Friday, December 29, 2023


I hate to skip the weekly update to Dark Armor, but Firstborn appears to have given his head cold to myself and his mother alike, and my skull is now approximately 67% mucus by volume. It will therefore come as no surprise that also, I feel like I've been run over by a truck and I lack much of anything in the way of energy and concentration. So, instead, here are some things that might keep you entertained...



Thursday, December 28, 2023

A School Incident At Home

Lithos was navigating between the tables with a tray of drinks when the inn door opened. He didn't immediately turn to see who had come in; he'd learned better over the years. Instead, he slid the tray onto the surface of one of the long wooden tables, then hopped up onto an empty space on the bench beside it and looked around. The four merchants here -- three men and one woman -- were dwarves by birth as well as citizenship, and he glanced around at them in a quick count to make sure he was oriented.

When he was sure, he began distributing the drinks: "Dark ale, rice wine--" He paused, realizing that two of the men had switched places, and quickly readjusted. "--spiced wine, and al'cul." 

"Very good, lad," said one of the men, "but you've gotten the two of us backwards."

"No, Sir," Lithos said cautiously. "The two of you switched places after you ordered."

The woman laughed, and the man who'd spoken looked sheepish. "Well done, then," he said. "You're one of the Foundingstones, then?" 

"Yes, Sir. Adopted, obviously."

The man across from him laughed. "Adopted, obviously," he repeated. "Still a Foundingstone, though, it seems. Here, lad." He laid a silver on the table. "'Tis my will to buy this round, and the extra is for you, to make up for the mischief these two attempted."

"Thank you, Sir," said Lithos, and hopped back down to the floor before carefully pulling the tray from the table. He wouldn't put it past these four to balance a drink back atop it, or place one to be knocked from the table. 

"A moment," said the man who'd accused him. "When you have a moment, would you fetch me a tumbler of port? We'll share the al'cul around."

"Of course," answered Lithos, and set back off across the common. The trouble with being a dwarf who'd been born a goblin was that he was essentially the same height as the tables. Navigating between them limited his visibility, and the dwarves who'd been born as dwarves had a tendency to bump into him before they noticed him -- most of them accidentally. He'd learned early on to be quick and nimble, and to anticipate their movements as best he could. 

Aside from being tested by traveling merchants, it had been a fairly ordinary night; so when he reached the bar and found Mistress Richvent leaning against it and looking down at him, it came as something of a shock. On the far side of the bar his father looked up quietly and asked, "Failing GSL? How can you possibly be failing GSL?" 

Lithos swallowed, but first things first: "The merchant asked for a tumbler of port after I delivered their drinks." 

Marduk Foundingstone glanced up, found the table with his eyes. "He did, did he? Go on, I'll send your brother over with it. Now tell me, how can you possibly be failing your GSL class?"

Lithos felt a touch of anger rising up in him. Defiantly he looked at his father and then at Mistress Richvent. "Because it's a stupid language," he said, "and you only want me to learn it because I was born a goblin." 

"That's not true," said his father, and Lithos raised an eyebrow. "Not entirely," his father amended. 

"James doesn't have to learn it," he pointed out. 

"Your brother," said Marduk Foundingstone, "does not have your talent for languages."

"Goblin," he said carefully in Elvish, "is a simple squirrel chattering in the imitation of speech."

Mistress Richvent sighed and answered in the same language: "You are a blank scroll filling itself with spilled ink to spurn the recording of knowledge.

Lithos blinked and swallowed, while his father simply waited. 

Cautiously, in Goblin, he asked: "You say what?"

"I say you are stupid because you want to be smart," she answered, and then she switched back to the Dwarvish that he'd grown up with. "Goblin is a simple language, but only on the surface. Nuance in Goblin isn't a matter of finding exactly the right word, the way it is in Dwarvish or the Common tongue of humans. Yes, the words in Goblin are simple, a basic framework; but they are informed by context and more importantly by tone, and if you haven't figured that out yet then you haven't been paying attention."

Lithos scowled, because the truth was that he hadn't been paying attention. Goblin was a simple language, too simple to hold his attention. He knew the grammar and most of the vocabulary already; what else did he need? Tone, he thought. Tone and context, apparently. "I know the words," he said quietly, defensively.

"Yes," said Mistress Richvent. "You know the words." She paused, then added: "But you don't know how to say them, because you didn't think you should need to learn that."

I shouldn't need to learn that, he thought, but then shoved that thought down because apparently he did. "Tomorrow I listen," he said in Goblin, this time trying to remember how Mistress Richvent pitched her voice when she was telling them what to expect for the next day's lessons. 

"Good," she said in Dwarvish. She studied him for a moment longer, then added: "I will see you tomorrow. We have a guest teacher, and I want you to pay careful attention to him and to his speech."

Lithos nodded, and Mistress Richvent nodded back; then she turned and made her way back out of the inn. 

"You're actually failing Goblin as a Second Language?" asked James, materializing beside him. 

"Shut up," Lithos answered automatically. "You can barely speak Halflingo."

"Yeah," said James, "but I'm not supposed to be the smart one here."

Lithos tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling, then walked past his father and into the kitchens. There was a servant's stair along the left wall; he went up. He knew he was leaving James with the majority of the work in the commons, but he also knew that he wasn't going to be any use down there until he sorted this out in his head. He was too distant, too distracted.

So instead of trying to work, he went to his room to think.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Musical Confusion

 So, Beautiful Wife and her mother were watching Christmas cartoons on Christmas eve, including this one: 

As a result, I've had the tune as an earworm for a solid three days... except, my brain has taken it elsewhere. Specifically, I've now got it crossed with the advertising jingle from Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which is this one:

So my brain has been playing, "Christmas comes but once a year, once a year, once a year; Christmas comes but once a year, Silver Shamrock!" on loop, for three days. 

I'm doomed.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas!

We're past the solstice and almost to the end of the year. Soon, the sun will be reborn. To celebrate, here's some holiday music: 

Friday, December 22, 2023

Dark Armor: Inside the Carriage

"...Why are you still here?" asked Pallian. "If somebody cut me loose like that, I'd have been gone before anybody could so much as whisper my name."

The thing's face twisted through an unreadable change of expression. "Perhaps I was curious about the one who released me," it said. 

Were you? It didn't seem like a safe question to ask; if the thing had wanted to explain its motivation, it would have. Instead, after a moment's consideration, Pallian admitted: "Well, I'm certainly curious about why you wouldn't want to leave."

A rippling motion passed down its arms, ended with its claws scraping against the floor of the carriage. The were tilting now as their conveyance changed directions, drawn through the air by its nightmarish steeds. "Do you not know this?" it asked. When Pallian didn't answer, it said: "While I remain here, I cannot be summoned again. Without the binding, I can do as I like on this plane. It is... less comfortable than my native land, but I find that trade acceptable."

Pallian nodded slowly. "That makes sense, at least." He hesitated. "What do you intend to do, now that you're here?"

That same rippling motion passed down its arms, an unnatural gesture that should have been impossible for flesh and bone. "I do not know," it told him. "Learn more of this place, perhaps. That is why I came back to you. I need a guide, and you neither banished me nor destroyed me."

Nighted Hells, Pallian thought, I've unleashed a summoned nightmare on an unsuspected population. He paused for a long moment, thinking, and then said: "All right. I released you. I suppose it's my responsibility to help you find a way to live here." He didn't mind helping the thing, at least in principle; there was something plaintive about it, an appeal in the inescapable fact that it wanted help.

 "This is--" It stopped as if unable to finish the sentence. "How do we proceed?"

That, Pallian had an answer for. "When I wear this armor and step into this carriage, I am riding to battle. You understand that?" 

"I know battle," it answered. "I know ages of battle."

Pallian nodded. "This is not your battle. You don't have to help, and it will be better if you stay back and avoid notice. My father and my brother will be there; so will the House of Edrias. Any one of them might take an interest in trying to bind you once again."

The thing seemed to consider. "I would not like that." 

"So stay near the carriage, and keep yourself hidden. When the battle is done, we'll talk more about where you might go and what you might do. Can you look human?"

It blinked. "I do look human." 

Pallian sighed. He should probably have seen that one coming. "Can you shorten your arms, flatten your claws, make your fingers and hands more like the proportions of my body?"

The thing considered that, then drew itself in. It was still otherworldly, too pale and too tall and too skinny, but at least now it might pass for an odd-looking human, or somebody who'd taken a few ill-advised initiations. "Better," Pallian told it. "Hold onto that look. I need to get ready for battle."

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Liminal Spaces and Missing Person, part six

The nightmares were were worse than usual this time. He was... spread out, his body layered across a multi-level ruin, turned into a massive room with many doors. He reached out through those doors, crafted passages on the far side, made those passages into traps that brought people into him. And when they came, he ate their bones and left the rest of them to rot...

Chris shook himself awake, gasping. Across the fire, Antoinette raised an eyebrow in his direction. "It's okay," she said softly. "We're warded. We're safe."

Sherri, Adam, and Thorin were asleep around the fire, much like he had been. The night was quiet and pleasantly cool; even the fire had settled into a silent warmth. There were creatures moving in the darkness outside their camp, but nothing large or dangerous; nothing that might try to come through the wards. He nodded slowly, acknowledging what she'd said, and sat up slowly so as not to wake the others.

