As you may have seen in the comic post, sharing these results was delayed due to a family emergency; the comic was the furthest thing from my mind Friday and Saturday, but today things are happily resettled to where I’m able to finish writing this up.

This year’s contest netted fewer submissions than last year’s — partially, I think, because a lot of would-be entrants already snagged most of these prizes via the Kickstarter (thank you!) — but it wasn’t any easier to judge, even with two runner-up slots designed to make the decision a little easier. One of the primary difficulties was the result of an oversight in rulemaking on my part: I’ll pontificate about this in greater detail later — doing so here might constitute a bit of a spoiler, honestly.

Like last year, curating this took a little while: writing up some brief impressions on each is the least I can do to acknowledge all your obvious hard work. I wish I had time to say more!  I deeply appreciate the time and thought that went into all of these.

All images can be clicked and viewed larger (where possible) and I’d urge you to go ahead and do so and check out these folks’ work in better detail.

Robert_Lane_TheNextTownOver_sm

Robert Lane
Next Town Over

The stark red/black/white of this one really recalls pulp and spaghetti western art in the best way, making this a favorite of mine. Hats-off to conquering the clean hand-lettering and the difficult perspective on a looming, imposing Vane. You were very narrowly edged out of a runner-up spot, sir.

Shianne Coss
Vane

Vane was again the more popular subject, but this year’s Vanes are far darker and  bloodier, and none more so this one by Shianne Coss! I love these hot color choices, and Shianne nailed Vane’s flat, smoldering stare. Great attention to detail, too: didn’t even miss the nick on her right cheek. You can check out more by Shianne at her tumblr.

Shianne_Coss_Vane_sm
Slinky_EndlessWaltz_sm

Slinky
Endless Waltz

Slinky’s got some dynamic poses this year, and I love the background Whiskey Bend-to-Sun-Prairie-to-Lookback panorama (including the apropos fiery-to-brooding sky progression behind Hunter and Black). Slinky comics at a terrible mind (I recommend the webcomics guide).

Reba McNeill
Gray

This graphite drawing by Reba McNeill fantastically illustrates the not-so-black-and-white nature of Black and Hunter. Vane, the comic’s apparent antagonist initially, glares down into a field of fitting black, focused and angry, while a longing-looking John has his face uplifted on sunny white — very unantagonistic — and in the center, everything blurs into homogenous gray.

Reba_McNeill_Gray_sm
Laura_Rose_Diamonds, Eventually_sm

Green Traveler
Diamonds, Eventually

The Green Traveler, aka My Little Annie around these parts, blogs about all things horse at Northhorse.org. I think it’s fair to say she’s a bit of an activist with regards to horse & animal welfare … so I expect this chilling forecast for Diamonds was as excruciating for her to draw as it is for me to look at. The nicely done equine skeleton really does a lot to amp up its gruesomeness.  

Frank Li
Waltz

Frank Li also portrayed the Black/Hunter conflict as a dance, but brought the pair into much more intimate quarters! I really enjoy how both are so characteristically fixed on the other’s imminent destruction they don’t seem to even notice the stalemate. Frank sketches at cuckoosnestfiles.deviantart.com.

Frank_Li_Waltz_sm
Rhett_Bever_PourUnPrix_sm

Rhett Bever
Voodoo Demon

Rhett apparently dug Genevieve’s demon so much he decided to make his own! I’d like to think this guy is a little smarter than his predecessor — he certainly looks it. This is a super sharp extension of my flat black-and-white demon fills with so much more attention paid to the details on his skull/face. For a price, indeed! Check out Rhett’s shiny new tumblr.

Piripero
The Devil Wanderer

Last year Piripero’s short story Proem Valley nearly edged out the winning entry (and was largely responsible for the switch to three prizes this year). In all honesty if this year’s entry, The Devil Wanderer, hadn’t come in a day late, this story would have won. It’s an extremely readable piece of short fiction that I think could stand on its own: it is a speculative look back at Black and Hunter before the genesis of their acquaintanceship but it is thoroughly self-contained, with a fantastic twist ending. The definition of better late than never.

