The agreement with Isenette obliged her to keep the peace in the valley, meaning: prevent hostile armies from climbing Midz-Aset's mountain to challenge him, and send none of her own. It did not require her to stop small parties of adventurers from trying their luck, however, and that was by the dragon's design.

He needed the occasional entertainment.

When the group of Raiegan swordsmen burst into his lair, interrupting his slumber, he had bathed them in a stream of flame and steam that should have stripped blackened flesh from the bones before they could clatter to the ground; they had winced but had emerged from the assault undamaged. He had lunged into their midst, swinging claw and tail and snapping jaws shut; he had found only air as the swordsmen leapt aside at speeds that should have been impossible, their long ribbon-braided black hair whipping from side to side. Clearly they had the assistance of well-chosen magics. A challenge.

It had taken him nearly ten minutes of studying their attacks, deflecting them, watching for patterns. When he resumed his own attacks, he halved their number so quickly that the rest panicked and tried to flee, only to be chased down before they could reach the narrow tunnels.

Returning to the cathedral-like main chamber of his lair, standing over part of a Raiegan leg and a smear of Raiegan brain, he rumbled, "Wizard, where are you? I owe you a favor for the distraction and the meal. Show yourself."

A disembodied voice: "'Trust not the wyrm', says Prenadax, in one or other of his books."

"I knew him. One of his students? Or just a fan?"

"I never had the pleasure. My teacher was a lesser-known student of Oelianus Minor." A drawback to living in a cavern: the voice  bounced around far too much to guess the intruder's direction.

Another name he knew, all too well. "And your master sent you to avenge his own?"

"You killed Oelianus Minor?"

"Is that forgotten so soon?" Midz-Aset snorted, steam billowing out to disperse into the cold, dry cave air. "It was in war, not for sport, wizard."

"Sorcerer, actually."

"I'm sure the distinction is important to you." Midz-Aset found a comfortable spot between two piles of coin, and settled down. "You gave the Raiegans assistance of considerable value; how much did you charge them? I hope it was a great deal."

The voice laughed. "They paid without blinking. I suspect they thought they'd recoup their investment a hundredfold from your hoard."

"I tire of speaking to a ghost. Show yourself and I will let you live."

"I continue to be guided by Prenadax."

"He lived to be a ripe old age, that one; mostly by never doing anything interesting. Is that the life you wish to lead?"

"Whatever shape my life, I wish it to continue after today. What oath will a dragon keep?"

"A written treaty between myself and royal blood. Are you by any chance a King?"

"I'm afraid not. Anything else?"

"A purchased parole."

"What would your price, hypothetically? I seek an estimate. I see you have an interest in precious metals." The voice had taken on the tone of friendly banter: the sorcerer expected to live.

"An interest I am more than capable of slaking on my own." As was any dragon worthy of the name. "Perhaps you have some magic that might be of use to me?"

"Truce, to negotiate?"

Midz-Aset snorted.  "I agree."

The sorcerer appeared, only a few yards in front of his nose. One lurch forward, one bite, would end the negotiations. But the sorcerer's magic could prove valuable. The dragon regarded him: young-looking, though that could be a glamour or youth magic. If he was a student of a student of the more recent Oelianus, though… "You are a child."

The sorcerer shrugged. "I'm older than I look." Which could mean anything. "You are more than nine hundred, by my count. The Raiegans thought you'd be a tottering old husk by now."

Reigan soldiers, probably on leave and looking for opportunities to make one immense score. Trained, but not bright. They didn't understand dragons. "You didn't correct them."

The sorcerer grinned. "Advice wasn't in my contract."

"Still, a risk. If you knew they would fail, that would leave you in jeopardy, however strong your magic." Because most of that magic wouldn't work directly as a weapon, given a dragon's natural resistance. "How could you be certain I'd be forgiving? Or, at least, persuadable?"

"Oelianus told stories to his students, and so did my master. You have a reputation."

"Fair enough. What can you offer me that I don't already have? Or that I can't get on my own…"

"Look around you; what do you see?"

"Treasure. Gold and gemstones. Rock walls. Stalagmites?"


"I beg your pardon?" Midz-Aset said it politely, through bared teeth.

