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VOYAGE OF THE MERRY HANGMAN

March 1, 2012

Prologue

The Black Forest

Four men stood under the tree where a young girl cowered in fear. The fierce red hair and the elk hides she wore told Arron that she was one of the Twelve Tribes, and though she was not a member of his family, she was of his people. The Black Forest and the Frozen Vast was her home. She didn’t look more than twelve winters old.

And the men were outsiders, from the hated Heteronomy to the south where wizards worked their dark arts.

The men grinned and taunted her. Since there were only four of them, Arron believed they were scouts for a larger force that could be nearby. Lately there had been more and more Heteronomy soldiers through the Black Forest. The shamans among the Twelve Tribes all saw portents of evil things to come.

“Come down, girl. We won’t hurt you.” The tallest of the Heteronomy warriors waved at the girl. He was big and strong and wore a fierce beard as the Southerners sometimes did while in the Vast. The Black Forest people went beardless. The scout’s chainmail gleamed in the afternoon sunlight and he kept his right hand on the long sword at his side.

The girl only hugged the tree bole more fiercely and cried out again for help. Snow had been tramped down all around the tree, mute evidence that the men had looked for openings. A small obsidian knife gleamed in the girl’s hand. The blade was used more for gutting elk and bear and rabbits than as a weapon. But it was enough to hold the Heteronomy soldiers at bay.

A surge of pride flared through Arron. She was a true child of the Twelve Tribes, and the men before her were cowards.

Another man stood gazing up at the girl while holding a loaded crossbow at the ready. “She’s not gonna come down, Rukkan. And if we let her keep squalling like that, some of them redheaded vermin will come along to spoil our fun.” He licked his lips. “Been a long time since I’ve had a girl that young. If you want, I can put a quarrel through her leg, bring her down to us.”

“I don’t want her wounded.” Rukkan frowned and fisted his sword.

“It’s not like she’s gonna live long after anyways.”

“I don’t care about that. It’s the mess that concerns me. I don’t want to have to wash her blood out of my clothing.”

While the men had been talking, Arron had drawn his bow from his back, strung one end of it, then braced it against his foot and bent it to string the other end. The men continued watching the girl like sharp-nosed foxes waiting for their prey to make a mistake. Silently, Arron nocked one arrow and drew the fletchings back to his ear and held another at the ready in his left hand as he gripped the bow.

He figured two arrows would be the most he could get into the air before the men knew he was there. After that, he might get another shaft or two toward them. He knew he had to make them count because four to one on the ground could mean the death of him.

And the girl.

Fifty feet away, he was a silent, bronzed wraith in the spruce trees around him. His elk hide pants and shirt blended in with the forest and he wore his red hair pulled back. He shifted just enough to get a clear line of sight on the four men and the girl.

The crossbowman was the most immediately dangerous. The short, heavy quarrels could dance through the brush fairly accurately and plunge through chainmail in a twinkling.

And Arron had marked the man because he had been so callous in his thoughts of the girl.

Letting out half a breath, Arron released the first arrow and smoothly nocked the second one while the first was still in flight. He’d intended to take Rukkan down with his second shaft, but one of the other men stepped in front of the man, making the shot harder. Arron shifted targets automatically and loosed the second arrow.

The first arrow flew true, hissing across the snow-covered ground and sinking into the crossbowman’s neck just an inch above his shoulder. The soldier dropped his crossbow and clawed frantically at the arrow that pierced his throat as his screams turned to frightened gargling. Bright blood splashed over his chest and hands, and Arron knew the obsidian tip had sliced his enemy’s jugular.

The second arrow thudded into the hollow of the second soldier’s neck just below his skull. That, too, was a killing shot, and one that took life faster. The second man dropped like a brained fish and sprawled across the snow-covered ground, spilling crimson onto the pristine whiteness.

Arron drew and loosed again, aiming again at Rukkan. Wily as a wolf, the soldier threw himself forward and fetched up behind the tree where the girl hid.

“Hoff!” Rukkan peered around the tree and Arron’s fourth arrow nearly took him in the eye as the obsidian tip raked splinters from the bark. “How many do you see?” The man’s voice remained cool and controlled despite how close death had come calling.

