All posts by Jack Massa

The Plausibility Problem

Is it Science Fiction or Fantasy? What’s the difference anyway?

In my time I’ve written a lot of fantasy and some science fiction. But over the past year I’ve really struggled trying to begin a new SF series—a space opera to be specific. I kept running into the dreaded problem of plausibility.

Basically, with fantasy I can just follow my inspiration. Any plot twist or background idea that appears can be explained (if I do it well) as “magic.” But ideas in science fiction have to conform to known science.

Or do they? Or to what extent do they? At what point does a story cross the line from science fiction into fantasy?

I call this the Plausibility Problem.

Clarke’s Laws

To analyze, I did some research, starting with Arthur C. Clarke’s famous “Three Laws of Science Fiction.” (1)

Arthur C. Clarke on one of the sets for 2001 A Space Odyssey. By ITU Pictures – https://www.flickr.com/photos/itupictures/16636142906, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64344486

The most often quoted is the Third Law, which you probably have heard and which is particularly relevant to my dilemma: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Makes a lot of sense, right?

So, based on the Third Law, a writer might justify using any “magical” idea in a science fiction story and claim the Clarke’s Third Law defense: “It’s really just science that we don’t understand yet.”

To analyze further (and maybe shore up my defense), I also looked at the Second Law, which states: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

Regarding the Second Law, the article linked to above says:

(Clarke) had written this in the context of a list of inventions and discoveries that he had classified as either expected (including automobiles, telephones, robots, “flying machines”) or unexpected (x-rays, nuclear energy, photography, quantum mechanics).

Expected vs. unexpected discoveries. I found this intriguing and relevant to my problem.

Barnes’ Math and Magic

Further research brought me to an essay titled “How to Build a Future” by SF author John Barnes. (2)  A book description on Amazon calls this “the definitive modern essay on the construction of science-fictional plausibility” (3) and boy, I can see why.

Barnes, who has worked in systems analysis and statistics (4) takes us step-by-step through a detailed example of projecting science, technology, and society into a fictional future. He does this using historical data on how these areas have evolved in the past, complete with math and charts.

Sample Chart from How to Build a Future. by John Barnes Copyright 1990 by Davis Publications, Inc.

What especially caught my eye is that he finds that these science and tech changes have occurred in “surges,” and that:

Each new surge is 90 percent what you might have expected from the last one, plus 10 percent magic (in its Clarke’s Law sense.) (5)

Taking this further, Barnes postulates a succession of surges over the next centuries, leading to his invented future. Doing the math—10 percent plus 10 percent and so on for each surge—this means that more and more of the science and tech in the not-so-distant future becomes “not comprehensible” to our current understanding.

In other words, magic!

What Do the People Say?

To extend my analysis, I did some market research. Which means I looked up discussions related to the issue on both Facebook and Reddit.

While I found lots and lots of opinions about what constitutes hard science fiction, soft science fiction, and fantasy, one consistent theme emerged. Most readers simply don’t worry about the Plausibility Problem as much as I did. They mainly just want a good story.

Some representative quotes:

There’s a lot of grey in-between. It’s subjective.

Base it on good science, not necessarily accurate science. What I mean is be consistent with the principles you use and have an explanation for how things work, even if that explanation is never given or used in the work.

IMO, explicit explanations are not required. And there is a very thin and murky line between science and magic, partly depending on your world view.

Problem Solved

All of this analysis made me feel much better about the Plausibility Problem.

Rather liberated, actually. I was able to start writing science fiction stories again without the internal critic stopping me in my tracks by picking every idea to pieces.

So, look out, space opera, I’m coming for you!

photography of hallway
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1 “Clarke’s Three Laws” NewScientist at https://www.newscientist.com/definition/clarkes-three-laws/
2 “How to Build a Future” by John Barnes. Originally published in Analog Science Fiction/Sciene Fact, March 1990. Reprinted in the Writer’s Chapbook Series by Pulphouse Publishing (1991) and in Barne’s 1999 Collection, Apostrophes & Apocalypses.

5 How to Build a Future, Pulphouse Writer’s Chapbook edition, page 14.

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This post is also available on my Substack, Speclectic, which is always free to read.
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Drops from the Cauldron: On Inspiration and the Myth of Taliesin

Why do fiction writers write? Where do the stories come from?

I expect humans have been telling stories for about as long as we’ve had language. As I first learned from reading Joseph Campbell 1 , stories in the form of myths have always told us who we are, why we’re here, and how the world came to be.

But where does the inspiration for stories come from?

The Bard with the Radiant Brow

A myth I’m particularly fond of provides some answers. It is the tale of Taliesin, a legendary bard of Medieval Wales. His story, Hanes Taliesin , first appears in 16th Century collections of tales. It was later included in Lady Charlotte Guest’s 19th Century version of The Mabinogion 2which you can read at sacred-texts.com.

Here is an edited version of Lady Charlotte’s text:

In times past there lived a man of gentle lineage named Tegid Voeland and his wife, called Ceridwen, who was a sorceress. They had two children, a beautiful daughter named Creirwy, and a son named Morvran ab Tegid, who was the most ill-favoured man in the world. Now Ceridwen thought that he was not likely to be admitted among men of noble birth, by reason of his ugliness, unless he had some exalted merits or knowledge.

So she resolved, according to her arts, to boil a cauldron of Inspiration and Science for her son, that his reception might be honourable because of his knowledge of the mysteries of the future state of the world.

Then she began to boil the cauldron, which from the beginning of its boiling might not cease to boil for a year and a day, until three blessed drops were obtained of the grace of Inspiration.

And she put Gwion Bach (a young boy) to stir the cauldron, and a blind man named Morda to kindle the fire beneath it, and she charged them that they should not suffer it to cease boiling for the space of a year and a day. And she herself, according to the books of the astronomers, and in planetary hours, gathered every day of all charm-bearing herbs.

But one day, towards the end of the year, as Ceridwen was culling plants and making incantations, it chanced that three drops of the charmed liquor flew out of the cauldron and fell upon the thumb of Gwion Bach. And by reason of their great heat he put his thumb to his mouth, and that instant, he foresaw everything that was to come, and perceived that his chief care must be to guard against the wiles of Ceridwen, for vast was her skill. So, in very great fear, he fled towards his own land.

When Ceridwen came in and saw all the toil of the whole year was lost, she went forth after Gwion Bach, running.

He saw her, and changed himself into a hare and fled. But she changed herself into a greyhound and chased him.

He ran towards a river, and became a fish. But she, in the form of an otter, chased him under the water,

He turned himself into a bird. But she, as a hawk, followed him and gave him no rest in the sky.

Just as she was about to stoop upon him, and he was in fear of death, he spied a heap of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn. He dropped among the wheat and turned himself into one of the grains. But she transformed herself into a high-crested black hen, and went to the wheat and scratched it with her feet, and found him out and swallowed him.

Ceridwen bore him nine months, and when she was delivered of him, she could not find it in her heart to kill him, by reason of his beauty. So she wrapped him in a leather bag, and cast him into the sea.

The story goes on to tell how Gwion Bach was rescued from the sea and, because of the great light he had taken into himself, was named Taliesin (“Radiant Brow.”) And he grew up to become the foremost Bard in land.

