Tuesday, October 31, 2023

On Vacation

Yes, I'm taking Halloween off, as sort of a personal holiday. So far I've delivered Secondborn to school, bought a new door knob for back door and replaced the old one, emptied the trash and recycling, and gone grocery shopping; so you can clearly see that I'm on vacation, and also that I apparently don't know what that word actually means.

I had a short ghost story I was going to write out, but I didn't have the energy and now I'm out of time. So, instead, I'm going to recycle some short horror pieces from the last few years. 

The House

Missed Connections: Knocking, Rattling

Halloween Story 3: They Came From Under The Bed


Monday, October 30, 2023

Dark Army: Best-Laid Plans

Kas Luthien watched with satisfaction as the Dwint’lithar girl tried to assassinate Cassadia Almonda, and was foiled by her protective magics: a half-dozen images of the diminutive wizard dancing in and out, absorbing each attempt to strike. Almonda and her images paused to study the hapless girl. "Did you really expect that to work?" Then she dropped a Wall of Force, trapping Fartathren against the edge of the air dock, with nothing but emptiness behind her. 

They'd tried to turn Almonda's ambush; of course they had. The would-be King might come striding chivalrously forward to offer honorable combat, but Ruin and Fartathren knew better. And Fartathren had almost managed it, but now she was trapped, imprisoned where all she could do was watch the action. Ruin cut an ogre apart, but that no longer mattered. As long as her bodyguards held them back, Almonda could take them apart with her magics...

The Dwint’lithar girl offered Almonda a jaunty wave, then leaned back and dove off the edge of the dock. She was grinning as she did it, and it wasn't because she thought she'd sacrificed herself to escape their vengeance. No, that was one of Fartathren's accursed I know something you don't know expressions. Damn that girl--

Ah, here we go. A hulking corpse was shambling out from the sewing room, and the two ogre Lieutenants were still forming a shield wall protecting Almonda. And there was no way for the others to get behind her, with her clever wall of force in place. 

Then the human priest rushed forward, slamming into one of the ogre lieutenants and pushing him back, breaking the blockade they'd formed. The sorceress was firing off magic missiles, but they were ineffective... except in removing the last of Almonda's images. For a moment, the entire scene went red-yellow-white in the darkwater pool. Almonda had dropped a fireball, a powerful one. One of the ogre lieutenants had gone down; the other, and the hulking corpse, were damaged also. Damn you, woman, Luthien thought, though he was profoundly aware that what she'd just done was little different from what he'd done in setting this all up. But the King was there too, having arrived just in time to be burned with his fellows. That was good. 

Then the damned elderly gnome fired off a magic missile and took out the last of Cassadia Almonda's images. 

Ah, here we go! The hulking corpse reached Ruin, and bit him; it flailed at him with its arms but missed. Come, servitor! Do your work! 

Ruin cut it apart, and Luthien almost screamed in frustration. He controlled himself, barely, by an effort of will. Even here, amongst those who served his will, he must keep up appearances. 

The remaining ogre had stepped back to shield Almonda. King Tavros charged it, taking some damage on the way in but cutting into it as well; Luthien couldn't tell which of them had come off the worse from the exchange. Then the sorceress lifted her staff, and a bolt of pure darkness slammed into Almonda, staggering her. "How?" she demanded. "Kas Luthien said you would have no magic!"

They don't! Luthien thought desperately. They can't! Our mistress laid down rules to prevent it! 

And yet, clearly they still did. Not all of it, not even enough of it, but... some. He smiled as Almonda's next spell pinned the slender young sorceress and started to crush her. Yes. Try that again, you little bitch. She followed with a scorching ray that brought down the human priest, and his grin widened. The ogre lieutenant, with only one opponent left, attacked Tavros... 

...It missed, and Tavros cut it nearly in half. The half-dragon king's strength was formidable, but he could still be stopped. Almonda would know to--

Tavros moved forward, leaning into the heavy wooden crate that the halfling wizard had been hiding behind and driving it forward to pin her between it and the wall of force that she'd so carelessly cast earlier. And at that moment the Dwint’lithar girl came racing into the scene from the direction of the stairs, her hand extended to fling a dagger. 

Somehow the king knew it was coming. "Azrael," he said, and then leaned aside with the ease of long practice. The dagger buried itself in Almonda's left eye, and the halfling slumped, dead or dying. Vecna, preserve me! The prayer went out with the force of true desperation. The Blood of Vecna was an order of formidable warriors, but with Almonda down all the two berserkers could hope for was to do some damage before they died. 

He watched as they did some damage before they died. Kas Luthien swallowed as the second one fell: the tip of Tavros' blade had barely touched his throat, but the veins there had erupted like a crack in a dam. And even then, the damned priest didn't die! The sorceress, despite her obvious incompetence, had managed to stabilize him -- and the others were closing in on the two Thoughts who'd been waiting in reserve to flank them when they were occupied with Almonda's defenders. The sorceress had shrugged off their first attack, and since then they'd been fighting on the defensive -- still striving to win, but flanked at close range by Ruin, Tavros, and Fartathren. And Ruin, who'd started life as an idiot barbarian, was suddenly using a bow like a proper elf! It's not fair, Luthien thought, and then stomped on that thought and locked it away. He'd built his entire career on the knowledge that life wasn't fair, and those who know how to find the cracks and take advantage of them were the ones who came out on top.

Martini and her friends might have survived the library. They might be able to disappear from his vision. They might even have overwhelmed Almonda, and... He shrieked as Ruin threw Almonda's corpse off the edge of the dock, to sink into Mar Dentro, and then set fire to the structure that was supposed to become a flying ship. That little fucking brat...

Very well, then. Endgame. And I have been preparing my pieces for them. All my pieces for them. Hierophant Malafar will not win this bet, and they will serve me in death as they should have served me in life.

Luthien sighed and let the image fade. He didn't need to watch them any longer. Any fool could see what was coming: a reckoning. He just needed to make certain that he was on the right side of it. And with so many friendly faces to do his bidding, he could.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Dark Armor: At Liberty in the Crypt

"My lord!" said Tybben, scrabbling into the room on all fours before straightening. "I came as soon as I heard of your return. How went your visit to the court?"

Pallian paused, dumb-struck as he tried to formulate an answer to that particular question. "I don't know," he admitted at last. "I survived, and did what I could to support the wizard-king. I have met most of the royalty of Edrias, and I am pledged to become the husband of their first-princess while their third-princess is pledged to become the wife of Ravaj. It was a very eventful couple of days. And there is an Emissary from the Tomb of the First. It has reached the city of Marinul, and Marinul lies in ashes. The gods alone know what it learned there, but we must stop it before it reaches anywhere else."

Tybben went completely still. "Oh," he said after a moment. "Oh, dear." 

Pallian nodded. "My father has granted me a single initiation -- I chose Smoke -- and ordered me to return here and make ready, When I ride out, I will go as the Black Knight."

Tybben considered that. "Smoke will not help you, not inside the armor. I would not defy the wizard-king, but... You should talk to the Grandmother."

Pallian drew a long, slow breath. "That is good advice," he admitted. 

The crypt was where the House of Teres sent its revered dead. Not all of them had stopped moving. Pallian had at least a double-handful of ancestors in the depths, some of whom he'd met and others whom he hadn't. The Grandmother was the oldest of them, and rumor had it that she watched over her descendants and sometimes assisted them, if they found her favor. It was something of a walk, but it would be at least a day before his father called for him... 

He would go, and learn what he could.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Good!Party: Almonda's Ambush

So we’ve had this huge break while the DM was out of town. And now we’re back. 

We emerge from the Nine Halls, and after a bit of strategizing Ruin and Martini head up the stairs to scout. We come up into a high open space. There’s a partially assembled boat in front of us; wind is whipping around us. Almonda the lieutenant of Duke Lamont and general torturer-bunny, is hiding behind some crates. (She’s a halfling.) She back there with two half-orc with tattoos of blood drops – members of he Blood of Vecna. A couple of ogres are standing in front of them. 

Martini slips out of the top of the stairwell and into the half-built ship. Ruin waits at the top of the stairs as she makes her way across. Everyone else waits at the bottom of the stairs. 

One of the ogres turns around towards Martini’s position; Ruin clears his throat and the ogre turns back around. Almonda hisses, “Biscuit!” The ogre opens a door, and one of a bunch of ogres comes out and looks down the stairs. Ruin pulls his cloak up and just… fades into the wall. It's not magic, he's just good. The ogre turns around and shrugs, having failed to see him. 

Martini slips off the boat and delivers her Death Attack to Almonda. She starts to attack, but Almonda flinches and Martini goes still. Leira sneezes delicately. 

Almonda says, “Something’s wrong! They’re already in here! Get out here! Unleash the donk!”

Ruin takes out the ogre who’s standing beside him. Another ogre charges him and swings a greatclub, but misses. Geddy starts up the stairs, but he’s old and slow. Marshall comes clanking up the stairwell. Almonda: “They’re here! Hold your ground.” 

