As you hopefully saw in our recent weekly writing update, I finally finished the first draft of Verdon’s Tragedy, a side story set in the Fo’Fonas world. Even if revisions go smoothly, I don’t expect a release date sooner than December 2022, but I want to share some thoughts about the story and the writing now. Plus, new readers might not know much about this whole Fo’Fonas thing I keep mentioning, so this seems like a good time for a refresher, especially since some things have changed since we last had a thorough discussion on the subject. Oh, and if all of that wasn’t enough for you to keep reading, there will be an (un-revised) version of the first chapter available to read at the end of this post.

Fo’Fonas Background

“Elemental” magic systems might qualify amongst the most overdone fantasy tropes. By “elemental,” I am referring to the Aristotelian elements – Earth, Fire, Water, and Air – not to the periodic table (a magic system based on the physical elements from the periodic table has the potential to be quite interesting and original). Intriguing resonances with the four most common states of matter aside, there is a reason that this magic system is overdone, and I will admit that many of my early story efforts leveraged a variation on the theme, including the first substantial story attempt I can remember making, in fifth grade. Being me, the story expanded to include sixteen states of matter, like Bose-Einstein condensates and quark-gluon plasma, and things went downhill from there.

Anyway, one of the reasons elemental magic systems are so popular is, I suspect, because they are simple, approachable, easy to remember and interact with, and, in a certain respect, fundamental. That analysis led me to explore the idea of a magic system based on the four fundamental forces identified by modern physics: gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Unfortunately, I kept running into the problem that even today most people don’t really understand the two nuclear forces, and only barely understand electromagnetism and gravity – integrating them into a fantasy world struck me as a non-starter. It’s still something I would like to explore further, but I put the idea of using the four fundamental forces directly for my “magic” system aside.

Inspired by that idea, I turned to the “forces” of classical physics. These are the forces that you might remember from your high school physics courses: friction, centripetal, buoyancy, and so forth. I came up with nine forces in this vein, including gravity, and separating electromagnetism into electricity and magnetism. I looked at the list, and I thought how all of these forces we observe are really manifestations of interactions involving the four fundamental forces. With that realization, I had my “magic” system.

There is a reason that “magic” is in quotes. In a way, this is not a magic system in a strict sense of the word, and what I mean by that will be explored in the main books, which are still in progress. It will be explored a little in Verdon’s Tragedy, and there are some major hints for those who care to look.

Despite the emphasis on the magic system as the genesis for the Fo’Fonas story, and its role as a major plotting and development challenge as I’ve attempting to construct the series, it has taken a back seat to the in-world people, religions, and nations, which are the real driving forces in the story. The magic is still there in the background, though, tying things together, with plenty of hints for its origins, and perhaps its own motivations.

Verdon’s Tragedy Background

About a decade ago, assassin stories exploded in popularity in the fantasy genre. Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows was probably my first introduction to the sub-genre of magic-powered super-assassins, and I read David Dalglish’s works around the same time. Even Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings features a magic-powered super-assassin. By the time that you read a couple of these, they start to run together, but they can still be fun stories. The mental imagery I got from those books is probably the first inspiration for Verdon’s Tragedy, my own spin on the magic-powered super-assassin trope.

In the first draft of the first Fo’Fonas book, I make passing reference to such a character. He never appears, and it is implied that he’s dead, but he had a relationship with one of the major characters in the main books at one point. Maybe I was in a particularly annoyed mood, but when I needed a break from laboring on the second book, I returned to this vaguely referenced character, Verdon, and wrote a quick scene in which he launches an attack on a castle.

That scene provided almost no background for why he was there, what he was trying to accomplish, or any other context, motivations, or plots. This started as a random scene, became a short story, grew into a novella, was redrafted as a novella twice, and finally burgeoned into a hundred-thousand-word novel. Along the way, it changed quite drastically. It’s still a magic-powered super-assassin story, but it became a tragedy, and instead of the tropey crime guilds/syndicates and mercenary characteristics, I made Verdon into a religious fanatic, a child soldier, and a terrorist. Oh, and I made it so that his magic is slowly giving him blood poisoning. It was only when I added in those elements that the story began to really work.

Challenges

Those elements also made this a really, really challenging story to write. It’s all told from one perspective – Verdon’s – which means that I have to somehow get into the head and convey the mindset of someone in those positions. That’s…a very difficult headspace from which to write. Plus, he’s young throughout the book, and for all that he’s seen, he’s extremely naive. Trying to convey enough of what is happening in a broader context for the story to make sense to the reader without having Verdon be in a position to understand or even think about such things was the biggest challenge of the first draft.

