Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Lithos: Contests of Strength

Lithos had a plan. He almost always did. The humans were larger than he was and far stronger, so if he was going to prove himself a true dwarf by defeating one of them in a wrestling match, they'd just have to be weaker. Either that, or he'd have to be stronger, but he had no way of doing that himself.

His sister Pythia, however, could make him bigger. So his plan was to have her enlarge him just before the contest began. Then he could step into the ring, enfeeble the human, and then move in and pin him when he was too weak to move. It would have been a great triumph.

That was before his brother Archibald had stepped in and told him not to worry about it. 

Archibald was a pretty good brother. He was particularly good at talking his way out of trouble, both for himself and for the family. And clearly he had Done Something so that they could win without using methods that the stiff and supercilious proctor might frown on. 

So Lithos decided to trust him, and went into the ring at his usual size. He didn't cast any spells; he just grappled his human opponent...

...The man made a decent show of struggling with him, but finally fell and let Lithos pull his arm up behind his back and "pin" him. Well, she can hardly complain now, he decided. No magic, just some badly staged wrestling.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Lost Girl, part two

Chris had just finished packing when somebody knocked on his door.

Elyssa was standing outside. "Chris," she said, hesitated, then leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him. Cautiously, he raised his arms and hugged her back. 

She lifted her head and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you," she said, and pushed the door shut behind her. She tapped the front of her shirt and said, "Clarissa's been talking to me. She told me what happened to her."

He drew a deep breath, then let out a profound sigh of relief. "You went back for her. I looked for the amulet but couldn't find it, and I was afraid..." ...that the magi had found it and were trying to figure out what I did to it. Then he caught up with what she'd said and asked, "She's still in there?" 

I am. Cold arms circled him from behind, clung to him for a brief moment. I wasn't ready to let go. And I wanted to thank you for what you did, and what you let me do. 

What he'd let her do was murder, but he was less bothered by that than he might have been. He couldn't bring himself to believe that she shouldn't have her revenge, and her revenge had kept Elyssa safe. "It wasn't... You're welcome."

Elyssa touched her shirt again, feeling the amulet through it. "Is it okay if I, um, hang onto her?"

Chris chuckled. "She gets her own choice on that, but if the two of you agree then I have exactly zero objections to you hanging on to my mom's amulet."

"Blessings of the moon," Elyssa said, tightening her arms around him again, and Clarissa said, Yes, I'd like to stay with her. 

Chris nodded. "It's done, then." 

"All right, then." Elyssa released him and stepped back. "What are you packing for this?" She had a good read on him, he decided: she knew how uncomfortable he was with physical contact, and maybe how much he wanted it as well.

"Not much," he admitted. He'd stuffed a day pack with a couple of changes of clothes, his pistol and some extra ammunition, toiletries, a charger for his phone, and a pair of paperback books. It was still sitting on the bed, so he opened it up and showed her -- showed them. "Everything else, I can keep in my pockets."

"Have you done this before?" asked Elyssa. 

Chris shook his head. "No, but once we're back in the Grey we can shift, so I'm not so worried about having every possible thing we might need." 

Elyssa nodded slowly, then touched the amulet as if for comfort. Clarissa had, he thought, disappeared back into it. "All right," she said. "I'd better go pull my stuff together too." She turned towards the door, then paused and turned back. "Chris... do you think this is safe?" 

He shrugged. "Venturing into the Grey is never safe," he said, "but I think we'll be fine."

Elyssa hesitated, then said, "No, I mean... do you think magus Frummelt is trying to get rid of us?"

Chris took a moment to consider that. He certainly wouldn't put it past the old man -- he had no faith whatsoever in the Ministry's morality or sense of justice -- but after a moment he said, "I don't think so." He wished he was a more certain, though. "I think he's trying to protect us... but that doesn't mean we're safe."

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Lost Girl, part one

Magus Frummelt stood near the head of the table and gestured at screen behind him, which was currently displaying a girl's face. "Ladies and Gentlemen, you have your next assignment. This is Tabitha Lynn Carterhaugh, an exchange student from Scotland. She was staying with another student, Maggie Hargrave, and her family. Carterhaugh is missing, and the Hargraves are claiming that she was kidnapped and taken into the Grey. We don't have any soothsayers available, so take that with a grain of salt. Regardless, both families are requesting our assistance." 

He clicked a controller, and the photo changed. It was the same girl, though: a young redhead with pale skin scattered with freckles, this time in the company of a brown-haired girl of about the same age. They were on bicycles, and waving at the camera; both wore jeans and t-shirts. 

Chris studied them indifferently. He wasn't always good with names, but he was generally pretty good with faces and he would know these two if he saw them again. It would be better if he had their scents, but...

Elyssa shifted beside him, leaning gently into his shoulder for a moment before pulling away. She was still pretending to be his girlfriend, which was probably smart, but the casual physical intimacy... he didn't know if he liked it, disliked it, or just found it distracting. Some of all three, maybe.

They went through a half-dozen more pictures, and magus Frummelt continued talking as the images cycled. "The five of you will take a flight to Pennsylvania and check out the Hargrave household, then use their passage to enter the Grey. Peter, you're the Seeker so you'll be in charge of this. You're going to be breaking in magus Gillespie and her team on this one; it's their first time out."

"Sir." The word was an acknowledgement. Peter was tall and heavily built, with platinum-blond hair cut short and a matching goatee. He looked to be in his early twenties, a couple of years older than Antoinette, old enough to look like an actual adult to Chris. His partner was older and even more heavily built; she had a scar across one cheek, black hair cut short, and an expression that suggested that she was wondering just how easy they might be to break. 

"Do any of you have any questions?" magus Frummelt asked. He waited, then nodded. "You have about three hours to pack and pull any equipment you think you might need. Meet at the gate when you're ready, and you'll be driven to the airport with plenty of time to get through security." He took a moment to look from Chris to Elyssa and back. "Your magi know how these things work, so just follow their lead."

Chris nodded, and magus Frummelt said, "Dismissed. Keep in touch as you can."

Friday, January 26, 2024

Dark Armor: The Second Battle of Marinul

The statues weren't as fast as living men, but they weren't slow either. Pallian lashed out with a gauntlet-covered fist as one of them turned to look at him, and the blow shattered its head. The impact rocked it slightly back, but otherwise failed to even slow it. 

He grabbed its wrists as it reached for him and slung it around, smashing it against the stone bodies of the other statues around him. Damn it! The armor would keep him safe from harm, but with so many of these things around he could still be pulled down and immobilized; the armor had a counter to prevent that, but he wasn't sure how well it would work against these heavy stone opponents. 

He slid his right hand into the gauntlet sword, and triggered the left gauntlet again. The small ball of fire that formed could be called quickly but was little more powerful than a javelin. The second stage would loose a spread of such missiles, perfect for smashing down a door or taking out a small group of enemies at close range. Neither would help here. He laid about him with the sword, chipping off limbs and shattering bodies, as he waited for it to build.

The fire flared again, becoming the stone-shattering ball of green flame that he'd used earlier, and Pallian looked up at the one who they'd thought was an Emissary... The one who'd just declared himself one of the Second. 

It was still hanging in the air, and it was looking down at him. "No, I don't think so." A band of stone shot up from the ground, caught his arm, and dragged it down, pointing the weapon away from the Second. "And what exactly are you? A construct? Undead? An armored warrior?"

Pallian didn't answer; from inside the armor, he couldn't speak. He was still striking out with the gauntlet sword, but with one arm trapped his movement was limited. A statue tried to punch him in the kidneys, and the armor absorbed the blow. He struck at the pillar, trying to free his arm, and carved a gouge in it; above him, the Second shook his head. 

Not like this, he thought. He didn't want to die as the Black Knight, as the voiceless servant of his father, and he did not want to be taken prisoner by the Second. That seemed like a good way to end up as an armored statue, or worse. There had to be a way out. 

An arrow slammed into the invisible bubble around the Second, and this time it cracked and shattered. The Second looked momentarily stunned, and then even more so as a shadow flowed up through the air behind him and planted a dagger in his back. One shadowy arm curled around his throat, and a second arrow buried itself in his chest. 

The Second scowled, grabbed, twisted, and flung, and the shadow tumbled through the shattered-open wall into the second floor of the governor's mansion. Then he gestured, and the build crushed itself around the shadow. Another arrow stopped, caught by unseen forces a palm's width from his face, and the Second turned and gestured, sending the arrow back the way it had come. 

By then the statues had crowded close around him, and even with the armor's strength added to his own Pallian was having trouble swinging the sword. Others were climbing on top of them, weighing him down and trying to take him to the ground. He caught a brief glimpse of the Second looking down at him; then stone closed over him and buried him entirely.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

An Unexpected Encounter

Lithos knew he was being followed, he just wasn't sure what to do about it. The dwarf behind him was a large male, and his plate armor was covered with viciously sharp spikes, some of which stuck out through holes in the ragged fur cloak that he had thrown over his back. Lithos wasn't even entirely sure the cloak was fastened; it might just have been nailed in place. 

