Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: Caleb Wilson

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and to celebrate its publication we’ve been posting excerpts from each of the stories. Today marks our final teaser, from Caleb Wilson’s spectacular “Bow Down Before the Snail King!” As our curtain descends, it is over a scene of desperate battles and subtle wit, bizarre adversaries and equally strange heroes…


Storks

There were only a dozen storks. But on that murky midnight, with the fire burning low and blue from the stink of vanished cities that bubbled up from beneath the plains, there might as well have been a hundred.

Charops’ drab leather outfit was somewhat beak-resistant. Not enough to make her comfortable; the horror birds were known carriers of pestilence, so filthy that their diseases bore diseases. She jumped over the furrows of fallow civilizations, stabbing wildly with her long Strategists’ knife. It was a versatile blade, but better suited to the considered application of force ten times what was needed, measured stabs in the back, and the trimming of extraneous lines from contracts than to fending off a clacking, hissing, disease-ridden flock.

Ichneumon the Weird was stumbling along somewhere behind Charops. Certain stork bait, unless the Weird could get her shit together– which made Charops furious, or maybe that feeling was sadness.

A stork exploded as a slightly larger than life-sized pink stone statue of a stork appeared inside it, displacing feathers, guts, and bone. The bloody statue hit the grass and Ichneumon stuttered out some quavering mixture of glee and agony. That was one way to do it.

Kobius, the man-at-arms, bared his teeth and growled. He whirled a spear as he ran, slapping it up and down, the haft bouncing like a branch in a gale, gore arcing from the blade. He was wearing stork plumes on his hat, and Charops wondered, as she gasped for breath, if he had found them already detached from their original owner. Either way, it seemed that the storks had taken offense at Kobius’ choice of attire.

As for Loron, whose skimpy linen robe seemed so ill-suited for travel outside the courts and couches of Zend… Loron leapt along lightly as a dried leaf.

May we all age so gracefully as Loron.

The Municipal Expedition

Loron, that notorious old poet and flatterer, had found evidence of a treasure hidden in the south. As was the right of every citizen of Zend, Loron petitioned the King’s Vizier to launch an expedition of recovery, with any proceeds to be split evenly between himself and the crown. The Plaster Eminence granted Loron’s petition, though she must not have thought highly of his chances. If she had, she would have authorized a bigger expedition.

The municipal companions were Charops, a Strategist of low rank but high promise; Ichneumon the Weird, whose unsettling presence meant she was sent away from Zend as often as possible; and the man-at-arms Kobius. Kobius had survived the flock of storks they met two weeks south of Zend, but not the sting from the invisible asp he stepped on five days later. His corpse lay beneath a cairn, unless jackals had found him. Charops wondered how long it would be until she forgot his name.

Four weeks south of Zend and Havernar, the expedition finally arrived at the dry river valley marked on Loron’s map. According to the map (according to Loron, who refused to show anyone else the map) the ‘Hall of the King of Snails’ was tucked away at the far end.

Charops felt the weight of the plains behind her as a haunted presence, stretching north many leagues to the mountains that guarded the cradle of civilization.

Ghastly thought: when they were done here they’d have to cross the plains again, in the other direction…

 

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


Caleb Wilson‘s stories have appeared in Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Ironic Fantastic, and Horror Without Victims. He also designs and writes interactive fiction. He and his wife live in Illinois.

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: Nathan Carson

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and to celebrate its publication we’re posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from Nathan Carson’s “The King of Lapland’s Daughter.” His alt-history saga is set in a land at once familiar and alien, and offers no false promises of a better tomorrow for we who are doomed by birth and damned by the fates…


The elder women of Kvenland peered at King Mauno through the smoke of torchlight and veils of grey braids. Their looks were shifting: one moment stern, in the next ripe with disdain. The windblown skin around those eyes was cracked as the polished hide they wore which shone wherever two furs met and iron fastens failed. Those eyes saw a weak king planted where a strong Queen had sat a fortnight before.

