Thursday, October 22, 2020

Nothing today...

I'm having another one of those weeks where I'm pushing too hard, so consequently I'm tired, so naturally I try to push harder. 

You'd think after this many years, I'd know that doesn't work. 

So, yeah, nothing really for today. 

Working from home is hellishly distracting (especially this morning), I'm losing track of time/which day of the week it is (possibly because of trying to work from home), and I really need to quit trying to do things and go to bed early (possibly with earplugs, because if I go down before everyone else they tend wake me back up by being loud). None of that is insurmountable, but it's frustrating. 

Right then: back to trying to work on the thing I've been trying to work on since 8:00 this morning.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Challenge: Earliest Memory

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

The challenge for this week is "my earliest memory." 

Memory is a funny thing, not least because it's largely artificial and amazingly untrustworthy. My earliest memory isn't really a memory anymore: it's a memory of a memory. 

Specifically, it's the memory of me coming around the corner of the couch (a corner which was around the same height as my shoulder) at what I thought of at the time as "our old house." But it's not what I'd refer to as a "first-order memory" in that I no longer have the memory itself. It's a second-order memory: I remember it because when I was, I don't know, eight or nine years old, somebody asked me what my earliest memory was. That piece of motion -- coming around the corner of the couch in our old house, with no other context -- was what I remembered. At the time, it was a first-order memory; I actually remembered it. Now it's a second-order memory: I remember remembering it, but the image in my head is a reconstruction of the original.

Our old house had a section of stone floor; that's a first-order memory. A couple of times while we were living there my parents waxed the floor, and we couldn't go into that room until it... dried? Set? Got wiped back down? I'm not sure, but I remember having to walk across these wide wooden boards that were laid over the corner between between the hall that went back to our bedrooms and... I think a little atrium area that had a tree growing up through the middle of it, and out through a skylight. 

I definitely remember that atrium area. 

I remember that the house had eaves that I could somehow climb up to, maybe using the fence. I hung out on top of them a lot, not unlike a feral cat, though at this point I couldn't begin to tell you how often "a lot" was. I know that I was one of those children who climbed on everything but that's also been confirmed by my parents. 

And I know, because I do and don't remember it, that memory is a funny thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

VtM: A Club, A Card, An Interview

 It was ten o'clock at night before before Edhem returned to the Crux Invertis. A different teenager opened the door this time, this one dressed all in shades of gray: a hooded sweatshirt, an oversized coat, loose pants, off-brand tennis shoes. Even the mask that covered their mouth and nose was the color of charcoal. "The guy who wanted to meet with Malachi, right?" Their hair was tied back in simple ponytail, dark enough to look black in the limited lighting inside the club; they studied Edhem with a severe face that held no particular expression, punctuated by high cheekbones and dark eyes.

"Edhem Blackburn," he said. "Should I ask who you are?" 

The teen shrugged. "Twilight, for the moment. Some of us use names; some of us don't. That was Dark you met earlier, unless he's changed it." 

"Is Malachi available? Will he see me?" 

"Yes." Twilight swung the door all the way open and stepped back. "That's why I'm being so polite." 

"I'm grateful," said Edhem, with no irony whatsoever; it sounded like he should be. His own mask was still white, and didn't muffle his voice quite enough to leave any doubt about his tone.

Twilight looked momentarily nonplussed, and Edhem took that moment to step inside and look around. This was obviously the entryway; there was a counter to his left, unoccupied, but with a cash register and a handful of posters on the wall behind it. There was another door ahead, exactly where he'd expect to find a bouncer to prevent anyone from entering the club without paying. 

Twilight closed the door behind him and shot the deadbolt, then moved past him with a vague motion that Edhem took to mean he should follow. 

He did, and found himself in a large room. To his right was the main bar, and an entrance into some other area; to his left a sort of balcony wandered around to a second, smaller bar. The balcony overlooked the dance floor, and the raised stage beyond. A second, higher balcony circled overhead, also overlooking the dance floor; two more teens stood on the far side, looking idly down at them. One was Dark; the other was an unfamiliar girl, waifish, in a tank top and sweat pants, with disheveled blond hair and no sign of makeup. She stepped back as Edhem looked up at her. 

"Come and sit down," said a voice at his elbow, and Edhem turned his head to look down at a short, slim man in a black coat and tie, the handkerchief in his breast pocket folded to show an inlaid rose. "I don't believe I know you, Edhem Blackburn." He must have been in the room; he must have moved to Edhem's flank; but Edhem hadn't seen him at all. That does not bode well.

"There's no reason you should," said Edhem, cautiously polite. "We haven't met, and until yesterday I had no idea your club even existed."

Malachi tilted his head, and there was something just slightly off about the gesture: not quite the inhuman stillness that the thing in Jack and Valeria's apartment had displayed, but a hint of someone trying to avoid giving that impression. "Then what is it brings you here?" He extended a hand, motioning Edhem towards a booth near the front wall. 

Edhem nodded. "The Magical Mister Grey and his beautiful assistant Valeria," he said, as he crossed to the booth and took a seat. 

 Malachi slid silently onto the bench opposite him. "I see, Mister Blackburn. Would you care for anything to drink?"

"Not now," answered Edhem, "but I appreciate the hospitality."

Malachi nodded to Grey, and she turned and walked away. "So then," he said, when they were apparently alone, "you've come to ask about Mister Grey and his sudden demise."

Edhem gave a single, slow nod. "Your name was given to me as someone who had met with him shortly before he died."

"Ah," said Malachi. "And you suspect I might have killed him?" 

Unchosen Gods, he better not have. Edhem shook his head, wondering if he should have brought one of the canes from the van, and decided to bluff. "I'm putting together a story," he said. "I know that Jack Grey died by violence, and that his wife-slash-assistant disappeared shortly afterwards. I started looking into it because I knew him, and there aren't that many stage magicians in the business -- especially not with the kind of talents he sometimes displayed. So, I'm looking for people who knew him and who saw him in the last few weeks of his life." He kept his expression still, showing nothing but mild curiosity.

"Then you aren't a police officer, or a private detective." 