There are challenges to come in the revision process, and several elements that I know I need to improve. While I’m waiting for feedback from my alpha readers, I need to do more research on child soldiers and historic terrorist organizations. The Prophet needs more foreshadowing. Verdon’s insanity and motivations need work, so that the novel will tie together from beginning to end, instead of feeling like a straight chronicle of Verdon’s, well, tragedy.

Speaking of tragedy, I intend to study the tragedy form more thoroughly and perhaps read a few more. This is a heavy book, with a lot of heavy topics, to which I would like to do justice, and not hand-wave it off as a fantasy told from a perspective that’s insane, anyway. That’s where the revisions are going to be most important, I think.

As if all of that weren’t enough, I’m trying to do an epic’s worth of world-building in a relatively short novel. The magic and history of the Fo’Fonas world (called Sarctuar) is quite complex, and as only become more so as I’ve sought to make it more realistic and truer to how a real place might evolve under such circumstances. The Prophet’s true nature makes that both easier and harder to do in this novel: easier because he knows things that no other character in the world knows, but harder because he’s not the kind of villain to monologue to his victims, and there is no reason for him to tell Verdon any of it.

In other words, I expect a lot of changes and a lot of challenges going through this revision process, especially when it comes to character. Still, for a first draft, I am pleased with it. I think there is a lot of potential here, which is really what I wanted in a first draft like this. Some stories, like Blood Magic episodes, I want to be almost ready to go when they come out of the first draft, but I knew all along that this one was going to require significant revisions. We’ll talk more about the story, about the writing, and about decisions I make as we get closer to a real release date, but for now, I hope you enjoy the rough draft of Verdon’s Tragedy, chapter one.

               Rich sunlight bludgeoned its way down through the jungle canopy and disappeared into Verdon’s dark hair.  He stood in silence beneath its assault and watched the preparations with all the intensity of his solemn, twelve-turns-aged gaze.  The others cast uncomfortable glances in his direction, but that was to be expected; he stood apart from them, and always would.  The Prophet told him so.

               Herjadin ran the polishing cloth over his blade a final time and slid it into the sheath on his back.  For two nights now they had been camped within Lord Felji’s estates, but they remained undetected.  All of them knew that would change.  By midnight, there would be no mistaking their presence.  “Obey my signals.  Follow the plan.”  Herjadin said nothing else, but the seven other members of his team needed no further elaboration.  Each of them knew their tasks.  Verdon wished that he better understood his.

               A hand snaked out of the underbrush and grabbed his arm, spinning him around; Verdon allowed himself to be spun, and did not strike out as he might have done.  Great-Uncle Oljo, his skin grey like a weathered statue, clutched feebly at the cloth of Verdon’s sleeve, as if the effort of grabbing him had expended what energy he possessed.  Trecta and the others looked away with disgusted expressions; Herjadin was as impassive as ever.

               The tenth member of their force, an unlucky number if ever there was one, ignored all eight others; his attention was only upon Verdon.  His black hair matched the black veins that stood out starkly against the whites of his blind eyes.  “Are you ready, Weapon?”  Great-Uncle Oljo did not use his name; few did.  Verdon was the Weapon and needed no other identity.  That was as it should be.

               “Yes, Master,” Verdon replied.  Eight turns had passed since he had begun his training.  A grey tinge to a the more prominent veins in his hands evidenced that training.

               Great-Uncle Oljo walked around him, inspecting the impassive set of his legs and the ready tautness of his muscles.  His blind eyes lingered on the sword strapped to Verdon’s back, a shorter version of the weapon Herjadin bore.  “Your Piezons are mustered?  They serve you?”

               “Yes, Master,” Verdon answered.  In truth, Verdon did not understand the Piezons, and he did not think Great-Uncle Oljo did, either.  Only the Prophet seemed to know the truth of such things, as He did of so many other matters.  That was why so many now followed Him.  It was enough for Verdon to know that he had been blessed by the Gods, and that his Masters had shown him how to use that blessing.

               Frowning, Great-Uncle Oljo leaned forward, until his face was mere fingers away from Verdon’s, and Verdon could smell his sour, metallic breath.  Then he settled back and nodded sharply before shuffling around to stand in the shadows of the curtain leaves once more.  Sparing a glance for no one save Verdon, Great-Uncle Oljo nodded.  “Go.”