“Only one.” Hoff, the other Heteronomy warrior, flashed through the surrounding woods and closed on Arron’s position.

Arron only spotted the man now and again. Then he cursed himself because he realized the brief conversation had been meant to distract him from Rukkan. When Arron glanced back at the tree, the Heteronomy commander had disappeared.

Gently, making himself breathe normally, the air cold enough to turn his exhalations into puffs of gray fog, Arron leaned his bow against the nearest tree. He reached over his shoulder and took up the short-hafted battle-axe he carried as his main weapon. He closed his left hand around the pronghorn hilt of the long knife at his waist and pulled it free. The knife had been forged of good steel, as the axe had been. He had labored and traded for those weapons, as he had for the skills with which he used them.

The silent way he moved through the harsh wilderness came from hunting and foraging for years in the Black Forest. His father had raised him to be a hunter and a scout, and few of his tribe were better.

Arron stayed low and kept his weapons at the ready as he strode through the trees. He chose to remain a moving target rather than holing up. Prey in motion drew out the hunters, and he wasn’t a widefoot rabbit to lie in wait for the wolf that would eat him. He glanced up at the girl in the tree. She was his eyes now, whether she spoke to him or not, because she had the high ground.

The girl looked to the left and to the right, letting Arron know his two opponents had chosen a split approach. Her voice was thin in the gusting winter winds, but she called out almost calmly, “Look out to the left.”

Following the girl’s direction almost caused Arron’s undoing. He glanced to his left as he readied his weapons, but saw nothing save stirring snow ghosting between the trees and brush. Only the heavy crack of the warrior’s boot plunging through a patch of frozen bog warned Arron of the man’s approach from behind.

Spinning to his left, Arron dropped his axe to a low position and lifted his knife. He caught his opponent’s blade more by instinct and training than through sight. Everything happened in a blur. The man followed his overhand sword blow, using his body as a battering ram and trusting in the chainmail he wore.

Knocked only partially off balance because he’d been expecting the move, Arron planted his right boot as he swung about to glance off his opponent. Regaining his footing, Arron shifted his weight to his left foot and whipped the axe around in a tight arc.

Too late, the Heteronomy warrior realized his mistake. Legend had it that Black Forest tribesmen could move like ghosts through the ice and snow, that they could sense the arctic muskeg that shifted so treacherously underfoot. Those stories were overblown, of course, and none of the Twelve Tribes were able to turn into bears either.

COMING SOON!

But they were dangerous foes, especially on their own terrain.

The axe smacked the warrior’s helm a ringing blow and left him staggered. Before he could recover, Arron thrust the long knife up through the man’s throat and into his brain. Bright red blood spattered the skirling snow. One of the clan shamans could tell events of the man’s life from the blood skein, but Arron could not.

He regained his footing and stood in a half-crouch, taking a brief instant to take fresh grips on his weapons. His breath puffed in gray fogs before him as he looked around. Panic clawed at him when he realized he’d lost sight of the Heteronomy warrior. Still, he made himself be calm as he turned in a circle. He lifted his voice to the girl.

“Do you see him?”

“No.” Fear thinned her voice. Slowly, she started to climb down the tree.

“Stay there.”

“We can fight together.” Though she argued, the girl froze in place.

“No. You’ll only get in the way.”

“Not if I can get a bow in my hand.”

If Arron hadn’t been so afraid, he would have laughed at the girl’s spirit. That certitude was what Sovitta-Maton, the God of Darkness, Cold, and Cruelty, had given the Black Forest people so that they might survive in the inhospitable land eternally locked in winter’s embrace. Fear was a constant in the Black Forest, but a man could not give in to it. Giving in to fear created a fracture that would shatter even the coldest resolve.

And Arron’s resolve was that the Heteronomy warrior would die at his hand as had his fellows.

Though the man made no sound and he was hidden by trees, Rukkan remained visible to Arron’s keen eyes. Forever hunting in the Black Forest had trained the young warrior to look for telltale signs of quarry. The cold was his world, and he was part of it. One lesson that he had learned was that everything living had to breathe. And if that thing breathed in the Black Forest, it left its breath in the air.

A thin trail of gray fog slid out from behind a tree to Arron’s right. He weighed his chances of taking the man with his axe and knife, and thought it was possible. But his bow lay only a short distance away. As soon as his decision was made, he turned and sprinted for the bow, thinking he could get an arrow into his foe before the man knew he was onto him.