Edhem shook his head, and Malachi nodded slowly. "Young master Dark, the one who greeted you at the door earlier, was worried that you might be with Social Services, but clearly you are not that either." 

"No." Edhem made sure he met Malachi's eyes. "I'm curious as to why you seem to have at least three teenagers in your club during the lockdown for the pandemic, but it's none of my business." At least not for now. If there's anything amiss, well... later for that. "I just need to know about Jack Grey." 

"They're runaways," said Malachi. "All six of them. And what passes for shelter in this city is inadequate and frequently dangerous. I spent enough time living on the streets to want to offer them something better, now that I can." His expression turned briefly wistful, and Edhem found that disconcerting. 

"So how did you know the Magical Mister Grey?" 

"As an entertainer, more than anything else." Malachi turned his attention back to Edhem's face. "He and Valeria performed here, just before the pandemic forced us to close. It was a good show, even though his stalker showed up for it; the bouncers removed him before he could cause any trouble."

Edhem considered that. "So you hired him, and presumably paid him, and that was the extent of your interactions?" 

"Essentially, yes." Malachi Omicron looked faintly puzzled. "Is that all you wanted to know?" 

It wasn't even close, but Edhem nodded and said, "Yes. I'll seek more information elsewhere." 

"Please let me know what you find," said Malachi. "I'd be delighted to help in any way I can. And with the club closed, well... I don't hear the gossip they way I used to."

Monday, October 19, 2020

VtM: A Boy, A Door, A Conversation

 Edhem looked at the address on the business card, looked at the small building on the edge of downtown Seattle, and looked back at the business card. No, the address was correct; unlikely as it seemed, he was in the right place. The name on the card was Malachi Omicron, and the name of the club was the Crux Invertis. It was closed now, of course, a victim of the pandemic; but there was a light on in front of the door, suggesting that someone might still be present. 

Edhem approached, then knocked. 

It took a few seconds, but then the door opened and Edhem found himself looking down at a kid in his early teens. "Who're you?" 

"My name is Edhem. I'm looking for a Malachi Omicron." 

The kid frowned. "You with Social?"

"What?"

The kid was wearing black jeans and a plain black t-shirt, and had the sides of his hair shaved close while the rest had been allowed to grow longer. He was barefoot, and looked Edhem up and down without the faintest waver in his frown. "Never mind. No chance, you dressed like that." 

Edhem blinks, then decides that it's better not to ask. Instead he says, "I'd like to speak to Malachi Omicron, if I can."

The kid shakes his head. "Too early. Come back after dark." 

"Like a vampire, huh?" asks Edhem, testing a suspicion. 

"You could say that," answers the kid, without the least change in expression. Then he swung the door closed. 

Edhem checked his phone. It was four-thirty in the afternoon, but apparently that was too early. It bothered him that the kid hadn't been wearing a mask, but then he hadn't been wearing shoes either; perhaps the knock on the door had woken him up. That might explain the moodiness, though Edhem couldn't help but think that the kid's sense of disapproval was thoroughly ingrained. 

Okay. That left him with several hours until he could return; he wasn't hungry enough to eat dinner yet, but he could park the van somewhere and see if he could pull together a talisman to turn aside disease... all other dangers aside, that seemed a decent use of his time. It wasn't worth the time to check in on any of the other names and addresses, especially since it seemed increasingly likely that they'd all turn out to be nocturnal.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Art of Whales

 So, I received an email from Secondborn's art teacher yesterday. It said, roughly: 

I wanted to touch base with you about Secondborn’s art today.  We are learning about coral reefs and underwater life.  Today, the class was instructed to sketch different underwater scenes, animals, and fish in their sketchbooks.  I messaged with Secondborn a little during the asynchronous time, as I saw that he was not in the Art Google classroom.  He said he knew what to do.  This is the sketch that he turned in. I have returned it to him and told him that I need to see a hand drawn sketch.  Can you please check in with him to make sure that he understands the assignment?  

I opened the attachment, not without some trepidation, but I was clearly unprepared for... well... this: 


 

My friends, I want you to know that despite such a powerful provocation I did not panic. I merely called Secondborn over to me and asked him what this was that he had turned in for the morning's art project. 

I am... {{chokes}} I am... {{coughs}} I am... {{wheezes}} I am pleased to report that Secondborn intended that to be a picture of a whale. 

So, I explained that after he was finished with his final class, he would need to read the actual instructions for the assignment and submit a drawing with sea creatures and a coral reef. I mentioned that this would actually have been quicker and easier if he'd taken the time to read the instructions first. I recommended that he perhaps should not try to do art using only the Google Shapes app on his school laptop. 

Then he went back into his room to sign on for his last class, and I went off to have a cup of tea and a mild nervous breakdown.

Epilogue: He did in fact do a proper sketch, his art teacher is pleased, and if the gods are merciful we shall never speak of this episode again.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

VtM: A Book, a Mask, a Deck of Cards (Sorcerer Character Concept)

Edhem Blackburn stepped down from the railing onto the balcony and straightened, pulling the leather owl-mask from his face. The feathers were wilted, the leather worn and almost scorched; he wouldn't be able to use it again. He tucked it into the pocket of the long coat that had, until moments ago, been part of his wings; he'd need to put it to rest properly when he got the chance. 

As far as he could tell, this was the last apartment that Jack Grey and his wife/assistant Valeria had rented. It was dark and empty now, but Edhem had been able to see in the dark for as long as he could remember; it was one of the things that had brought him to his master's attention. The balcony let into the living area, which was as typical as he could imagine: a couch against one wall, flat-screen TV mounted on the wall opposite, a couple of advertising posters framed on the wall to his right. 

He stopped and studied them. This was definitely the right place; the odds that he'd somehow broken into the apartment of a random Stan of the Magical Mister Grey were absurdly slim. So, then... 

The bedroom was black enough that even his night vision needed help; he found the lighter in his pocket and called up a small flame with it. There should have been light from a window, but somebody had tacked blackout cloth over it. The bed was unmade, but from the look of it not recently used; there was a deck of cards on the chest of drawers that sat opposite the foot of the bed. 

There, thought Edhem, and stepped forward to take them. 