It would have been different if his siblings had been around, of course, but either his luck was a bad as usual or the man had deliberately waited until the weren't. No use dwelling on impossibilities; what could he actually do?

Well, he could stop, and wait, and talk to the man. That might even work; the street wasn't crowded, but it wasn't empty either, and most people would hesitated to perform outright murder in plain sight here in Stoneshore. On the hand, this man didn't look like he much cared what most people would or wouldn't do, and Lithos had never been good at the kind of talking required for a situation like this. 

He could yell for help, but what would he say? There was a scary man on the street behind him? It would be his word -- a dwarf, but goblinborn -- against that of a full-grown dwarf warrior. 

His master had pronounced him a wizard after his last round of tests: a beginning wizard, but more than an apprentice. And Master Flyleaf had advised him to always have one attack, one defense, and one escape hand at any time. Well, he could cast a protection while he walked, but he didn't think his sleep spell would affect this armored monolith at all. 

"You there," said a gruff voice behind him. "If you're going to panic and run, best to do it now."

That wasn't actually a bad suggestion. The man wouldn't be any slower for all the armor he was wearing, but Lithos was faster than any dwarf he had ever met, for all that his legs were shorter. Still, he hadn't spent his school years being tormented by Delver Deepriver and his cronies just to flee in terror because an adult was trying to scare him. 

He glanced back, met the man's eyes, and shook his head. He was almost where he wanted to be... There. He spoke and gestured, and a stone wall materialized in front of the man. 

There was a brief pause, a "WhaaaAAT?" and then the porcupine-armored dwarf burst right through the illusion and came charging forward. 

By then, though, Lithos had vanished, slipping away through the narrow space between Mistress Gaia's Potteries and Petrus Dirtboring's Escritorium. The narrowness of the space barely slowed him, and would be completely impassible to a full-sized dwarf, even if the warrior figured it out. 

He hadn't, though. He was still asking Master Dirtboring if he'd seen a goblin come through here, and then Mistress Gaia emerged and started scolding, and Lithos grinned to himself as he strolled off down the alley. It really would have been perfect...

If the man hadn't come strolling into the Shattered Golem some twenty minutes later, just as Lithos was starting his shift as a server. "Um, Father?" he said, lifting a tray of drinks, and motioned with his head. 

His father turned, focused, and went still as the stone itself. "Get your mother," he said after a moment. "Leave the tray. Don't come out yet."

"I could try to put him to sleep," Lithos suggested. 

"Windborne's been a good influence on you," his father told him, "but here? With all these people around? You'd put a few of them out and leave Allstone untouched."

He'd been afraid of that on the street, too. Without another word, he set the tray on the bar and stepped behind it, following it to the far end where his mother was working. She looked up as he approached. 

"Allstone is here," Lithos told her.

"Allstone?" His mother sounded surprised, but she turned and her eyes found the prickly dwarf immediately. "Opreto take me. He has a lot of nerve..." She stopped, looked down at Lithos. "He didn't...?"

Lithos shook his head. "Followed me for a bit. Tried to get me to run, but he didn't attack me. I blocked his sight and got away."

"Good lad," said his mother, and made her way back down the bar. 

Lithos hopped up onto a stool and glanced at the dwarf on the far side of the bar, who was looking expectantly in his direction. "Brandy," he said. "Silverstreak, if you have it." 

Lithos leaned back and looked under the bar. It should be... sitting on that empty spot on the shelf. "We're out," he said, then added: "Like to have some next week. In the meantime, we've a very good Tamberlin from overhill..." 

The dwarf nodded. "That'll do nicely, young Foundingstone." 

Lithos hopped back down and went to fetch it, along with a glass to pour it into. Somewhere in the midst of things his oldest brother moved into place at the far end of the bar, and between them they kept things going until Mistress Ignient leaned forward and said, "I think yer parents are motioning fer ye, lad."

Well, at least no fights had broken out so far. He hopped back down and made his way back across, tapping his brother's knee as he passed to let the older dwarf know that the bar was his alone.

"You wanted me?" he asked, as he reached the table -- not far from the door -- where his parents were seated with the spiky stranger. 

"Aye, lad," said the heavily-armored warrior. "I owe ye an explanation fer followin' ye. I was tryin' tae see if'n ye'd become a dwarf or were still a goblin at heart."

Lithos froze. Seriously? It must have shown on his face, because the man flinched. 

"I was wrong," he said simply. "Wrong tae test you, wrong tae doubt you, and wrong tae tell yer parents not tae take ye back all those years ago."

Lithos slid one foot back, making ready to advance or retreat as needed. "Yer him," he said, matching the fellow's Dwarvish. "Allstone Graniteweaver. The battlerager." 

"Aye. And ye're Lithos Foundingstone, a pure dwarf for all that ye were born a goblin."

Right. That. Definitely that's me. He paused for a moment, but didn't relax. Let's see if I understand this. "But I fled." 

"Lad, I've known at least a dozen o' the Scribes who'd hae fled as you did: carefully, with a plan, and nae in a panic. And I've known a double-dozen battleragers who've died of not knowing when to back away from something that could kill them. Every single one of them was still a dwarf."

Marduk Foundingstone swallowed. "That was... well-said, old friend." 

"Aye, well, Ah've had a lot o' time tae think about it. Rolled with the battleragers for a bit, and then with the warhounds, and... I wanted tae see how it'd all worked out." He paused, quaffed a glass of something that Lithos suspected was Bitterfall from the smell, and then nodded to Lithos. "Seldom 'ave Ah been so glad tae be wrong." He glanced from Lithos' mother to his father and then back. "Think ye that yer heirs can keep the place runnin' whilst we spend a night catching up?"

Marduk chuckled. "So long as nothin' else comes up, they'll do fine." He turned to Lithos. "I give you my word that I will regret this, but I would have you bring us a bottle of al'cul."

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Lessons set in stone

Lithos looked at the discolored spot on the stone and smiled. "Bear witness!" he cried in Elvish. "I do practice!"

Master Flyleaf sat cross-legged on the empty air, floating effortlessly. He was just high enough up that Lithos could have walked under him. He was tall, lean, and elvish, with golden hair and milky skin; his pet owl, Nightwing, perched effortlessly on the leather pad that covered his left shoulder, while his actual familiar -- a bat named Doombringer -- was nestled into a pouch on his front. A pair of stones circled through the air around his head: Ioun stones, he'd called them, and so far he'd stubbornly refused to let his pupil borrow them. "So I see," he said, answering in the same language. "Your technique still needs work, but you're coming along nicely and you don't have any difficulty tapping into the world-blood."

"I will never be a paragon of strength," Lithos said, "so I'd better learn to do something well." He focused on the spot on the wall, stepped sideways to change the angle he regarded it from, and cast the cantrip again. A ball of acid hurtled towards it and splashed across the mark. 

"The ability to learn," said Master Flyleaf, "is a strength, and not just with magic. Very well, you can reliably conjure a bit of acid and fling it at a target. Do you think you could do the same against an opponent in combat?"

Lithos considered that. Learning from an elven wizard had been deeply weird after the stiff formality of the dwarven educational system; Master Flyleaf's methods were profoundly unconventional by comparison. 

So far, that had not been a problem. As far as Lithos was concerned, he could only dream of becoming as amazing as his master. Only when I'm a big, powerful wizard, I will have a lot more sparkly stones to float around me. He dragged his attention back. "Not yet," he said. "It's harder when they're moving." 

Fortunately, his master didn't ask him how he'd discovered this. It was far better, really, if none of the adults knew just exactly how far the rivalry with Delver Deepriver and his friends -- who were currently calling themselves the Deepreavers -- had gone sometimes. To the left, it was all just insults and pranks; nobody was out for blood. But to the right, one of those pranks had involved having Master Goodearth's prized pet duck erupt out of Delver's bag and wreak havoc in the classroom, and since Delver had been blamed for it he was not about to admit that he and James -- Iamus -- had been primarily responsible for the incident.

"Thus do we come to the topic of moving targets," announced Master Flyleaf. He drifted down almost to the stone floor of the cavern, then scooped up a handful of pebbles. "I am going to toss these at that spot on the wall. I want you blast them out of the air before they get there."

"Erm," said Lithos. He knew how this was going to go: he was going to be bad at it, and he was going to hate that. His master wouldn't criticize him; he'd just insist that Lithos keep trying until he could do it, then keep practicing until it came naturally. 

And eventually it would. Master Flyleaf had adventured alongside his parents, and Lithos knew full well that the slender elf was not a great deal stronger or tougher than himself. If Master Flyleaf could fight alongside Marduk and Tara Foundingstone using his magic, then Lithos could do the same with his siblings. 

But first he had to be good enough to hit a moving target with a splash of acid. 