For his part, Mauno at least feigned ignore the body that ruled his hall. He had only collapsed into power of late, the first man to rule Kvenland in living memory. His focus was squarely on the exotic figure of the Bishop before him, garbed in cloths and markings that still felt anachronistic, even alien in the northern wastes. Henrik’s words oft promised pots of gold, but there was something of the serpent in him.

Mauno spoke.

“Henrik, comfort me. I cannot allow my grief to undermine our defenses any longer. My Queen was lost to us in her campaign to the North. She sought to protect our people, yet the only soul to return was a young shieldmaiden who babbled of ‘haystacks with blades for hands.’ So frozen was she to her steed that both bled out when we finally prised them apart.”

He shifted on his hardwood throne, swathed in rich brown furs. Red-jeweled rings on thick gold bands circled his fingers, which dug into the grips of his seat. Black pitch and bird bones were the only ornamentation on that throne.

“I sent our own village priest to do battle on the mere. Neither has he returned. The Jötunn are restless. They stir and stumble south and our kin are in their path. Pray tell me once more how your One God can smite them!”

The Bishop smoothed his raiment and raised both hands, palms forward.

“Your majesty, it is no frost giant incursion. These are damned things from beneath the soil. Stay your sword. I need no army to command them back from whence they slumbered. Only provisions, an escort, and this…”

Henrik drew one hand to his neck, caressed and polished the silver cross on the end of his onyx rosary. Mauno placed a palm on the hilt of his greatsword.

“You shall have warriors too, Henrik. This evil must be sent away. Cast it off the side of the world, and soon. I will follow if I must. Go now and Ukko be with you!” Suddenly his sword slid from its sheath and aimed at the firmament.

Henrik winced at the pagan blasphemy, crossed himself and stole a glance at the tiny disc of solid grey sky that beamed down from the chimney in the center of the roof above. A gust of torch smoke blotted it out; now the ceiling was nothing but rafter and shadow. The great wooden skeleton was a shelter for the surviving leadership of Kvenland. Henrik turned and exited the building’s ribcage with an entourage of hefty bearded warriors, marching face first into the howling cold of morning. The ruling women watched them go, eyeing their firm and muscular legs.

Mauno’s gaze returned to the throng of women that flanked his court.

“It will not do,” he said. “The Bishop will fail. We need a wizard. Who among you can find one?”

There were gasps, then silence and discomfort. Eyes darted, but none made reply. Then,

“Father, I can fetch you a wizard,” said Princess Aili, stepping forward. Even in the shadows of the hall her golden hair seemed woven of summer sunlight…

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


Nathan Carson is a writer and musician from Portland, Oregon. He is a founding member of the internationally touring doom metal band Witch Mountain. When not on the road, Carson’s byline can be found in Willamette Week and Vice. Decades after discovering Lovecraft through the early eighties role playing game scene, he has recently sat on panels at NecronomiCon, Cthulhucon, Bizarro Con, and Living Dead Con. His weird fiction has been published by Word Horde and lauded in Rue Morgue. A debut novella, Starr Creek, will be published in 2016 by Lazy Fascist Press.

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: Laurie Tom

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and to celebrate its publication we’re posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from Laurie Tom’s Three Kingdoms-set epic “The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang.” Instead of ending with the death of hope, hers is a tale that opens in that dark territory…


Zhuge Liang was dead, and with him, Shu Han’s greatest hope of a unified China. The prime minister’s star trembled in the night sky instead of falling to earth with the death of the great sage. Zhuge Liang had promised that it would remain until the Shu army had withdrawn, so their enemies would not know of his passing.

But that was small comfort for Jiang Wei, who entered his mentor’s tent to pack Zhuge Liang’s possessions for travel back to the riverlands. Outside, Yang Yi marshaled the soldiers in accordance with the prime minister’s final wishes. No banners of mourning would be hung, or the soldiers of Cao Wei in their fortress would know that the Sleeping Dragon now slept for good. The Shu withdrawal would be quiet, orderly. Once they were safe, then they would mourn.

The tent flap opened again and Ma Yun stepped inside. He clasped his hands and gave a slight bow. “I thought I would find you here.”

“Did Yang Yi send you?”

