Well, all of you who have been telling me that Blood Magic episodes should be longer should be able to settle down now, because the second part of Pifecha, season two’s finale, ended up almost twice the length of a typical episode. Putting the two parts together, we have a very respectable novella-length story. I mention this, because the increasing length was among my biggest concerns as I was writing the final episode. That might seem silly when I publish these on my own website and am beholden to no one as far as word counts go, but the fact is that word count is an important indicator of pacing and plotting considerations.
Word counts originated based on publishing considerations: it took different investments and publishing logistics to bring a short story versus a novel to print. The proliferation of e-books and other, electronic formats has loosened those physical tyrannies, reflected in the massive increase in appetite for novellas, which under a print publishing paradigm are a terrible length – they cost as much as a novel, but can’t be sold for as much. With my electronic format in mind, I think of word counts as a guide for how a reader will interact with the story. A short story is something that I intend a reader to consume in a single sitting. Yes, there are breaks in the story and places you could put it down, but they are short enough that they can be comfortable read all at once. Novellas are meant to be read quickly, but with places to put it down. Novels are written to be read over the course of many days.
That’s why Pifecha, Part Two’s length was such a concern to me. It is about as long as Destiny of Kings, but the pacing is more in line with the rest of Blood Magic – in other words, it is paced to be read in one sitting. Normal Blood Magic episodes push the definition of what constitutes a short story, with most definitions topping out two to four thousand words shorter than the average Blood Magic episode, so at twice the length, Pifecha, Part Two is a significant commitment to read all in one sitting, even though that’s how the plot is set up. In other words, you have been warned.
Despite my concerns about the length, I didn’t decide to cut content. We have to fit an entire, believable war into these two episodes, and I feared rushing it. I already worried that Contaminant featured an unbelievably fast timeline, slightly ameliorated by the fact that it was a contaminant, not a disease. Yes, I can imply the passage of significant amounts of time without directly showing it, but doing that too much will leave a story felling hollowed out, a shell of a story instead of the story itself. I want to tell the story of the war with Pifecha, not tell about the story of the war with Pifecha. And yes, I know that my endings tend to be rushed – it’s a known problem with my writing in general, and one that I am still working on, albeit more slowly than I might like.
I’ve expressed my concerns before about the Blood Priests becoming a sort of deus ex machina solution to whatever problems Kiluron and Doil encounter. In truth, it was always my plan to invoke them again in this episode, with the intent of setting up Kiluron’s reliance on them as a point of conflict for season three, but as I was writing, I realized that my original plan was inconsistent with the world-building and the characters. So I changed course, and I hope that the change is a believable one. You’ll find out what I mean when you read it.
Lufilna’s history, its relationship with Nycheril and Pifecha, and the role of Blood Magic through it all is fascinating to me, and I liberally seasoned this episode with that fascination. Doil’s realizations, the scheme to drive the Pifechans away, the existence of the dragons, the Guardian and Heart City…it all relates to the ancient history of Lufilna. Being able to explore that in this episode was at least as much fun as writing about how a medieval military might effectively combat one that possesses firearms. As a hint to you, I recommend paying attention when the characters start speculating about history, and to anything that the dragons say. Some of this history will become relevant in season three.
Nor did my fascination with history end with the fiction. The battle tactics are based on history, as is the inadequacy of the Pifechans in hand to hand combat. Studies of military engagements after the advent of firearms have shown that very rarely would anyone actually employ the bayonet, and there are well-documented instances of soldiers preferring to turn their weapons over and use them as clubs before they would stab someone with the bayonet. It is reasonable, therefore, that a military that has never had an option other than sticking your enemy with something pointy would be better at and more comfortable with it than one that has switched to firearms. I hope that I was able to convey that concept, the visceral revulsion for melee combat, in a realistic and believable way.
As for the strategy, I hope that it’s convincing. The implication is not that the entire Pifechan military expedition was abandoned based on superstition and specters of ancient myths. Rather, it is a combination of encountering something foreign and alien that they cannot explain, and realpolitik considerations of the costs and benefits of a prolonged military operation to subdue Lufilna. I also needed something that would comfortably resolve the conflict, and leave us in a good place to start season three, which will have a different focus. That being said, there will be a lot of denouement from this episode in the first episode of season three, so for once my abortive ending was at least somewhat intentional.
I had a lot of fun writing this episode, even as it stretched to longer than I expected it to, and re-reading it before I posted it did not feel long. If you haven’t already read Part One, you should start there, and then you should be sure to read this season finale. Next month we will start the third and final season of Blood Magic, and you’ll want to be ready for that.