The opera hall was dead quiet.  The red plush seats were all empty, the aisles clear of cigar ash, the balcony railings polished and bare of the smudges of shoe polish from reclining patron’s heels.  The lightly domed ceiling was done up in curves, expanding as they reached from the back of the hall to the front, with gilded fancies painted near the upper lip of the proscenium, so the viewers’ eyes would slide naturally all the way to the stage.  The acoustics were good enough that the vacant hall nearly hummed with silence.

Except, of course, for the nattering of the stage manager who was showing John around the place.  He was droning something about viewing angles and trap doors; John flashed his full-of-teeth smile in sincere, warm appreciation at whatever the manager was soliciting approval for.  It didn’t matter anyhow.  John could feel the energy of this place, the currents, the ebb and flow of life accumulated over hundreds of past performances.  He could see what the hall would look like filled with people, eager faces staring intently at the stage, at him, anywhere he wanted them to look.  Though there was a light frost on the cobblestones and lampposts outside, he could feel the warmth of the crowd that would be here and the stage lights that would be turned up.  It would be a packed house tonight; rumor was that the fighting was getting closer, and Simonson & Co. had decided to move opening night to tonight and warn that any and all future performances were liable to cancellation with no notice.  Didn’t win the hall owners any popularity, but it certainly drove up demand for the only guaranteed performance.  None of which mattered to John, of course.  He’d perform as long as he wished to, and they’d pay him what he asked.

John realized that the manager was looking at him expectantly – there must have been a question buried in that peculiar flow of self-reassuring murmurs.  The manager looked up at John with watery eyes under thinning brown hair plastered to a pudgy, clean-shaven face.  Those eyes… they reminded John of a dog that had been beaten once too many times, begging for affection but wary of being struck again.

“Mr. Hunter?  I know ours likely aren’t up to your usual standards, but we’ve had the hands cleaning and oiling them all day.  Is there something in particular you were hoping to see that we could maybe send a runner for?”  It was clear that he mistook John’s hesitation and aloofness for haughty indifference… but about what? Ah-

“The props you have on hand’ll do nicely, Mr. Vandernoos.”  John fished the manager’s name out of his memory and gave that warm smile again.  To really sell it, he reached over and gripped the manager’s shoulder firmly.  “Just set ‘em all out on the stage and I’ll be able to use ‘em as the moment’s right.”  Vandernoos visibly relaxed, as though John had just transformed from a mighty king prepared to rain down his displeasure to a friendly confidant.  It probably helped that John had given him just a bit of warmth through his shoulder against the coolness of the day; even with no windows to let in the light, John could feel the greyness of the outside air, and knew a touch of heat against the chill did wonders for a man’s sense of well-being.

“Well, yes, that’s easily done,” Vandernoos grinned.  “Now, we have plenty of fine young ladies who take direction well, most of them classically trained.  Would you like to interview them to select a stage assistant?”  John raised an eyebrow just a fraction of an inch.

“I believe I would,” John said out of a half-smile, the right corner of his mouth lifting as his eyes crinkled at the edges a bit.  He tugged his sleeve at the wrist as he followed Vandernoos into the back of the house.  Not that he actually needed an assistant…

* * *

“Thatagirl.  Slow and steady.  Watch those rozbitý cobbles there,” Mikulas soothed his sorrel down the road slowly.  He was riding with his left hand gripping the rein tightly, stroking the horse’s neck gently with clenched fist.  His right arm was carefully, nonchalantly hanging relaxed from his frame, his right hand draped over his right thigh, gripping his leg as though it were liable to jump off the horse and wander into a tavern of its own accord.  He wore a heavy, dark cloak clasped tightly at the neck, boots with no spurs, breeches so dirty as to be colorless and a shirt that was probably white before it had come across the Atlantic.  Altogether, he looked as though he had pulled together what clothes he owned to brace against the cold air, which made his mussed, unhatted hair that much more noticeable.  His dark eyes glanced quickly at the signs of the businesses he passed with an urgency that belied his measured pace.  “We can’t trust those darebáci at the hospital.  That will never do.  But there’s got to be somewhere…”

The sound of another horse’s nicker followed by the strike of a hammer on metal drew Mikulas’ attention to a building still ahead on the left.  Determined not to meet the gaze of finely dressed men out for their daily business or couples enjoying a brisk stroll, he locked his attention on the faded green sign declaring “Mr. Granville, Esq. Horse Care.  Farriery, Veterinary Services.  Finest Quality.  Accept No Competitor’s Claims.  Mules Also Serviced.”