He moved back to the living area, which was more or less the center of the apartment, and sat down with his legs spread in a diamond shape, the soles of his feet pressed together. He leaned forward and set the cards across from him, then drew his master's deck from its place on his belt. 

The cards were old, and stiff as he shuffled them; he kept his movements gentle, sensing their resistance. The deck was still in mourning, grief-stricken and resentful, but it moved beneath his fingers anyway; it knew him, and at least acknowledged his presence. Edhem was grateful for that; the cards might have chosen not to, and he didn't have an alternate set to turn to. 

When the sorting felt right, he dropped them back into their case. Then he pulled the small knife from his pocket, flicked it open, and drew his sleeve back to cut his arm. He placed his thumb against the wound, then pressed a print of the drawn blood against The Magical Mister Grey's deck of cards, and then touched the blood again and laid a matching print on the face of his master's deck. The blood dried and disappeared, and he drew the first card. 

It was Battle, the one his master had said represented a conflict involving violence from multiple sides. That alone suggested that Ciaron hadn't murdered Jack and Valeria; his former brother in the blood had always worked alone. He'd made no secret of the fact that he viewed cooperation as a form of weakness. 

The next card was Distance, an image of an open landscape that required a far more nuanced interpretation but in this case probably meant that the battle that had finished Jack and his assistant had taken place somewhere else. It would be a mistake to assign a more specific meaning; the cards hadn't been ready to respond to another's hand, and while they wouldn't lie outright they didn't pretend to like him. 

He had his hand on the next card when a soft voice said, "What is this you do?" 

Edhem went still. He was used to being unnoticed, and would have sworn the apartment was empty. After a moment he said, "I'm asking the cards what happened to the people who lived here. Who are you?" He looked around. "Where are you?"

Ignoring his questions, the soft voice asked: "What do you see?" 

Edhem remained still for a long moment; then he shrugged. "Death, I think. For Jack Grey, a fight that he didn't survive. I'm not sure about Valeria." 

"Taken," said the voice. He still wasn't sure of its source, only that it was still here in the room with him. "Given what she needs, perhaps, except for the time to grieve." 

"I hope not," said Edhem. "They seemed very devoted to each other. And Jack was... remarkably talented. It was almost enough to make someone believe in real magic."

A shadowy figure swept Jack's old deck of cards aside and seated itself on the floor opposite Edhem. "And you, doing this, do not? What brings you here, truly?"

Edhem started to lift his gaze, then thought the better of it. There were stronger and stranger things than sorcery in this world; he supposed he shouldn't be surprised to find that Jack had somehow been involved with them. Picking up the cards on the floor, he tucked them back into his master's deck; the reading was finished, regardless of what happened next. "You don't think that hearing that Jack and Valeria had disappeared was enough? The word is all over the scene, though I'll grant you it's not a large scene." 

"What scene would that be?" The voice was... unearthly. He couldn't even decide if it was male or female. More than anything else, it sounded... unpracticed. Unused.

"Stage magic." Edhem slid his master's deck back into his belt, then reached across to another pouch and pulled out the small handmade book he kept there. He flipped it open, found the page he wanted, and laid a finger on it. He kept his thumb back; there was still blood on the tip, and he didn't want that to touch the page just yet. 

"I see," said the figure. "You are a part of this scene, and you came to uncover what happened to him." 

Edhem nodded, still not looking up. He wasn't sure why it was such a bad idea, but he was certain down to his bones that it was. "I came to see if it was done by someone who tried to kill me -- someone who might be killing magicians." 

There was a long pause in the darkness. "Even so, you came to see how he died. And you know it was by violence, and not here." 

Edhem nodded reluctantly. 

"I, too, would learn more of this. One of my... grandchildren... was affected by it. He mourns, and I find that his grief affects me." The figure shifted, then extended its own hand of cards -- but these were business cards, not playing cards. "In the week before he died, there were some people he met. I think you should meet with them."

Edhem pressed his index finger against the back of the page, preparing to tear it free and touch his bloody thumb to it. He doubted it would kill whoever was sitting across from him, but it might hurt them -- at least long enough for him to get away. And he was absolutely certain he'd need to be well away from them. "That sounds spectacularly dangerous." 

"Doesn't it? But these people weren't his enemies. Given time, they might even have been his friends." A pale hand laid the cards on the floor between them, and then the voice said: "Look at me." 

The commanding tone riled him, but curiosity overrode his irritation; Edhem looked up, and found himself staring at a face of inhuman beauty, cold and clean and pale, with deep blue eyes against white skin beneath sandy blond hair. Its eyes went strange as he met them: "You will take the cards. You will go these people. You will find out what they know. And you will forget that you ever saw me." 

Edhem blinked. "...Yes, Maybe, We'll see, and No. In pretty much that order." 

The inhuman figure blinked and drew back, a startled marble statue. "You are..." 

"Mine is the old blood. I'm pretty fucking sure you can kill me without breaking a sweat, but I am not yours to command." And there it was: the same pride that had led him to believe what his teacher had said about him, the same pride that had led Ciaran to betray them, and the same pride that was almost certainly going to get him killed in the space of his next breath. He'd die with some degree of dignity, at least, but now that the words were spoken he wasn't sure that was a particularly good trade.

The figure was still for the space of a breath, then another, and then another. When it finally moved to resettle itself, the change came as a shock; somehow, Edhem had almost forgotten it wasn't a statue. "Take the cards," it said, and this time its voice was normal. "If you are curious. If you are brave. I will... watch over you." 

"In a good way, or a bad way?" asked Edhem. 

"I am not certain," the thing replied, "that either of us could truly answer that. Nevertheless, it will be so."

Edhem blinked, then blinked again. "And if I decide that Jack's death had nothing to do with my enemy, and return to hunting him instead?" 

"Then I will watch as you do that, and we will see what will be."

Edhem drew a deep breath and held it, then closed his eyes. "Do as you will. I don't believe I can stop you." He was still half-certain he was going to die, though his master's cards lay quiescent in his belt and they would surely have warned him if this thing was actually going to kill him. He let his breath out, then opened his eyes. 

The pallid figure was gone.