Martini stabs her, and a bunch of mirror images burst out around her. Martini’s attack removes one of the images instead. She continues stabbing, clearing out more images. By the time she finishes, there are only two images left but Almonda is unharmed. “You didn’t really think that was going to work?” Almonda casts a wall of force to isolate Martini with nothing but the open edge of the bay behind her; she then drops a quickened Fire Shield on herself. 

A hulking corpse emerges from the far side of the skyport. Geddy shuffles up a couple of steps and shoots the acid crossbow at the hulking corpse. Marshall bull rushes the ogre lieutenant, using his weight and armor to attempt to shove past him. The ogre lieutenant attacks him on the way in, then tries not to get pushed aside; he fails, and Marshall pushes him back fifteen feet. Ruin gapes. Tavros charges one of the Ogre Lieutenants, cutting into him. 

Martini drops backwards off the ledge, landing on the ledge one floor down. The two half-orcs guarding Almonda just gape at her. Almonda: “See! She has jumped to her death to escape me.”

Leira steps up with her staff, preparing to target her with an Intensified Darkbolt. She uses the magic missile crossbow to take out a mirror image first. 

Almonda responds with a maximized fireball. She hits everybody except Martini. She follows up with a quickened scorching ray. We all take damage, but the ogres die and the hulking corpse takes some damage too. She cackles maniacally. 

The hulking corpse shambles forward and bites Ruin for a bit of damage. The remaining ogre lieutenant attacks Marshall, hitting him twice. Ruin turns and cuts down the hulking corpse. Geddy fires off a magic missile to remove the last image. 

Tavros charges the ogre, taking a hit on the way in. He cuts into the thing, and it feels it. It’s still blocking the way to Almonda, though. Downstairs, Martini has reached the bottom of the stairs. Leira fires off the staff, doing a huge amount of damage. Almonda staggers back… “How? Luthien said you would have no magic!”

She responds with Bigby’s Crushing Hand, which promptly grapples Leira and starts crushing. She follows with another quickened Scorching Ray, and takes Marshall down. The ogre attacks Tavros twice, missing both times; Tavros grins. Then he cuts down the ogre lieutenant and shoves a crate into Almonda, pinning her between the crate and her own Wall of Force. Martini races into the room, sees Almonda, and throws her dagger… 

Tavros leans slightly to the side as the dagger hurtles past and buries itself in her eye socket. Almonda dies. Ruin: “See? I told you this was a good plan.”

Martini spots some additional wizards who have been waiting to flank us. Leira puts her back to the boat and waves her staff around in a somewhat intimidating fashion. The wizards creep to the entrance of the room, and cast Mirror Image on themselves. Ruin steps in to the Blood of Vecna and cuts hims down with a flurry of blows. 

Geddy notes the wizards and uses Magic Missile to take out one of their images. 

The remaining Blood of Vecna rages and decides that he’s going to be the one to take down the King of Sol Povos. He attack skillfully, hitting Tavros three times. Tavros turns and severs his jugular with the barest edge of his blade. 

Leira goes over and tries to stabilize Marshall, and almost succeeds. The Wizards/Thoughts of Vecna decide to attack, and cast Hideous Laughter on Leira. She ignores them both. 

Ruin switches to his bow and clears out one wizard’s images. He then moves over in front of them. Tavros follows, putting himself in position as well. Martini tumbles past them and comes up behind the wizards. 

Leira manages to stabilize Marshall. 

The thoughts of Vecna are fanatics, despite being in a really bad position. They try to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. One of them casts Mirror Image again; the other fires off a lightning bolt at Martini, in a stunning display of bad judgement. It utterly fails to connect. Ruin uses Manyshot again and wipes out all but one of the images on one mage; Geddy takes out his last one just as Marshall wakes up. 

Tavros attacks, killing him, and then attacks the remaining wizard, clearing out most of his images. Martini finishes him. 

We start searching. This side room is a wood construction shop, and the ogres and Thoughts were living here so we take 24k in loot from the room. 

Martini searches the far workroom but doesn’t find anything; she follows a hallway and removes a trap on the door. There’s a fully functional and finished  airship engine inside. We open the Nine Halls, and Ruin and Tavros carry the massively heavy engine inside. Now we just need to put it on a ship. 

Martini moves to check the next door for traps, having just acquired an Energy Drain trap from the last one. The door, however, isn’t trapped; it appears to be an office. It’s well appointed, with fine examples of North Povian craftsmanship. These are Almonda’s second set of books, the ones where she was diverting funds for her own use. We will eventually be able to retrieve a full 210,000 GP worth of funds from Almonda’s embezzlement stash. Martini checks the next door, which is locked but not trapped; she opens it and finds Almonda’s personal treasure trove, worth about 85,000 GP. We swipe it.

Ruin sets fire to the boat, because he is a petty bitch. 

We heal up a bit, then Martini and Ruin creep further up the stairs. We can see a bit of hallway… and bunch of people chanting. We creep forward, and find a large room with a lot of people chanting in it. There’s a door behind them, so Martini looks it over to see if she can lock it. Ruin can hear three beholders in the room beyond. Martini jams the door and sets up an Energy Drain trap on it. 

Then Martini sneaks into the room, avoiding the notice of the chanters, and finally locating... Kas Luthien. 

Oh, we are so going to have to kill that guy.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Challenge: Create A Holiday

(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: If you could create a holiday, what would it be?

This... I... I really don't know. I mean, Halloween already exists; so does National Talk Like A Pirate Day, even if I'm the only one in the office who celebrates it. 

But, well, all right... let's set the thing near the end of February, maybe exactly at the end of February where we're just coming out of the long dark of winter and also incorporate Leap Year into the equation. It'll therefore be a moveable feast, but only once every four years. And we'll celebrate geekery: whatever particular hobby or passion occupies your time and consumes your attention. 

Festivus Geekiatum is a day to indulge your favorite interests. Work on that knitting project, watch that anime, re-read that favorite book, perform in -- or attend -- that one play. Reconnect with your hobbies, re-engage your interests, work on your projects. Do it alone, or do it together -- write-alongs are a valid form of celebration. So are hootenannies, or flash mobs. Rediscover something that gives you joy, and do it for as long as you enjoy it! Then go do something else you like! Cook for friends, or practice languages, or set up a campfire and tell stories. Costumes are optional, but welcome.

Indulge yourself, and do the things that make you happy.

That's the holiday I want for people.

(I mean, no, not really. That's the everyday I want for people. But I'll take what I can get.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

In the Blood

"Who is it?" he called. 

There was a momentary pause, before a woman's voice called back: "Cassie."

Chris hesitated, then turned back and opened the door. "Yes?"

The woman in front of him looked to be about his own age, petite and slender, with black hair cut short and sparkling blue eyes. Her skin was pale, but not unnaturally so. "Do I know you?" he asked. 

She shook her head. "No. But I heard about you, and I wanted to come check..."

Chris drew back: she had no scent of her own. "The magi looked me over already." 

"Please?" she asked. "They might have missed... they don't always know as much as they think they do."

"Okay, that's fair." He turned and moved back from the doorway. "Come in. Grundus said I should ask you what a master was anyway."

Cassie scowled briefly. "Grundus talks too much. He's good at what he does, but that doesn't make him any less of..." she let that thought trail off.

"So what brings you here?" Chris asked. "As you can see, I'm still just a wolf." 

Cassie motioned him closer, then reached up and turned his chin from side to side as she studied both sides of his neck. "Okay," she admitted, stepping back. "You didn't get bitten?"

Chris raised his eyebrows. "You're not going to check the rest of me?" He was in a tee shirt and sweatpants, having kicked off his running shoes the moment he came in the door. 

Cassie shook her head. "Not unless I need to." 

"No," said Chris. "I didn't get bitten. Didn't bite any of them, either. Ripped one's throat out, but that was with my fingers." 

"All right," said Cassie. "Can I ask you for a favor?" 

"Ask," said Chris. I may not answer, but I won't know until you ask.

"The master in the house," she said. "What did he look like?"

"I'm not really sure," Chris answered honestly. "Silver hair. Blurry. Almost misty. Dark coat and pants... I wasn't that close to it."

"Matteo," she said quietly, looking away. 

"Friend of yours?" asked Chris. Is this going to be a problem? 

Cassie turned her head back, met his eyes. "No," she said angrily. "He was a murdering bastard, if he was who I think he was. I'm glad you killed him."

Chris shrugged. "I'm just glad he didn't kill me," he admitted. 

There was a brief pause, and the Cassie asked: "How'd you manage it?"

"I ran away and set the place on fire," he told her, and she started to laugh. 

"Oh, he must have been surprised," she said. "So very surprised. And you still in your trial... I owe you a beer, friend. Let me know when you're ready to collect."

"Might be a while," Chris said cautiously. "I'm only eighteen."

Cassie shrugged. "Then it'll be a while. A debt's a debt." She backed towards the doorway. "Don't be a stranger."

Monday, October 23, 2023

Staying On Track

"Oh, so you are still alive." 

Chris was on his second lap around the track, and turned his head to find that Grundus had come up beside him and matched his pace. He gave the older wolf a look, then stepped up his pace. 