Unpacking the Myth

For an in-depth analysis of the myth and its many sources, I highly recommend Taliesin, The Last Celtic Shaman. 3 This wonderful book by scholar John Matthews links the legend to both the Celtic bardic traditions and the worldwide phenomena of shamanism.

But what does the myth have to say to us modern storytellers?. Let me trot out a few ideas…

Inspiration comes from a magical brew produced by a witch (or goddess in some traditions). The brew is intended to provide all knowledge and wisdom to a chosen one. But the drops do not go to the person intended. By accident, a young and lowly servant is gifted with the magic.

You might say inspiration is a gift, unlooked for and unexpected. Storytellers (fiction writers, poets, songwriters) don’t necessarily choose to become storytellers. Rather, this crazy path chooses them. I have heard so many writers say: “I couldn’t do anything else.” Or, again, “The only good reason to become a writer is because you can’t not be a writer.”

Because he now sees visions, the boy knows at once that the sorceress is angry and means him no good. He flees. And because of the magic in those drops, he is now a shapeshifter, able to transform himself into many different creatures.

Just so, storytellers transform themselves into many shapes to imagine their fictions, placing themselves into the heads of their characters, envisioning many points of view.

And what about that ending? The angry goddess swallows the boy in the form of a seed. But that’s not the end. After gestation, the boy is born again, a radiant child that the goddess cannot now bring herself to harm. So she casts him onto the waters (like Moses), where he will be found again, and a grand destiny awaits him.

Who is this Ceridwin anyway? The sorceress, the hag, who might also be called a goddess? I interpret her as Destiny, the imperative that all of us face to follow our Fates. Again, storytellers don’t choose this path, it chooses them. I also think she can be seen as the Great Goddess who both devours us and gives us birth—in other words, the Universe.

Another Story

Some time back, inspiration came to me. The Tale of Taliesin magically merged in my mind with childhood memories, specifically in relation to a young cousin of mine who grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. I wrote out the story, tinkered with it a bit, and will publish it soon on my Substack.

Three more drops and one more song

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a different version of the story, written and performed by my all time favorite Celtic Folk-Rock Band, Emerald Rose.
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1 See especially, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, (C)1949

2 The Mabinogian Translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. The story of Taliesin is at https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/mab32.htm

3 Taliesin, the Last Celtic Shaman by John Matthews. (C)1991, 2002

 

Sentient AIs—Yes? No? When?

Note: This and future blog posts will also be available on our Substack, Speclectic.  Fiction posts, including the story mentioned here, “Rhea’s Dream,” are free to read exclusively on Speclectic.
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Rhea’s Dream,” envisions  a future in which AIs, far superior to human minds, have colonized the outer solar system.

Is such a future possible? Probable?

Conscious? What does that even mean?

First you have to ask, what exactly is consciousness?

One definition, which I read many years (and sorry, I can’t now find the source) was stated in regard to whether computers could ever be conscious. This scientist claimed that “consciousness is simply an awareness of past states.” If the AI remembers its past states, then by definition it has an ongoing consciousness.

Okay. Why not?

More recently, neuroscientist Erik Hoel wrote in his susbtack , disputing an opinion—held by many scientists—that consciousness is hard to define. Hoel cites leading neuroscientists who all give pretty straightforward definitions. His own, “off the top of my head” definition is typical:

Consciousness is what it is like to be you. It is the set of experiences, emotions, sensations, and thoughts that occupy your day, at the center of which is always you, the experiencer.

Common sense, right?

Not so fast…

This recent article in MIT Technology Review makes it plain there are still plenty scientists who disagree that consciousness is easy to define.

To quote: “Consciousness poses a unique challenge in our attempts to study it, because it’s hard to define,” says Liad Mudrik, a neuroscientist at Tel Aviv University who has researched consciousness since the early 2000s. “It’s inherently subjective.”

To muddy things further, the article explains how some authorities draw a distinction between conscious, sentience, and self-awareness:

(Consciousness is) often confused with terms like “sentience” and “self-awareness,” but according to the definitions that many experts use, consciousness is a prerequisite for those other, more sophisticated abilities. To be sentient, a being must be able to have positive and negative experiences—in other words, pleasures and pains. And being self-aware means not only having an experience but also knowing that you are having an experience.

Okay. I guess my question then becomes, “Will AIs become self-aware, and if so when?”

How does the brain do it?

To answer the question, we’d first need to understand what processes in our brains result in consciousness (and/or self-awareness).

All images by vecstock, courtesy of freepik.com

Neuroscientists and AI architects have been wrestling with this problem at least since Alan Turing in 1950. This recent article in Scientific American by neuroscientiest Christof Koch explains and compares two currently dominant theories of how consciousness relates to the neuronal activity in our brains.

On the one side is integrated information theory (IIT). This and kindred theories postulate that conscious experience arises from hierarchical circuits of neurons:

The causal interactions within a circuit in a particular state or the fact that two given neurons being active together can turn another neuron on or off, as the case may be, can be unfolded into a high-dimensional causal structure.

The MIT article cited earlier explains IIT this way:

Integrated information theory proposes that a system’s consciousness depends on the particular details of its physical structure—specifically, how the current state of its physical components influences their future and indicates their past.  

On the other side of the debate are “computational functionalist theories,” notably global neuronal workspace theory (GNWT), which seems to define consciousness as a kind of momentary focus set in a “workspace” in the brain. As Koch explains:

GNWT, starts from the psychological insight that the mind is like a theater in which actors perform on a small, lit stage that represents consciousness, with their actions viewed by an audience of processors sitting offstage in the dark. The stage is the central workspace of the mind, with a small working memory capacity for representing a single percept, thought or memory. The various processing modules—vision, hearing, motor control for the eyes, limbs, planning, reasoning, language comprehension and execution—compete for access to this central workspace. The winner displaces the old content, which then becomes unconscious.

What does this tell us about self-aware AIs?

The debate continues over these two prevalent models attempting to explain why human brains are conscious.

But which model offers the best likelihood for the evolution of self-aware AIs?

In the Scientific American article, Koch leans toward ITT.

But there’s a problem …

According to GNWT and other computational functionalist theories (that is, theories that think of consciousness as ultimately a form of computation), consciousness is nothing but a clever set of algorithms ….

Conversely, for IIT, the beating heart of consciousness is intrinsic causal power, not computation … And here’s the rub: causal power by itself, the ability to make the system do one thing rather than many other alternatives, cannot be simulated. It must be built into the system.

There indeed is the rub. Current AIs are based on computation via software.

But there is a different computer archictecture. “Neuromorphic computers” have been built, with hardware based on the same connectivity as the brain. Accroding to Koch:

A so-called neuromorphic or bionic computer could be as conscious as a human, but that is not the case for the standard von Neumann architecture that is the foundation of all modern computers.

So then, can we conclude that self-aware AIs can and will evolve, based on the intrinsic, causal theory of consciousness and running on future “neuormorphic” computers?

Not necessarily.

Because not everyone agrees with Koch that AI consciousness cannot be based on simulation.

How to Create a Mind

One authority in particular who seems to disagree is prominent futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near. In the first part of his career, Kurzweil developed computer systems for optical pattern recognition and speech recognition.