               This was the signal for which Herjadin had been waiting, and like a coiled spring now released he turned to his team and launched them with hand signals like bolts from a crossbow.  Trecta took the lead, dashing through the jungle as if she had lived in it her whole life, though none of them had ever traversed Lord Felji’s estates before.  Diftil and Vishti flanked her, their senses straining for movement to catch both targets and enemies.  Herjadin completed the first foursome, keeping the pace despite his greater age.  Behind in like formation came Wolika, Restijo, Sejdrun, and Piergo.  Behind both formations, Verdon raced alone at the rear, the ninth member.  Nine Gods, nine in their team.  The Prophet claimed not to believe in luck, but there was no need to tempt fate.

               It seemed to Verdon that he needed barely to breath as he ran, keeping easy pace with the straining members of his team.  He knew that he could have run faster, but he did not; that was not his role this day.  His role, in fact, was more minor than he would have liked.  This was his first strike against an estate; surely, he deserved to partake in the glory.  Instead, Herjadin used him as backup.

               “Watch us, and watch our backs,” the grizzled veteran had instructed the night before, after explaining the plan.  “Holon knows you’re capable, but this time is for you to learn, not to fight.  That time will come.  And if things go wrong…” Herjadin had grimaced and spat.  “Well, you’ll do what needs to be done, I’m sure, same as all of us.”  Verdon thought it was the most words he had ever heard Herjadin form into a single statement.

               Wind formed in the still air by the speed of their passage lashed at Verdon in alliance with hanging branches and vines, and mud sought to slow him and steal his boots, but he overcame these obstacles with the ease of familiarity.  It might be a different jungle than the one in which he had trained, but its character was much the same.  A thorned vine slashed across his cheek before he could avoid its strike, but his Piezons healed the wound almost before it began to bleed.  Ahead of him, Restijo was muttering a curse and wiping blood from his forehead, courtesy of the same vine.

               Fire burned ahead, an alien light in the twilit jungle.  A ring of torches surrounded Lord Felji’s estate, and somewhere ahead of it were the first guards, staying just outside of the circle of illumination to preserve their night vision.  Verdon remembered finding it strange when he learned that others could not control their vision as he had been taught, and he wondered how the others in his team were managing in the near-total darkness.

               Trecta pulled up just short of the torches and signaled for the team to halt.  She cocked her head, looking from side to side and listening intently; the others copied her.  “What?” Herjadin whispered.

               “No guards.”  Trecta motioned to either side.

               If this unexpected development worried Herjadin, he gave no visible indication of it.  “Go,” he grunted, and the team went into motion again.

               They passed the circle of torches without incident and now stood upon a hill of lush grasses rising to Verdon’s chest, although only to most of the others’ waists.  The collection of thatched-roofed, circular buildings would not have been out of place in any jungle village, although the construction was of a higher quality, and the furnishings were Lisch-style.  Verdon had heard that estates near the Lisch Lakes were enormous, single buildings made of stone, and could hardly credit the existence of such monuments.

               Still, there was no sign of movement or habitation.  A few nut oil lanterns glowed through the thin netting of open windows, and the faintest of breezes moved through the estate’s clumped buildings atop the wide hill, but no one cried an alarm, no one seemed to have noticed Herjadin’s group.  Verdon wondered if this was a trap, but Herjadin did not seem concerned.

               Just before reaching the first building, the two teams of four split off, Verdon accompanying Herjadin’s team.  Each team circled to either side of the estate.  Teak creaked beneath their boots as they mounted onto the platforms that connected the estate’s buildings.  Now, at last, someone stirred.  A dark figure was leaving one of the outbuildings, pulling his pants back up with one hand and stifling a yawn with the other.  Trecta severed his head from behind; the body dropped to the teak deck, while the head bounced and rolled away into the grass below, swallowed by its dark green height.

               Torches burned every few paces along the decks.  Eight were seized by the invaders, leaving the first outbuilding to be swallowed by the night; it would not remain so concealed for long.  Long strides thudded softly on the oily wood, and the team neared the center of the estate, where a circular building identical to the other outbuildings save for its scale stood like a hulking elephant.  With a silent snarl, Trecta shoved her torch into the building’s thatched roof.  Twigs crackled, smoke began to pour out, and finally the roof caught fire.