“Come on.  That’s the one.  It won’t be pretty, but it will do,” Mikulas urged as he guided the sorrel up to the hitch outside the shop.  He stopped, and looked around, checking for passersby, and saw only a well-dressed woman going along the brick walk across the street.  “It’s ok.  She won’t see,” he told the horse.  “And even if she does, it’s ok.  It’s one woman.  She can’t cause trouble herself.”  Mikulas set his jaw, swallowed hard, and swung down the left side of the horse in one fluid movement.  A little too fluid; as his right boot struck the ground, the rest of his leg followed it down to the cobbles – ankle, knee, hip.  Mikulas let out a yelp of pain as he splashed onto the street, then sharply gasped in frosty air, eyes shut tight.  The horse stood and waited, as though to say “nothing out of the ordinary here, just a man falling off a horse.”

“You’re hurt,” said a shadow standing between Mikulas and the weak warmth from the dim sun.  Mikulas opened his eyes to see the woman above him, looking down.  She had managed to cross the slippery street in the blink of eye – or maybe the grimace of an eye, anyway – without making a sound in the heavy, still air.  She was looking down from a thin, pointed chin and bright blue eyes – but her mouth wasn’t turned down in sympathy, her eyebrows not arched with concern.  She had said “you’re hurt,” not as a reflexive comment meaning “can I help you,” but as a cold observation.  Mikulas spent a second taking this in, and remained on the cold ground.  A single snowflake drifted out of the grey sky and landed on his arm.

The woman looked over at the copper-red mare, who was apparently used to strange women rushing over to help men who fell out of her saddle, and therefore standing contentedly, for all the world as if it were already tied to the hitch.  The saddlebags had shifted to the horse’s near side as Mikulas fall had pulled down the stirrup, and the flap now hung askew.  A bit of blue sleeve with red cuff could be seen in the gap, and the woman turned back to Mikulas.  “And you’re an Imperial.”  Again, a simple statement, without judgment or apparent surprise.  She stared down at him, as though she were looking at a specimen in a newfangled compound microscope.  Just as Mikulas felt she would stand there all day, and was beginning to worry how this might look to other locals, yet-unspied – “Can you stand?”

Mikulas honestly wasn’t sure, but the evidence didn’t seem to be in his favor.  Still, he couldn’t lay on the street all night with the weather coming in and a horse ignoring him nearby.  He rolled over, giving a grunt, and pushed up to his left knee.  Out of the corner of his eye, a few more snowflakes fell gently to earth around a socked hoof.  He took a few breaths, rolled his center of gravity back, and stood up on his left leg, keeping his right leg limp and just a feather’s breadth off the ground.  The woman was still standing there, watching him, not moving to help nor offering an empathetic smile.  Mikulas still wasn’t sure what to make of this bláznivý woman, but she wasn’t running for a constable… Mikulas gave a weak grin, his face pale.  “It would seem I can.”

“Mr. Granville doesn’t think highly of Imperials.  Still, something has to be done about that leg,” the woman said, gaze fixed on the offending limb.  “Follow me,” she said to the air as she walked to the squat building next to Granville’s.  Mikulas took a moment to watch the woman dumbly; she was so business like, so straightforward and unburdened with formalities, like a man… no, that wasn’t right either, a man wouldn’t act so unconcernedly.  Not a normal man, anyway.  “Or would you prefer to try your luck?” she asked over her shoulder, Granville’s sign hanging just a few feet away.

“What about my horse?” Mikulas asked, taking a sort of shuffle-hop towards her.

“Is it your horse?”

Mikulas thought about that as he shuffle-hopped once, twice more.  “Good point.”

The sorrel watched as Mikulas and the woman entered the blacksmith’s shop, the snow starting to come down a bit more earnestly now.  It shook its head to get a bit of the frost out of its mane and off its ears, then walked over to the trough set near the hitch and gulped some crisply cold water.