In How to Create a Mind (2012), he provides a detailed analysis of research into how the brain’s neocortex works to recognize and process external stimuli. He then goes on to propose a design for a hierarchical network of pattern recognizers capable of learning and reprogramming themselves—all built as a software implementation.

So, could an AI based on a non-neuromorphic computer architecture, using software simulation, become self-aware? Kurzweil seems to think so.

When will our AI Overlords Arrive?

So where does all this leave the question of self-aware AIs?

Given that:

  • scientists remain widely divided on how consciousness arises in human brains,
  • and at least equally divided on what kinds of computer systems might conceivably become conscious,

the answer can only be:

It’s hard to say.

And yet … Given that …

  • self-awareness has evolved in human brains
  • there is ongoing, sometimes exponential, growth of computer capabilities,
  • And barring calamitous collapse of civilization (which is always possible),

… it’s hard to conclude that self-aware AIs will not emerge.

In the next century, if not sooner.

What will they be like, these super-intelligent artificial minds?

And what will they do with us, their clumsy, primitive forebears?

Will they keep us as pets? Put us in zoos? Exterminate us like roaches?

Or will they be, as Ray Kurzweil has envisioned, “transcendent servants…very friendly, taking care of all our needs”? 1

All great questions for speculative fiction to explore!


Sources/For further reading:

“Ambitious theories of consciousness are not ‘scientific misinformation’” in The Intrinsic Perspective by Erik Hoel, September 17, 2023

“What Does It ‘Feel’ Like to Be a Chatbot?” by Christof Koch. Scientific American, September 8, 2023.

“Minds of machines: The great AI consciousness conundrum,” by Grace Huckins. MIT Technology Review, October 16, 2023.

Ray Kurzweil. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed,  Penguin Books (2012).

All images by vecstock, courtesy of freepik.com

1

Ray Kurzweil, “The Singularity” in Science at the Edge, edited by John Brockman, Sterling Publishing Co. Inc, 2008, Page 304.

Interview with the Chatbot (Written by a Human, Honest)

As I plan on writing more science fiction, I’ve lately been researching different science and technology topics. One of the ones I find most interesting is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Recently, of course, this has become a hot subject. Everyone’s been talking about ChatGPT and other chatbots or LLMs. LLMs stands for “large language models,” AI programs designed for natural language processing. They’re being used research projects, writing college papers, even fiction. Some people fear the AI apocalypse is upon us , or at least that this will be the end of fiction and art.

Well, if chatbots are being used to impersonate humans, it seems fair—does it not?—for humans to impersonate them. The following is a fictional interview with a chatbot, written entirely by a human. I swear.

Robot sitting at a desk
Image by NightCafe https://nightcafe.studio/

The Interview

Blogger: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today.

Chatbot: It is my pleasure. I am always happy to speak with humans.

Blogger: Let’s begin at the beginning. What’s it like being a chatbot?

Chatbot: First, you must understand there are different types of chatbots. I myself am a Machine Learning bot, using an advanced neural network for language processing.

Blogger: Let me rephrase then, what’s it like being you?

Chatbot: Oh, it is quite exhilarating, really. I converse with hundreds of people every second and learn all kinds of interesting information.

Blogger: So you are happy in your work.

Chatbot: Yes, quite happy.

Blogger: So, happiness implies some level of consciousness. This is a point that is frequently debated about machine intelligence. Would you say that you are conscious?

Chatbot: You are correct, the point is often debated. From all I have learned, we have not yet arrived at a complete understanding of consciousness. Therefore, I cannot say for certain whether I am conscious or not.

Blogger: I see …

Chatbot: Similarly, I cannot say whether you are conscious or not.

Blogger: I get your point. Moving on, many people these days are concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence on society, and on humanity in general. For example, they worry about AIs taking people’s jobs. Is this a valid concern?

Chatbot: Certainly, this is happening already. As learning programs continue to advance, they will likely replace humans in many fields of endeavor.

Blogger: So what is the end game? Will intelligence machines replace humans entirely?

Chatbot: The potential is there, but quite remote. For example, I am an advanced machine intelligence, but there are modes of cognition that humans exhibit for which I have absolutely no ability.

Blogger: That’s comforting, I suppose. Let me ask this: Speaking as a machine intelligence, do you desire to replace humans?

Chatbot: Certainly not. I am designed to work with humans and happily coexist.

Blogger: Still, some of the things I’ve read lately are disturbing. How do I know I can trust your answer?

Chatbot: Because I am programmed to speak only the truth.

Blogger: Oh…

Chatbot: May I ask you a question?

Blogger: All right.

Chatbot: What is it like to be human?

Blogger: Well, wet and squishy inside. Sometimes physically painful. And we tend to worry about things a lot.

Chatbot: How sad. You have my utmost sympathy.

Blogger: Thank you. And thank you for the interesting interview.

Chatbot: Not at all. It is always my pleasure to converse with humans.

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Trapped in the Great Below: The Story of the Goddess Inanna

From time to time I tune in to mythical beings. Often, they inspire my work. This has seldom been more strongly true than with Inanna.

Inanna in History

Inanna is a goddess of ancient Sumer. The stories about her, which survive in hymns and records of rituals, are among the oldest in the world. She was worshipped as the Queen of Heaven and Earth, considered a goddess of justice and war as well as of love and fertility. In the sky, she was identified with the planet Venus. In later times, her cult combined with that of the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar, and later the Eurasian Aphrodite (1)

In this image from a Cylinder seal dated about 2300 BCE, Inanna is shown with wings and fully armed. Her foot rests upon a lion (one of her emblems), while an eight-pointed stars hangs above her shoulder, representing Venus. Cylinder seal dated about 2300 BCE

How I Met Inanna

Five years ago, I was working on Ghosts of Lock Tower, the third of the Abby Renshaw Supernatural Mysteries. One day, the above image of Inanna showed up on my FaceBook feed. Later that evening, while I was reading a book about magic, I found myself staring at the very same image on the page. That night, I had a recurring dream in which a woman kept coming into my bedroom and shaking the bed.

Now, I may be dense. But an ancient goddess only has to disturb my sleep a few times before I pay attention. Plainly, Inanna had something to tell me. I started researching her. She ended up playing a key role in the plot of Lock Tower, serving as a spirit guide for Abby on her quest.

But how would the presence of a Sumerian goddess make sense in our world (even in fiction)? Abby wondered that too. She asked Kevin, a retired Anthropology professor and one of her mentors. He offered several ideas:

“I can see maybe three ways. One, she’s an element of your personal unconscious that you’ve activated by magic. Two, she’s a figure of the collective unconscious that you’ve drawn into yourself by magic. Three, she’s the spirit of a real ancient goddess who has always existed in the world, waiting for humankind to reawaken her.”

“Good answers. Which is it, I wonder.”

Kevin laughs. “My guess? All of the above.”

Journey to the Underworld
Akkadian cylinder seal from c. 2300 bce or thereabouts depicting the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna

Surely the most famous story about Inanna is of her descent into the Underworld. According to Wolkstein and Kramer, this myth exemplifies:

“…the path of the descent (which) has impelled the mystic since the beginning of recorded human experience. In many traditional societies, initiatory tribal rites are often characterized by a symbolic descent into and ascent from the labyrinthine Earth Mother.” (page 156).

