Category Archives: Writing

Bordermarches: The Divine

You may never fully understand the Indescribable. You must still make the attempt.

Welcome back to the Bordermarches series.

As I considered what sort of fantasy world I want to write in, I knew that there would be some religious aspect to it. For one, clerics and paladins and such are a staple of the D&D concept that inspired the original story. Second, my faith is going to affect what and how I write, whether I want it to or not.

Sorry, no talking lions.

However, not everyone is particularly religious, and I don’t want to write a sermon. I don’t even want to write an allegory along the lines of The Chronicles of Narnia. There won’t be any Christ-figure lions. I’d rather aim for something like The Lord of the Rings, with virtues and morals sprinkled here and there to flavor the setting and the story.

I want something that welcomes skeptics and believers of all stripes.

Back when I started devising a campaign, I shared all kinds of details with my wife. (Ok, I still share all kinds of details with my wife, who patiently tries to sort out which version of which story I’m talking about this time.)

Not you guys either.
Well… not exactly.

I was reading the 4th Edition D&D books, which presents a pantheon of gods and goddesses similar to Greek mythology. Some are good, some are evil, some are neither, and have their own interests to pursue. I shared how these gods related to my campaign with Jami.

You have to understand both of us have pretty conservative streaks. I grew up in a house where D&D was a tool of Satan to make kids ready for true witchcraft. Jami is a whole-hearted convert to Christianity, and so what she knew about D&D was pretty much what the church folk said, and most of them thought it was a tool of the devil too.

She was patient and listened to my explanations. “No, it’s not witchcraft. No, we won’t be casting spells or wearing cloaks or running around in the fields with axes. Sure, some people DO that, but it’s all about how you want to play the game. You’re just a group of people telling a story together.”

She went along with all of that… until it got to the idea of all these gods and goddesses out there. We discussed that issue, and I agreed to not have other ‘gods.’

My dilemma was this: the “pantheon” approach has a lot of possibilities for conflict that will be important to the story. I couldn’t just make all of the Bordermarches into a Christian nation under one God who looks a lot like God in the Bible.

I borrowed from Deism, declaring that “the Divine” doesn’t really interact directly with creation. In fact, the Divine is something totally holy, totally “other than us,” incomprehensible and vast beyond human reasoning. Really, that fits the Christian God as well… except we believe He chose to stoop down and interact with humanity on a level we can understand.

What if this Divine did not do that?

The facets bring out the beauty of the whole.

In this world, fourteen Aspects of the Divine carry out ‘the will of God.’ They each represent a part of the Divine, like pieces of a puzzle or the faces of a diamond. There are seven pairs of Aspects that work together:

Light and Truth

Strength and Passion

Nature and Growth

Justice and Order

Knowledge and Creativity

Love and Beauty

Eternity and Life

This provides some room for the “good vs. good” conflict that I find more compelling than simple “good vs. evil.” For example, a follower of Justice may want to see a criminal pay for their sins, where a follower of Light may see a chance for redemption and mercy. (Think of Jaubert, the consummate lawman, and Jean Valjean, the redeemed thief, in Les Miserables.)

D&D 4E suggested this sort of conflict as well. Perhaps the goddess of nature might be in conflict with the goddess of civilization and progress. Neither one is really “good” or “evil.” They just have goals that are in direct conflict.

The different Aspects also allow for a variety of motivations and levels of devotion. Followers of the Light and of Justice are more extreme cases, but for the most part, people are free to choose just how religious (or not) they really are.

Strength, for example, doesn’t require acts of worship or a personal piety. To excel at what you do is worship enough. This Aspect serves as a healthy guiding force for the competitive… and a refuge for those who only care about superiority.

Similarly, Nature will not require a grand cathedral and weekly church attendance. Those who find a mystery and serenity on a stroll through untouched woodlands will perfectly serve Nature, whether they intentionally and consciously “serve” or not.