Master Flyleaf was patient. He waited until Lithos nodded sharply and said firmly, "I will learn this, too."

Then he tossed the first pebble.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

New Assignments

"I got called in for a... an interview, I guess... today," said Antoinette. 

They were sitting side-by-side against a brick wall; the paintball match had not gone their way, but to add verisimilitude they were supposed to stay where they were until it was over. 

"Oh?" asked Chris. 

"Deputy Chief Frummelt spoke to me in his office," she said. "He wanted to know if I'd be willing to go back out into the Grey." 

"Oh," said Chris. Then: "Yeah, he kind of asked me the same thing."

Antoinette turned her head to look at him, then raised her eyebrows. "And you didn't bother to mention that to me?"

Chris shrugged. "They're going to assign us to whatever they decide to assign us to," he said. 

"It would still have been nice to be warned in advance."

"Oh," said Chris. "Sorry."

Antoinette sighed, though she still looked irritated. "Chris..." She shook her head. "I try to let you know when something is going on. I don't expect you to blindly follow my lead. And when Chief Frummelt asked me if I was willing to move into this kind of role, I told him I'd have to talk to you, first. I wanted us to move into this as a team."

"Oh," Chris said again, feeling suddenly guilty. Yeah, no, still bad at teamwork. "Wow, I really fucked that up, didn't I?"

Antoinette studied him for a moment. "Yeah, you kind of did. I just... I don't get it. How can someone as smart as you be this stupid?"

Chris, who had wondered the same thing for most of his life, said: "I don't know how to explain it. It's like I come at everything backwards. Most people, when they look around, they look at the big picture and then add in the details... while I start with the details and then build the big picture from them. So sometimes I see details that other people miss, but sometimes I miss things that are glaringly obvious to everybody else." And on top of that, sometimes I'm trying to hide things and I know I'm no good at that, so I just don't talk because that's so much easier. And sometimes I want to talk, and words just won't come out for me.

Antoinette tilted her head, studying him closely. "Is that because you're a wolf?" 

"No." He considered that for a moment, then told her: "I mean, wolves and other ROs do see things differently. But I'm weird even by their standards."

Antoinette chuckled. "Not too weird for a girlfriend, though." 

"What do you mean?" he asked, and then cut himself off, wishing he could swallow the words back.

"Elyssa," Antoinette said slowly, watching him carefully. "Your girlfriend Elyssa."

"How do you know about that?" asked Chris. "I mean, there's no reason you shouldn't know, it's just..."

Antoinette sighed, frustrated. "Frummelt asked if I knew her, since she was your girlfriend. He wanted to know if I could work with her, and he wanted me to ask you if you thought you could work with her professionally. I think he's considering assigning her to our team."

"Your team," Chris said quietly, as a magus with a paintball gun crept past them. "You're the magus here." It was a token objection; he knew his partner was doing her best.

"You really don't think much of us, do you?" Antoinette asked after a moment. "You... what? You recognize the power of the Ministry and place yourself under its authority, but..."

"...I don't trust it?" He shook his head. "I was at Pettibone when it happened," he said simply. "How could I trust it?"

Antoinette sucked in a breath. "Could you at least trust me? To include you as part of the team, and not just some... soldier under my command?"

"I do," Chris told her. "That's why I protect you the way I do. It's not just the geas that they put on us; I could find a way around that."

Antoinette looked horrified. "The what?" 

"The geas," Chris repeated. "It's part of becoming a Registered Outsider. We agree to defend the magi, not to harm them except in the extremes of self-defense -- by which time it's usually far too late -- and avoid revealing our natures to mundanes in any way. The Ministry enforces it with a geas to make sure that they can safely allow us into the Mundus. You didn't know that?" 

"I-- No, I didn't know that." Antoinette had forced her voice back down to the quiet volume they'd been using while the exercise was still in progress, probably by an act of will. "That's horrible. Do you want me take it off?"

"Could you?" 

"...I don't know," she admitted, "but I'd damned well try. There has to be information on it in one of  the libraries."

"Don't," he said, "and don't start agitating to have it removed. The Ministry is never going allow any of us into the Mundus without those sorts of assurances. I may not like it, but it's the only game in town."

"Jesus," Antoinette swore quietly. "It's a wonder you aren't out there trying to burn the Ministry down."

"I came here after Pettibone," he said quietly. "I've seen where that leads, too."

Antoinette looked away. When she finally looked back, she said, "All right. So tell me about Elyssa."

"Will you hold a secret for me?"


"We aren't romantic," he said, and watched Antoinette's face twist into an expression of God Damn, I fucking knew it. She held her peace, though. "I'm her boyfriend because one of the magi took an interest, and she needed a boyfriend to put him off. I don't even think she likes men, as a general thing."

Antoinette exhaled everything that had been in her lungs, laid her head back against the wooden boards of the training ground, and then drew breath and chuckled quietly. "You are... very possibly... the worst partner in the history of partnerships ever," she said. "Did it not even occur to you that I might be willing to help with a situation like that?" 

"It did, actually," Chris admitted, though he was feeling distinctly uncomfortable. He'd been trusting his instincts at the time, but he was nowhere near as certain of his footing here as he'd been for the rest of all this. 


"He was a Thornblade," Chris said, pitching his voice for her ears alone. "Trying to protect you, remember?"

There was a long moment of silence, while Antoinette squeezed her eyes shut and laid her head back against the boards again. "Jesus H Christ in an Easy Bake Oven," she said under her breath. "Does trouble just come looking for you?" 

Apparently. "No, I think it pretty much knows exactly where to find me," he admitted. 

"I think I finally know what your problem is," said Antoinette. "You have no idea when you're in over your head."

Chris grinned at her. "Was I, though?" 

She shook her head. "You keep surviving, and it's very possible that you saved my life twice so far," she admitted. "It could still be luck, though."

"It could." He nodded. "You're my partner, and you should know this, but you should never speak of it: Julius Thornblade was torn apart by a vengeful ghost, one that he created through his own actions." 

A wolf and one of the great cats bounded into the room, and Chris fell silent. They were shooting at each other with paintballs, the cat running up walls and bounding off the ceiling while the wolf bounced from wall to wall. Even here in the Mundus, it would take a silver bullet to damage a wolf -- an unexpected result of popular culture polluting the local environment and reprogramming the Grey -- and while the Great Cats had no particular vulnerability to that metal, it was generally considered to take at least three shots to kill them. Still, the wolves were tough and could generally expect to require the same three hits before they were dead.

Paintball rules for Registered Outsiders were complex and somewhat fluid. 

The wolf took a hit, and sprinted out through one of the (fortunately empty) windows, while the cat clung to the ceiling and hesitated before circling away in a different direction. 

Chris waited, and when the battlefield was silent again he said quietly, "So I think that Deputy Chief Frummelt is making a statement by moving us under his direct command. He's protecting us, politically -- especially Elyssa." 

"And also making sure we'll be loyal to him," Antoinette said quietly. 

Chris shrugged. "There are worse reasons to be loyal to someone."

"Is all that true?" asked an unexpected voice from behind the boards they were leaning against. 

Chris growled, deep enough to shake those boards. "Grundus, if you repeat a word of this I will rip your fucking throat out."

"You think you can take me?" the older wolf asked.

Chris growled again, making the air vibrate with it.

"All right, maybe you could. But I'd have had kept my mouth shut anyway." He paused, briefly. "The pack protects it own, even the ones who behave like solitaries."

Chris shook his head, exasperated. "We're not a pack," he said. "We're all the wolves who don't have one left."

"If you keep thinking that way," Grundus said, "it'll keep being true."

"Whatever you're doing, leave me out of--" He ground out, before his partner interrupted him.

"I'll accept the new position," Antoinette cut in, firm but quiet. "To keep you safe, to keep Elyssa safe, whoever she is." She sighed. "May the gods someday spare us from politics and grant us a sensible way to live."

"Amen," said Grundus, and Chris -- reluctantly -- nodded.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Ghost's Stories, part seven

He wasn't there when it happened; of course he wasn't. That had been the whole point of the elaborate preparations he'd been making. He needed to be unmistakably somewhere else when it happened, and Elyssa needed to be genuinely, honestly surprised when a vengeful ghost intervened to prevent Julius Thornblade from assaulting her.

Even so, he didn't think he did a terribly good job of looking surprised when a pair of unfamiliar older magi showed up at his door the following evening. "Christopher Black?" asked the taller one. 

He nodded, studying them. The one who'd spoken had dark brown hair, an aggressively square face, and wore a suit jacket over jeans and a button-down shirt; he looked like a cop. They both did. The shorter -- and probably somewhat younger -- one wore a black leather jacket and black cargo pants, but had set them off by actually wearing a tie. He was slim, blond, and handsome, with a narrow face and high cheekbones. "Agent Caldwell and Agent Spencer," said the shorter one, gesturing to himself and then his partner. "We have to ask you to come with us." 

