Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Challenge: Average Eats

(This post is part of the Wednesday Weekly Blogging Challenge. You can find links to other writers' answers over at Long and Short Reviews.)

Prompt: What I eat in the average day

Huh. That's... huh. That's an interesting question. Okay, let's take a look: 

Breakfast: Generally something with a bit of egg and cheese, possibly bacon and sausage. Frequently, this is a frozen breakfast product prepared in the microwave, but I do sometimes cook things up as well. I also sometimes skip breakfast entirely; it really depends on how the morning is going.

Lunch: I'm working from home a lot, so frequently we're looking at leftovers or frozen lunches. Otherwise, probably fast food... but if I'm actually in the office, I'm more likely to go out and get a decent meal: sushi, Mongolian beef, bulgogi, pho, fajitas... things like that.

Dinner: This one is probably the most variable, and the most dependent on how the week is going. Sometimes we cook; sometimes we have leftovers; sometimes we order pizza. (You can tell we don't have a lot of spoons left when it's pizza. Not that I mind pizza, it's just something I try to hold in reserve for when none of us have the energy to prepare anything.)

Snacks: I'm really, really, really trying not snack, or at least not to snack much. Sugar-free gum helps; so does a big mug of tea, or a bit of orange mixed into a glass of water. Unfortunately, I'm kind of a sucker for those little candy hearts that show up before Valentine's Day, so the last week or so has been... um... a tiny bit of an indulgence. 

How about you?

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Forgotten Family: Into the Temple

"This's ridiculous," whispered Morthros, tugging at the blue robe and cowl that disguised his silver armor.

"Aye," agreed Balos. "If'n ye want tae just stroll in and get yerself killed after all I did tae get hold of these, you go right ahead. Ainslyn and I'll wait 'ere, an' make our own attempt later."

"I didnae say that," Morthros objected, but he removed his helmet and dropped it into the bag along with his axe and Balos' crossbow. Ainslyn's morning star, buckler, and helmet were in there as well. "Ye're certain this'll work, though?"

"Nothin's certain, brother," said Balos. He glanced at Ainslyn. "Are ye ready?"

"As much as Ah can be, fer this," she told him. "Ah've a bad feelin', though."

"Aye," agreed Morthros, "but it has to be done. Our niece is a vampire now, an' her father has tae answer for that."

Balos rolled his eyes, but didn't object; Ainslyn just nodded. "Onward, then."

* * *

The temple had once been set with four towers, and filled with a staff of devoted worshipers. Now three of the towers were fallen, smashed into rubble by the power of Indra, and only the Tower of Wind remained. Balos led his brother and sister past the bones of the ancient gold dragon -- which stirred long enough to regard them, but made no move otherwise -- and into the temple itself.

It was raining, of course. It had been raining ever since Durest's... ascension, if that's what it had been. Balos had managed to track down Vandraka and confirm that she'd become a vampire -- of her own free will, she said, but when it came to vampires any such claim must be suspect. She'd even confirmed that her father Durest had become a lich, shortly after the Order of Secrets had disappeared. She and her human girlfriend seemed confused that Balos wasn't more happy for them. 

It was early evening, and the temple was settling down. Word had it that Durest spent much of his time in the sanctuary, and sent lesser priests out to host services and recruit new worshipers. Ainslyn had shaken her head at hearing that. Clearly, she didn't approve, though that might just have been because it made their work more difficult.

The guards didn't stop them, though it seemed to Balos that most of Indra's priesthood here was human. Their disguises were apparently good, even if their faces were unfamiliar... and Indra's worshipers had been growing in number. Strange faces might not be that noticeable just now.

The entrance to the Sanctuary was unmistakable, and Balos walked calmly up to it and ascended the stairs. A handful of other priests stopped to look at them, then hurried on about their business; evidently anyone summoned to the sanctuary was either important, or doomed. 

The doors were open, and the interior was lit with a perpetual, magical glow. There were rows of wooden pews, arranged around a central altar. And there, at the altar, was a stout figure in blue robes, with a rod tucked into the back of his belt. A giant skeleton with a gleaming ruby eye stood on the far side of the altar.

"Quick and quiet," said Balos softly, and started down the aisle towards the altar and the dwarf who stood with his back to them. Ainslyn and Morthros followed, their steps clearly audible in the silence, and Balos cursed silently. Still, Durest remained silent and apparently absorbed in the study of a large book that he had spread open atop the altar. It was only after they'd passed the last of the pews that he turned to face them. 