Those seeking a life full of experiences and discoveries might follow Life or Creativity. A scientist can follow the path of Knowledge without feeling tension between religion and science. Following the path of Love can be just as much the wife longing for a husband as the military commander who inspires loyalty in her company.

All of the above could be examples of agnostics or atheists pursuing their own interests apart from faith.

This intro to the Divine (and specifically the Aspects of the Divine) helps provide some background, but the story cannot be about “the gods.”

Story is about people.

But people are sometimes driven to extremes by their faith. And in a fantasy setting, people are often supernaturally empowered and marked by their devotion. I’ll explore that next.

'Marches: D&D Magic

“First, I’ll Glancebind as a minor action using the bridge the bandits are standing on. For my standard action, I’ll Loose the energy into bolts of force and hurl them at the leader. Then I’ll take another minor to Unshackle the circuit on my right hand; that will be a ball of fire that I hurl at the bridge.”

Yesterday I introduced a magic system I intend to use in my fantasci setting, The Bordermarches.

Since this setting is also where I normally place my D&D campaigns, I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate the various elements like Refocusing magic into D&D terminology.

Disclaimer: I’ve played a few RPGs over the years, but I only started playing D&D on 4th Edition. That colors how I describe the game mechanics.

Refocusing is my attempt to explain away the common use of magic in this setting. I’m not a fan of “I shoot magic in the darkness simply because I CAN.” In my system, magic users use a special eyepiece to siphon energy (potential or kinetic) from the mass of inanimate objects around them in order to power their spells.

A caster must Bind or Glancebind from a source of energy. The source must be an inanimate object; a caster cannot get energy from living things. This is a minor action (something along the lines of drawing a weapon, retrieving an item from a pocket or pack, etc). It’s up to the DM to decide whether Glancebinding affects the object the energy is pulled from… for example using a waterfall as a source of energy might dry up the waterfall for a few seconds. Using a bridge might weaken the supports, possibly collapsing the bridge.

Next, the caster can choose to Loose the energy to power an attack or spell. What type of action this is will depend on the spell. In 4E D&D, most attack spells are standard actions, which take the majority of the time you have in a turn. Thus you can only do one standard action per turn.

The caster can instead choose to charge a circuit or Shackle the energy. By spending another minor action, energy can be stored for later use in special rings of metal that a person carries or wears. These have to be a high quality of metal and craftsmanship, so they should be expensive and difficult to come by. They also glow brightly when charged, so keep that in mind if your caster tries to be sneaky.

Finally, a caster can Unshackle stored energy by draining a circuit. This is another minor action, and serves the purpose of a quick cast spell. Again, this is part of why circuits should be fairly rare — your min/max players are going to want to stroll into a horde of enemies with twenty glowing rings hanging off their vest, casting powerful spells every turn through minor action Unshackling.

This may slow down your magic-user classes slightly, as they can’t just cast spell after spell each turn. I think the pain of that energy resource demand is offset by the ability to store up a few spells based on how many circuits the character has on them.

Refocusing also requires the device that makes it possible: an Ocular, an eyepiece that grants the magic-user the ability to see and manipulate potential and kinetic energy in inanimate objects around them. This can be any sort of eyepiece: a monocle, spectacles, a lens strapped to one eye with a leather cord or strip of cloth, a special glass installed in the visor of a plate helm.

I wanted a system that requires a bit of technology to use, and I like the idea of needing a device in order to use magic. Removing the eyepiece from a caster negates their ability to cast, but the fact that it’s an eyepiece means that almost any player or NPC can have one. You don’t have to be stuck with the stereotypical wizard in a robe. The burly knight in full plate and the shifty assassin might also be able to Refocus.

And though Oculars are plentiful, they are not ubiquitous. Everyone doesn’t have a couple laying around. These should be treasured possessions that are fairly hard to come by without good connections.