"Nightmare," he said, since there was no point in denying it. 

"Chris..." Antoinette looked frustrated. "What happened to you? I've never seen someone so eager to get himself killed."

Chris looked at the fire for a long moment, then met his partner's eyes. "I'm not suicidal, you know," he said after a moment. "I know it looks that way, but I'm not."

"What is it, then?" she asked. "The risks you take..." She trailed off. 

He sniffed, faintly amused. "I don't know how to say 'I appreciate the concern' without it sounding condescending, so I won't try." He paused, searching for words, and finally said: "I'm a wolf. I'm a lot harder to kill than most people -- even magi -- understand. I can recover from things that would cripple you if you didn't have magical healing. So I don't worry about getting injured the way you do."

Antoinette considered that. "Okay," she said at last, "I can see that. But it still seems like there's more to it than that. When that Master had me, you could have just snuck back out and set the place on fire on the way. Instead, you started shooting him." 

"He had his fangs in your throat," Chris said quietly. 

Antoinette swallowed. "So you couldn't stay safe because I was in danger?" 

Chris frowned. "It's not--" 

"It's not romantic," Antoinette said firmly. "I got that earlier. It's... loyalty?"

"...Somewhat," he admitted after a moment. 

"So you went after the bone-taker because... it had already attacked you and you knew what it was capable of? And because it was attacking us?"

"And because it might have decided to kill Adam at any moment," Chris added. "Seemed less likely if something else had its attention. So I got its attention." He looked back at the fire. "But yeah, also because I was angry." 


"Angry." Chris swallowed, but since he sharing confidences already he continued: "That thing had been sitting down there for... I don't know. Centuries, maybe. Luring people in through passages they couldn't escape, terrifying them, devouring them. It needed to die." He fell silent for a long moment, staring at the flames. "I would have let the magi handle it, I really would've. But then I fell down inside it and saw its heart, and... well... that was an opportunity that I wasn't going to miss." He grinned an unsettling grin, and his eyes sparkled as they caught the reflections of the fire. "And it was the perfect distraction."

Antoinette nodded slowly, then shivered. "Do you mind if I... Could I lie down next to you? Not for... you know... just... for warmth, and to have somebody next to me?"

Chris considered that for a long moment, then he stood. "Do you mind if I...?"

Antoinette shook her head. "Whatever you need to do."

He turned into a wolf, and curled up at a comfortable distance from the fire. 

Antoinette approached slowly, then settled and and curled up beside him, putting her back to his back. If she was bothered by his being a wolf in truth, she didn't show any sign of it and her scent was, if anything, relieved. He stayed still as her breathing slowed and her body relaxed, keeping an eye on the fire and tracking the sounds and scents of the night. We're warded, he reminded himself. We're safe. 

He didn't know if he still believed in the concept of safe anymore, but after a time he felt his body begin to relax and his attention begin to drift. He let himself go, and eventually he slept. 

This time his dreams were undisturbed.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Liminal Spaces and Missing Persons, part five

"Look, mister Davis..." Antoinette said gently, "You've been through a lot, so let me start with the obvious: there's more to our world than you knew. Magic works, if you know how to access it and how to control it. There are people who aren't, strictly speaking, human. And there are things outside our world, too: places like this --" She gestured around them, and then pointed back at the blank face of the granite boulder behind them. "--and monsters like that."

The rescued man swallowed. "Okay, I-- Okay. I mean, no, it's not okay, all right?" He looked around at them. "I need. I need to say some things. And I need you to tell me that they really happened." 

Antoinette nodded. "If that will help."

Adam nodded back. "I was out jogging. I tried to take a shortcut back home."

He waited, and Antoinette nodded. 

"The tunnel... just kept going. And then it was blocked, and there were stairs."

Antoinette nodded again. "We followed you. We found them, too."

"Something, some horrible bone snake, chased me down the last of the stairs and into that... place."

"It's dead now," Antoinette told him. "Destroyed."

"Thank God," Adam said, and then paused for a long moment with his eyes squeezed closed. "I closed the door behind me, tried to block it. Then I turned around, and I was in a place made of bones." 

"Covered in bones," Antoinette corrected gently, "but yes: it happened."

Sherri had come up beside Chris and started to lay a hand on his forearm; he leapt away, graceless in his surprise. "Relax," she said. "I only want to check your injuries."

"You were in some kind of force field, and that guy kind of spider-manned across the ceiling, and the other one over there... he was definitely a werewolf."

"Yes," Antoinette said simply.

"That's not possible," Adam Davis said, and abruptly sat down in the grass. "It's not possible. People would know. Something would get caught on video. It's the same reason we know that Bigfoot doesn't exist: everybody has a camera now. Somebody would have caught him."

Chris stepped back as Sherri stepped forward. "I'm fine," he said.

For a moment he thought she was going to try to force it. Then she settled back, looking frustrated. "Fine. Stay injured, then. Tell me if you change your mind." She turned away, and Chris turned his attention back to the man they'd just rescued. 

"You're not wrong," Antoinette said simply. "But you still saw everything that you think you saw."

"I-- Okay." Adam swallowed again, looked up at her as she knelt down beside him. "So how is it that everybody doesn't know about this? How do you keep a secret like that? Why do you keep a secret like that?"

Antoinette sighed. "The world as you know it -- Earth, the Mundus -- was created as a shelter for humanity. It's walled off from the Grey, and the things that dwell there -- and, as a result, from magic itself. Mostly. There are still a few passages that connect the Mundus to the Grey, and people like us -- Magi -- use those connections to... charge ourselves with magic, which we can then use inside the Mundus."

"Like filling up a battery?" Adam sounded dubious.

Antoinette nodded. "And people like them--" She gestured towards Chris and Thorin. "--find it extremely hard to use their abilities in the Mundus. They still have a sort of shadow of their natural abilities, but nothing like what they can do out here. So part of the reason that there aren't YouTube videos of people turning into wolves and things like that is that the world itself prevents that from being possible."

"Out here," Adam said quietly. "So we're... in the Grey? We're basically out in Fairyland?" He started laughing. "Oh God, I've died and gone to Fairyland." Gasp. "I always knew--" snort "--it would come--" guffaw "--to this." 

Antoinette patted his knee. "Don't worry. We'll get you back to the Mundus, back to your husband."

Adam Davis fell silent, studying her, suddenly suspicious. "But what about your secrets? I'm not supposed to know about any of this, am I?'

Chris dropped onto his haunches, listening. He wanted to see how Antoinette would handle this; it was something that mattered

But Antoinette didn't disappoint him. "You have a couple of choices," she said. "The Ministry can remove your memories of all this. You'd wake up remembering that you'd tripped and hit your head, and the police would report that they found you lying in a ditch or something. You'd probably have a day or two in a hospital to make sure you were okay, and then you'd be back with your husband, safe and sound and probably a lot less traumatized. Or... we could let you keep your memories, but lay a geas, a binding, on you so that you could never speak of them to anybody outside the Ministry. In that case the story is probably that you got abducted or assaulted, and the Ministry would offer therapy sessions to help you get past it."

Adam blinked several times in rapid succession. "Ah. Is... is there an option where I join this Ministry and learn to destroy things like... that?" 

Antoinette exchanged a glance with Sherri, then said. "It's a risk. If I test you, out here in the Grey, and you do have the ability... it'll make it harder if you decide to give up your memories and go back to your life. If you have the ability and decide to join us, then you won't be able to talk to your husband about why you're suddenly changing jobs, or what you're doing, or... a lot of things." She hesitated, the said: "I wouldn't know about that. I was born a mage, raised a mage, my whole family are magi. But this is what... this is what we're taught to explain to civilians who get caught up magical issues."

Adam Davis rose to his feet, walked in a circle around Antoinette, and then came over to look at Chris. 

"You're not going to eat me, right?" he asked. "Because even just standing there being completely human, you kind of look like you're going to eat me."

"Sorry," Chris answered automatically, and turned away. "No, I'm not going to eat you."

"Wait." Adam sounded suddenly hesitant. "You're not a, a mage, right? You're a werewolf who works for them. With them. Right?"

Chris nodded. He was uncomfortably aware of Thorin staring at the pair of them, drinking all this in. 

"Is that something I could do?" He heard Adam swallow. "Could you bite me and make me a werewolf too? If she tests me and I can't do magic, could I become a werewolf instead?"

"That isn't how it works," Chris said reluctantly. He liked the way Adam thought, though: the man was looking for a way to protect himself from the kind of thing that had nearly killed him. He was someone who wanted to fight back, and he was looking for the tools to do it. "I can't make you a wolf."

Adam glanced at Thorin, who immediately shook his head. 

"Damn it," he said, but without any real heat. He took a deep breath, then released it. He considered, and everyone else waited in silence. 

"Test me," he said, and turned back to Antoinette. "I can't... I can't just go back to my life, knowing this could happen again. And I can't stand the idea of going back not knowing."

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Liminal Spaces and Missing Persons, part four

The lights flickered again, and Chris slowed his pace warily but kept moving. After another few steps, they dimmed almost to nothing, and Chris couldn't help but think that if he'd been fleeing in terror he might well have lost his footing and broken his neck. 