A pot of water sat over a low fire, the pale blue smoke curling up through a thin shaft drilled into the ceiling before being released to the west. That had been set up so that someone approaching from the east would be less likely to realize the island was inhabited, though that didn’t matter now. In fact, Guardcaptain Vere had ordered a fire kept burning at all times on the signal platform, explaining that he both wanted to ensure that a signal got through to Merolate on the off-chance that anyone was still watching for it, and that the Pifechan vessel still grounded on the reefs knew that the men and women inside Outpost East were still alive.
“Trust me,” Anil insisted. “I worked with the camp cooks before joining the guards. I knew a woman who knew a man in another unit who knew another woman who knew a man who survived in the wilderness in the dead of winter by boiling his boots and eating the softened leather. It’ll work.”
Twiol sighed. “We have a very limited supply of freshwater, and I really don’t think that we should be wasting it on a harebrained experiment involving boiled boots. I can’t imagine that such a stew would be very sustaining, and personally, I’d rather starve to death than die of dehydration.” The small pot of water sitting on the fire was the result of an apparatus he had managed to create to transform steam back into water, letting them create freshwater from seawater. In that place, it was better than alchemy, and it had made him rather proprietary of what happened with the water.
Sighing, Anil tugged her boots back on. “I say we ask the Guardcaptain.”
As if the guardcaptain needed to be bothered by such inane questions. “Fine, if that’s what you think is best. I’m going to go check on the tree.”
The tree was what they had all taken to calling the water-creating device, and while Twiol wished that it had a more exciting name, he had to admit that it was appropriate. Built from the cables from the giant crossbows, now long-since corroded beyond usefulness for their original purpose, it could be set above a pot of boiling seawater. If it was cold enough – and they had mostly had the opposite problem – the steam condensed on the cables, and dripped down into additional vessels placed around the boiling one. The water that collected was fresh, not salty, and it was probably why they had survived as long as they had.
Twiol had barely checked on the angles of the tree’s cables when a bell began clanging, and a runner dashed into the room, almost spilling an urn full of precious freshwater. “Guardcaptain’s summoned a meeting! Everyone to the battlements!” the man yelled. Twiol wondered how he had enough energy for that kind of action; none of them had eaten more than a bite of hardtack in two days.
Hopefully, though, a meeting with Guardcaptain Vere meant something was going to change. Twiol knew that Vere and Captain Pulot had been deep in conference, almost uninterrupted since Twiol had gotten the tree to work. It gave even Twiol, who thought the situation close to hopeless, a modicum of hope that they would find their way off the island.
When Twiol reached the battlements, most of the other survivors were already crowding around, and the attention was, as always, on the Pifechan ship. There was almost constant motion down there, even at night; the vessel had some kind of magic that allowed it to provide its own moonbeams wherever it wanted them. Despite its magic, it had not yet been able to free itself from the reefs, and the enormous wheels, which Twiol thought were involved in its propulsion, remained still.
Before, those wheels had been visibly damaged, but as Twiol stood on tiptoes and squinted, he thought they appeared intact, some surfaces gleaming and new in the late afternoon sunlight. That seemed like a bad omen, and Twiol wondered if that had something to do with the Guardcaptain’s meeting.
“Here’s the situation.” Guardcaptain Vere provided no preamble, but everyone immediately quieted to hear his announcements. Captain Pulot stood next to him, maintaining the neutral expression that all officers used. “We think that the Pifechan ship has finished its repairs and may soon be able to free itself from the reef.”
That produced a murmur of concern. No one knew what the ship’s intentions might be, if they would attack the outpost, or if they would leave to join in the attack on Merolate. Both options worried everyone. “Now, it seems to me that we have a simple problem of arithmetic here, and while I prefer poetry, I can do some basic addition. We have two crews, and only one ship. So we’re going to go take the Pifechan vessel for our own.”
If his previous comment had generated a murmur, this declaration inspired a hubbub. Everyone started talking at once, and there was at least as much enthusiasm for the proposed attack as there were notes of concern. One voice rose above the rest with a question Twiol had been wondering. “How can we use their ship? We don’t know how its magic works.”
“Yeah,” another voice affirmed. “How many of us are going to have to die to fuel its Blood Magic?”
Instead of waiting for the clamor to fade, Vere snapped out into the fray, his trained voice cutting through the noise and bringing quiet. “When the first Pifechan vessel came to Merolate, Advisor Doil expressed to us that he did not believe that these people use magic. He said it’s just technology – in other words, not much different from the tree that Guardsman Twiol invented for us. If that’s the case, we’ll be able to figure out how it works. If we can’t, we can at least destroy the ship.”
If there had been more food, perhaps the reception to this idea would have been more enthusiastic. As it was, most of the guards there seemed not to have the energy to respond to Guardcaptain Vere’s plan, much less to mount an attack. Twiol wondered what Vere really thought of their chances for success.