Instead, the warrior exploded from hiding. Brush broke across his mailed body and cracked in the cold air.

Arron spun and managed to get his axe up to block the man’s sword blow. Both weapons became tangled and locked. The man kept coming, throwing out his left hand to close around Arron’s throat and snatch his breath away. Instinctively, Arron stabbed with his knife as the bigger man drove him backward through the snow. The chainmail stopped the dagger again and again, and the dulled scrape of the blade across the rings echoed around Arron.

“You’re going to die this day, whelp.” Rukkan’s face was terrible with fury. There was fear in there as well, and Arron took pride in that. He had put fear in that man.

Arron drew back his knife to strike again, but his opponent headbutted him and he blacked out for just a moment. He managed to keep the long sword locked with his axe and prayed to the Cold One that the Heteronomy metal would break.

Still pushing Arron before him, Rukkan shoved the young Black Forest warrior through a wall of dense brush. The jagged ends of broken branches tore at Arron and pierced his flesh. Warm blood trailed the burning fire of the cuts. He lost the dagger when his hand slammed into a tree. Then he rebounded from another tree and was suddenly through the brush and into a clearing.

With a mighty heave, Rukkan shoved Arron away from him and lifted his sword. Unable to get his footing, Arron skidded across a snow-covered sheet of ice. He tumbled and rolled, instinctively spreading his weight across the surface of the unseen pond. Bogs filled the Black Forest, all of them potentially holding hidden death.

Falling through the ice into the depths was one of those hidden deaths. Arron knew where he was now, and he knew that this particular bog was deep enough to sink a man thrice over.

“Are you prepared to meet your heathen god, boy?” Rukkan grinned menacingly. “Or do you need a moment more?”

“No. I’m ready.” Arron tightened his hand around the hilt of his axe. “But I won’t be meeting him today. When you see Sovitta-Maton, tell him it was Arron of the Black Forest who sent you.”

Rukkan cursed and started forward.

Quick as he could, Arron lifted his axe and struck the frozen ice. Once. Twice. On the third strike, and Rukkan only then surmising what might be happening as ice chips flew, the bog’s surface splintered and black bog water drank down the ice.

Unable to get away, Rukkan went through as well while Arron scrambled back from the cracking surface. Partially drenched by the bog water, Arron held up, then turned back and looked at his vanquished foe.

Rukkan fought the water, but it was for naught. His armor, the very thing that had protected him, now served to pull him under. Through the black water, Arron grimly watched as the screaming, pallid oval that was the Heteronomy warrior’s face sank into the bog.

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H.P. LOVECRAFT: THE WORK VS. THE MAN

February 17, 2012

I’ve been not just open about the influence H.P. Lovecraft has had on me, and on The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff in particular—I’ve shouted it from whatever rooftop I could find (including this one). But lately there has been a lot being said about the late Mr. Lovecraft that’s made me, and a lot of other fans of this dark fantasy icon, a little uneasy. And that may be an understatement.

H.P. Lovecraft

Though I can’t say I didn’t notice an underlying racism in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and for that matter, his friend Robert E. Howard as well, but even as a teenager (or younger) when I first discovered these authors, I put that down to the day and age in which they lived. These stories were written in the 1920s and 30s—much less enlightened times, some thirty years before the Civil Rights Movement brought about its massive shift in American society. In some ways, it was as though I thought of these men as some kind of primitives, communicating from a simpler, less civilized time.

But H.P. Lovecraft isn’t Homer, or even Shakespeare. Both of these men, Lovecraft and Howard, were Americans, living and working in the 20th century. And yes, Howard lived in Texas, a state not known in that day as a bastion of racial tolerance, but Lovecraft was a Yankee, and of the two, you’d think he would have known better. But he didn’t. He was a racist. I cant and won’t deny that.

A lot of this started to blow up, by the way, just this past December, when the brilliant author Nnedi Okorafor wrote about her unease with the bust of Lovecraft that she was given—the World Fantasy Award—and the mixed feelings that that brought up in her.

Can I be a Lovecraft fan, and allow my own writing to be inspired by his, when it’s plain he held some beliefs that I find personally abhorrent?