"And what can I do for you?" he asked. "Come to offer worship and praise? Seeking advancement in the way of our lord?" There was something terribly mocking in his tone and posture.

"Durest Inglorian," pronounced Morthros, "We've come to take you back to the clan to answer for your crimes." He pulled off his hood and dropped the bag beside him, then reached down and opened it up. 

Durest started laughing, a horrible sound that filled the temple. The thunder outside seemed to echo it. 

Morthros pulled his helmet on and passed the other one to Ainslyn. Balos knew he should have been attacking already -- he had daggers concealed in his sleeves, ready to go -- but he couldn't seem to move. Something was horribly wrong. Durest should already have been attacking them, or calling for reinforcements, or fleeing. Instead, he just stood there, contempt in every line of his body. 

Morthros pulled out his axe, while Ainslyn retrieved her morning star and buckler. 

Balos licked his lips. "Durest?"

"Not any more," said his brother, and then the screaming began.

* * *

"Go!" screamed Ainslyn, as another bolt of lightning tore through her and blasted towards Balos. He rolled aside, barely avoiding it, then turned and sprinted towards the nearest window. It was a lovely piece of work, stained panels in a leaden frame, and he smashed through it without even the smallest twinge of conscience. There was nothing but open air on the other side, a good thirty feet of it, but he hit and rolled and came to his feet. 

There were other people all around, watching the flickering lights and listening to the sharp cries from the battle inside the sanctuary -- if what was going on inside there could even be described as a battle. Ainslyn wasn't down yet, but it was only a matter of time -- and she seemed determined to buy that time for his escape. Meanwhile, a couple of the nearer priests had turned towards Balos and were raising their hands... I'm going to die if I don't do something. He stepped over, grabbed the nearest priest, and yelled: "HE'S GONE MAD! HE'S KILLING EVERYONE!

The human's eyes widened, and he stepped back to look up at the window. Balos dodged past him, still screaming his warnings, and charted a staggering course towards the entrance. He'd only just ducked through and tumbled down the steps when he heard Durest call out: "Where is he? Where is the last of these pathetic assassins?!"

Belrab, lend me strength. Amun, lend me speed. Demeter, lend me life! Balos ran. His brother and sister were dead, and whatever Durest had become, he would need far stronger allies to have any hope of facing off with it. He needed to get out of Solstar, at least for a while. He needed shelter, and time to recover. And after that, he needed to recruit more allies. 

An' nae from the clan, either, he thought. I'll nae get any more o' us killed. No, he needed the sort of heroes who might stand a chance against his brother: the King's Solari, or something very like. 

And somewhere in there, he needed a drink.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Could be worse...

So my plan to get my sleep back on schedule and just generally get things together has not been a shining success. On the other hand, it hasn't been a complete failure; I'll take that. I might not be as together as I'd hoped, but this is still better. 

Except that I've hit that weirdly inevitable point where I start trying to get everything together, and that seems to magically cause other things to come apart. Secondborn has developed a kind of whooping, barking cough that, well, I really don't like; we're treating it, but it's affected his sleep schedule and thereby made mine more difficult. The school band had a concert on Saturday, which I'm pretty sure we could all have done without; but we got there, Secondborn acquitted himself honorably, and we had Olive Garden afterwards. 

Work is, well, work; I have a little time off scheduled, at least, but I'm also trying to work through the process of fixing a fairly significant security issue; this requires a weird mix of urgency and patience, since we're talking about a production system and I don't want to get all our users in an uproar. 

The weather has finally gotten chilly -- at least by Texas standards -- but doesn't look like it's set to go into any sort of catastrophic freeze. And if it does, well, I did a bit of shopping this weekend and made sure we were pretty well supplied. 

Writing has been hit and miss, but I feel like if I can get everything else settled out a bit, well... that will probably fix itself. And I do have some time off; hopefully I can spend it on the writing and the patch jacket. 

So yeah, at this point we're all pretty much slogging along as best we can. And this could all be a lot worse, as I keep reminding myself. Let's start the week off with a bit of music. I'll let you figure out which narrative voice matches mine...

Friday, January 27, 2023

Dark Armor: The Champion of Marinul V2

This is the second version I'm writing of this scene. I liked the first version well enough for itself, but it didn't quite set me up for where I wanted to go after this. So, this is version two, and the one that's... official. (Congratulations! Now you see what an unholy mess my writing process is! Though honestly, I don't think this is really uncommon, it's just that when you read a published book all this sort of thing has already been ironed out...) If you want to compare, the two versions are identical right up until the first exchange of blows. The original version is here.