The easiest way to incorporate this is to declare that the powers a magic-using character might have are unchanged; they just get energy to fuel those spells through this process. In the event of choosing a non-magic class (like the knight or assassin above), you can set it up as a Multiclass character or NPC, or simply grant access to a few powers/spells chosen by the DM and player.

One final drawback: Oculars can burn out or fail like a blown fuse. You can’t pump infinite energy through them. This is also the hard-line solution to the min/maxer who tries to cast three or four minor action Unshackled spells per turn.

I’d suggest a three strikes approach: give them a warning that the eyepiece is getting hot (and their characters would know what that means, so make sure the players know the possible consequence). Next, if they keep it up, give them some damage as they have this burning instrument near their eye.

Finally, if they refuse to back down, you can amp up their one final spell by doubling its damage or something, then shatter the Ocular. Having a piece of searing glass explode near your eyeball can definitely put some hurt on a character. It should never come to this if you’re communicating possible consequences clearly.

But players can be stubborn.

There. That’s it for now. I’ve left it fairly vague to allow for personal flavor (for example, whether objects are destroyed when power is siphoned from them, or whether this is just the explanation for the magic powers a character possesses or an open door to let the player come up with whatever they can imagine to bend reality in-game).

I’d love to hear what you think…

Does it work? Is it too powerful? Is it too much of a nerf to magic-users?

Does it flow in-game? Is it too cumbersome?

Your feedback might help me refocus my efforts.

Couldn’t resist.

Bordermarches: Magic

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

That’s Brandon Sanderson’s “First Law of Magic.” His comments on the subject are well worth reading (as is any book he has written, in my experience). He has a Second Law posted as well, and in that post he explains a great deal about limitations, weaknesses, and costs associated with magic.

I presented a broad introduction to the world of the Bordermarches, and I later posted an explanation of how science relates to the setting. However, my goal has always been to write a fantasy setting, and that almost requires some form of magic.

Magic can be very vague, something “out there” that the populace is aware of but no one really understands. The Lord of the Rings is a great example; there just isn’t a lot of detail about what sort of powers or limitations are placed on Gandalf.

Then again, Gandalf’s magic isn’t the point of the story or the solution to the conflict.

Magic can also be clearly delineated, almost a “science” of sorts for the populace in a given setting. I think of Sanderson’s Mistborn series as an example of this, where most of the “rules” are well-known or at least are discovered in the course of the plot. I’d even toss Wheel of Time into this category to some extent, as those who use the One Power are usually taught specific patterns and weaves which accomplish various goals, almost like combining precise amounts of chemicals to get a desired reaction.

I loved Mistborn (and most of Wheel of Time), so I’m not surprised that I automatically wanted to come up with an explanation for magic and a system to lay out most of what is possible by its use.

What I wanted to avoid is the ubiquitous “I can do anything because *poof* MAGIC!”

Video games can use systems like “mana” or “willpower” to explain and limit how much magic a person can wield at any given time. But for my taste, that doesn’t work well in writing. I can’t really see writing, “Lyllithe wanted to cast a spell, but she was tired.”

Tabletop RPGs have their various systems as well; in old school D&D, your wizard had to choose from the spells he or she knew and memorize a few for the next day. The character would only have access to those spells, so the player had to guess what might be useful for the next few encounters and choose accordingly. In the newest D&D, your wizard has a few powers that are “easy” enough that he or she can use them all the time, but the really powerful abilities still have to be chosen on a daily basis.

Still, I can’t see writing, “Lyllithe had already used up her memorized spells that day, so she took out a dagger and began stabbing Deviols.”

And again, most of these are systems that let you use magic simply because you can.

I wanted a somewhat technological “magic” for the Bordermarches, and I wanted something more pseudo-science than just “Magic does whatever I want.”