"There's humanoid bones everywhere. Elvish, dwarven, orcish… but mostly human, everywhere. And half-melted armor plate. Broken weapons and torn leathers." He pointed to piles of detritus as he spoke; he finished on a man-size pile of dung. "Not to mention the droppings."

"I haven't gotten around to burning that yet."

"Certainly. But why should you bother?"

"Because I don't want the place overflowing with my own shit?"

"No, I mean: why should you bother?"

"You're going to clean my lair for me? This is only a few years' worth of garbage, sorcerer. You'd have to keep coming back. Somehow I don't think I can trust you to do that."

"Not me, you— my Lord. I was thinking of a golem."

Midz-Aset was suspicious. "You would leave a spy to assist your next attempt at robbery?"

"He would obey only you, answer only to you. I wouldn't even be here when the spell completed, to give it any other instruction. A blank slate."

"How long would it last?"

The sorcerer raised an eyebrow. "In theory? Indefinitely. As long as part of it survives intact and in contact with the earth, it will regenerate."

It was tempting.

"You are a Lord, Lord of the mountain. Surely a Lord should have a servant—"

"Enough, I am convinced."

The sorcerer knelt down, gathered up a handful of earth: it was fine, dusty. "I need water, as a binding agent. Otherwise it won't form. If you will direct me towards—"

Midz-Aset launched himself into the air, over the sorcerer's head, towards the ceiling of the cavern. There was a spot, if he remembered correctly. He hung in the air — silent and unmoving for a bare second, between wing-beats — and listened. When he was sure, his tail lashed out and struck the rock wall, high up, almost to the ceiling.

Shards of stone rained down: the sorcerer quickly held up his hands, directing the larger, potentially dangerous pieces away from where he was standing. By the time it had all come to rest, rivulets of water had run down the cavern wall from the new breach, to pool in a corner.

Midz-Aset swooped down and alighted where he had lain previously. "There. Water."

"Much obliged." The sorcerer walked over to the rapidly enlarging body of water. "This isn't going to flood the lair, is it?"

"It's not an unlimited supply: runoff from the snow melt above us, collecting in reservoirs in cracks and crevasses."

"Excellent. I begin."

The sorcerer closed his eyes, stretched out his hands, spoke a few words in a language unknown even to the ancient dragon. The pool began to bubble, the clear water began to darken with silt, thicken with it. Soon it was a roiling lumpy mass, sucking the water down off the wall faster than it could run on its own.

The sorcerer backed away from the pool, lowered his arms, looked satisfied. "There."

"There? There what? You've made me a soup of boiling mud."

"I told you, I won't be here when it completes. You want to be certain it's no spy, yes?" He raised an eyebrow at the dragon. "Yes. It won't be long. You'll know when it's ready."

"And then what?"

"And then you tell it what to do. Command it as its lord and master. You might want to give it a name, so it'll come when you call. They're not all that smart. Although…" the sorcerer shrugged, "it's not an exact science. Some are smarter than others. It'll be smart enough to clean, for certain. Maybe smart enough for more complicated tasks. And I think our business is concluded."

Midz-Aset was too entranced by the goo now forming into a discernable shape to do anything but nod. He followed the sorcerer's progress — out of the chamber, down the main tunnel, and up the narrow surface passage — with his ears.

The pool had become a humanoid mass of sloppy wet earth. It moved, reaching out, pushing itself up, pulling itself out of the hole left by its own creation. It was larger than a human, smaller than an orc. It had rounded river-stones for eyes and no mouth. It stood silently before the dragon, glistening — but oddly, not dripping onto the cave floor. Magic.

"You're muddy."

It nodded.

Give it orders. "Clean my lair. No, wait: keep my lair clean."

It nodded, and set to work.

It took much explanation for Midz-Aset to get the golem to pick up bones, ruined armor, and droppings while leaving gold and treasure. He had to show the thing where to put the garbage, as well: there was a pit, a deep chasm just off the main chamber. But before long, the creature was hard at work, and Midz-Aset was increasingly pleased with his 'purchase'.

He watched it clean until he fell asleep.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

One hundred and forty-three years later, Midz-Aset swooped low over the heads of a caravan of merchants on the gravel road from Haffton to the Jeweled Porte. Most of the merchants and their guardsmen scattered into the woods: the guardsmen at a dead run, the merchants at a somewhat slower waddle. The dragon ignored them: he was more interested in the oxen.