Jiang Wei outranked Ma Yun, but the two had become friends over the six years and five expeditions that had made up Zhuge Liang’s attempts to pacify the north. Though others were contemptuous of Ma Yun and his oddly light voice, the soft timber of a eunuch, Jiang Wei knew better. Ma Yun had been born a woman, but considered himself a man.

“No, I am simply concerned about your well being,” said Ma Yun. “My men are helping load the carts, and they do not need my oversight for that.”

“Then you should rest. We’ll be marching soon.”

Ma Yun knelt beside Jiang Wei and said, “We will both rest when your work is done. Do you think I could sleep when you do not?”

Jiang Wei sighed, but handed his friend a lacquered box. “Still stubborn,” he said. “As soon as Sima Yi realizes we’ve abandoned camp, he’ll lead the Wei army in pursuit of us. The prime minister’s star will have fallen and they’ll know that he’s dead. We need time.”

“You’ll think of something. You have been his student these past six years. There is no better strategist to succeed him and you know these northern lands better than anyone.”

Six years ago Jiang Wei had been an officer in the Wei army, until a paranoid commander had suspected him of collaborating with Shu. When he had fled for his life, Zhuge Liang had been the one to offer him refuge and gave him a position in his army. Now, with the prime minister’s final request, it would be Jiang Wei’s duty to pacify the land he had once called home.

“You could always dress a wooden figure in the prime minister’s clothes and stick it in his carriage,” said Ma Yun. “Wheel it around and from a distance Sima Yi might think that the prime minister is still directing the battle.”

His voice was playful, but Jiang Wei could almost take the suggestion seriously. Sima Yi’s greatness weakness was his tendency to overthink the traps Zhuge Liang had laid for him. That was why the Wei army remained safely ensconced in their fortress rather than facing Shu on the battlefield. Even the prime minister’s attempts to insult the tactician’s honor had failed in the wake of Sima Yi’s paranoia.

Which gave Jiang Wei an idea…

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


Laurie Tom is a third generation Chinese American.  She was introduced to the Chinese classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, via the video game series and only read the book much later.  She apologizes to Zhuge Liang for never defeating Wei in the Northern Expeditions as her player avatar had other ideas.  Laurie’s fiction has appeared in other anthologies such as Streets of Shadows and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: Eneasz Brodski

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and to celebrate its publication we’re posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from Eneasz Brodski’s “Of All Possible Worlds,” where the dangerous atmosphere thickens with every page like the pungent incense used in some unspeakable rite…


My heart plummeted to my sandals.

“Titus…” My throat tightened, strangling my words. “This isn’t what I was expecting…”

The Ludus Matutinus trained and housed the Beastiari gladiators, as well as the animals they slaughtered. In its stables, I gazed down at a wretched human form chained in a dusty cart. A stunted thing, barely four feet tall, with knobby joints and not a single hair upon him. His wrinkled skin was scrawled with tattooed lines, cutting him into odd segments. He was the furthest thing from a horned, six-legged bear I could imagine.

“You promised me a horned, six-legged bear.” I protested. I could see Titus’s face grow dark, and fear crawled up my spine. If I could make him laugh… “He’s ugly enough, but Gracus was really excited about that horn thing—”

Titus’s open hand struck below my temple. The pain wasn’t as bad as the humiliation, the knowledge that he could do what he wanted with me.

“You forget your place, Marad.” He spit out my foreign name. “There weren’t any giant bears. This barbarian wizard will do.”

He would not do. Gracus had charged me with procuring beasts for the games. All damn year I’d been waiting for that bear. The legion had returned with plenty of regular, boring animals, but the horned bear was to be the centerpiece. I’d promised Gracus a monster battle.

“I can’t pay for this,” I said, avoiding Titus’s eyes. Looking lower. He was clean-shaven, as befitted his station, and my own salt-and-pepper beard felt all the more damning in contrast. He stepped forward purposefully, one hand resting on his sword’s pommel, the other pressing flat against my chest. He pushed, following as I retreated, until I was up against the stable wall. His breath assaulted me, inches away.

“You’ll pay full price,” he rumbled.