So, in a butchering of the physics I learned in school, I thought about potential energy and kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the energy of a thing in motion; potential energy is the energy that could be released if the object is set in motion. Borrowing from Wikipedia’s explanation, think of a roller-coaster. As the coaster is lifted up to the top of the hill, it builds potential energy. Something is working against gravity to raise the roller-coaster. So when the coaster stops at the top, it has its maximum potential energy. When it goes over the edge, it has kinetic energy, and at the bottom, its kinetic energy is greatest.

Matter (or technically the mass of matter) has energy.

Magic in the Bordermarches is about “refocusing” that energy from a body of mass into… well, whatever. It can be refocused into different mass — turning a sword into liquid, turning a rock into a ball of fire that the caster hurls at enemies, making the stone floor of a building temporarily gelatinous in order to trap an enemy when the stone reverts back to its original form.

Mass is energy is mass, so you can shift one to the other to another using whatever resources are available to you. Imagine siphoning the kinetic energy of a waterfall into a super-heated stream of fire you spray toward your foes. Picture “catching” and refocusing the arrows of your enemies into balls of lightning you throw back at them.

There has to be a limit to this world-bending. 

I came up with a few.

1) If you’re a natural human, and thus not tied by blood to the elemental races (more on that later), then you have to have an eyepiece called an Ocular in order to manipulate magic.  I liked the idea of an eyepiece because it can be almost anything: a monocle, a pair of glasses, a special lens installed in a plate metal helm, a glass suspended over one eye like a pirate’s patch, and so on.

An eyepiece can also be removed in combat, rendering the caster ineffective. And these eyepieces are numerous, but given the “fallen empire” setting of the Bordermarches, the means of making new Oculars has been lost. There’s a limited number of devices out there.

2) Having an Ocular doesn’t give you access to limitless power. The quality of the device affects the amount of energy it can refocus. Push too much energy through it, and you risk burning it up, like a blown fuse.

3) Your available power also depends on what resources you’re willing to use. The exchange from one form to another is not favorable. The thousands of gallons of falling water in the waterfall may fuel a stream of fire for mere seconds.

4) Perhaps the most important limitation is that you cannot take energy from a living thing; you can’t refocus a person into a puddle, or turn a dog into a fireball.  Only inanimate objects can be used for refocusing.

So how does Refocusing work?

First, the caster takes energy from a source he or she can see. Since I like the idea of borrowing from Christian themes and concepts without going full Narnia-style allegory, I chose from Scripture (with my wife’s help) the terms of binding and loosing. The wearer of the Ocular looks at a source of energy and Glancebinds, drawing energy into the Ocular, up to the device’s inherent limit.

The caster can choose to draw on more energy than the Ocular can safely handle, but this risks great pain, permanent injury, and probable destruction of the device in the process.

After Glancebinding, the caster has a choice. They can Loose that energy, turning it into a different kind of mass or energy. This is how they can liquefy a stone floor or turn a waterfall into a fireball.

They can also Shackle the energy instead, charging up a ring or circuit of metal on their person. A wealthy caster might wear several circuits, and a wise caster will keep all those circuits charged, ready to be Unshackled as a source of immediate energy in time of need. The drawback is that charged circuits glow bright, so it’s tough to keep their presence a secret.

I feel like I’ve touched more on Sanderson’s Second Law than the First.

Oddly enough, though I was inspired by Mistborn and Sanderson’s First Law to create a magic system with clear rules, I believe Refocusing follows the Second Law more closely. The caster can do almost anything with the energy/mass they Glancebind. They’re just limited by what and how much they can Glancebind.

I did better capturing the First Law in my system of how Divine power works… but to explain that, I need to explain the relationship of the Divine to the world of the Bordermarches. So that’s next.

Bordermarches: Science

“You can have faith in science and the wisdom of men, or you can have faith in what God has said. I choose God.”

Welcome to the Bordermarches series, where I hope to introduce the fantasy world and the story I am writing. I provided a brief introduction, but now I want to talk about what makes this different from all the other fantasy books out there vying for your limited reading time.

More than anything else, frustration at that sentiment above inspired me to make a change to the world.