One wagon-driver had remained, and his face was familiar, even unchanged. The dragon, surprised, studied him closely and then rumbled pleasantly, "I know you."

The man hadn't moved a muscle yet, but the familiar face broke into a smile. "So you do, My Lord. How is your golem?"

"I call him 'Muddy'. He was dumb, at first, could only clean. He got smarter as the years went on. He reads, and can write in the dirt."

"Fascinating. I must have been having a good day when I cast that spell."

"I count him among my most valuable possessions, sorcerer. You have my thanks along with your life. And I will leave your oxen when I feed. How come you to a merchant caravan?"

"I sell cures to noblemen: for consumption, for cancer, for insanity. For lack of tumescence; that's a big seller." He shrugged. "There's little call for war-magics these days, the balance of power being what it is. And you? You must be eleven hundred by now. Any ills I could treat?"

"Dragons grow stronger with age, not weaker. But you know that, as I recall. My only complaint is boredom; have you a cure for that? With your power and mine we could conquer half the coast. Purely as a diversion, of course."

"I appreciate the offer, but I think I will limit myself to medicine."

"A pity," the dragon said, wisftfully.

"I hear there is a great war in the East. Perhaps you could—"

"There is always talk of a great war in the East, but it never turns out to be true. One gets there after days and days of flight and it's only a few hundred men on horses trying to get some plundered loot over a very long wall." Midz-Aset snorted. "And the dragons there are pathetic, not worth a challenge."

The sorcerer smiled politely. He looked vaguely impatient to resume his progress towards the Porte.

"Well, trust me, sorcerer: peace never lasts. Someone grows greedy or corrupt, or soft or complacent, and the balance tips. You will be Warlock again, before long, assuming your youth-magic holds." Midz-Aset drew in his wings and leapt over the sorcerer's wagon, to land on the next one back, crushing it to kindling, and his jaws snapped shut on a bleating ox.

By the time he was done his meal, the sorcerer's wagon was out of sight. He began meticulously collecting up — with his mouth — gold spilled from ruined carts. None of the merchants or their guardsmen had returned to try to rescue the pack animals from their fate, and he wasn't really hungry enough after devouring twelve oxen to want to maneuver his bulk between old-growth trees for the purpose of chasing the humans down. Once upon a time he would have done it just for sport.

Perhaps he was getting old.


"Margaret, can you hear me?

She rolled onto her back, looked languidly around her. She was imagining the voice: there was no one nearby, only green grass and broad-leafed trees.

"Margaret, concentrate on my voice."

She got up: the grass was cool against her hand. The sun bathed her upturned face with warmth, and she closed her eyes and smiled.

"How do you feel?"

To no one, answering no one, she said, "I feel wonderful."

There was a stream not far away, and she walked towards it.

"Margaret, I need you to come out of your 'happy place' now. The operation's over. Everything worked out fine. But you need to come out now. Do you remember how?"

She tried to ignore the voice. She picked a nice spot beside the stream to sit, lowering herself carefully to the ground, mindful not to get grass stains on her pretty yellow summer dress.

The voice seemed a bit closer, but still somehow apart. "Margaret?"

There was something to be afraid of, something she didn't want to go back to, but she couldn't remember what it was; she couldn't even manage to feel afraid. She'd never felt more contented and at peace than sitting in the cool grass by the stream.

"Margaret, you—"

"I'm not going back."

"I understand that it's very pleasant where you are, but it's not real. Do you remember in my office, after you joined the program, when we talked about the 'Jar'? How you would be in a very nice, calm, serene place, but that when the operation was done it would be time to put your consciousness back into your physical brain? How we'd need your help to do that?"

"I have my body right here." Her hands smoothed out the hem of her dress against her crossed legs. "I feel fine. I've decided to stay, and I wish you'd just leave me alone."

There was no response. Margaret dipped her hand into the stream: the water was cold, bracing, like runoff from a snowfall. She cupped her hand, brought some to her mouth, sipped.

"Margaret. We're very concerned that there may have been some damage from the accident that we missed, damage to your brain stem. Or some problem with the cybernetic interface. Do you remember the program; the words you need to say?