Then the light returned, and now there was a door ahead, where the floor leveled out into a small room at the foot of the stairs. 

"Cute," Sherri remarked. She sounded thoughtful. 

Chris kept moving, and the lights flickered again. All of this would have happened much closer together if they'd been running as intended, and likely been far more terrifying. As it was, well... it was still scary, he admitted, but it was also an interesting chance to get a look behind the curtain of how this place had been designed to create a certain effect. 

He reached the base of the steps, hesitated for a bare moment, and then launched himself into the room, spinning around to look for an attempt at ambush. Nothing. All right. The room around him was bare concrete, lit by a single overhead bulb. There was a desk tucked into one corner, hidden from view from the staircase, with an old-fashioned computer and a heavy old CRT monitor flickering with images. The area beyond it was blocked off with a cage of metal bars, and seemed to hold bits of aged electrical equipment: wires, pipes, ducts, and metal boxes that might hold switches or fuses or anything else.

"Anything?" asked Antoinette quietly. 

"Nothing threatening," he answered, equally quiet. 

The two magi entered the room, with Thorin close on their heels. The images on the monitor showed sections of tunnel, as if from security cameras: a view back up the steps, another along the length of the first bit of tunnel, the exit sign above its concrete seal. From the scent-trail, Adam had barely glanced at it; he had thrown himself against the door, and then very likely wrenched it open and gone through. 

Sherri approached the door, studied it for a long moment, and then traced one hand around the door frame. "It's another transition," she said quietly. "As soon as we go through, it'll most likely close behind us and disappear."

"Can you tell what's on the other side?" asked Antoinette. 

Sherri shook her head. "No. Not with the transition."

Thorin gestured at the rusty chair in front of the desk. "We could prop it open," he suggested. 

"It won't matter," said Sherri. "If we come back this way, I'll have to force a way out of the tunnel. If we're going to do that, I'd rather do it from wherever we wind up." She drew a deep breath, preparing herself. 

Antoinette said, "Chris, Thorin, you two go through first. Do whatever you need to; I'm trusting your judgement. Sherri and I will follow. If Adam Davis is alive, rescuing him is our first priority. The moment we have him, we get out. We don't have to end this now; the Ministry can send in a team to burn it out now that we know where it is."

Sherri turned a speculative look back at Antoinette, then nodded approval. Thorin stepped up beside her, and Chris moved to the other side of the door. 

Sherri pulled it open, and the two of them moved through, Thorin first and Chris only a moment behind him.

The lights went out the moment they did, and their first steps were onto an uncertain surface; Chris supposed that they were lucky not to have thrown themselves into a pit, but the thought was distant even to himself. He was too busy feeling the floor through his boots, listening for movements, tasting the air... 

Whatever he was standing on, the surface was rough, irregular but not sharp. He'd have to feel his way, quickly and carefully; this was the moment when they were most vulnerable, and the longer they remained bunched in the doorway...

Something wrapped around his ankle, grabbing tight, and that was enough. 

He jumped loose, shifting his feet into lupine paws and sliding them loose of the boots, came down on something that crunched softly beneath his claws. His form was still close enough to human to have fingers and thumbs despite the fur and claws; he drew his gun as light spilled into the darkness from behind him. 

Antoinette had thumbed on the flashlight under the barrel of her pistol; she was using it to look for threats further out, while Sherri had conjured a wisp of light directly above her head to light their immediate area. Barefoot and enraged, Chris twisted around, looking back and forth. 

His boot was gone. So was whatever had grasped it. His other boot lay orphaned, empty and on its side. The air was dusty and thick with the scent of decay, overlaid with the faint salty smell of blood. The walls and floor...

Bones. Whatever this place had once been, it had been covered over with bones: large bones, small bones, wide and narrow, all fused together into an irregular surface. The room was floored in them, the walls sealed away behind them, the ceiling... skull after skull after skull looked down at them.

"Hello?" called a half-choked voice. "Is-- Is anybody there? Are you real?"

With his skull reshaped to resemble a wolf, Chris couldn't speak -- but his sense of smell was sharper than ever. He pointed with his free hand, and Antoinette turned to point her light. 

The man in the cage of bones could only be Adam Davis. Early forties, on the taller side of medium height, wearing running shoes, shorts, and an athletic shirt, trim and weary and traumatized. He raised an arm to shield his eyes from the light.

Chris looked around again. Whatever this place was, it was large and sprawling and multi-leveled; they were on a lower floor, with balconies overlooking it from above and columns here and there to support the structure. It looked as if someone had taken an abandoned shopping mall and covered it over in bones. How long has this been here? he wondered, and felt the desire for vengeance stir within him. It was never far from the surface, no matter what he decided to be. All these dead can't have come from our world. There are other ways here, passages through the Grey, all leading to this place and whatever lies at its heart. He knew it with an utter certainty. 

Thorin started across the bones that lined the floor, and Chris forced himself back into a human configuration and called, "Wait. Something knows we're here."

The floor and walls exploded, reaching out with skeletal arms and spines that moved like whips, forming bone spikes that stabbed up or out or down. Chris twisted, clawing and biting and slashing, gripping and breaking. He'd resumed a half-lupine configuration instinctively, and even by the standards of the wolves he was tough: hard to damage and quick to heal. He caught a glimpse of Thorin as the Great Cat leapt straight up to the ceiling, sank curved claws into skulls and bones, and hooked his way along towards the cage and the man inside. 

Antoinette had evidently thrown up a spherical ward; the two magi rocked and shifted, trying to keep their balance as the attacking bones jabbed, shoved, and tilted them. Then Sherri lifted a hand and pronounced a phrase, and everything within fifteen feet of them shattered. 

The bones went still. 

Thorin Tanelorn reached the cage, dropped down on top of it, and scrabbled around looking for an opening that wasn't there. Chris shifted back towards the magi, looking around. 

The entire room groaned, the sound shivering through the bones and vibrating the floor, and on the far side of the tall, wide central opening, something lifted its head. 

It was so big that Chris had taken it for part of the architecture, some decorative feature covered over with bone the same way everything else here was. 

"Shatter more of it," Antoinette said firmly. She was talking to Sherri. "I'll keep it off us while we get to the cage." She looked over at Chris, and he nodded, then turned to the thing that had moved. It hung suspended, a closed flower atop a potted plant...

...A skull atop a giant's skeletal torso. 

He was in motion almost before he realized it, tearing loose of skeletal arms and dodging past spikes of bone as he sped on all fours. On two legs, in the Mundus, he was fast. Here in the Grey... 

The bones groaned again as Sherri shattered more of them, clearing a path forward. 

Chris was almost there, though he didn't know exactly what he was going to do when he got there. A berserk, headlong attack did not seem like a reasonable strategy, but it seemed to confuse the bones as well. A skull the size of a moving van turned to look at him with its empty eye-sockets, but it didn't try to actually move until just before he leapt for it. 

There was a terrible shattering sound, and he slammed into a wall that rose suddenly in front of him. He fell, stunned, and saw that the thing had managed to wrench an arm out of the bones it had been fused to. The skeletal hand that closed around him was easily as large as he was. Like hell, he thought, and forced his arms free, losing some fur in the process. Then he grabbed the thumb, forced it back, and wrenched it loose. 

The bones groaned again as the thumb went spinning away. The hand released him, then lifted and slapped down. 

Chris was already moving. He wasn't scared anymore, though he was vaguely aware that he was probably about to die. No, he was far too busy with what he was doing, which was racing up the ribcage as if it were a steep staircase until he came up under the jaw, latched onto one side of it, and twisted with the full strength of his body, legs pushing one way and arms pulling the other. The jaw worked, trying to bite him, but he wasn't between its teeth; he was hanging under it instead. 

The arm came around just as the jaw snapped and he fell; the giant skeleton that had bound itself to all the bones in this place and managed to lure further victims in for years and possibly centuries slapped itself in the face. Chris felt his back strike a rib and tumbled... inside the ribcage, this time. 

"Chris!" That was Antoinette's voice. 

"GO!" he roared back as he got his feet under him. The space here was simple: ribs, spine, heart...

Heart? It was in the right place, but it was bone. And the smell here wasn't blood; it was something fattier, less familiar. Marrow? 

Even in the near-darkness, he could see the insides of the ribcage forming tiny spikes, incipient spears. All right. Let's see who goes down first. He lunged forward, smashed a clawed hand into the heart, and felt the entire room go silent in shock. He wrenched it back out, found the edges of the hole he'd made, and started trying to pry it wider. 

A spear of bone stabbed past him, opening a cut on his arm. Another stabbed into his back, caught in his ribs. It was trying to do something to his bones, but he twisted suddenly and it snapped. The bone heart creaked as he wrenched at it, and a line of cracking sounds ran from his hands to its top. A bone spike stabbed into his left calf and another into his right thigh, but neither found anything vital. He wrenched his left leg loose and raised it, hooked the edge of the hole with his paw, then twisted around so that he was pulling against the far side with both hands. 

He felt it give way violently, drenching him with marrow as it parted. 

