Artificial Evolution Cover Reveal and Pre-Order (Plus a Newsletter)

What? Already?!

Yep, with Free-Wrench just a few days old, I’m already starting the engine on the next major release, Artificial Evolution. This is the book that I’ve been calling Sci-Fi 3 for the longest time, and it has been in the works for WAY LONGER THAN IS ACCEPTABLE! Partially because people smarter than I recommended it and partially because I needed something to light a fire under my butt, I decided to set a release date. In December, you’ll be able to read this monstrosity once and for all. Which means I really need to finish writing it. And today, you can pre-order it on the iBookstore!

As always, the cover is by the magnificent Nick Deligaris, and I am beyond excited to be showing it off, so I’m going to make it HUGE.

Look out. Michella means business.

Look out. Michella means business.

Seriously, how can you not love that. This brings back pretty much the whole cast from Unstable Prototypes, including Silo, Garotte, Karter, Ma, Michella, Squee, and of course Lex. What happens? Well, I’ll just plop the synopsis in here to tell you:

Artificial Evolution is the third book in the Big Sigma series, building upon the story and characters introduced by Bypass Gemini and Unstable Prototypes. Lex, Michella and Squee are once again joined by the mercenaries Silo and Garotte. Along the way they’ll need plenty of help from mad engineer Karter Dee and his AI Ma.

After butting heads with the megacorporation known as VectorCorp it was only a matter of time before Lex Alexander and his girlfriend Michella Modane would face the consequences. It is remarkable what a single corporate agent with the resources of a multi-global conglomerate can do to a person’s career. In the space of a few days Lex is looking for work and Michella is feeling pressure from the network to ease off the hard-hitting stories. Not one to be silenced, Michella quickly hatches a plan to continue her investigations under the guise of a fluff story about a so-called extraterrestrial, and who better to be her personal driver than Lex?

Meanwhile, mercenaries Silo and Garotte are still nipping at the heels of the terrorist group known as the Neo-Luddites. Rumors of an attempt to secure a devastating weapon bring the pair to a forgotten little planet in an undeveloped corner of the galaxy. Circumstances require that local authorities lay claim to the terrorists’ apparent target, but what sort of threat could one gangly collection of anatomical curiosities pose to the galaxy?

The answer to that question will put our heroes to the test and leave a whole world hanging in the balance.

I hope that sounds good to you! I’m still finishing up the climax, and then there are rewrites and beta readings and the whole mess, but it is coming along great. Go ahead and pre-order it! And if you’re a Nook or Kobo user, rest assured, pre-orders are on the way for that too. If I can work out the details, I’m thinking of offering up some cool pre-order bonuses for folks.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE

While I’ve had a newsletter for a while, it has recently become rather important that I nurture that thing into something more than a vestigial vector for information. So first let me direct you to the signup page. Then let me say that I’ll be offering incentives for newsletter subscribers too! I’m still working out what they’ll be, but folks on the fan page have suggested desktop backgrounds of your favorite characters, and supplementary book stuff like future excerpts, deleted scenes, and expanded character interviews.

Feel free to weigh in, consider signing up, and I’ll keep you posted on future goodies!

Thanks for reading!

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Free-Wrench Official Release!

The time has come for what’s probably the most unusual and confusing release I’ve ever done. Free-Wrench, the NaNoWriMo project I completed last November and released as part of the NaNoWriMo bundle, has now officially released! It should already be available at Barnes and Noble, KoboAppleAmazon, and Smashwords with others soon to follow.

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Thanks to the early release, I’m proud to say the book has already earned some wonderful reviews, so if even if you’re not a steampunk fan, I hope you’ll give it a chance. It’s got some fun characters, and a rather wacky setting. But don’t take my word for it, go ahead and read the blurb! (Yes, I’m aware that’s also my word. Don’t be difficult.)

The islands of Caldera are a shining jewel in a rather bleak world. A terrible calamity in the past had blanketed much of the world with a toxic “fug.” Those who survived were forced to take to the mountains and the skies in wondrous airships. Life has since been a struggle, with only the most ruthless and crafty able to survive. To spare themselves the same fate, the Calderans erected a battery of guns to fend off the airships of the mainland. They isolated themselves from the madness of the world, choosing instead to focus on the pursuits of art and creativity. Few believe the technologically advanced but socially barbarous outsiders have anything to offer. Amanita Graus, though, is hoping that they do.

Nita’s mother has lost her livelihood and perhaps soon her life to a terrible disease. Already the black sheep of the family for embracing engineering rather than art, Nita resolves to leave the safety of her home and do whatever it takes to find a cure. For a price, the bizarre crew of an airship called The Wind Breaker are willing to grant her a meeting with their mysterious benefactors, and thus a chance to procure the one thing with a chance to save her mother.

Free-Wrench follows Nita’s adventures in a steampunk world of airships and lunatics. Helping her in her journey are an eccentric crew of smugglers; the gruff Cap’n Mack, the simple but enthusiastic Lil and Coop, the arrogant marksman Gunner, the surly surgeon Butch, and the irritable mascot Wink. To survive and find what she seeks she’ll need to earn their trust, follow their rules, and meet face to face with the people who pull the strings of their society.

Normally I’d make a big production of a release like this, but life is preventing such a thing. I’m currently working 13+ hour days at the day job, and mulling over a rather significant career offer that I’ve got less than a week to act upon. I don’t have much time or brain to spare for book promotion. I’d be much obliged if you folks would spread the word about the books, though.

I’m so very, so painfully close to finishing the first draft of the next book, a little sci-fi story called Artificial Evolution. (That’s now the official title, since I went and told Nick that’s what it was.) You might see that ready for pre-order before its ready to proofread, since I’m starting to take advice from the good folks at Book Expo America and Smashwords, which means doing a LONG pre-order. Fingers crossed, people!

Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

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Character Interview: Lain

This was a tricky one to write. A lot of the other characters would be perfectly willing to be interviewed. In order to answer all of the questions asked it would have to take place toward the end of the Trilogy, and let’s face it, Lain during the trilogy isn’t the sort of character who would be answering questions from just anyone. Thus, the interview is being conducted by Ivy, who is one of only perhaps three people Lain would even potentially answer. Even with that in mind, Ivy didn’t know some of the things that you good folks had questions about, so this is non-Canon, and she’s going to learn a lot. It therefore CONTAINS SPOILERS. If you have not read the trilogy and The Rise of the Red Shadow, don’t read this unless you are okay with having some major plot points spoiled. If this scene had a place in the book, it would be in the fields Lain’s rescue from the Volcano, in the time following Myranda waking him and helping him to recover.

Enjoy!

Ivy: Lain, you look much better now. How do you feel?

Lain: Well enough.

Ivy: (Hugging him.) I was afraid we were going to lose you.

Lain weathers the embrace and reluctantly returns it with one arm.

Ivy: (pulling back) Don’t scare me like that again! I mean… You’re my friend, Lain. And I don’t know anything about you! I can’t imagine losing someone I care about without ever really knowing them… I’m not taking that chance. I want to know all about you, Lain. Starting now.

Lain: Ivy, you don’t need to–

Ivy: (With finality) Yes I do. What about your name, Lain? Where does that come from?

Lain looks at her steadily, as if testing her resolve. She returns his gaze defiantly. When it is clear she will not relent, he releases a breath in something just short of a sigh.

Lain: Lain is a title. I earned it in Entwell for proving my skill and stealth.

Ivy: Well do you have a name then? A real one.

Lain: I have been called many things. Leo, Teyn, Shadow. I have no true name.

Ivy: How can that be? Did you forget it, or change into someone new, like me?

Lain: I lost my mother before I could learn my name.

Ivy: Oh… I’m sorry. So you grew up without a mother? What about your father?

Lain: I never knew him.

Ivy: Right… right, I remember now. Ether says he is a god.

Lain: So she says.

Ivy: Do you know which one?

Lain: I do not know that it is even so.

Ivy: Aw… growing up without a Mother and Father. I’d have been so afraid, but you’re never scared.

Lain: The only ones who are never afraid are the insane and the ignorant. I’ve learned to hide fear, but it is always there as a warning.

Ivy: Really? But you seem so brave!

Lain: Brave is the word for those who conquer fear, not those who do not face it.

Ivy: Well what is the scariest thing you’ve ever been through?

