What would a hybrid tentacled-horror unholy cross between H.P. Lovecraft and Tom Clancy write if it set out to do a sendup of Anne McCaffrey, Bram Stoker, and J.R.R. Tolkien?
Live from the Borderlands of Faerie: At Charlie Jane Anders's Writers with Drinks last Saturday night, Charles Stross read the opening to his brand-new The Nightmare Stacks. The whole is excellent. The opening is very, very fine and well-done. But the opening does not give an accurate picture of the full craziness.
So here is another passage. In this passage, the horns of Elfland call "boots and saddles", and we watch the Wild Hunt of the Unseelie Court of Faerie as the Queen of Air and Darkness prepares to take to the skies. Weyr Search was never like this:
The Nightmare Stacks: "As the huge moon sets and the sky darkens towards true night...:
...the ground crews in Malham Cove prepare the first two firewyrms for flight. Strikers One and Two are fettered, quiescent, upon the cracked limestone and grass below the cliff face. The dragons’ barrel-thoraxes rise and fall slowly, air pumping through their air sacs. Their legs, weak and hollow-boned, are splinted with a filigree of titanium trusses to stop them shattering under the weight of riders and weapons payloads. Woven copper wire hoses vanish into mouth and rectum, driven by moaning ventilator boxes to keep the corrosive fumes away from anyone who might approach them. Once airborne the deadly fluoritic acid (a decomposition product of wyrmspit) will diffuse away naturally, but close to the ground it can dissolve the bones inside the ground crew before anybody notices.
The dragons’ necks stretch forward from their bodies, eyeless heads twitching from time to time. The anesthetists stand to either side of the lipless, circular maws, chanting softly as they cautiously raise the creatures from their thaumaturgic slumber. The firewyrms’ lumbar ruffs, folded masses of tentacles as fine as any jellyfish’s, pulse slowly within the safety sacks that the ground crew use to avoid accidental contact with the lethal stingers. Huge bat-wings are hobbled carefully in bags of spider-silk to prevent the creatures from momentarily unfurling their control surfaces and sending the ground crew flying. And the slender counterweight spikes of their barbed tails rest between V-shaped safety brackets, lest the dragons lash out and slice an unfortunate in half. Even the cavalry mounts of the Host—with their blue-glowing eyes and fangs and horns, slobbering bloodstained drool and snarling for flesh—step lightly around the sleeping firewyrms of Airborne Strike Command.
The armorers are busy strapping the riders’ thrones and their payloads to the monsters. The dragons’ shiny skin, color-shifting chromatophore scales coated with a slippery fluorinated wax that can resist the effects of wyrmspit, makes it difficult to secure anything to them. It takes bonds of dull metal alloy, locked tight around legs and neck and tail, to hold weapons and riders in place. When the harness has been adjusted and stores hung from either flank, the pilot and battle magus’s howdah is bolted to the creature’s back. Tandem saddles sit within a cage of steel and transparent crystal, warded to resist not only the wyrm’s own fire but the arrows and death spells of an evenly matched enemy.
Not that they are likely to encounter magic countermeasures in this backwards and unsophisticated land.
A thin frost rimes the blades of grass beneath their boots as First Liege and her back-seater approach Striker One. Their eyes are wide and dark, pupils fully dilated. They move with confidence because the night vision of the People far exceeds that of the urük of this world. Behind her, the crew of Striker Two follows suit. The pilots wear light armor, but the magi are only robed and hooded against the light. They lack the protection of cold iron, for the metal that might absorb and disperse the mana of an attack can also prevent a practitioner from delivering a blow. Slaves scurry to position mounting blocks beside the howdah, then abase themselves before their lords and ladies.
Highest Liege turns and looks up the crest of the cliff. For all her keenness of eye she sees no sign of the dug-in perimeter guards, or of the earthworks they are preparing for the arrival of the air defense basilisks. She raises her chin in satisfaction, then climbs the short ladder and raises her arms while servants strap her to the saddle. At last she waves at her crew chief. The woman waits by Striker One’s head, holding a heavy jar sealed with occult symbols at arm’s reach. Now the crew chief dips her head, then turns the jar towards the back of Striker One’s neck and taps sharply on the bottom with a silver wand. The brain leech emerges, blindly seeking shelter from the chilly air.
Highest Liege closes her eyes and smiles rapturously, feeling the smooth power of the leech’s muscles as if they are an extension of her own body. It’s eager to bond with her mount, for the dragon’s blood is heady and satisfying and the familiar ulcers are barely scabbed over from their last flight, even though many years have passed in stasis. The leech squirms home behind the firewyrm’s skull and Highest Liege takes up the mental reins with a sense of relief. Yes, everything is as it should be. She raises her hands again, makes a corkscrewing gesture. Ground crew rush to pull the drain hoses from the dragon’s mouth and anus, then remove the tentacle bags and release the wing leashes as she urges her mount to lumber to its feet and begin to turn, dragging its tail away from the safety cleft.
‘Magus, your status if you please.’
She feels her back-seater shift his balance through the frame of the protective howdah. ‘I am ready and my wards are prepared, Highest.’
Highest Liege opens her eyes and looks at the landscape around her, then at her mount’s scaly neck. She frowns, then wills it to shift color. Chameleon-like, the dragon responds, fading into the scenery. This is only the first of its defenses; before the People found and domesticated them the ancestors of firewyrms were prey to basilisks (likewise domesticated and turned to martial use). If you can be seen, you are dead is the watchword of dragonriders everywhere. As the blood-drinking sorcerer in the seat behind her begins his chant, Highest Liege finds herself increasingly unable to detect her mount, her seat, or indeed her own hands. She seems to be made of glass, and this amuses her enough to draw a brief, delighted chuckle, for she knows it to be a symptom not of psychosis but of the power of her back-seater’s defensive countermeasures.
She takes a step forward, then another, driving her mount’s body via the brain parasite entangled with her own will: and she becomes huge and powerful and lighter than feathers. The breeze tickles her naked skin, an unbearable provocation, and she stifles the urge to draw breath and bellow a roar of challenge at the sky.
‘Striker Two, prepare to follow.’
Her helm takes her words instantly to the ears of her Second, who acknowledges, promptly: ‘I obey and follow, my lady.’
Highest Liege drives her awareness deep into the senses of her mount, and it seems as if it is her wings with which she catches the breeze, and her will by which she begins to fall into the sky—for dragons are far too heavy to fly like birds or bats or coatl: it takes much mana to lift a ten-ton monster and its cargo of death. The sunken valley drops away below, the world spreading its apron, shadows crossed by strings of amber lights stretching into the distance in all directions. Striker One spreads its wings and soars, spiraling up and out from the marshaling zone beneath the frozen limestone waterfall, while Striker Two rises to take up position astern and to port.
Then the two dragons commence their night patrol, while beneath them the first light cavalry battalion rides out of the shadow road...