“Sit on that bench and take off your boots,” instructed the woman as they entered, donning a blacksmith’s heavy apron.  She went over to the forge and checked its heat, then began working the bellows.

Mikulas sat and began unlacing his boots, dreading the right, and looked around at the various tools and apparatuses.  “Is this… your shop?”  he asked.  It was hard to imagine such a slightly built woman gaining a living from such employment, let alone being independently employed at all, and yet she seemed perfectly at home.

“Now take off your breeches and lay down on the wooden table,” she said, ignoring the question and keeping her attention on the forge.  Mikulas looked at the great slab of heavy wood, scarred by countless cuts, burns, pockmarks and other diverse injuries.  He thought he could see some reddish stains in parts of the wood.  He spotted a heavy dropcloth spotted with wax drippings and soot, and grabbed it before he gingerly took off his breeches.  He couldn’t bear to look at his right leg, so instead he eased onto the table, clutching the dropcloth, laid back into a half-reclined position, and proceeded to fix his attention onto his right leg with a kind of macabre fascination.  It was a gruesome sight; he could see burnt flesh, bone both shattered and whole, tendons and muscle, and a massive piece of void where there should have been meat.  It shimmered in the candlelight but did not bleed, and noticing that, Mikulas absently touched the knot in the cloth he had tied around his upper thigh.

Apparently satisfied, the woman came over to Mikulas wielding a finely toothed instrument, glowing redly.  She had placed a pair of heavy, golden-rimmed goggles over her eyes and was wearing thin, dark gloves now.  “Who are you?” Mikulas asked, unable to look away from the thick blade.

“My name is Miss Black.  You know that has to come off,” she said, flickering her begoggled eyes towards the leg.

Mikulas swallowed again, hard.  “I thought so.  Hovno!  You know what you are doing?  You are a doctor, a nurse?”

“I know what I’m doing,” Miss Black said as she picked up a clean rag and dipped it in a bucket of water before twisting it up and offering it to Mikulas.  “You may want to bite down on this for the pain.”  He took the rag grimly, and chomped down firmly.

“Why does this water taste funny?”

“Because it’s ether.”

 * * *

The opera hall was dead quiet.  John stood on the stage, decked out in a spotless white shirt and tie and black coat and tails.  He faced the quicklime footlights, blazing lowly enough that he could see out into the seats.  The packed house was silent, every pair of eyes watching him and the young lady on stage with him.  He sent a magnetic grin out that looked like it was directed at someone in particular, but wasn’t, and turned back to the woman.  “You see, this is a special deck of cards.  It can turn invisible.  John flicked the red silk off her hand and took a beat to appreciate the gasp as she stared at the empty space the cards used to be in.  The audience applause was immediate, if a bit light.  “Now, ma’am, if you’d be so kind as to shuffle that there deck o’ nothin’ for me…”  She laughed, a bit embarrassed, and mimed shuffling a deck of cards ham-handedly.  “When you’ve mixed ‘em up to your satisfaction, pick a card and place it face-up on the top of the deck.  Now, if you’d be so kind?” he smiled knowingly, reaching out a hand as she finished manipulating air.  John carefully gripped an imaginary deck of cards and laid the silk atop his white-gloved fingertips.  “Now then, ma’am, you mind tellin’ me and these fine people here which card you put on top?”

“The eight of clubs,” she said, knowing already what was coming but knowing she’d be amazed all the same.  Up went the slip of red fabric, and there sat the deck of cards, eight of clubs on top.  “Now darlin’, I think some of the folks up on the upper circle might have a touch o’ difficulty jus’ making that out through their lorgnettes.  Could you tell these fine people here what card this is?” John asked, projecting his voice through – but not above – the crowd’s exclamations and applause.  “The eight of clubs!” she gleefully confirmed, beaming up at John.  He smiled warmly at her, eyebrows raised as though they were now co-conspirators, and offered her the cards to keep as a souvenir.  A lady wearing a dress just this side of a bit too form-fitting to be in public came out from a side curtain, smiling and joining the applause, and led the volunteer off stage.

