My current project is an alternative history/fantasy, set in a world that diverged from our own in the mid 1800s with the seemingly random appearance of magic. The story takes place in 1932. Imagine hard-boiled gangster pulp meets magical powers and the addition of golden-age super science, only with more zeppelins and ninjas, and you’re on the right track.
Keep in mind that this is still in the very rough draft form. I’m the kind of writer that cranks out mass quantities fast, and then has to spend an epic amount of time cleaning it up.
As usual for when I post excerpts online, profanity has been filtered. Hey, my Mom reads this blog!
So enjoy this bit from the prologue of the Grimnoir Chronicles.
One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. The appearance of esoteric and etheral abiliites, magikal fires and feats of strength, in recent decades are the purest demonstration of natural selection. Surely, in time, that general law will require the extinction of traditional man.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Man and Selection of Human Magikal Abilities, 1879
El Nido, California
“Okies.” the Portuguese farmer spat on the ground, giving the evil eye to the passing automobiles that were weighed down with baskets, bushels, and crates. The autos just kept coming up the dusty San Joaquin Valley road, like some kind of Okie wagon train. He left to make sure all his valuables were locked up and his Sears & Roebuck single-shot 12 gauge was loaded.
The tool shed was locked and the shotgun was in his hands when the short little man returned to watch.
One of the Ford Model Ts rattled to a stop in front of the farmhouse fence. The old farmer leaned on his shotgun and waited. His son would talk to the visitors. The boy spoke English. So did he, but not as well, good enough to take the Dodge truck into Merced to buy supplies, and it wasn’t like the mangled inbred garbage dialect the Okies spoke was English anyway.
The farmer watched the transients carefully as his son approached the automobile. They were asking for work. They were always asking for work. Ever since the dusts had blown up and cursed their stupid land, they’d all driven west in some Okie exodus until they ran out of farmland so stopped to harass the Portuguese, who had gotten here first.
Of course they’d been here first. Like he gave a s*** if these people were homeless or hungry. He’d been born in a f***ing hut on the tiny island of Terceira and had f***ing milked f***ing cows every single day of his life until his hands were leather bags so strong he could bend pipe. The San Joaquin valley had been a f***ing s*** hole until his people had shown up, covered the place in Holsteins, and put the Mexicans to work. Now these Okies show up, build tent cities, bitch about how the government should save them, and sneak out at night to rob the Catholics. It really pissed him off.
It always amazed him how much s*** the Okies could fit onto an old Model T. He’d come from Terceira on a steamship, spending weeks in a steel hole between hot steam pipes. He’d owned a blanket, one pair of pants, a hat, and a pair of shoes with holes in them. He’d worked his ass off in Portuguese town in Rhode Island, neck deep in fish guts, married a nice Portuguese girl, even if she was from the screwed up island of St. George, which everybody from Terceira knew was the ass crack of the Azores, and saved up enough money doing odd jobs to come out here to another Portuguese town and buy some scrawny Holsteins. Five cows, a bull, and twenty years of back breaking labor had turned into a hundred and twenty cows, fifty acres, a Ford tractor, a Dodge pickup, a good milk barn, and a house with six whole rooms. By Portuguese standards, he was living like a f***ing king.
So he wasn’t going to give these Okies s***. They weren’t even Catholic. They should have to work like he did. He watched the Okie father talking to his son as his son patiently explained for the hundredth time that there wasn’t any work, and that they needed to head toward Los Banos or maybe Chowchilla, not that they were going to work anyway when they could just break into his milk barn and steal his tools to sell for rotgut moonshine again. His grandkids were poking their heads around the house, checking out the Model T, but he’d warned them enough times about the dangers of outsiders, and they stayed safely away. He wasn’t about to have his family corrupted from their good Catholic work ethic by being exposed to bums.
Then he noticed the girl.
She was just another scrawny Okie kid. Barely even a woman yet, which was surprising that she hadn’t already had three kids from her brothers. But there was something strange about this one… Something he’d seen before.
The girl glanced his way, and he knew then what had set him off. She had grey eyes.
“Mary mother of God,” the old farmer muttered, fingering the crucifix at his neck. “Not this s*** again…” His first reaction was to walk away, leave it alone. It wasn’t any of his business, and the girl would probably be dead soon enough. Impaled through her guts by some random tree branch or a flying bug stuck in an artery. And he didn’t even know if the grey eyes meant the same thing to an Okie as it did to the Portuguese. For all he knew she was a normal girl who just looked funny, and she’d go have a long and stupid life in an Okie tent city popping out fifteen kids who’d also break into his milk barn and steal his tools.