Grundus sped up to match him. Neither of them was breathing too hard to talk; even here in the Mundus, the wolves were built for this. Grundus had gray hair and a scruffy almost-beard, bronze skin and dark eyes; his build was slightly heavier than Chris' but still lean and broad-shouldered.

"Okay, but the official word is that you and Gillespie walked into a house full of vampires. Rumor has it that Dalmorden pulled your partner out and left you there with a master. That true?"

Chris considered that for the space of another dozen strides. "What's a master?"

"The ones who hunt the night, they don't really get old. A master's one that's been around long enough to grow strong and develop powers, maybe even learn sorcery if they put their mind to it." Grundus grinned unpleasantly. "Ask Cassie; she knows." 

Chris gave a slight nod, and stepped up his pace again. Grundus was perfectly capable of matching him, but he looked annoyed at having to actually do it, which was pretty much what Chris had been going for. 

"So was there a master?"

"Report's been filed," Chris said. Anything he told Grundus would be all through the ROs in a matter a minutes. It might not get back to the magi, but Chris didn't want to risk it. He was new here, and his position was precarious in ways beyond the obvious. 

"Yeah," said Grundus, "but people want to know, first hand-like."

Chris shrugged. "Then they can read the report." 

"You know," said Grundus, "you could make more of an effort to make friends." 

Never was much good at that, Chris thought, but all he said was, "Takes me a while to warm up." 

"All right. What I really want to know is, did old Dalmorden pull your partner out and leave you behind?"

Chris glanced at him, side-eyed. Innocently, he asked: "Would the Ministry do that?" 

"Shit," said Grundus. "So how the hell'd you survive? Just set fire to the place and run away?"

"Pretty much," Chris admitted. "Hunt was fucked anyway."

"Cernunnos' sacred left testicle, man." Grundus sounded grudgingly impressed. "That's cold hunting."

"It was pretty hot there at the end," Chris admitted. "Even with the gas line open, I had to move fast."

Grundus grinned at him. "How fast?" 

Chris grunted and shifted to an all-out sprint, as fast as he could go without actually dropping into wolf-form -- which wolves couldn't do here in the Mundus. Grundus surged after him, struggling to catch up, but gradually -- and then suddenly-- dropped behind. 

When Chris came around again and slowed to a walk, Grundus just looked at him. "All right," he said. "Blessings of the Silver Hand. Yeah, I can believe you pulled that off. Do the Magi know you can do that?" 

"No," said Chris, "and I don't intend to show them. I can't do it in public without violating the compact, and if they don't know it's possible then they don't expect me to try to do it in private."

Grundus nodded, looking more sympathetic than Chris had expected. "I'm trusting you here," Chris added. "Don't give me away."

"I won't," said Grundus, suddenly serious. Whether the older man's judgement would hold was another question, but he sounded serious, at least. 

"Look," said Chris, "if anybody asks, you can tell them that I had an emergency plan in place -- which I did, with the gas line -- and I moved fast and got lucky. And you can tell them I said so myself. Deal?"

"Deal," said Grundus, and turned and walked away. 

Chris waited until the man was well out of earshot before he drew a deep breath and let it out. He'd have to be especially careful around that one, but if he'd played this right then most people -- including the magi -- would write it off. Antoinette might suspect there was more to it; she'd seen him in the same room with the master. Or she might buy it completely, if she believed what the damned Ministry said about ROs in the Mundus. 

Registered Outsiders assisted the Ministry's magi with their duties, in return for being allowed legally into the Mundus and acquiring legal identities that would satisfy local governments. A few more years of this, and he could opt out, find a mundane job for income, and fade into everyday life in the Mundus. As long as he didn't show off any "supernatural" abilities, the Ministry would leave him alone.

Until then, he helped the Ministry deal with "intrusions": people or creatures of the Grey that had made their way into the Mundus without the Ministry's blessing. It was the sort of duty that might even see him facing off against other wolves at some point, a prospect that didn't bother him nearly as much as it probably should have. 

He walked off the track and back into the locker room. Judging by the scents, he was following Grundus at a decent distance. He showered, changed, and then headed back to his apartment to see if there were any new messages. 

He'd only just set his gym bag down when someone knocked on the door behind him. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

Dark Armor: Preparations

Pallian approached his father again once the courtiers had somewhat dispersed. "You have a plan, Father?"

The Wizard-King turned to study him, and Pallian held himself expressionless and waited. He focused on his father's expression, his posture... and kept his thoughts quiet. Counselor Barias was still here somewhere, and there were thoughts in Pallian's mind that the counselor should not overhear. His father looked thoughtful, not suspicious and not hostile, though Pallian knew better than to consider that any sort of safety. 

"I do," his father said at last. "I will discuss it with Ravaj and my counselors. You will return to the crypt and make ready for battle; when we confront the emissary, you will wear the armor."

"The House of Edrias will realize that it's me," Pallian pointed out, though he agreed that the Black Knight would be critical to their victory. 

"It won't matter," his father promised. "It must be done, and we might even learn the true identity of the Shadow of Edrias. And if you carry yourself well, I may take you into my counsels."

Pallian nodded. "I will come when you call, as always."

"Be sure that you do," his father replied, and turned away. 

That stung, but Pallian turned and departed as if it were nothing more than he was used to, which it was. He knew the way to the Hall of Greeting, and he knew that one of the glyphs in there would take him back to the crypt. 

It was almost a relief.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Paladins: Judgement Time

Sanha was standing across from a portly older human in a well-cut suit, the dark jacket coming to mid-thigh and open at the top to reveal the crisp white shirt underneath it. The other Tekilans, family and servants alike, were clustered around them but keeping their distance.

"My son was in danger," Sanha was saying as Laina drew close enough to hear. "He's been in danger since I left Mileth, Mayor, and you know it as well as I do."

The man, who wasn't much older than Sanha herself, looked troubled; nobody from the crowd around them spoke up to contradict her claims, either. They knew what Mileth Tekilan was, she thought, or at least they suspected. 

"Pardon me, excuse me, we need to get through..." Laina wasn't tall or broad enough to be imposing, but she knew how to walk so people would get out of her way. She forced a path through the crowd, which parted more widely when they saw Raven and the two children who followed them. 

She arrived at the center of the circle just as another human, a woman in studded leather armor with a bow on her back and a pair of shortswords at her hips, emerged from the far side of the crowd. A moment later the fire-ender was pushing through, his clothing dark with smoke and soot, the decanter in a holster on his hip and his necklace plain (though dirtied) on his chest. 

"What happened here?" demanded the armored woman, and Sanha whirled to face her as if she were a lifelong enemy.

"Hold," said Laina, and Sanha whirled back, her expression softening as she caught sight of her son. 

They came to stand beside Sanha, and after a moment of study the armored woman asked, "Who are you, strangers?" 

Laina said, "I am Laina Heartling, a paladin of Nepthys," her voice firm. "May I ask who you are?"

"Talura Smokeseeker," answered the woman, "Landsknight for this territory."

Laina nodded. "A pleasure," she said, though it definitely wasn't. She didn't need help to render the judgement of her goddess, and she definitely didn't want anybody arguing with her.

"Likewise." Talura shifted her attention to Sanha. "What happened here?"

"We did, I'm afraid," said Raven quietly, before Sanha could finish drawing breath. 

"Did you?" asked Talura. "And who might you be?"

"Raven." She paused, deliberately declining to offer a patronymic. Her tone was a dull and lifeless as ever. "Priestess of Nepthys. We came here to destroy a vampire."

"Here now," huffed the mayor, who had turned to look at them. "You can't just go around murdering people--" 

"It's not murder if they're already dead--" Raven said, and Laina followed up with "--and vampirism is illegal in Sol Povos, punishable by sentence of true death."

"I-- that--"

"Mayor," snapped Talura, in a tone that strongly suggested that the man should stop speaking. She turned her attention back to Laina and Raven. "And in the course of your... sentencing... Tekilan Manor was set on fire?"

Laina sighed. "No. No, it's not so simple as that. This is Damlok, child of the vampire Mileth Tekilan and the wizard Sanha. When we left the farm to execute the vampire for his crimes, Damlok followed us-- he wanted to see what we would do, and what his father really was. Sanha, of course, found her child missing and came to Tekilan Manor believing that Mileth had finally managed to kidnap the boy." She glanced at the woman beside her. "I don't know exactly what happened, but..."

"I came into the manor," said Sanha calmly. "It was morning, and Mileth never sleeps in the house. I found Bartram and demanded to know what they'd done with my son. He called for his guards, and I... I cast a fireball. It was all a horrible misunderstanding."

Laina nodded, and saw the small, sympathetic movement of Talura's head mirror her. "Meanwhile," she said, "we entered the old tower on the south side of the property. Young Damlok was with us, and can speak for this part: we found his father, Mileth, lying on the dirt in the day-long sleep of the undead, and I put a stake through his heart and removed his head."

"You did what?" The mayor sounded scandalized. "How do you know he wasn't just drunk? How do you--"

"His head caught fire when I brought it out into the sun," Laina said, locking eyes with him until he looked away. "That's not what mortal corpses do." 

"And strangely," added Raven, "the moment it did, the rest of his body began to burn-- inside the tower."