A long-time friend on FaceBook had been posting a variety of arguments about evolution, questioning the science behind it. I can understand some skepticism and the desire for “proof.” It’s natural to want to see evidence before accepting someone’s claim about a subject like the origins of life.

But the idea that science and faith are incompatible or diametrically opposed bothers me.

Watch out, your mind is about to explode.

Maybe I’ve been listening to too much Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining how science actually works.

I dislike the black-and-white idea that says I can either accept a particular literal interpretation of Scripture, or I can reject God by accepting the work of the scientific community in various areas. I really dislike the thought that “There is no in-between.”

And the fact is, I often hear this point of view expressed in the Christian community. So that made exploring science and faith even more interesting to me.

My friend and I talked at length about this supposed dichotomy, and always the argument came down to “If you believe science, you’re rejecting God’s Word. If you believe God’s Word, then you have to reject science that doesn’t line up with God’s Word.”

In what sort of world is science a problem?

The “theocracy” angle is the natural first answer. I could certainly set up an extreme religious government opposed to technology and progress. But I didn’t want to go that route. It just seems too easy… or like I’m pandering too much to my atheist and agnostic friends who are even more frustrated than me by American refusal to accept what science teaches us.

Even though I do not intend to use this sort of storyline, I can still employ it on an individual level. Surely there are some religious leaders or people in power who might say:

“Thoughts are like arrows; dangerous if not guided by a skilled hand and a disciplined mind.”

I could try for “science running amok” and have some villain or evil government using technology to accomplish twisted goals. But that is the opposite end of the spectrum, playing to my religious friends who question what science tells us based on how it may affect beliefs we hold dear. This held no interest for me, either, though I can certainly use this on an individual level as well.

Science is a tool for discovering the world around us. Not only that, but pure science gives us a logical and orderly way to record and accumulate knowledge about the workings of… well, everything. Those discoveries inspire inventions which change our lives and drive progress as a civilization. We build on the lessons learned over generations before us.

I have always pictured a world whose pure scientific technological development is right on the cusp of gunpowder. Sure, there are “magic” devices and artifacts of power that defy the norm. But the common person is limited to mostly medieval technology prior to the widespread use of gunpowder to wage war.

I never thought about why that should be the limit, other than “that seems to be the case in the settings I’m familiar with,” and “that works for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.” (Keep in mind, this was originally developed because I was trying to write a campaign for a tabletop RPG group.)

You have discovered one of the best games ever!

I also never considered this an imposed limit. It was just where this world was at on the technology development tree in my head. (Yes, I’m picturing the tree from Civilization II, and the little pop-up message announcing that ‘The Bordermarches has discovered Gunpowder!”)

The thought hit me: What if a pattern had emerged over thousands of years and dozens of civilizations? What if those peoples and nations who continually sought scientific advancement met in every case with a terrible and inexplicable calamity?

Put yourself there in this world. You’re a simple farmer in a small mountain village. You feed the miners who dig up the ore that the smiths in the cities need.

You know that the city of Athoni several leagues to the east has an advanced education system. In their schools, students experiment with all sorts of natural materials, recording their observations and discovering new ways to mix various elements together to create powerful compounds.

They have doctors who have pierced the veil of flesh to reveal the inner workings of the human body. They have looked on the matters of the Divine, and now they claim we are not much different from the animals we hunt. You should see the drawings they have made.

These doctors believe that they can find medicinal uses for some of the compounds created from plants and minerals. They expect that with the right compounds, they can heal various ailments and wounds even better than the healers who minister by the power of the Divine. The order of healers, the Devoted, are not happy about this development at all. But the Lord of Athoni favors the path of learning, and refuses to stop the doctors’ progress.

They promise amazing discoveries and world-changing advances within your lifetime, and even though you’re just a farmer, you’re curious to see what comes of all of this.