The figure that stood between the gates was tall and lean, wearing a suit of gleaming silver armor and holding a spear. The armor was impressively enchanted, though weaker than the suit that covered the Black Knight. The spear, however, was far more powerful than anything Pallian carried.  

The City of Marinul had equipped its champion with the Spear of the First.

"I offer challenge!" called the Champion of Marinul. "Will you accept?"

Pallian grinned inside his helm. The Black Knight nodded, and the Champion started forward. 

The Black Knight immediately loosed the ball of green flame from his hand, strong enough to shatter stone or splinter wood. The spear snapped up and across as if of its own accord, the long blade at its tip slicing the attack in two. The weapon whined as it cut through the sorcery, and the impact snapped the spearhead back behind the Champion's shoulder, causing him to stagger. 

That was about what Pallian had hoped for: it gave him the moment he needed to get his shield back on his arm. The Champion shook his head and started forward again, and this time the Black Knight came to meet him. 

The shield caught the first thrust, but it was a soft blow. The Champion -- or perhaps the spear itself -- was testing him. The Black Knight responded by lunging forward and slapping the tip of the spear aside with his shield. He cut down at the Champion's fingers, but missed as the man stepped back and spun, bringing the spear all the way around in massive, cleaving blow. The Black Knight dodged back as well, just in time to watch that ancient blade cut the air in front of his face. He had no doubt at all that the spear would have split his helmet had it connected. 

He was already moving in as the Champion pulled the swing in short, but the Champion moved back to match him, staying out of reach of his gauntlet sword. A quick jab of the speartip skipped off the bottom edge of the Black Knight's shield, but the Champion pulled it back before Pallian could try for a cut at his hand. I have to get in closer.

The Black Knight was designed to terrify Terrigor's enemies by being relentless and indestructible, but the armor could move when it needed to. Launching off his back foot, Pallian lunged in with his sword extended, holding his shield in close. The spear lanced out, slapping his blade aside, and Pallian swung out with his shield. 

A thunderclap rolled over the battlefield. The Champion had caught the second blow across the midsection of the spear, but the magically-enhanced impact was still enough to send him flying back. He struck the heavy stones of the city wall with what should have been bone-shattering impact, but landed on his feet just in front of it. Either the spear was feeding him strength, or his armor had been enchanted against that sort of trick. 

Pallian was already charging forward, trying to finish the battle before the Champion of Marinul got his feet back under him. 

He was just a moment too late. 

The spear snapped up at the last minute, and the Champion, still kneeling, drove it into the Dark Knight's armor, just above his left knee. It tore through the enchanted black steel, the flesh and bone beneath, and the back of the armor as well. 

Inside his helm, Pallian screamed. It wasn't just the shock of the blow -- the pain hadn't even reached him, yet -- but a sort of shockwave that rippled out from it, trying to shatter his body in much the same way that he'd tried to shatter the champion against the wall. The armor groaned as its enchantments fought to contain the effect, and mostly succeeded. 

Then the spear pulled back out, dripping with his blood. 

The Black Knight was still upright, the armor strong enough to keep him on his feet and moving even with a hole punched right through his leg. The helm contained the sound of Pallian screaming, so that the Champion of Teregor appeared silent and indifferent to the injury. The Champion of Marinul hesitated for a bare moment, then attacked again. 

Pallian barely got his shield up before the spear stabbed through it. He was already twisting, trying to sweep the blow aside, and with the armor adding to his strength he managed to wrench the tip offline. Instead of piercing his heart, it sliced across his pauldron, opening a massive gash in the enchanted steel and scoring his shoulder. That horrible shockwave rolled through him again, and this time the armor groaned loudly enough to be heard atop the walls. 

But he was inside the length of the spear, and its tip was still tangled in his shield. With a desperate lunge, he threw himself onto the Champion of Marinul and drove the gauntlet sword through his chest. The Champion's armor wasn't anywhere near as strong as the Knight's, and the blade pierced it all the way through. Pallian called for levinfire and poured it out through the blade, watching with some satisfaction as waves of sparks rippled across the surface of the champion's armor. The Spear of the First lashed around, trying to free itself, but it was still caught and it was too late. By the time it ripped its way out of Pallian's shield, the Champion of Marinul had fallen to his knees. It struck him once across the back, but he was in too close for it to stab him, and the haft alone wasn't enough to damage him. The dark armor rang like churchbell, but that was all. 

Then the Champion lost his grip, and the spear rolled away. 