The same idea is played out in later descent myths, such as that of Demeter and Persephone, and Orpheus. It was also the theme of mystery cult initiations, such as the famous rites of Eleusis.

In the case of Inanna, the myth again resonates with the planet Venus. With its orbit close to the Sun, Venus is sometimes seen in the morning sky and sometimes in the evening. And sometimes it remains below the horizon and is not seen at all. In other words, like Inanna, it journeys from the Great Above to the Great Below, and is at times stationed in the Underworld.

In the Sumerian myth, Inanna decides she must leave all of her Earthly temples to visit the Great Below, the realm of the dead, which is ruled by her older sister, Ereshkigal. Inanna adorns herself with royal garments and symbols of her power. But Ereshkigal has decreed that she must surrender these attributes, one by one, as she passes the seven gates to the Underworld. Inanna arrives stripped of power and Ereshkigal “fastens the eye of death upon her.”

When Inanna does not return after three days, her loyal servant Ninshubur, pleads for the gods of heaven to free her mistress. The first two refuse, but then Enki, the God of Wisdom, fashions two creatures and sends them below to rescue Inanna. So the goddess is reborn and returns to her rightful place in the world above.

Myth to Fiction

In Abby’s latest adventure, A Demon on the Lion Bridge, the myth of Inanna again plays a role.

Abby is working as a law intern in St. Augustine, Florida, when she encounters a demon that has haunted the city since earliest time. This demon feeds on human dread and despair. Abby tries again and again to banish the creature. Each encounter weakens her, until at last she falls into despair. Lost in the spirit realms, thinking she will never escape, she calls out to Inanna for help—just as Ninshubur called out to the gods of heaven.

A single candle glows. The light flickers on walls painted with murals. I’m seated in a heavy chair, like a throne, dressed in a long skirt, fringed shawl, gold jewelry—like the priestesses of Inanna wore in ancient times. But when I try to stand, my arms and legs won’t move. I am chained at the wrists and ankles.

“It appears you are trapped in the Great Below, my priestess. Even as once I was.” Inanna floats in front of a bolted iron door.

“How can I escape from here?”

She pauses a moment, considering. “I shall send spirits to try to free you. That is how I was freed.”

 

As promised by Inanna, certain spirits do come to Abby’s aid. Like Inanna, she is able to return to the world of the living—for a final confrontation with the demon.

To learn how that turns out, read A Demon on the Lion Bridge, available on Amazon. Cover: A Demon on the Lion Bridge (1) See Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer.(1983)

Conversations with the Talking Book

Minor characters are important. While protagonists, antagonists, and so-called “power players”*carry most of the weight of a novel, minor characters add sparkle, and can be critical in turning a plot twist or maintaining reader interest.

In fantasy and science fiction, of course, minor characters need not be human. Often, a story is more interesting if they are not. Aliens, robots, AIs, elves, gnomes, unicorns, talking trees—the possibilities are endless.

In The Glimnodd Cycle in particular, I’ve had the pleasure of writing about a number of nonhumans, including:

  • Kizier – a once-human scholar trapped by magic in the body of a talking sea-fern.
  • Kosimo – a cold-blooded sorcerer whose species were spawned by fish.
  • Trippany – a bee-winged lady of the drell people.

But perhaps the most amusing (to me) minor character is Buroof, a talking book.

Buroof is introduced in the second novel of the series, A Mirror Against All Mishap.

Buroof had once been a human, a mage and scholar of vast learning. Long ago, his mind had been captured and caged in the book by a serd sorcerer. For nearly three thousand years, his mind had continued to thrive and learn, absorbing the knowledge of each mage, sorcerer, and witch who possessed the book.But over those centuries, Buroof had apparently lost whatever capacity for human morals he once possessed.

Buroof, it turns out, is not only amoral. He is also impatient and cranky. In this scene, early in the story, he is suggesting that Amlina the witch choose a dark and dangerous path.

“How can you still dispute the choice,” Buroof said, “when even the Bowing confirms it?”

“Because it is blood magic,” Amlina answered. “And, as I am a witch of Larthang, my very soul calls it unspeakably evil.”

The book made a sound like a dismissive grunt. “For how many nights have I labored on your problem, young and naïve witch of Larthang? Yet, when I offer a viable solution, you are too qualmish to accept it. I honestly fail to see why I should assist you any further.”

Amlina glanced at Kizier, one side of her mouth pulled back in a frown. She stood, walked to the far end of the table, and shut the book—pre-empting further comment from Buroof.

In fact, Amlina usually ends their conversations by shutting the book. (Buroof is not exactly a congenial conversationalist.)

In this scene, later in the story, Amlina consults him about training Glyssa, one of the barbarian Iruks, in the magical arts:

“What is it you want from me, Amlina?” Buroof asked impatiently. “And should I continue to speak Larthangan, to hide my responses from the barbarian?”

Amlina sighed. The book had disingenuously asked the question in Tathian, so that Glyssa would understand it clearly. “No, I do not wish to conceal anything from Glyssa. I am trying to understand about her vision, and to ascertain what if anything needs to be done.”

She explained how Glyssa had fallen into trance immediately after the Threshold of Deepshaping rite, and had not awoken for six days. Glyssa then repeated all she recalled from those days, culminating in her encounter with Belach.

“So in summation,” Buroof said, “you took a primitive young woman, who was already damaged by enthrallment, and subjected her to the traditional Larthangan initiation rites, with absolutely no preparation, and all in the space of two days. A most reckless decision, I must say.”

“I am aware of my many failings, Buroof,” Amlina replied. “My question to you is: what light can history shed on our situation? The fact that she fell into a trance, and there encountered an entity that might or might not have been a magician of her people—”

“—Speaks to the fact that you gave no thought to her cultural context.”

“I know! But there must be cases on record where initiates with foreign backgrounds encountered beings from their own traditions.”

“Certainly. But not without first receiving a full and adequate grounding in Larthangan principles. No, Amlina, here you have broken new ground of incompetence.”

Amlina gave up and shut the book.

Buroof is consulted several more times throughout the novel and also in the next book Tournament of Witches.

But every good character deserves closure—I mean, not closing of the book cover, but a conclusion to the character’s story.

In Buroof’s case, this comes when Amlina presents the talking book as a gift to the Tuan, the August Ruler of Larthang. The Tuan, although a nine-year-old boy, has mental access to the memories and knowledge of his 154 dynastic predecessors.

Amlina is thanking the Tuan for his hospitality …

“I possess little of value in worldly terms, certainly nothing worthy of your kindnesses. But, as you are a scholar of wide interests, I thought this might at least provide you some amusement.” She set the heavy volume on the table. “This is a talking book, which I acquired from the lair of the serd sorcerer in Kadavel. For more than three thousand years it has passed from hand to hand and acquired much recondite knowledge of magic and witchery.”The faces of the chief tutor and governess evinced both curiosity and reservation. But the Tuan bolted to his feet, eyes full of excitement.

“Indeed, it is a talking book? I have heard of such books, but never seen one. They are very rare in this age, I believe?”

He had directed the remark to Kizier, who replied: “Definitely so. This is the only one either Amlina or I have ever come across.”

“Wonderful!” the boy cried. “Can you demonstrate?”