"Son of a bitch," he said absently, and gathered up the business cards from the floor.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Challenge: Re-reading books

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

The challenge for this week is "re-reading books: why or why not?"

For me, re-reading books is definitely a yes. Why? Well, sometimes I don't want to go explore something new; I want to re-experience something comfortable. Re-reading a much-loved book is like comfort food. 

Sometimes, I want to look at how an author pulled off a specific effect -- or captured a particular mood. 

Sometimes, I just find that I'm not in the mood for any of the things that are on top of my To Be Read pile, and I fall back on something I know I'll be in the mood for. 

And sometimes it's just 2020, and all I can cope with is something I already know I can handle.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Working from home

 So... I'm working from home for the next couple of weeks. It's a precaution, thank the gods, and not a self-quarantine or a result of someone coming down with the pandemic. And it's a distinctly mixed blessing. 

On the one hand, I can grab food whenever I feel like it; on the other hand, I can grab food whenever I feel like it. 

On the one hand, I'm in the living room where I can keep an eye on the boys and make sure they're doing their online schooling. On the other hand, I'm trying to do my work in the living room where I can keep an eye on the boys and make sure they're doing their online schooling. 

On the one hand, I'll be in the living room and nobody can be in there watching TV while I'm working. On the other hand, I'll be in the living room and nobody can be in there watching TV while I'm working.

On the one hand, I won't be using my car at all. On the other hand, I won't using my car at all. 

So, I mean, that's pretty much how I feel about this. On the one hand, I'll be working from home for a couple of weeks. But on the other hand, I'll be working from home for a couple of weeks...

Monday, October 12, 2020

Tavros: Prisoners

 Tavros woke up to find himself curled on his side with his head in someone's lap. His weapons and armor were gone, and his nostrils were filled with the smell of dust and straw and unwashed bodies. It was the urge to sneeze that had awakened him. 

"Easy there," said a soft voice, just above him. "You've been out for a while." 

"Not by choice," he muttered, clenching and unclenching his muscles in sequence to make sure nothing was torn or broken. Then he lifted his head and opened his eyes. 

He was in a small hut or barn, warm and humid with the breath of too many other people, cloying with their scents. He sat up slowly, then stood; the old woman who'd been serving as his pillow shook her legs out and stood up with him. "My apologies," he offered, looking down at her. 

She grinned, gray eyes a sharp contrast to her dark skin; her curly hair gone to silver. "Not at all," she said. "It's been a long time since I've had a handsome young paladin lay his head in my lap." 

Tavros offered a brief prayer of thanks that his embarrassment didn't show in the color of his scales. "For handsome, you want Tarric. Maybe even Anica." 

The woman shrugged. "It's a matter of perspective, and from where I'm standing you look strong and sleek. Too young for me now, but if I were ten years younger or you were twenty years older..." 

"I would run screaming," Tavros assured her, and was rewarded when he saw her grin. "Who are you?" 

"Nowadays? Mother Mia, though I never had children. The title comes with the years. I mend nets and other things, trap animals for meat and fur. I even learned to keep a small garden. Or I did, until these fellows came through." She gestured towards a small door, in which was set a smaller window sealed with metal bars. 

Tavros crossed to it and looked out, seeing goblins and hobgoblins and bugbears... and a human, dressed in what seemed to be pants and an overcoat of leather and fur. The human was striding towards their prison, and he drew back as the man approached. 

"Well then!" said the man. "How are you feeling? Ready to fight for your life -- and those of your friends?" 

Tavros cracked his neck. "What is it you want from us?" he asked. 

"A champion," answered the man, smiling broadly. "Procrustes demands it. He is the chief of this tribe, you see, and his law is that any captured prisoners must produce a champion to fight against his champion. If the champion can meet his measure, then all the prisoners will be released."

"Admirable," said Tavros drily. "And he's just like his namesake, I suppose?" 

"Oh, very good. If you weren't about to die, I might like to keep you around. So few among the tribe recognize the old stories." 

"You're one of them, then?" 

Moro sniffed. "I came to study them, years ago. Gave them gifts, got them to accept me. But their beliefs and their practices were crude, and I knew so many interesting customs and rituals that I could share with them. They do things with ever so much more style now, and I have become a person of importance among them. And when the food stores were found lacking as we approached the spring, well... clearly it was time for another feast day. So Procrustes and I sent them out to find some sacrifices, and here you are."

Tavros  suppressed a growl. "Fine," he said. "So tell me about this champion." 

"Oh, he's unbeatable -- even for a beast-man such as you. You'll see."

"But if I beat him," Tavros asked, "everyone here goes free?"

The man feigned a yawn. "That is the rule, as we established it ten years ago. The matter has, frankly, never come up." 

"You've never needed to take prisoners before?" 

"We've never had anyone defeat our champion. Get some rest now, warrior-lizard... or whatever you are. The challenge begins at sunset."

Tavros turned away from the door, noting with relief that Anica, Tarric, and Olvern were still unconscious in a row along the back wall. "Very well," he said firmly, looking around the room. The people here were human: women and children, a couple of older men. Some of them met his eyes; most looked away. "I'll face their champion." 

He glanced back at the door, but Moro had gone. "Even if I win, I wouldn't count on these goblins to let you go. I need you to be ready to run, just before the end of the battle, no matter who seems to be winning."

He dropped his gaze and stepped forward, finding himself face to face with Mother Mia. 

"You're right," she said. "They'll cheat. Let's see if we can wake your friends; we'll need them. And after that, you and I can talk about how you're going to win."

Friday, October 9, 2020

VtM: Ghostly Traces

 "Take care of it," muttered Lucien, as he descended the steps. "Take care of it! As if she were the sire and I but her childe! That woman will be the true death of me yet..."

Still, it was probably better that he came alone; Bianca might charm the ghost with a song, but she knew nothing of fighting or even the most minimal forms of caution; she tended to assume that everyone would naturally adore her, and she was correct just often enough to make it difficult to argue with her. Not, he thought, that I've ever argued her out of anything she truly wanted to do...

He was still muttering when he reached the bottom of the stairs. "Ghosts, yet. Bad enough I must have peasants in our dwelling while we sleep, now it seems we have a ghost as well."