John clapped as she left, and turned back to the audience.  He outstretched his arms, palms facing the crowd to quiet them, and continued.  “Now for a touch of what you really came here for, I think, ladies and gentlemen.  I’ve promised you a display o’ forces from beyond mortal ken, not mere legerdemain and prestidigitation.  It’s time to call upon the Devil Wanderer!”  John paused here to soak up a bit more applause.  “Now we all know, Old Scratch has a fondness for clocks and timepieces of all sorts, especially those he can steal away.  For idle time is the Devil’s playground, and if he can keep you from your pocket watch, you just might find yourself with a bit more whittlin’ time than you figured.  Can I have another volunteer from the audience?  Perhaps a young boy out with his parents?”

As expected, a few children in the seats immediately began pestering their mothers and fathers for permission to volunteer, while others shrunk down in their seats as though afraid to be called on by a schoolmaster.  After a moment, a young boy of about seven rose from his seat and began coming down the aisle towards the stage.  “Ah, there’s our brave young man,” John announced.  The audience dutifully encouraged the boy with applause, and some of the women nearer his route gave him affectionate coos and other endearing noises.  The footlights began to ever-so-slowly dim, so as most folks didn’t notice the transition.  John took a few long strides over to the side stairs to guide the boy the rest of the way to center stage.

“Now son, what’s your name?” John asked, getting down on a knee to avoid towering over the child.

“My name is Henry,” the boy stated matter-of-factly.  John smiled a bit.  “And Mrs. Parham at church says the Devil is real!” Chuckles from the crowd at that, of course.

“Oh, of course he is, Henry.  Mrs. Parham is a wise soul.  Now what say you an’ me play a little trick on ‘im?  Turn the tables on ‘im a bit?”  Henry’s face lit up at the prospect.  “Okay!  Now, you saw the lady up here before you, right?  She had a deck o’ cards that turned invisible, then came back.  But this is jus’ a little bit different,” John said, guiding Henry into his role while reaching into his pocket.  “Now here’s a pocket watch, and here’s a piece o’ red silk.  Could you look those over for me and make sure there’s nothin’ peculiar about ‘em?”  Henry glanced at the cloth to confirm it didn’t contain any giraffes or have any other equally unusual qualities, then opened the pocket watch and eyed the face.  “But I don’t even know how to tell time!” Henry exclaimed, obviously worried that this might disqualify him from participating any further.  And of course, more chuckles and awws from the crowd.

“Not to worry, Henry, for innocence is the surest way to catch the Devil’s attention in the first place.  Which is why we’re goin’ to let ‘im know you’re not to be trifled with,” John reassured.  “Now, close up that timepiece and put the kerchief on top, if you wouldn’t mind.  Now, they say when the Devil’s close, you can feel the chill.  Do you feel him close now, Henry?”  The lights had gone quite dim by now, and John forced any currents of warm air away from him and the boy so that the temperature dropped closer to that of the snowfall outside.  “Yes sir, I can feel the chill,” Henry almost whispered, staring intently at the covered watch.  John flashed a smile at the crowd and a wink, before continuing: “All right then, we’re ready.  Are you ready?”  Henry nodded.  “Devil… begone!  The red silk flashed fire and disappeared, and with it the watch.  At the same time, John made the footlights flash brilliantly, then go dim again.  The boy gawked – he could swear he had felt the weight of the watch on his palm!  John feigned amazement as well, and threw another wink at the crowd.

“Now remember, this ain’t like the deck o’ cards, Henry.  Those cards turned invisible, but that nice lady had ‘em in her hand the whole time,” Hunter grinned.  “But I bet you don’t have that watch at all, do you?”  Henry made a show of turning his hand over and flexing his fingers to show that no, there was no invisible watch in his hand, then patted down his pockets just to make doubly sure he hadn’t slipped it away without noticing what he was doing.  “No, of course you don’t have the watch.  The Devil Wanderer took it!  But not to fear, Henry, he can’t have gotten too far jus’ yet.  Now would you folks lend young Henry here a hand?” Henry asked the crowd, the house lights coming up a bit.  “Mayhaps the old Devil Wanderer has wandered on over to one of you and found a hiding place for that watch somewhere nearby.”  The audience gamely played along, and checked their seats and surrounding areas for the pocket watch.  Within moments, a man in the crowd had his arm raised, clutching the pocket watch triumphantly to general acclaim as the rest of the patrons noticed.  “Papa!” exclaimed Henry from the stage.  A moment later, the woman next to ‘Papa’ had her arm raised as well, a red piece of silk flowing out both ends of her soft fist.  “Mama!”