Then something made me think back to when I first started at TSR and was talking to my then-boss, the late Brian Thomsen, and I mentioned that I was a huge fan of Harlan Ellison. Brian knew everyone, and had at least a passing acquaintance with Harlan Ellison, and let’s just say Brian had a few choice words for my idol. And Brian wasn’t the only one. Even other fans would tell me stuff like: “I like his stories, but I hear he’s a total dick.” My answer was always the same: “I don’t care if he’s a dick, his work is phenomenal. He’s the greatest short story writer in the history of mankind. Let him be a dick if he wants to be.”

But yelling at people (including, years later, me!) over the phone about some little detail of this or that, or loudly voicing his opinion for all to hear, is one thing, and being a full-on racist is another. Harlan Ellison is smart and funny, and he has something to say, and that sometimes comes from a place of anger and frustration, but not hate. Lovecraft seems to have been, by all accounts, a painfully mild-mannered chap, not at all like Harlan Ellison in temperament, and yet there seems to have been this underlying pool of race hatred there.

I can’t pretend to know why he was like that. Racists aren’t born, they’re made—educated in hate, intolerance, and bigotry. Somewhere in his life, H.P. went through that indoctrination, and never seemed able to change his ways. And that is harder to forgive than Harlan Ellison’s colorful but otherwise well-intentioned outbursts.

In a college film history class, we watched the unedited version of the seminal silent movie Birth of a Nation. This is the film that for all intents and purposes set the language for narrative filmmaking that’s still in practice today. But it is a full-on KKK propaganda piece that was so bizarre to watch it seemed as though it had to be satire—but it wasn’t. The film features the heroic KKK riding to the rescue of a nation in the grips of black-faced white actors acting like ape-men. It was bizarre and twisted, and it came out of the same era, a decade here or there, as H.P. Lovecraft. And yet there we were, in a college classroom in 1983 studying what was good about Birth of a Nation while trying not to concentrate on the content.

I want to still like and admire the quality of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, even if I have to do it while trying not to concentrate on the quality of the man.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

WHY I LOVE BARBARIANS

February 3, 2012

Most of the people I know who are fantasy fans—or fantasy authors—came into the genre by way of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or maybe the Narnia series. Some pretty stellar works, to be sure, but I’d never heard of them when I came across Conan the Barbarian.

I’ve blogged about this in detail before, so won’t belabor the point again here, but the Marvel Conan comics were my introduction to the fantasy genre. It didn’t take long after reading the first few of those I got my mitts on before I strode boldly into the Hyborean realms of Robert E. Howard’s original stories. And as you can imagine it was but a short trek from there to the many lands (including more than one of my own making) of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

To me, Conan is fantasy, and fantasy is Conan. Save your reluctant hobbits. I’ll take my heroes slightly disheveled, largely unafraid, and all-too-ready to cleave something in twain.

There’s just something viscerally satisfying about the barbarian outcast, something peculiarly American. I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence that the author of The Lord of Rings was an Englishman, and the creator of Conan was a Texan. America oozes that “can do” individualism, an underlying contempt for authority that goes well beyond silly accusations of “class warfare.” I think Conan is a quintessentially American hero, as much as Batman or the Lone Ranger. He’s out there on his own, exploring a strange new world with only his wits and his sword arm to protect him, surrounded by enemies both savage (let’s just say that Howard’s take on Native Americans was no more enlightened than most Americans’ of the first few decades of the 20th Century) and civilized (like the Robber Barons of Depression Era America).

When Mel suggested we write a barbarian series, I was in without hesitation. After all, this is Depression Era America, too. The players are slightly different, the causes maybe a bit more creative, but the conditions are the same. And so, to me at least, the appeal of the mighty barbarian is no less fresh than the rampant unemployment, and general uncertainty of the times.

America takes a sort of vacation from its heroes from time to time, sometimes reveling a bit too much in their short-comings, as with the disgraced Christopher Columbus. We know that a whole bunch of our folk heroes, like Billy the Kid, John Dillinger, or Buffalo Bill, were hardly the action heroes we want them to be. At least two of the were violent, depraved criminals.

And so is Conan, at least a little.

