Friday, February 27, 2015

Black Coven - Teaser 1

A thin veil of falling snow muffled the sounds of my men settling into cover behind me, while Captain Rain and I crept to the edge of the little patch of woods for a look at the open field beyond. But the racket that had drawn us here was too loud to hide. Men shouting. Women and children screaming. The roar of angry trolls, and the crackle of flames.

Sounds I’d become all too familiar with in the last three weeks. Another settlement was falling.

I peered between a pair of snow-covered bushes at the scene. It was a country inn, of a sort that was pretty common in Varmland. An L-shaped building of stone two stories high, with a barn-like stable behind it and a stone wall enclosing the courtyard between the two buildings. With a stout wooden door and no outward-facing windows on the first floor the place was easily proof against wolves or bandit gangs, and had room to shelter several dozen people. Evidently a group of soldiers had decided to hole up there, and managed to hold out until now.

But there were five trolls attacking the place. Not the smaller forest trolls that worked with goblins, either. These were mountain trolls, twelve-foot monsters with grey hide that was almost as hard as the stone it resembled. They were armed with a motley assortment of tree trunks and boulders, but as strong as they were they wouldn’t even need weapons to tear a place like this apart.

Indeed, they’d managed to rip open a good-sized stretch of the building around where the front door had been. A group of armored men inside were trying to fend them off with spears, while crossbowmen loosed flaming bolts at them from the upper windows. Neither group was doing much damage, but a couple of the trolls were more singed than I would have expected.

As I watched, a bolt of fire erupted from inside the building to splash against a troll’s leg. The great beast staggered back, howling and beating frantically at the flames. The other trolls roared, and one of them heaved a boulder that probably weighed more than I did into the mass of defenders.

“They’ve got a wizard,” Marcus observed unnecessarily. “What do you think, sir? Do we try to rescue him?”

I considered the scene for a moment. Mountain trolls were tough as hell, but unlike their smaller cousins they usually weren’t accompanied by other monsters. I didn’t see any goblins around, and considering how dumb trolls are the odds of a trick were low. Five of them was more than I could safely fight alone, of course. But I’d done quite a bit of enchanting in the weeks since my little band had fled Lanrest.

I nodded. “Yeah, we can do it. Cerise?”

The dark-haired witch seemed to coalesce out of the shadows under the snow-laden trees, her slender form completely hidden by the cloak she wore against the cold. It also served to hide the tail she’d acquired back in Lanrest. Absorbing the power of her foes was such a central aspect of her magic she had trouble avoiding it, but the side effects were starting to add up.

“I’m here, Daniel. What are we doing?”

“Killing some trolls,” I told her. “You’re in charge of guarding the caravan until the fight is over.”

Her human appearance was a thin disguise these days, and she tended to lose her grip on it in moments of passion. Our own people were getting used to it, but the last thing we needed was for her to sprout obvious claws and horns in the middle of the fight and panic the inn’s defenders.

She pouted, but didn’t argue. “I guess someone needs to do that. Alright, but stay safe.”

“I’ll try. Marcus, have Gronir sneak his group around to the left and put a volley of arrows into them. As soon as they’re distracted I’ll drop into the middle of the big group, and then your boys can move in without having to worry too much about them throwing boulders at you. Spears and ranged weapons only, and don’t box them in completely.”

“Yes, sir,” he nodded, and moved back to give orders.

I eyeballed the distance as the men crept through the woods behind me, and began preparing my opening move. There was seldom time for fancy magical tricks in the middle of a battle, but the minutes before an ambush were another story. I’d been practicing with more elaborate constructs recently, looking for ways to make that first blow count as much as possible.

The situation deteriorated steadily in the few minutes it took to get ready. One of the trolls ripped the shutters off a second-floor window and began fishing around blindly inside, while a second one smashed down the gate and wandered into the inn’s courtyard looking for another way into the building. The remaining three were still occupied with the hole in the wall, but the bolts of fire that kept them at bay were coming weaker and further apart. The biggest troll managed to snatch up one of the men defending the breach, and bit his head off with a loud crunch. The other two lobbed a few more boulders in, and I noticed there weren’t as many spear points in the opening as there had been before.