Chris sighed. "All right. As I am? Or do you mind standing in the doorway while I put shoes on?"

"Shoes are fine," asked the taller one. 

Chris motioned them into the sitting room, and walked over to where he'd taken his shoes off beside the couch; his socks were still there too, so he pulled them back on and then straightened. "Am I in trouble?" he asked, because that seemed like the sort of thing that anybody would ask under the circumstances. 

The two men exchanged a glance. "We're not sure yet," said Agent Spencer. "Right now we just need to ask you a few questions."

Chris glanced down at his shoes and then up at the two magi. "All right... well... lead the way."

They escorted him out of his room and out of the small apartment building that housed the ROs who were still being trained and evaluated by the Ministry. Caldwell led the way and Spencer followed behind, presumably to make sure that he wouldn't try to escape. A few people glanced at them curiously, Grundus among them -- how did the older wolf manage to be anywhere there was drama to be found? -- but Chris kept his face blank and his walk casual; he knew he smelled of anxiety, but so would anyone in his position. 

They brought him into the offices, and down a long hallway to an unmarked wooden door. Caldwell leaned forward and knocked. 

"Who is it?" 

"Caldwell and Spencer. We have the wolf Christopher Black with us."

There was a brief pause, and a very faint shuffling of papers. "Bring him in." 

The room was a small office with a large desk, with a comfortable chair behind it and a much less comfortable chair in front. Chris stood waiting until the man behind the desk looked up at him and said, "Take a seat." Then he stepped forward and sat down. Spencer and Caldwell took places in the corners of the room behind him. 

The man behind the desk was silver-haired and portly, but his light blue eyes were still sharp. He lowered his brows as he studied Chris. "Do I know you?"

"Yes, Magus Frummelt. You interviewed me when I first applied to be a Registered Outsider."

Frummelt looked down at a sheet of paper in front of him, frowned, and set it aside and opened a folder instead. "Christopher Black. Yes, I remember: you arrived in the wake of the Pettibone Disaster."

Chris nodded. "Sir... may I ask what this is about?"

"Not yet," said Frummelt, paging through the contents of the folder. "You've been with us... what? Eight months?" 

Chris nodded. "Nearly nine now, I think." 

"And your partner is Antoinette Gillespie... Ah, yes, the incident in Charleston; Captain Dalmorden was extremely relieved that you both survived. Nobody expected you to stumble into a full nest of nightwalkers there. And then that bit with the missing jogger..." He looked up at Chris, meeting his eyes with the kindly expression of a sympathetic uncle. "You've distinguished yourself surprisingly well for someone who's been with the ministry for less than a year, though there's some debate as to whether your actions have been courageous or foolhardy."

Chris nodded but didn't answer; he was waiting for whatever came next. Frummelt had prepared for this interview; his ramblings weren't anywhere near as casual as they were meant to seem. His scent was focused, not unlike that of a wolf on the hunt.  

"How have you found the Compound?" he asked. "Your last evaluation suggested that you hadn't made many friends, but the people who'd worked with you directly seemed to like you."

"Sir?" Chris made himself sound puzzled. "Are you asking about my social life? In an official capacity?"

Frummelt sighed, as if he were reluctant. "Unfortunately, I am." 

"What do you want to know?" 

The older magus regarded him for a moment, then said: "Elyssa Tannhauser claims that you're her boyfriend." 

"True," said Chris. They bought that much, at least. "I am." For as long as she needs me to be.

"Would you say she's trustworthy?" 

Chris frowned. "Yes, absolutely. Why?"

"I can't tell you that yet. Do you know her partner?"

"Julius Thornblade. He introduced himself at lunch yesterday. He seemed a bit upset that Elyssa and I were an item."

"And that's all you know of him?" 

Chris shrugged. "Rumors, gossip. But he's a Thornblade, he's going to attract a lot of that."

Frummelt paused for a long moment, studying him. "What kind of rumors and gossip?"

"He's adept at shaping the Grey. He's high-handed and tends to order his partners around." Chris hesitated, then added: "Things happen to his partners sometimes." He didn't know that, but he doubted that Clarissa was the first person he had hurt. 

"What kind of things?"

"They get hurt more than they should. I think one was supposed to have vanished entirely."

"Who told you that his partner disappeared?" asked Frummelt, his voice suddenly sharp. 

"I don't know, I try to stay away from most gossip." Chris looked dismayed. "Has something happened to Elyssa?"

Frummelt sighed. "Elyssa's fine." He hesitated, then added: "Julius Thornblade, however, was torn apart."

Chris opened his mouth, then closed it again and tried to look thoughtful. "Here," he said after a moment. "In the Compound."

Frummelt nodded, looking serious. 

Chris tilted his head and asked cautiously, "By Elyssa?"

"Maybe," Frummelt, for his part, sounded dubious. 

"Then it was self-defense," he said, sitting back. The chair in front of the desk wasn't as nice as the one Frummelt was sitting in, but it wasn't uncomfortable either. 

Behind him, Agent Spencer grunted. 

"Oh," said Chris. "That's the problem, isn't it? He's a Thornblade. Whoever killed him can't have done it in self-defense. The world isn't allowed to be that way."

Magus Frummelt huffed. "You, my boy, are entirely too sharp for your own good." He leaned forward, studying Chris' face with an intensity that Chris really didn't like. "You're quite right. The Thornblade family has traditionally been a strong supporter of the Ministry's required training program, and the inclusion of Registered Outsiders such as yourself. An incident like this could put that relationship in jeopardy. But it's more complicated than than a case of self-defense: Elyssa says that she was standing helpless, trapped by magic while Julius Thornblade was torn apart by some sort of ghost or spirit."

Chris nodded slowly. His plan had been to say as little as possible, but Magus Frummelt wasn't going to be satisfied with incomplete answers. Changing plans completely, he went still for a moment. Then he said, "That seems possible."

"What do you know about it, kid?" asked Agent Caldwell. 

"It's kind of how we met," Chris said, twisting to look back at the older magus. Everybody in the room was at least twice his age, and he didn't like that; it meant he didn't know what all they might pick up on without him realizing, or what they might know about magic that he didn't. "Elyssa and I, I mean. It was how we got to be an item. I was in the gym late at night, and she burst in from the stairwell saying that something had tried to grab her in the pool, something she couldn't see. She wasn't making it up, either; she was really scared."

"Go on." 

Chris made traced his hands uncertainly in the air. "I went back late the next night and looked around the pool. It felt like someone was there, but I couldn't see anybody -- or smell anybody. We didn't check again last night -- we were too tired. And then today..." He sat back, considering the timeline as he turned to face Magus Frummelt again. "So maybe there was a ghost by the pool, and it... kind of latched onto Elyssa because Julian was her partner?"

Frummelt glanced at Spencer, who shrugged. "Spirits and Ghosts don't usually last long in the Mundus unless they're near a passage, but..." he shrugged. "I mean, we are, so maybe. The residue from practicing magic might be enough to let it fully manifest. And the girl didn't have a drop of blood on her."

"Can anybody verify any of this?" asked Agent Caldwell. 

Chris decided that the question was probably directed at him. "Grundus was there when Elyssa burst into the workout room. He could verify that much."

"Magus Gillespie?" asked Frummelt pointedly. 

Chris shook his head. "She doesn't know about any of it. Not even Elyssa and me."

"There was ghost in the pool and none of you reported it?" asked Frummelt, sounding disgusted. 

"No, sir," said Chris, chastened. "In my defense, though... I believed Elyssa when she said something tried to grab her in the pool, I just didn't immediately think it was a ghost. It could just as easily have been a magical prank, and... well, for the next night... I know what I felt down there, but nothing actually happened. I had to allow for the possibility that I was just spooking myself." He swallowed. "I might have gotten very, very lucky."

"Indeed you might," Magus Frummelt affirmed. He leaned back in his chair. "Spencer, Caldwell, I think we've heard everything we need to, here. Follow up with this Grundus fellow, and see if anybody else has felt like they were being watched while alone in the pool. I'll talk to you both in the morning." 

The two Ministry agents nodded, then sauntered out the door, leaving Chris alone with Magus Frummelt, and vice versa. 

Frummelt leaned forward and pressed something on his desk, which clicked loudly. "There," he said. "The interview is no longer being recorded." 


"I know that you have been out in the Grey recently," the magus said quietly, "and I know that some of our ROs can charge themselves with it, and use that residual Grey to do things that would otherwise be impossible here in the Mundus -- shapechanging, for example. However, I also know that you were at the shooting range when Thornblade was killed. This puts me in a difficult position."

"Because you don't have anyone to blame?" Chris asked, remembering at the last possible moment to moderate his tone so that it came across as curious rather than accusatory. 

"Nobody but a vengeful ghost, it seems." Frummelt shook his head.

"Sir?" Chris asked tentatively. "It seems like a Truthspeaker could clear this up pretty easily."