And Arron? Well, ask a few of the bounty hunters of the Heteronomy if they would call him a heroic role model or a criminal fugitive. The best heroes tend to incorporate at least a little of both of those archetypes.

 

—Philip Athans

 

PULP ARK AWARD NOMINEE

January 26, 2012

Arron of the Black Forest has been nominated in three separate categories for this year’s Pulp Ark Award!

 

 

The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff has been nominated for Best Novel.

The cover art by Keith Birdsong gets a nod for Best Cover.

And Arron himself is in the running for Best New Character.

Not everyone can vote, but if you are in that rarified group, I hope you’ll give us your support., even though we’re in some stellar company.

 

THE FROZEN VAST & THE HETERONOMY

December 30, 2011

The Frozen Vast is the northernmost region of a narrow continent (about 1100 miles at its widest, where it meets the great polar continent, down to just a few miles at its tip) that stretches up from the land bridge known as the Teardrops (about 800 miles north of the equator), past the Arctic Circle to merge with the great northern polar continent. South of the Teardrops is an old and well-settled continent that was once home to many disparate peoples and nations. Over the course of millennia, these nations were systematically brought to heel under the influence of a faceless bureaucracy known simply as the Heteronomy.

The Teardrops was formed by wizards of the Heteronomy who coveted the rich farmlands of the temperate northern continent, and desired a land route to this remote land. This was achieved by a great series of magic rituals that brought a new ice age to the northern latitudes, locking huge stretches of ocean in a great Ice Sea. When that sea froze, ocean levels dropped in the south, revealing the Teardrops: a land bridge surrounded by a scattered field of islands.

Colonists and their accompanying armies from the Heteronomy flooded north even as the northern tribes (including Arron’s) were driven south, and when these two forces met, war was inevitable.

Over several decades, most of the northern continent was brought under the control of the Heteronomy, and farming colonies were established in the interior. A handful of fishing villages quickly grew into active sea ports in a series of four huge natural harbors call the Hooks.

A fragile peace was established.

But that peace would not hold for long. . . .

32 OF LOVECRAFT’S FAVORITE WORDS

December 23, 2011

In my travels through the stygian corridors of the noisome internet, I ran across the brilliant site Cthulhu Chick in which we’re given a list of some of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite words—the often antiquated usage he’s known for, and some other popular favorites. Since I knew going in that The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff was as much an homage to Lovecraft as anything, I kept this list next to me as I wrote, trying my damnedest to use as many of them as I could.

Here’s how that worked out, with the number of times Lovecraft used that word himself in parenthesis after each word, which is called out in bold:

There was more than one ghost in this accursed (76) place, and all of them were focused around this “Captain,” a man who was a failure in life, and who died a cripple, tortured by his household servants.

She was not what she appeared, but an undead thing, the blasphemous (92) shade of a woman dead for nigh on a century.

“I am but a servant,” the demonic (55) force inside Latimer replied. “Chief among the servants. You have met a few of my less fortunate charges.”

Why not let this Captain have me, so you and your Groundskeeper and whatever else lurks in this eldritch (23) hovel can—”

And the magus started to nod then just fainted (189), falling in a heap on the leaf-littered flagstone floor.

Arron took note of the Hound’s furtive (60) glance his way.

The gambrel (21) roof bowed, paint flaked off, and rainwater cascaded down from the corners, making little waterfalls all its own.

A gibbous (9) moon shined and stars twinkled above him, eclipsed at one edge by a semicircle of roiling clouds.

As the bog ape gibbered (10) and screamed, roiling its troop to a murderous frenzy, Arron stared into the dead eyes of his brother.

“You don’t know me,” the ghost said and even as she spoke her face changed into a hideous (260) mask of decay.

There was no one home to hear his knock, and probably hadn’t been since time immemorial (25).

He saw the skeletons of trees, the spilled-entrails jumble of the thorny underbrush, but could only feel the animal—or animals—that lurked (15) there.

Something screamed at him—a sound like a little boy shrieking in mortal (27) agony—and Arron turned and ran for the house.

Using just the sounds of its tiny clawed feet on the sparse gravel, Arron swiped at the nameless (157) thing with his axe, but the battered old blade passed through nothing but air.