The entire structure shuddered. "GO!" he roared again. Then he reached in and drank the essence of the bones. He didn't want it; whatever this was, it wasn't something he ever wanted to become. But it was the only way he knew to make absolutely sure that this thing was dead beyond any possibility of return. He shoved his way out as bone turned to black dust, collapsed, and faded. 

Light filled his eyes, blinding him, and he threw an arm up. The light dropped immediately, and Antoinette said, "Sorry." 

"What was that?" asked a man's voice, still half-choked. "Who are you? What is he?"

"We'll explain later," Sherri said authoritatively. "Right now, the important thing is to get you out." 

Something -- concrete or stone -- creaked, then groaned. A spill of gravel fell to the ground with a rattle-whisper. 

"Chris! Here!" Antoinette's voice was firm enough that he could have followed it without sight or smell, and he staggered across the dust-covered floor as a faint rumbling went through it. 

"There's going to be a door in that wall," Sherri said firmly. "You're going to walk with me until you see it." She was talking to Adam Davis, but she made her voice loud enough for all of them to hear. "You're going to go through it. I don't know if I'll be able to come back for anybody who doesn't."

Chris nodded to himself. Even struggling with the essence of the bonetaker, he knew he could make his own way out. Making his way back to the Mundus alone might be another matter, though. 

A rock the size of his torso fell past his shoulder. Surviving without giving himself away to the others might also be a problem. 

That was well done, said a faint whisper in the back of his mind, and suddenly he felt stronger. He increased his pace, and caught up with the others as they passed through the door that Sherri had promised. 

On the far side was sunlight and green grass, idyllic and unexpected. A massive granite boulder stood behind them, showing no signs of any sort of opening or artificial structure, collapsing or otherwise. 

"Holy shit," said Adam. "What the hell was that? Thank you. Thank you so much."

Antoinette glanced at Chris. "Are you all right?" 

He shrugged, then rubbed at his shoulder. "Nothing that won't heal."

Her mouth twisted. "You can't keep trying to get yourself killed," she said. "I couldn't live with myself if you actually managed it." 

"I'm not going to-- I wasn't. I'm not trying to get myself killed." Chris took a breath. "I just knew that we were all going to die if somebody didn't keep that thing busy. And then when I landed by its heart..." He sighed. "It was too good a chance not to take it. And I was angry. That thing..." 

Antoinette extended a hand, stopped in mid-gesture as if remembering that he didn't like for her to touch him. "All right. We'll talk about it when we get back"

"Look," said Adam, sounding utterly finished, "Y'all look like this is normal for you, but it isn't for me. And if I'm going to, y'know, not start screaming and never stop, I need to know.  What the Hell is going on here?"

Chris looked at Antoinette and stepped back. She sighed, then turned to look at Sherri, nodded, and went to deal with mister Davis.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Liminal Spaces and Missing Persons, part three

The stairs went down for maybe thirty yards before they reached a landing; there were doors on either side. They grouped up and then checked them, two to each door. 

"Clear," said Antoinette. 

"Clear," answered Sherri."Empty concrete room, a couple of pipes along the back wall."

"Same over here," said Antoinette. "All right, we keep going down." 

They'd gone another ten meters when Sherri stiffened and said, "Ah, there we go."

Chris, still following the trail of the missing man, felt his shoulders tense. He couldn't smell anything because of the phrase Sherri had laid on him, but it probably didn't matter. There really wasn't any other way that Adam Davis could have gone.

"What?" asked Antoinette. 

"The rooms changed once we passed them," Sherri said quietly. "Likely something's about to chase us further down. Do we run and pretend to be helpless, or take it out and risk alerting whoever shaped all this?"

Chris considered, and found that he didn't like either option. Destroy the threat here and risk alerting their real enemy? Or run, and risk meeting their enemy with this threat still at their back? He knew what he would do, but...

Antoinette met his eyes, and glanced back at the doorways. 

He nodded. 

"Clear them out," she said, and Chris took four more steps down the stairs. That, apparently, was enough to trigger the trap.

Something hissed behind them, the sound filling the stairwell. Chris waited, watching the steps below, as Antoinette fired off a couple of shots before cursing quietly -- and Sherri rattled off a series of phrases that bathed the back of his neck in heat and cast his shadow far down the stairs. 

"We're in the Grey now," Sherri said quietly when it was done. "Use magic."

"Duly noted," Antoinette answered drily. She must have been using a phrase to keep the noise of her gun down to a soft pop-pop-pop; otherwise, in this enclosed space, they'd all be deaf. Antoinette was frequently better-prepared than Chris expected, though.

"If we're done," observed Thorin, "we should be moving."

Chris took that as his cue and continued down the steps. He hadn't drawn his pistol yet; he was keeping his options open. In the Mundus, with an effort, a Wolf could still sharpen his fingertips into claws. Here in the Grey...

He couldn't smell anything, even now, and he didn't like it. Their target had to be down below, but without the scent he still felt unsure. 

Then the lights flickered, just briefly, returned to full strength... dimmed... returned to full strength again... and then went completely dark for a moment before returning to full strength again. 

"Well," said Thorin, when they'd stayed lit for half  minute, "we all know those are going to go out completely, right?"

Chris nodded. "Magus Sherri, would you pull this spell off me? I don't want to be scent-blind when that happens. It's disorienting."

She hesitated, then nodded and gestured, and suddenly he could smell things again. 

"The scents have changed," he said quietly, and knelt down. He didn't think anything else would change until they moved again -- but if they'd alerted whoever built this place, that might not be true anymore. "I can still smell Adam--" He could smell the man better than ever, in fact. "--but that weird mix of flowers and decay is gone." A faint hint of smoke drifted down from above. 

"He started running?" asked Antoinette. 

Chris grimaced and walked a few steps further down. "Yes."

"What did he run into?" she asked, and glanced back at Sherri, who nodded. 

"Go cautiously. I think whoever made this passage enjoys scaring people. There may be more surprises."

Chris nodded. He'd begun by being wary, then concerned as the tunnel had taken them in; maybe even a little frightened at learning that the nature of the place could change as they progressed. He didn't like being afraid; it made him want to kill things, want to force a confrontation. Unwise, he reminded himself, and took a deep breath, released it, and took another. When he was calm again, he started forward.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Dark Armor: The Spirit of Fire and Darkness

He recognized that silent voice. It was the thing, the same thing that the Grandmother had summoned and bound to her supply room. 

It should be gone now. He'd destroyed the enchantment that had bound it in place, freeing it to return to its home. If it was somehow still bound to try to kill him... Then it should have done so while I was still asleep after the Grandmother adjusted my initiations. Perhaps it hadn't been able to; perhaps it had needed time to recover too? 

"Because I thought that would send you back to your home, or at least release you from an unwanted burden so that you could depart."

Why didn't you kill me?

Pallian blinked. I don't have time for this. "What would have been the point? Listen, I need to get to the carriage. If you're going to attack me, do it now. If you want to have a dialogue, follow me while I run to get there on time."

This carriage? A swirl of fire and darkness surrounded Pallian briefly, and when it receded he was looking at the carriage. They were in the readying-room of the stable. 

"That was... actually... helpful," Pallian admitted. "Climb in behind me if you're coming along." He had no idea what he was doing with a demonic companion; that was an area of enchantments and initiations that he'd avoided completely and deliberately. Clearly the Grandmother had had other ideas. Either that, or she'd intended for him to prove his worth by killing it, and he'd released it instead...

The thing was a shadowy presence at his back as he climbed inside. The armor sensed it and marked it as a threat, but Pallian forced the armor into quiescence by an act of will. 

It seated itself on the bench across from him. It was humanoid, though its arms were long enough for its talons to touch the ground when it stood erect at its full seven-foot height. Folded into the carriage, it looked a bit cramped, though not uncomfortable. 

They waited as the carriage began to move, the invisible horses drawing it out of the crypt and up into the air.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Liminal Spaces and Missing Persons, part two

The tunnel looked to be maybe forty feet long, until they started walking it. Then it became sixty, eighty, half a mile... 

"He stopped here," Chris said, bending down to sniff the ground. "He tried to turn back, but I think--" he turned, moved past the others, and eyed the entrance they'd come through. "Yeah. It just keeps moving away if you do that."

"That could still be a natural passage," Antoinette said, but the tone of her voice suggested that she didn't believe that for even a moment. 

"Some of them are very much one-way," Sherri agreed, sounding equally suspicious. 

Thorin was ignoring them, studying the walls, the ceiling, and even the pattern of the electric lights. Chris turned back, looking at the far end of the tunnel which still seemed thirty feet way. He knelt again, sniffed at the ground. "No blood, no violence, a lot of fear. He's just realized that he can't get back out." He gestured at the wall. "He huddled here for a time, but then he gave up and went on."

"The only way out is through," muttered Sherri. "At least if you aren't a Seeker."

"Looks that way," Chris replied, and started forward again. 

The view of sidewalk and street at the far end of the tunnel blurred, then came back as a blank concrete wall with a lighted Exit sign above it. 

"You have got to be kidding me," Antoinette muttered behind him. 

"He kept going," Chris said, scenting the air. "He had to have seen that, but he kept going."

"He knew he couldn't get out the other way," Thorin said quietly. Then: "Are you single?"