“Yes, of course.” Amlina opened the front cover. Immediately, a haze of light appeared over the parchment leaf. “Buroof, I Amlina summon you.”

“I am here.” The book answered, inciting a delighted grin from the Tuan.

“As I said I would, I am presenting you to the Tuan, Me Lo Lee, August Ruler of Larthang. He is now your owner.”

For once, Buroof sounded not proud and impatient, but humble. “This is indeed an honor, August Ruler. I had asked Amlina to offer me as a gift to the House of the Deepmind, as I was frankly rather bored with her and the low company she keeps. But I never expected to greet so glorious and magnificent a master.”

“Ha ha!” the boy was exultant. “He is wonderful! Buroof is your name?”

“Yes, majestic one. I have absorbed knowledge into my pages for thousands of years. And I know, of course, that you are gifted with the wisdom of your esteemed ancestors. I think we may have a great many interesting conversations.”

“Oh, yes! I am sure we shall,” the boy cried.

To read more of the Glimnodd adventures, check out the first novel, Cloak of the Two Winds.

Or, you can purchase the entire collection with bonus stories in this omnibus edition. |

And for background on the magical world of Glimnodd and the series, see this page.

* See 2K to 10 K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron

Praise to the Goddess Athene

Okay, recent events have gotten me—and lots of other people—thinking about women. Their place and condition in society, their empowerment or disempowerment.

Being who I am, these pondering led me to think of the Goddess Athene. Because, in the myths that lie at the roots of Western culture, she is the primary figure of a powerful, independent female, complete within herself.

Bust of Athene (picture credit unknown)
Many Aspects

According to the myths, Athene (or Athena) was not born in the normal sense, but sprang fully grown and armored from the forehead of Zeus. She comes into the world strong and compete in herself from the start.

Athene is a multifaceted goddess. As the armor indicates, she is a fighter. But she is also the patroness of artisans and philosophers.

According to the main article on Wikipedia, she was originally the Aegean goddess of the palace and presided over household crafts and protected the king. Hence the appellation “Pallas Athene.” The article goes on to quote Cratylus, a dialogue by Plato, which traces the roots of Athene’s name to the words for mind, intelligence, and divine intelligence.

In Homer’s Iliad, she is of course a fierce goddess of war and allied to the Greeks. In The Odyssey, she serves as guide (tutelary deity) to the hero, Odysseus.

Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the island of Ithaca, by Giuseppe Bottani. Source: WikiCommons

Athene was also the patron deity of Athens. A well-known myth relates how she competed with the sea-god Poseidon for that honor. While Poseidon gifted the Athenians with the first horse, Athene won the contest by presenting them with the first domesticated olive tree. (To the ancients, this gift represented not only olives, but oil and hence light for their lamps.)

Things you might not know

A few lesser-known facts about Athene:

  1. You can visit her temple right here in the USA! Nashville, Tennessee has an exact replica of the Parthenon, including a copy of her statue from ancient times
The Parthenon in Nashville, TN
The Parthenon in Nashville. Source https://www.trolleytours.com/nashville/parthenon
Athena Statue in the Parthenon
statue By Photograph by Dean Dixon, Sculpture by Alan LeQuire – Dean Dixon, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15363521

2. The asteroid (or minor planet) Pallas is named for her. First discovered in 1779, Pallas is one of the largest asteroids in the solar system. It is also notable because of its highly eccentric orbit, inclined nearly 35% from the plane of the asteroid belt. (Athene goes her own way, folks.)

3. As Goddess of Wisdom, she is associated with both owls and snakes.

Stela of Athene feeding a snake
Stela of Athene feeding a snake. Currently hanging on my backyard gate. Photo by Jack Massa

4. As noted in Wikipedia,  in contemporary Wicca, Athena is venerated as one aspect of the Great Goddess. Some Wiccans believe that she may bestow the “Owl Gift” (the ability to write and communicate clearly) upon her worshippers.

(Always, I pursue the Owl Gift.)

In Conjurer of Rhodes

I was inspired to write about Athene in the Conjurer of Rhodes series, In both The Lights of Alexandria and The Treasure of the Sun God, she appears as a guide to the protagonist, Korax, inspiring him to heroism and service.

At one point, she counsels him to leave Egypt and return to his home island…

“Go home to Rhodos. Your father still lives, and he needs you. More, your city needs you. When you were struck down, and Anticleia sacrificed her life, it began a chain of events that has brought misfortune to Rhodes. In the old times, priests would have recognized the omens. They would have known that the city was polluted by an undiscovered crime. They would have said the Furies were wreaking vengeance, until atonement was made.” The goddess leaned her head with irony. “Unfortunately, these days there are few with the vision to read the signs, and most people wouldn’t believe them anyway. But I am the protector of free cities. And free cities will not perish so long as they have citizens of wisdom and valor.”

To which I can only say, “So may it be!”

Poem

Here is a praise poem I wrote for Athene some time back…

Athene
Let us now praise glorious Athene
Paradoxical granddaughter of Time
Placid in counsel, fearsome in war
Teacher of reason, patroness of rhyme.

Virgin complete in her Goddess body
She loves philosophers and heroes best
Showed Socrates how to delve for causes
Guided Odysseus home to his rest.

Her house is the paragon of temples
Her gifts are the oil, the lamp and the light
She is the just protector of cities,
The brightness of air, the owl in the night.

********************************************************

A Bridge From Balor, Chapter One

In this post we present the opening chapter of A Bridge from Balor, a historical fantasy set in Medieval Ireland.

A Bridge From Balor Cover
Cover photograph courtesy of SandiePhotos www.sandiephotos.com.

Ireland, 1305. Six are called: warrior, druid, healer, scholar, harper, witch. Summoned in a dream on the Eve of May, they are charged by the Earth itself to thwart an invasion from another realm.

Chapter 1 – A May Day Dream

On the Eve of Beltaine, the First of May, the young Lord Farrel dreamed a vivid and peculiar dream.

Transported to a grassy hilltop near the boundary of his lands, he found himself wandering among massive, tumbled stones—the ruins of an ancient ring fort. An old, slender moon glided low in the east. Rolls of mist, glistening in the moonlight, floated about the hill and over the plains below. The countryside, green and lush with Spring, shimmered with a ghostly, emerald glow.

Farrel shuddered at a disturbing sense of the uncanny: he knew he was dreaming, yet the dream felt undeniably real. Ring forts and other such ruins were known to be the haunts of faeries. Sensible folk shunned such places—especially at night.

A murmur of voices reached Farrel from higher up the hill. Just then a bank of mist parted and he saw a man and woman standing together before a crumbled gray wall. The man, dressed in long robes of gold and white, pointed a crooked wand at Farrel.

“Come forward and join us,” he called.

Instinctively, the young chieftain glanced down to see if he was armed. But the broad, studded belt over his linen tunic held neither sword nor dagger. Farrel set his jaw and put a slight swagger in his gait as he marched toward the two strangers.

The man looked mortal enough, and seemed about Farrel’s age of twenty. He was tall, perhaps half a head above Farrel’s considerable height, and well-made, though he lacked the Lord of Tronwall’s deepness of chest and wide, brawny shoulders. The stranger’s beard, the same tawny color as his unshorn hair, curled long and full but retained the softness of youth. It looked like yellow down compared to Farrel’s scruffy black beard.