She remembered it, in spite of herself. Load Flash/Margaret.lib and transfer to Interface/Main. Execute. She didn't say it. They couldn't make her.

"Margaret, you can't stay in Flash memory forever. The ship needs you. Eventually they'll just turn off the power, and you'll be gone, and they'll start again with someone else. And they'll be behind schedule, Margaret, they'll have lost months or even years."

She said nothing. She didn't want to be a brain in a jar, a flesh computer controlling an colony ramship. But she'd signed up, for the money, and the the truck had come out of nowhere…

"They'll only wait so long, Margaret. It's time to come out."

Looking For Miss July

Howard walked into Brazil alone on dirt roads. He hadn't seen an invader or one of their drones since a few days after leaving the urban coast of Venezuela; he'd been in a truck, then, along with eight other people.

There was a town, with an airport, just south of the border: Pacaraima. He wouldn't risk a plane, not again, but maybe someone who had done so had left their car parked and the keys in it, knowing they'd never be back for it. It's what he would have done.

She would be in Rio, or São Paolo, depending on how far into the itinerary she'd gotten. Either way he still had a long way to go, and on foot it was a truly daunting prospect. Two thousand miles…

He'd come this far.

It was getting dark, and he'd walked all day from Santa Elena de Uairén; he settled under a tree to rest, just for a little while, just to give his feet time to stop burning and throbbing. From his pack he pulled out the magazine with her in it, opened it, unfolded her, looked at it. Just to remind himself what he was doing. He rested the magazine on his chest, closed his eyes for a moment.

He woke up at dawn, with a man standing over him, brown, broad-faced. "American?"


"American? You American?"


"You fight them off?" He made thumb-and-finger guns, pointed them at the sky. "Pew! Pew! You fight them off?"

Howard remembered Miami from the air. "Probably not."

A new voice, with a British accent. "All right, Mauro, enough, help him up." He was sitting behind the wheel of a jeep, and he looked like something out of Hemmingway: broad-brimmed hat, thick beard, vacation clothes, revolver stuck into waistband.

"I'm Howard Pruce. I'm going to Rio and São Paolo to look for my girlfriend."

Hemmingway shook his head. "I came from Rio, she's not there. No one's there. The sea's taken it, to fill in the crater. I haven't seen São Paolo, but it's probably the same."

"She may have gone inland with refugees?" It was a a statement, intoned as a question.

"Of course. Brazil's a big place. You'll be looking for years, assuming the Squids stay near the water and don't push inland. You have a picture?"

Howard held up the magazine.

"I mean of your girlfriend. To show people, ask if they've seen her?"

"She's in the magazine. She was Miss July, last year." He handed it over.

Hemmingway opened it, inspected her pictorial. Mauro grinned over his shoulder. "I can see why you're so intent on finding her. I wish you luck."

"Thanks. Where are you going?"

"Going? Nowhere. We're staying deep in the interior, my friend. Perhaps it'll be safe, for a while, anyhow." He handed the magazine back. "Come on, Mauro."

Howard watched them drive off. The jeep could have helped him, but Hemmingway had a gun, and he didn't.

It would be a long walk.

Zombie Drabble #394 "The Blessed Event"

Cheech exclaimed, "Jesus, isn't there any way to keep her quiet?"

"Even seen a woman give birth?" Randolph raised his eyebrows.


"Well take it from me: she's gonna holler. She's gonna scream her head off. All we can do about it is fight off whatever hears her until they're ready to move again."

"When'll that be?"

"If they both come through healthy?" Randolph shrugged. "Few days. It'd be less, we had a doctor."

"Fuck," protested Cheech. "Look, here comes one already."

A zombie shambled down the street, coming for crying mother and child.

"I'll bring up some more ammo."

SF Drabble #396 "Heliopause"

They were an engine drilled into the surface of a comet. When the ice was gone, they would grind up the rock and use it for reaction mass. When the dust was gone they would coast, an engine and a life-bubble headed past the point where the solar wind gave way to the void.

No one had ever been this far out before. The people they were running from had long since stopped chasing: it would have been a stern chase of years and a spectacular waste of resources.

They weren't coming back. They couldn't even if they wanted to.