               The oily jungle woods, while resistant to flames at first, burned hot and fast once ignited.  The central building soon became a blazing bonfire with heat so intense that the arsonists were forced to take a few steps back to admire their handiwork.  Verdon watched the flames with fascination; with his hearing enhanced, he thought he could hear all of the tiny insects and crawling things that lived in the thatch and the walls screaming, popping, and hissing as they died in the inferno.  He needed no Piezons to help him hear the screams and panicked cries of the building’s human inhabitants.

               “Work to do,” Herjadin snapped everyone’s attention back to the task at hand.  Tearing his eyes away from the blazing building, which was just now putting forth its human occupants in stumbling, wraith-like blobs that bled congealing smoke and hacking cries of terror, Verdon followed Trecta and the others to set several outbuildings afire.  Across the hilltop, other buildings were also coming alight, flames painting their sides in a way that no northern pigments could accomplish; Wolika’s team was succeeding, as well.

               Smoke was heavy in the air now, and Verdon’s eyes stung; there seemed to be nothing his Piezons could do about that discomfort.  He wiped smokey tears away with his sleeve and was glad that they at least lessened his need to breathe; the others were not so fortunate and were coughing despite wet clothes they had brought to put over their faces.  Someone ran at their group with a sword, but Herjadin parried once and then cut open the man’s belly, sending him reeling to the planks in a puddle of blood and gore.

               Pausing only to cast torches onto additional buildings, the team made its way to the estate’s far side, where Trecta and Wolika nodded to each other as the two teams of four rejoined and began heading for the far side of the settlement and the relative sanctuary of the jungle’s concealment.  Behind them, the flames roared and spat, so hot that even from this distance Verdon felt like his clothes were going to combust.

               At the end of the raised platforms that connected the estate’s various buildings, Herjadin pulled a piece of metal from his pack.  It was very thin and highly polished, and it had a nine-pointed star etched into both sides.  The star formed a nonagon for its center, and in that nonagon there was etched a further triangle, this one meant to look like an arrowhead.  Herjadin nailed this to the railing.  In the chaos behind them, a few men and women had managed to organize themselves, but there seemed no consensus on if they should prioritize fighting the fires or pursuing the arsonists.

               “Just like in Calind, they can’t even manage to save their own skins.”  Piergo spat and made an obscene gesture at the burning estate.  “For the Prophet!”

               Others echoed his sentiments, but Herjadin just looked upon them.  “Later.”  Then he was leading them off of the teak deck and down into the grassy sea below; Verdon did indeed feel like he had been swallowed up by a verdant lake, although he had never seen a sea.  He followed Herjadin’s broad form as the team left the estate to burn and vanished into the jungle, just like the smoke they had released.

               Great-Uncle Oljo met them in the jungle on the estate’s far side, a grim smile on his face as he surveyed the team and took in the strong scent of smoke.  “You have struck a mighty blow for the Prophet this night.  I wish that I could see it in all of its glory.”  Several fists shook in affirmation.  “This was a message, but it is not enough.  Alone, the burning of a minor nobleman’s outlying estates in a frontier buol will never gain the attention of those in Calind, will not announce to the people like the blaring of a trumpet that we have come, that we can save them from this misery.  There is work yet to do, other targets to strike.”

               “We are to return to the Enclave.”  Although Herjadin sounded as certain as ever, there was a tiny note of questioning in his words.

               “No longer.  With the aid of the Prophet, I have seen a great future for us.”  Great-Uncle Oljo smiled, his darker grey lips looking like those of a corpse upon his pale face in the faint light of the slivered moon.  “I have learnt where Lord Felji himself is.  If the buol-lord falls…that is a message that will be heard by many.”

               Verdon thought that Herjadin’s expression was inappropriately sour, but the others showed no such compunction.  For himself, he fingered the cloth-wrapped hilt of his sword and wondered if this time he would be allowed to blood it.  If Herjadin did not wish to advance the cause, then Verdon could do it for him.

               For that night, they travelled until they were far from the estate they had burnt, Verdon grateful once more for how his Piezons enhanced his night vision and healed the minor hurts of such a hike.  By the time they reached a place Herjadin deemed suitable for a camp, no amount of the Gods’ blessing could cloak Verdon’s exhaustion, and he slept gratefully and easily beneath the jungle canopy as the sun stabbed down through the waxy leaves.