There was not long to wait. What remained of the afternoon and the evening were spent in preparations: weapons were honed, the last of the food was consumed to give everyone as much strength as possible, and the rowboat was stained black with soot to be less visible in the night, along with their weapons and skin. Some of it would wash off in the water, but it would help a little. Improvised rafts were lashed together from storage crate panels, so that no one would have to swim the whole way unaided. Having enough hardtack to fill his stomach made Twiol more nervous; Guardcaptain Vere was wagering everything on this plan to seize the Pifechan vessel. They either succeeded, or they died.
When it was fully dark, Outpost East emptied. Enough fuel was left on the fire to keep it burning through most of the night, and everyone piled into the rowboat and the makeshift floats, and with oars and awkward paddling, the desperate flotilla crept its way across the shallow sea surrounding the island. Maybe because their repairs were done, the huge moonbeams on the Pifechan ship were dark, and only a few, smaller lights were visible. It was a silent night, and the water was warm, though the air was cold.
Somehow, they made it to the ship without being spotted, though there were sentries visible upon the deck high above them. From a distance, the magnitude of the ship had been less recognizable; now right next to it, Twiol could hardly fathom its enormity. It was more like treading water beside a metal wall than beside a ship, and he found himself wondering what manner of people they would find themselves fighting when they boarded. Periodically, there were rungs bolted into the hull to form ladders, and some of the outpost survivors began climbing these, carrying rope ladders so that more could follow.
Twiol was not in the first wave to ascend, so he could not see what happened on the deck, but he heard no cries of pain or alarm. When he felt a tug on rope he was holding, indicating the top had been affixed, he placed a knife in his teeth and began to climb. Though he was as stealthy as he could manage, he winced every time the thick knots bumped against the metal hull.
It was almost a relief when claxons blared out, shredding the night and louder than any noise Twiol had imagined. Men in brightly colored uniforms pointed hollow-shafted spears just as Twiol scrambled onto the deck, and cracks of miniature thunder issues from them, accompanied by noxious smoke and flashes of fire. A man next to Twiol spasmed and fell backwards over the side, tearing another man free and sending both of them crashing into the water: neither surfaced. Drawing his sword, Twiol joined his yell to that of his companions and rushed the line of Pifechans with their magic spears.
More cracks and smoke and fire, and more men with Twiol collapsed, but four of them reached the line of Pifechan soldiers as they were lifting up their spears and tried to push slim poles down their hollow shafts. Though there were a dozen Pifechan soldiers, the four Merolate guardsmen slaughtered them while receiving only a handful of minor wounds. Then they were off and moving, prowling the deck for more targets like a pack of roving, wild dogs.
The apparent victory did not last; the Pifechans set up chokepoints at the vault-like doorways that led below decks, and constantly exchanged their magic spears so that smoke and noise seemed almost constant. Momentum lost, the Merolate guardsmen sought out whatever shelter they could find.
Then Vere was there, crouching behind a thundercaster with a few other guards, but where the guards looked frightened, he looked more like a predator preparing to pounce. “Six of you, rush that entrance. Two by two, as fast as you can, on my signal.” He pointed to the six men he wanted. “Go!”
All six of them took off at once, sprinting as fast as they could. They formed a cohesive block less than five paces from the doorway they were targeting. Two fell, then another two, and then the remaining two were through the entrance, swords stabbing, using their momentum to crash through the Pifechans on the other side. “Follow!” Vere ordered, and Twiol leapt to obey with the others, and they washed into the bowels of the Pifechan ship.
For what seemed half the night, the battle raged on in the maze of tunnel-like corridors within the ship. Many of them were so narrow that two people could not walk abreast, giving ample chokepoints, and each chokepoint inflicted heavy losses on the guardsmen. The guardsmen did not know the layout, but the Pifechan soldiers seemed oddly disconcerted, and their resistance collapsed whenever they engaged directly, without a span in which to use their magic weapons. It was like they didn’t know how to use their spears for anything but magic.
There was still fighting just after midnight, but it was only a few, isolated pockets of resistance, and most of the ship had fallen to Merolate’s forces. Twiol watched Guardcaptain Vere standing on what appeared to be the ship’s bridge, and he saluted Captain Pulot. “Captain, I believe I owe you a ship. I think this ought to settle the debt.”
“No debt.” Captain Pulot returned the salute, and grinned. “But I’ll take the ship, anyway. Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this thing works.”
It was dawn when Twiol joined a group of guards penetrating to the deepest reaches of the ship, below the waterline and near the stern, where the massive wheels attached to the hull. It was hot down there, and tubes and wires festooned the passageways. Following the increasing heat, the search party came to a large door. Glancing at his companions, Twiol approached the door, and to his surprise it opened without resistance, though it appeared immensely heavy. There was dim light inside, and a woman in dirty, greasy clothes sitting against an unfamiliar console.
Standing up to face the invaders, the woman spoke in a language Twiol did not recognize. Then she held up her hands, and, painstakingly, said in a more comprehensible tongue: “I surrender.”
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