“Guards!” My voice broke, the bastards were standing right there. They marched over but didn’t lift a hand to restrain him. It didn’t matter that Gracus paid them to protect me. In the weighing of Roman Centurion versus Jewish Slave, there was no contest.

Titus grinned and ran his hand down my chest, to my belt, and slipped his fingers into my money pouch. I turned my face aside, praying my bladder would hold. He fished out several denarii.

“I’ll be back for the rest.”

A moment later he was gone and I was sliding to the floor, trembling. The so-called wizard in the cart wheezed out laughter. I glared at him. His mocking eyes met mine, a glimmer of madness flashing behind them.

“Go ahead and laugh,” I muttered. “You’ll be dead soon enough…”

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


Eneasz Brodski lives outside Denver with his wife and their two dogs. He was raised in an apocalyptic sect of Christianity, which has heavily influenced his writings. He produces a podcast of Rationalist fiction, at www.hpmorpodcast.com, and blogs at www.deathisbadblog.com. His short work has previously appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and he is currently working on a novel based upon this very story (“Of All Possible Worlds”).

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: Carlos Orsi

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and as it shambles toward its summertime publication we’re going to be posting excerpts from each of the stories. Today’s teaser comes from Carlos Orsi’s “The Argonaut,” which might have been called “Errol Flynn Goes to Hell.”


How I became a stowaway in the cargo hold of Beldur Reis’ corsair ship, sleeping on the old, rotting shelves once used to transport slaves, eating rats raw and drinking rain water that passed through cracks in the deck above, has no bearing in what follows. Suffice it to say that I was there when they attacked a Maltese vessel, which needs must remain nameless. The battle occurred at night, in the rain, by the blaze of torches and flashes of lightning. I don’t know why old, cunning Captain Beldur decided to engage under such conditions. Perhaps he was compelled by what I found later.

The blasts, the clangs, the screams–all that I heard, as expected. I smelled smoke and gunpowder, scorched flesh and fresh blood, all the scents of battle any man with naval experience might anticipate. What I had not expected was what came after the fighting died down–silence. Deep, disturbing human silence. I could hear the rain pelting the deck. I even imagined I could listen to the blood, spilt, running, slowly mixing with raindrops in rivulets. I heard some small fires cracking.

But there were no voices. No cries or shouts or cheers, no songs, no roars. Not even footsteps. I waited, keeping myself awake all through the night. First, the rain stopped, and the thunder. Then the thin moonbeams that filtered through knotholes in the planks above started to fade, replaced by caustic, razor-sharp slivers of sunlight. It was time for breakfast, the first rat of the day, but I didn’t know what to do. There was no perceptible sign of human life on the deck over my head.

The ship started to heel. Ever so gently, at first.

Beldur’s vessel had been a slaveship before circumstances forced the captain to become a corsair for the Pasha in Tripoli, so the upper shelf of the cargo hold where I hid was poorly insulated and leaky–human cargo have a higher tolerance to unwholesome humidity than spices and wine casks. And things trickled down, of course, so there was always one or two feet of black, stinking water pooled at the very bottom of the hold. Now, as the ship moved in the ominous silence of the morning, I heard its splash. It unnerved me, that small, dark pond. It seemed almost pregnant.

I climbed down from the old slaves’ compartment, dropping into the hold proper. I landed close to the pond, my unshod feet slipping on the slimy planks. From there I moved among the crates, peeking inside them to see assorted pieces of iron, silver, and bronze, exquisite pottery, jars of scented oil sealed with wax–one of them cracked, exhaling an enticing perfume–and a few smaller boxes containing jewels and gold. For a moment, the silence of the ship felt welcome—if everybody else was dead, everything here would be mine. The thought produced a taut smile, but the pleasure did not last. In my heart I knew that until I found myself free of the ship and whatever had befallen her I was no better off than I was before, with but torn breeches and an ancient cutlass to my name.