               Only half a day did they rest before Herjadin roused them and set them to hiking once more.  Great-Uncle Oljo led them unhesitatingly, although he would not reveal where they were going, how he had come by his information about Lord Felji’s whereabouts, or how a blind man could move with such facility through unfamiliar jungle.  It was not unusual behavior for one of the Masters, but the others did not spend as much time with the Masters as Verdon did, and their superstitious whispers and wary glances spoke to their discomfort.

               Rain rendered the afternoon’s hike miserable, providing only minimal relief from the muggy heat.  While the Piezons protected him from extremes of temperature, Verdon was not immune.  He wondered if any fires were burning back at the estate, and if the rains were extinguishing them.  The nine fighters walked on, their eyes bobbing upon Great-Uncle Oljo’s bent back.

               Once, the old man stopped sharply and stepped away from the narrow game trail they had been following for some time, moving instead through a treacherous and dense expanse of foliage before returning to the nearly invisible track.  Thinking to avoid the difficulty, Piergo started to bypass the detour, by Herjadin seized his arm and tossed him back in the mud.

               “Murder ants,” was all he said.  By way of demonstration, he broke a branch off from a nearby sapling and tossed it onto the bare, muddy patch upon which Piergo had been about to tread.  Ants boiled up, each one half as long as Verdon’s palm, resplendently horrific in shades of orange and red.  They swarmed the branch, coating it more thoroughly than its own bark, before determining that it was not food and retreating into their hidden colony like a waterfall flowing in reverse. 

Wide-eyed Piergo, with his eyes fixed upon the ground before his feet, humbly followed Herjadin along the detour; Verdon found his own heart beating rapidly.  He knew to look for murder ants, but their colonies were often concealed, and he did not understand how blind Great-Uncle Oljo had spotted this one.

               They did not travel past dark; although they had travelled by night to approach and retreat from the estate, the jungle was too dangerous a place to make such passage habitual.  Their small party made camp in the shelter of a fallen tree whose girth had once been as great as Sejdrun’s gangly height, though it was now collapsed to barely half that size.  Herjadin, Diftil, and Vishti split the watch.  Though he remained solemn and quiet, Verdon found himself warming to the comradery in that camp, despite it including him little.

               When the others had gone to sleep, save Vishti at the watch, Verdon sensed a presence approaching, and locked eyes in the darkness with Great-Uncle Oljo.  There was no expression on the Master’s face as he beckoned Verdon to follow.  Leaving the comfortable, if damp, sanctuary of his cloak behind, Verdon obeyed.  Somewhere, an owl boomed out its low call, counterpoint to the higher chirping of bats, and Verdon thought he caught a glimpse of a colugo’s huge, glowing eyes as it slid between the blackened trunks.

               They passed a distance of some fifty paces from the camp, far enough that they had vanished into the murky jungle darkness and the camp was the tiniest of yellow smudges in the night, a particularly engorged firefly.  Verdon watched his Master as the blind man moved like a ghost through the dense foliage, leaving hardly a rustle behind to mark his pale, grey passage.  He wondered when the Master would die.  Few Masters lived even as long as Great-Uncle Oljo.  Except for the Prophet, who it was rumored had been granted eternal life by the Gods themselves.

               Stopping, the Master faced away from Verdon.  “You flinched yesterday,” he rasped.

               Verdon knew from experience that there was no use in protesting, so he stood silently.  “And you grow too attached to this team.  They are not your friends.”

               Still, Verdon stood silently, although he had to work to swallow past the lump in his throat.  He could not fathom how the old man had known that he was growing fond of Herjadin and the others, even vulgar Piergo.

               Faster than any normal man, Great-Uncle Oljo whirled around and backhanded Verdon across the face hard enough to toss him back against a tree.  Verdon felt a bone in his cheek crunch beneath the force; his eyes watered, and he could not entirely suppress a whimper before his Piezons numbed the area and began to repair the damage.

               “You are the Weapon,” Great-Uncle Oljo insisted, leaning over so that Verdon could smell the sour metal that was always on his breath.  All of the older Masters smelled like that, even their sweat.  “That is all you are.  Friends, companions…these are weaknesses to you that cannot be tolerated.”  He did not strike Verdon again, his point already made.  “And whatever else, do not flinch before what must be done.  Those we oppose are evil, little better than animals, and you should feel for them as much as you feel for the beetles you eat on the march.”

               “Yes, Master,” Verdon whispered.  “I’m sorry that I failed.  I will do better, I promise.”  He meant it as earnestly as he had ever meant any statement.  His lower lip trembled at the thought that he had given a Master reason to question his devotion to the Prophet and the cause.