Lain: My first memory is being captured and brought to a plantation to serve as a slave. I’ve never been more frightened than in the moment they seized me by my tail. I knew there was no one to help me. I was powerless. It was years before I became numb to the fear.

Ivy: That’s horrible… There must have been good things too, though. What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever been through?

Lain: What good does it do you to ask all of these questions?

Ivy: I need to know that there’s been some light in your life. (She crosses her arms.) And this’ll go a lot faster if you just answer questions instead of trying to talk me out of asking them. You aren’t going to talk me out of it.

Lain: (eyes shut in combined remembrance and subdued irritation) There have been many things. The village of Entwell, when the falls are flowing… And the cliffs just past the village’s edge. I’ve seen a wizard conjure up a whole city around me. I’ve seen a dragon hatch from its egg and choose a human as its caretaker.

Ivy: Wow… Have you… Have you ever met any other malthropes? Besides me, I mean.

Lain: Very few.

Ivy: Were any of them your friends? Or at least did you know any of them well?

Lain: One of them. I knew her very well.

Ivy: (Smiling) Her? (Excitedly) What was her name? What was she like?

Lain: (Pausing, as if hesitating to speak the words) Her name was Sorrel. She was lovely. Bold. Brash. Clever. Stubborn.

Ivy: Were you… close?

Lain: We were.

Ivy: Did you… Did you love her?

Lain: I did.

Ivy: (Eyes twinkling with emotion) And did she love you?

Lain: (Pausing longer, as though considering the question for the first time.) I believe she did.

Ivy: (Almost tackling Lain with another enthusiastic hug.) That’s wonderful! Where is she now? What happened to her?

Lain: I turned to my task, to buying back the freedom of the slaves. It was too dangerous for her. She went her own way. To raise a family in a place where she believed she could be safe.

Ivy: A family… she had children?

Lain: Twins. Reyna and Wren.

Ivy: Were they… yours?

Lain: … I believe they were.

Ivy: You’re a father! (Eyes streaming with tears and clasping his hand in hers.) What happened to them? Tell me they’re safe!

Lain: I don’t know for certain what happened. I know that she left for the Crescents, and reached them safely. She was heading to North Crescent. She believed she would be safe there. But that was decades ago. Even if their lives were long and happy, they are surely gone now.

Ivy: Oh… I would have liked to meet them. If you’d been able to, if you knew they were still there and still safe, would you have taken me to meet them?

Lain: If I knew they were safe, I would send you to them. But I wouldn’t go with you.

Ivy: Why not?!

Lain: (Gesturing around at the army, and at his own injuries.) This, all of it. I can’t leave this behind. Where I go, this follows. I couldn’t risk bringing it upon them.

Ivy: (Wiping away a tear) Then we’ve got to end this war. We’ve got to make it so that you can at least try to find her. Or your children. Or your grandchildren. (She clasps her hands and bounces excitedly) You might have a whole family out there. I can’t wait to tell Ether. Imagine the look on her face. … Hey, tell me the truth, what do you think of her? Because she loves you.

Lain: She thinks she loves me, but she doesn’t know what love is.

Ivy: No, that’s the funny part. She thinks she doesn’t love you because she doesn’t know what love is. But she’s head over heels for you. I can tell. What do you think of her?

Lain: (Shaking his head slowly, a dash of irritation showing on his face) She’s occasionally a valuable ally, when she can control herself. More often she is a liability. She’s spent an eternity learning little of her own potential and nothing of the world she’s tasked to save. Until she learns the value of those things she’s shunned, she is hardly deserving of consideration.

Ivy: Wow… Well, what do you think of me?

Lain: You are young and you have a great deal to learn, but you have grown much in the short time since we found you. You are a credit to our race, and I value your safety above all else.

Ivy: Oh… (She covers her face for a moment in embarrassment.) Thank you. What about the others? What do you think of Myranda?

Lain: When I first found her, I believed her to be like any other human. She seemed foolish, perhaps even greedy. I’ve come to respect her in the months since then. She is dedicated, patient, intelligent, and tolerant. She is many things I thought humans were incapable of. There aren’t more than five people in my life that I’ve ever truly trusted. She is among them.

Ivy: Yeah, she’s wonderful… What about Myn, what do you think of her?

Lain: She is cunning, fierce, and loyal. Everything a dragon should be. To see how far she has come despite the endless calamities in her short life, I can only imagine the sort of dragon she will become.

Ivy: What about Deacon?

Lain: I admire his skill, but I believe his thirst for knowledge and his blind devotion to Myranda will lead him to a terrible end.

Ivy: I sure hope not! He’s great! … Hey, he’s been to Entwell too. Everyone I know who’s ever been there seems like they’ve learned wonderful things. Did you have a favorite teacher when you were there?

Lain: (Expression very slightly hardening, his patience with the conversation waning.) I learned a great deal. I am indebted to my many teachers.

Ivy: But who was your favorite?

Lain: … Those who taught me combat, stealth… Their lessons were the most valuable. But there was a fairy, Fiora… She taught me things I’d never known I would need to know. She taught me to read, to write. She taught me languages. And I believe she valued me as a student as highly as I valued her as a teacher.

Ivy: She sounds nice. Fiora. I don’t think Myranda mentioned her when she was talking about Entwell.

Lain: It was before Myranda’s time.

Ivy: Are there any from your visit with Myranda that you liked?

Lain: I went there to recover, not to learn.

Ivy: Still, was there anyone?

Lain: … I was pleased to find that the elder had taken her rightful place.

Ivy: What about…

Lain: I’ve answered enough questions. There is much to do in the days ahead. You need your rest and I need mine.

Ivy: Fine… Thanks for answering though. Sometimes it seems like you’re this larger than life thing. Like a statue of a great hero instead of a living, breathing creature. It’s nice to know that inside you’re a person, even if you don’t always show it. (She leans in and gives him a peck on the cheek.) Get some rest. I’m going to get my fiddle.

Well, there you have it. I hope all of your questions were answered. If you have additional questions, or questions for other characters, don’t forget the poll is always open.

Thanks for reading!

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What I Did on My Spring Vacation (and Fresh Art)

Hi folks. I’m still waiting for some clarification regarding that whole Massive Chalice Bloodline thing. I’ll still be doing a bloodline, but it’s increasingly looking like I won’t be allowed to do anything that ties in with anything else. They’re all being really nice and cool about it, but once you get to a certain level in any business, the swamp of intellectual property rights can be more trouble than it is worth to navigate. Unfortunately, my brain isn’t wired correctly to work in little teeny nuggets such as this, so it might not be within my means to churn out something particularly good with the allowable parameters. Such is life.

In the meantime, my twitter followers have been enduring a steady stream of vacation photos and chatter during the past week, since I was visiting the grandparents in Vermont. And you folks shall not be spared the same fate! AHH-HAHAHA! Stand by for the blog equivalent of a boring conversation at the water cooler. If you’re not interested in that, skip down to the bottom, where I’ll flip back to talking about the books and such. Also, my website is being a pain about uploading images right now, so check out the tumblr post for some pictures.

On Monday we went to Starksboro, VT. If you’ve never been to Vermont, I recommend it, particularly during the summer. It tends to be about twenty degrees cooler, though there are a lot of farms, so you might also get an introduction to the sensory wonderland that is manure season. In the past we would spend a whole month in Vermont, and most of that time would be spent camping, hiking, and having camp fires. This time we decided to do some of the touristy stuff, which for the Lallos means ‘eating strange new things in strange new places.’

The first stop is always Dakin Farms and Magic Hat Brewery to stock up on fancy beer (for my brother Mike) and meats and cheeses (for me). Incidentally, if you ever get the chance to try honey butter, maple kettle corn, or cob smoked cheddar, do so. They are excellent. Georgette (my sister-in-law) is a wine drinker, and Vermont has plenty of vineyards, so on our first full day we picked a few of those. I, by the way, am not a drinker of any kind, so when I joined in on a few wine tastings I probably doubled the amount of alcohol I’ve drunk in my entire life. It has reaffirmed that I’m not a fan of wine, though ice wines and ice ciders are the closest to my sort of beverage.

