Friday, September 2, 2022

MSF: The Ballad of Molly Ironshanks

A portrait of Molly Ironshanks: A woman of the road, all lean muscle and weathered edges, approaching middle age. Ember-red hair down to her collarbone, long as she can keep it without posing a hazard. Freckles like spilled salt across her face. An eyepatch over an empty socket; a long, jagged scar cuts from the center of her forehead to her left cheekbone. Her right arm is tattooed with the woad-blue fingerprint swirls of the sacred script of the northern warrior traditions; unscrolled, it reads "bring terror to the wicked; may evil men flee before those who hate the sword".

Early Life

Molly was born in the rural north country, outside of Dhalbroch. Her parents were farmers, she had two brothers (both elder) and she was never particularly happy. That's all she'll say about it. Ironshanks is not her family name; she claims membership with the Red Heron clan if anyone asks, and lodge records bear this out, but this is a convenience. Red Heron contains hundreds of smaller clans obscuring.

Her parents are, as far as she knows, still alive. Her eldest brother (who she does not speak to) took over the farm. The other lives in an assisted living Hermitage outside of Bensael. She visits on occasion.


The War in the North

Molly volunteered for the local militia shortly after Anharugh Paur declared his revanchist intentions - as much to fight the would-be sorcerer-king as to get away from the farm. Here she adopted the name Ironshanks as her own, called so by her comrades for her apparent indefatigability while on the march. Her unit was integrated into the 9th Battalion of the newly-formed teulu Dayr war-host, and swiftly deployed to the eastern front.

(As an aside, it was during these early days that Molly's company was visited by a Hundred-Handed One, come up from the south to visit his brothers in their volcanic forges up past the crown of the world. Molly will sometimes, after a few drinks, claim that she won a Coat of Arms from him in a dice game, only to lose it later in the campaign.)

She participated in numerous, though minor, engagements for the first two years of the conflict. The only noteworthy exception to this trend was the Battle of Four Sticks Bridge, which saw the defeat of a Lord of War after over ten hours of concerted effort and a point-blank cannon blast.

The final year of the war took a sharp turn to the worse. After the disastrous Battle of Splintertooth Pass, Molly found herself among the nearly 500 teulu Dayr and neandr soldiers who found themselves cut off from their main avenue of retreat. Unwilling to surrender to Paur's forces (for by this time it was widely known that prisoners of war were thrown to the sorcerer's swine-thing breeding pits) the stranded soldiers set out to pass through the mountains to the allied city of Yaran. Over a third died in the brutal winter crossing, and most of the survivors never returned to combat.

Molly spent four months recovering in Yaran, and likely would have stayed there for the rest of the war were it not for the sudden emergence of a sorcerer's tower at nearby Kulvakh. With most of the teulu Dayr occupied with the siege of Paur's primary strongholds and Yaran far from reinforcements, the city's military leadership put all their hopes in killing the sorcerer before their tower was fully operational. The raid was woefully undermanned and underequipped, with many of the soldiers - Molly included - not yet fully recovered from the March.

After breaching the tower complex,█████████████████████ ███████████ ████ ███████ █████████ ██████ █████████ ███████████████████ ███████████ █████ ██████ █████████████ ██████ ███ ██ brutal room-to-room fighting continued████████ ███████████████████████████ █████████ ██████ ███ ███ ██████ ███ ███ ████████████████ █████████ ████swine-things█████████ ███████████████████ ██████████████████████ ███████deeper into the complex███████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████Four of them - Molly, Evan, Siokim, Kaaniwakh - pinned the sorcerer to the ground as Atsiiqa shot him twice in the head███ ██ █████ █████████████████████████ ████████ ████████
████████ █████ ████████████ ███████████████ ████████████████ ████████████████████████████████into the pit████ █████████████████a vision of Hell███████████ ██████████████████ ██████ ███████ █████████ ██████████████████████ █████████ █████████ ████no hope of escape████████ ████████ █████████ █████ ███████████████████ █████████████ ██████████████████████ ██████mercy-killing██████████ ██████████████ ███████████ ███████████████████████████████████████████████████████

Of the 85 soldiers sent on the raid, 23 survived. The site was reduced to rubble by a cadre of warmages in the days following, and remains to this day, even with regular sanctification by local priests, one of the most powerfully cursed locations in the Dayr.