I climbed the stairs out of the hold, quietly as I could, and took a deep breath. Maybe I should wait longer? A full day, perhaps two, before I risked exposing myself? Old Beldur knew me from long ago, and if he still lived I was sure I wouldn’t be even less welcome on his ship than a random stowaway. But the silence, insistent, stubborn, was too much to bear…

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


Carlos Orsi is a Brazilian writer and journalist. His horror and sf short stories have won some of the major awards for speculative fiction in his native country. In English, his work has appeared in venues as diverse as Crypt of Cthulhu and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He lives in the state of São Paulo with his wife Renata and Violet, a big, mysterious cat that probably hails from Ulthar.

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: E. Catherine Tobler

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and as it shambles toward its summertime publication we’re going to be posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from E. Catherine Tobler’s “The Living, Vengeant Stars,” which delivers epic battles, doomed heroism, and a conflict older than our solar system…


Sleeping upon the ancient Camorian ice shelf with the northern winds ghosting down the mountains, Elspeth Ernine was warmer than she should have been, given the dark man enfolding her from behind. She tried to elbow him in the ribs, but he didn’t have ribs. He had a mouth, a terrible gaping hole, and he pressed it against her ear as the others in the party slept undisturbed.

Soon, he whispered, and Elspeth shifted away from the voice even as he wormed closer, darkness made damp and corporeal. Within a fraying dream, he showed Elspeth the next place he meant for them to go, a temple shattered into and across a river churning with gelatinous masses of entrails and eyes. The stench of the place enveloped her as the dark man did.

Had killing the invisible horror of S’tya-Yg’Nalle not been enough? Never enough, the dark man said, and Elspeth understood the enormity of what he wanted of them; saw in the far distance the colossal, tentacled beast slumbering beneath green waters, bound to the prison stones with chains as thick as tree trunks. This was the goal. These others paved the way, weakened the great one as he slept unknowing. Why should I serve any longer, the dark man rasped.

Elspeth flinched at the touch of the dark man’s not-hands on her arm, and shifted in her roll, to come face to almost-face with him. From her side, she drew Feymal, the blade said to have issued from the unknowable depths of Holy Wood, seemingly wrought for her hand alone. She pressed its lustrous edge against whatever darkness served as his throat. They needed no words—touching was forbidden him. She would fight for him, because alone she could not overcome the horrors of Lowenhold Prison, the place that bound her sister. She would go for her and her alone, slaying whatever horror she must to get there.

In a dissipating cloud of ink, he withdrew from one world and into another. Elspeth’s gray eyes flicked open to regard the cold, flat sky above. Snow blew down, soft flakes that would never amount to much more than a slippery layer of challenge to the morning’s journey. She had no desire to leave the warmth of her sleeping roll, but watched as Beryl Ghostsign did, feeding the meager breakfast fire.

“Have you dreamed?” Ghostsign asked.

“I dreamed.” Elspeth withdrew the crumpled scroll from her leather bodice. She pushed herself up on elbows, to spread the map before her. As had happened before, the path they were to take had been marked by her dreaming self, showing a path across the ice shelf.

“The River Tayl,” she said…

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


E. Catherine Tobler has never banded together with other lady fighters to put down or accidentally free an ancient evil–unless it was on a D&D board. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award ballot. You can find her online at www.ecatherine.com and @ecthetwit.

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: Natania Barron

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and as it shambles toward its summertime publication we’re going to be posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from Natania Barron’s “The Matter of Aude.” No mere pastiche of the Song of Roland, Barron’s piece captures the romanticism of the original while subtly contrasting the hopelessness of a mortal in the Mythos with the lot of women in such antique tales, and indeed, history itself…


It did not take long for the thrill of Aude’s grand scheme to wear off. Once she passed through the high gates of Aachen, disguised as Turpin’s clerk—she had taken the name of Milo—relief quickly found itself replaced by a nagging concern that she would be recognized. Or worse even, that Turpin would betray her.

The bishop had done her a great service in going along with her ruse, but he never would have done so had she not persuaded him with a great and powerful secret. That, and the fact that the Heavenly Mother, the Queen of Heaven, had appeared to her in a dream and told her to keep her brother Olivier from harm. That seemed to carry weight with Turpin.