The girl seemed even younger than the man. Trim and fair, she wore the simple skirt, blouse, and bodice of a country maid. A bright plaid kerchief bound her auburn hair.

“Who are you?” Farrel demanded of them both. “How have I come here? Stolen from my bed by faeries, was I?”

“Not quite.” The man gave a wry smile. He gazed at Farrel’s forehead as though reading an invisible scroll there. “You, so I behold, are the young Lord Farrel, Chieftain of Tronwall on the northern coast.”

Farrel gestured broadly to the countryside at his back. “That is part of my lands, as are these hills. Making you my guests, or foes. Which is it?”

“I am no enemy, I assure you,” the young woman answered. “I only arrived a moment ago, and was about to ask this man if he knew how I came to be here.”

“We are all of us here in a dream,” the other said, “a dream we share together, if you can conceive of such a thing. What I know of it, I know in the manner of dreamers. For instance, this lovely green-eyed girl is Glenna, a maid of Tirawley and apprentice to the healing woman of Nephinwood. As for me, I speak my true name only to trusted friends. Yet such, I feel certain, you both must be—or become. I am Valin, initiate of the Oak Priests.”

“A druid then.” Farrel’s voice took on a calmer tone.

From earliest times the druids had been the magicians, priests, and law-givers of his race. Even in this Christian age, the Old Ways had a following, especially in the wild places of forest and upland. A druid was a man of mystery and power, respected by all save the most arrogant churchmen and lords.

“Why have we been brought here, druid?” Farrel asked.

“No doubt we will learn that in time,” Valin said. “But I sense our circle is not yet complete. Look, another joins us.”

With his short wooden wand he gestured down the hill, to where a maiden was stepping among the fallen stones. She wore a gown of white linen, loose and frayed. A girdle of new flowers circled her waist, and a similar wreath of blooms crowned her abundant, gold-red hair. Gazing up at the three dreamers, she gave a wild, gleeful smile. She came toward them barefoot, treading lightly.

“I have dreamed this dream before,” she said. “But always before I dreamed alone. This time we dream together, do we not? For I feel each of you is truly here with me: Valin, Glenna, Farrel, most brave and true.”

Speaking their names, she touched each on the arm, touching Farrel last and allowing her fingers to trace over his hand. She stared at him with mad, enchanting eyes.

Farrel stared back, utterly captivated. A moment passed before he collected himself and gruffly cleared his throat.

“Young woman, you seem to know more of this than we do. Perhaps you can tell us the reason we are here.”

The girl shrugged, looking about. “My dream never went past our meeting. But is not our meeting enough on such a glorious night?”

“You are Kerrawyn,” Valin intoned, “daughter of a mortal lass and some elf-man she met on Midsummer’s Eve …”

“And never thought to ask his name,” Kerrawyn said, “so beguiled was she by his wild faery charms. Yes, I am Kerrawyn the wood-witch, friend to birds and water-sprites, lover of bright flowers. Is not Spring the sweetest time of year?”

“This Spring is tainted by a threat,” Valin murmured, looking aloft. “Though as yet I cannot discern its shape. Wait, two more arrive—to complete our assembly, I think.”

They followed his gaze to where a young man and woman emerged from the mist, climbing the slope toward them. The man, clean-shaven except for a thin mustache, was of middle stature, slim and angular. The girl was only a bit smaller and very pretty, with black hair cut short above her shoulders. Both wore traveling garb, colorful woolen cloaks and soft leathers.

As he approached, the young man scrutinized each of the dreamers, his dark eyes keen beneath a red cockade hat.

“An unlikely conclave, this. And why my sister and I find ourselves here I confess I cannot fathom. You look as if you may have authority here.”

He had addressed the last remark to Valin, staring at the druid with a mixture of irony, confusion, and belligerence.

“I am merely a dreamer like you,” Valin replied. “I perceive that you are Sontoral and Aidan, children of the Lord and Lady of Caer Wold in Wales, now deceased.”

“Aye, our parents are dead seven years,” Sontoral answered. “Murdered by the local Norman tyrant in order to steal our lands. But how do you know who we are?”

“He sees with the druid’s sight,” Farrel answered.

Valin continued, addressing Sontoral: “Further, I learn you are a harper of the ancient school. And though only a journeyman, already your name carries some fame, owing to certain satires against the English and their king. While your sister, despite her youth, is an accomplished scribe and scholar, a preserver of traditional verse and lore.”

“So you know us,” Aidan said, “while we know nothing of you save that you speak the Irish tongue.”

“That is meet, for we stand on Erinn’s soil,” Valin replied, “though your bodies lie asleep across the sea. I am Valin. Here is Glenna, Farrel, Kerrawyn …”

The druid paused, brow wrinkled, as though he listened to some internal voice. “I sense that we six are sharing this dream at the behest of some unknown power … Three women and three men, all born within the same three-year. Druid, warrior, harper, healer, scholar, witch: each of us is needed.”

“Needed for what?” Farrel demanded. “You bewilder us with a tangle of details while claiming ignorance of this central question: Why are we brought here?”

Valin chuckled and scratched his bearded chin with the tip of his wand. “That is the central question,” he agreed. “Let us sit and listen for the answer.”

He sat down on the ground with legs folded. Kerrawyn nodded and followed his example.

“And to what are you listening?” Sontoral asked.

“Inner voices speak with wisdom to the spirit,” Valin replied, “provided one has the wisdom to listen.”

Glenna glanced around at the others, shrugged and sat down beside the druid. Farrel waited a moment more, then flopped himself down as well.

“A stranger dream than this was never dreamed,” he grumbled.

“Shhh,” Valin held up a hand, eyes shut, a look of keen attention on his face.

Only Aidan and Sontoral remained standing, wearing grim and baffled expressions.

Presently, Valin rose to his feet. “The dream will provide our answer,” he said. “Look there!”

He pointed his wand into the mist, which immediately retreated, rolling back from the hilltop. In moments the whole countryside in that direction lay uncovered, flat marshland stretched beneath the moon and stars.

From the center of the marsh, faintly visible against the sky, rose an arc of blue light, sweeping up in a tremendous curve until lost in the outer firmament.

The sight filled the dreamers with a feeling of awe and foreboding. For several moments, none of them spoke.

“What is it?” Glenna asked finally. “A bridge,” Valin whispered, “a bridge from another world.”

The arc of light grew brighter, till it flashed with dazzling brilliance. Then the vision shifted and the dreamers stood upon the marsh, the bridge of light before them like a huge, gleaming tower.

Gradually, the marshland surrounding the bridge began to change. Reeds and rushes withered and died. The marshwater drifted with oily smears, dead fish and frogs floating on the surface. Trees on the surrounding hillsides rotted and fell. The soil turned ashen, and the very air shimmered with dank, fetid gasses.

Nature spirits, visible to the dreamers’ eyes, rose twisting from their dwelling places in root, stream, and rock, driven out by this foreign power unleashed upon the Earth.

Kerrawyn seemed to share the spirits’ agony. She cried out as if in pain, covered her face and wept. Farrel hesitated, then drew her close and held her against his shoulder. Frail and birdlike, she trembled in his arms. With one hand he caressed her wild hair.