“Ah, just as I thought,” said John knowingly.  “He doesn’t ever go too far away at all, does he?  Now, good sir, if you and your wife could place that bit o’ red silk over the watch again, we’ll just see if we can get a bit even.”  Papa and Mama carried out the ritual once more, and John intoned, “Devil, you’ll not have this one – away!  And again, the silk flashed into fire, this time all the more dazzling to the crowd as the house lights stayed low, and the watch was gone once more.

“Now Henry, I’ve just bid Old Scratch leave you be, and he can be a bit frustrated by someone defyin’ him so.  But like as not, he prob’ly forgot to take that old timepiece with him when he went.  Did he give it back to you?”  John asked Henry, who immediately began to shake his head no as it was clear the watch wasn’t in his hand.  But he went through with his previous habit of checking his pockets, and lo, as the footlights began to gradually come back up, there in his back pocket was something hard and round with a slip of red silk tied into a knot around it.  Henry tried to untie the knot for a few moments before the silk – once again – flashed into flame and vanished, leaving the pocket watch in Henry’s hands.  Henry’s mouth made a little ‘o’ as he turned the watch over, and opened it to check the face once more.   Satisfied, he handed the watch back to John with a wide smile, to strong applause from the crowd.  John motioned for Henry to take a bow before being guided off the side of the stage.

“Now folks,” John continued, “I think we’ve won a bit o’ salvation from that little exercise, don’t you?  Perhaps a little thanks to the Allmighty is in order?  But alas, we have nothing to offer our thanks over… Well, how ‘bout this then.  If you’d all do me the kindness of checking your left pockets, ladies, your handbags, I believe you’ll find a little folded sachet with some grain inside.  Now don’t open it just yet!  Let’s all bow our heads and give a little prayer of thanks for the… loving warmth… of the Allmighty.”  John folded his long fingers together and bowed his head silently for a minute.  Before long, he could hear the murmuring of people in the crowd, then a muted, but growingly omnipresent pop-pop-pop from the seats as the popping corn the audience was holding reached its destiny.  John grinned ferociously, and raised his face to the crowd as they burst into tumultuous clapping and whistles.

* * *

Miss Black knit her brow, looking down at the table.  Mikulas’ leg was gone, and in its place an assembly of rods and pistons, gears, levers, and hinges the same length as his remaining leg.  She could see the completed structure in her mind, picture the way the tendons, bones, and muscles all worked together like so many levers and pulleys.  But that damned racket coming from the opera house down the way kept breaking in on her thoughts at inopportune moments – first she cut too few teeth on a gear, and didn’t notice until three more gears had been cut, placed, and secured by successive screws and pins.  Then she had tried to bleed a hydraulic piston before putting any water in it and got the damned thing stuck in the fully compressed position.  Now she had actually cut her thumb while grinding down the wheel to fit into the ankle joint.  Her eyes narrowed a bit more in frustration, and she spent a glance toward Mikulas’ chest and face.  He had nearly suffocated under that ridiculous dropsheet trying to protect his modesty, but once she had pulled it off him his breathing had been slow and regular.  She had given him another dose of ether a couple hours ago to keep him from stirring, and he seemed as out as any tavern drunk.

Miss Black sighed as another roar of applause washed over the roof.  She bound her thumb in a small strip of linen, replaced her gloves, stripped the goggles off her face and placed them on a workbench.  She checked the fire one last time to be sure it hadn’t come down too far, and changed her heavy leather apron for a long coat as she stepped out into the brisk evening air.

The familiar crumph of snow under her thin boots and the swirling white particles in the air all around reminded her that there was a world outside the workshop where she had just spent hours in the heat, surrounded by tools, parts, and machines.  She shut the oversized wooden door behind her and began the short walk to the opera house, determined not to chatter her teeth or give any indication that she regretted the lack of an overcoat.  There were no people on the walk, and the steady crumph-crumph-crumph seemed to reverberate against the heavy, cold air and become louder than it should have been.  Her breath pumped in and out of her nostrils with the regularity and visibility of steam from a locomotive.