The next day was my day, or as we dubbed it, “The Day of Dairy”. We took a trip up to Cabot Creamery and watched them make cheese. Did you know that if you are a cheese maker with a beard, they make you wear a hairnet on your chin? They do! Also, either Jordan is a really popular name for cheese makers or people were sharing lab coats, because I saw two Jordans working side by side. I tried about a dozen cheeses and decided to take home some Artisan Reserve and Hot Buffalo, though Everything Bagel is excellent too. From there we went to the Ben and Jerry’s factory for a Brownie Special with Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream topped with hot fudge and nuts.

The largest city in Vermont is Burlington, which sits right on the shore of Lake Champlain, so we took a trip up there next. Church Street is a cool pedestrian mall, and there we sampled some more wine, checked out some local art, and of course, ate. This time it was a Bahn Mi Pork burger, plus what they called “Plymouth Rumrunner” cheese, which was a 90 day cave aged raw milk cheese. There as also poutine with duck gravy, which was so good. Then we took a boat tour of the lake, got mooned by a local as he jumped off a cliff into the water, and headed home.

Any time what we weren’t out and about, we were visiting with my grandparents, Pop and Mawna. Both are nearing ninety and still living on their own. It was a fantastic time!

BACK TO BOOK STUFF!

I’ve been commissioning art like a maniac. In addition to a few recommended artists I’d been interested in getting artwork from, a number of truly talented artists seem to have fallen on some hard times, so I’ve been commissioning things to help toss them some extra money. So here’s what I got!

Two great images from robo-shark:

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A wonderful little Squee from Chelsea Kenna:

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And a great (poster-sized) image of Myranda and Myn from Bri Mercedes:

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SO GOOD! And there’s more art on the way!

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Oops! Nevermind…

So it turns out my little dream of having my characters show up as an Easter egg in an awesome game is not to be. The Devs nixed all copyrighted characters, including those which the designers of the Bloodline owns. They say that it is a little too much like me advertising in their game. While I wasn’t intending that, I can certainly see why they would feel that way. I wouldn’t want KFC backing the game just to create a Col. Sanders Bloodline.

I’m unreasonably bummed out about his. It seems like any time The Book of Deacon is in any way exposed to legitimate business, the result is rejection. NO MATTER! I shall soldier on! Rather than including characters that I and my fans know and love, I shall create characters which definitively have NO MEANING OR BACK STORY. The way I figure it, if I come up with a back story, then the characters are therefore characters in a Joseph R. Lallo story, and we’re back to the same old problem. I can’t really make them interesting, because I know me, and if I do that I’ll end up writing a story about them and then we’re dealing with the same problem retroactively.

However, I’d like to have some semblance of the setting and characters that I care about, so in the spirit of compromise I have created this new bloodline, which obliquely references the Book of Deacon, but in a way that would only be truly obvious if A: You’d already read the books and B: You knew a GREAT DEAL about parts of the book that were changed or discarded. I think we can all agree that would be a pretty awful way to advertise, which I hope would illustrate my intentions are pure.

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And once again I present you good folks with the chance to make a selection.

Sigil A: (shown above as well)

Sigil 1

 

Or Sigil B:

Sigil 2

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Help Me Sneak Book of Deacon into a Game!

Okay, maybe sneak isn’t the right word since I’m doing it out in the open here on the internet. But here’s the deal. A while back, I backed a game from the Double Fine crew called Massive Chalice. If you’re not familiar with it, follow that link and watch the video. It’s an awesome idea for a game involving an immortal king raising and guiding an army for generations to hold back a terrible demon hoard. It’s a turn based tactics game with some simulation mixed in, and I am VERY MUCH looking forward to it.

Here’s the cool part. Since I’m a “Bloodline Backer”, I get to design one of the many, many bloodlines in the game. I think it is only fitting that I do something from The Book of Deacon. Here’s what I came up with so far. What do you guys think?

BloodlineEditorIf you can’t see it, here’s what we’ve got so far.

  • House Color: White
  • Secondary Color: Blue
  • Sigil: The Mark of the Chosen
  • Bloodline Name: Celeste
  • Keep Name: New Kenvard
  • Male: Deacon
  • Female: Myranda
  • Motto: ???
  • Battle Cry: ???

You’ll notice I haven’t got a Motto or Battle Cry. I’ll be trying to think of one for the next few days, but I figure this is a good job for the fans! Anyone out there have a motto or battle cry that you think is appropriate for Myranda or the Chosen, let me know! If I like your idea better than anything I come up with, you’ll win… something. I don’t know what. Some sort of prize. Free books, if you don’t already have all of my stuff. Maybe an autographed book if you do have all of my stuff.

So feel free to email me, tweet me, or sign up and comment here on the site.

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The Bundle So Far and the Fate of Between

Hi there, folks! I just wanted to post a little update here. First off, if you haven’t picked up the Sci-Fi/Fantasy NaNo Bundle yet, you’ve still got time! It’s been doing really well, I’m proud to say. So well, in fact, that even though I don’t officially release Free-Wrench until July, the money it has earned in this bundle has already covered the cost to have it edited and to have the cover illustrated, so THANKS!

Speaking of illustrations, I was on sort of an illustration frenzy recently. Good art takes time, so most of the commissions I’ve paid for are still in the pipeline, but here’s one that’s finished! I’m linking it to the original post, partially because he deserves the hit on the image (though I’d naturally include the link with the image), and partially because the original file would need to be re-sized to fit within my site’s upload size, and to heck with that! (For now.) This was a fun commission. Those of you who have ever been commissioned from me will know that Plan A is frequently “check out my current art page and pick a character to draw.” Plan B is me choosing who you should draw. Most artists have preferred to be told, but Jay (aka Robo-Shark) was not only willing to pick one, he was willing to keep it a secret! His choice turned out to be the much beloved Water Master of Entwell, Calypso the Mermaid. He chose her because he likes underwater scenes and because she doesn’t seem to have much fan art. I love how it came out, and another surprise piece is on the way!

Finally, some of you may have noticed there was no Between this week. If you did notice, thanks for noticing! If you didn’t, well, there wasn’t one. Much as I’ve been enjoying the weekly challenge of getting that posted, my friend and inspiration for Desmeres had a typically pragmatic observation. If I’m writing a few thousand words for Between every week, that means I’m writing a few thousand less words for Sci-Fi 3. Now, this isn’t entirely true, because it takes much more time to write a few thousand words of sci-fi, since it has to mesh with everything that came before it and will come after it, and the characters have established personalities and histories, but his point is valid nonetheless. I believe his reason for rather aggressively advising that I shift back to sci-fi is related to the fact that I’ll be selling that one instead of giving it away like Between, but I chose to actually ditch Between for now and focus on Sci-Fi 3 because people have been patiently waiting for it for far longer than is acceptable, so I really oughtn’t dilly dally.

I suppose I’ll conclude this with a little bit of news on the stuff I keep forgetting is in the works. A short story of mine called “Seeking the Shadow” is a step closer to being released, as the previous book by the same publisher just went to press. That means before too long there may be a Kickstarter for it which I’ll be able to point you toward. While technically it is the second Kickstarter to in someway involve me, I’m strangely excited about this one.

Anyway, that’s my boring rambly post for today. Thanks for reading!

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Free-Wrench and The Sci-Fi/Fantasy NaNo Bundle

The waiting is over, folks! At long last, my very first steampunk novel is available for you to buy, but that’s not the half of it!  I’m excited to announce that today we unveil The Sci-Fi/Fantasy NaNo Bundle, featuring Free-Wrench!

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Today until May 28th, StoryBundle is offering up seven whole novels, and as always, you can name your own price. In addition to Free-Wrench, bundle buyers who pick up the full bundle and subscribe to the newsletter will get:

  • Sworn to Raise, Sworn to Transfer, and Sworn to Conflict. These are the first three novels of the brilliant Courtlight Series by Terah Edun.
  • Firebrand, Book 1 of the Pyromancer Trilogy by R.M. Prioleau.
  • Ashes by Erin Cofran, Book 1 of The Nature of Demons.

You’ll even get my other recently released NaNoWriMo novel, The Other Eight!

Each of these novels (except for mine) are handpicked by me, selected from a pile of NaNoWriMo novels submitted early this year. Bundle curation is new to me, and I had a tough time narrowing down the list to a lucky few, but I feel I’ve selected the cream of the crop and I’m thrilled to be working with such talented authors.

