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Violent Relics [excerpt]

This is an excerpt from a piece of short fiction I'm trying to clean up for publication. Unfortunately it was already rejected once by Strange Horizons... I'm posting this small excerpt here so that friends and comrades can comment/critique and let me know if it's just worth abandoning altogether. [And the short story, for any interested parties, is itself an excerpt of an unpublished novel.]

When I was thirteen my brother returned from the war. His body was intact but his mind was an amputated limb. He would stare at the wall for hours. Sometimes he would scream until he lost his voice. Other times he would hold conversations with the ghosts of dead comrades. And though his madness was occasionally punctuated by moments of lucidity, my parents committed him to the lunatic asylum.

Since Koenag had lost the war the veterans were an embarrassment. The patriots saw them as Koenag’s failure to retain independence. Those who welcomed the invaders saw my brother and his kind as enemies of the new hierarchy. So they were removed, along with every symbol of the former government. They were relegated to street corners, workhouses, shelters, and asylums. They did not receive a pension or recognition for their sacrifice. Some of the survivors, cynical and jaded, chose to enter the new armies that were subservient to the Xeyerc Hegemony. Others were forgotten.

My brother, in his moments of sanity, continued to curse Xeyerc. And when he lapsed into his madness he would mumble banned patriotic anthems. He was a patriot even in his lunacy and so I became convinced that patriotism was akin to insanity.

Before he was confined to the asylum, however, my brother presented me with a gift. At the edge of the Burning Sea, on a peninsula that forms the magnetic pole of the east, there was an ancient pyramid where my brother’s battalion fought its last battle.

According to the literature and sagas from the days before the Ancient War, this pyramid supposedly hid a gateway to one of the baronies. Though no one really believes in this legend, and though no gateway was found, the pyramid was impregnable. No weapons, mundane or arcane, could violate its walls. My brother’s battalion hid within the pyramid’s inner labyrinth and drew the enemy inside, forcing them to fight in narrow hallways, dizzying passageways, and confusing chambers.

If my brother and the other madmen who returned from this pyramid are to be believed, the interior maze was filled with pits that descended infinitely. There were arcane traps and doors consisting of impossible puzzles. Rooms choked with skeletons, some of them inhuman.

In one of these rooms, and on one of these skeletons, my brother found my gift. Two pistols covered in eldritch sigils that refused to rust; two matched and curved knives also glyphed and unrusted; a satchel that contained a rotting but readable copy of The Art of Pistoling.

My brother had read the ancient histories. He knew the meaning of these relics.

“You used to read VanArklay’s sagas when you were little,” he told me as he presented me with his gift. “I remember that you used to pretend you were Karyl Faulkren.”

The beauty of the pistolier instruments enchanted me immediately. With excited and trembling fingers I flipped through the tattered book, staring at the diagrams and explanations. VanArklay’s ancient fiction about Karyl Faulkren, the baronies, and the void between universes had captured my imagination since I was eight.

He continued, “Maybe you can teach yourself how to use these, little sister––” my brother called me little sister more often than little brother––“and become a hero like Karyl Faulkren.”

At that time VanArklay’s account of the Faulkren legend was the only saga I had read. I had no idea that other texts treated her as a villain rather than a hero––claiming that the mythic God King was a great man founding a great dynasty and that the pistolier was a half-devil assassin. (Of course, if I had paid attention to the conclusion of VanArklay’s book I would have noticed that the author mentioned these other interpretations of her hero. But I was a child and more interested in accounts of adventure than the problem of interpretation.)

I looked up from the guns, my face flushed with excitement. “Maybe you can help me learn, Col.”

Instead of responding, my brother’s gaze emptied itself of lucidity and he began to scream. He was taken away to the crazy house and I was left with two guns, two knives, and a decaying manual.