               Great-Uncle Oljo regarded him for a long moment, and then returned to the camp without further communication.  It was a long time after his Piezons had repaired his fractured cheek and broken skin before Verdon made his own return.

               “I don’t suppose you’d care to tell us where we’re going?” Herjadin grumbled the following morning as they again hiked through the tangled jungle at Great-Uncle Oljo’s direction.  Verdon frowned; it did not seem right for Herjadin to question the Master, and he wondered if the man would be punished.  But Great-Uncle Oljo sounded little perturbed in his response.

               “You are going to serve the will of the Prophet,” was all he said, and Verdon supposed that was all anyone really needed to know.  Herjadin, though, did not sound satisfied in his acknowledging grunt.

               After two days of jungle travel, they came upon a muddy, brown river half a dozen arms across.  Great-Uncle Oljo led them along this vein for half a day more, until they reached where it joined with a much larger, but just as muddy, river.  Colorful birds fluttered around the canopies of the trees where they leaned out over the water; crocodiles and snapping turtles basked in the shade and shallow pools of their tangled buttress roots, and even a few hippopotami lumbered about in the viscous mud on the opposite bank.  Gibbons called to one another, though their enthusiasm was diminished by the soupy air that seemed almost turned to steam by the afternoon sunlight.

               They followed this new river until evening, keeping it at a safe distance to avoid the profusion of animals along its banks.  Only when they made camp that evening did Great-Uncle Oljo, after forbidding them a fire, offer any explanation for this unplanned detour.  “Lord Felji runs a shipping operation where this river joins with the Lesser Serpent.  From there, he ships forace, prostitutes, and all manner of other evils to the Greater Serpent and then onward to Floa’s Tears.  It is the secret to his fortune.  We will destroy it, and we will kill him in the process.”

               The reluctance that had infected the other team members from Herjadin dissipated, and Piergo even let out a vulgar whoop.  Only Herjadin did not join in the renewed enthusiasm, leaning in towards Great-Uncle Oljo instead with his eyes narrowed.  “Important place.  Lots of defenses.  Lots of people.”  He grimaced above and beyond his usual sour expression.  “Got a plan?”  It sounded like a challenge.

               “The Prophet will guide you,” Great-Uncle Oljo answered serenely.  “Such as these will be helpless before your conviction.”

               “Come on,” Trecta elbowed Herjadin.  “This is the chance we all signed up for, isn’t it?  Why we joined the Prophet’s cause in the first place, to really strike back against animals like Felji.”

               Still unconvinced, Herjadin eyed Great-Uncle Oljo with undisguised suspicion.  “Many of us could be killed.”

               Great-Uncle Oljo made an ugly face.  “Then you will die knowing that you served to bring the Prophet’s vision to Caous.  Or do you no longer believe in the Prophet’s words?”

               The challenge hung in the air, and Verdon found himself holding his breath.  The others in the team were looking at Herjadin with almost as much suspicion as Oljo, as if he had just proposed that the sun might not rise in the west tomorrow.  Looking around, Herjadin seemed to deflate.  “Just looking out for them,” he muttered.  He did not appear entirely satisfied, but Great-Uncle Oljo dismissed the matter as being finished.  Herjadin did not again raise the need for a plan, but Verdon noticed him staring off into the distance long after the others had fallen asleep, appearing deep in thought.

               At dawn they left their camp and walked towards Lord Felji’s depot.  Jungle gave way sharply to a muddy track that might have accommodated a small wagon, although it was clearly a colossal effort to maintain its independence from the encroaching wilderness.  Herjadin pulled back and started to lead the team back into the safety of the jungle, to parallel the road, but Great-Uncle Oljo strode down the muddy bank and began to walk up the road’s center, between to ruts.  Verdon obeyed the Master’s unspoken command, and after a brief hesitation the other team members followed, Trecta giving Herjadin a shrug that Verdon could not quite interpret.

               Sufficiently sparse was the traffic upon that tract that the ten of them encountered no one until they came in sight of the depot itself.  When they rounded a curve in the road where it swerved to avoid an ironwood tree that might have witnessed the Gods departure, Verdon caught his first sight of the depot, and had to blink several times to convince himself that it was not a mirage.