Rather than bore you with the whole StoryBundle spiel here on my blog, I’ll bore you with the official announcement post (which I also wrote) here on StoryBundle. For you readers who have been waiting patiently for Free-Wrench to come out, I suggest you don’t dilly-dally. During the bundle I’ll be setting up the pre-orders for Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, but once the bundle is through you won’t be able to get Free-Wrench anywhere until the official release date of July 16th! This is when the book was originally going to release to give The Other Eight a chance to get some traction, so you can thank StoryBundle for giving me a reason to do this limited early release.

Pick up the bundle, get some great books, and thanks for reading!

UPDATE:

Need an excuse to pick up the bundle? There are some great reviews for both of my books already. And here’s one I just got a few minutes ago from an early reader.

Review for Joseph Lallo’s book Free-Wrench
I…loved…this…book. :) That should be good enough for you, go buy it now…The end!
What? Alright, alright…
No, seriously, it was well written, incredibly well written, especially for a book that was started and completed during the month of November.
This novel, (like all Joseph Lallo’s books) engages you right from the beginning. You have a real sense of who the characters are and what they want. This is an awesome achievement in any writing, but incredibly so, considering the short time in which this novel was completed.
This story follows a young lady (Nita) who works as a free-wrench in a steamworks (a job dominated by men) and is considered a bit of an oddity to her family and community. She is extremely good at her job, but seemingly on a whim buys her way onto an airship in search of a cure for her ill mother. What follows next is a harrowing adventure complete with new beginnings, friendships, death threats and battles. This culminates into a grandiose scheme to get what is needed when things don’t end up going as planned.
I could not put this book down, the story was engaging, the characters were believable and relatable. Do yourself a favour and support a great author – buy this book – you won’t regret it.
***** <—– 5 stars. :)

Thanks Melissa!

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Between: 8

Here we go, in an installment quite likely to be overshadowed by the announcement later today, the continuing adventures of Philo.

“This isn’t so bad,” Philo said, glancing around his home for the time being.

His encounter with the adorable but psychotic creature they called The Overseer had left him shaken and bleeding, but all things considered it had gone fairly well. Sure, he ended up with a gash to the head when the little guy had illustrated his supernatural powers, he’d also managed to plant the idea that maybe he would be more useful as a fetcher than a field worker. Almost immediately, his host Wrunx had suggested that being a fetcher wasn’t the best job in the world, but the alternative was an eternity of hard labor in the fields. The fetchers he’d met, granted, had been a little unhinged, but that seemed to be anything but rare in this place.

He’d been sent to the so called “Fetcher’s Den” to wait for his final assignment. It wasn’t the most luxurious place, but he’s seen worse. To be honest, it looked more like a campsite than a den. It wrapped most of the way around the opposite tip of the floating hunk of rock called Upper Spire, fenced off and scattered with shelters that had almost certainly been assembled by the fetchers themselves. Having met three fetchers already, Philo tried to guess which shelter belonged to which. Mr. Stubbs’ home was the easiest to spot, as it was about half the height of a normal house–just the right size for a hobgoblin–and had a massive perch installed on the roof for his trusty vulture Hooks. Something told him that a simple mound of rocks, something that looked like a stone igloo, belonged to Rill. The rest were a complete mystery. The gray-brown glob of what looked like papier-mâché, for instance, which sat prominently at the edge of the road that made up the only non-Den portion of the area and didn’t seem particularly hospitable. Then there were the assorted half-demolished things that might have been homes at one point or another. There was even what looked like a simple pine coffin laying on the ground in the middle of a bare patch of ground.

The thing that confused him the most was a simple cottage. What was so strange about it was that there was nothing strange about it. It was positively wholesome, two stories and built from good solid timber. The roof was thatched, the windows had fine heavy shutters painted a deep blue. Over the dutch door was a pair of horseshoes with their openings pointed down. There was even a small garden wrapped around it with assorted herbs and greenery. A shed sat beside the main house, every bit as picturesque and perfect as the rest of the scene. It was like something out of a nursery rhyme, and it was sitting right in the middle of a chaotic wonderland. The mailbox beside the door–it actually had a mailbox–said Beatrice Zalthea.

“Jeez. The only thing missing is a white picket fence and a dog house,” Philo said.

“What are you doing here, champ?” called a voice from above.

Philo looked up to see the striking yet demonic fetcher named Trixie. She was just near enough for the leathery beat of her wings to be audible.

“Oh, hi there!” Philo called back. “Guess who is being considered to be a fetcher!”

Trixie slowly descended until, with a few quick and graceful flaps, she touched down and strode up to Philo. She was a few inches taller than him and looked down with a grin. “No… You might be a fetcher? You’re a science type, and I don’t see any wings or flying contraptions. How do you plan on getting around?”

“I suggested they team me up with Rill.”

You? With that monster? Ha! Good luck,” she said, fluttering her wings a bit to get them to fold properly. “Rill can barely play nice with herself. I can’t even imagine what will happen once a fourth head is in the mix.”

“Aw, Rill’s a sweetheart… well, except for that left head,” Philo said.

“The one with the scars? Yeah,” Trixie said, rubbing her jaw. “Don’t push that one unless you’re ready for her to push back.”

“I think we’ll do fine.”

“I don’t. But on the off chance you do end up sniffing around in my turf, I guess I’d better make sure you know the score.” Trixie shoved him with two fingers, effortlessly throwing him from his feet onto his back. Before he’d wrapped his mind around what had happened, she planted a hoof on his chest and held the head of her hammer just above his forehead. “I am faster, stronger, smarter, and more experienced than you, and you’re lowest on the seniority roster. The only reason I’m not The Overseer’s number one fetcher is because I don’t want to be. I’ve got my own interests, and this is just how I get the resources I need for my own ends. Don’t–do not–interpret this as weakness. I take all of my own assignments and only my own assignments. You won’t catch me trying to scoop you on a fetch, and if I ever catch you trying to scoop me on a fetch, I won’t hesitate to turn you into a red smear on the bridge out. Got that?”

“Uh… there was a lot of stuff in there that I didn’t understand…” She let the hammer drop an inch. “But if the message was ‘Don’t Mess With Trixie’, then it came through loud and clear.”

“Good.” She held a hand down to him.

After a moment of eyeing it warily, he accepted it and she pulled him to his feet.

“Now, what did they tell you about the whole fetcher gig?” she asked, dusting him off a bit, then slapping him on the back, prompting him to walk along beside her toward the homey little cottage.

“Nothing. But I’ve gathered that fetching is involved. Mostly people, I guess.”

“People, goods, whatever the Overseer wants. Right now, that’s mostly people. He insists he’s building an army. Can’t do that without bodies. You’ll need to be available whenever they need you, so when you’re not on a fetch, you’ll be here in the den. You’ll want to set up a decent place to live, which shouldn’t take too long, because fetching is one of the few jobs on Shard that actually pays. Most fetches will get you three or four tokens. A really rotten one will fetch you two. How much did Rill get for you?”

He turned his eyes to the ground insecurely. “One.”

She laughed uproariously for considerably longer than was appropriate. “One token for fetching a newcomer! That’s science types for you!” She wiped away a tear. “Oh, you’ll learn to hate ‘em as much as the rest of us do before too long. Anyway. A token is good for a trip to the quartermaster. The quartermaster will let you take your pick of as much as you can carry of the junk the Overseer doesn’t know what to do with, or one or two pieces of the good stuff. There’s a lot of haggling and/or threatening involved.

“Fetching newcomers like you is pretty rare, which is why the Overseer should have realized that if four of us were heading out to fetch newcomers at the same time then one or all of them were bound to be decoys.”

“What’s a decoy?”

“Heart Core’s got a bunch of really talented mystics. They can make it seem as though someone showed up, but when you head out to get them, you’ll just keep going without ever finding anyone. There’s an art to figuring out when you’ve been duped and when a newcomer’s just hard to find. You, for example. Rill spent way longer looking for you than I would have. She’s an idiot, but her intuition is pretty sound.”

“How do we know when we need to go get someone?”

“The black and white stinker will bring you a note. The Overseer’s official messenger. You’ll know him when you smell him.” She stopped at the base of stairs leading to the front door of the cottage. “Other than that, you just listen for the announcement of an invasion and defend Shard as best you can. That’s the long and short of being a fetcher. Now run along. I’m not inviting you inside.”

“Inviting me… wait. You’re Beatrice Zalthea?”