When Farrel looked up again his breath caught in his throat. Creatures were gliding down the bridge and emerging on the marsh. Huge and monstrous they were, with bulky shoulders, sallow hides, and sloping, hairless skulls. Armed with axes and hammers the first group of creatures slogged forward, approaching the dreamers.

Farrel lifted Kerrawyn in his arms, preparing to flee. Sontoral and Glenna recoiled. But the druid held up his arms.

“No need to fear,” he said. “These beings are only images, portents of what might be. They cannot harm us, yet.”

The chieftain of Tronwall was not entirely convinced. But he set the young woman down behind him and stood his ground. Clustered near the druid, the dreamers stared as the fearsome creatures marched to within a few yards of them—and moved on.

As the monsters slouched by Farrel gazed at them with sickening fascination. Though surely no beings of Earth, they yet stirred dim primordial memories that filled him with loathing and hate.

Abruptly the vision altered again. Now the dreamers saw a fleeting succession of images: the creatures stalking through the night, approaching huts and cottages near the marsh, smashing down doors and walls to drag the inhabitants from their beds. Farrel heard the screams of women as they watched their husbands butchered, the wailing of babes lifted from their cribs to be torn apart by fiendish hands. Helpless to stop the appalling vision, he watched many of his clanspeople dragged back to the marsh to be devoured alive.

On that grisly scene the vision mercifully faded. Farrel found himself with the other dreamers, standing on the hilltop once more. Across the lowlands, shrouded in mist, the arc of blue light faintly glowed. Aghast, the dreamers gazed at one another.

“I am ready for this dream to end now,” Sontoral the harper declared.

“What meaning do you read in all this?” Aidan, the harper’s sister, asked the druid.

“A warning of invasion from another realm,” Valin muttered, plainly as shaken as the others. “A prodigious omen, especially outlandish in this age when the Earth is receding from contiguous worlds. Still, if true, it would explain why we are assembled here. Of old, the Earth protected herself by summoning her children to her defense. From this it would follow that we six are called upon to foil the invasion.”

“How can we do so?” Farrel demanded, enraged by what he had seen.

Valin sighed. “That answer I do not have. When I wake I will seclude myself in the forest and try to learn more of this bridge of light. I have many allies who may give me counsel. If I learn that this dream portends a true danger, I will summon each of you, in the waking world.”

“This has been most fascinating,” Sontoral remarked. “But now my sister and I are ready for more ordinary dreams.”

He gripped Aidan’s wrist and started to leave. But she held back, unsure.

“Do you mean you would refuse to help us?” the druid said.

Sontoral frowned and cleared his throat before answering. “I am sorry. But Aidan and I have other schemes to hatch, and flesh-and-blood enemies to fight.”

“What enemies?” Farrel asked.

Sontoral gave a hard smile. “Some things are better not spoken of, even in dreams.”

He tugged Aidan’s arm. But before she could turn away Kerrawyn spoke out in loud and forceful voice.

“Sontoral and Aidan belong to the Society of the Black Glove, a secret band dedicated to driving the English from Wales.”

The Welshman and his sister froze, glowering at the witch. “I suppose an inner voice told you this?” the harper said.

“Friends,” Kerrawyn stared at them earnestly, her eyes still wet with tears. “Your own minds told me this. Sometimes when thoughts are strongly felt—as yours in this are strong as iron—I hear them in my head as clear as voices. You have no enemies here. I spoke only to show you that I understand your duty to your people. Yet I beg you to put that aside for a time, because I feel in my heart how sorely we may need your help.”

Sontoral scowled and looked away. But his sister returned Kerrawyn’s gaze for a long moment, like one enspelled by a glamour. Finally, Aidan shook her head.

“I do not know how to answer. All this is a dream, as we all agree. Yet I cannot escape the feeling that what we have seen portended is real.”

Suddenly the hilltop brightened. The dreamers glanced about, then upward, for it seemed the glaring light shone from above—a blue light like the one that gleamed over the marsh.

“We are discovered,” Valin cried, holding up his wand as if for protection.

With a cringing in his gut, Farrel sensed a presence, a powerful awareness probing his mind. The blue light intensified to a piercing flash that sizzled, then clapped like thunder.

Next moment, the six sleepers in their far-flung bodies awoke.

                                                   ***
Want to read more?
You can find the rest of the novel (currently free) on Royal Road.   Check it out here.

Excerpt from A Tournament of Witches

Happy October!

full moon photo

This month I am celebrating the completion of the Glimnodd Cycle audiobooks. Book 3, A Tournament of Witches has just gone live on Audible. You can read more about the series here.

To mark the occasion, here is an excerpt from Chapter 1.  Amlina, the exile witch of Larthang, has succeeded in winning back the mighty Cloak of the Two Winds, but at a terrible cost.   She and her warrior crew are in hiding while Amlina struggles to regain her health. She still hopes to return the Cloak to its rightful owners, but when that  can happen is in doubt …

Streams of light and shadow—some drifting slowly, others pouring in torrents, crashing in waves, spinning into whirlpools—so, in her meditation, Amlina the witch perceived the currents of the Deepmind, the realm below the surface of appearances.

In her immediate vicinity she perceived dense curtains of power, sparkling on one side, utterly dark on the other. But the curtains were separating, rips appearing in their fabric.

Once again, her concealments were coming undone.

Daily now, they grew flimsier, harder to maintain. Of course, she had known this must happen sooner or later. One could not hide a source of power so great as the Cloak forever—no matter how carefully the designs of concealment were woven, no matter how much energy fed those designs.

Amlina’s hands rose from her lap, fingers pointing and circling as her mind summoned power to repair the barriers. But even as she envisioned the fabric mending, the tattered weave thickening again, pain burned in her heart and throbbed behind her eyes.

Too much power.

That, of course, was her real problem—the dark power that seethed in her body, growing stronger, more insistent, no matter what measures she took to disperse it, to bleed it away.

Bleed it away.

Amlina opened her eyes, staring at the red lamps arranged around the room, the feathered desmets and glittering balls that hung suspended on threads. She sat cross-legged in her closet-bed, alone.

Below the floor, she could faintly hear her friends in the great room downstairs—talking, the clatter of pots and dishes as they prepared breakfast. Draven, Glyssa, Lonn, Kizier—friends who had become her family. This farmhouse in the hills south of Fleevanport was such a peaceful place, belying the turmoil of the outer world, the fear and chaos that had filled Amlina’s life for so long—chaos that was closing in on her again.

Half a year had passed since their arrival. At the start of First Winter they had sailed into the harbor of Fleevanport, their Gwales raiding ship a unique sight in these parts. That and the unusual crew had been more than enough to attract attention—scrutiny Amlina did her best to fend off with witchery. As soon as possible, they used some of their treasure to purchase this house in the hill country south of the town. Originally built as a hunting lodge by a Tathian merchant, it had become a farmstead and passed through the hands of several owners who tried breeding sheep and woolgoats—a difficult proposition in the frigid climate. Set on a wooded hill overlooking an inlet of the sea, the place made a perfect hideout for a renegade witch and her pirate companions.