Seven weeks later, Anharugh Paur leapt from the balcony of his own tower, and the war in the north was over.

For all the focus the Kulvakh raid that has accrued over the decades since, the identity of the sorcerer and their motivation remain unknown to the public. It's safe to assume that it was one of Paur's acolytes, but the raid's after-action reports of the raid remain sealed and under the care of Bensael's wizards.

After the War

Molly had a personal apocalypse in the depths of Kulvakh tower. A vision of Hell, of the terrible blood-slicked machine churning away underneath the world. The millstone-weight perception, sure and certain, of the fragility of the world and the willingness of some to throw it into the furnace. The inevitability of slipping on the precipice, of violent destruction by the Red Law. She emerged from the pit physically unharmed and broken of spirit, possessed by despair and tormented by demons in both her dreams and her waking hours.

She never returned home, and never would again. She drifted south towards Bensael; sleeping in ditches and barn lofts and doing odd jobs for a warm meal or a few coins. She often thought of killing herself in those days, but each time found herself unable to do so - oblivion was more frightening.

After reaching the city, she lived for a while off of occasional work and the public pension. Most of her extra funds went towards drinking herself to death. In another timeline, one where she followed that trajectory for a few years more, an assistant baker would have found her dead in an alleyway, choked on her own vomit.

So it would have ended, if she had not met God in the small hours of the morning one cold and misty night.

(For purposes of clarification, God is a dog, and plenty of people meet him every day. He is very large, friendly in the laid-back and unworried manner of very large dogs, and is regularly seen wandering around Queens' Market and surrounding neighborhoods. The God that Molly met died some time ago, but the position has never been empty for long.)

Molly remembers next to nothing of this night, only the blurry image of the enormous dog standing beneath a streetlamp.

God, as a good lad is wont to do, recognized the signs of a human in danger and was able to lead Molly to the safety of a nearby doorway, where he barked for help. The door, in one of those great cosmic coincidences, was that of the Queens' Market chapterhouse of the Order of the Sable Maid. The nightwatch, hearing God's call (which is very difficult to ignore), brought Molly inside and put her up in one of the infirmary beds.

The next morning, as Molly was suffering through a truly wretched hangover, the chapterhouse's head sister came to talk over breakfast. Sister Sitka had seen no shortage of the drunk and the demon-haunted in her time, but more importantly for this meeting was that her son had also fought in the war in the north.

And so, over the course of a pot of tea and a fry-up and some gentle lines of questioning, Molly opened up. Just a little. She hardly noticed it at first, it had been so long since she had been able to talk to someone like this, about this. Sr. Sitka nodded along, sipped her tea, and did not push matters. She was content to listen, and when the listening was done and there was only grease left on Molly's plate, Sr. Sitka mentioned that the chapel was in need of a new cleaner - Mrs. Haeda's joints were making it so hard for her to clean the pews and trim the candles nowadays. This was Sitka's old ace-up-the-sleeve; the chapterhouse, being attached to the parish, inherited much of the ordinary day-to-day functions of religious community. There was always something that needed to be done - scrubbing dishes in the kitchen, greeting people at the door, counting out the donation till, organizing meetings, on and on - and Sr. Sitka had found no better cures for the many ills of humanity than a bit of love and a bit of work.

Molly declined the offer at first - she was not an active member in any parish (or lodge, for that matter), and felt like it would be an intrusion. Sr. Sikta said that she understood, and that the offer would remain open if she changed her mind - but added at the end that, as it does no good for the chapel to be cleaned in the middle of services, Molly could come and sweep up when it was empty and have all the solitude she wanted.

Still, Molly declined. After thanking Sitka and the other sisters for their hospitality and help, she walked home to her little apartment and spent the day alone.

She would visit Sr. Sitka twice more before she decided that a bit of pew-sweeping was no great harm. And from there, as if caught in the ocean's inexorable tide, she found herself drawn into the orbit of parish life - if only as the quiet woman who sat by herself at the back of the chapel. 

