I have a new Old Races story out in an anthology! Matryoshka, in ARTIFICE & CRAFT is now available!
An excerpt follows:
The largest matryoshka doll was ugly as sin, and precious beyond gold.
It lay in Janx’s hoard, buried by jewels, by precious metals, by the detritus of time, forgotten even by the dragonlord until a ghost made a wish, and the world began to crack.
Within it sat a second doll, half its size, rattling in its outer ebony carving when it moved at all. Now the two pulsed, an irregular heartbeat, ugly and uncertain as the largest doll. It nagged at Janx to dig for it, casting aside silver, ignoring webs of spun gold, dismissing history, caring nothing for legend, until he held the ugly doll in the palm of his vast paw. With care, he sat on his haunches and took the thing by its top and its bottom, twisting delicately so the doll inside fell to the gold-laden floor of his lair.
Magic throbbed, strong enough to feel as if he might be pulled in by it. He changed to human form, hoping it would be of less interest to the doll. He had once seen what the doll could do; he had watched a harpy, another of the Old Races, be subsumed by it, and doubted even his own ability to withstand its power.
They had always had difficulty breeding, the harpies. Their females were vicious, ugly, fierce, and barely able to carry children. Their males were rare, beautiful, nurturing, and incredibly stupid. Long ago, Janx had helped a harpy hunt down a source of power. She—they—had hoped it might stabilize the fragile harpy population, and perhaps offer the rare-to-breed dragons a chance for offspring born at more regular intervals.
It had been dangerous and stupid, but the piece throbbed with the magic of their peoples, of the Old Races, and Krata had thought it worth the risk. It was a doll, roughly human in shape, simple round head, round shoulders, a jar-like body, the whole thing perhaps the height of a human hand from heel to fingertip. The whole thing filled with magic. A seam stretched around its belly, suggesting it could be opened, and the power siphoned off.
Well, it *could* be opened. Uncountable generations later, Janx still recalled Krata’s scream, the horror and pain as power spun from the doll, lashing out, tasting the world around it as if searching for something. Those tentacles of power tried to seize him, and out of selfish self-preservation, he took wing and shot into the skies, leaving Krata to her fate.
When the screaming stopped, a second, larger doll lay in two pieces on the ground beside the first. It was ebony, ugly, a scream of pain and terror on its face, although its body was as serene as the first, with little clawed harpy hands folded over its smooth belly.
The doll that had been Krata was much larger than the one they’d begun with, nearly the size of Janx’s human torso. It was hollow, as the first one presumably was, although Janx, squatting several feet from both objects, was disinclined to open it and look. After a long time, he cautiously rose, put the first doll inside Krata, sealed her up, and flew her home to his hoard. There he forgot about her for the entirety of human history, until a wish released all the magic in the world, and Krata began itching at the back of his mind.
He took the two dolls out of the depths of his hoard, set them on a table, and studied them. They were both as they’d been: one filled with harpy pain, the other painted in desert colors: sand and blue and black, with stars in the darkness, and wisps of brilliance like dyed silk winding through it all, as if someone had spun a story of the djinn and fixed it in place on the surface of the doll.
Janx, aloud and slowly, said, “Idiot,” to himself, and lifted the desert-colored doll with his eyes closed, letting touch and ancient knowledge guide him instead of the limitations of his gaze.
Grains of sand shifted beneath his fingertips, and the rough heat of desert wind, and a desolate howl of a being meant to flow with the air itself, confined to a motionless form for longer than time could remember. Eyes still closed, he touched the Krata doll, knowing he would feel the trapped harpy within it, but searching for something else. Something he hadn’t known about, when they had first gone searching for the power source; something that would now set even a dragonlord on edge. Magic, but not just magic.
Witches were not like the Old Races. They were human magic, born of secrets, built from the earth and sky and heat of this world. The Old Races were something else, ancient, from a time when the world had not yet settled on creatures prescribed to four limbs and an unchanging form. Most of them hadn’t survived the explosion of the human population. Those who had, had learned to belong in the human world as best they could. If they were cautious, very little in the human world could harm a surviving member of the Old Races.
But witches were more dangerous than almost any normal human hazard, which meant the witch-crafted dolls could not be allowed to remain at large.
Janx said, “Fuck,” thoughtfully, and went to search the earth for the rest of the nesting dolls.