Aude had always felt a special kinship to the Mother of God, but now all else felt obliterated. Let the men have their Christ the King. She knew the Queen of Heaven spoke to her in ways none of them would ever understand. And now she had a purpose, to save her brother.

Roland was not far ahead of them; she could see the black curls at the nape of his neck just below his golden helmet. Her betrothed. The man she would spend the rest of her life with, should he return from this bitter war with the Saracen king Balan. The man she was expected to have children with, to raise a brighter generation, once peace was restored.

But Aude was not concerned that Roland might recognize her. They had spent such a small amount of time together she was fairly certain he would not know the difference between her and the twenty thousand odd men in their retinue. He had a habit of finding other things to look at when she was near him, anyway. Theirs was a union of rank and reputation and she was not blind to it, even if she played it so.

No, Roland would not be the challenge. Olivier was.

And Olivier was not only her challenge, but her reason for leaving courtly life. It was all due to their king, Charlemagne, sending Olivier to fight a giant. A creature known as Fierabras, who was rumored to be the deformed son of Balan himself.

As she brooded over her brother’s doom, the bishop looked sidelong at her, his narrow gaze taking her in once more. If not for those sly, shifting eyes, he might have been a handsome man.

“You don’t look as nervous as I expected,” said Turpin, leaning over and speaking softly. “Perhaps there’s more of your brother in you than I imagined.”

“I am not afraid, not of the fighting,” she said, keeping her voice low. “The Queen of Heaven has guided my steps and kept me safe, even when I doubted.”

“You should consider trying it on, then, fear,” Turpin said, his smile turning the tip of his beard up just slightly.

“I only want to be close enough to Olivier to help him, when I learn how I may do so.”

“Yes, so you said. The Queen of Heaven will be fighting on your side—who can be against you? You, an ugly girl in a monk’s habit.”

She said nothing and continued forward on her unhappy donkey…

 

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


Natania Barron is a word tinkerer with a lifelong love of the fantastic. She has a penchant for the speculative and has written tales of invisible soul-eating birds, giant cephalopod goddesses, gunslinger girls, and killer kudzu, just to name a few. Her work has appeared in Weird Tales, EscapePod, Steampunk Tales, Crossed Genres, Bull Spec, and various anthologies. Her debut novel, Pilgrim of the Sky, was called “… a lush, dreamy fable – both vintage gothic, and modern mystery … lovingly laced with magic and darkness from start to finish” by Cherie Priest. When not venturing in imagined worlds, she can be found in North Carolina, where she lives with her family.

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: Jason Heller

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and as it shambles toward its summertime publication we’re going to be posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from Jason Heller’s “Daughter of the Drifting.” Melding crisp narration with an unreliable landscape, Heller forges a piece as haunting as it is downright weird…


Waves of mud from the Ocean Amorphous tugged at the hobnails of my boots as I trod the shore that morning. The soil undulated nauseously beneath my feet. It wasn’t a large quake. I trudged on.

The stench of rot, fetid and heavy, rose from the squelching sea. No gulls wheeled in the sky above its gray-brown swells; no fish wriggled in them, save for the lungfish that trawled its murky floor, occasionally to emerge, squinting in the dim light of the violet sun like an internal organ thrust into the cruel air.

I had partaken of such a creature the night before. Lungfish could only be eaten raw, as fire caused the meat to sublimate into a noxious vapor, and pickling it produced a mucus nigh on poisonous. Choking down its oily flesh, I had pondered my path thus far.

It was not a comforting path to retrace, nor an easy one. The small islands that comprised this world shifted constantly. There were no continents to of which to speak or islands so large they couldn’t be trodden across in a day. They morphed constantly, like blobs of sludge in the glutinous soup that was the Ocean Amorphous—the body of water, if indeed it might be called that, which encircled the world. One often awoke after a haunted sleep, adrift on a clump of slime and flattened ferns; it had been, just the night before, the promontory of an entire island. People lived upon these clots of muck, fought over them, died for them, only to have them dissolve and drift away before each sunrise.

