it’s tough to keep their presence a secret.

I feel like I’ve touched more on Sanderson’s Second Law than the First.

Oddly enough, though I was inspired by Mistborn and Sanderson’s First Law to create a magic system with clear rules, I believe Refocusing follows the Second Law more closely. The caster can do almost anything with the energy/mass they Glancebind. They’re just limited by what and how much they can Glancebind.

I did better capturing the First Law in my system of how Divine power works… but to explain that, I need to explain the relationship of the Divine to the world of the Bordermarches. So that’s next.

Bordermarches: Science

“You can have faith in science and the wisdom of men, or you can have faith in what God has said. I choose God.”

Welcome to the Bordermarches series, where I hope to introduce the fantasy world and the story I am writing. I provided a brief introduction, but now I want to talk about what makes this different from all the other fantasy books out there vying for your limited reading time.

More than anything else, frustration at that sentiment above inspired me to make a change to the world.

A long-time friend on FaceBook had been posting a variety of arguments about evolution, questioning the science behind it. I can understand some skepticism and the desire for “proof.” It’s natural to want to see evidence before accepting someone’s claim about a subject like the origins of life.

But the idea that science and faith are incompatible or diametrically opposed bothers me.

Watch out, your mind is about to explode.

Maybe I’ve been listening to too much Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining how science actually works.

I dislike the black-and-white idea that says I can either accept a particular literal interpretation of Scripture, or I can reject God by accepting the work of the scientific community in various areas. I really dislike the thought that “There is no in-between.”

And the fact is, I often hear this point of view expressed in the Christian community. So that made exploring science and faith even more interesting to me.

My friend and I talked at length about this supposed dichotomy, and always the argument came down to “If you believe science, you’re rejecting God’s Word. If you believe God’s Word, then you have to reject science that doesn’t line up with God’s Word.”

In what sort of world is science a problem?

The “theocracy” angle is the natural first answer. I could certainly set up an extreme religious government opposed to technology and progress. But I didn’t want to go that route. It just seems too easy… or like I’m pandering too much to my atheist and agnostic friends who are even more frustrated than me by American refusal to accept what science teaches us.

Even though I do not intend to use this sort of storyline, I can still employ it on an individual level. Surely there are some religious leaders or people in power who might say:

“Thoughts are like arrows; dangerous if not guided by a skilled hand and a disciplined mind.”

I could try for “science running amok” and have some villain or evil government using technology to accomplish twisted goals. But that is the opposite end of the spectrum, playing to my religious friends who question what science tells us based on how it may affect beliefs we hold dear. This held no interest for me, either, though I can certainly use this on an individual level as well.

Science is a tool for discovering the world around us. Not only that, but pure science gives us a logical and orderly way to record and accumulate knowledge about the workings of… well, everything. Those discoveries inspire inventions which change our lives and drive progress as a civilization. We build on the lessons learned over generations before us.

I have always pictured a world whose pure scientific technological development is right on the cusp of gunpowder. Sure, there are “magic” devices and artifacts of power that defy the norm. But the common person is limited to mostly medieval technology prior to the widespread use of gunpowder to wage war.

I never thought about why that should be the limit, other than “that seems to be the case in the settings I’m familiar with,” and “that works for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.” (Keep in mind, this was originally developed because I was trying to write a campaign for a tabletop RPG group.)

You have discovered one of the best games ever!

I also never considered this an imposed limit. It was just where this world was at on the technology development tree in my head. (Yes, I’m picturing the tree from Civilization II, and the little pop-up message announcing that ‘The Bordermarches has discovered Gunpowder!”)

The thought hit me: What if a pattern had emerged over thousands of years and dozens of civilizations? What if those peoples and nations who continually sought scientific advancement met in every case with a terrible and inexplicable calamity?

Put yourself there in this world. You’re a simple farmer in a small mountain village. You feed the miners who dig up the ore that the smiths in the cities need.

You know that the city of Athoni several leagues to the east has an advanced education system. In their schools, students experiment with all sorts of natural materials, recording their observations and discovering new ways to mix various elements together to create powerful compounds.

They have doctors who have pierced the veil of flesh to reveal the inner workings of the human body. They have looked on the matters of the Divine, and now they claim we are not much different from the animals we hunt. You should see the drawings they have made.

These doctors believe that they can find medicinal uses for some of the compounds created from plants and minerals. They expect that with the right compounds, they can heal various ailments and wounds even better than the healers who minister by the power of the Divine. The order of healers, the Devoted, are not happy about this development at all. But the Lord of Athoni favors the path of learning, and refuses to stop the doctors’ progress.

They promise amazing discoveries and world-changing advances within your lifetime, and even though you’re just a farmer, you’re curious to see what comes of all of this.

Then one day, the ground shakes like a leaf in a gale. The skies darken. Word eventually comes from the east. Travelers report that Athoni is gone. Everything and everyone in the city have completely vanished, and all that remains is a scorched crater. There is no explanation.

After over two millennia of this, as several civilizations and population centers disappear or are destroyed with no explanation, people would make the connection.

You start messing with science, bad things happen.

“Maybe there were a bunch of freak accidents. Maybe science is dangerous like that.”
“No, maybe it was the wrath of the Divine instead. We weren’t meant to know these things, and so we get punished when we push too far.”
“No, maybe those people destroyed themselves; perhaps it wasn’t an accident at all. You know how twisted scientists are…”

At the very least, I want pure science to be a taboo of sorts, frowned upon and whispered about when no one is looking. To some of the people in the Bordermarches, it will be a heinous and self-serving evil. “How could you put your pursuits ahead of the safety and welfare of the city around you?” To others, it will be viewed as deviant and repulsive. And to a select few, it will be thought of as a legitimate approach to unlocking the mysteries of the world around us.

Given the above, any experimentation or methodical study must meet the approval of the Sages of the Academy–remember, that arrow needs a hand to guide it.

Perhaps this is the sort of world some want, where a religious order ultimately decides what science is permitted and what is not, what science is in accordance with the will of the Divine and what does not conform.

But the Sages do this not to enforce a religious view or prevent their religion from being disproven. They know that there are craters and ruins around the world, a testament to what happens when a society goes too far and learns too much. Learn from history, or you will repeat it.

Their fear is not that their precious beliefs will be shattered, but that their society will be.

So… enough of the fear-mongering. That’s a rough, mostly spoiler-free synopsis of how science is viewed in the world of the Bordermarches.

Next up, what would a fantasy novel be without some element of magic?