Chris ignored the question and kept walking. Stalking, really; he'd dropped into a wolf's casual, deliberate lope, though he hadn't discarded his human shape. "There," he said after a minute and a half. 

There was staircase off to the left, leading down. He tested the air again, then glanced back at the two magi. "This is it," he said."I can still smell Adam, and he's fucking terrified. Nothing else up here; the tunnel forced him down. The smell from down there is... I don't know. Flowers and decay? A lot of people have died down there."

"Just a moment," said Sherri, and gathered a bit of the Grey into a spell; Chris felt it settle around his head, clearing the air and absolutely destroying his sense of smell. Antoinette inhaled deeply and then released it, nodding to acknowledge the change.

"Just in case there's something bad in the air," said Sherri. 

"I can't track like this," Chris said, but he straightened and turned to make it clear that he wasn't objecting. "When we get down there, you'll have to find the missing man, and get him out if he's alive."

Antoinette nodded. "We'll cover you, and follow after."

"All right," said Sherri. "When we go, stay close; I might not be able to lead you out otherwise."

Antoinette nodded. "We'll stay on your mark."

Thorin grinned. "All right. Let's go see what we're up against."

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Liminal Spaces and Missing Persons, part one

"Anything?" asked Antoinette. 

Christopher Black tasted the air, then shook his head. "Nothing." He turned, extending his senses as he considered, and then shrugged. "He jogged this far, and then he vanished."

They'd caught a lucky break on this one: the man who'd gone missing had been on the phone with his husband, so they had a good idea of exactly when and where he'd disappeared. 

"He isn't a magus," Antoinette said, thinking aloud as she sometimes did, "and you can follow his scent from his house to this spot. Can you smell anything else?"

Chris looked around. They were standing on a tree-lined sidewalk beside a street in Maryland, watching cars pass them by. It was mid-morning on a Tuesday; Adam Davis had gone missing only the evening before. He wasn't the first mysterious disappearance in this area, but he was the first who'd left any kind of tracks. He checked the air again, looked around to make sure that nobody was watching them closely, and the bent down to sniff at the ground. Antoinette had wrapped them both in spells of look-away and nothing-to-see-here but anything too far out of the ordinary might still attract attention.

 After a moment he rose to his feet again. "Nothing. If something took him, it didn't leave any kind of scent trail -- not even his scent -- and there's no lingering smell of fear, either."

"Would there be?"

"He was jogging and sweating. If his scent changed, I'd expect to be able to smell that."

Jacqueline nodded and then frowned. "The transcript said he told his husband he was going to cut through a tunnel." She looked around carefully. "Do you see a tunnel anywhere around here?"

The road they were standing beside was bordered by a high slope to another road that crossed above it, but there wasn't any sort of passage through.Chris shook his head, thoughtful. "An opening to the Grey?"

"Here?" Antoinette shook her head. "No. Nothing documented, or we'd have been briefed on it." Then she closed her eyes, drew a deep breath and exhaled, settling herself. "Maybe. Yes. Not here... Somewhere close..." She shook herself. "I'll be damned. You're right. It's closed now, but you're right."

She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a deck of cards. Chris stepped back as she sorted through them; the High Arcana were mages' tools and mages' business: one of the few enchantments so fundamental that they still worked here in the Mundus. He waited while his partner selected a card, regarded it, and after a few minutes said: "Captain. Sorry to interrupt, but Chris and I have found something and we need a Seeker." She paused. "Yes. We think the missing man found a passage to the Grey and went through it without knowing what it was." She paused again. "I'm not sure, but I doubt it. More likely something made a breach and is using it to hunt." Another pause. "Yes, sir."

She passed a hand across the face of the card. "He's going to see who's available, and get someone over to us as soon as he can."

"How soon is that likely to be?" Chris was both curious and concerned; the missing man was very likely in danger, and possibly dead already. 

"Not too long, I don't think--" Antoinette stiffened and raised a hand. Chris recognized the gesture; it was something the mages did when someone contacted them through the cards. "Hello. Yes. Yes, we're-- all right, come on." She extended a hand, and suddenly two more people were present. The first was a tall, willowy woman with a cane in her left hand; the other was a man: shorter, wiry, and so blond that his hair was nearly white. 

"Thank you for coming so quickly," Antoinette said immediately. "I'm Antoinette Gillespie, and this is my partner, Christopher Black." 

"Chris," he said immediately, stepping back to his place beside his partner.

The taller woman regarded them both for a bare second. "Sherri Fairbourne," she said. She looked at Chern and asked, "Wolf?"

He nodded. 

Her partner smiled gleefully. "Thorin Tanelorn," he said, looking Chris over thoughtfully -- and thoroughly. "Of the Great Cats. Hello, handsome."

"Hello yourself," Chern replied, mirroring something of the other man's mood before letting it fade. He wasn't quite sure what to make of either of them, but if magus Fairbourne was a Seeker, well... that was what they needed right now. He looked back to her, expectant. 

"Thorin," she chided, then turned to look around without waiting for a response. "A passage, or a breach, nearby?"

Antoinette nodded. "I can feel it, but I can't find it. It's closed."

Sherri closed her eyes for a moment, then nodded. "Got it. Just a moment... I don't usually do this in the middle of the Mundus." She took four steps forward, then cut the air with her cane. Chris ignored the ripple of energies that extended from the gesture, instead watching with curiosity as the landscape changed. 

The steep hillside in front of them shimmered and gave way. There was a passageway there now, an arched concrete tunnel that cut beneath the road and let out on the far side. A section of sidewalk rose into place beneath their feet, connecting it with the sidewalk, and now the missing man's scent continued on its way. 

"He went in there," Chris said quietly, by way of confirmation. 

"Who did?" asked Sherri. 

"Adam Davis," Antoinette told her. "Age forty-two, male, five-foot-ten, Caucasian. Went missing around seven-forty last night, was reported about half an hour later by his husband. Cops barely even looked at it, but we tagged it because he's not the first one to go missing around here."

Sherri nodded. "So either we have a natural passage that people sometimes wander into and get lost, or..."

Antoinette nodded. "Or this is deliberate." 

Sherri studied the younger woman for a long moment, then nodded. "How long have you been working for the ministry?"

"Two years, three months," Antoinette kept her voice under control, but from the change in her scent she was feeling defensive and a little scared. 

"And you?" 

Chris wasn't at all surprised that Sherri had turned to him next. The woman was good five years older than they were, and likely had spent all of that time working for the Ministry if she was a Seeker. "Eight months," he said flatly. He didn't like having his qualifications questioned either. 

"Jesus," Sherri said. "They sent babies out for something like this."

Antoinette drew a breath, but Chris cut her off: "Babies who took out a whole nest of vampires, including a master."

Thorin cut in with, "Wait, that was you?" just as Sherri turned to scowl at Chris. 

She hesitated, then sighed. "You're sure you're up to this?"

"No," said Antoinette simply, and Sherri deflated. "But it was assigned to us, so we're doing it."

Chris nodded. "You're better off with us than without us."

Sherri drew a deep breath, then released it slowly. It wasn't quite a sigh; it looked more like... a reset. "You're in charge," she said, as if admitting it pained her. 

Antoinette nodded. "We're going in." She stopped, looked at the man who'd introduced himself as Thorin Tanelorn. "What can I expect from you?" 

Thorin looked over at Chris. "My senses are a little different, and I can't take as much damage, but I should be a little faster-- and I can climb. Not much difference overall, much as it pains me to say it. In the Grey, we'll both be able to shift, so don't let that surprise you."

"All right," said Antoinette. "Sherri, can you lead us to Adam Davis?"

Sherri hesitated. "I think so," she said. "It would be better if I had something to focus on -- a picture, a keepsake, something like that."

"I can follow his scent," Chris said quietly. 

"All right," said Antoinette. "You lead. Sherri steps in if you lose the way; otherwise, she and I keep alert for magical trickery. Thorin, I want you watching our backs: make sure nothing comes at us while we're focused on following the trail." She looked at Sherri Fairbourne, quietly defiant. "Any objections?"

"None," said the older woman, smiling with a sort of soft fierceness. "You're doing fine. Let's go find him."

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

An Innocent Child

Marduk Foundingstone swung his axe into the ogre's thigh, and watched with satisfaction as it crashed to the side and began to bleed out. To his left, his wife lifted her hand and called for a rain of fire; two hobgoblins and a half-dozen goblins fell to the flames. To his right, the Elvish wizard Hylos Windborne dropped a trio of fireballs in rapid succession, clearing out the goblin archers that had been trying to pin them down. The human Velithra had vanished the moment the fighting began, as usual; but now -- also as usual -- she reappeared behind the Bugbear who'd been calling out commands, and neatly sliced out one of his kidneys with her dagger. The bugbear chieftain hit the floor, a sudden silence spilled over the underground battlefield. 

And then a small, wailing cry filled the silence, coming from somewhere behind where the goblins and hobgoblins had made their stand. 

Marduk straightened and wrenched his axe loose. His armor was covered in blood, his axe likewise. He looked around at the others, nodded to his wife, and strode away from the battlefield, following the direction of the sound. They could collect whatever treasure the goblinkind carried without him.