It was a world that afforded no constancy, but my path was difficult to contemplate for another reason. Like the lungfish, I did not belong here. My body—its piebald skin, its pendulous breasts, its robust hips—was native to this filthy hell, all too true. But my spirit had long ago been hurled across the cosmic void and back by the hand of a Great Old One, whose immeasurable, skull-bejeweled hilt protruded from my eternal soul like some scabrous and cancerous growth.

My path, deformed as it was, had been prescribed by the arc of the Blade of Anothqgg…

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


Jason Heller is the author of the alt-history novel Taft 2012; the Goosebumps tie-in Slappy’s Revenge; and the Pirates of the Caribbean tie-in The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook. He’s the former nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld and won a Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine as part of that editing team. His science fiction/fantasy/horror short stories have appeared in Apex Magazine, Farrago’s Wainscot, Sybil’s Garage, Expanded Horizons, and others. He’s a 2009 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and he writes about genre fiction for NPR, Clarkesworld, and The Onion A.V. Club (where he’s a Senior Writer). His writing on speculative fiction has also appeared in Weird Tales, Entertainment Weekly, Tor.com, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Time Traveler’s Almanac. Jason lives in Denver with his wife, Angie.

 

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: Jonathan L. Howard

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and as it shambles toward its summertime publication we’re going to be posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from Jonathan L. Howard, who drags us deep into the bowels of the earth for his chilling “Without Within…”


It was unconscionable, and – he felt – a personal attack on his reputation and thereby his honour. Yet he held his temper and instead communicated his great rancour to Stephen Hensley with a glowering stare of unmistakable threat.

“This is a simple matter, Master Hensley,” said Major John Bell with dangerous deliberation. “I surveyed the breach myself. The length of fallen wall provides its own materials and pattern; there is naught of brain necessary but that it be put back as it was.”

This was not quite honest; the mine had shattered many of the blocks of stone that had formed the base of the city wall at St Mary’s and replacements would have to be found, likely by commandeering them from elsewhere within York. That was a trivial matter, however, and if some worthy woke up one morning to find their doorstep gone, then they were still getting off very lightly indeed.

The breach in the wall had been a matter of contention to the Parliamentarian forces even before the city had surrendered to them. The walls were far too well-constructed for artillery to bring them down. Instead, the engineers under Bell’s command had excavated a tunnel leading under the wall at St Mary’s with the intention to breach there and simultaneously at a similar mine at Walmgate Bar, allowing an overwhelming force to swarm in and take the city. It had been slow, dangerous work, with the possibility of detection or collapse at every yard of the way. Yet Bell’s men had managed it, and he had been proud of them for it. Aye, even of Hensley who now stood snivelling before Bell’s desk.

In olden times, the wall would have been collapsed by setting a fire in the tunnel to burn away the heavy timber supports the engineers had brought in to support the foundations they had themselves dug away. These days, gunpowder did the trick more effectively and allowed better timing of exact moment the breach would open, allowing the attackers to be in position and ready to take full advantage.

That had not occurred on this occasion, however. The St Mary’s mine was completed comfortably in advance of the one at Walmgate – largely the effect of the ground being stonier there, Bell conceded. Sergeant Major General Crawford of the Eastern Association under the Earl of Manchester expressed impatience and one of his subordinates took this to mean they should press ahead with what was available to them. On the 16th day of June, the year of our Lord 1644, this fool took it upon himself to fire the charge.

Crawford had only six hundred men available to take advantage of the collapsed wall, the merest fraction of what was required. They entered the city, but Royalist defenders sallied from the nearby Abbey postern gate and flanked the attackers from behind. Half the six hundred were killed or injured. Crawford claimed he had just discovered that the defenders had detected the Walmgate tunnel, and had successfully flooded it; he feared they also knew of the St Mary’s tunnel. That didn’t seem likely to Bell; the Royalists seemed to have been surprised by the breach, which argued against Crawford being right. It did not, however, preclude the possibility that he had acted in good faith. The Earl had taken him at his word, Cromwell less so.

After all their efforts, Major Bell was privately furious that the mine had been tossed away in such a manner. As it was, York eventually surrendered after most of the defenders marched out to join Prince Rupert in engaging the Parliamentarians. All they got for their trouble was slaughtered at Marston Moor before Rupert remembered pressing matters in the south and abandoned York to its fate. Sir Thomas Glemham was left as governor, looked at the sorry state of the forces left to him, and opened negotiations.