Frummelt looked at him for a long moment, then sighed. "Possibly. Do you have any idea how rare that particular talent is, though? There are maybe a dozen magi on the entire planet who bear that curse."

"...Apparently I don't, sir." 

"I could bring one in," magus Frummelt told him. "She could get to the truth of what happened. And then we'd be stuck with whatever she found, now matter who it might anger or what they might do to retaliate -- and I use that word advisedly."

Chris swallowed. He hadn't expected magus Frummelt to take his suggestion -- in fact, he wanted nothing less -- but this cold-blooded explanation of why less truth was more desirable chilled him. "I understand... I think."

Frummelt nodded. "No... Unless we discover something very different, Magus Thornblade will have learned that his new partner was being haunted, and he will have bravely decided to face off with the ghost. He will have banished it in a battle of magics, but died of his wounds afterwards." He sighed. "I hate to do it that way, but it means that I don't have to tell Ambrosius Thornblade that his favored firstborn son was a rapist and possibly a murderer, and I don't have to admit that the Ministry failed to acknowledge that and immediately assigned him another young woman for his next partner, and..."

"Sir?" Why are you telling me this? Chris was worried now, partly that magus Frummelt was trying to entrap him somehow, and partly that the older man actually was confessing to him. 

Frummelt nodded and straightened. "Regardless, assuming that both you and Elyssa weren't just taking another opportunity to murder helpless magi -- and I guarantee that somebody is going to come up with that accusation, given your shared presence at Pettibone -- we'll need to do something with you that keeps you both out of the way until this settles down. Would you have any objection to venturing out into the Grey again? Deliberately, I mean, on Ministry business?" 

He considered that for less than a heartbeat. "No, Sir."

"Very good. Off you go, then."

Chris offered a slight bow, then turned and left the office.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Dark Armor: The Governor's Mansion

It only grew worse as he neared the governor's mansion. The statues here crowded the streets, blocking his way and frustrating his attempts to approach quietly. At last he gave up and raised his left gauntlet and called the burst of flame to its palm. He held it while it flared, then flared again into a burning green ball the size of Pallian's head. 

He loosed it, and watched as smashed through a line of statues, carving him a path to the door of the mansion. 

Slow, sardonic clapping filled the street. 

The Black Knight looked up and beheld a slim, pale figure standing on a balcony. It wore unfamiliar robes in a light, draping style and there was something curiously gray about its skin; its left eye was pure white, and as the helm focused in on it he realized that it was marble. 

"You have murdered my people, the people of Edrias," said the High Magister. She was suddenly standing on the corner of a building, across from and slightly above the balcony the Emissary had chosen. How she'd gotten there, Pallian had no idea. 

He started forward, since he'd need to either enter the building or climb up its face to reach his quarry. There was no point in waiting; this was only going to end one way. He triggered the flame again, letting it build. 

The Emissary sneered. "I have rendered judgement upon a city which presumed to keep the Spear of the First hidden from its rightful bearer." 

"My lands," said the High Magister, "are not yours to judge."

Pallian raised his arm, anticipating what was coming next. 

He was only partly correct. The High Magister gestured, and shining bands of golden light formed around the Emissary, who cried: "You dare?" 

Something moved in the room behind the balcony, a faint shadow that was barely visible even in the helm's enhanced perceptions, and a moment later the Emissary threw back its head and shrieked. 

Oh, well played. Pallian grinned appreciatively inside the helm. The High Magister had known that the Wizard-King would use the Black Knight to lead the attack on the Emissary, and had used him as a distraction while the Shadow of Edrias positioned itself for the true attack. For a moment he dared hope that they'd be able to finish the Emissary before it could react. 

Then the cobbled street rumbled and shook beneath his feet, tilting statues as a column of stone rose up beneath the balcony, the top of it spreading out into a sort of horrible flower that curled around the Emissary and then began to reach down toward him from above. With the helm, Pallian could see it prying at the golden bands. 

He loosed the ball of fire, the dark armor's own personal siege engine, and the stone column shattered; but by then it was too late. The Emissary remained floating in the air, and with a gesture sent a wave of rubble through the room behind him, where the Shadow of Edrias had been. "Pathetic creatures," it said. 

A bolt of lightning flared up around it, impossibly bright and loud, but was held at bay by some unseen bubble that surrounded the floating Emissary. "Such reckless audacity you have, to violate the flesh of the Second. For such a crime, I will execute every living thing here." He paused, and an arrow skipped off the bubble surrounding him. "Kill them."

That was when the statues came to life.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

A Tasty Pastry

Lithos Foundingstone slipped along the edges of the crowd, nibbling idly at a meat pie from Mistress Gaella's cart. Silverkeep was best known for its egg dishes, but Mistress Gaella hailed from Kingdom of Duranghal, and her Tidehaven Pie was a pleasant break from local fare, and almost as popular as her Boulderwal Bread.

Though very nearly an adult, Lithos had been born a goblin and compared against the height of his dwarven siblings he was still the size of a child. This was a frequent source of irritation, as people far less learned than himself attempted to talk down to him, but today it was an advantage. He had the bared head and plain clothes of a menial worker, and nobody on the docks looked twice at him. Barefoot, he might have been a sailor, or one of the poorer dockworkers who couldn't afford boots.

He stopped halfway down the dock, and hopped up onto one of the thick stone pillars that anchored it in place against any unexpected currents in Lake Opreto. He sat there for probably twenty minutes, slowly finishing off the meat pie and looking out across the lake. 

"Hey," said a soft voice beside him. He didn't turn, but he tilted his head. 

"You looking for work?" asked a voice, speaking Goblin.

"I could work," he admitted. In context, it suggested that he could definitely use any money that might be available. 

"Come on," said the voice. "We're short one. Ghost ship, the dwarves won't touch it. But we can."

Lithos slid off the pillar and found himself face to face with another goblin, solid and strong under her rags. She had a strong chin and high cheekbones, and a delicious spread of ears. She looked like she could break him in half, and he was momentarily taken by the concept. 

"Guzzlegore," she said, and tapped her chest. 

"Grimshank," he replied, and tapped his own. "You sure? I don't pull so hard."

"No need," she told him. "You fill the bench and do your best, balance it." 

"I can do that." 

"So you come, you row, you get money."

Found them, he mouthed in Halflingo, pointing to his brother as he followed his disconcertingly attractive companion. Then, in Goblin, he asked: "No press gang?"

She grunted. "Not for this. Easier to pay work."

Pythia was deep in conversation with a merchant as they passed, discussing the likelihood of more shimmersilk coming up from Esperhold. She looked out of place down here, wearing plate armor with a massive greataxe strapped across her back, but she was so completely preoccupied with hearing about this season's silkslug output that Guzzlegore didn't even seem to notice her. Armored dwarves were never all that unusual. 

He should have been terrified. He was a terrible actor, and a worse adventurer; he preferred to get his knowledge from books, where it was safe. But there were charges of smuggling, supposedly aboard a ghost ship that only the dockside goblins could reach, and Lithos and his siblings had been charged to investigate. Alone, he would have quailed -- or walked away to do something far more sensible, like make tea -- but knowing that his siblings were all around him, he felt safe enough to press on.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Ghost's Stories, part six

"So," said an unfamiliar voice, "you and Elyssa."

Chris turned, and found himself looking up at a magus who was standing directly behind him. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with high cheekbones and a firm chin to balance them. His hair was blond and his eyes were the blue of an autumn sky just fading into dusk. Chris frowned. "Do I know you?" 

The magus grinned and extended a hand, a study in false friendliness. "Julius Thornblade," he said, and then added, "Magus," as if that weren't obvious already. 

"Oh," said Chris, then stood and shook his hand, keeping his grip firm but not aggressive. "Elyssa's partner. I'd heard she was working with a Thornblade. Quite an honor."

Julius blinked, surprised and not quite quick enough to hide it, and shook Chris' hand as well: firm, but not strong enough to cause discomfort. "Yes, well, I just wanted to make sure that she would be okay with you. I wouldn't want my partner to become unreliable because someone decided to break up with her." 

He was good at hiding the words and movements, Chris noted, good enough to fool an RO who wasn't familiar with the magespeech. But his throat still moved, and the Words still emerged as mutters, and the traces of the Grey still swept over him, digging in, trying to command...

Chris shrugged them off. "No," he said. "It's early days yet, but I like what I've seen of her so far. And even if things don't work out, I doubt that would affect her ability to work with you."

Julius frowned, ever so slightly, but he settled back. "All right. I just wanted to see how things stood."

"Well, it's an honor to meet you," Chris said. "You're a Thornblade, so everybody expects good things from you. I'm honestly a little jealous that Elyssa was assigned to you and I wasn't." It wasn't jealousy, exactly, but it was true enough that he didn't mind admitting it. If Chris had been assigned to Julius, things might be very different. 