In truth, he was not certain that they did. Ghosts did exist, but it would be strange to find one here; as he understood it, they were most often bound to one particular place or object, unless summoned deliberately through necromancy. Despite the recent unpleasantness, neither scenario seemed particularly likely. But there were other things that also existed out at the brittle edges of mortal perceptions, and might easily be mistaken for ghosts...

Fortunately, he was not limited to mortal perceptions. Extending his senses, Lucien looked around the room again. It was still empty of life, nothing new revealed to his eyes or ears, but... he scented something, paused, then drew a deep breath to fully taste the air. 

There was dust, of course, despite the best efforts of the peasants to keep the place clean. A hint of oil and ozone, the traces of the machines that kept the walk-in refrigerator and freezer cold. And there, a faint smell of decay, and under it, teasing, elusive...

...was the scent of blood. 

It took Lucien less than a minute to locate the corpses of what had once been a family of rats, lined up along the edge of the far wall behind a row of canned goods that he and Bianca would never touch. They were curiously organized, laid nose to tail, nose to tail, and despite decaying to the point of desiccation they appeared to be intact; whatever had killed them had done no visible damage.

Extending his senses like this had sometimes brought Lucien strange and unexpected insights, and he could feel one building now. The room was still bright with electric light, every surface visible, but he was increasingly certain that there was something he wasn't seeing. Something — someone? — was in here in the room with him, watching him... 

...standing behind him.

Lucien spun to his feet, arms raised, fangs extended, and found himself looking at... Nothing. The room was still empty. No. I do not believe that. There was something here, he knew it. And he trusted that knowledge more than he trusted his more immediate senses. 

Abruptly, the sense of being watched was gone. Then the sense of presence began to fade. A moment after that he was alone. The ghost — whatever it was — had gone.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Music: You Want It Darker

 Leonard Cohen, because I have nothing to put in for today. 

It's going to be early bedtimes all the way this week.

If there's something you particularly want more of for tomorrow, put it in the comments and I'll see what I can do. Possibilities include: 

  • The next bit of Tavros and his road to becoming a knight of the temple.
  • A murder scene from Dark Armor
  • Something with the ghost child haunting Bianca The Vampire's cellars? Maybe? Not sure what to do with this one outside of actual roleplay, which we aren't doing right now. Would consider suggestions.
  • Another run at Shadow of War, this time with more conflict. (That's the one with Tamantha.)
  • The next scene in Remnant of Heroes.
  • Something with Darvinin and Ruin, maybe, since we'll be picking them up again in that campaign once the players are finished getting Saltmarsh burned to the ground in mine. No, no, don't ask. You don't want to know. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Music: Hideaway

Alice Dillon with another addition to my growing soundtrack for 2020:  

This morning's Weekly Blogging Challenge involves recipes, which is... unfortunate for me, since all my recipes are for alcoholic drinks and they're all really simple: 

  1. Pour whiskey into cup. 
  2. Drink.

So, I mean... yeah. You get music instead.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Menagerie

 So I ran a little series of microfictions over on Twitter in honor of getting to the beginning of October (and the end of the week). For each reply, I would describe the replier's very own monster. Here's what all we conjured: 

1. It slides in like a snake, twisting and sleek and fast; but its head is a grasping hand, and the palm of the hand is a circular mouth full of teeth. It unfolds, sprouting rows of arms down both sides; it skitters and grasps and constricts, holding you still, stealing your breath.

2. A soft, whispering voice that rises from the pile of bones hidden beneath the drift of leaves at the side of your house. It offers sympathy and advice, mostly; but sometimes it asks uncomfortable questions: "Do you remember who murdered me?" You tell it you don't, but... maybe?

3. You've only ever seen it as a faint white mist, usually not even that. It's a cold place on the floor, a draft across your shoulders, your food no sooner out of the microwave than it needs to be warmed again. Once, it froze a mouse to death; but surely that's nothing to fear?

4. You're never sure whether it's the door itself or the things inside, nor whether it's you or a part of this place; but sometimes at night you look up to find a door that wasn't there, open to darkness, the gleam of hundreds upon hundreds of eyes within. They only ever look... so far.  

5. A baby's ghost, screaming its need for food, for care, for attention. You can hear it all through the house, and sometimes outside; in moonlight, you can see it on the floor of the old guest bedroom. No matter how you try, your hands pass through it. You cannot comfort the child.

6. A dark shape passing across the moon; in its shadow your house shifts and creaks, pressed down by a weight that threatens to flatten it. A small bowl of blood in front of your door, and the threat passes harmless by... if you remember to keep the blood ready. Did you?

7. A waking nightmare, nebulous and small; it wraps smoky tendrils around you and the world goes cold and slow and strange. You struggle, fingers slipping through it, desperate to brush it loose before it can feed on the fear it gave you and grow larger.   

8. It was cute, at first: small, fluffy, with big eyes and a head just a little too large for its body. But as the dark of the moon drew near it grew larger, stronger, crueler. Its fur fell out. It rose to two feet, stood straight, wore clothes, smiled. It was ready for the hunt.

9. A strange piece of furniture, always something different, always in a new spot in your home. It quivers in anticipation if you approach; if anyone ever touches it, something terrible will happen. You left it behind in a move once, but it followed. Animals avoid it, but kids?  

10. A scuttling behind the walls. At first you thought something had gotten in, perhaps a rat or squirrel. But the sound follows you from place to place, building to building: scraping, clawing, trying to make a hole. Sometimes it's in the ceiling, once beneath a concrete floor.

11. A shadow that reaches for you out of the corner of your eye. Each time you turn to look at it, it pulls back and pretends it was only ever a normal shadow, perhaps from a table or chair. It has never touched you, but you know that someday you will turn too slowly to prevent it...

12. It comes with the rains, rising up from the soil: slender, tall, with whip-thin arms that are whipcrack fast. It looks in windows, scratches at doors. It leaves behind dead things when the rains die down: a rabbit, a squirrel, a cat. Nothing larger, though; not so far.