Pallian pulled the gauntlet sword out slowly, then shifted his shattered shield to his back. With his hand free, he lifted the champion's corpse... and then beheaded it, just to make sure.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Challenge: Something I'm Proud Of

(This post is part of the Wednesday Weekly Blogging Challenge. You can find links to other writers' answers over at Long and Short Reviews.)

Prompt: Something I'm proud of doing

Well, okay. I've got a solid answer for this one. Positively heroic, even. 

A few months ago -- just a bit before Thanksgiving, I think -- I happened to be in my local Target and I happened to be waiting in line to check out. There was an older man, white-haired but spry, buzzing around the checkout lanes. I'd guess he was in his late fifties to early sixties, but he might have been older and just very active. 

Anyway, he's moving around grabbing gift cards off the racks in front of the registers, and the nice woman in front of me (also a customer) is helpfully pointing him to where he can find more of them. He finally gets a nice big handful together, and turns back...

...At which point I catch his eye. "It's none of my business," I tell him, because he looks like the sort of guy who'd appreciate the sentiment, "but... you're getting those cards for yourself, right? For your own personal use? You didn't get an email asking you to rush out and buy a bunch of them?"

And he says, "Well, no, but my boss--" He stops. He looks at me. Then he says, "It's a scam, isn't it?"

I nod. "I would bet serious money that it's a scam. I'd get in touch with your boss and double-check before you pay for any of that."

He just shakes his head, looking disgusted, and sets the whole pile back on the little shelf. Then he thanks me and walks out of the store.

So there's something I'm proud of: I'm proud of saving that one random guy from getting ripped off. And I'm proud of making one scammer's day just a little more frustrating.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Horoscopes: As The Cold Settles In

The cold will be relentless. It will suck the warmth from everything, until no house or building can keep it out, no fire can keep you warm, no clothing can keep you from shivering. Our leaders tell us we must wait it out, even as their teeth chatter helplessly. And now night falls, taking with it even that faint and distant thing that used to be our sun...

There are things in the snow. You can hear them all around you: scurrying, burrowing, closing in. Keep moving. Do not stop. Warmth and shelter are your only chance of escape... if you can find them.

The snow is a beautiful white blanket across the ground, a sparking presence that seems designed to lure you out. Don't go. Don't let it touch you. Don't let it soak in and become part of you. Don't let it make you part of it.

It's all one in the end, isn't it? The cold, the silence, the darkness. It's all the inevitable triumph of entropy, energy bleeding away as the world winds down like a clock in need of winding. We make lights, spark fires for heat, shout at the top of our lungs. But how long can we keep it up?

You think it's just a dream, that endless frozen hellscape where you find yourself every night. You think those towering things that stride through it, shaking the ground with their steps, are nightmares. Maybe you're right. Maybe you'll wake up in your bed, shivering from a cast-off blanket. Or maybe you're already awake, and trapped here.

Let it come. Let the ash spread across the skies, let the world turn cold again. Let the famines begin, and the riots, and the chaos. But let the great ice sheets rebuild themselves, let them grow strong enough, heavy enough, to hold back the things that are far, far worse.

They come with the snow, drifting soft as breezes through the chill, taking whom they choose. Do not venture out, child. Those who are taken are never seen again, save perhaps as statues of ice that will melt away completely with the coming of spring.

Snow to hide your presence, ice to make the path treacherous, the frozen river to carry the body away... but none of them are as cold as that length of iron in your hand, are they? None of them are as cold as your heart.

Watch carefully. They're quick, are the Frozen Folk. They move like the wind, and never break the surface of the snow. So white and sparkling, they look like part of the snow itself. Give them half a chance, and they'll pull you into a drift and hold you there, stealing the heat from your body. The doctors will call it hypothermia, frostbite, accidental death. But it isn't. It's them.

Can you hear them? Can you hear their cries, so far overhead, just beneath the clouds? Stay still. Stay beneath the trees. The great raptors of the winter storms will steal you away in a breath and swallow you whole. Best to wait until they've passed.

It could be anyone. With the winter coat, the scarf, the hat, the gloves, it looks like anyone. Maybe it will look helpless and desperate. Maybe it will seem friendly, speak cold and empty words of friendship. Watch the left hand. That's where it holds the knife, the knife with the blade of ice.

Look, I know this comes as a shock, but you're not actually who you think you are. All that talking and singing and dancing? All that light and life and joy? It's not you. It's the hat. Take the hat off, and you're nothing but a lifeless pile of snow.