Then one day, the ground shakes like a leaf in a gale. The skies darken. Word eventually comes from the east. Travelers report that Athoni is gone. Everything and everyone in the city have completely vanished, and all that remains is a scorched crater. There is no explanation.

After over two millennia of this, as several civilizations and population centers disappear or are destroyed with no explanation, people would make the connection.

You start messing with science, bad things happen.

“Maybe there were a bunch of freak accidents. Maybe science is dangerous like that.”
“No, maybe it was the wrath of the Divine instead. We weren’t meant to know these things, and so we get punished when we push too far.”
“No, maybe those people destroyed themselves; perhaps it wasn’t an accident at all. You know how twisted scientists are…”

At the very least, I want pure science to be a taboo of sorts, frowned upon and whispered about when no one is looking. To some of the people in the Bordermarches, it will be a heinous and self-serving evil. “How could you put your pursuits ahead of the safety and welfare of the city around you?” To others, it will be viewed as deviant and repulsive. And to a select few, it will be thought of as a legitimate approach to unlocking the mysteries of the world around us.

Given the above, any experimentation or methodical study must meet the approval of the Sages of the Academy–remember, that arrow needs a hand to guide it.

Perhaps this is the sort of world some want, where a religious order ultimately decides what science is permitted and what is not, what science is in accordance with the will of the Divine and what does not conform.

But the Sages do this not to enforce a religious view or prevent their religion from being disproven. They know that there are craters and ruins around the world, a testament to what happens when a society goes too far and learns too much. Learn from history, or you will repeat it.

Their fear is not that their precious beliefs will be shattered, but that their society will be.

So… enough of the fear-mongering. That’s a rough, mostly spoiler-free synopsis of how science is viewed in the world of the Bordermarches.

Next up, what would a fantasy novel be without some element of magic?

Bordermarches: Intro

“Your subjects despair at the chaos around them. Your nobles still look to the old lords who founded this land, and hope that the Cerunae might return to set it to order. They do not know what I have seen. The Empire you wait for, the glories of old you hope to see restored… Your fallen cities are all that remains of it.”

Welcome to the Bordermarches — the setting for the book(s) I am writing, as well as a number of tabletop RPG campaigns I’ve run.

First, some background:

In 2008, I deployed to the Mid-East for a few months. Just before I left, a friend suggested starting a tabletop RPG group at his house. While I was sitting around in “the desert” between flights, I was looking for something to do. Then the exchange set up a display stand for the core rulebooks of the newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons: the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I had some extra money and thought, “I’ll check this out.”

The core rulebooks inspired the original version of my setting. They describe a flawed and dangerous world, a place where civilization huddles in ‘points of light’ surrounded by darkness and the unknown. For the purpose of the rulebooks, the writers suggest the backdrop of a long-fallen empire, an ancient power that spanned the known world and left secrets behind in its ruin.

Naturally, this works great for a campaign.

What technology might the ancient empire have possessed? What’s left of that?

What power or magic did they know? Can it be learned today?

Who or what destroyed them? And is that destructive force still around?

Does it lie dormant, biding its time, its hunger growing as the day of its return approaches?

Or was it a tremendous global calamity, a meteor strike for example?

Has that devastation become a legend of gods casting fire to the earth in their wrath?

And perhaps it was an act of the Divine after all?

If so, what prompted it? Some rampant evil that now rises again and threatens a global judgment?

Needless to say, there are almost limitless options.

And that’s assuming you don’t decide the empire in question is actually still intact and in control.

Since it gives so many options, I ran with that general idea… a world in decline, a realm under siege on all sides, an unstable government struggling to stand while crippled by corruption within.

In the world of the Bordermarches, the Cerune Empire has fallen. Its Amethyral Throne has been bereft of a rightful Imperial for several hundred years. Wars and squabbling for power consumed most of the Empire’s greatness.