She arrived at the opera house and observed a side door standing open to admit a fresh cool breeze, as the interior was likely quite warm given all the patrons inside she could clearly hear.  She came in the open door, grateful to get into the warmth, and nearly ran into a hired man who had turned away from the portal to catch a glimpse of the show around a corner behind the stage.  Avoiding him, Black moved down the hall and managed to come out into a nicely carpeted lobby.  She spied some stairs marked “Upper Circle” and ascended, coming out above the sizeable performance space shadowed in gloom but blanketed in warmth.  The smell of popped corn lingered in the air.  Someone nearby coughed, as the chiseler on stage continued his routine, murmuring something unintelligible from back here.  She spotted no empty seats, so merely stood in the aisle and observed for a moment.

The man on the stage was clearly a magician of some sort, given his overly formal dress, but was much wider in the shoulder than a standard performer.  He was currently accompanied by a portly man in his mid-fifties, who had just been convinced to hand over a flask to the magician, who promptly took a swig.  Black wrinkled her nose at the unprofessionalism, and the portly man stood slack-jawed at the audacity of the act.  Despite this, he soon produced a cigar from an inside jacket pocket, which the magician took with a murmur and lit with a snap of his gloves.  The magician then took a few puffs from the cigar, and the portly man began to get angry in earnest.  The magician seemed to try to placate the man, holding his hands up to calm the other and speaking in calm tones.  He then gestured into the audience, and as Black moved up the railing to better see, she heard the crash of broken glass and spotted a woman in the crowd who seemed to have two cigars in each hand, one behind an ear, and three sticking out of her hair, all lit and smoldering.  The crowd generally seemed to find this amusing, but the portly man was turning nearly apoplectic.  It became clear from the hushed comments radiating outward from the woman that she now had a rather significant whisky stain on her dress, and cigar ash was falling all over her.  Black could practically hear the man’s heart pumping, the blood vessels in his face engorging as he turned red.

The magician once again turned up his palms to calm the man down, and uttered some soothing words.  Then, with a raise of his arms as though he were lifting a log into place as a brace, the woman in the crowd burst into flame.  The immediate effect in the crowd was panic, as those sitting nearest to the apparent effigy rose and leaped away as quickly as they could, and others farther away began to raise their voice in alarm.

Then, as suddenly as she had been engulfed, the flames disappeared.  The woman was now holding a cut crystal glass of what looked like whiskey, with a single, lit cigar wedged between glass and forefinger.  She was wearing a new dress of a different color.  As the crowd began to take this in, the woman had the presence of mind to turn and wave to the rest of the crowd to prove her good health.  To Black’s eye, her health seemed good indeed – she looked about ten years younger.  After a few beats, the patrons erupted into wild approval, except for a few isolated cries of “Witchcraft!” that were quickly shouted down.  Now behind her, Black could hear the man who had coughed earlier now coughing more severely; turning to look, she spotted him wearing a Republic uniform and clutching a white kerchief to his face.  Once the fit subsided, she was able to see flecks of red in the kerchief.  Deciding there was nothing more to be gained from this excursion, Black went back down the stairs and simply out the front entrance, back into the chill, flake-filled air.  The glow of the quarter moon reflected brightly off the snow already accumulated on both brick walks and cobbled streets as she walked back to her work.  Nothing for it but to press on as well as she could through the distraction.

The magician filled Black’s thoughts during the crumph-crumph-crumph through the snow.  He had a certain rugged handsomeness, she supposed, but just as apparent was his raw magnetism and charisma.  There was a quality about him that made him nearly impossible to ignore, and made most folk either fear him or want to win that generous smile.  The trick with setting the woman on fire in the crowd mystified Black; she had seen no tripwires, no surreptitious sparking of a flint nearby, no indication that there might be a new dress somewhere nearby.  It seemed mechanically impossible to have done that at a distance, yet the magician obviously wielded some kind of influence all the same.  She could still vividly see the flash of the dress going up in flames, still smell the odor of burnt fabric.