Julius looked him over again, then nodded. "Well," he said, "we all rise to our level. I'm sure I'll see you around."

"I look forward to it." He kept his tone neutral, and Julius frowned just slightly, but he turned and walked away without looking back. 

Apparently letting Elyssa stay in my room set the fox among the chickens. Chris turned back to his meal and frowned to himself. He hadn't expected Julius to feel so challenged that he had to come and confront Chris directly; that might cause problems too, depending on how things worked out. Still... 

Whatever's going to happen, let it happen. It was a line from a song he barely remembered, but it was also just about the only sensible choice he had right now. He finished eating, and went on to the instruction he dreaded most: Driver's Education.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Ghost's Stories, part five

"Chris?" Elyssa sat up in bed as he closed the door gently behind him.The clock on the microwave told him it was 3:03 in the morning, and if he and Antoinette didn't have any new assignments then he was going to need to be awake for practice and training before much longer. 

Elyssa, of course, was going to need to meet with Julius Thornblade and do the same: assignment, or training and practice. "It's me," he told her quietly. "Go back to sleep."

There was a pause, and then she asked: "How did it go?"

Chris sighed and walked back into the bedroom. His sleeping bag was still there on the floor beside the bed, and he wanted nothing more than to climb into it. "I'm not sure yet," he told her. "We'll see." He held out the necklace. "Will you wear this for me?" 

"Oh," she said, studying it closely. "Yes. Yes I will." She set it around her slender neck, fumbled for a moment with the clasp, and then locked it in place. "Thank you." 

"Elyssa," he said, settling himself on the edge of the bed near her feet. "What happened to you in the pool... I think it was because of Julius."

"Julius?" She frowned, suddenly awake and ready to kill. She didn't move, though; none of the ROs were permitted to move against the magi, except in immediate self-defense or as part of their official duties. The geas saw to that, and every Registered Outsider was subject to that geas. "Chris... will you be my boyfriend? If he asks, I mean. After the way he was yesterday, I think maybe I should have a boyfriend. To discourage him."

"Yes," said Chris, meeting her eyes. "For that, I'll be your boyfriend." He paused. "Do you trust me?" 

She nodded. "You've been nothing but... kind. Helpful."

"If anything happens with Julius, take the necklace off and hide it. Try to put it somewhere where the magi won't find it, or won't think anything of it if they do. And don't say anything about it unless you have to."

She reached down, raised the medallion, studied the crossed swords that were etched into it. "You're not supposed to have it, are you?" 

"No." Not the way it was now.

"All right. I won't tell anybody unless I have no other choice." 

Chris nodded. That was all he could ask; the Magi could compel truth, force answers, but only if they knew the right questions. If nobody knew about the amulet, nobody could ask about the amulet; and if nobody asked about the amulet then the vengeful ghost would just be a vengeful ghost. 

...You hope, he thought. There were so many ways this could all go wrong, and if it did then he'd be exposed. If he were exposed, he'd have to leave... and if he had to make his own way out, he would forfeit any chance of living legally in the Mundus. He'd be hunted, possibly all the way out into the Grey. He'd likely have to kill people that he really didn't want to. At the very least, he'd have to assume some other identity and try again. It was a huge risk...

But he couldn't just let this go. He couldn't deny Clarissa her vengeance. He couldn't let Elyssa be raped and possibly murdered just to keep himself hidden. 

He'd arranged things as best he could. Now he'd just have to see how it all worked out... and deal with the consequences as needed.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Dark Armor: The Fate of Marinul

The walls were much as he'd last seen them, with shattered earthworks built up in front of the gates and the gates themselves standing open. The corpses were gone, and he hoped they were honorably buried; the conjuror had offered him a real challenge and deserved a decent grave, and the city's champion likewise.

He reached the gates, and pushed them wider. Then he stepped into the city, cautious, letting the armor assess nearby threats but also looking back and forth himself, seeking after things that the armor might have missed. His steps were heavy, unavoidable, unsubtle -- and he hated that. He would much prefer to have been something more like the Shadow of Edrias, but no: his ancestors had praised the dark armor, and his father preferred to awe their enemies with its unstoppable strength. 

Nobody approached him, or the armies that followed in his wake. Nobody cried for help. Nobody begged for mercy. Nobody attacked, or even shouted threats. 

The streets of Marinul were empty... almost. 

He paused, and his father's voice filled the helmet: Onward to the governor's manse. The High Magister suggests this route. A quick image of a map filled his consciousness, and he shoved it into the helm to guide him. A moment later, he saw the first of them: 


This one was a woman, remarkably lifelike, with her hand on a doorframe. The sign outside the building suggested a chandlery.

The next was a coachman, the statue in its place atop the coach, reins in its hands, the four horses that would have pulled it statues as well. 

A chill went through Pallian, though the Black Knight let none of it show. The whole city is dead, he thought, turned to stone and gone. Killing the Emissary, necessary though it is, will bring none of them back... just as killing me would bring back none of the people I've killed. It was small comfort that the ones he'd slain had been soldiers in battle; for the most part, they'd been barely stronger than the civilians, barely more able to defend themselves. Oh, this is going to end so badly. 

He didn't have to wonder about that. It already had.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Ghost's stories, part four

Elyssa was asleep in his bed when he returned to his apartment. She'd shown up at his door again earlier that evening, saying that her partner had been asking her why she wasn't in her room when he dropped by last night. She'd tried to play it off, but the whole thing had left her feeling deeply creeped out -- and rightly so, given what Chris had just learned from the ghost.

He left her sleeping, and went to look at the chest of drawers that the Ministry had provided him for his stay here. He didn't have a lot in there, but there were a handful of things that he'd taken with him out of Pettibone...

There it was: his mother's silver necklace, with its small medallion etched to show a pair of crossed swords. Perfect. He scooped it out, then took it from the bedroom to the sitting room with its tiny galley kitchen tucked along one wall. He took a seat on the couch, regarded the emblem, and after a moment's thought concluded that his mother would have unquestionably approved of him using her necklace for this. 

He looked inside himself, touched the dark heart, and asked: Will you help me? 

It stirred, already alert from the encounter with Clarissa's ghost, and extended itself to make its power available. The work he had in mind was outside of anything he'd ever studied, but the heart of the fallen god was more than willing to guide him in this. He spoke the words it gave him, forced his will into the amulet, and made it a home for the justly vengeful dead. 

Then he returned to the pool. 

Clarissa appeared immediately, touching his his shoulder gently. 

"Touch this," he said, holding out the necklace with its altered amulet. "Come into it, and I'll use it to deliver you to Elyssa."

There was a momentary pause, and then a faint sense of pressure on his palm... and then a sense of Clarissa's presence, spiraling in. He looked at the amulet, felt the chill of it against his palm, and smiled. 

What did you do to me? asked Clarissa, her silent voice rich with surprise. 

I anchored you to something that will strengthen you, he told her, something I can give to Elyssa so that you can watch over her. 

How in the moonless night did you manage that? She was standing beside him again, anchored to the medallion but not trapped in it. She felt stronger, too, maybe strong enough to make herself visible; her grip on his shoulder was every bit as firm as it had been when he'd been feeding her with the Grey. 

I called in a favor, Chris told her. Listen: I need you to keep this a secret -- yourself, the amulet, and especially the fact that I made it. When you move on Julius, it has to be just as he's starting to assault Elyssa, and it has to take him completely by surprise. Hide in the amulet until then. Can you still see when you're in there?

Oh, yes. I see everything from in there. If Elyssa wears the amulet, I could talk to her, warn her--

Don't. She can't know in advance, or the magi are going to have questions that... 

Ah. Clarissa turned that thought over. I hadn't considered the consequences. I take my vengeance, and then they question her, of course. They'll have a dead Thornblade, mauled by a wolf; they'll have to question her. But they should be able to tell that she still has their geas, so she can't have done it herself. It'll have to have been a vengeful ghost. And I imagine that you don't want them to know that you're capable of... anything you've done so far, whatever the hell that might be. 

Chris nodded. That would be disastrous, he told her simply. In fact, she's going to have to hide the amulet the moment you move... but if you return to it and wait, I can fetch you back to her and you can talk to her then.

Vengeful ghost, Clarissa said reflectively. Yeah, I can lean into that. I can lean into that hard.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Ghost's Stories, part three

It was well after midnight, and while the gym was still open the basement -- and the pool -- were empty. 

Chris Black stepped out of the locker room and onto the tile floor, breathing the scent of chlorine and very little else. He circled the room once, paying careful attention in case anyone was trying to conceal their presence with magic. Then, satisfied that the room was empty except for him, he started down the steps into the water. 

Something cold touched his shoulder, but it was the gentle brush of a fingertip rather than the grasping hands that Elyssa had described. He turned, but of course nobody was there. All right. He was still charged from having ventured into the Grey to rescue Adam Davis from the bonetaker; he expended a bit of that stored magic, and spoke the word for communication, for connection

A clawed hand wrapped around his throat, and he went very still. He still couldn't see anyone, but from the feel of it the owner had to be right in front of him. 