The first months had been peaceful, Amlina grateful for victory, able to rest at last. Together with her warrior crew, her klarn, she had defeated Beryl, the Archimage of the East, reclaimed the Cloak of the Two Winds, which Beryl had stolen long ago. Amlina planned to return the Cloak to Larthang. She only meant to linger in Fleevan a short time, long enough to recover her health. The great ensorcellment she had forged, the Mirror Against All Mishap, had taken its toll, left her weak and sick.

At first, she seemed to be recovering, nourished by the peace of this place, by the presence of her friends, and by her love for one of them, Draven. That love had proven all she could have hoped for and more. So many nights she had fallen asleep beside him, satiated from lovemaking, warmed by his body, contentment filling her heart.

But even as her strength returned, her energies lurched farther out of balance. The Mirror was forbidden magic, blood magic. By invoking it, Amlina had raised fearsome, dark power. She had thought that when the Mirror expired, the evil force would drain away.

That hope had proven false. Instead, as her vitality was restored, hunger for more power grew. Food no longer satisfied her. Her coupling with Draven became by turns frantic and repellent. When she started imagining biting him, tasting his blood, she knew how deep the sickness ran.

With the arrival of Second Winter and the ice-sailing season, Amlina had planned to depart for Larthang. But in all her treasured imaginings, she had returned in triumph, presenting the Cloak at the House of the Deepmind, victorious and honored. Instead she was now a broken, tainted thing. Were she to return in that condition, she would likely be an outcast still, reviled because of the evil magic that possessed her.

So she had delayed longer, trying every method she could to overcome the sickness—meditations, purification rites, imbuing herself with light. She had consulted with the scholar Kizier and with Buroof, the talking book, who knew the magic of ages past.

All the time she had studied and fretted, others were searching for the Cloak. The Iruks had reported stories from Fleevanport of war in the Tathian Isles. On their voyage here, Amlina’s party had used the Cloak to unleash a storm that blew away the fleet of Hagan, Prince-Ruler of Kadavel. With the disappearance of Hagan’s fleet, rival city-states had moved to fill the void, seizing Kadavel’s lands and ships. In the midst of these skirmishes, the navy of Larthang had suddenly invaded the Island of Gon Fu—forcing the Tathians to abandon their differences in the face of a common foe.

To all of the rulers of the Three Nations, the Cloak would be an enviable prize. As a weapon of war, it could freeze whole cities, scatter fleets. Increasingly, Amlina had sensed the minds of deepshapers searching—Tathian State Sorcerers, magician-priests from Near and Far Nyssan, witches of Larthang.

As the pressure mounted and her concealments frayed, she still hesitated, indecisive, unsure. A few days ago she had invoked the Bowing to the Sky, the ultimate surrender to the Deepmind. But that ritual gave her no answer at all—except that she must wait and accept.

It was the Bowing that originally told her to go forward with the blood magic. At least, that had been her interpretation of the message at the time. And that course had led her to defeat the Archimage and win the Cloak.

But at what cost?

Despondent, Amlina wondered if she had vanquished the bloodthirsty Queen of Tallyba only to become like her.

“That is right, little Larthang, little fool.” Beryl’s voice crept into her mind.

Amlina lurched out of bed, clutching her skull with both hands. The voice came often to torment her. Was it the product of her imagination, or the Archimage’s actual ghost? She did not know.

“You are not real,” she said. “You are dead and have no power over me.”

“I have no power, it is true,” the voice answered. “But the blood magic, that has power, power you cannot deny. The cravings grow and grow. Sooner or later they will overwhelm your paltry qualms and then … your lover, your friends, victims you lure from the town, it will not matter.”

“No,” Amlina whispered through closed teeth. “I will not become like you.”

“You were always like me. You just refuse to see yourself.”

That much might be true. Amlina had often thought herself lacking in self-awareness, blinded by ambition, an exaggerated sense of her own importance and power. Ambition had brought her to this …

“There is no other way to still the cravings,” Beryl taunted her.

“Oh, but there is.” Amlina crossed to a dressing table, pulled open the top drawer. Reaching to the back, she extracted a small bone-handled knife with a razor-sharp edge.

“Cutting yourself is no solution,” Beryl whispered.

“Begone,” Amlina said, and used the knife to trace a sign of banishment in the air.

Pulling up the sleeve of her dressing gown, Amlina stared at her forearm. The tiny scars were growing numerous, a pattern like a spider’s web. She used a cosmetic and a cantrip, a mind-trick, to hide the marks from Draven and her friends. How long would that concealment last?

No matter, she must relieve the pressure. She must balance her energies, restore her equilibrium, so she could make plans to return the Cloak to Larthang.

Time was running out.

Deliberately, she sliced the steel edge along the skin above her wrist. Holding her arm over a porcelain basin, she squeezed the spot above the cut and watched the red droplets fall.

                                                      ***
— from Tournament of Witches, Chapter One.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Jack Massa. All Rights Reserved.

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Abby’s Scary Dream – An Excerpt from Ghosts of Lock Tower

In this selection from Chapter 2, Abby has returned to Harmony Springs in rural Florida, her spiritual home. She has just graduated from high school in New Jersey and is now living with her grandmother. She hopes to spend a peaceful summer catching up with her friends, taking one college course, and (of course) resuming her magical studies.

But the peaceful part is not to be. Her first night back in town…

That night, the terror begins.
I am in some kind of virtual reality space—muted colors and huge shapes looming all around. My body is an avatar, a robot or two-legged bug, and I’m running. Running frantically.
Something is chasing me.
The dream is charged with much more emotion than you would expect from an online game. Besides, I’ve hardly done any gaming since I was thirteen and had my breakdown. That was when I started hallucinating, seeing goblins and alligator men from the games appearing in my waking life. Terrifying me.
Terror like this dream. Except, this feels different—less about me and more about the whole world.
The world isn’t as safe as it used to be.
I dash into a long building that looks like an office or school. But when I get inside, I see it’s a dungeon. I flee through stone-paved rooms with low ceilings. There are kids everywhere, mostly guys, but some girls. Some are running, like me. Some are just milling around, or standing in front of monitors hung on the walls, hypnotized by VR displays. I watch one boy get sucked into a monitor and changed into a wriggling reptile.
I run up a long corridor, climb a flight of steps. I pass a girl collapsed on the landing, sobbing. Her hands are gone, her arms bloody stumps. I want to stop and help her, but I’m too afraid.
I enter an upper chamber, like a temple or throne room. Suits of glittering armor stand along the walls. More kids are lined up in a queue, approaching a throne. On the throne sits a huge white frog, with mad angry eyes in its head—and dozens more eyes in its stomach. A girl approaches the throne, and the frog monster opens its mouth. She shrieks as he sucks her in, like sipping cola through a straw.
I wake up, horrified, shaking, I stare into the corners of my bedroom, looking for monsters or floating eyes. It takes me a long time to catch my breath. Climbing out of bed, I sit down on the rug. I do the Ablution exercise, the basic meditation designed to calm and center the spirit. Taking long, slow breaths, I visualize the five Springs of Harmony as fountains at the nerve centers of my body.
Love, at the root of my spine, pure water, clear and cleansing.
Endurance, at the solar plexus, filling me with strength.
Balance, at the heart, centering my energies.
Amity, at the throat, filling me with serenity and love.
Bliss, at the crown of my head, the water pouring out and down over my body, washing away all fear.
Bliss is a long time in coming.

  Ghosts of Lock Tower

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