A month to the day after the disaster at St Mary’s, the Parliamentarians marched into the city at Walmgate, St Mary’s Gate, and Micklegate.

And here was Major John Bell, a month after that, trying to patch up the hole in the wall in whose creation he had been instrumental. It was a strange life, and not always an enjoyable one.

“The men don’t like the hole,” said Hensley. He had a shapeless cloth cap in his hands that he kept wringing incessantly. It was unseemly for a man of Hensley’s seniority, chief foreman and master of works.

“They helped make it,” said Bell. “Why would they show so much animosity to it now?”

Hensley stared at him.

Bell kept his anger in check. “Why are they so afeared of it, I mean? ‘Tis just a hole in a wall.”

“Not that hole, Major,” said Hensley. “The one beneath it…”

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


Jonathan L. Howard is the author of the Johannes Cabal, Russalka Chronicles, Goon Squad, and Carter & Lovecraft series. He is in no way haunted by horrors beyond the Abyss, and there are perfectly good reasons why he is usually to be found sitting in darkened rooms, speaking in a buzzy voice. He just doesn’t care to go into them right now, that’s all. He lives near Innsmouth with a pack of Deep ones. He lives near Bristol with his wife and daughter. He did live in York for ten years and nothing supernatural ever happened there. Except that one time.

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Swords v. Cthulhu Teaser: M.K. Sauer

Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and as it shambles toward its summertime publication we’re going to be posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from M.K. Sauer’s swashbuckling “The Thief in the Sand,” and provides Mythos comfort food while blazing its own path through the trackless dunes…


Her execution was not set for dawn, as she had hoped, but rather at midnight—the coolest part of the day. She was to be a spectacle—something she had tried hard to avoid since she was a girl—to keep the denizens of sandy, desert capital occupied with gore and grandeur instead of the scorching heat of the midsummer drought.

The palace, so barren and stark on the morning of her sentencing, was now lavish with expensive silks the color of the clarion sky set against the harsh orange of the surrounding sands. They twisted in the wind; an effusion of fabric that threw shadows across the polished floors. So many torches were lit that she had to blink in the half-light to see her accusers. They stood before her like a row of statues in lavish, serpentine clothes and looked down on her prostrate, ragged form.

Her last sight of this earthly realm would be the faceted jewels inlaid in the stone floor while waiting for a wicked, curved sword to slice through her neck. She wished the shadows didn’t show the silhouette of the executioner quite so clearly. She could feel the greedy eyes of a thousand spectators settling on her back.

“Last words?” the hooded swordsman asked, his black eyes gleaning with the promise of a swift death.

“Mercy,” she responded in a parched voice. Her lips cracked and even the blood dripping from the cuts felt sluggish in the midnight heat.

“Mercy! Mercy!” A few wailing voices took up the chant until her ears rang with their cries.

“Where was your mercy for the victims of your deft fingers? How many lives has your unscrupulous thievery ruined?” The shah’s disinterested voice carved through the sounds of a thousand people rearranging themselves. His large beard and necklaced chin moved with the practiced fluidity of one who had sent many to their deaths. Rings around his fingers tinkled as he fidgeted on his pillowed and perfumed throne. One of his sons yawned as yet another picked at his nails. She was nothing to this mighty ruler, this deity of the desert.

“Mercy! Mercy!” the cries continued until the word no longer made sense to her ears.

“Still,” the shah returned, finally sitting up in his throne to give a proper look to his people, “even a thief deserves a respite as the gods decree…”

For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press


MK Sauer lives in Boulder, Colorado where she owns a coffee shop and spends entirely too many hours of the day caffeinated. She received a degree in Russian Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Believing that everyone should have at least one party trick, she has finally decided that hers is talking about Stalin for three hours straight. She has self-published her novel Star-Crossed: The Confounding Calamities of Byron the Cad and Marietta the Zombie; you can find it on her website mksauer.com.

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