“Of course,” she said, opening the door and setting her hammer into a stand just inside. “You didn’t think I was really named Trixie, did you?”

“Well…”

She stepped inside, rolled her eyes, and slammed the door.

“Trixie,” he muttered to himself. “Kinda blows hot and cold, that one.”

He turned to leave, but something odd caught his attention. At first he couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but steadily he realized that it was a sound, distant but growing nearer.

“… philo philo Philo Philo PHILO PHILO PHILO!!!!”

He turned to see two excited lavender heads and one disinterested one for an instant before Rill plowed into him, knocking the air from his lungs and dragging him into the air. She coiled around him and slid to the ground, her heads bobbing excitedly in his face and vying for his attention.

“Did your assessment go well?” Rill asked.

“You’re here in the Fetcher’s Den!” Right!Rill squealed.

“You’re actually going to be our partner?” Left!Rill added in disbelief.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down. One at a time,” he said. “I talked to the Overseer. I mentioned the idea of us working together and maybe going to retrieve the people the Heart Core fetchers took back, and he sent me here while he thought about it.”

“He’ll say yes! He has to. It’s a great idea!” Right!Rill raved, curling her head around his neck and pressing her cheek to his.

Rill inspected him for a moment, sniffing at the flecks of dried blood above his eye. “You’re hurt.”

“He is?” Right!Rill said, unwrapping herself and joining Rill in her investigation.

“Hold still,” Rill said.

She darted a thin purple tongue out and lapped up the flakes of blood, uncovering a faint pink gash where the Overseer’s spike of intimidation met its mark. Rill smacked her tongue a few times, like a connoisseur considering a fine Chablis. Left and Right each closed their eyes and tilted their heads in quiet appreciation.

“You’re very tasty, Philo,” they said in unison.

“That’s not what you said before,” he said.

“That’s because we didn’t get to taste the juice before,” Left!Rill said.

“The inside always tastes better than the outside,” Right!Rill said.

“Okay. Good to know. Maybe let’s not talk about how good I taste anymore.”

“Come see our home!” Rill said, releasing Philo from her coils and slithering toward the mound of rocks. “We made it ourself and we’re very proud.”

Having not given it much more than a glance earlier, a few things about the construction were baffling. There wasn’t any mortar holding the place together. In fact, the precarious way in which the jagged rocks clung together made it a wonder that it was standing at all. Rill dropped a bag that she’d been carrying with one of her tails and slithered in a loop around the mound.

“How do you fit inside?” he asked, recalling how large she’d been even when she was wadded up in a ball, trembling about him tearing off his face.

“Take a look!” Right!Rill said, puffing out her chest… or at least the portion of her neck that was the closest thing she had to one.

He found his way to the irregular opening on one side that served as a door and poked his head in. He was greeted by the sort of powerful, organic scent one always seems to find around large animals, though it had a spiciness that he’d never encountered before. Just inside the doorway, aside from becoming almost pitch black thanks to the strangely polite way that light remained outdoors in this place, the ground dipped down in a shallow bowl. Between the dome of the stones and the burrowed out ground, there was just enough room for her to curl up inside. The black, sandy ground was piled with shredded cloth and bits of leather, forming a comfy if simple little bed. A tiny alcove had been dug deeper than the rest, with a particularly heavy stone sitting at the bottom of it.

“I’d invite you to stay with us, but there’s really not room for you,” Rill said. “Have you put any thought into what you’re going to live in?”

He scratched his head. “I didn’t realize I was going to need a place to live until Trixie told me…”

“Oh,” Left!Rill said in irritation. “You talked to Trixie.”

“Should I have not talked to Trixie?”

“We don’t like Trixie,” Rill said.

“Why not?”

“She’s mean to us,” Right!Rill said.

“And every fetch she does is one we don’t get to do,” Rill said.

“And The Overseer never gives her any of the dirty jobs,” Left!Rill said. She flipped her tail up in front of Philo, revealing a splash of red with a formerly gray feather plastered to it. “We were busy picking out our food and they made us go and pluck a wing off one of the spotters. You know how hard that is to do without killing it? You can’t just pull. You’ve got to squeeze, twist, bite, and pull, or else the end is too messy for the healers to put it back on easy. No one respects how tricky it is!”

“Yeah… yeah can imagine it takes a lot of finesse,” Philo said, gently pushing the tail away.

As he watched her lick idly at it like a child getting to lick the cake batter off a spoon, he recalled how often the word ‘monster’ tended to be used in describing his purple friend.

“All of the other fetchers get to have more fun than me. Basically I’m the only one they don’t let go recruit people, or re-recruit them. That’s always Stubbs, Brankle, and Duke. Sometimes Trixie, but only on regular recruiting for her. She doesn’t re-recruit. Trixie likes to do the resource runs instead, along with Brankle and Duke. They don’t let Stubbs do those much anymore because he’s a thief. The only thing they let us do is defend against Heart Core and fetch newcomers, but everyone gets to do that,” Right!Rill said.

“Okay, well I’ve met you and Trixie and Stubbs. Who are Brankle and Duke?”

“Brankle is a big bug guy who doesn’t even talk most of the time. And Duke is a stuck-up pale human like you who can turn into a bunch of bats,” Rill said.

“A human who can turn into bats… He wouldn’t suck blood by any chance, would he?”

“You’ve met him?” Right!Rill asked.

“No, but I know the type.”

“You do? Is your memory getting better?” Rill asked.

“I guess, a little, but so far it’s all little stuff. Nothing about me.”

“Probably it’s more useful that way. What good would knowing about you do you? No one else knows anything about you and we’re all doing fine,” Left!Rill said. “All you need to know is that you shouldn’t deal with any of the other fetchers. But definitely don’t deal with Duke.”

“He’s super uppity. Everything is beneath him. Him and Brankle didn’t get back yet from their fetches,” Right!Rill said.

Philo turned slightly to see that the sack Rill had been carrying had rolled to the side and was squirming.

“Your bag is moving,” Philo said.

“Oh yeah!” Right!Rill said, snatching the bag up with her tail. The other two tails quickly tugged it open. “This is what we bought with the token we got for fetching you.”

She dropped the bag and dipped all three tails inside to pull out three things that looked like crabs, though they had a few too many waving eyes, waggling legs, and snapping claws to be the crustaceans Philo knew. They were also bright blue, which didn’t seem terribly crab-like, but they had shells and claws, and that was good enough for him.

“… My freedom is worth three crabs?” Philo said.

“Yep!” Right!Rill said happily.

Philo looked away quickly as Left!Rill lunged at her crab. The air filled with a sickening chorus of crunches, gulps, and murmurs of delight.

“You always forget how good eating is until you get to do it again,” Right!Rill said with her mouth full.

“Yeah, it’s great. I mean, after this little experience I probably wouldn’t want to do it for a while anyway, but it’s great,” he said, holding up his hand to block the sight of the feast.

“I can feel the cuts and scrapes from the Heart Core fetchers healing up already,” Rill said as the crunching came to an end. “There’s nothing like a little snack to perk you up.”

He looked back to see the three heads contentedly licking the remnants of their hard earned meal from their faces. They were messy eaters, though that may be unavoidable when the thing you’re eating is trying to get away. Now that the crunching had subsided, he noticed that at some point a new sound had begun to lilt across the landscape. It was a tiny, raspy voice chanting in a singsong manner.

“Rill, Trixie, New Guy. Rill, Trixie, New Guy,” it repeated.

“Oh boy!” Right!Rill said. “A new job!”

Philo squinted into the distance. The voice seemed to be coming from behind the low fence that separated the Fetcher’s Den from the main road. Between the posts he could see a blackish form trotting along. It didn’t seem to be much bigger than a dog. It nimbly hopped up onto the fence, then back down to the ground and trotted directly for them. A massive, fluffy tail drifted along behind what was either a fox with a skunk’s paintjob or a skunk with a fox’s stature. Strapped to its back was an adorable little pack with three bundled scrolls sticking out of it. Before it was halfway to them, it was clear this was the ‘stinker’ Trixie had mentioned, as he had a substantial aroma. It wasn’t quite skunk, but it was definitely in the same part of the stench spectrum.

The beast pranced up to Rill and Philo and tapped back and forth energetically.

“Message, Rill,” it said, lowering its head to present its pack.