To the Mountains

A bit of love and a bit of work can get someone back on their feet, but it cannot defeat demons all on its own. The war still weighed down on Molly's shoulders like a millstone, and simply because one has breached the surface of the sea does not mean the danger of drowning has passed. Change is rarely swift, nor altogether linear, and after a while there came an itch in her heart for something more than sweeping pews and scrubbing pots.

She headed east towards the mountains, and spent some time among the monastics around the Tower Unto Heaven. For a brief period she was a student of the great pankrator and swordmaster Rokan Tsai (who had trained in the arts of violence with the hecatoncheires themselves), but she found no comfort in the Mysteries and no satisfaction with the sword-arts.

But it was during those months that Molly met Zaid Hamarzada, an itinerant knight of An-Hehm and another student of Rokan, with whom she began a relationship that would last for the next thirty years. While they would never marry, nor ever even live together for any significant length of time, they found in each other that which is most precious - one who might make the burdens of life easier to bear.

A portrait of Zaid Hamarzada - A man who embodies "they should have sent a poet", though in this case he is the poet that was sent. A troubadour, an occasional monster-slayer, a warrior-scholar errant, a gentleman of the road. A man who could not be kept in one place even if he was chained to the earth, unless that place was a library, in which case it is difficult to make him leave. Turn his head to the side and his profile is like that of a king of old, stamped on a coin. Keeps an immaculately-groomed beard. Owns no less than five swords. 
Times, as always, changed. When the road once again called to Zaid, Molly packed her things and returned to Bensael. Like most who go up the mountain, she came back down a bit different.   

It took some weeks of mulling, but soon enough Molly arrived on the chapterhouse steps with a letter of intent in her hand.

Sisters of the Sword

Molly completed her novitiate as part of what would become the legendary Band of the Lioness.

Celestine d'Cygnemonte, the Lioness of Orlei 

One of the finest swordmasters of this generation. A woman with the looks, composure and grace of an opera singer. The sort who could have high society eating out of her hand with a smile and a glance. She could have had an easy life, but chose this instead - left the care of house d'Cygnemont to her sister and took up the sword, investing all her inheritance in support of the Order. A true believer in the cause, down to the core. This is what she lives for.
Atalanta Antikytheras 

Black dreadlocks cascade over her brown shoulders. Vibrant inked horses stampede across her chest, arms and back. She has never willingly worn a shirt. A boxer, a wrestler, a discus-thrower, a caber-tosser, master of shield and spear. Oh, how she loves this. For what better whetstone for one's arete than the depthless forces of Hell itself? There is no end to the challenge. She is a woman of vastness - vast humors, vast loves, vast melancholies. Mostly the first two.

An exorcist, the daughter and granddaughter of an exorcist. The other novice of the group, and the youngest of the six. Would go on in time to write several well-regarded books on demons and spiritual combat, but was never as much of an enormous personality as the other members of the Band.

Dirty blonde hair hangs long and lank. A skulker and a prowler, a snarler and a biter. She comes from the Low Country, near the Dispaterian DMZ. She seems semi-feral at times; a spring so tightly coiled that the brush of a feather might trigger the whole mechanism to burst asunder. Sing, o muses, of the rage of Dogmeat, of she who found the slaver Dormoz and caved his head in with a baseball bat. In her off hours, she composes dirty poetry, draws all manner of fleshly delights by commission. Most of her friends are pornotektonoi, and in their company she has what little peace there is to have in her life.

A follower of the mysteries of An-Hehm by way of the gun-saints. A bizarre and offputting woman, who seems more than happy to move through life like a freight train on a straight track, regardless of who or what is in her way.
The three years Molly spent with them were full of many adventures - some wonderful, some horrible - which must wait for another time.


The Sorcerer of Arran-Sigha

After taking her vows, Molly took an assignment working a rural north country circuit. This was mostly uneventful - the occasional ghost or minor malicious spirit interrupting the town-to-town cycle. Mostly it was walking, and riding, and solitude, and that was fine by Molly. She'd done this before, and in worse circumstances.