"It did," said Damlok. "I saw it. He was definitely a vampire."

Beside him, his cousin Palissa tilted her head up defiantly and said, "He was. We all knew it."

"Mayor Shiftren," said Talura, "You would be well served to consider your words very, very carefully. There are matters of law and justice at play here, not just matters of politics."

Oh, I like this one, Laina thought. I wonder if she appreciates a well-formulated tea? "So," she said carefully, "the deaths of the Tekilan elders, while still punishable, should be strongly ameliorated by the circumstances." She was beginning to be thankful for the ridiculous amounts of Sol Povos law and precedent that the Temple of Amun had introduced her to during her time there. They weren't worshippers of Nepthys, but they at least had some understanding of what the Goddess demanded.

Sanha glanced at her, grateful, and Laina sighed. "Unfortunately, the deaths of her parent's tenants should not. Those were yours, weren't they? Not Mileth's."

Sanha took a step back. "I had to," she said simply. "Mileth would come to the edge of the property at night, dominate anyone who wandered out, and send them to try to steal Damlok away." She met Laina's eyes without blinking. "Once I took them, he could no longer control them. There was no other choice. I couldn't risk anyone stealing Damlok away."

"Mother," asked Damlok, "How many people did you murder to keep me safe?"

Sanha met his eyes, drew breath and opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally she said, "Twenty-eight men and women, and nine children. I felt every one."

"Did you?" he asked. "Did you feel them enough? I grew up with those people, Mother."

Laina watched her close her eyes. 

Raven tilted her head and asked, "How did you control so many? You're an accomplished mage, but necromancy isn't easy. On your own, you should have been able to control... maybe half that? Less? But you still had them going about their work."

There was a long silence, while Sanha held still with her eyes closed and her shoulders slumped. Finally, she opened her eyes, and turned to look at Laina. "I was desperate," she said. "You'd have done the same, if it had been your child in danger."

"...No," answered Laina. "I don't think I would." She turned to look at Talura. "Do you have any children, Landsknight?"

"Three," answered Talura, "and I would not have murdered the people in my care to protect them." She looked back at Laina. "The sentence for multiple murder is execution. I would be willing to commute it to exile. Does that seem... just... to you?"

Laina glanced at Raven, who frowned. "She needs to tell us how she managed this," the girl said, "and how we can give the dead their rest."

Sanha loosed a choked sob. "Here," she said. She reached into her shirt and pulled out a black onyx amulet. "I stole this from Mileth. It let me raise and control more of the minor undead than I could have ordinarily. He should never have had it; blame his family for that as well."

Raven stepped forward, took the emblem, and examined it. After a couple of moments she said, "I can use this to give them peace." 

Laina looked at her and nodded. "Then with that, I can agree that exile seems just."

"What of the boy?" asked Talura, and to her credit she was looking at Damlok rather than anyone else. 

"My mother..." he swallowed. "My mother might have been pushed to it, but she has done an evil as great as my father's." He looked up at Laina. "I'm trying to do better. I think... I think I should come with the two of you."

No. Hell no. Absolutely not... Laina shook her head. She wasn't ready to be raising a child, even one who acted on his own to save people. Sweet cock-sucking Nepthys, you'd better be right about this. "The boy can come with us," she heard herself say, and wondered what in the hell she was thinking. "If that's what he wishes."

Sarha turned to look at her son. "Damlok..."

He shook his head. "No, Mother. I'm trying to do better. You have to go somewhere else and try to do better too."

Laina saw Sarha move, saw the magic gathered to aim at her heart. The wizard might have killed her, but Raven stepped between them, absorbing the firebolt and staggering back. A moment later Talura was on Sarha, holding her down and binding her. 

Laina had charge of Damlok. Raven had charge of the amulet, and the responsibility to release the undead tenant-farmers. Raven had put her own small body between Laina and harm. And Damlok had proven his worth by saving his cousin.

The judgement of Nepthys was rendered.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Challenge: Favorite Scary Monster

(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: Favorite Scary Monster

...Yes? All of them? 

Everything is true. God's an Astronaut. Oz is Over the Rainbow, and Midian is where the monsters live... And you came to die.

Y'all, I'm a huge fan of monsters. Monsters as antagonists. Monsters as protagonists. Monsters just out there doing their own weird things and being kind of a scary nuisance/mortal danger in the process. 

Feed me, Seymour.

But I particularly enjoy the sorts of monsters that you have to discover. 

Something has attached itself to him. We have to get him to the infirmary right away.

Give me a monster where nobody's quite sure what's going on. Give me a monster where we aren't quite sure what it just did, let alone why. Give me a monster that makes the {decaying house/eerie catacombs/abandoned oil rig/derelict space shape} seem haunted with our ignorance of what we're up against. Force us to discover its patterns in order to survive. Force us to somehow outwit the monster that's hunting us. Force us to push past the terror in order to think, to explore, to test

Jack, you are a scientist; do you not think there are things in this Universe that you cannot understand and which are true?

My favorite scary monster is the Unknown.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Paladins: A Mother's Wrath

"Holy shit," said Raven. "Sarha's here."

Laina hesitated for a brief moment, then looked out over the piled stones to see Sarha striding towards them through the knee-high grass that covered this side of the estate. There was shouting and even a few screams coming from inside the manor house, and there was smoke coming out three of the windows.

"Just a fucking moment," said Laina, and slid over the rocks and out into the sunlight. The severed head she was holding caught fire immediately, and she dropped it before it could burn her. 

Sarha saw the flash of flame, and slowed her advance. Laina took a step back and waited. 

"My son--" called Sarha. 

"He's safe," Laina called back, and Sarha sagged. A moment later she continued her advance, more slowly this time. There was shouting from outside the house too now, and the servants were forming a bucket line from the well. 

Damlok stuck his head out of the tower, then climbed outside; Raven was right behind him. 

"You saved him," said Sarha as she reached them. 

"He came on his own," Laina said quietly. Again she heard Nepthys' voice: Evil waxes. Good wanes. Dark powers rise. You must restore some small part of that balance in this place. As the realization dawned, Damlok saw the look on Laina's face and then looked past his mother to the house. "What did you do, Mother?"

It was Raven who asked the more pertinent question: "How many did you kill?"

Sanha paled. "Six. Maybe seven--" She turned and raced back towards the house. 

The other three gave chase, following at a full sprint. They reached the nearest of the windows that was belching smoke, and Sanha skidded to a halt and then hesitated. After a moment, she shrugged. "I have no spells to quench this!"

"Then join the bucket line," said Laina, and shoved her in that direction. She didn't have any way to extinguish the flames either; she should follow her own advice, but Raven was standing beside the window just outside of the smoke, and casting... something. 

There was a hissing sound, and for a moment the smoke thinned. Raven did it again, and it thinned further. She kept going, then finally stuck her head in the window to look around. 

Someone screamed overhead, and Laina looked up to a young girl waving at them out of an upper window. Smoke was beginning to emerge from behind her. 

"I've got her," said Damlok, and went straight up the wall like a lizard. The rough stone must have been hot beneath his fingertips, but he gave no sign of it. He disappeared inside the window, then emerged again, one leg on either side of the sill, with the girl behind him. 

Oh, shit, thought Laina, and moved to position herself underneath them. If he...

A moment later, Damlok swung his other leg out of the window and began to descend. The girl was only a little younger than he was, and she was clinging to his neck in a way that should be strangling him... but Damlok wouldn't care, of course. He shifted his way down, feeling for handholds and footholds, carefully... slowly...

For a moment Laina thought the boy would make it. Then, halfway down, he lost his grip, flailed after another one, and then kicked off from the wall. 

Laina moved with him, positioning herself, and let herself roll backwards when they slammed into her chest. She hit the ground hard and the children rolled over her head and back into the grass...

Pain. Her chest, momentarily numb, burst into agony; she'd broken at least one rib, probably two. Her nose was definitely broken where the kids had rolled across. For a long moment she lay gasping, unable to draw any air into her lungs. Then she drew in a deep, shuddering breath. 

"Are you hurt?" asked Damlok. The little girl was standing beside him, looking terrified.

The question was so completely stupid that Laina laughed, then gasped and stopped immediately when her ribs made their displeasure known. "I'll live," she said, and rolled over carefully, "but I'm going to be sore in the morning."

The girl looked at her, puzzled, then looked up at the sky. "But it is morning."

"Oh," said Laina, then stopped to assess her injuries. Right, yes, she'd need to pick the rock out of the back of her left shoulder, but being absolutely flattened by a pair of falling children hadn't done her any harm that couldn't be healed. In fact... She touched a hand to her ribs and felt the grace of Nepthys flow through her, easing their pain and partly knitting them back into place.

Raven was still creating water as quickly as she could, and the smoke was starting to ease. The smoke from the other windows was still strong, but now other, louder hissing sounds were audible. After a moment the smoke from the other rooms began to ease as well, but Raven kept at her task until the smoke finally ceased and the embers were cold. 

Laina walked carefully over to where Raven was still staring into the window. "That was amazing," she said.

Raven shook her head. "It was just an orison," she said. "It was all I could think to do. There was a man with a necklace of adaptation and a decanter of endless water... he put it all out."