Rill snatched the scroll tied with a purple ribbon and eagerly pulled it open. As the three heads fought to get a good view of the message, the little creature turned to Philo.

“New guy?” it said.

“I’m Philo,” he said.

“New guy?” it repeated.

Right!Rill leaned over and whispered. “The messenger isn’t the brightest thing around. He doesn’t know many words.”

“Yes, I’m the new guy,” Philo said.

“Message, New Guy,” the messenger said, lowering its head.

There were two messages remaining, one tied with a white ribbon, the other tied with a red one. Reasoning that if the purple one had been for Rill, the red one was probably for Trixie, and thus the white one was for him. He snagged and unfurled it.

“As a test of your effectiveness, you are to accompany Trixie and Rill to the junkyard to acquire the resources listed below. You are to work as a team with Rill, and acquire all of the listed items. Trixie has her own list, and will merely show you each the basics of resource gathering. If you are successful, you and Rill will be considered a single Fetcher and will split all earnings as Stubbs and Hooks do,” Philo read.

“Neat!” Right!Rill said.

“But we have to split our earnings with him. He’s a burden already!” Left!Rill objected.

“But we’ll be going to the junkyard. We’ve never been asked or even allowed to go there before. We’ll be doing more work, so it will all even out,” Rill reasoned.

The messenger trotted over to Trixie’s quaint little cottage and scratched at the door.

“You have got to be joking!” she roared from within, causing the messenger to spring back. She threw the door open, plucked up the messenger by its pack, and held it to her face. “I just got home! Just got home! You tell them that if they are going to send me on a wild goose chase, next time I get some time off before the next one. You hear that? Next time Trixie gets a break!”

“Next time Trixie gets a break,” the messenger said, nodding its head vigorously.

She grabbed the message and dropped the messenger, who trotted happily back toward the castle trilling “Next time Trixie gets a break” over and over again.

Trixie read over the message. When she reached the end she rolled her eyes and looked toward Philo, then past Philo to give Rill a hard, measuring stare. Philo turned to see Rill returning the stare in triplicate.

“Oh, I can tell this is going to be a fun trip,” Philo said.

The next one might be a touch late, because, again, a distraction is coming along roundabout noon today.

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Between: 7

I almost didn’t get this one done in time. Had some unexpected life stuff come, and some expected stuff that took longer than… expected. Anyway, here it is, Between: Episode 7. This is the chapter where I finally introduce one of the obligatory elements of a Lallo Story.

“What’s this test for again?” Philo asked breathlessly.

For the last few hours, Philo had been put through a battery of tests and trials by a floating brain in a jar. The tester–or Logistician, as he preferred to be called–was named Wrunx, and for the most part he seemed to be a fairly decent chap. The tests, on the other hand, were a little hit and miss. Some had been fairly obvious in their relevance. His top speed, his strength, his stamina, and his memory were all recorded, for instance. Other tests were clearly valuable, but much less pleasant. Determining his flammability was very nearly disastrous. Fortunately, Philo had managed to convince Wrunx that his flammability was extremely high and that it would be best just to take his word for it. Then there were the oddball tests. “Mystic Receptiveness/Resistance” had involved Wrunx waving a carved piece of crystal at him and saying the word ‘sleep’, then shaking him awake and informing him that his mystic resistance was ‘remarkably low.’ A test of will had involved trying not to yawn, which lasted until roughly the second time Wrunx said the word yawn. (This was evidently enough to earn him another ‘remarkably low’ rating.) Other tests had run the gamut from counting pebbles to swinging a sword.

Now he was standing on one foot, balancing a stick on one palm and bouncing a ball with the other.

“This is for coordination. You’re doing very well,” Wrunx said, watching thoughtfully and taking notes with his trusty quill pen.

“Whew. That’s good to know. One for the good column then,” Philo said.

“I’m sorry, the what?” Wrunx asked.

“The good column. Sometimes it’s useful to keep track of all of the things going in your favor,” Philo said. “The other stuff goes in the Bad Column.”

“Hmm… A foreign concept, but I can certainly see the value of it. What’s the tally?”

“The what?”

“How many things are in the good column?”

“I don’t remember.”

“So… when you say you keep track of these things…”

“It’s more of an unofficial thing.”

“Ah… I may have overestimated your language and memory ratings,” Wrunx said, pointing his eyes doubtfully at the page containing Philo’s various grades. “You can stop, by the way.”

Philo set the stick down and caught the ball. “Okay, what’s next?”

“I believe I have everything I need,” Wrunx said.

“Oh, good! So, what’s the verdict?”

“Well.” The Logistician flipped through the pages. “I’m afraid you’re rather unremarkable. Middling scores across most of the physical tasks, very low scores on the mystical tasks, and moderately above average on the mental tasks. You do have a very good attitude though.”

“Does that help?”

“With your eventual assignment? Not at all, but in life it’s rather helpful,” Wrunx said. “With these scores, I’d say you’ll probably end up working in the fields, or else as a foot soldier if you can develop some additional skill with a pike. We’ll need plenty of pike men.”

“When do I find out?”

“We’ll speak with the Overseer in a moment. He’s quite hands-on and involved, as Overseers go. Insists on making all initial assignments himself.”

“Is he a nice guy?” Philo asked.

“Nice… That isn’t precisely the word I would use. He’s more… Er… What’s a word for someone insane, but too frightening to risk calling insane?”

“Eccentric?”

“Perfect! I’m boosting your language score for that. Yes, the Overseer is viciously, criminally eccentric. But he’s not killed any newcomers for quite some time, so you’ll likely survive this meeting. I think that certainly belongs in your good column, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I probably won’t die in a minute? Yeah, that’s a good one.”

“No sense dawdling then. Come with me. I’ll take you to him.”

Wrunx hovered to the door and pulled it open, beckoning Philo to follow. The two headed into the hallway, where the imposing figure of an orc in heavy black armor loomed beside the door.

“Chorkuk, follow us, would you? Philo here has been perfectly behaved thus far, but one never can tell how he’ll react once he gets a glimpse of the Overseer.”

“People don’t like duh boss,” Chorkuk rumbled. He appeared to be scowling, though it was possible his twisted green, tusk-bearing face always looked like that. “And I don’t like people wot don’t like duh boss.”

“Good to know,” Philo said.

Wrunx led the way down the hallway, which was just wide enough for the three of them to move side by side. Unlike the room he’d left behind, and much of the rest of the places in Between, the hall was fairly uniform. It was built from blocks of black stone, with stout black columns at regular intervals. On every alternate column there was a glowing torch, though as he passed them he noted that the glow wasn’t coming from a flame, but instead a tiny white orb floating above each torch. An effort had been made to chisel interesting designs into the surface of the stone. The attempt hadn’t been terribly successful, but it was nice to see that someone had felt the need to make some aesthetic touches. Somehow it made things seem a little saner. Anything that could add a little sanity was a good thing, particularly in light of the most notable quirk of the architecture.

The hallway executed a ninety degree clockwise twist along its length, which coupled with the columns made Philo feel as though he was walking along the world’s largest model of a DNA helix. Rather than sliding aside as the floor gradually became a wall, the trio simply walked along without any difficulty. From their point of view it felt more like the castle was twisting around to suit them.

“This whole dimension has a funhouse vibe to it,” Philo said. “I like how gravity is context sensitive.”

“It does offer some fascinating departures from typical interior design, doesn’t it? Back where I come from not everyone is lucky enough to have themselves installed on a hover platform like I did. Some of the cheaper methods have wheels, and as such stairs can present a problem. Here in the castle, we use what I’ve heard other earthlings call ‘candy cane corridors.’”

“Ah, I get it. The walkway spirals around the main support pillar?”

“Right! They are really quite accessible for the less mobile among us.”

The hallway led to the aforementioned candy cane corridor, which tied Philo’s spacial reasoning in knots. Logically he knew he was walking along sideways, winding his way upward, but his eyes insisted he was in a narrow hallway that was rolling along beneath him, watching as sections of the walkway split off and twisted to become the floor of a new level. Trying to work out how many floors he’d gone by, or even trying to determine if the torches over his head counted as sconces or chandeliers, was more trouble than it was worth. He decided to focus on small talk.

“So, Wrunx. Let’s say I do get sentenced to manual labor.”

“Assigned.”

“Right. Is it a good job? What are the hours? Do I get days off?”