This isn’t one of the fishermen from Gifford’s Quay, one of the noisome (33), superstitious local fishmongers who know better than to set foot on the path to Dragon’s Cliff.

Far more powerful than the hurricane’s gale, the force of her singular (115) cry lifted him fully off his feet.

Arron couldn’t believe he was having a conversation with a ghost, but he realized this spectral (60) girl was the first “person” he’d spoken to at any length in weeks—the Heteronomy’s stooge in the barn not withstanding.

Arron’s nose filled with the stench (59) of the decay of not just the house, but the entire civilization that built it.

Arron looked back down the old road into the stygian (6) darkness of the sparse forest.

This swarthy (14)  child of the Heteronomy may do well, once we’ve taken some pieces of him, once his soul is consigned to Outer Darkness and his earthly form carved clean for the Captain to inhabit as a hermit crab moves from shell to shell to shell as it eats and grows and breeds.

I’ve seen the barbarian hew at walls, rage at the tenebrous (9) air, and hurl himself through the attic window, but I have not seen him oppugn the living.

His ears rattled under the onslaught of the preternatural, ululating (4) shriek—then his eardrums burst and his eyes snapped closed against the pain.

It mixed with the drool that all but poured out of his mouth to spatter his chest an unmentionable (16) green.

The storm will fuel his fear, ignite his superstitions to fill his heart with unnamable (22) horrors, but at the same time it will drive him here, to me.

Shandy had come to this house in the loneliest stretches of the Hooks in the middle of a hurricane to kill Arron and bring his head back in trade for a pouch of coins, but still the barbarian couldn’t leave a man to this unutterable (13) fate.

I was particularly proud of the times I managed to work more than one into a single sentence:

The pain was monstrous, but nothing compared to the fetid (22), dank (19) effluence of the creature’s charnel (20) breath.

Something small, tentacled (28), and loathsome (71) dragged itself across the path in front of him and was gone, but even then, even with his mighty forearm thrown up against his eyes, Arron could sense its foul presence.

“Behold,” Latimer said—but Arron knew without anyone having to tell him that this was no longer Latimer, but some new demented spirit, some indescribable (25) madness (115) from beyond the grave.

For H.P., with cyclopean, amorphous, iridescent respect!

 

—Philip Athans

MAGIC OF THE HETERONOMY

December 8, 2011

The academic wizards of the New Ways have discovered the means to draw power out of their own bodies and are no longer able to draw magic from the earth as was done in the old days. But the magi of the Heteronomy still valued the more difficult-to-access, but likewise more powerful magic protected by the Dozen Tribes of the Black Forest, who jealously guarded their nearly-forgotten ways. It was the southern wizards’ lust for this knowledge that brought bloody ruin upon the Black Forest.

The magi of the Heteronomy are also known as egomancers, because it is their own desire, their own insistence, on creating magic from their own life-forces that brings them power.

Egomancers are able to sense magic in others. This is one of the first lessons an apprentice magus learns, and unless the would-be egomancer shows talent in the detection of the ebb and flow of magic energy, their training ends there.

As an egomancer progresses in his or her studies (there are no restrictions placed on gender in the Heteronomy), they learn to trace the magic they sense in others back to it source, and if their own life-force is stronger, a magi can then use their victims’ own innate magic against them.

Individual magi then embark on a course of study wherein their specific talents are identified and enhanced. Some magi find they have some limited ability over the elements, can move objects from a distance, or can seize control of a weaker person’s mind.

When an egomancer summons their magic, they enter a trancelike state, meditating on the sources of their power and drawing it out of themselves in the precise measures necessary to conjure a desired effect. Egomancers in this state glow from within, as their innate magical power separates from their physical form. The more power they muster within themselves, the brighter they glow.

Likewise, the more magical energy they draw from their own life-forces, the more exhausted they become. It’s not unheard of for an egomancer to pass out after casting a particularly complex spell, and if they’re careless, or forced to by some outside agency, they can even fully deplete their own life energies, at which point they simply fall over dead.

Egomancers are treated with respect, even fear, in the Heteronomy. An experienced magus is considered a member of the aristocracy, but it’s rare that they seek too much overt political power, fearing reprisals from the majority. An egomancer grows up knowing the dangers of over-reaching. One who attempts to weild too much power can easily drain himself dry.

—Philip Athans