It was during her second year on the circuit, during the bitter and bone-gnawing cold of winter's tail-end, that she was summoned by urgent crow to a remote fishing village on the north coast. She found a beached whale there, its gut burst open to reveal a phalanx of human bodies half-melted into a single mass crawled out to die on the muddy shore. The villagers all spoke of bizarre weather patterns, of whales appearing out of season, of lights in the sky out on the grey horizon.

What's north of the here? Molly asked them. Nothing but the island of Arran-Sigha, the fishermen said, then open ocean till you hit the icy crown of the world.

The scene she was piecing together was dire, and growing more so. She suspected a sorcerer, and it was idiocy to try and fight a sorcerer alone. She sent a crow to the chapterhouse at Tin Jacobstown, and the picture that returned to her. The closest sister to her would take, in the absolute best-case scenario, four days to arrive, and it would take two weeks or more to assemble a full team.

The tower at Kulvakh loomed in her mind like an executioner's sword and an anchor around her heart.

"No one who hesitated in attacking a wizard has ever defeated a wizard", the saying goes. It is too easy to be too late. Perhaps in two weeks, nothing would have changed. Unlikely, if the wizard had any sense; He'd learn of her presence quickly - from the gulls, from the spirits of the air, from a hundred different spies. Acting now was dangerous, idiotic. Delaying was worse.

She had seen the pit once. She could not, would not, see it a second time.

Molly gathered a band of volunteers from the village and its neighbors. Sixteen men and women, plus herself. They set off in three fishing boats, having sacrificed a goat to the spirits of the depths for each vessel's safe passage. Even so, passage would have been impossible without the band's weather-workers.

They arrived in the mists of pre-dawn, settling in a harsh and rocky cove, climbing in silent single file up the damp stone stairs carved there generations ago. At the peak of the island's long grey slope, they found the wizard.

He had no tower, only a stone shack on the desolate cliffs. He had no fine silks nor golden rings, nor even the illusion of them, just a dirty loincloth. To the observer, he was merely an old salt-crusted man, wrinkled and brown, beard matted and grey. He could have been some ordinary grandfather. But the air around him shimmered with mirage-heat, and the puffins stood at attention as he drew close.

Molly stabbed him in the back while he was taking a piss.

It might have been possible to speak with him. Or perhaps the seventeen might have fallen frothing to the ground, the blood in their veins clotted into concrete. Negotiating with a wizard is to do so with the barrel of a gun pressed to your forehead, and there is no avoiding that fact. With hindsight it seems unlikely that the Sorcerer of Arran-Sigha would have been willing to discuss terms. But in the moment there is always that haunting thought.

Regardless, the wizard was not alone on the island. Besides the hut, he had constructed several stone enclosures - outbuildings, pits, caves and shelters - and in them lived his experiments. Four creatures, homunculi grafted together from stolen sailors and ova plucked from a vivisected whale, ambushed the party soon after the wizard died (for the demons bound inside their skulls suddenly found themselves loosed). These proved more dangerous than the wizard himself, killing two fishermen and wounding three more. Molly too was wounded, her face sliced open and her left eye ruined by the cut of an obsidian knife. But in the end the band of fishermen won out, killing three of the homunculi and driving away the fourth. With no ability to care for the wounded on Arran-Sigha, they bid as fast a retreat home as wind and waves might allow.

Later investigation of the island found and confiscated the wizard's accoutrements, destroyed his laboratory, and dealt with the bodies. No sign of the fourth homunculi was ever found. Some alarm was raised over the sorcerer's ability make homunculi so closely resembling the orcinae but without any blessing of the Lady Leviathan, but it does not appear that he shared this knowledge.

Molly spent the next few months recovering, and was back on the road by midsummer. The loss of her eye took getting used to, but she could not shake the feeling of success.

Zaid, for his part, said the scar and eyepatch made her look like a swashbuckling dime-novel adventuress.


Finding Maggie

A few more years have passed, working the north country route...