“There are no hours or days here. You work until you are unable to work or until there is no more work to do, then you rest or find other work to do, without end, until you are killed, escape, are recruited to Heart Core, or get promoted.”

“That sounds pretty awful.”

“That does seem to be the popular opinion.”

“Hopefully I don’t get it, then. … This might be a weird question, but are you a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t have any of the associated anatomy, so I’m not sure the answer is relevant.” Wrunx said. “Why do humanoids always ask that?”

“Uh… pronouns, I guess. Calling you ‘it’ just seems so impersonal.”

“Oh, yes. English is one of those languages with a biological influence. Well, it doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m not hearing what you’re actually saying anyway, and since I very much doubt the two of us will be procreating, you may pick the pronoun of your choice.”

“I’m gonna go with he,” Philo said. He then turned to Chorkuk. “Now you’re a probably a dude, right?”

As a response, Chorkuk reached out a ham-sized fist with fingers a thick as Philo’s wrist and grabbed a handful of jumpsuit. Without so much as a grunt of effort, Chorkuk slammed Philo against the wall/ceiling/thing beside the thing they were walking on.

Philo wheezed and fought some breath into his lungs. “Definitely a dude?” he offered.

Chorkuk gave a satisfied nod and dropped him.

“Sorry buddy. You’re my first–” Philo began, then hesitated and winced “–orc?”

“Yes. Chorkuk is an orc,” Wrunx said.

“See, that’s funny, because where I come from, orcs are fictional,” Philo said.

“Where I come from, neither orcs nor humans have even been conceived of,” Wrunx said.

“Where I come from, humans are food,” Chorkuk said.

“Really? Interesting,” Philo said, nodding politely and moving to the other side of Wrunx.

“Relax. The overseer is very strict about predation within Shard. We can’t afford to lose the population.”

“Hey, this was bothering me. If this is Shard, what’s the name of the funny shaped planet its circling around?”

“The Overseer considers both to be Shard, the larger portion is simply Lower Shard, and this is Upper Shard.”

“Good to know.”

The trio circled upward, their walkway getting narrower the higher it went, until finally they stepped (or floated) onto one of the off-ramps and found themselves on a much more luxurious portion of the castle. Only fifteen feet wide and about thirty feet long, the room seemed to be something of a foyer between the walkway and–based on the size and elegance of the arched doorway at its end–the throne room. Like the entryway of the castle, this was a trophy room of sorts, though as it was much smaller it was host to tiny but priceless pieces from a dozen different worlds. Resting on twin rows of black stone plinths were crystal display cases. Some held exquisite gems set in precious metals, though the configuration was unlike any jewelry Philo had ever seen. Others held sculptures, like the nearest one which held the alabaster bust of a magnificently beautiful yet strangely otherworldly woman.

Chorkuk led the way to the door, beside which the final two plinths displayed a flower which appeared to have venom-dripping stingers at the end of each petal and a stand displaying a mint condition copy of Action Comics #1. Philo paused investigate the comic.

“Okay, never mind the question of how you got a copy of this, but how exactly do you know it’s valuable?” Philo asked, peering at the iconic image of Superman.

“Philo, please. You aren’t our first earthling. Though to be perfectly honest I’ve always preferred Batman. Superman is so irritatingly invincible,” Wrunx said.

Wrunx reached out to the handle of the door, but paused. There were voices behind the door. Though they were too muffled for the assembled group to make out what was being said, there were certainly two voices, and they were certainly angry.

“We should wait. You don’t want to go in while he’s angry,” Wrunx advised.

“Huh. Sounds like Trixie,” Chorkuk said. “She’s gettin’ chewed out good.”

“Who’s Trixie?” Philo asked.

“Another one of our Fetchers,” said Wrunx. “She was off collecting someone during the Heart Core invasion. The fact I’ve spent the last few hours testing you without interruption means she didn’t bring anyone back. That would mean that she was sent out after–”

From behind the door a vaguely male voice screeched, “A DECOY!? We lost three subjects while you were off trying to fetch a decoy!?”

“It was your precious Spotter who sent me after it! Don’t you dare try to blame this on me!”

“Trixie yells at duh boss. Trixie’s not too smart,” Chorkuk sagely observed.

The voices drifted back below the threshold of hearing, but it was clear that the discussion was still quite heated. Finally something struck the door hard enough to cause it to leap in its hinges. Philo stumbled backwards, startled. He would have crashed into the comic display if Chorkuk’s casually raised hand didn’t stop him with all of the gentleness of a brick wall. The door opened to reveal, presumably, Trixie.

She wasn’t human, not by a longshot, but at the mere glimpse of her Philo was transfixed. Though she was uniquely dressed in custom made armor, her shape was abundantly female. She was over six feet tall, and her skin was bright red and just a bit glossy with perspiration from her heated argument. Her face may as well have been that of a human, and a cute one at that, if not for its crimson color. Shiny black lips were twisted in an angry sneer and her eyes–the least human part of her face–were entirely black save for blood red irises. Her hair was black as pitch too, cut into a short ragged bob. Sticking up through it were two points that Philo initially thought were spikes of hair. Close inspection revealed they were shiny black horns jutting up like thorns from her head. Behind her swished a thin tail of the same red skin color and ending with a spade shape. Her feet were bare, and in fact weren’t feet at all. She had black hooves that clopped on the stone floor was she walked. Topping off the inhuman aspects of her body was a glorious pair of red, bat-like wings folded across her back. Her armor was bulky, so it was difficult to tell what her build was, but there was no doubt that both her chest and hips were noteworthy in both quality and quantity.

The armor itself was worth noting as well, as unlike Chorkuk and the other guards, she wore protection that was as haphazard and cobbled together as the trophy collection. She’d assembled something that was equal parts football pads and plate mail, with each plate irregularly pounded out of whatever piece of metal she could find. Most were unrecognizable, but Philo felt sure he saw a license plate and a few cola cans in the mix. Completing the ensemble was a helmet hanging from her belt. It probably started life as some sort of sports equipment before she’d bored two holes for her horns and riveted some scrap metal to it. In one hand she held a sledge hammer, or at least whatever the medieval equivalent was called. Judging by the many stains on its head and handle, it was more accurately called a war hammer.

“You’re going to want to give him a minute to cool off,” Trixie said in a smoky voice. She turned to Philo. “Is this fresh meat? Nice to know we didn’t all go out chasing shadows. Let me see that.” She snatched the grade sheet from Wrunx and looked it over. After only a few lines, she cast a disparaging look in Philo’s direction. “Oh, you’re a real winner, aren’t you?”

“I’ve got a good attitude! And a sock puppet act,” Philo defended.

“Well, the boss does love puppets,” Trixie said.

“Really?”

She snorted. “No.” She gave a derisive laugh and sighed. “Oh, he is going to hit the roof when he sees you. Get the grinder ready, because he’ll be making meatloaf out of somebody before this blows over.” She gave him a punch to the shoulder. “Good luck in there, champ.”

Trixie returned the grade paper and marched down the hall, her hips swaying and jingling her armor as she went. Philo found he couldn’t take his eyes off her until she was nothing more than the echoing of hooves in the twisting corridor.

“This is an… inauspicious beginning to your task assignment,” Wrunx said.

“I want some of dat meatloaf, if duh boss makes it,” Chorkuk said.

“This is a joke about the meatloaf, right? That’s just ‘haha, he’s gonna be really mad’-type metaphor, right?” Philo said nervously.

“Of course!” Wrunx said.

“Okay, good.”

“The Overseer detests meat. He’s more apt to eat your soul.”

“… You can eat souls?”

“I can’t, but the Overseer has done so on occasion,” Wrunx said, matter-of-factly. “Shall we get on with it then? No time like the present.”

Philo opened his mouth to suggest that there were many times like the present and, might he add, that the future seemed like a much better time for this sort of thing. He didn’t get the opportunity. Wrunx pulled open the door and Chorkuk ushered Philo inside.

The throne room–and that’s indeed what it was–was lavishly decorated. Intricately woven tapestries adorned the walls, each depicting a different fantastic scene or landscape. Two vast, peaked windows displayed the grandeur of Lower Shard. Because the castle stood on the end of Upper Shard, the windows were looking straight down, giving Philo an intense feeling of vertigo. Racks of weapons stood on either side of the doorway, each fully loaded with spears, halberds, complicated swords, baseball bats, assault rifles, and rocket launchers. On the far right wall there was a door, slightly ajar, leading to a darkened room.