               If Lord Felji’s estate at least paid homage to his jungle heritage, the depot tucked into the Lesser Serpent’s crook was an alien settlement transplanted from the distant Lisch.  Trees as thick as Verdon’s waist – only saplings by the jungle’s standards – had been chopped down, planted in the mud, and sharpened into points, forming a semicircular wall around the main depot, although there were a few wagons and assorted oddments scattered about outside of this façade.  A gate of similar construction pierced the semicircular perimeter, and only as a wagon lumbered inside was Verdon able to glimpse what heathen dreams were birthed within that compound.

               Now, at last, Great-Uncle Oljo stopped a few paces away from the gates, well in sight of any guards who might care to look.  The rest of the team stopped with him, clumping behind him, cowed by the mere sight of such a foreign structure.  Most of them were villagers before joining the Prophet; only Trecta, Herjadin, and Restijo might have seen a true town or city such as were common in the north.  This was almost as far outside of their experience as a stone castle on the Lakes would have been.

               “Got a plan?” Herjadin asked.  He sounded smug.  After the wagon preceding them had entered, the gate had closed, transforming the depot into an impenetrable ball of impassive porcupine.

               Great-Uncle Oljo ignored him and began to walk towards the gate.  He said nothing and gave no sign of his intentions; Verdon wondered if he intended to walk directly to whoever manned the gate and demand to be allowed inside.  Somehow, that seemed believable from the old Master.  When he was two paces from the gate, the others following nervously a few paces behind, a voice called down.

               “Ho there!  State your business!”  The unseen guard sounded amiable enough, if confused; perhaps he thought they were a mercenary band, like Verdon had heard tell of from some of the Masters.  It seemed that the blind, corpse-like Great-Uncle Oljo should have dispelled such notions.

               “My business is justice,” proclaimed Great-Uncle Oljo, and Verdon shivered.  This was more like he had imagined – confronting the enemy, not sneaking around in the night and burning houses.  “In the name of the Prophet and of the Gods’ Children, I name you heathen, denizen of a domicile of devilry, and I shall tear this place down around your ears and proclaim that good news that is the coming of the Gods’ Children.”

               In his mind’s eye, Verdon thought he could imagine the guard staring, preparing to stammer in fear a protestation of innocence and a plea for mercy, so he was quite taken aback by the guard’s actual reply.  “Whatever you say, old man.  But if you come any closer, I’m gonna have to feather you good.”

               Out of blatant defiance, or perhaps a desire for drama, Great-Uncle Oljo took a single step forward, while the rest of the team muttered and clutched their weapons nervously.  “The Prophet will protect me,” the Master asserted.

               “You’re not giving me much of a choice,” the guard protested.  He popped up with a crossbow over the top of the palisade, took aim, and with an almost apologetic look squeezed the trigger.  Verdon’s Piezon-enhanced eyes tracked the bolt in slow-motion as it leapt from the metal string to plant itself in Great-Uncle Oljo’s chest.

               Except that it never reached its target.  So fast that the motion appeared normal to Verdon’s eyes, Great-Uncle Oljo’s hand jerked up and caught the bolt in its flight, holding it suspended in the air before him.  Eyes going as wide as a colugo’s, the guard with the now unloaded crossbow stared in consternation and astonishment at this scene for a long moment, and then fled from the palisade.  Verdon thought he could hear the man shouting something about Fo’Fonas and invaders as he went.

               Turning to face the team, Great-Uncle Oljo cast the bolt aside into the mud, and licked his grey lips.  “Now do you see?  The Prophet is with us.  The Gods themselves are with us.”  Verdon wondered how much of this confrontation had been for their sake, and not for the depot’s occupants’.

               All but Herjadin now appeared thoroughly convinced by Great-Uncle Oljo’s performance and waved their weapons eagerly as the Master approached the gate.  Oljo paused there for a moment, his hand brushing against the un-milled wood.  Then he drew back and punched the gate from its hinges.

               Verdon caught a brief glimpse of his bloodied knuckles as the gate shuddered and fell inward, the oversized wooden hinges, far weaker than the crosspieces holding the structure together, reduced to splinters.  Then Great-Uncle Oljo was strolling into the depot as casually as a man on an afternoon stroll, while the eight team members rushed in with their weapons waving, emboldened by this entrance.  Only Verdon stayed with Great-Uncle Oljo, for he thought the Master wished him to witness this as a lesson.