Then a volley of arrows arched across the snow-covered field to rain down on the trolls. Unlike the crossbowmen defending the inn my men’s weapons were enhanced with force magic, and most of the arrows sank deep into their targets. The trolls roared in pain, no doubt exacerbated by the fire magic that would now be heating the arrowheads red hot.

I unleashed the burst of force magic I’d gathered, and flung myself into the air.

I still couldn’t manage controlled flight, but painful experience had taught me how to make long leaps safely. I checked my trajectory in midair, noted I was going to fall short a bit, and gave myself a little extra push to ensure I’d come down in the middle of the trolls. Then I turned my attention back to the spell I’d been building, trusting my force field’s soft-landing effect to arrest my fall safely.

Dozens of baseball-sized rocks materialized in the air and began to whirl around me at high speeds, while heating up rapidly. By the time I landed they were mostly molten, becoming lumps of lava that slammed into the main group of trolls as I touched down among them. Even their supernaturally tough flesh couldn’t withstand that level of heat, and the projectiles gouged out deep wounds before their kinetic energy was exhausted. I wasn’t sure if the resulting pockets of molten stone would be enough to kill the monsters, but they’d certainly do a lot of damage.

One of the trolls flailed at me with the tree trunk it was using as a club, sending me sprawling despite the force shield that protected me from the blow. But it didn’t actually hurt, and my shield was only weakened momentarily. I pulled the barrier in close to my body so it wouldn’t get in the way, and drew Grinder.

My personal weapon was a brutal little device I’d build for killing inhumanly tough monsters up close and personal. Just a stone hilt when deactivated, but when I turned it on a three-foot bar of superheated plasma extended to form a blade. That would have been dangerous enough, but what really made it effective were the dozens of counter-rotating sawblades made of force that extended along the length of the weapon. A high-pitched shriek of tortured air arose as the blades came up to speed, and I hacked at the nearest troll’s leg.

It was so distracted by the pockets of lava melting chunks out of its body that it didn’t even notice me until Grinder bit into its shin, chewing through flesh and bone alike and spraying burning fragments everywhere. The troll staggered, and jerked away before I could cut all the way through. Then a heavy impact drove me to my knees, as the troll who’d been fishing in the windows decided to smash this new nuisance instead. My shield’s power reserve dropped again, but there was enough left to tank a few more hits.

Flames washed over everything, the trolls and me as well, and I knew I’d held their attention long enough. It flowed harmlessly over my shield, melting the snow beneath my feet and filling the air with steam. But when it enveloped the trolls they panicked.

The squad Captain Rain led was equipped with most of the magical weapons I’d managed to create in the course of our trip. Six of the men held shields and boar spears I’d enhanced with force magic, to ensure they’d deflect heavy blows and penetrate armored monster hides. But the four flamers produced most of the group’s damage output. These weapons were basically a long rod of stone with a pistol grip at the back and another one halfway down its length, a design I’d copied from WWII-era flamethrowers. The tip of the rod projected a continuous stream of flame when the trigger was pulled, along with a strong force push that elongated the blast into a fifteen-foot cone.

They didn’t kill very quickly, but we’d yet to encounter anything that could shrug off that much fire. Indeed, the troll behind me almost immediately decided that this was too much to take and turned to run. I took its leg off at the knee, and it toppled face-first into the snow just beyond the edge of the flames. One of the men immediately turned his flamer on it, and held it as the beast tried to crawl away.

One of the more injured trolls behind me collapsed, and another was trying to stagger away from me. But the biggest one roared and charged through the flames, its now-burning tree trunk held high over its head. It bulled through the fire, only to immediately be impaled on three long spears that easily pierced its armored hide.

But trolls are unbelievably tough, and they take a long time to die. It brought the club down, sending two men flying and forcing the rest to scramble out of the way.