He found the child in a crude stone crib lined with straw. It was a goblin, a baby, green-skinned and hairless, with the long-pointed ears that suggested some sort of kinship with elvenkind.

With a sigh, Marduk bent down and scooped a bloody, armored arm under the child, raising it to his chest. It settled slowly, happy to be held but uncomfortable with lying against his armor. If I'd brought a blanket... Well, too late for that. He turned and retraced his steps to find the others. 

"You can't be serious," said Allstone Graniteweaver, impersonal with his helmet in place and the spiked armor covering his entire body. Allstone was a Battlerager and a dwarven purist, holding firmly to the idea that the Gards and Delves should be held for dwarves and perhaps a few close allies who knew their places. 

Marduk looked to Tara instead. "Another orphan of war," he said quietly. 

She nodded. "Another life in our charge."

"You can't take that back," Allstone objected. "That's a goblin, that is."

"And why not?" asked Tara, turning to look at him. 

"They're evil. At best they're a nuisance, at worst they're a threat. We just killed two dozen of them, and now you want to save one?"

Marduk shrugged. "A dwarven upbringing will do him good. And we will see how much of him comes of being a goblin, and how much from his particular circumstances."

"Fine," said Allstone. "Do as you would. Bring that thing into your home and see what happens. I'll leave you to it." With that, Allstone Graniteweaver walked away, heading for the passages that led back to the Gard. Marduk looked at Tara, and knew from her expression that the berserker wouldn't be back. 

It's not as if he doesn't have a point, he thought. This would be the fourth such child they'd taken into their care. It seemed a better course than killing them, and... it also seemed as if, despite the difference in their children's ages, they'd all reach adulthood more or less together. Still, trying to raise a goblin...

"We can't keep doing this and adventuring at the same time," said Tara, moving to stand beside him. "We'll need somewhere to keep them, to raise them. Someplace to call home."

Marduk nodded. He hated the idea of giving up adventuring, but he hated the idea of giving up his adopted children more. "All right," he said at last. "We'll work something out."

Monday, December 11, 2023

An Incident At School

Alternate version...

"Out of my way," said Delver Deepriver, shouldering Lithos aside and stepping past to fill his plate from the trays of food that the cooks of Schistcraft Mentory had set out for their lunch. 

Lithos twisted with the movement and kept his balance, cocking his head as he studied the larger boy. 

Delver Deepriver was still a boy, but he was a dwarf: larger, heavier, and harder to move than Lithos would ever be. Lithos was also a dwarf -- or else he wouldn't have been in the Mentory -- but by birth he was a goblin, and even on the tips of his toes he had to stretch up to see what was on offer for lunch. Fortunately he wasn't a picky eater; he usually just scooped a bit from anything that had a ladle, took it to one of the tables, and ate it all. Which was still what he planned to do, but first...

A quick-muttered word and a small gesture, and the plate Delver was carrying cracked in half. Delver swore as his meal dropped and scattered, half of it falling onto the toes of his well-shined boots. Lithos made sure he had his back turned before Delver whipped around to glare at him; he was just turning to see what was going on when the burly dwarf took a step forward, stopped, and then hesitated on the edge of taking another step forward. 

"Trouble?" asked a soft voice at Lithos' shoulder. His brother Iacomus -- James -- was standing next to him, hands empty, watching Delver expectantly. 

Lithos shrugged. "Delver cracked his plate. Too strong for his own good, I think."

The big dwarf hesitated still, caught now between his suspicion that Lithos had somehow Done Something To Him and his satisfaction at Lithos acknowledging that he was the stronger and tougher of the two of them. 

Lithos didn't mind acknowledging that; it was true, and in fact so completely obvious that he couldn't understand why the boy felt the need to keep trying to drive the point home. And, of course, muscle and bone weren't the only way to be strong, and Lithos didn't mind making that point in return. 

It was Iacomus' presence that tipped the balance, though. He was a dwarf but also a halfling, and wasn't any larger than Lithos; but in their schoolyard scuffles he fought with a bloody-minded, brutal efficiency. Delver Deepriver and his friends were rightly wary, and at this moment Delver shook his head and walked over to the back of the line, setting the broken halves of his plate on a table as he went to stand with the rest of his friends.

Lithos waited while Iacomus filled his plate, which he did with considerably more care than Lithos had. Iacomus wasn't picky, exactly, but he appreciated good food and preferred to assemble a decent plate. When he was done, they walked together to join their other siblings at a table in the far corner.

So there's an alternate opening for an even weirder party. Our parents would still be former adventurers who retired to open an inn, but in this scenario they retired because they kept adopting orphans during their adventures, and it was getting awkward to take care of them. This would be -- potentially -- a dwarf campaign in which almost nobody is playing an actual dwarf. 

Another variant possibility is that one of our parents actually works as a Justice, and that's how we end up investigating mysteries and solving problems ourselves. I'm not sure how that would fit with the "owning an inn" idea, but it would give our DM one hell of a set of plot hooks... 

Also, I'm sticking with the Lithos Foundingstone name because Grimshank Stonebottom lacks a certain gravitas, I think.


Friday, December 8, 2023

Dark Armor: The Sanctuary and the Armor

The Sanctuary never failed to dazzle him. It had the look and feel of a small chapel, for all that it was carved from the deep stone like most of the crypt. The stained-glass windows were placed into stone walls enchanted to emit light, and glowed as if the whole room sat aboveground at noon. 

The image that caught his eye this time was the first and only depiction of the Black Knight, in a window off to his left. At the top, his grandfather Obiah Teres was lowering the helmet onto his own head, having enchanted the armor to protect him; there, a little lower, the black knight entered a ruined village; and there, there, and there the dark armor held the wizard-king Obiah Teres safe as he battled with a demon that had been unwisely summoned and unwillingly released. 

The legend had grown from there. 

Pallian didn't remember when he'd first known that he would wear the armor himself. He knew he'd heard stories of the champion's exploits, and he remembered the other children playing at being the Black Knight. He didn't remember ever doing so himself, though. Had he been excited when his father first called him to this duty? Wary? Or merely nervous, as he was at any time he came to his father's attention?

He had no idea. 

The armor was arrayed on a statue that stood where the altar might have been in a more ordinary chapel. He laid a hand on it, reluctantly renewing their acquaintance, and then drew the helmet up and lowered it onto his own head. 

Many things had changed since Obiah Teres first crafted the dark armor. Its enchantments had been expanded, improved, deepened and widened. It was a study in countermeasures for anything that might once have defeated it. And it did not wait to be donned. 

The moment Pallian settled the helmet into place, the rest of the armor swarmed off the statue and snapped into place around his body: a greave here, a pauldroon there, gauntlets and boots sliding into place... The shield dropped onto his back, and the gauntlet-sword slid into its sheath. Its enchantments soaked into him, protective and healing, and Pallian wondered how all that power would interact with his newly-redesigned initiations. Most likely the Grandmother anticipated this... 

The armor preferred to move slowly, deliberately, but Pallian could force it to move at double-time. He needed to make up for the time he'd lost earlier, and his father would know if the carriage failed to depart swiftly. If necessary, he could catch his breath once he was safely inside. He braced himself for the effort, and--

Why did you release me? asked a voice that seemed made of fire and darkness.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Aftermath, Part Five: Endings and new beginnings in Duendewood

When it was done, they went north: Tarric and Werendril, Aesa and Rose, Ruin and Sun, Scar, and Risk. Ruin had never found a suitable candidate to replace the Druid Hierophant, and so stepped into the role himself, with Alnira and Zoriel and Elendor to help him. They squabbled -- frequently -- but over time the druids returned to their former strength, and from time to time the Elf-King Mythrandril would call on them for counsel or aid. At long last, Ruin turned Saladhael's Stone over to Zoriel, and with it the position of Druid Hierophant.

Aesa built a small shrine to Amun in the wilderness just outside of Calisthum and settled in; to her considerable surprise, she found a following among the local elves, and over time her shrine became a chapel and then a temple. Eventually, she married an elvish ranger who had once worked with Werendril and then gone on to join the resistance; three or four times a year, they would go and visit Aesa's father in Annun, and both of them felt that those trips were adventure enough... especially as their family grew. 

Tarric and Werendril drifted apart, unable to overcome their shared grief at the deaths of Anica and Rune. Tarric returned to Sol Povos, and eventually became Tavros' right hand; making it a habit to have Zone of Truth active for all policy debates had a transforming effect on the politics of the court. Werendril returned to the Order of the Golden Bow, training new candidates and working to maintain the peace along the border with Sol Povos; it was a full century before he caught the eye of a silver-haired bard, who courted him relentlessly until he finally gave in and accepted her proposal.

Amaranth kept her smithy and her apprentice where the resistance had once had its camp, a few miles southwest of the sacred grove; her work was good enough that her customers came to her. Ruin stopped in to visit her when he was in the area, and sometimes she came to Calisthum to check on the blade she'd made for him. Eventually they stopped pretending it was casual and got married, adding three more names (Ash, Tybalt, and Azrael) to the list of Ruin's children. 

Shalmistra and Darvinin returned to Annun with their child Dionaea, and stayed in the service of King Mythrandril until Dionaea was grown; then they married again, and set out to see the world together. 