13. A small homunculus, perhaps as tall as your knee: wizened, twisted, and feral. It visits at night, scampering, capering, and bringing you gifts of bones. (All sorts of bones. All.) In return it sometimes squats on your chest when you sleep, inhaling the warm air from your lungs. 

14. It's a soft thing, fluttering gently in the darkness; the faintest hint of light and it's gone. It touches your sleeping throat and steals your voice, to speak with as it own until dawn. You find you can neither move nor make noise until it's gone. 

15. A nightmare, shadowy and strong, with fingers like slender knives. Eyeless, it sees you; voiceless, it calls for you. It chases you through surreal dreamscapes: derelict hospitals, endless cemeteries, high towers connected by narrow stone bridges. You must run until you awaken.

16. It seems innocent at first: names briefly forgotten, shared stories unrecalled. Interactions and responses that are off-key, tone-deaf. They stop telling you about their lives. Then the changes come, and you can barely recognize your friends for the monsters growing inside them.

17. A shimmering, coppery ghost haunts you, but erratically. Oddly, it appears most often when you're awake, or maybe those are the times you remember it. It's hungry, always hungry, but it never takes too much. It feeds on your Time. When it comes, you lose minutes or hours.

18. You've seen it before, gleaming silver by moonlight or orange and gold by fire. Its body is shaped like an owl, but its face is almost human and its feathers are polished razors. It perches outside your window, whispering secrets that you never wanted to know: yours, or others'.   

19. An awakened nightmare which attends you constantly, drifting overhead or scuttling into corners. It is invisible to most; to you, it is a dark blot that sometimes takes more solid form. It devours any nightmares that emerge from your dreams, before they go to menace anyone else. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

DnD 5e Interlude: White Plume Mountain 10

 So, the automatons are possessed by/merged with demons, and are unlimitedly hostile. They're resistant to a number of things, and they explode when they die; and we *really* need to kill them. We retreat to the main room, and combat begins. Snow does her usual: move first, charge in, do some damage (two hits, magic sword, sneak attack, plus gloomstalker ambushery), then disengages right back out. Jhuni follows up with some magic missiles, and Grey calls up an illusionary tiger, which moves up and menaces it. The construct attacks the illusion, but misses so completely that it doesn't realize it's an illusion. Thelmor moves in and pounds on it with Wave, then steps back; it tries to attack him as he retreats, but its metal jaws snap shut without connecting.  Perfect moves up, but doesn't immediately attack; he's waiting to help the rest of us. Nil moves in with Whelm... and Whelm releases a terrifying war cry: "In the name of the Grumblefoots, may your death come swiftly so that your evil will be no more!" Whelm smashes into the monstrosity's face, which crumples in a shower of sparks. The creature promptly explodes, burning Nil a bit.

Another one comes up to the corridor. Nine shoves it back, and Perfect moves in and shoves the door closed; the two of them are holding it closed. One of the wicks slips out, carrying a dagger back to Gossalen.

There doesn't seem to be more than one of them; and there doesn't seem to be much advantage in trying to hold it back. So we let it through, and close the doors on it. We have, somewhat miraculously, trapped it with its head through the door and its body still back in the corridor. It is screeching in infernal, and *not* happy.

Nil: "I didn't come here to be called an embicile by something with your level of intelligence!"

Creature: breathes a huge amount of fire.

Snow moves in, stabs the beasty in the eye, and withdraws. Jhuni moves in, but really isn't tall enough to swap places with Nil.  She advises Nil to duck to the side, slips in front of her, and fires off a spell with a bit of sorcery manipulatin behind it; Grey follows up with a thrown dagger. Thelmor switches to his crossbow, and puts a couple of bolts in the thing's metal face. The first is enough to kill it; the second knocks its head back into the corridor.

Nil and Jhuni shove hard on the door, and the explosion takes place on the far side.

We wait, listening to see if any more of the constructs are coming; they aren't. Nil heals us up, which takes about 20 minutes. We head back into the junk room; there's something, or somethings, or a *lot* of somethings skittering around in the equipment/scrap room. The wicks are still moving in and out too, retrieving equipment for the prisoners. They're not that strong, and it takes them a while. A pair of tiny mechanical spiders follows one of them out. They seem to have tiny spools of thread on their backs.

The first two look around; then more come out, using little blades on their back to carry a bolt of cloth. They seem to be taking it somewhere. Thelmor identifies them as clockwork weavers; they're artificial workers in cloth, and so far they aren't showing any signs of hostility. Thelmor says they can fight if they have to, but they're not really built for that.

Nil attempts to read one of their minds. They are... all about the cloth. They made it; now they need to take it to their master. Then they're going to come back and make more cloth, red this time. One of the spiders spells out an answer for Nil: the cloth is for Snarla. We approach the equipment room carefully, looking for threats, but we don't find any. We do find a loom, and seven spiders preparing it for the next bolt of cloth. Snow goes to help Nil look, and Grey settles in to detect magic.

There's a lot of equipment here, but the armor is mundane and no better than what we have already. There are some minor magical weapons, and more mundane ones. The miscellaneous pile includes ball bearings, candles, cookware, a few rolled-up kits for various sorts of activities; nothing special.

Jhuni's keeping an eye out for money; she stumbles on a bag of ball bearings and finds some coinage underneath. It nets her 5 SP and 6 GP, probably an emergency stake. We head back to the room of prisoners.

Tulgan is putting on his worn, barbaric get-up; he's got his own greataxe back and is looking it over. Gossalen finally seems to be calming down as she's gather her items and putting them in place. Turi has her armor on, and seems to be ready to go; she doesn't carry much. They all look like they're about ready to go.

Gossalen comes over: "Sounds like there were troubles, but it's gone now... and we can leave?"

Thelmor: "The clockwork spiders only attack if provoked, leave them be."

Nil offers that we could escort them back to the second level; one of our comrades has a familiar that can guide them back from there.

Thelmor talks to Turi a bit; now that she has her sword back, she's happy enough to return his aces. Tulgan: "Ready to go? Can't wait to get back to the open air."

We make a quick jaunt back up to the main hall, passing the clockwork spiders along the way. We get them up the ladder, and take them back up to the entrance of the cave; it seems to be afternoon outside. Gossalen is openly thrilled; the other two more reserved. They thank us and go on their way. (Tulgan's got a stock of silver for travel expenses.) Turi blesses us in the name of her pantheon.