I leaped at its unguarded back, another burst of force magic carrying me far higher than I could normally jump, and slammed Grinder down on its head. My weapon’s shriek turned to an angry growl, and it spewed a spray of mangled bone fragments in all directions.

Any normal creature would have died instantly, but not a troll. Before my weapon could chew far enough into its skull to find its tiny brain the monster reached back and grabbed me. Its giant fingers wrapped around my chest, and it whipped me around to slam into the ground. 

Thankfully the deep snow and my force shield both cushioned the blow, so instead of being stunned I just pointed the end of my weapon at its face and triggered a plasma blast.

I’d sunk a lot more effort into making Grinder than I had the flamers for my men, and the jet it produced wasn’t normal flame. The violet beam was denser than air and hotter than the surface of the sun, delivering enough energy to melt stone surfaces in seconds. It burned the troll’s face away in an instant, blinding it and sending it reeling back.

A spearman stepped up and stabbed the thing through the heart with his weapon. I turned off the plasma beam, and another man drove his spear through one of the monster’s ruined eye sockets into its brain.

The thing finally realized it was dead, and collapsed. 

I made a note to burn the body soon to make sure it didn’t get back up, and turned my attention to the rest of the battle. Two trolls were on the ground, struggling feebly as the flamers kept them bathed in fire. Roars and crashes from the woods on our left flank told me Gronir’s crew was having fun with the other troll I’d caught in my initial attack, while the last monster had just emerged from the inn’s courtyard. It stood there staring at us for a moment, clutching a boulder the size of a basketball in one hand.

I took a step towards it, raising Grinder in one hand and conjuring a ball of flame in the other.

It threw the boulder at me, and ran.

A projectile like that would squash any of my men, so I stood still and let it hit me instead of dodging. It smashed into my shield with a dull boom, and sent me flying back to bounce across the snow. But it was just a few bruises, and I had my healing amulet on.I picket myself back up, and the men cheered. I smiled grimly. “That’s one troll band that won’t be eating any more people. Casualties?”

Monday, February 23, 2015

Status Update

Chapter 16 of Black Coven is now complete. At this point I'm expecting a finished length of 20-21 chapters, so the first draft should be finished in just a few weeks. Expect the first teasers to show up here within the week, with the first chapter or two to follow as I work on proofreading and final polish.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fantasy and the Malthusian Trap

We all know that most fantasy stories aren't especially realistic. The real world is notably lacking in dragons, orcs, wizards and meddling gods, all of which are staples of the genre. Of course, those are all intentional bits of unrealism created to allow us to tell stories that couldn't have happened in Earth’s real history. But there’s a more subtle sort of unrealism that pervades the field, invisibly undermining the verisimilitude of otherwise well-written stories and bleeding incoherence into their deeper themes.

One common example of this is the issue of the Malthusian trap, or rather the fact that virtually all pre-industrial societies that practiced agriculture spent their entire history caught in it. This is something that experts have only really come to appreciate in the last few decades, and the implications don’t seem to have spread to the general public.

Briefly, the ‘Malthusian trap’ is the fact that in pre-industrial societies population growth happens faster than any feasible increase in food production. It takes years to build irrigation systems or terrace hillsides, and generations to get illiterate peasants to adopt a new farming technology. But the gains from such changes are relatively modest, and a population of poor farmers will grow quite rapidly if they actually have enough to eat. So the result is that once a society discovers agriculture it quickly spreads until all the land in the region that can be farmed with its current technology is under cultivation, and then the population continues to grow until starvation becomes common enough to keep it in check.

Let’s stop and think about that for a minute. We’re talking about civilizations where 95%+ of the population are illiterate farmers with no access to birth control. That’s a lot of starvation. By modern standards it’s an almost unimaginably brutal world. But this single realization explains countless examples of ancient behavior that would otherwise be inexplicable, while also closing off almost every way of improving the situation.

