Local Hero (Full text)

by Rajiv Moté

This story originally appeared in Dream of Shadows issue 2.

The shield rested atop a pedestal behind a cordon of Elvish rope. Angled for display, it was dented, blackened, and completely melted around the edges. It was beautiful. Garga yearned to touch it. But the Elf guard standing to the side had a long, curved blade at his belt–the enchanted, Orc-killing kind. Garga kept his hands at his sides.

Orcs milled about the gallery’s length, between the shield and the great statue of Borag at the other end. This part of the museum was free to enter, and the Men, Elves, and Dwarves visiting or settling the Black Land favored the other galleries that displayed the trophies of their own people from the war against the Dark Lord. This place was for Orcs. No longer was there an army, nor lash, nor much of anything for Orc-folk to do. Without the army, the clans were assigned no lands, and forbidden weapons, there was no way to lay claim to any. So Orcs simply wandered the Black Land, and the museum was as good a place to escape the sun as any cave. Here, they could meet and grouse during the worst of the heat, and even under the eyes of the conquerors, they felt this place theirs. Where else were there Orc-things to be found on pedestals in this occupied land?

Across the gallery from Garga stood Sheketh’s massive statue of Borag the Liberator, down on one knee, muscles coiled with power, his massive arms holding up his great shield to the sky as if to blot out the sun. Borag the Rebel, who defied the Dark Lord and shepherded the Halflings to the very Mountain of Fire, destroying the tyrant’s power and freeing the Black Land. Borag the Defiant, who lifted the Halflings on his shield to their rescue, even as a molten river consumed him, leaving only his shield to tell the story.

The statue was proud and powerful, but Garga liked Borag’s shield better. It was real. Every time he saw it–and he came to see it often–it reminded him of something so easy to forget. Orcs fought the Dark Lord too. Orcs, who suffered under him more than any other people, fought back. Orcs had heroes. Garga knew that the real Borag probably looked nothing like the statue. Some gaffers even said it revealed Sheketh’s shame of being an Orc. Its back was straight, like a Man’s, and its features too fine, almost beautiful, like an Elf’s. The real Borag was a soldier. He would have had scars and broken bones, ill-healed, like all the old gaffers who survived the war. Garga had never seen an Orc like the one across the hall, carved larger than life in black basalt. But the shield… That shield had seen battle. It had stopped axes and swords. It had survived the fires of the mountain. Not beautiful, but resilient. It was a thing of Orc-folk, given a place of honor where nothing Orcish was honored.

If only Garga could touch it.

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How To Tell an MCU Witch

Wanda Maximoff: Don’t bother trying to use magic, Agatha. [Waves to indicate walls] In a given space, only the witch who cast the runes can use her magic.

Agatha Harkness: Uh, yeah? We’ve been through this. You learned it from me.

WM: Yes, and I need you to answer some questions. Give me the straight-up truth, and I’ll shorten your sentence as Agnes.

AH: Oh, thank Mephisto! Yes, anything. Ralph Bohner is insufferable. He still thinks he’s a speedster. He makes “FWOOF” noises with his mouth whenever he comes or goes. He’s not even under a spell.

Steve Rogers: [jogging through] On your left!

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Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear? (Full text)

by Rajiv Moté

This story originally appeared in the Honey and Sulfur anthology and was reprinted in Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5.

The curious gathered in the courtyard to watch the pale, naked man shuffle towards the light spilling through the black arch. His limbs were bone, wasted muscle, and sagging skin, hanging like sticks from his bloated torso. He had no hair. Some of the watchers made to cover their own nakedness with their hands, or twist their bodies from the light in sympathetic shame, but none looked away. The light cut through the inky shadows, not angry and red like the distant volcanic fire, but brilliant and golden. Against it, the man’s skin looked translucent as fog. From beyond the gatehouse came sounds that could be heard nowhere else in Hell. Laughter. Song. To the watchers, the light and merriment on the other side of the arch felt nothing less than holy.

“Do you think they’ll let him pass, Jaan?” 

Everyone lingered in the courtyard, despite the danger, wondering the same. The irresistible drama of redemption, if that was what this was, gave meaning to this world of suffering. They spoke in whispers and watched the man’s progress, their eyes flickering to the sky, ready to scatter if their loitering was noticed.

“We’ll see, Tessa.”

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Wanda All Along

SPOILERS for the entirety of WandaVision, episodes 1-9

The mission statement of WandaVision, we now see with 20/20 hindsight, was to take Wanda through her stages of grieving, from denial to acceptance. The finale accomplished that mission. Wanda released the hex, and with it, her conjured husband, children and their domestic sitcom life together where nothing truly bad happens. There was another more hidden mission about Wanda’s new place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: she’s a supervillain now. This show doesn’t have a sitcom ending.

The best supervillains (like Magneto, who has absolutely no role in WandaVision) have points-of-view with which we can empathize, if not sympathize. (Though I can see the “Wanda Was Right” t-shirts already.) We journeyed with Wanda through her loss and grief. But we also saw her inflict horrifying trauma on an entire town, and devise a cruel punishment for Agatha after beating her. Both things seem like plot elements that will rear up again. Wanda is “hated and feared” now (as Marvel mutants frequently are), and rightly so. This isn’t necessarily a terminal state–we know that prior to the pandemic, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was to immediately follow the events of WandaVision–but it’s a character arc that culminates her biggest beats thus far, from Sokovia, to Lagos, to Wakanda.