The homestead had been overrun by swine-things during the night. Leftovers from Paur's hordes, ones that had managed to form a self-sustaining hive out in the hills. By mid-afternoon, Molly had buried eight people, and had just finished saying rites for the last one when she heard a cry from over near the barn. An unlucky rabbit, she thought, before her brain corrected her ears - that was a crying child.

She found the infant tucked away in an old wooden crate up in the hay loft, wreathed with mint leaves, peppers, garlic cloves - a way to throw off the noses of the swine-things. With a simple sleeping spell, the kind any mother knows for calming a fussy child, she could have been hidden safely away from the noses and ears of the swine things - sleeping undisturbed while her family was eaten alive.

Smallest mercies.

Molly fashioned a sling out of the old blanket, tried to calm the screaming child as best she could. The swine-things might have been miles further on by now, or returned to their warren, or sleeping just out of sight in the trees. A baby bawling at the top of its lungs would bring them running, if any of them were able to hear it, and while Molly's horse was faster than swine things on open ground, the back-country trails would make ambushes easy and escape difficult to impossible. Much less trying to hold onto an infant.

No swine things were drawn to the baby's cries, but Molly didn't want to stick around and test her luck. Check the diaper, offer a bit of bread mushed up with water, one last sweep of the house. All that done she left a note nailed to the door, written on the back of a torn almanac page: "Found bairn - Headed to Breda - Will wait til 18th else inquire at courthouse - Sr. M. Ironshanks, OSM"

She had to dig a mounting block out of the barn - trying to get up into a saddle while holding an infant is a hassle and a half, and as she did Molly said "Easy there Mags, up we go."

It was just first name to come to mind. No shortage of Maggies in the north country. But it was a name, and from then on the child was Maggie in Molly's mind, sure as silver.

For the first mile or two, Molly rode in silence, ears trained on the underbrush gently shushing Maggie when she fussed. After that, when there was no sign or smell of the swine-things, Molly began to sing - starting with what childhood songs she could dredge up, and whatever else came to mind when those were exhausted. When even those were gone she sang the marching and drinking songs from her army days, and for a time in the great green sun-dappled stillness the ghosts were there with her, singing along. Maggie had settled down by then, laughing and smiling each time Molly got to "hinky dinky parlez vou".

As miles slowly went by and afternoon wore towards evening, the two started passing more homesteads. Molly stopped at each, just long enough to spread news of the swine-things and ask around for any clues as to who lived in the ruined homestead. No one knew much more than a moment of recognition, if at all. Even in the village - itself a near-metropolis compared to the wilderness of this route - there was a litany of "can't say", "never heard anyone went out that far" and "think I saw 'em once or twice on market day." Maggie's folks, lived far out even by standards of the Borderers, it seemed.

(An aside: "Borderer" is a term applied to anyone who lives on the margins between the north country counties and the ancestral lands of the Forest People. Molly's route at the time would have taken her right through the Border and to several of the Forest People's hearth-lodges, had she not turned around with Maggie.)

The two reached Breda the next day, some twenty miles from the ruined homestead by crow. Still nothing: Neither the county courthouse nor any of the local parishes had any records on anyone who might be Maggie's family, or any leads on any extended family that might still be living. Days passed with no news.

Molly spent the time taking care of Maggie. It was hard, and not something she had any experience with, but she had the women's lodge to lean on and Molly was good at learning as she went. A small child wasn't much different from a green soldier in a lot of ways: loud, impatient, unreasonable, always hungry, thinks they're invincible, liable to shit themselves. She'd seen plenty of them.

The 18th arrived, nearly a week after leaving the homestead. No one had come looking for Maggie, and it was growing increasingly likely that no one would. If anyone had escaped the swine-things and come back to the house, they would have seen the note. If they fled towards the village, someone would have told them. Maybe they fled towards the Forest People, but going deeper in the forest when there's swine-things out rarely goes well.

The women's lodge offered to take care of Maggie until they could find a family for her. Would have been an easy thing: she was hardly  the first foundling to come through their doors, and times were not so tough that another mouth to feed was too great a burden. They'd find her some farmer family and she'd grow up well-cared for.