"You kept it from getting worse," Laina said. "You did well."

Damlok came forward from where he had taken the girl well away from the house. "This is my cousin Palissa," he said. "Palissa, this is the paladin Laina and the cleric Raven." 

The girl curtsied. "You tried to save us. Damlok says you did save us. Thank you so much."

"You're welcome," said Laina. Speaking still hurt; hell, breathing still hurt. Raven finally turned around, looked Laina over, and said: "What did you do to yourself?" She stepped foward with the words of a fresh spell on her lips, put her hands on Laina's shoulders, and released the healing prayer to do its work. 

The pain disappeared in a rush of familiar power, and Laina sighed in relief. Then she sighed again, because... "Damlok, I still have to talk to your mom... about what she did here, and what she did back at the farm."

Damlok nodded. "I think my mom might be as evil as my dad," he said quietly, with a glance at his cousin. "I hope I'm wrong."

I do too, kid, Laina thought. I do too.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Burning Out The Nest

When it was over and the old house was nothing but pile of smoldering embers, Christopher Black stood in the shower and let the sunlight from the bathroom window try to set his new flesh alight, while the steady stream of running water constantly extinguished it and his flesh repaired itself. It was a relentless agony, but illuminating in its way; among other things, the longer this went on the hungrier he became.

He had no idea what he had become. Vampire seemed too tame a term, but he had no other words for it. So he stood, burning and extinguished and healing all at once, while he processed this new transformation.

* * *

"We've been tracking a pattern of disappearances," said Captain Julian Dalmorden, looking trim in his suit and tie while the pistol in the holster under his shoulder broke the lines of the jacket a lot more obviously than any of them were prepared to admit. "It's Charleston and there's a field office there, so we should have been able to narrow it down by now, but something is interfering with our scrying. I want you two to go in, plainclothes, and check out this area. Pretend to be selling solar panels when you visit the houses, dress down and talk to the kids if you can -- Charleston does get some runaways, and they all trade tales -- and see if you can find whatever's taking people off the streets before it notices you."

"Why us?" asked Chris, because that was the sort of thing he was prone to asking. He didn't always see the obvious, so he was always careful to make sure that he knew where he stood. 

"Because," said Captain Dalmorden, "you're both young and attractive, and you still know how to dress like mundane civilians. For people in the Ministry, that's more rare than you might realize."

Chris frowned, because he very much did not know how to dress like a mundane civilian, but he didn't argue. If his highly idiosyncratic and practical fashion sense was enough to satisfy the authorities of the Ministry, that was good enough for him. 

"Do we have any idea what we're looking for?" asked his partner, Antoinette Gillespie. She'd chosen jeans and a suit jacket, and had done a better job of concealing her pistol than Captain Dalmorden had. It was skillful enough, in fact, that Chris suspected that she might have used a phrase to hold it somewhere unexpected. It would have been nice -- and useful -- if he could have done that himself, but Chris was a wolf. Wolves couldn't use mage tricks.

"No," answered Captain Dalmorden, "but I suppose you can consider that job security. The Ministry keeps people like us around precisely because scrying doesn't always work on intrusions from the Grey."

As one of those intrusions, albeit someone who had come in "through channels" and now worked for the Ministry, Chris appreciated the use of the word "us" in that sentence. He nodded. 

"Any other questions?" asked Captain Dalmorden. 

Antoinette glanced at Chris, and he gave a slight shake of his head. "None," she said, rising from her chair. "We'll let you know what we find."

* * *

The neighborhood was older, but well-maintained, and out on the outskirts of the city. Charleston wasn't a city that disdained older dwellings; it honored its history. They spent a day, and then another, walking the streets and knocking on doors, talking to the people who lived there. 

Some doors didn't open, of course; that was the way of things. They marked those down, and the ones with No Soliciting signs, and continued on; another team with a different cover story could check those. 

At night they went to look at bars and clubs and places where people might gather, and asked around about disappearances when they could manage it. Most people knew nothing; the sorts of people who were disappearing frequently didn't have places of their own, or didn't have places that were known to outsiders. 

* * *

It was on the fourth night when Chris stopped, breathing deeply to taste the air. There was something... meat, and blood, and fear... He turned his head, seeking, and found a child standing just at the mouth of an alleyway, holding an uncooked steak in one plastic-gloved hand. 

Antoinette followed his gaze and turned that way, but stopped walking when the child held up a hand. "Not you," they said, in their child's voice. "Just him."

Chris looked at her and she gave a slight nod, so he followed the child back into the alley. 

"You move like a wolf," the child said, looking up at him defiantly. "You even kind of look like one, if I stare hard enough."

He nodded and settled down onto his haunches, well back out of reach. "So I do." 

The child considered that. "Someone, and I'm not saying who, thinks you're looking for the ones who are taking people away."

"Someone is right."

"All right." The child glanced at their plastic-gloved hand. "You want the meat?"

Christopher Black shook his head. "Not really, no. But Someone was right -- it's a distinctive scent, and it got my attention."

"Then I have an address for you." The child came forward, pressed a slip of paper into Chris' hand. They hesitated, then added: "People died to learn this."

"I can't make that right," Christopher said quietly. "I can only do more killing."

"As long as you're killing the ones who are doing the killing now," said the child. "And you don't start killing the way they do afterwards. My sister and I... we ran away together. She's gone now. They took her." The child swallowed. "Make them pay."

"...I give you my word," said Chris, and closed his hand around the paper. The child stepped back, and he added: "Take care of yourself, kid. Take care of your own. Do good things."

The child swallowed. "I'll do my best."

* * *

The house was old, three stories tall, a well-maintained old wooden home. Chris and Antoinette sat in the car that the Ministry had provided for them, halfway down the street from it, and watched. 

Nothing moved during the day. Nothing moved at night. For all they could tell, nobody was living there. 

"It's a trick," Antoinette said, midway through their second morning of watching. "The kid was hired to distract us, and he did. We've spent a day and a night staring at an abandoned house while people are still disappearing."

Chris considered that. It might be true, but... "I don't think so," he said. "The child was legitimately afraid of me, and not because they were lying. They knew what we were. And they weren't afraid when they gave me the paper with the address."

Antoinette sat for the space of several long breaths, digesting that. The two of them hadn't worked together all that long; Antoinette had started working for the Ministry after completing her schooling two years ago, and Chris had joined only six months earlier, in the wake of the disaster at Pettibone. "Could it be a trick?" she asked finally. 

Chris nodded. "Yes. Anyone who wanted me to kill whoever lives in that house could have set the child up with a sob story and an address. But it's right in the area that Captain Dalmorden wanted us to check, and I don't think the child was deliberately lying."

"Shit," said Antoinette. "All right. You go around the back. Get inside if you think you can do it without being noticed. I'll go knock on the door." She sighed. "It might be nothing, so take it easy."

Chris rolled his shoulders. "Keep your wards up and be careful."

* * *

The back of the house was as silent and utterly bland as the front, but the scents here were... different. There were people, or something vaguely like people, in the house; they used the back door to come and go. He could see the footprints, but could pick up only the faintest hints of their smell, even from the doorknob. The smell wasn't of flesh; it was only the scent of spilled blood, and even that was faint. 

He put his hand on the knob, tried, it, and then drew the door slowly open when it turned. 

He held it open, listening, but heard nothing. Then the doorbell rang through the house, shattering the silence. There was a long, bated moment like an indrawn breath; then the doorbell rang again. 

Movement, more felt than heard, somewhere up at the front of the house... Chris pulled the door open and slipped inside, then closed it carefully behind him. The kitchen was dark and weirdly neat, with no dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter, and a thin layer of dust over the countertops. It smelled... unused. 

He let his fingertips and teeth sharpen, as much as an ordinary wolf could do here in the Mundus. Whatever was here was strong, strong enough to defeat magics and keep itself hidden even with the Mundus dampening its power. 

The doorbell rang a third time, and Chris heard a very faint rattle as Antoinette tried the door and found it locked. He padded forward, checking doorways, blind spots, even the ceiling...

On the far side of the house, something clicked sharply. "Ministry," said a low, threatening voice, and then there was faint, brief scuffle as Antoinette was dragged into the house and flung to the floor. The metallic clatter that followed was probably her gun being flung away. Chris continued forward at a steady pace, found the hallway that led to the front.

Someone tried to leap onto him, and he ripped her throat out reflexively. There was a brief moment of startled silence; then the body started to dissolve in front of him and he drank her essence in an act no less instinctive than the killing had been. Belatedly, he pulled his gun out. Whatever they'd found here, they were in for it now. 

Another step forward, silent and alert. Another. A third. A fourth...

He could see the front now. Antoinette was on her back on the floor, a dark silhouette of a figure crouched over her, mouth pressed against her throat. 

Chris emptied his clip into the figure, then reloaded as he watched it stand slowly up and turn to face him. In the dim light from the clouded glass, it was silver-haired and dressed in a dark coat and pants; even with his senses, he couldn't make anything else out. There was an aura around the figure, almost misty, that made it hard to see and harder still to focus on. It probably played merry hell with the magi's scrying, too.