The pool room wasn't watched or warded -- not magically. There were cameras in the corners, but they were unmonitored and the tapes were only consulted if there was some sort of incident or complaint. As long as he didn't do anything too obvious, nobody would realize what he had done here. Well, not unless the unseen presence ripped his throat out; that might be hard to hide. 

Are you wolf, or magus? asked a silent voice. 

He focused on the connection. This was more than familiar; this was how the magi communicated through the arcana, and it could be done (albeit with more difficulty) through eye contact or touch. With the hand around his throat, strengthening the connection was easy. Both, he replied. Wolves can learn the magespeech. It's forbidden to us, and none of them would teach us, but we're actually more likely to have a talent for it than mundane humans are.

Then how did you learn? He was starting to get a feel for unseen entity. Another wolf, a woman, now dead, clinging desperately to any traces of magic she could find... until Chris had offered her his own to draw upon. 

That's a secret I cannot share, he said, but I'm here to help you if I can. What is it that you want? 

There's a girl, she told him. And a magus who murdered me. She's been partnered with him; I can smell him on her, even now. Even like this. 

Elyssa, Chris told her. I know her, though not well. You scared her very badly. 

I was trying to warn her, but she wouldn't listen-- couldn't hear me. I tried to get her attention, but she panicked. It-- I-- I handled it pretty badly, didn't I? 

Chris considered that for a moment. The Grey he'd brought back with him was running out; he wouldn't be able to keep up this conversation for much longer. Tell me about the magus, he said. 

Julius Thornblade, she answered immediately. He... he used his magic to take advantage of me. When he was done, he tried to bind me, to make the control he'd taken permanent... and when that didn't work, when I fought, he tried to place a geas on me so that I wouldn't be able to speak of it. There was a momentary pause. When that didn't work, he killed me and sank my body beneath the tiles here. 

Somebody has to suspect, Chris said silently, but even as he said it he knew it might not make any difference even if it was true. The Thornblades were one of the Old Families, descended from the Founders who had first walled the Mundus off from the Grey. ...but they won't move against him unless they have absolutely no choice. 

You have to warn her, the woman said. You have to protect her from him. 

Do you have a name? asked Chris. 


All right. He'd need to think about that; he couldn't just kill a Thornblade outright. Not and keep his place here. Elyssa wouldn't be able to fight back at all; the geas placed on ROs in service to the Ministry would prevent her from doing any harm to any of the magi. Even acting in self defense, her response would be delayed at best. So... he had to keep her away from her partner as much as possible, and figure out some way to...  

Clarissa. Clarissa could kill him. She wasn't bound by the geas any longer, and she had unfinished business with the magus. She could do it, if she had power enough.

Yes? She asked. His thought had been loud enough for her to overhear.

He felt the dark heart stir inside him, coming partially awake in a way that none of his other captured essences ever did -- not even the bonetaker. Hang on here, he told her. We're going protect Elyssa... and vengeance will be yours.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Ghost's Stories, part two

Chris paced across his room, then back to the door, then back to the window. He'd seen Elyssa back to her room, waited until she was safely inside, and then come back here. She'd hesitated for a moment, as if she might have invited him in, but he'd spoken up to tell her to get some rest and think about ways to figure out what had actually happened, and after that she'd just nodded and closed the door behind her. 

Did he regret that? He wasn't sure. Whatever the case, it was done. 

But for all Grundus' disdain, Elyssa had been genuinely scared... and wolves, as a general thing, didn't scare easily. 

All right. If it wasn't one of the magi, then it was a ghost. If there were any Registered Outsiders who could create those sort of effects, none of the wolves had heard about them -- and the gossip trails through the ROs were established enough that even Chris managed to hear things. 

He paused then, looking out of the window of his small studio room. If ghosts could exist here in the Mundus, they'd need to be near some kind of portal to the Grey, or someplace where there was a lot of magic. So it was, he thought, just barely possible that one of them had managed to persist here. Between the occasional workings of the magi and the sheer number of Registered Outsiders on the campus, there might be enough of the Grey here to sustain a particularly stubborn and troubled spirit.

The plan still stands, he decided at last. He'd go in late, alone, and see if anything in the basement pool troubled him. If that didn't work, Elyssa could try it again and he could come in a few minutes later and try to surprise whoever might be causing this. 

There were words and phrases for dealing with ghosts and particular kinds of spirits, but Chris was a wolf in the Mundus, and wolves couldn't do magic the way the magi did. Antoinette might be willing to help him out, but he didn't want to involve her until he had a better idea of what was going on and whether it was safe. No, if anyone was going to be in danger, it should be him. 

Someone knocked on his door. 

Chris stopped, turned, and went to open it. Whoever was outside had come up without him hearing them, so...

Elyssa said, "I'm sorry. I didn't feel safe. Could I... could I sleep here tonight?"

"All right," said Chris, and stepped aside. She came into his room, looked around at the blank walls and standard furniture, and then asked: "Can I sleep in your bed?"

Chris nodded. "Go ahead. Settle in. I'll keep an eye on things."

When she was settled in he came and sat on the edge of the bed, putting a hand on her shoulder and waiting until she relaxed. Eventually her muscles unclenched and her breathing slowed, and when he was sure she was asleep he went to pull the sleeping bag out of his closet and lay it out on the floor beside the bed. This would have been a fine time to turn into a wolf again, but he was in the Mundus. It wasn't impossible here, not after he'd been out into the Grey, but it was highly frowned upon and would definitely attract attention. Instead, he slid into the sleeping bag, listened again to make certain Elyssa was sleeping, and finally let himself drift off. 

He was still thinking about ghosts, so it was no surprise that he dreamed of them.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Some thoughts on Goblin religion

These are specific to the Gozartd Campaign, which my friend is running and which is set in his own homebrewed world. The campaign includes its own pantheon, and while he has considered reworking that aspect there are enough elements that have figured into previous campaigns and ongoing lore that I suspect it's more likely to expand than to change completely -- at least without a major campaign event to justify and explain the rework. So, with that in mind...

Goblins and goblinoids do not have a creator-god... or if they do, none of the gods are willing to admit it. Among the goblins who worship specific gods, many focus on Indra and find inspiration in his trickery and guile; some give praise to Artemis, who guides them in their hunts and protects them when the civilizations around them will not; and a handful worship Jinn, desiring something of his power. Vecna and Asmodeus have notable following among goblins, while Apollyon frequently attracts hobgoblins and bugbears to his service. 

Even so, all of these objects of worship are minorities among goblinoid clerics (and the far-more-rare goblinoid paladins). Most goblin clerics follow the (disorganized, idiosyncratic, and somewhat chaotic) veneration of Gleefulshiv Lightfingers and Gruila Darkstabber. They even have their own disorder of paladins, though in truth the Darkstabber Paladins of Glee are more like rogues with some spellcasting and smiting capability. 

Gleefulshiv is not a god, or at least he wasn't originally. He was a goblin rogue and eventually a war-leader in the early days of the world: a traveler, a trickster, and a thief. The stories of his life are inextricably bound up with his companion Gruila Darkstabber, an equally larcenous hobgoblin barbarian. The nature of their relationship remains somewhat unclear, but it appears at the very least to have reached the level of friends with benefits. The tales of their adventures, cons, heists, and ambushes are no longer entirely theirs; any particularly successful goblin, hobgoblin, or bugbear's exploits may make its way into their myths and become attributed to them. The two are generally worshiped as a pair, and sometimes referred to as husband and wife.

It is said that they learned of the coming of the Compact and the withdrawal of the gods from Midgard, and contrived to sneak out with them, in the process acquiring divine standing of their own. The story is credible mainly because they are clearly able to grant spells to their worshipers and offer direct (if misleading) guidance to their most powerful clerics. In one version of the story they tricked Amun into granting them divinity; in another, they stole it from Anubis; there are also versions where they simply petitioned Nepthys, and versions where Indra was so taken with what they had done that he granted them divinity himself when he learned of it.

Whatever the truth of this, learn well what we know: that two of our people tricked the gods themselves and joined their number, and if your own deeds are worthy enough they will be joined with Gleefulshiv and Gruila and your name will be one with theirs.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Dark Armor: Arrival at Marinul

By the time the carriage returned to the ground and rolled to a stop, the Black Knight was ready. The armor still recognized him, even with his initiations changed; it obeyed his will as it always had. He had no doubt that it would still follow his father's commands before his own, but that had always been the way of this. 

He left the gauntlet sword at his belt and the shield across his back, and stepped down from the carriage to find himself well back from the gates of the city, behind the gathered forces of Teregor and Edrias. The helmet picked out sounds for him: the rush of the wind across the plains, the murmurs of the soldiers, the whinny-and stamp of a horse as it shifted nervously. 