Molly couldn't bring herself to accept the offer. Leaving Maggie behind didn't feel right, in a way that Molly couldn't describe. She'd never had much desire towards motherhood, was never really able to see herself fulfilling that role, but she knew what it was like to be all alone in the world, to wake up and find people you loved had just ceased to be. Perhaps it was selfishness, making this choice to treat some long-unnamed agony in her heart. Even if it was, it was more balanced towards love. The heart is inexplicable.

That evening, Molly penned two messages for the crows: one to the main Bensael chapterhouse, requesting a transfer back to the city. The other would go to Zaid.

Amelia and Zin

The Black River War threw the Low Country into chaos, and with it came demon outbreaks of scope and intensity not seen in decades. The Order repeatedly sent Molly south into the Low Country, regardless of her citybound assignment of the last four years. They needed every veteran sister they could send. Zaid or some other friend took care of Maggie in those times, though that did little to lessen Molly's dislike of the situation.

But, even among the fears that Maggie might be orphaned a second time, Molly stumbled into a pair of friendships in short sequence that would carry her through the rest of her life. 

A portrait of Amelia de la Aldicina: Five feet tall on the dot. Dark curly hair, light brown complexion. Often mistaken for a teenage boy. Wire-rimmed glasses with wide circular lenses. A penchant for shirtsleeves, suspenders, sharp knives. An air of barely-controlled manic excitement, as if she is barely restraining herself from sharing ten or a dozen things of utmost interest. A mortician by trade and a necromancer by practice. Not uncommonly found elbow-deep in a corpse.
Molly found Amelia hanging from a tree - more alive and in much better spirits than expected. A gang of dragon cultists had broken into her room in the village inn, dragged her out of town, strung her up in a noose and tried to lynch her at the crossroads. Amelia had been able to call up a gashadokuro for long enough to scare them away, and had kept herself alive through the night by balancing on top of a little floating skull - her only surviving servitor, after the cultists destroyed all her equipment. She'd been stuck there for hours by the time morning came and Molly rode past.

As it turned out, Amelia was on her way to Bensael - the political instability in the Low Country and rising anti-necromancer sentiment were plenty of reason to on their own, and Amelia had grown somewhat tired of the idyllic skull-and-crossbones life of the NSR.

A brief adventure followed, wherein the pair went to track down the cultists and dealt with the demon Molly had been assigned. Conveniently, they were somewhat related.

A portrait of Zin prinan Vesh: A lilu, previously of the underground. Her limbs seem disproportionately long, her body disconcertingly thin. The clammy semi-translucent pallor of subsurface life has darkened to grey, though she still needs smoked glasses and wide-brimmed hats to fend off the sun. A mess of white hair, tied back with a red ribbon. A jacobin medal is pinned to the collar of her tunic. She carries a great iron coffin bound up in thick chains, engraved steel spikes driven through its lid and sides, as if it were no heavier than a feather.
As Molly and Amelia returned to Bensael, they found the main chapterhouse in an uproar; a lilu woman, in flagrant disregard for public safety, decency, or any sort of outside authority, waltzed right through the city gate with a bound demon in her luggage. A bound demon so strong that the Order was uncertain what to do about it - it'd been thrown in a spare room and warded with a near-comical number of talismans and signs.

Molly, being one of the senior sisters on hand, was drawn into the investigation. Interviews with the woman revealed a great deal: her name was Zin, and she was the fourth daughter of a minor house - no prospects for inheritance or marriage - and a jacobin (a less than popular political affiliation in much of the Downunder). She'd come to the surface because there was nothing for her Underground, and come to Bensael later on like a good number of her people, and was currently furious that she was being held up over a demon that was all signed for (this was true, the seals and stamps on the paperwork were legitimate) and bound by a master daemonologist (one of her grandfathers)

(An aside: Lilu daemonology is the only magical tradition in the world capable of binding demons with consistent effectiveness - it is a labor-intensive process that lobotomizes them (metaphorically: demons do not possess brains or conscious wills) and renders them so dependent on their bindings that, if they were to ever be freed, they would collapse into nothingness, unable to sustain their own psychic weight. The lilu call this process "hollowing-out".)