Between the two windows, facing the door, was the currently vacant throne itself. It was a gleaming thing of carved marble, more of a work of art than a piece of furniture. Every edge was scalloped, beveled, curved, or chamfered. A sweeping badge of some sort had been set into the arched top rail, made up of thin strips of engraved gold and fitted with gems the size of a walnut. The cushions were black velvet with gold threading, plush and overstuffed. Despite these inviting pillows, the shape and size of the seat gave Philo the overall impression that it wasn’t a particularly comfortable place to sit. The scale was absurd. You could fit three Philos side by side with room to spare, and each would have his feet dangling like a toddler. He shuddered at the thought of how enormous the Overseer must be… wherever he was.

“Wrunx, have you worked out how much this invasion has upset our timetable,” fumed a voice from the corner of the room. It was a high-pitched, creaky voice. A voice that only seemed appropriate for someone who would grin at you while leaning on a shovel beside an open grave, or perhaps offer you a poison apple while calling you ‘my pretty’. It was a demented cackle waiting to happen.

Philo turned to the source. Standing there was… nothing. He didn’t realize his mistake until Wrunx drifted past him, then downward, to present the grade page to a small, plump creature on the floor. It didn’t quite look like anything Philo had seen before, but a raccoon came closest albeit a white one without the bandit markings. It had the same cunning little paws, chubby little body, and fluffy tail. The ears had more of a bunny quality to them, though not as long and coming to a sharper point. Its primary color was white. There were fine red stripes tracing out arcing, almost tribal patterns across the short fur of its forehead, back, and sides. The thickest red lines formed two curling red tufts over its deep blue eyes, giving the semblance of flamboyant eyebrows pulled down in a devilish and scheming manner.

“I’m afraid not, Overseer,” Wrunx said. “I was conducting the trials for the newcomer.”

“Newcomer! Yes, yes, excellent!” the creature said, its piercing, crypt-keeper voice now seeming to be far too large and articulate for the creature. “I was beginning to think we wouldn’t get any fresh blood at all from this fiasco. Who brought him back?”

“Rill,” Wrunx said.

“Rill? Oh, yes. That one, with the tails. She’s really coming in handy. Yes. Yes we should reward her. Give her two… no three quartermaster tokens. One for each head. Yes. Must keep them loyal. Loyalty is very important for the flyers.”

He snatched the page away. Wrunx took the opportunity to make a note of Rill’s reward while the overseer waddled slowly toward the throne. His small size made the trip a lengthy one, and required him to use both forepaws spread nearly at arm’s length in order to hold the parchment he’d taken. About halfway to the throne he stopped and his little ears pulled back.

There was a shuffling beside Philo and he turned to find that Chorkuk had taken two steps away from the human, his arms held in a vaguely defensive position. Wrunx was considerably more cautions, having retreated to the far side of the room.

“A science type! We lose three, three, of my subjects in a single stroke and all that stupid snake can bring me is a science type? Fine Rill two… no three quartermaster tokens. One for each head. Yes.”

Wrunx simply crossed out the note of the reward.

The Overseer tore up the sheet with remarkable ease and scampered on all fours to the throne, clambering up to the seat. Once there, he began muttering to himself. “Trixie… going after the decoy… I suppose the spotter may be at fault… Wrunx, bring me a piece of the spotter who found the decoy Trixie went after. Nothing vital, but something useful. A thumb or two.”

“The spotter in question was Ovid, sir.”

“And?”

“Ovid is a great owl. No thumbs, sir.”

“Well then take one of his wings then. Do I have to spell everything out for you? Dunces and dunderheads, the lot of you.”

“And where shall I assign the newcomer, sir?”

“Eh? Oh. Yes. Throw him in a field somewhere. He’s rubbish,” the Overseer said dismissively.

“Uh, I’m sorry, Mr. Overseer? If I may speak for a moment in my defense,” Philo said.

Chorkuk audibly gasped. Wrunx dropped to the ground and covered his eyes with his hands. The Overseer cast a furious look in Philo’s direction.

“You’re an earthling, yes?” the Overseer said.

“Yes.”

“I’ve known a lot of earthlings, yes. Not one of them was worth the breath it would take to order its execution. But they all had a few things in common. The more unfortunate was the inability to be suitably intimidated when meeting me for the first time. I’m told it is something to do with my size, yes? Or the nap of my pelt? There are things on earth that look much as I do, and those things scurry away when you come near, unless you deign allow them into your homes to be coddled and fawned over.” He took a step forward on the seat of the throne. “That doesn’t happen where I come from.”

As he continued to talk, there was an odd hissing noise that permeated the air.

“Where I come from, people have a respect for creatures like me. It wasn’t always that way, but eventually those who lacked respect learned it, or else they learned what it felt like to have the bones pulled from their living flesh.”

It became clear that what Philo was hearing was the sound of sand pouring out against something, he couldn’t find its source. Then he saw a curling strand of dust spiraling up from below the windows. It was like a tornado had swept through the remains of a forest fire, drawing up the cinders and ash and whirling them into a chaotic ribbon of black.

“They learned that being small and fluffy has little bearing on how truly dangerous something is. Yes.”

The ash poured in through the windows, blotting out the view of the outside and snuffing out all sources of light. The room was plunged into darkness. The voice continued to speak, louder now and seemingly all around him.

“You could stand to learn a few lessons. You could stand to learn that here, magic is the only real power. And magic has little to do with how you look. At least, how you look with untrained eyes. Yes. And you could stand to learn that you do not speak to me until you have earned that right.”

The black sand dropped away from the lights and windows, but an array of needle-sharp spikes made from the stuff hung in the air around Philo, so close he couldn’t move an inch without potentially skewering himself.

“Have I made myself clear?”

Silo tried to nod but caught a spike to the eyebrow for his trouble. “Yes,” he said, blood trickling down his face.

“Yes…” The Overseer said, waving a paw and dismissing the spikes. “Now what possible defense could you have?” At his whim the pieces of the parchment swirled together and repaired. “No mystic skill, not even particularly strong. What are you good for besides working in the fields?”

“… Do I answer, or…”

“Yes! Yes you answer!” Overseer snapped.

“Well, I mean, you just lost three people. That probably created some non-heavy-lifting openings.”

“Ha! We lost a centaur. All he was good for was pulling a plow, but that still makes him five times more useful than you.”

“What about the other two?”

“Who else did we lose, Wrunx?”

“Gastov the Sigil Writer and Menev the enchanter,” Wrunx shakily supplied.

“Do you know how to engrave mystical emblems and empower them?”

“… Maybe?”

“You don’t. I can see mystic talent plain as day, and you are the most mystically inert being I’ve ever met. Yes. It is like you aren’t even here.”

“Well then maybe I can help get them back.”

“And how would you do that? You can’t fly or swim. I’ll be sending Mr. Stubbs to get them back. I’ve tried Trixie for that, but Stubbs has consistently outperformed her.”

“When I was talking to Rill…”

“Talking to Rill… You surely mean pleading with Rill, yes?”

“No, no. We got along fine.”

“Wrunx, is this human lying to me?”

“No, Overseer. As I understand it he and Rill parted on very pleasant terms.”

“And she suggested maybe we could work together. I’m very diplomatic. Maybe I could… negotiate their return or something.”

“We are conquerors, not negotiators.”

“Well then maybe I can trick them into thinking we’re negotiators so we can conquer.”

“A distraction… Yes… But you are useless, Philo. You can’t defend yourself. They will capture you.”

“Well if I’m useless, no big loss, right?”

The Overseer scratched his head with a hind foot, considering the words.

“I will think about this. Yes. Wrunx, take him to the Fetcher’s Den. And figure out that timetable!

With that, the Overseer dove to the floor and scuttled to the unlit adjoining room. The door slammed behind him. Wrunx hurriedly led the way out of the throne room.

“Hah, see that? Another one for the good column,” Philo said.

“No, Philo. This is definitely one for the bad column,” Wrunx countered.

“Why?”

“I suppose you will find out soon.”

There you go. We’ve got a cute cuddly creature now. Tune in next week where something happens involving the other fetchers I guess. I haven’t decided what yet.

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