Alnira and Nym remained a couple, and each gave birth to a girl; Nym insisted on learning everything Ruin and the others could teach her about battle, and eventually became one of druids' strongest defenders, while Alnira slowly rebuilt her circle of druids and eventually grew into the duties her mentor had once carried.

Ruin's children grew up together, except for a few months a year when Eva would show up to collect her niece and nephews and disappear into the depths of the rainforest. The half-dragon child Risk grew up nearly feral, fighting with claws and rage but relaxed and affable outside of battle. His brother Scar turned out to have a knack for sorcery and troublemaking, while their sister Sun became a cleric of Amun and put herself to work in Aesa's growing temple. Aesa's daughter Rose considered doing likewise, but joined the druids instead. Nym named her daughter Morrigan, and the girl grew up learning to master her instincts and abilities as a warbear; she became a disciplined fighter, and adventured for a time with her half-dragon half-brothers. Alnira's daughter Skyflower never quite seemed to settle on anything, until one day her father presented her with an old amulet and a new teacher... and she went off to learn horizon-walking from her grandfather and his new wife. 

Sherra, Sam, Leander the Elf, Evrimon, and Moonshadow all went on to further adventures and even a few proper heists, too many to detail here. Though they eventually parted ways, Sherra and Sam opened a school just outside of Annun, and the others made it a point to visit as often as they could. 

Did Ruin ever make it to Asgard and kill Galvera? No. But that doesn't mean he isn't still trying. And meanwhile, Tavros enlisted Thierry P Thierry to spread the true story of Galvera, so that the goddess could no longer hide behind the name of Vecna Orlok or pretend she'd been a god all along. The Order of Secrets is not in good shape these days-- well, not as far as anyone knows.

All of this was after the defeat of Behemoth and the sealing of the portals, of course. It was after the warbear queen met her fate, and Tavros Fontaine ascended to the throne of Sol Povos with his wife Jacqueline Bouvier at his side. But those, dear friends, are other stories, for another time...

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Aftermath, Part Four: Tavros

Tavros stepped into the Chapel of Farewell alone, just as the sun was slipping below the horizon and painting the clouds with the last of its light. He noted with surprise that there were five tables now, though after a moment's reflection it made sense. He moved closer, looking them over. The bodies had not been allowed to decay yet; they would remain preserved until they were interred.

Anica lay cold and still, the fire gone out of her. He would never hear her laugh again, never see that challenging look on her face or the fierce grin as she drew her sword. Rune was on the table beside hers, no longer getting into everything, his endless stream of questions silenced. Vendril lay on the table beyond, as much a mystery to Tavros in death as he'd been in life, no longer there to support Aesa or protect Rose; someone had put the fox mask back over his face, which seemed fitting. Geddy was next, the irrepressibly animated bard now blank and expressionless. Would he be amused to know that that damned song of his had spread through the kingdom? Probably. And beyond him, a small gold statue of a dragon to mark the death of Rita. Tavros had no idea what Eva had done for her sister, but she'd disappeared for several days and then returned with that statue, saying only that it had belonged to their mother.

I failed you. Tavros knew that Anica -- probably all of them -- would have argued that he hadn't failed, that he'd done what was right and necessary. He wished he could believe it. That was why he had come alone; he could barely carry the weight of his own sorrow and guilt and regret; seeing it in anyone else would have broken him apart entirely. And there was also Vigo's exasperated voice in the back of his mind, reminding him that his future subjects should never see such weakness from him. 

He knew now how Martini must have felt when Azrael died, and wished that he'd taken more time to be kind to her then. Not that any of them had been given much of a chance for that; they'd been separated and fighting for their survival almost immediately afterwards. Still... 

He looked at Anica again and let the tears come. She and Tarric were his oldest friends, and the world wouldn't be the same without her. But he had to carry on, to defeat Behemoth and close the portals, to find some way to deal with the warbear queen and take back the throne. So he would do his weeping here, now, alone. And then he would go and become the King once again.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Tavros Fontaine: Whispers, Part Four

Written by our DM, the final fate of Vigo the Whisperer... 

Tavros followed Abbess Sturmgart down the hallway. They were under the main complex, in seldom used tunnels that he was unfamiliar with.

“Here,” the Abbess gestured to a small cell, being used more literally in the spirit of its namesake. It was guarded by two very serious looking guards wearing regalia not of his house, but of the temple – men loyal to the Abbess. She had been wise not to trust anybody of the Fontaine household with the prisoner, who might claim to be acting in the purported best interest of their king. It was an effort by the Abbess to put the power of decision making back in Tavros’ hands.

“Thank you,” he said, “you are one of the few, and always have been, who look after my genuine best interest. Really, I… I appreciate it.”

“Of course, my child. I know it’s important to you.”

“It is. If I continue to let everybody think they need to step in and fix things for me – if they continue to think that I’m incapable of doing these things for myself – I will never truly be king; I will only be a puppet.”

The Abbess nodded and smiled graciously. Tavros felt a surge of warmth. No matter how grown up he felt, the Abbess had a way of making him feel like he was that young boy again, running amuck around the temple.

“Who told him?” Tavros inquired.

“It was one the maids who served you and Jacqueline a few nights ago. It turns out that neither your mother nor Andraska had any recollection of ever hiring the girl. You see, with so many people coming and going here and at your mother’s estate, everybody just assumed that someone else had hired the girl. In reality, nobody hired her, but she’s been going around for months, serving your food, folding your clothes, and all the while funneling information back to…” she paused.

Tavros’ face became stoic, “Yes, well we’ll see about that. Thank you, Abbess.” He bowed low. It was how he used to defer to her, as a disciple – not entirely appropriate as a king, but well, there was nobody here to see. She smiled again, and touched him affectionately on the cheek – also not appropriate, but damn it all!

After the Abbess walked away, Tavros, took a deep breath, nodded to the guards, and barged into the room. It was a spartan cell, in the fashion of many in the temple, but this one was deep in the bowels, windowless, and barely furnished. Vigo the Whisperer sat a table, writing. The Abbess had treated him as a political prisoner of importance rather than throwing him in a proper dungeon, again giving Tavros the opportunity to decide how he would be treated.

“You ran away!?” Tavros blurted angrily.

“Of course,” Vigo responded calmly, “you were going to execute me. How can I serve my purpose if I’m dead?”

Tavros sneered, “Well I hope our dear Reverend Mercy didn’t mistreat you too badly.”

“He found me in the Savage Hills, halfway to Brightland. I have to say, I’ve never been eaten and shat out by a snake before.”

”Yes, well,” Tavros brushed the scales on the back of his head, “Marshall finds that a convenient way to store and transport things.”

Vigo finished writing and put his quill in the holder, “I’ve taken the liberty of drafting a list of others that you should execute alongside me. I assume you’ll make it a public affair, likely with some light torture to emphasize the price of crossing the king.”

“I am not torturing people!” Tavros stamped his foot in frustration. This was exactly the problem with Vigo. “Besides, wouldn’t you be included in this group?”

“Yes, of course, assuming I don’t escape. But public torture is nothing compared to the real thing – just some minor dislocations, cutting out a few internal organs -- …”

“Enough!” Tavros yelled, “why doesn’t this bother you?”

“As we discussed,” Vigo said with a moderately bemused look, “I have nothing left to lose. But truth be told, I’d rather not be executed at all.” He got up and came over to Tavros, dropping to his knees. He grabbed Tavros’ enormous claw and started begging, “please, my liege, spare my life. I will swear to serve you, on your terms!”

“Are you -- ?” Taavros snatched his hand away, “begging!? Get up, it’s…”

“What’s wrong with begging?” Vigo asked as he stood up.

“Aren’t you ashamed?”

“No,” Vigo said simply, “I want to live, so I’m begging you to let me live.”

“But,” Tavros said, eyes narrow, “you also don’t care what I do to you.”

“Not really,” Vigo said honestly, “but I beg you not to kill me, so that I may serve you.”

“You’ve served me enough,” Tavros said angrily.

“At least,” Vigo implored, picking up the list, “look at my list.”

Tavros received the list begrudgingly. He scanned it, his eyes getting bigger, “are you serious?”

“Of course,” Vigo said, “these people are your enemies.”

Tavros stopped suddenly, his mouth open, “Martini D’wintlithar!?”

Vigo nodded, “She’s dangerous, angry, and evil. She tried to turn in your pivotal battle against the Goddess of Secrets, offering to join her. It would be better for the kingdom if she were dead.”

Tavros turned away, massaging his aching temples.

“Surely,” Vigo said, “you don’t consider her situation different than my own? It’s true that I might betray you, if I felt it necessary, but I haven’t yet. She has.”

Tavros sighed, turning back to face his former spymaster, “Vigo, I sentence you to death. There will be no torture, no fanfare, no performance. I will do it traditionally and honorably: With a block of wood, a sword, and my own hand. I pledge to you it will be over quickly, but it will be over. My mind is firm on this matter. I am sorry.”

Vigo nodded, thoughtfully, “that is… sub-optimal. But… it suits you. Good job.”

Tavros looked at him aghast, shaking his head, “Vigo, you confound me.”

