Four Pages Forming a Preface

Page 1: Rocks

"-don't even know why we're countenancing this ridiculous idea."

The space station's walls resonate with the constant background hum of fans and coolant pumps. An officer and a scientist skip gently around artificial gravity centrifuge, passing a tiny porthole that glimmers with Earthlight.

"I think it's stupid too, but what CENTCOMM wants, CENTCOMM gets."

"Why would we even need to orbitally bombard a fantasy island? What possible use is a space force when there's- there's fucking elves. What can we do against wizards?"

In the minuscule gravity of the station, the stylus of the scientist's tablet bounces gently. The officer is too busy gesticulating wildly to notice that each swing of his arms lifts him off the cabin floor.

"Look, Captain- their testing shows that rocks and objects made of solid iron can pass through the screen around the island, and that the momentum of objects which pass through the screen is preserved."

"So what, they've been flying over this thing in helicopters and dropping anvils onto it just to see what happens?"

Outside, the spidery tube of a drone cargo ship spins by, its hydrogen tank swaddled with umbilicals.

"Well, cast-iron frying pans. And they loaded a 20mm cannon with a hand-shaped iron slug and fired it down to confirm."

"Christ, and they say we waste money."

The scientist drifts to a halt and grins.

"You're gonna like the next bit, though."

The officer steadies himself on the handrail, feet floating slightly off the ground.

"Lemme guess, someone shot a fucking dragon or something in the face or something equally banal and stupid? They're carpet-bombing gnomes? Surprise me."

The scientist passes over the tablet. The officer glances at the figures, eyes widening.

"Well, they found that momentum is preserved, but not at the same vector- whatever goes into the cloud at any point comes out of it sideways, at a roughly 90-degree angle to the shoreline of the beach. So if we drop a rock…"

The officer snorts, half in amusement, half in disgust.

"Camp Kronk or whatever it's called gets hit by a giant bowling ball traveling six and a half kilometers per second. Well, that's just fucking great. We can drop rocks from orbit all we want but it's only going to hit our own people. Maybe they'll finally order us to stop?"

Outside, three huge chunks of nickel-iron drift in a close parking orbit. Thankfully, they will not be needed.

"Fucking elves, honestly."


Page 2: Bowyer

In the twisting bowels of a Containment Division ProLab on a medium-sized Site somewhere unimportant, a mildly bored engineer is polishing an AK-74 that is designed to kill werewolves. There are seven more like it sitting on his desk in a state of disassembly. At the next table over, bouncing his head to the beat of a local classic-rock station, his younger co-worker is hand-wrapping wires for the main armature of a lightning gun he believes will be able to reliably harm ghosts.

The laboratory door flies open, and a messily-dressed young woman stagger in, clutching a printout in sweaty hands. She tells the other two engineers they aren't going to believe this. They put down the lightning gun and the werewolf Kalashnikov and glance over the printout. The younger one swears in a mostly dead language. The older one does a double-take, looks at the colourful fantasy poster tacked to the wall above the fume hood, and begins to giggle incoherently.

Three days later they are elbows-deep in springs and wood samples. Several heavily-annotated printouts of Da Vinci blueprints are slowly curling in the recycling bin. The woman makes a joke about reinventing the wheel for the third time that afternoon. The younger man ignores her, wearily blowing out clouds of cigarette smoke that curl lazily past the red-lettered NO SMOKING sign on the wall above the door. He is playing with a spring whose tensile steel will not pass through the Cair Aisling anomaly barrier. The older man is flicking through his phone when something catches his eye.

He calls the others over. They gather, bemused- are they seriously so strapped for ideas that they're turning to Youtube?

The machine in the video is a nightmarish kludge, a horrible, awful thing.

The younger man seems lost in thought. He tells them that maybe, just maybe…

The next day they have a prototype that still reeks of hide glue and varnish. The Protection officer accuses them of pulling his leg. Then they put eight arrows into a target in four seconds. The Protection officer gets very serious, very quickly. The older engineer doesn't participate in the test; he is nose-deep in a banking app.

Halfway around the world, a semi-retired German economist is surprised to find that an anonymous fan has just left an unreasonably large tip on one of his funding websites.

What follows is a rushed month of production and tweaking. Finally, on a magical island off the coast of Scotland, a group of sweaty, exhausted soldiers clad in a mish-mash of recycled plate armour and hastily-assembled medieval uniforms gather around an archery range as a scruffily-dressed engineer holds aloft a vaguely bow-shaped mess of counterweights, pulleys and crude iron bolts.

"This is the Automatic Crossbow Mark One. Let me show you its features."