Antoinette was lying just behind the man-shaped thing, sprawled at its feet... but as he watched, she shimmered and disappeared. Good girl, he thought. She'd contacted somebody through the cards, probably Captain Dalmorden and definitely before she'd rung the doorbell. Somebody had been with her, watching as she entered, and as soon as the intruder wasn't touching her they'd pulled her away. 

That, of course, left Chris unsupervised and without any backup, but he was used to that from the Ministry.

"Wolf," said that same, almost-silent voice, and the figure smiled. "Ministry tool--

It was on him immediately, too fast to dodge, too strong to shake off, its canines stabbing into his neck like needles as its hands held him pinned. Antoinette was gone, and with her any help from the Ministry. He was alone, without backup, and firmly in this thing's grip. His hand was reflexively emptying the second clip into his enemy's gut, but... 

"Irksome," said the thing, then ripped the gun out of his hand and flung it aside. If he'd been human, it would have ripped the fingers off with it. 

Unsupervised, he thought. Nobody who mattered would see him if he let loose. Chris reached out, took the monster by the throat, and let the change flow over him. The holes in his throat disappeared as his flesh reformed, and he became taller, thicker, heavier -- almost too large for the room -- and burning with dark energy. Featherless gray wings spread out behind him, and his tail lashed hard enough to cut gouges in the wooden floor. 

"What--?" asked the intruder, breathless as Chris's reconfigured hand closed around its throat and snapped its neck. He could feel it trying to heal, to restore itself to its proper shape, but he held the break in place.

"What am I?" he asked softly, leaning in and opening his mouth to show fangs far longer and sharper than the vampire's would ever be. "I am Vengeance. And Reconciliation, but mostly Vengeance." He shifted his grip and bit in, tearing and swallowing, and watched as the monster withered and bled. When it was done he drank its essence, and watched with satisfaction as it dissolved into black ash. 

He turned, knowing there were others behind him, but they were gaping and backing away. "You should run," he growled. 

One of them screamed and leapt for him, but these were slower and weaker than the silver-haired man had been. He ripped out the almost-man's heart with a gesture, and absorbed his essence as the body crumbled to ash. Shadow-dark flames rose up around him, and the ceiling began to burn. The floor smoldered and burst into flames a moment later. 

There was a woman in front of him. She stood as the baker's dozen of others fled. "Thank you," she said. "I don't know if you understand just how much of a mercy you've done us, but thank you."

For a moment, Chris hesitated. Then he said, "You're welcome," and loosed the flames. Between the fire inside and the sunlight outside, he didn't think any of them would escape. 

It wouldn't matter if they did. He could always find them later.

* * *

"Ah, Christopher," said Captain Dalmorden, sounding ever so slightly surprised over the phone. "It's good that you're still alive. You haven't suffered any... difficulties... have you?" 

"No," said Chris, having rehearsed this lie in advance. "Still just a wolf. Antoinette distracted them; they never heard me coming. Is she okay?"

"She's in treatment," said the Captain, "but she'll be fine."

"All right," said Chris. "The house where it happened is on fire, but I'll get the car back to the field office, and wait for you to bring me in from there."

"Ah. Yes. Good job, well done," said Captain Dalmorden. "We'll see you back in a couple of days."

* * *

"Chris?" asked a voice. 

He heard the door open just in time, and brought himself back to being a wolf. 

"Chris? Are you okay?"

He swallowed. "I just burned out a nest of vampires," he said, and ate enough of them to become one. "I'm fine."

"Thank God somebody is," said Antoinette. She was standing in the doorway of his bathroom, seemingly oblivious to the overt amount of steam in the air and the fact that Chris was, well, naked and in the goddamned shower. "Dalmorden tells me you saved my life when you started shooting."

Chris swallowed, considered, and devoutly wished she'd go away. "There was a lot of shooting," he said, "and a certain amount of personal violence. You vanished just as it started, so I think you can credit Damorden with saving you. Now can you please go away and let me finish taking a fucking shower?"

"Right," she said. "Yes. Going now. I just..." She hesitated, and he growled softly. "I was grateful. I am grateful. I'm going."

She retreated, pulling door closed behind her, and he sank down to the floor of the shower, letting the water run over his wolf-self. 

It was only later, much later, that he realized that she might have come looking with the intent of having sex, and even in hindsight he was relieved that he'd rebuffed her by accident. If he'd realized and tried to do it on purpose, it all would have been so much more awkward. And Antoinette, attractive as she was... he wasn't over the things that had happened at Pettibone. Maybe in another life it could have worked, but not in this one.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Dark Armor: Accusations and Guilt

"You really shouldn't keep leading him on," Arwidden said, once the door of their coach was firmly closed. Their trunks were packed on top, and the four of them waited as the fire-haired coachman fussed over the flame-hooved horses outside. 

Ashmiren colored. "I'm not..." 

"It's not fair to him," Arwidden continued, relentless, "and honestly, I doubt you're doing yourself any kindness either."

Their mother was watching them, as was Kildren, but neither said anything. 

Ashmiren sighed. "I wasn't trying to lead him on," she said. "It was just... I like him. He isn't what I expected. And I know I'm promised to his brother, and he's promised to our sister, but... I don't know. It felt like he was trying to be nice me, and not out of duty or in search of advantage... just because it was something he wanted to do."

The High Magister Tamirya sighed. "I do regret that," she said. "If I could leave the first-prince of Teregor and our Shanyassa free and still guarantee our alliance by having the two of you marry instead, I would do it. But it isn't a sufficient pledge, nor a strong enough bond."

"I know," Ashmiren replied, quietly miserable. "We need the exchange, and I will see it done. I know my duty. I just... I worry that Shanyassa won't appreciate him. And I worry that his brother Ravaj won't appreciate me."

"I'm honestly more worried that their father is plotting to betray us," said Arwidden, darkly. "If you're going to continue to fraternize with the second-prince when our forces gather, see if you can find out what the House of Teres has planned."

Ashmiren was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "I'll do that." She felt guilty even agreeing, but Pallian knew how all this worked. He could watch out for himself. He'd better.

He'd have to.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Paladins: Actions, Consequences, and Missed Stakes

Laina was still watching when Raven suddenly reappeared, waving at her from the shadow of the tower. She rose and slipped through the wooden fence, glancing back to see that Damlok was following her. She'd been watching for the last hour, as the shadow of the tower grew shorter but the rocks blocking its doorway became a scattered spill in the shadow. Raven had been doing her work quietly, and as quickly as she could manage. 

She's amazing, Laina thought, as she and Damlok walked confidently through the knee-high grass to the tower. They kept its height between themselves and the manor house as best they could, and though she listened Laina heard no sounds of alarm. 

"It's the best I can do," Raven said, and Laina could see the concern behind her lack of expression. 

Laina looked at the formerly-blocked doorway; the top half of the stones were gone, but so was half of the shadow that offered them any chance at concealment. "This is good. This will work". She met the smaller girl's eyes -- Raven was actually a handful of years older than she was, but something in her petite build and the way she carried herself made her seem younger and more vulnerable. "You did well."

Someone was shouting, back in the direction of the manor house. None of them could make out the words, and nobody seemed to be looking their direction, so maybe they hadn't been discovered yet, but-- "Get inside," Laina said. "I'll cover us." 

"No," said Raven, and slipped the ring back into place. Her voice spoke from the place where she no longer seemed to standing. "You get inside. Let me cover you."

"What should I...?" asked Damlok, as Laina threw herself over the remaining stones that blocked the lower half of the entrance, rolled, and came to her feet. 

"Follow me to see your father," Laina whispered, "or huddle down and see what's going on at the house. Your call."

The boy vaulted over the wall. "This is more important," he said. 

Somewhere in the distance, someone screamed and something roared. 

"Hurry," Raven whispered. There was a faint slithering sound as she pulled herself over the remaining stones, but she didn't reappear. 

The inside of the tower was dark, stone stairs off to the left faintly illuminated by the light from above. Laina started off in that direction, expecting the vampire to have taken an upper room. 

Damlok pulled on her sleeve and pointed, and Laina turned and let the boy lead her to the center of the ground floor... where a human figure lay sleeping on the dirt. Clearly the child could see in the dark. 

The figure was sprawled in an ungainly mess, his head on a silk-covered pillow but his body resting face-down against the dirt. He was fully dressed, in a respectable dark coat with a linen shirt showing the edges of collar and sleeves underneath. Laina considered him for only a brief moment before she pulled the wooden stake out of her coat, and the hammer from its loop on her belt. Facedown he lay, and facedown she staked him into place.

In the darkness, she could only half-see his body shrivel in its place; but Damlok, she was certain, could see everything. "Are you still with me, Damlok?" 

The child put a hand around her wrist. "Yes. He... that... wasn't human. Mother was right."

"You may want to step back outside, or at least go watch at the door with Raven," Laina told him. "This next part is going to be even uglier."

Damlok nodded and departed, leaving her blessedly alone. She pulled the silver bread-knife from her belt, and used it to separate Mileth Tekilan's head from his body. Then she took the holy symbol she'd been given at the temple of Amun, and placed it in his mouth. Finally she rose, carrying the head, and turned her steps back to the half-blocked doorway. 