We take a brief moment to consider the possibility of just walking away after them. Then we turn back to go murder a possibly-undead wizard. As we turn back, we notice that the steam is swirling around some sort of air elemental.

Thelmor: "This fucker again?"

It stops.

Nil, in primordial: "What is it you want?"

Its dialect is strange: "It is my duty to kill you; then I may be free." Nil is pretty much the only one that understands it.

Nil tags it with Suggestion, and uses her knowledge cleric schtick to read its mind. It... hates its master. A lot. Violently. Nil suggests that it could wait out here while we kill its masters.

This is, oddly, within the bounds of its orders. It will remain here and kill anyone who approaches; we can pass. Also, Nil's accent is boring, which is sad. (OOC: I have never in my life seen *anyone* negotiate with an invisible stalker; this group has done it twice.) We re-locate the invisible trap door, and go back down.

We take another rest in the Tiny Hut.

We somewhat arbitrarily proceed through Door #2 (middle door on the west all). The light strip follows the walls here, just as it does for most of this level. The light is broken up by something against the middle of the far wall. On the floor there are rotten pieces of cloth, moldering pillows... but there's a peculiar arrangement to it; the pillows look like you might kneel on them while regarding the dark... altar? It's carved with dragon claws, dragon wings unfurled; there's a bowl gripped by carved dragon claws, overlooked by a dragon's head. It's a particularly individual dragon; there are specific details.

This is not an altar to a god; it seems to be worshipping dragons. The bowl is metal, well-used, with a symbol on it: the symbol of Keraptis. The altar is potentially an altar to Keraptis; in which case he might actually *be* a dragon.

Nil: "Whelm, did you ever meet Keraptis?"

Whelm: "My creator did."

Nil: "Dragon?"

Whelm: "Yeah... big black one."

Thelmor: "It could be worse. Could be a dracolich."

Whelm and Wave: "Dracolich?"

Thelmor: "Undead dragon."

Nil: "Have you heard the term before?"

Wave: "What we fought was not entirely alive. A dragon whose scales and skin hung from its flesh like drapes."

Whelm: "Any chance we can get rid of it now? It was gross. We sealed him away so he wouldn't do anything worse."

Nil: "How did you seal him? Is he trapped in some way?"

Wave: "We did not know how to end it. We feared it would not stay dead. So we sealed his essence away."

Nil: "So the statue in the crystal cave is...?"

Whelm: "Oh, yes. Actually Keraptis."

Thelmor: "Okay, so has anybody seen a phylactory?"

Jhuni: "I would hide something like that in with a lot of other stuff."

Nil: "Yes, but we used Detect Magic in the junk room. It would have shown up."

She turns, looks at the altar, and walks over to inspect it. The altar is smooth underneath the dust, like it saw a lot of use a long time ago. The bowl looks like it can be slipped out of the claws, and Nil wonders if that's a trap or if it's for ease of cleaning. There don't seem to be any secret pockets in it.

There is an inscription, in several languages. In draconic, "Praise to the all-powerful Keraptis, king to all who live or die."

Grey recalls detect magic. The altar has seen some magic, but isn't any more magic than this whole area; there doesn't seem to be a phylactery hidden inside. We back away from the altar, and use mage hand to work the bowl loose from the carved dragon's hands. Nothing happens. Grey suggests reshaping the statue; Nine rushes over and smashes the head off it. We all congratulate him on a good job. He claims the bowl, which is the first thing he's ever owned.

Jhuni gives him a half geode; it's the second thing that's his.

Nil: "I'm getting the flesh golem a kitten if we ever get out of here."

We head out, and check door #1 (southwest). There are still footsteps behind it, still; we sneak in with surprising skill. (Well, surprising for some of us.)

It's a large room, partly partitioned off. Two bugbears are sleeping on cots. There's also a door on the far side, to the southwest; it's closed. Grey and Thelmor move up and take them out. There's a brief moment of struggle, and then they settle back. Nil moves to the far door and listens there.

There's water moving, probably natural; not much else. She motions us up, and opens the door. There's a man-made hot springs, carved out of the stone; there are rough toothbrushes in custom-carved niches, made of bugbear and boar hair. There's a bar of rough soap... these are oddly kempt bugbears. There are even some cloths piled off to the side, like towels.

There are more etchings here, along the same wall as the cubbies, in gnomish and draconic. Whelm: "Grandpa Keraptis had a lot of gnome followers." Jhuni reads the draconic.

It seems to be an affirmation: "A clean life is a happy life. A happy life is a productive life."

Nil: "Did this asshole make them carve Live Laugh Love in the hot tub room???"

Thelmor picks up a copy of Chicken Soup for the Gnomish Soul, grimaces, and puts it down again.

We give up and head across to Room #6 (southeast). We can still hear clockwork gears behind it, and the rustling of papers. (OOC: "This dungeon supplies all the affirmations in Mega City One. We have to shut it down!")

Jhuni takes the lead on this one.

It's very clean; there are huge bookcases, shelves built into the walls. Some of the books and scrolls look very old and very used, while others are freshly bound and new. A bunch of odd little mechanism are walking around, books and scrolls floating around them. They have a single eye at the top, and seem to be using telekinesis to hold the books so they can read.

The books look like magic and magical theory. Jhuni spots one by a very famous dragonborn sorcery, and then it's carried off out of sight. Jhuni: "No fire in there. No fire in the library."

Nil: "Do we need anything out of there?"

Jhuni: "Not until after we deal with Keraptis."

After bringing us up to speed, Jhuni goes back in. "Hello?"

Robot voice: "How-may-I-help-you?"

Jhuni: "Anything on phylacteries?"

Robot Librarian: "Of-course-follow-me."

It leads her to a book on liches and phylacteries. Jhuni: "What about Keraptis' phylactery?"

Robot: "My-knowledge-is-of-the-library-and-its-books."

Jhuni flips through the book to be polite, and finds a section on dracoliches. "Could I get a copy of this section, the bit about dracoliches."