The Order was not convinced by this line of argument. While Molly found herself getting along with Zin during the interviews, she was of the same mind - dabbling in daemonology was bad enough, full-blown practice was equal parts idiotic and dangerous. Lilu legal precedent on the matter didn't apply here in Bensael.

But there was Bensaeli precedent - the city maintained its bureaucracy with a legion of devils. The Order didn't like that, no matter how carefully-controlled and tightly-monitored they were, but the wizards had won out that debate decades ago. Zin pounced on this nugget of hypocrisy, and Molly found herself agreeing with her: if the Order was going to act purely on principle alone, it would have stormed the Wizard's City long ago. There were exceptions to the daemonology ban.

Back and forth, back and forth. There were calls to destroy the thing (Who would do it?), calls to exile Zin from the city (for following the same sort principles the city itself used), calls for a demonstration of its abilities so as to judge it better (soundly unpopular), calls to hand it off to the wizards (never hand things off to wizards, doesn't end well) Molly found herself growing increasingly exasperated as the hours dragged on.

Finally, a conclusion was reached: so long as Zin was within the city, the coffin and its resident would be kept under the auspices of the Order, with assistance from the wizards of Tanniclen. She might request it back when leaving the city, on grounds that she would have no official sanction from the city government and would be subject to whatever local authorities would see fit. Molly, having argued in Zin's favor throughout the proceedings, was pinned with responsibility in case anything went wrong.

Finally freed from the infernal internal affair, Molly, Zin, and Amelia wound up drinking in a pub for most of the night, and there the sisterhood was forged. 

The Golden Years

Maggie's childhood was not ordinary, but it was a happy one, on the whole. She and Molly lived in one of the apartments above Amelia's mortuary in Monk's Hill, and her mother's missions in the south waned as the Black River War sputtered to its inconclusive and ignominious end. By the time Molly was able to return to assignments in the Hill Country, Maggie was old enough to be brought along - not for the exorcisms and slayings themselves, but for company on the road and an adventure outside the city. It was a regular occurrence each year from spring till autumn, each usually lasting for usually for just a few days. (Amelia, Zin, and sometimes Zaid would come along on occasion, when Molly needed some extra help)

(I would be remiss to leave out that Maggie did, of course, stop by Willow and Wick Books when they passed through Olen and went home with a bag of old paperbacks.)

A portrait of Maggie Ironshanks: At that age when she is still mostly arms and legs and trying to sort everything out. She doesn't look much like her mother - darker skin, more gold than red in her hair - but her speech and mannerisms make the connection unmistakable. To a lesser extent, but still present, is the influence of her aunts - Amelia's manic-excitement, Zin's malapropisms. An inveterate bookworm (Zaid's doing, with the assistance of the Bensael City Libraries).
These are the days of high adventure - filled with episodic stories that exist in potentia, if not in fact just yet.


The Man with the Cuttlefish Eyes

I'm afraid I haven't been up-front about all this. Everything you've read so far? That's the prologue.

And I'm doubly afraid that the main course is still a work in progress, and as this post is over five and a half thousand god damn words already I'm going to play things fast and loose and we'll just have to see where they land.

It is the summer in which Tamalore Menadore quit her job and moved back upriver. Molly Ironshanks is now 45; Maggie is 12.

Lady Rust - one of the most powerful sorcerers in Tanniclen - has summoned the Order with an emergency: One of the wizard city's devils has vanished; his heart stolen from the vaults. Possession of the heart means control of the devil, and control of a devil never means anything is going well. The mission is given to Molly (by this point she's been in the order for just about two decades and has one of the best service records in the organization).

From here...I have scenes, but the connective tissue is lacking. I'll sit down and outline it fully eventually, I promise (I hope). Some fragments...

  • There's an interview with a wizard - we get to see what the quote unquote ordinary inhabitants of Temmaren are like.
  • Molly reunites with the Band of the Lioness and they raid a fortress in the Low Country
  • Molly will have a direct encounter with a Moon Beast
  • Molly and Maggie will be attacked by Dragon Cultists in the home they are staying in. Molly is severely injured in the escape (and possibly Maggie makes some deal with the Folk to save her life? Unsure, this is a leftover from an earlier version where Maggie was a witch.)