Damlok would see this too, but maybe he needed to. He'd come of his own accord; she could at least hope that she wasn't doing the boy any more harm than necessary.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Challenge: Halloween Costumes

(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: The Most Creative Halloween Costume I've Worn

Oh, that is... that is a question. I went as the blob, one year. Picture a chicken-wire frame wrapped in black trash bags, with an extendable tube "pseudopod" that I could reach out and grab candy with. It had a sort of wood frame that rested on my shoulders so I could walk while I was wearing it; I honestly have no idea how my parents (mostly my dad) made it work. (My dad is an engineer, and like all engineers he is both obsessive and slightly deranged.) 

Another year I went as Godzilla. That was a similar design: chickenwire frame, shoulder pads, papier-mache surface that was then spray-painted green. Hang on, I have a picture somewhere...

The smaller dinosaur/kaiju was my younger brother. We collected the candy in the mouths of our costumes. The thing hanging out of my mouth was red yarn that was supposed to be Godzilla's fire breath. And yes, if you look closely, you can see that the costumes extended down to give us tails as well. And I think there might have been flashlights integrated into our snouts but I'm not 100% sure of that anymore.

One year I stayed home and handed out candy to the kids... and airline-sized liquor bottles to the adults. 

I mean honestly, the parents were either indifferent or else so appreciative. So I'm counting that one as a great costume even if the monk's robe is really nothing more than that. 

For the last couple of years I've used that same robe, but with a LED mask that makes animated flames; it's apparently a really spooky effect, though it's hard to tell from my side of the mask. I'm thinking about doing something different this year, though; I have a leather fox mask that I haven't worn in a long while, and a bit of crimson and black outfitting will make for a very convincing Reynardine costume. 

What about the rest of you? What were your most creative costumes?

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Paladins: I Need To See It For Myself

Damlok was waiting for them when Laina and Raven returned to the edge of the neighboring property an hour or so before dawn. Raven froze for a long second, but Laina just looked at the child and nodded, then gestured for him to come and join them as they sat behind the wooden fence and watched the tower. It was fortunate that the moon wouldn't set until mid-morning; otherwise they'd have been blind in the darkness. 

"What are you doing here, kid?" asked Laina, leaning forward and making her voice as quiet as possible. If Mileth Tekilan was sleeping in the tower as a matter of course, he would be coming this way any time now. She didn't want him to get even the faintest hint that he was being watched.

"My father is evil," said Damlok, equally quiet. "A vampire. That's what mother says." He paused. "I need to see it for myself."

"I don't know how much you'll see if this goes well," Laina told him. "But it's more risk to send you back than keep you here. Stay still and quiet."

Damlok nodded, looking satisfied. Laina couldn't even begin to imagine the chaos that would reign at the farmhouse when his mother discovered his absence, but there was nothing to be done about that now. 

So they sat and waited, and after a few minutes a lone figure made its way through the first faint hints of dawn to the tower. It barely slowed as it reached the stone-blocked doorway, and melted through the stones to disappear inside. 

Damlok looked at Laina, then at Raven, and then at the tower. Then he settled back onto his elbows, evidently prepared to wait. 

Sounds reached them as they sat waiting: servants ducking momentarily out of the manor, early workers spreading out across the estate, stableboys hitching horses to carts in preparation for the day's shipments. Laina didn't like it; it was too busy. Maybe everybody ignored the tower, but with so many people around it seemed unlikely that they could reach the tower and make their way inside unseen. 

They waited, and then waited longer. At last the sun peered over the horizon, casting the shadow of the tower in a long black line. 

It was their first piece of luck: the door to the tower was hidden in its shadow. 

Laina glanced at Raven, hoping the black-clothed cleric had some idea of what to do next. Raven met her eyes, then looked past her at the tower. "Life is an illusion," she said, and sighed. "When you see me wave, walk over to the tower as calmly as you can."

She pulled a ring from her pocket and slipped it onto her finger. The moment that it slid past her knuckle, she vanished. 

"Holy shit," said Damlok, just barely managing to keep his voice in the same soft whisper that they'd been using. "That's so cool."

Laina didn't say anything, but she was silently impressed. "Hey," she said, because she was certain that Raven was still here and could still hear them. "Don't die on me."

"If it comes, it comes," said Raven's voice from the empty air. She sounded resigned. "The moment you see me wave--"

"--We'll come," answered Laina. She listened, but heard no footsteps as Raven departed. 

"Who are you?" asked Damlok. The boy was self-possessed; he still remembered to keep his voice to a whisper. 

"Exactly who we said," Laina told him. "A paladin and a priestess, and both of us too new and too unskilled to take on a vampire."

Damlok thought about that for a long moment. "So what are you going to do?"

Laina considered softening her words, then decided not to. "Make damned sure that we don't have to face him... or else we'll die. It's going to be one or the other."

Damlok seemed to consider that. Finally he said, "Very well. I'll help if I can." He was sitting there, the top of his head touched by the first light of dawn, looking very small and very young and very serious, and Laina found that she believed him. Anything he did might be a disaster, but he was definitely going to try. 

She sighed. She'd have to watch for that, too.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Paladins: The Tekilans and the Tower

The town was called Northshore, and it was too small to appear on the map that Laina carried with her. Still, it had an inn, a blacksmith, and no less than three families of potters who used clay from the nearby banks of the Caveta river to produce fine ceramics. The Tekilan family was one of the oldest in Northshore, and had made their fortune shipping those ceramics all over Sol Povos. They were tightly bound to all three of the clans of potters, and frequently served as a referee in their squabbles. 

Sarha's husband had been one of them, Mileth Tekilan, a third son with ambitions to become first in prominence. He'd had, Sarha explained, no interest in conducting trade himself; he detested travel and disliked having to deal with common shopkeepers, let alone their customers. He preferred to remain at the family home, overseeing the ones who traveled the roads and made the sales. Becoming a vampire, Sarha said with a sort of tired irony, was the natural next step for him. And it helped him: he became stronger, more certain and more persuasive. People found it harder to argue with him. A couple of people who truly disliked him had bad accidents -- animal attack, illness -- and for a short time there were some ugly rumors, but after a while those subsided. 

Mileth hadn't taken over. He didn't have to; he only had to wait. His father was still head of the trading house, and his older brothers were honored for their skill and savvy in travel and trade. All Mileth did was stay at home and watch the books, and occasionally offer his father advice or make certain sorts of problems go away. He was the favored son. Nobody doubted that he would inherit control when his father died. 

But, Sarha had told them, he wouldn't sleep in the house. Oh, he had a suite of rooms reserved for his use, and the servants kept them fresh for him. But he seldom visited them, and never slept in them. 

"I suspect," Sarha had said, "that he makes his home in the tower. It's an old place, nearly a ruin, crumbling and overgrown but still too solid to collapse. It was built to watch for fires, when everything around was farmland and fields grew dry in the summer. And, of course, it's sitting on his native soil."

Laina and Raven had waited until the sun was well and truly up before departing the farm, and then headed into town. The Tekilan manor was sprawling and well-maintained, but they couldn't very well stroll up the walk and demand to slay the resident vampire; nor could they risk sneaking into the place at night. 

So they found their way to the Faithful Hound and paid for a room, then went to scout with as much of daylight as remained. 

The tower Sarha had described was out near the border of a neighboring farm; they might be able to slip over the fence and get inside unseen, even in daylight, if they were careful. Despite their wealth, the Tekilan clan didn't seem to have invested in magical wards, or at least not any that Raven could detect. Out here, a simple wooden fence and the family reputation was probably more than adequate defense against intrusions. 

We're going to be in so much trouble if we pull this off, Laina thought as they returned to the Faithful Hound. If the favored son of the richest traders in town goes missing, there are going to be questions for any strangers in sight -- and that's going to be us. Nepthys, we're going to need your favor. Hell, if you want to lend us your support as well, Amun, I wouldn't even grumble. 

Raven laid a hand on her shoulder, and Laina felt herself relax. "We can do this," Laina said, more to reassure herself than the girl at her side. 

"Life is a lie," said Raven. 

"Death is the truth," Laina answered, remembering. "Nobody can hide from the truth forever."

Raven smiled a particularly disconcerting smile. "So let's go remind this Mileth fucker what the truth really is." 

Laina found herself smiling back. "Let's do that," she said, as they stepped back into the inn for another night's rest.

Friday, October 6, 2023

Dark Armor: Temporary Partings

Pallian took a step backwards before he realized what he was doing, then took another as he realized that he didn't want to be standing beside his father in a crowd of Teregor courtiers. The Wizard-King didn't really need his protection, and all of a sudden it was all too much. He couldn't leave, not yet, but if he could just get out of the crowd...

He felt himself start to relax again as he neared one of the smooth obsidian walls, and forced himself to slow and then stop. 

"We must gather our forces," the High Magister was saying, loud enough for her voice to fill the chamber, "and so we must depart, for now. I hope, when this is done, you will accept our hospitality at the Crystal Towers."

"It will be our pleasure," said the Wizard-King, in a tone that Pallian didn't trust at all. "Lady Vathira will see to your needs until you are ready to depart."