“My apologies, my liege, for I seek only to aid you.”

There was nothing left to say. Tavros just shook his head, and made for the door.

“Wait,” Vigo pleaded, “one week. Give me one week.”

“One week for what?” Tavros asked.

“One week of you,” Vigo replied, “one week to tell you everything I know, everything I’ve learned, everything I have planned. If I will no longer be here… at least let what is in my head live on in you. It is clear I have no leverage, and I am out of time. The best I can do for my kingdom… is to give it all to you.”

“You can do that in a week?” Tavros asked, skeptically.

“Yes. You will arrive at eight o’clock each morning, and we will go through supper. We’ll eat our meals here. I will be provided spare quills and all the parchment I need. What I don’t say, I will write. All of it, all my knowledge, it will be yours.”

“That’s,” Tavros searched for words, but had none. He did not understand this person at all.

“No disruptions,” Vigo said firmly, “you give me one week left in this mortal world, but I want all of it. Your other advisors must wait, for now.”

“I,” Tavros stuttered, trying to find the hole or trap in this suggestion, “I - …”

“And on the eight day, can you execute me at mid-day?”

Tavros looked at Vigo in surprise, “Why?”

“I just,” Vigo seemed to think for a moment, “well, I guess I wanted to see the sun one more time.”

Tavros laughed once, mirthlessly, “Confound is not a strong enough word. Very well, I will execute you at high noon of the eighth day, on MY terms.”

Vigo bowed deeply, “thank you, my liege. For what it’s worth…”

There was an awkward pause. Tavros didn’t know what to say, so he just waited for Vigo to continue.

“I think,” Vigo said, “you will be a much better king than your uncle. I am proud of you.”

Tavros swallowed. For all the horrible things Vigo had done, for all the certainty he had about this decision, it was still hard for him. He was not good at sentencing people to die. “Thank you,” was all he could muster. Then the two men stared at each other in silence until Tavros left the room.

Once outside the room, Tavros had a pit in his stomach, but then something tickled the back of his brain. Was it mistrust? Or perhaps a developing, ingrained vigilance?

“Double the guards,” he ordered, “and nobody is to see the prisoner except for myself.” After a moment, he added, “that includes the Abbess and my mother. Absolutely nobody, is that clear?”

The guards nodded vigorously, virtually wilting under his gaze. A part of him felt bad, but another part nodded in satisfaction. Dammit, he swore to himself, a little piece of that bastard is already inside me.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Aftermath, Part Three: Ruin, Werendril, Aesa, and Tarric

They weren't in their rooms, nor were they down in the primary chapel, nor was Werendril up in the Chapel of All. They weren't out in the practice yard, and Akkora hadn't seen them. It was only when he stepped into the antechamber to the Abbess' office and the halfling priest Birno rose to his feet with a resigned, "Ah," that Ruin thought he might be able to locate the rest of his people. 

"You know what I'm here for?" Ruin asked. 

Birno nodded sadly. "They will be in the Chapel of Farewell."

"In the what?" In all his time in the temple, Ruin had never heard of the Chapel of Farewell. 

"This way," said Birno, and set off. He walked quickly for a halfling, making it easy for Ruin to match his pace. "The Chapel of Farewell is where we bring the dead, where we clean them, and where we see them off on the journey from which they will not return. It's the open-walled chamber in the western tower."

"Ah," said Ruin, as Birno threaded their way across the temple and up the stairs. "That seems..." He wasn't sure how to finish that sentence, and finally settled for: "...appropriate."

"Under the circumstances, it was the best we could do." The halfling sounded pained, and perhaps also frustrated.

Ruin swallowed and choked back his rage. He had no doubts that everyone in the temple had done their best. No, what he needed to now was to finish wiping out the Order of Secrets, and then find some way to get to Asgard and kill Galvera again, this time properly. She needed to die in a way that even a goddess couldn't recover from, and he needed to make it happen.

No. What he needed to do now was raise his children and pay his debt to the druids. But someday... Someday.

The Chapel of Farewell was like nothing he had ever seen before. Three wooden tables had been covered with blankets, and a circle of chairs surrounded them; there was even a series of cots along the outside walls. The western wall was entirely open, and as the sun set its light would fill this room. 

Each table held a body wrapped in a shroud, but before he could even begin to confront that he was faced with the survivors: Aesa, holding their daughter Rose; Tarric and Werendril, sitting side by side in shared grief. They were sitting in the chairs and watching over the bodies. 

Aesa saw him first. She rose, and the two paladins were so lost that they just watched as she walked over to him. "Ruin..." she said. "We saw... And Anica, and Vendril, and Rune..." 

"I know," he choked out, as Birno disappeared silently back down the stairs. "And I know they can't be brought back."

She nodded, then collapsed against him, keeping Rose just far enough aside to avoid crushing the little girl between them. Ruin held her until she finally drew back; Aesa didn't cry, but he thought that was only because she'd used up all her tears already. Rose actually smiled at him, and for a moment his heart caught. It should never have come to this. More people, dead on his account. More people he had cared about, lost to him. It should never have come to this. 

Tarric rose, approached, and studied them. "I know this was Vecna's fault," the paladin said, studying Ruin's expression closely. "I know it. But I still hate you for it."

Ruin nodded. "So do I."

Tarric snorted. "Is it weird that hearing that helps?"

Ruin shook his head. "Not at all." He stepped past Tarric, past the chair where Werendril still sat looking pollaxed, and went to each of the bodies in turn. Anica, always so fiery, was still and quiet now; death had taken that fierce energy from her. Vendril... Ruin wasn't sure he'd ever understood the man who had stepped in to court Aesa and help raise Rose, but he didn't need to understand to feel the loss. The Silver Fox was irrevocably dead, his soul carried back to Asgard despite Vecna's defeat. Oh, yes. It might take centuries, but Ruin was going to find a way to cross over, and to slay the false goddess. 

He went to Rune at last, and that was when he broke. For a long, impossible moment he didn't even realize he was sitting on the stone floor. All he could see was his child's face, still and cold, all traces of that child's curiosity and developing awareness wiped away. The image consumed him utterly. He couldn't chase it away with justifications for the battle or thoughts of vengeance; he couldn't focus on anything else but the face of his son. 

It was the knowledge of his other children that brought him slowly back. Rose needed him here. Scar, Risk, and Sun needed him here. Whatever children Alnira and Nym eventually gave birth to would need him here. 

Galvera had been wrong. She'd seen his ties to the world as vulnerabilities, and tried to make him see them that way too. They weren't, though. They were strengths. They were anchors, dragging him back from despair. 

Werendril came and knelt beside him, holding him as he sobbed and keened. That was an anchor, too. Then Aesa came as well, and finally Tarric. And when the last of his tears ran out, they held him still. It didn't make things all right. Things were never again going to be all right. But it made things possible.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Dark Armor: Answering the Call

Pallian was deeply asleep when the image of his father's face formed above the pedestal just to the right of his door. He snapped awake when it spoke his name, rolled off the bed, and knelt. "Father," he said. "I hear and obey." 

He tried to, anyway. His throat was dry, and the words came out in a mumbled croak. His father barely seemed to notice. 

"The Black Knight will attend the Wizard-King at the fallen city of Marinul. We will join our forces with those of Edrias when we arrive, and you will lead the search for this emissary."

"I hear and obey," Pallian said, lowering his head in acknowledgement of his father's rank and power. 

"Depart immediately, then. The carriage has its instructions already." The image winked out. 

Pallian rose, still in his smallclothes, and drew on shirt, pants, belt, and boots. He didn't hurry, but neither did he delay; he kept his movements deliberate as he waited for his body to shake off the weight of sleep. He didn't need to be fully alert just yet, but he couldn't afford to be logy, either. 

He was halfway to the chapel before he realized that he had left the glowstone lights behind in his chambers, and the halls of the crypt were pitch-dark. Stupid, clumsy... Pallian Teres should not be able to see without light, and if he could then nobody else should be allowed to realize it. His survival depended on his father never learning that he had gone to visit the Grandmother, and been changed by her. Fortunately, none of the servants had seen him...

...Until now. Someone was approaching with a glowstone lamp. Pallian moved back, found a door, and slipped into it. 

It was a linen closet. Wooden shelves were set just inside the walls and loaded with folded cloth, and baskets of bes-rice had been set out to pull the moisture from the air. More importantly, there was a sconce just inside the door; a glowstone waited beneath a simple wooden cover for some harried servant to uncover it and so light the room. 

Pallian stood in the dark and watched the light pass by outside the door; then he lifted the wooden cover and claimed the glowstone underneath. The servitors would replace it as soon as someone realized it was missing, and now he could continue his journey to the chapel without giving himself away. 

Better, he decided. Much better. He opened the closet door, and found himself face to face with one of the servitors. 

He managed not to shriek, but it was a near thing. Fortunately, this one was dead; it would not say anything about his actions or his presence here. It might even set a replacement stone itself. But that was also why it was carrying a stack of linens along a night-black hallway; the dead had no need of light to find their way. They knew this place as the living never could.

He stepped around it and continued on. He needed to be wearing the armor and climbing into the carriage right now; his father might notice even the slightest delay.