The girl was studying him, dirty hair whipping in the wind, and he could just tell…
“F***ing s*** damn,” he said in English, which was the first English any immigrant who worked with cows learned. He’d seen what happened to the grey eyes when they weren’t taught correctly, and as much as he despised Okies, he didn’t want to see one of their kids with their brains spread all over the road because they’d magically appeared in front of a speeding truck.
Leaning the shotgun against the tractor tire, he approached the Model T. The Okie parents looked at him with mild belligerence as he approached their daughter. The old farmer stopped next to the girl’s window. There were half a dozen other kids crammed in there, but they were just regular desperate and starving Okies. This one was special.
He lifted his hat so she could see that his eyes were the same color as hers. He tried his best English. “You… girl. Grey eyes.” She pointed at herself, curious, but didn’t speak. He nodded. “You… Jump? Travel?” She didn’t understand, and now her idiot parents were staring at him in slack jawed ignorance. The old farmer took one hand and held it out in a fist. He suddenly opened it. “Poof!” Then he raised his other hand as far away as possible, “Poof!” and made a fist.
She smiled and nodded her head vigorously. He grinned. She was a Traveler all right.
“You know about what she does?” the Okie father asked.
The old farmer nodded, finding his own magic inside and poking it to wake it up. Then he was gone, and instantly he was on the other side of the Model T. He tapped the Okie mother on the arm through the open window and she shrieked. All his grandkids cheered. They loved when he did that. His son just rolled his eyes.
The Okie father looked at the Portuguese farmer, back at his daughter, and then back to the farmer. The grey eyed girl was happy as could be that she’d found somebody just like her. The father scowled for a long time, glancing again at his strange child that had caused them so much grief, and then at all the other starving mouths he had to find a way to feed. Finally he spoke. “I’ll sell you her for twenty dollars.”
The old farmer thought about it. He didn’t need any more people eating his up food, but his brother and sisters had all ended up dead before they had mastered Traveling, and this was the first other person like him he’d seen in twenty years, but he also hadn’t gotten where he was by getting robbed by Okies. “Make it ten.”
The girl giggled and clapped.
Everyday was the same. Every prisoner in the Special Prisoner’s Wing of the Rockville State Penitentiary had the exact same schedule. You slept. You worked. You got put back in your cage. You slept. You worked. You got put back in your cage. Repeat until time served.
Working meant breaking rocks. Normal prisoners got put on work crews to be used by mayors trying to keep budgets low. They got to go outside. The convicts in Special Wing got to break rocks in a giant stone pit. Some of them were even issued tools. The name of the facility was just a coincidence.
One particular convict excelled at breaking rocks. He did a good job at it because he did a good job at everything he set his mind to. First he’d been good at war and now he was good at breaking rocks. It was just his nature. The convict had single minded determination, and once he got to pushing something, he just couldn’t find it in himself to stop. He was as constant as gravity. After a year, he was the finest rock breaker and mover in the history of Rockville State Penitentiary.
Occasionally some other convict would try to start trouble because he thought the convict was making the rest of them look bad, but even in a place dedicated to holding felons who could tap into all manner of magical affinities, as this was, after all, the Special Prisoner’s Wing, most were smart enough not to cross this particular convict. After the first few left in bags, the rest understood that he just wanted to be left alone to do his time. Occasionally some new man, eager to show off his Power, would step up and challenge the convict, and they too would leave in a bag.
The warden did not blame the convict for the violence. He understood the type of men he had under his care, and knew that the convict was just defending himself. Between helping meet the quota for the gravel quarry that padded the warden’s salary under the table, and for ridding the Special Wing of its most dangerous and troublesome men, the warden took a liking to the convict. He read the convict’s records, and came to respect the convict as a man for the deeds he’d done before committing his crime. He was the first Special Prisoner ever granted access to the extremely well-stocked, but very dusty prison library.
So the convict’s schedule changed. Sleep. Work. Read. Sleep. Work. Read. So now the time passed faster. The convict read books by the greatest minds of the day. He read the classics. He began to question his Power. Why did his Power work the way it did? What separated him from normal men? Why could he do the things he could do? Because of its relation to his own specific gifts, he started with Newton, then Einstein, finally Bohrs and Heisenberg, and then every other mind that had pontificated on the science related to his magic. And when he had exhausted the books on science, he turned to the philosopher’s musings on the nature of magic and the mystery of where it had suddenly come from and all of its short history. He read Darwin. He read Schuman, and Kelser, Reed, and Spengler. When that was done, he read everything that was left.
The convict began to experiment with his Power. He would sneak bits of rock back into his cell to toy with. Reaching deep inside himself, twisting, testing, always pushing with that same dogged determination that had made him the best rock breaker, and when he got tired experimenting with rocks, he started to experiment on his own body. Eventually all those hours of testing and introspection enabled him to discover things about magic that very few other people would ever understand.
But he kept that to himself.
Then one day the warden offered the convict a deal…