The High Magister turned, her eyes effortlessly finding Pallian despite his change of location. For a moment she looked speculative; then she turned her attention back to the Wizard-King. "We remain grateful for your hospitality, mighty king."

She turned away as Lady Vathira stepped up, and they made a slow, dignified exit from the room. Her body-servant fell in beside her, and second-princess Arwidden trailed behind her. 

"Well, that was sudden," said a voice in his ear. "Are you ready to get married?"

Pallian had been half-expecting it, so he didn't react except to say quietly, "Why? Are you proposing?"

"And me without a ring to offer," Ashmiren said, keeping her voice too soft for anyone else to hear. "I'm not ready either. I hope your brother is good man."

"I do too," said Pallian. There was a faint sense of movement and something brushed his cheek; then she was gone, leaving him alone and very much feeling it.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Paladins: Raven's Judgement and Conversion

Raven knocked on the door and Laina opened it. "I hope you didn't use up all the hot water."

"After three days in the coach?" asked Raven. "I drained it all out, and you should thank me for that. There's more in there now, and it's heating."

"Thank you," said Laina, and slipped past her out the door. 

Raven didn't let herself glance back. It was enough that the paladin let her come along; she wouldn't allow herself to intrude any further. Even if she made me tea. Even if she asked me to come and drink it with her. Instead, she crossed to the second bed, which was every bit as small and narrow as the first. Still, both were well padded and perfectly adequate; by the standards of the Temple of Amun they were even somewhat indulgent. 

She knelt beside the bed, laid her holy symbol on the blanket, and wrapped her arms around herself. Great God Amun, she prayed, Giver of Laws and Bringer of Justice, I beg you to hear me. I know my penance isn't done. I know I have not made amends. But I beg you... transfer my sentence to another. Let the All-Mother Nepthys take my soul into her care; let me work off my debt in her service.  

What filled the room then was a dual sense of presence. A woman's voice said, We come, and a man's voice said, We hear

That is all I ask, Raven prayed, shaping her unspoken words with care. Release me from your service, Amun, and bind me to that of Nepthys in its place. 

There was a momentary silence, but the sense of gathered powers did not diminish. 

Very few seek my service freely, and of their own will, said the woman's voice softly. Why would you? 

Raven gathered her courage. You know why.

I do, the Goddess acknowledged. Are you certain that you do? She does not love you. She has never even considered the possibility

Raven squeezed her eyes shut as the tears came. She knew, she knew, but hearing it stated so absolutely still hurt. I know, she acknowledged. But she is good to me, and I think I could be content just knowing that I do everything I can to keep her safe, and well, and happy. It seems to me that that would be easier in your service than in Amun's, but if I am mistaken... say so, and I will withdraw my request. She swallowed. 

There was another, longer silence. I will release you to this, said the titan's silent voice, if the Mother will have you, and if you vow to continue your work to pay your debt.

I swear it, Raven replied immediately. 

Very well. I will take her into my service, and she will be aid and companion to my paladin. Tomorrow they must slay a vampire, which will be no small thing. She will have more than adequate opportunity to redeem herself. 

Thank you, Raven thought, ugly-sobbing onto the sheets and the holy symbol of Amun all at once. Thank you both. Thank you so much.

Do not thank us yet, said Amun. Survive tomorrow, first. 

Okay, yeah, wow. So apparently Raven has A Past that she's trying -- or being forced -- to make up for. Or both. I did not see that coming. What did she do? How will Laina react? How the Hell should I know?

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Challenge: Karma

(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: Do you believe in Karma? Why or why not?

Easy answer: I don't believe in Karma. Not in the colloquial sense of, "If you do bad things then bad things will happen to you," and not in the more esoteric sense of "The weight of the good and bad things that you do in this life will determine what sort of life you will be born into next time around." Though if the latter version is true, then I can only hope that I have worked hard and advanced my soul enough to be reincarnated as one of my family's housecats.

As for the Why or Why Not? Well... look around. The super-rich are some of the most horrible, exploitive, damaging people on the planet, and they sure don't seem to be suffering much in the way of consequences for it. Whereas some of the best people I know seem beset on all sides with problems that aren't their fault and are frankly beyond their control. 

That said... I do think that actions have consequences. I think that, in general, if you show yourself as untrustworthy, over the long term people aren't going to trust you. If you're a hateful, abusive person then over the long term people aren't going to want to be around you. But that's not Karma; that's just... people.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Paladins: Divine Necessities

"You go ahead," said Raven. "Ask your goddess for guidance, if that's what you need."

"What about you?"

"There's a tub," Raven said evenly. "I'll take the first bath."

"I... As you wish." Laina still didn't know what to make of the smaller girl. She'd known Raven for nearly three months now, long enough to realize that the girl actually was a cleric, but Raven never dropped her guard. Her expression was always blank, her words dolorous and her observations gloomy at best. Why she'd chosen to come with Laina...

"I'll knock before I come back in," said Raven, and walked out of the small bedroom -- once a room for children, Laina thought -- where the family had put them up for the night. 

Laina sighed, and knelt beside the bed, placing her hands on the sheets and letting her attention drift. She had no altar here to help her get in touch with the divine, her prayers -- as always -- felt uncomfortable and unpracticed. She let her thoughts clear, tried to open her mind, and then said, "Well, Boss? What's the play, here? What am I supposed to do with this?"

There was a long silence, and then a faint stirring as a sense of presence spilled into the room. Laina waited, listening. 

Evil waxes. Good wanes. Dark powers rise. You must restore some small part of that balance in this place.

You want me to kill the vampire, Laina thought. Right, Boss? 


You should have just said so, then.

I said exactly what I meant to say. Now quit moping and get on with it, Child. Despite the words, the tone was gentle, humorous, and Laina found herself smiling. She'd never wanted to become a paladin, but she was slowly coming to believe that there were worse ways she could spend her life. Still...

Vampires. Why did it have to be vampires? She hated vampires. And she'd seen what they could do; if it came down to a fight, she and Raven were both going to die.

She could send word back to the Temple of Amun. Tarric or Werendril or Anica or Aesa might come to help them. Hell, all of them might come together; even if they didn't seem to regard her as some sort of baby sister, they might consider it a matter of honor since she'd fought with them before. And the batch of them together stood a pretty good chance against a single vampire. Did she want to do that?

No. No, she did not. However safe the farm seemed now, Laina thought the situation was more urgent than that. More importantly, though... Her goddess had told her to kill the vampire. Herself. With Raven's help, very likely, but still. She hadn't said, I brought you here to gather aid. She'd said, You must restore some small part of that balance in this place

So that was that. But if she and Raven ended up fighting the vampire, they were both going to die. 

So Laina would just have to make sure that they didn't end up fighting the vampire.Which meant finding its lair in the daylight, and making damned sure that it was dead before it had a chance to fight back. Well... Sarha had a pretty solid theory about where her ex-husband would make his lair. They'd have to try it.

We can do this, She decided. We can, and we will. And then we will come back here and make tea. Or aletheis, and then tea.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Paladins: The Mother's Story

Dinner was an exercise in polite small-talk, as Shera and Choran talked about the farm and the harvest and the minor vicissitudes of day-to-day existence. They were careful not to sound as if they were trapped in the farmhouse, and obviously they were well provided-for, but after a time Laina began to suspect that much of what they said was just an outright denial of what they knew was happening outside. 

Raven was useless for polite conversation, though her occasional contributions seemed to charm Damlok. Laina found herself carrying the bulk of the exchange, talking about her unexpected and unasked-for role as a paladin, her time at the Temple of Amun, and her journey to find a proper Temple of Nepthys. At last she offered to brew a proper after-dinner tea, and grandmother Shera reluctantly accepted; but when she returned to the table with a pitcher full of white tea and blueberries with a hint of jasmine, the whole family settled down. 

Laina knew she'd won when Sarha cleared her throat and said, "In my youth I loved unwisely. There was a merchant's son, charming, well-established but ambitious. He pledged to become my husband... but he also pledged to become a vampire's thrall. We had been married only three months when he became a vampire, and it was three months after that when I knew I was carrying his child."

Laina glanced at Raven, who nodded. Whether that meant that she thought the story was true, or just that it was dark enough to entertain her was anyone's guess. It would be rude to throw down Zone of Truth in the family's dining room, she decided reluctantly. 

Damlok looked up from his plate, studied Raven's face and then Laina's. "Clearly I'm part Vampire," he said proudly. "I mean, even though I'm alive."

Laina nodded, because at this point she wasn't even particularly surprised. "Clearly you are," she said. "And clearly you're trying to learn how to be a good person. So..." She looked at Sarha. "What's going on with the farm?"

"Damlok's father wants him back," she said. "I left without telling him, and I took my son with me. I shouldn't have come back here. I shouldn't have put my parents--"

"Hush," said Choran. 

"--in danger," finished Sarha. "I didn't know where else to go. Any of the temples might have decided to end us, as abominations. At least here he can't enter without an invitation, and I revoked mine long ago."

"So he's out there?" asked Laina. "Trying to get in?"

"I believe so," said Sarha. "I think I even know where."