The Black Knight came forward slowly and deliberately, passing through the lines as the soldiers made way for him. Inside the armor, Pallian fought the urge to shake his head; it was strange to be back here, especially so soon. Marinul was where he taken the Spear of the First, after -- barely -- defeating the city's champion, who had been armed with it. Marinul was where his sister had died, slain by the Shadow of Edrias, and so sealed his fate; his father the Wizard-King blamed him for Rebka's death, and had ordered him sealed in the Tomb of the Living until preparations were complete for his execution. 

It was only the appearance of an Emissary from the Tomb of the First that had saved him, its presence forcing an alliance between the royals of Teregor and Edrias in the face of a greater threat. 

So, so very strange to be back here now, already, so soon after what he'd thought was victory had turned to disgrace. He'd broken the lines of the enemy defense in front of the gate, faced their champion and nearly died, claimed the spear, and been ordered back to the crypt while Rebka took the rest of the city. 

The earthworks were still largely intact before the gates; the gates themselves stood open. The city itself was utterly silent, at least from out here. He emerged from the last of the Teregor troops and stopped, looking around until his helmet highlighted his father's figure at the juncture of the two allied forces. He turned and walked that way, keeping his pace controlled and deliberate; the Black Knight did not hurry except in actual battle. 

"Very good," said the Wizard-King of Teregor. "You will face the Emissary from the Tomb of the First. You will kill it if you can, but you will keep it distracted while our forces deal with whatever it has brought. The rest of us will support you as we can."

The Black Knight bowed, straightened, and looked around. Of course I am to lead the assault and draw fire. That is what the Black Knight does. His father was -- inescapably -- there. His brother Ravaj was there. The High Magister of Edrias was there, as was her leonine body-servant, now armored with an enchanted steel chestguard and skirt. The second-princess Arwidden was there, now holding a bow and with a quiver of arrows set at her hip. Another young woman, perhaps a bit older than Arwidden, was also there, wearing armor and holding a poleaxe. Was this the first-princess of Edrias, his future bride? 

And where was Ashmiren? He would have preferred that she was away from all this, but it was hard to imagine that such was the case... especially if she was what he suspected.

Straightening, he lifted a hand. Order me. 

"Lead us into the city," his father said.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Ghost's Stories, part one

"I'm telling you, there's something down there." 

Elyssa looked genuinely shaken, but Grundus just laughed. "It's a swimming pool, girl. A well-lit swimming pool. If there was anything down there, you would have seen it." 

Chris frowned as he squatted down beside them. Elyssa, still in her swimsuit and dripping wet, was sitting on one of the exercise benches; Grundus had settled beside her. He could taste her fear through the air. She looked over at him immediately. "You believe me, don't you?" 

"I believe you're scared," he said. 

"Well, I believe it's bullshit," said Grundus. "You two wait here, I'll go check it out." He stood up and crossed to the hallway door, strength and confidence in motion. Chris would have thought that the older wolf's confidence would have been the death of him -- and maybe it still would -- but from what he'd seen so far it looked like arrogance was its own reward.

Chris glanced after him, then turned and walked over to his bag. He pulled a towel out, and brought it over to Elyssa. "Here," he said. "Dry off. It's too cold to sit here wet, even for us."

Elyssa was another wolf, the only other one who'd come to the Ministry in the wake of the events at Pettibone. Chris had been avoiding her, until she'd burst into the room saying something about icy hands grabbing for her in the pool and Grundus had immediately moved to make fun of her. 

"Thanks," she said, taking the towel, and immediately started trying to dry her hair. It was auburn and cut short; she looked like she did a lot of swimming. 

"You said something tried to grab you in the pool?" 

She nodded. "I couldn't see it, but I could feel it. It didn't seem to ever quite get a grip on me, but I was in the middle of the water and if it had started to pull me down..." She shuddered. 

Chris considered that. "And there was nobody else around?" 

"I couldn't see anybody," she said. "Couldn't scent anybody either, but the pool smells so strongly of chlorine... You think one of the magi was messing with me? Why would they do that?"

Chris shrugged. His own thoughts hadn't been that specific; another person near the pool could have been conjuring the effect, or affected by it themselves, or just a witness to Elyssa's sudden panic. But since she'd brought it up... "Is there anybody who might have a reason to want to scare you like that?"

Elyssa looked thoughtful. More importantly, she looked like she'd moved past being scared and into problem-solving. "I don't think so," she said after a moment. "I mean, you never really know, but I don't think so." She sat back, and switched from toweling her hair to wrapping the towel over her bathing suit. "Maybe somebody who knew I was there at Pettibone?" she speculated, then paused. "No, that doesn't make sense. Anybody who knows I was there would know you were there too, and you spend a lot more time alone than any of the rest of us."

Chris folded that away, but she was right. Even here, the wolves were pretty social; he was the exception, and almost everybody attributed that -- rightly -- to whatever he'd gone through at Pettibone. He nodded. "Yeah, I'd expect someone like that to mess with me first."

Elyssa studied him for a moment. "I don't remember seeing you there. Were you--?"

"I was with a small group of the students," he said, "trying to keep them safe. It... didn't work out the way I'd hoped."

"Oh." She studied him a moment longer, then looked away. "I tried to sneak a few of them away. Two of them actually made it. That was... that was why the Ministry took me in."

He nodded to show that he understood. "If this wasn't one of the magi," he said, forcibly changing the topic, "then I don't know what else it might have been. Not here." It sounded like something from a ghost story, but as far as he knew ghosts couldn't persist within the Mundus. 

"Nothing!" said Grundus loudly, striding back in through the door. "There's nobody down there, and nothing tried to grab me."

"I probably just imagined it, then," said Elyssa, in a jovially artificial tone. She turned her attention back to Chris. "Chris, would you walk me back to my room?" 

"Of course," he said, and went to grab his bag.

Grundus scowled at him, but Chris just shrugged. He didn't fear the older wolf, and Grundus knew it and was bothered by it. 

Once they were out the doors, Chris said quietly: "I'll come for a late-night swim in a day or two, and see if something similar happens to me. If nothing happens, then a couple of days after that you should come back, and I'll come in just a little behind you and see what I can find."

Elyssa leaned a shoulder against him in a distinctly wolfish gesture. "Thank you," she said quietly. "It wasn't... I mean, maybe I wasn't in any danger, but..." 

Chris shrugged. "Maybe you were. We need to find out for sure, and deal with it."

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Challenge: Former Hobbies

(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: Hobbies I Used To Enjoy

Martial Arts is the obvious one. And it's not that I don't enjoy it anymore, it's just that I don't do it because I ran out of time and spoons for it shortly after I had kids. As the boys have gotten older, I've gotten more and more of that time back, so it's very possible that this is something that I'll go back to... but we aren't there yet. 

I'm happy enough to have gotten back to writing, and playing D&D, and occasionally camping. 

What about you? What hobbies did you once enjoy? Why did you stop?

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Liminal Spaces, Aftermath

"You're not interested in me at all, are you?" asked Thorin Tanelorn. 

"I'm not interested in anybody," Chris told him. That wasn't true, but the person he was most interested in wasn't here, and there was no way he could go back to her.

"Not even your partner?" he asked. "You two seem to have a pretty good vibe going."

Chris turned his head, studied Thorin in his human form: short, wiry, with platinum-blond hair that hung to the middle of his back. Thorin Tanelorn was a perfectly ridiculous choice of names, but it suited him. "No. We work well together, but that's it."

"She listens to you, at least," Thorin said. "Sherri isn't always so good about that."

They were sitting on the edge of the rooftop for the primary RO training facility, overlooking the track and the obstacle course and the other buildings. The gym occupied its own space across from them, a single building three stories high and largely empty, its insides filled with rings and bars and beams and launch pads. They weren't the only ones up there, either; a pair of cats was sitting on at the far corner, ostensibly enjoying the view but too busy kissing to really see it. "Sherri did seem to be a little high-handed," Chris admitted. 

Thorin considered that, then nodded. "That's a good way to put it. She's not horrible, but she definitely assumes that she should be in charge at all times. Antoinette seems a lot more easy-going." He paused, then added: "Not a push-over, though. She handled that thing -- and Sherri -- just fine. I'm a little jealous, honestly."

"You could ask for a transfer," Chris said cautiously. 

"And risk ending up with someone who is horrible? I've seen magi who just order their ROs around, micromanage them, or straight-up refuse to be partnered with them. Sherri's not so bad, and--" He grinned. "--I'm too flamboyant for her to step on. Might not be true of whoever replaced me."

"All right," said Chris. He looked down and saw people starting to emerge from the gym and head for the classrooms. "I'd best get back to it, then."

"Oh, right. It's that time." Thorin grinned at him, then pushed himself off the roof. He hit the ground three stories below, rolled, and then came to his feet and walked off, waving jauntily over his shoulder. 

Chris shook his head and went to take the stairs.