I know how it ends, though.

The devil and his heart end up possession of supporters of Gen Temmaren, who want to reverse-engineer it, replicate it, and use their own legion of devils to prop up their coup of the Commonwealth. The Dragon Cults have made overtures to both Dis and the Moon Beasts to this end - both of those parties are waiting it out and seeing how the cards will fall (as neither of them think very highly of the Cults).

Everything is drawn to a head, we get our All The Warriors moment - Molly and company ally with anti-Temmaren forces and together they are able to dismantle the core of Temmaren's support structure.

During this, the devil's heart is returned to him and he becomes human again. This, unfortunately, does not undo any of his memories of his time as a devil. Overcome with guilt he flees into the night.

Sometime later, we see that Molly has caught up with him in Bhyor. She offers him katharsis but he refuses, instead entering the House of Sin.

The Tower Unto Heaven

There is, for all of us, one last task.

We must climb the mountain.

There is a demon waiting there for us, masterfully sculpted by our own hands.

We must meet it there.

We must climb the mountain.


At Last, Final Notes

Holy shit. This is just a wee bit over 6000 words, making it the longest thing I have written in a fuckin' long time. And this is just the summary! But now it's out in the world. At long last, the third Extremely Angry Woman of Mother Stole Fire is here.

I hope you enjoyed reading all this, it was a blast to write, especially when the momentum kicked in.

There'll be more Molly and Maggie in the future, don't you worry.

BONUS: 13 Items in Molly's Inventory

  1. Straight sword (Mist-Cutter)
  2. Straight sword - corroded, bound in its sheath with red string and paper talismans (Grave-Filler)
  3. Revolver with shoulder holster, Westron & Sons (Red Tail's Eye)
  4. Lever-action coach gun, Westron & Sons (He-Ends-Arguments)
  5. Exorcism kit in travel case (salt, chalk, bell, holy water, paper talismans, acupuncture needles + thread, book of rites, empty vials, inkstone and brush, incense, 6 ghost bullets)
  6. Hamsa amulet necklace (painted wood)
  7. Weatherproof travel cloak
  8. Haori (White and blue, kamon of the OSM on back. Worn with right sleeve pinned back to display sword-arm tattoos as per north country warrior tradition)
  9. Size 9 travel boots (recently re-soled)
  10. Skewer of pork dumplings (fresh)
  11. Flask x2 (water, mead)
  12. Handwritten note, neatly folded ("I love you Mom come home safe")
  13. Badge of office (Journeyman Sister of the Order of the Sable Maid)


  1. Now, there's a whole lot of additional content and context I could add but I am riding that post-post high right now so I'll be damned if I can think of what I wanted to say.

  2. This feel like a culmination of themes that showed up in your works over the years, now honed and perfected. It's fantastic and I'm looking forward to more.

    1. Episodic fiction is fun like that. Eventually, things start connecting and building momentum and then it's just the rush.

  3. so baseball bats canonically exist in this universe? does that mean that baseball does too?

    1. Yep! It's mentioned in Pen & Tam's story and I think maybe the 100 facts post. Other popular sports are soccer, lacrosse, and Wizardball

  4. I think my favorite thing about this is how hard it is to pin down what sort of world Molly lives in. It's a moving target, pulled first one way, then another as one reads through the text.

    I'm fatigued by stories that want me to comprehensively understand their world up front. This way is so much more fun. ^_^

    1. Keeping everything as a loose relational map has proven a winning strategy. As has sectioning off setting lore into its own dedicated entries that can be engaged with at their own pace, without undermining the pacing of the narrative.

  5. Excellent. But now I want you to write an entire book of this. Any chance of that ever happening?

    1. I promise nothing, but believe me, I'd like to.

  6. All of this is unspeakably good but: "Turn his head to the side and his profile is like that of a king of old, stamped on a coin."

    I can't get that whole description of Zaid out of my head. Carries a Le Gunian sort of effortless-looking beauty. MSF in the running for sickest OSR setting yet.

    1. Thank you! Those little descriptive asides have proven a reader (and writer) favorite