               Caught by surprise, the depot’s personnel responded with remarkable alacrity, if little cohesion.  Some rough-looking men with swords and crossbows sought to engage the intruders, while others focused on launching boats into the muddy water to provide an avenue of escape if the conflict went poorly.  Through this confusion, Great-Uncle Oljo walked, blind, to Verdon’s eyes like a god returned to Sarctuar to correct humanity’s failings.

               It seemed to Verdon that the depot would be overrun in moments, but soon its occupants rallied.  A well-dressed man bearing a slender saber stood at the docks and shouted orders; Verdon presumed this to be Lord Felji and longed to attack, but deferred to his Master.  One ramshackle building near the waterfront exploded with a force like thunder in a cloud of some powdery substance, and Verdon saw Sejdrun and Piergo sent flying.  When they landed, they did not move again.

               A line of Felji’s troops was now advancing through the palisade’s center, and they had rounded up the other team members.  Verdon stood behind Great-Uncle Oljo as the old man watched impassively while Herjadin and the others were herded back towards the gate, retreating warily before the wall of weaponry.  Besides Sejdrun and Piergo, Diftil and Vishti were also missing, presumably killed elsewhere.  Verdon started out to help them, but Great-Uncle Oljo restrained him.

               Lord Felji himself was advancing a few paces behind his troops; he ordered them to halt when they had nearly reached the ruined gate.  He was staring at Great-Uncle Oljo.  “So, these are the rumored Gods’ Children?” he asked, gesturing at Herjadin, Trecta, Wolika, and Restijo.  “What kind of Fo’Fonas are you, to lead these people to death here?”

               Verdon waited Great-Uncle Oljo’s next polemic, but he was disappointed.  The Master just waved this critique away like a mosquito.  “They serve the Prophet in death as in life.”  He met Lord Felji’s eyes with his own blind orbs.  “You, though, will know only suffering in death, just as you have delivered in life.”

               “I’m not the one who burns innocents to get attention,” Lord Felji retorted.

               “Innocents?” Great-Uncle Oljo scoffed.  “There are no innocents on today’s battlefields.  All those who oppose the teachings of the Prophet are of the enemy.”

               It was Lord Felji’s turn to scoff, but he did not offer Great-Uncle Oljo a retort.  Instead, he turned his attention to his mercenaries.  “Kill them.”

               Crossbows twanged discordantly.  In the same instant Verdon flung himself into motion, but against Great-Uncle Oljo arrested his attempted defense.  Trecta, Wolika, and Restijo died in the barrage.  Somehow clinging to life, Herjadin crawled towards Great-Uncle Oljo and Verdon.  “Some plan…”  His words were accompanied by thick blood, and then he collapsed in the mud.

               The troops appeared reluctant to engage Great-Uncle Oljo and Verdon, however.  The Master stooped to whisper in Verdon’s ear.  “They were weak and could not do what must be done.”  He was getting spittle on Verdon’s ear with the vehemence of his words.  “Now, we will fulfill the Prophet’s will.”  He shoved Verdon away from him.

               Understanding, Verdon turned the shove into the start of his motion.  He whirled thrice as he drew his sword, skidding in the mud and pushing off towards the troops, who were struggling to reload their crossbows.  A few of the smarter mercenaries switched to their swords, but they could not defend against the speed of the onslaught that Great-Uncle Oljo and Verdon arranged.  Their bodies joined the Gods’ Children in the mud.

               Those who had not been engaged in the defense took this as their signal to flee, shoving boats into the water and paddling or poling away.  Lord Felji tried to join them, but Great-Uncle Oljo, who still had not bothered with a weapon other than himself, seized him by the chest and tossed him against the ground.  “So, all your kind shall perish with the squirming vermin of Sarctuar,” the Master growled, and stomped on the Lord’s neck, crushing his throat.

               Verdon tugged on Great-Uncle Oljo’s sleeve and pointed at the escaping boats.  “Should we chase them?” he asked.

               As though afflicted by a sudden weariness, Great-Uncle Oljo surveyed the palisade and then shook his head.  “No.  Let them spread the word of what happened here.  We shall return to the Enclave.”  He coughed and wiped some black stuff from his grey lips.

               Nodding solemnly, Verdon cleaned his blade on a dead man’s shirt with the reverence of a religious ritual, and then followed Great-Uncle Oljo away from the palisade.  There was a spring in his step as he left; he had been blooded and had proven himself a worthy Weapon.  The Prophet would be proud.  Only the thought of Herjadin’s last expression of betrayal spoiled the sweetness of Verdon’s triumph.

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