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WandaVision’s Mutant Witchbreed

SPOILERS through WandaVision episode 8.

Episode 8 of WandaVision was the explainer episode and the emotional payoff. “But what is grief, if not love persevering” could be the tagline for the series. It was sad, beautifully executed, and I loved it. I’ve been enjoying this show on two separate levels: the story it set out to tell, and the world- and mythos-building it offers the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve mostly blogged about the latter, but it’s worth mentioning the former. WandaVision is a really good story.

But I still want to dissect the mythos. I have questions. Questions that may not be answered in next week’s final episode.

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Wanda and the Infinity Coven

SPOILERS for WandaVision through Episode 7, because I want to get some wild-ass theorizing out there before all is revealed.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, movies like Thor and Doctor Strange established magic as a technology born of a more advanced science, a means of tapping into primordial cosmic forces. The Infinity Stones, created along with the universe by the Big Bang, are powerful sources of these energies. But possessing an Infinity Stone is not the only way to access a portion of its power. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff were given powers by Baron Strucker, experimenting with the Mind Stone. Carol Danvers got her powers from an explosion of an engine powered by the Space Stone. Some mortals in the MCU seem less accidental about tapping into these forces.

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WandaVision: Season of the Witch

SPOILERS for WandaVision through Episode 7 ahead…

Have you ever noticed that the stories of the Marvel heroines, from Jessica Jones, to Captain Marvel, to Wanda Maximoff, are about overcoming gaslighting? I wonder if Black Widow’s solo story will follow suit, with the other assassins of the Red Room. Anyway…

WandaVision episode 7 absolved our heroine of wrongdoing with the catchiest earworm of revelations: it’s been “Agatha All Along.” While this was presented as a big reveal, was it really? There was a certain joy in the confirmation–sold entirely by Kathryn Hahn’s gleefully wicked performance. But even casual readers of Scarlet Witch comics knew that Agatha Harkness was the likely identity of “Aunty Agnes.” In the comics, Agatha was more ally and mentor than adversary, and the only time she really went against Wanda was when she removed Wanda’s memory of her “children”–who weren’t really her children at all. Ooh, now that sounds like a clue. Regardless, there are now witches in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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WandaVision’s Big Bad: Of Easter Eggs, Foreshadowing, and Red Herrings

SPOILERS for WandaVision, through Episode 6, HBO’s Game of Thrones final season, and Season 1 of FX’s Legion, below. And speculation on the real Big Bad.

WandaVision is one of those shows that knows its audience. The show doesn’t take pains to explain the history of the Marvel Universe–we either know it already or will use our Disney+ subscription to catch up. It serves up slow-burning mystery, and it knows that its viewership includes detectives bringing to bear decades of comic book and movie scholarship. It selects an engaged audience.

So in addition to telling a story that fits solidly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it gives us a categorization game: Easter Egg, Foreshadowing, or Red Herring?

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Marvel Phase Five: The X-Men!

(Implied SPOILERS for WandaVision Episode 5, and speculation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward.)

In 2008, when Nick Fury told Tony Stark that he’d become part of a bigger universe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. It was a slow release of blockbuster movies that introduced Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, brought them together as The Avengers, and kept expanding to a network of interconnected TV and movie franchises to stand in the ranks of vast properties like Star Trek and Star Wars. As of WandaVision episode 5, it looks like Phase Four of the MCU has introduced the Multiverse, and once again, Marvel’s presence on the big and small screens has expanded again.

Assuming Marvel Studios builds an in-house continuity for the X-Men and the Fantastic Four–and I hope they do, instead of importing it from the Fox movies–it feels like it’s time for the MCU to shift its focus off the Avengers. Captain America is old, and has lived a full life. Iron Man, the Black Widow, and (through tragic real-world circumstances) the Black Panther are dead. The Hulk’s days of two-fisted smashing are done. There are still Avengers, but Marvel Studios is giving them the small-screen treatment. It’s time for some new players filling out the blockbuster and tentpole movie schedule. And it should all build on what the MCU has already established.

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Marvel Phase Four: The Multiverse!

SPOILERS for the Marvel Studios universe up through WandaVision Episode 5, and speculation beyond. 

The Joy of a Slow Watch

I’ve been starved for new live-action Marvel Studios programming taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the parallel quantum universe without the coronavirus pandemic, I would have already seen Black Widow, Eternals, and Shang-Chi by now. Instead, I get 30 minutes every Friday of WandaVision.

And I love it.

In an era where so much is available online, and entire seasons are released to be binge-watched, I love having to wait. Each episode, questions are answered but deeper questions are uncovered. And I have a week to speculate on the answers. This might be the most enjoyable thing about being in a slow-release fandom, and the reason why many of us loathe spoilers. We are forced to engage with open questions in a story with only our own imaginations and that of our friends. We become active participants in the storytelling process, not just passive consumers. Being a fan of a shared universe becomes an intellectual exercise, where there is a potential thrill both in having guessed right and in being surprised.

The end of WandaVision episode 5 took it to a new level.

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