Robot: "The-book-cannot-leave-the-care-of-the-library-autonomons."

She negotiates for a reading room for us, and we all troop in.

The account is a mix of common, draconic, gnomish; it has quite a bit of information on dracoliches. Only the most narcissistic dragons choose this past, as it severs their connections to their gods. They are cunning and manipulative. There's a ritual that involves a special brew and cultists or mages; it produces a gem that functions as a lich's phylactery.

What sort of gem? Well, black, for a black dragon. A black pearl, a bloodstone. Jhuni starts pulling out semiprecious and not at all precious stone. Somewhere in there the robot librarian gets very excited about meeting non-gnomes. Nil and Jhuni are both ready to adopt them. It sounds like they were built by gnomes, and the gnomes set the rules.

Robot librarian: "I-can-technically-do-what-I-want."

Nil and Jhuni at the same time: "You should come with us!!!!!"

Gods, we've adopted a mechanical librarian and it's CUTE. It has a name in the machine language, but it was fifteenth in its line so we can call it fifteen.

Yeah, we've adopted a librarian. Does Jhuni have Find Familiar? Not really. But Fifteen has a book with that spell, and she adopts him as her familiar. His telekinesis doesn't affect anything except paper and books and scrolls and such; but that's still a lovely quality in a familiar.

We stop there.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Summoning Monsters

 I really don't have anything prepped for the Blog o' Doom here today, but I'm doing microfictions over on Twitter and you're welcome to swing by and get a monster of your very own. (Ignore the date; the offer's good until midnight EST tonight.) I'll probably collect all the monsters and repost them here -- like some sort of horrible zoo -- on Monday.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

SoW: Newly Arrived

Tamantha stepped down as the cart rolled to a halt. "Thank you," she said to Yelena, the old woman who was driving the cart. 

"'Tis the barest absence of cruelty," said Yelena. "Ye needn't thank me for it. But be a dear and strike the door, if ye would."

Tamantha nodded and stepped towards the manor. True, letting her ride on the cart had required almost no effort on Yelena's part, but it was still more help than her uncle or the rest of the family had given her in the last two weeks and she was almost absurdly grateful. "Thank you, too," she told the mule, and patted it on its head as she passed. It rolled its eyes as if exasperated.

The manor was bright, warm, and elegant: newly-built, and sitting at the western end of a small valley, with farms to the east and the hills rising behind it to the west. The ruins of the old manor sat atop the hill immediately behind, but that one had clearly been misnamed; the heavy walls and  single remaining tower had clearly been part of an ancient fortilice overlooking the valley.

Tamantha put her feet on stone steps and climbed to a wide wooden porch, wondering if she should have gone around the side and looked for a servants' entrance instead. The front door, at least, had a striker; she pulled it back and let the heavy wrought-iron ram fall against the metal plate. The resulting crack! echoed through the house. 

She didn't hear any steps, but just as she started to reach for the striker again the door swung open and Tamantha found herself face-to-face with a young man perhaps a few years older than herself. He was in his shirtsleeves, dark hair tousled and framing an angular face, with pale skin and striking gray eyes that had gone silver in the last of the daylight. "Ah," he said cheerfully. "Have you come about the position?" 

"Which position?" asked Tamantha, caught off-guard. 

"Any of them, actually. Maids, a cook, a gardener or two... Tell me what you can do, and I'll tell you whether we have a place for you." Then he looked past her, and his eyes fell on Yelena. "Just a moment." He turned and called over his shoulder: "Augustus! Mother Yelena's back, and she's brought her cart!" 

He turned back to her, then paused again as an older man -- a bit older than Tamantha's father had been, even -- bustled past them, bowing as he went out the door and down to the cart. Tamantha saw him offer a deeper bow to the old woman on the seat before she turned back to the doorway.

"So," said the young man. "What is it exactly that you know how to do?" 

"Well," said Tamantha, feeling suddenly as if a large hand had wrapped around her chest and squeezed. She held up her hand, forced her mind to focus, and made a tiny, bright spark above her extended palm. 

His expression of surprise was comical, but she kept her face smooth as she let the spark fade. "I'd heard that a wizard lived here. I hoped he might be open to taking on an apprentice." 

"Well," said the young man, and this time his voice held an entirely different note. 

Outside, the older man was talking to Yelena. "Five bricks of tea!? How in the world did you...? Absolutely we'll take it. Yes, the vegetables too, very fresh... and that bread, I could pair that with a soup tonight and..." 

"The bread costs extra," Yelena announced. "'Twas to be my lunch." 

"You're just saying that because it smells delicious and you know I want it." 

"And what of that?" 

The older man laughed. "Nothing! Nothing at all. It's good bread, and it's warm and fresh. We'll pay your extra." 

"All right," said the young man, and Tamantha's attention snapped back to where he was standing in front of her. "Just a moment." He turned away as he had before, and called back into the house: "Augusta! Someone to see you!" 

There was a momentary silence; behind Tamantha's back, Yelena and the older man were haggling over the price of her goods. Then someone moved onto an upstairs balcony and called, "I'm coming. Did she say what she wants?"

"An apprenticeship," he called back. 

The woman who emerged from the balcony and descended the stairs was broad-shouldered and short-haired, straight-backed and graceful. She wore a worn, spun-cloth robe of soft brown, and approached the door with slow, thoughtful steps and a matching expression. "You wish to be a wizard's apprentice?" 

Tamantha nodded. "Just so, my lady." 

The woman laughed. "Have you any skills? Anything you've developed on your own?" 

Tamantha raised her hand and recalled the spark. She could do more than that -- a little more -- but that was enough to make her point. 

"A beginner's trick," said the woman, watching as it faded back out. "How long can you hold it?"

Tamantha considered the question, then called it back and held it. "Over an hour," she answered uncertainly. "I used read by it at night."

"Well," said the woman. "There's no harm in being a beginner. I've an apprentice already, but I've room  for another if you're willing put in the work." She glanced at the boy. "You've no objection?"

 He frowned slightly, then shrugged. "It should be fine."

"Good," said the woman. "Come on in, and let's get you settled."

Tamantha answered with a relieved, "Thank you."