Archery will never be the same again.


Page 3: Duellist

The magnificent stone-walled solar is quiet and dark, lit only by the smouldering glow of a sulfur-crystal brazier. Outside, the obsidian spires of the subterranean city rumble in mixed jubilation and discontent. The elf-lord sits slumped in an ornate marble chair, staring blankly at the tumbler of obscenely expensive Spirer heightwine in his hand. His gemstone-encrusted face is drawn and clammy.

There is a soft murmur of voices in the tunnel-like hall, and his wife enters.

"My lord."

He doesn't look up at her as she folds back her veils, molten orange hair spilling around the decorative tourmaline clasps she is so fond of wearing.

"My lord? Congratulations on your victory- this will be a hallowed day for all-"

He waves the tumbler angrily.

"Close the door."

She pauses, then does so. Now that they are alone together, she relaxes slightly. In the close confines of the Deep it is always worth keeping an ear to the walls.

"I don't see what you're so furious about, dearest. You won."

He sips at the heightwine, hardly tasting it.

"I did. Poor bastard flinched, or got distracted, or-"

"Well, you won, and now his awful Spirer wife and their ridiculous little diplomatic cortege finally understand exactly who they're dealing with."

She sees his expression, sighs, and kneels down, veils swirling around her and catching the yellow light of the brazier.

"You should be celebrating in triumph, dearest. Or at least making your presence known- but here you are, sulking, when you've defeated one of the most famous swordsmen in the land, and an enemy to all the Folk."

"That's just it- one of the most famous swordsmen in the land. And I won. That's the problem, do you see?"

He stands abruptly, dropping the tumbler on the side table hard enough that it nearly tips, and stalks moodily over to the rock-crystal window. The city outside is alight with celebration, rioting- the Hero of Prophecy is dead, after all. The watchmen will be busy tonight, torn between carousing and delivering fulgurmancy spells to those dissidents too foolish or bold to get out of the way. The rivers of magma will be swollen with the dead come morning. He sighs bitterly.

"Hasan Maza found a legendary sword in a ruin in a swamp. He's dueled the Dominarch of the Orcs into submission, killed, maimed, incapacitated or, Lord help me, converted more assassins than I can count, single-handedly ended the Underguild civil war, and then he meets me- oh, an expert with a blade, to be sure, but no Hero of legend and myth- and what happens?"

She places a comforting hand on his shoulder, disturbed by the tension she feels running through his frame. The thin gemstones that protrude from his neck and cheeks pulse with an angry light that dances on his rock-wool coat.

"What happens, dearest, is an Ashenfolk nobleman- one of the best and brightest of this generation- wins. We all win. All of Cair Aisling knows that the Ashenfolk-"

He spits a forbidden curse, a word so taboo that to utter it in anywhere other than such an intimate gathering would earn him dozens of challenges and endless shame. In the shocked silence that follows, he speaks, his voice guttural and abject.

"I didn't win. That's the thing. He had me, with that ridiculous magical sword. He was about to gut me like a fish- I knew it, he knew it. And still, he lost.

Why did he lose?"


Page 4: Shrine

It is easy to imagine great deeds occurring in such a place. The arcing, bonelike columns form endless rows, vanishing away into stillness. Their intricate carvings, or at least those few that catch the dappled rays of sunlight that trickle through the occasional gap in the long-sunken roof, speak of indescribable age and beauty. The silence hangs in this place like a shroud, a silence with weight and history- the silence just before some great word is spoken or act performed.

In the center of the room, there is a wide, smooth stone, its edges worn where countless generations of feet stepped upon it. The runic sigils on it still glow with a faint light.

Atop the stone a carved altar, seeming composed of hundreds of tiny sculptures, showing figures in poses of victory, of conquest, of reconciliation, of triumph and sorrow.
All wield the same sword.

Atop the altar, a shimmering cloth of ageworn bombazine, its edge marked with dozens more tiny heroic pictures, still bears the folds left by an ancient and heavy blade which rested upon it for aeons immemorial.

There are words carved atop the altar- a message of fate and portents, foretold aeons ago. But it is faded, somehow, smudged- and fading fast. A shock reverberates through the stillness of the ancient holy place- an unreal ripping, a booming twang as of great skeins coming detached and coiling back along their frayed ends.

The Prophecy carved on the altar bleeds horrific, unreal light for a second, then vanishes. The altar folds up like a discarded piece of notebook paper, keening and shrieking as it bends in impossible ways.

And then the hall is silent again- not the silence of possibilities, or ancient mysteries, or forgotten hope for a downtrodden people.

The silence is that of a tomb.

tagnone

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