As the odor began to shift to include burning timber, Black fell out of her reverie.  There was a glow up ahead that could only be a building on fire, and already there began to be scattered cries to summon a bucket team.  She continued walking toward the rising glow, working up to a brisk stride and then a full run as it became clear the workshop where Mikulas had been was the source of the fire.  “Shit,” said Black under her breath, still running.  “I should have known better than to leave that ether out.”

Black arrived at the front of the workshop to find it fully ablaze, the snow melted off for scores of feet in every direction.  A few other concerned citizens stood nearby, but it was obvious no bucket team would bring this fire under control; the best they could hope for was to control the spread, which is why water began to be applied to the neighboring buildings.  Black looked over at Mr. Granville’s shop, and noted that the socked sorrel no longer stood waiting.

Runner-up:
Karyl Lee
Vane on the Hunt & Jaded John Hunter

Jaded John Hunter and the clock moonLike last year, Karyl submitted not one but two entries. First I received Black, and liked the riotous colors and the multimedia approach, but then she sent the Hunter, and I was won over. This thing is crazy in the best ways; a surreal cut-paper and paint collage with an anatomically correct Outlaw and the watch — with its movable hands! — looming like the sun in the desert sky. Truly unique. You can find more of Karyl’s stuff in her Yessy and Etsy galleries.

Vane on the Hunt

Runner-up:
Sulucamas
Idle Hands

I am unqualified to comment meaningfully on poetry; I am a Philistine with a prose bias. The imagery in Idle Hands is so well-wrought though that even I can appreciate it: I keep coming back to the fifth and seventh lines in particular. A poem also makes for a welcome change of pace: introspective meditations on the comic’s emotional underpinnings aren’t half so popular as fire and bullets.

What dire fate that smile hides, what great intent in glittering eyes, no passing mention of impossibilities.

And what magnificence comes to pass, with blaze and spark and wily flash, a dazzling show by any honest measure.

The illusions staged extend a hand,  promises of power grand, whispering closely to a like ambitious heart.

Yet their mastery is incomplete, and in attempt at greatest feat, blind confidence does cast their hopes asunder.

Amidst the ash and charred remains of futures built on tender sayings, glow the lies that burned far worse than any fire.

The devil is not gentle with their toys, left broken, scarred after employ, past ownership indelible upon their beings.

With terrifying industry at their behest, some so discarded win no rest, the bright-eyed one riding yet roughshod across the world.

Though hands may move at relentless pace, memories beside mechanical face, they do not tarry long to tell the time.

Winner:
Alexandru Bucur
Dance of Titans

WHAT?! Is this thing RIGGED?
Okay, let’s get it out of the way: Alex won last year.
Shouldn’t there be a rule against that?! Well, yes, there should. But there wasn’t. Huge blunder on my part. As such, I didn’t have the heart to disqualify Mr. Bucur, who once again rocked a fantastic concept with, I felt, the most effort and attention to detail — and all last minute, to boot, as he found out about this year’s contest a month late and got his submission in just under the wire. Rest assured, next year the rules will cover this and Mr. Bucur will most definitely not win a third time in a row … even if he deserves to. He certainly does this year; this piece is pretty great. Inspired by (per the artist) Pacific Rim, the ballet bits of 1634: The Ram Rebellion, Chicago, and Goya’s Colossus, this is the third in the trio of conflict-as-dance entries. I love Hunter’s gotcha expression and Vane’s reticence, and big ups to the great use of atmospheric haze to enhance how huge they look. You can find more of Alex’s work at wingsofwrath.deviantart.com. Congratulations, sir … for the last time.

Alex_Bucur_DanceOfTitans_sm

And there you have it! A leaner year for entries but super just the same. The art contest really is a huge pick-me-up: seeing folks involved enough in the comic to put in this kind of work reliably inspires and revitalizes me.  I realize my choice of winner may be controversial; I contemplated leaving it up to a reader poll but it’s recently come to my attention that a lot of readers don’t see newsposts and so that seemed broken in its own right.

Winners, your prizes will be on their way pending my receipt of some physical Book 5s to send along. Meanwhile, it’s extremely late here as of this writing, and I’m still tired from a rough weekend, so I’m signing off for now.

Regards,

Erin