Why was life so cheap? Because even in a normal year there are people starving to death in every village in the country. So if someone dies working in the mines or fighting enemies on the frontier, that just means there’s now enough food for someone who was going to starve to death to live.

Why did legal codes make such free use of the death penalty? Because every criminal you kill is another honest citizen who gets to live. If you lock a criminal in prison and feed him you’re taking that food from the mouth of a needy peasant somewhere.

Why was infanticide so common? Because peasants didn't have birth control, and it was commonplace to find yourself with more children than food. Leaving an infant on some hillside wasn't easy, but it was better than keeping the baby and killing one of your older kids instead.

Why were sons more prized than daughters? Well, ok, there are several factors at work there. But a major one is the simple fact that the average woman eats 70-80% as much as a man but has barely half the upper body strength, and on a farm that modest loss of efficiency could often mean the difference between survival and starvation.

Why didn’t benevolent rulers use their great wealth to help their people? Because it doesn't work. Lowering taxes and helping the needy means fewer people will starve this year, but that just allows the population to grow. Keep it up for a few years and the population will expand until it overwhelms your resources, at which point the peasants will be back to living on the edge of starvation. At which point they’ll probably blame you for the change, and revolt.

All of this is important for fantasy writers, because it implies that the happy bucolic prosperity you see in so many recent stories is simply impossible. If the peasants of Happyville have warm, comfortable houses and plenty of good food that means every family is going to have half a dozen kids. A generation later you’ll have a lot more people trying to live on the same land, and everyone will be too busy trying to squeeze a few extra cabbages out of marginal bits of land to build nice houses or other creature comforts.

Having a few wizards wandering around doing small-scale magic on occasion doesn't change this brutal math, and even the wisest of immortal rulers will find no policy they can enact to change things. A strong government can to some extent decide who lives and who dies, by collecting taxes (usually as food) and distributing it to favored groups. But the population is going to grow until something stops it.

Now, there is one way to have a pre-industrial society where the commoners are prosperous, but it isn't much of an improvement. If something kills off a decent fraction of the population every few years that might be enough to arrest population growth before you get to the stage of constant near-universal hunger. But keep in mind that you have to kill women and children too, not just the men. A society can have a third of the men die in some distant war every generation with no effect at all on population growth - what matters is how many of the women survive to have children.

So how did we get out of this trap in the real world, if it’s such an iron law?

That’s an interesting question, but historians and economists can’t quite agree on an answer. The first part is clear enough - industrialization kicked off an era in which food production, transportation and storage all improved much faster than was previously possible, and actually got ahead of population growth for several generations. But after that some combination of social factors caused people in developed nations to start having fewer and fewer children, making it progressively easier for food production to stay ahead of demand. At this point people in developed nations have so few children that populations are actually shrinking, although the availability of reliable birth control for the last 40-50 years may have something to do with that.

What this all means for fantasy authors is that if you want to write realistic stories you only have a few choices. You can introduce industrial-scale magic that transforms society into something resembling modern-day Earth, but then you’ll end up with a story that looks more like SF than fantasy. You can impose some kind of universal birth control system far more effective than anything that has ever existed in the real world, but then the societal effects of that regime are inevitably going to dominate your story. Or you can pick a familiar medieval or ancient setting, and accept the fact that you’re writing about an incredibly brutal world where mass starvation is a daily fact of life.

...or you can retreat into urban fantasy, and spend your time writing about some Strong Independent WomanTM and her struggle to decide which sexy half-human alpha male she’s going to date. But that’s not the kind of story I’m ever likely to ever write.

Status Update

I finished chapter 12 of Black Coven over the weekend, and I'm working on 13 today. Things are speeding up as I get towards the later part of the book, and if past experience is any guide I'll probably turn out two chapters per week from this point on. Since the book is planned to be about 19 chapters I'm definitely in the home stretch here.

I've also started doing some early planning on other projects. One of these days I'm going to write a military SF series that's actually based on real science instead of meaningless technobabble, but getting that right requires a lot of setting development.