However, in the centuries prior to its decline, Cerune sought to expand its reach to other continents. A grand expedition carried the Emperor’s banner across the seas to found a seat of power on a new continent. Opportunity and hope brought great numbers to this new land, and the Cerunae spread until natural borders or strong resistance stopped them.

The Snowcap Mountains cross the north, separating this land from the tundra nation of Glacierift.  The jagged peaks of Tiernalen’s Wall form the eastern edge, and none return who venture into the forests on the other side. To the distant southeast, arid wastes and twisted magic prevent further expansion. The gloom of Feyshadow Fen marks the western border, between the Snowcaps and the bay where the Cerunae first landed.

This distant addition to the Empire marked the furthest edge of Cerune’s power, the borders of its reach. Four City-States took root across the expanse: Mirelenai, the crime-ridden port city where the Empire first landed; Lanaloth, the city of harvest that provides food for most of the realm; Aelwyn, known for the finest craftsmanship and most courageous warriors; and Aulivar, the greatest and highest of the Cities. Though each seeks its own interests, they are also bound by a mutual defense pact in case of a greater regional threat.

And such threats now arise against the Marches.

To the north, Glacierift has collapsed, descending into madness and violence. Its former soldiers and desperate refugees seek aid from Aulivar, and where they do not find it, they take what they need by force.

To the east, contact has been lost with many of the scattered mining villages that supply Aelwyn’s smithies. The few gibbering survivors speak of bloodthirsty savages. Tiernalen’s Wall has held back the remnants of the Cerunae from further expansion, but it does not prevent outsiders from pouring into the Marches.

To the southeast, the Army of the Marches stands watch over the border of the Wastes–a border that encroaches steadily on the green fields and farmlands of Lanaloth. Merchants and travelers no longer cross the Wastes freely, and the few who risk the journey bring reports of the Orghûl preparing for war.

And in the southwest, Mirelenai crumbles under the weight of its own corruption. The Seamistress and her loyalists wage a losing war against organized criminals and the power-hungry nobles who fund them.

The days are dark for the Marches, and hope dwindles in the face of such opposition, like a flickering candle at midnight.

And there is one who seeks to extinguish it…

So there you have it, the introduction to the Bordermarches. Sadly, with this limited information, it’s run-of-the-mill fantasy fare. But I hope to reveal and explain some core concepts that I believe set it apart as unique.

And right off the bat on that list is the “troubling complications of scientific progress.”

Pride

PRIDE

Disclaimer: This is a *fictional* story, not an actual personal experience. I hope to do something like this some day, and to live out love like this every day. But this is just a short story.

It’s common knowledge that “God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble.” – James 4:6 MSG

I step out of the van and ignore the immediate hostility of passers-by.

Two cross-dressers glare at me as they head toward the parade route. A man is crawling on the pavement in leather chaps; he has a leash around his neck, and another man is ‘walking’ him. He barks at me.

These are among the more tame participants. It strikes me as odd that in such a crowd, I am the one who gets strange looks.

If I am embarrassed at all now, well… it’s going to get a lot worse.

I make my way to the edge of the crowd and try to squeeze through to the front. I need to be visible if this is going to be of any value. When people turn and see me, they assume they know what I’m here to do. I get jostled and shoved a few times as I gently push my way through. “Bigot,” one person says. “Homophobe! Go home!”

“Get out of the closet already, Bible-thumper.”

The police are out in force. Pride parades often get a lot of attention, not all of it good. That one church from Kansas is lined up farther down the street. Some local churches have put up their own signs, not willing to be outdone by these famous out-of-towners with the “God hates fags” posters.

The cops are busy keeping people marching in the parade from getting into fights with the various protest groups. None of them notice when I finally reach the rope that marks the edge of the parade route.

I stand at the edge and lean out, a Jesus in Teva sandals, a wig, and a polyester white robe with a red sash I borrowed from our church drama team. The beard is mine, scraggly but full enough after two months of growth.

The first few people to see me react in anger, swearing, shaking fists. “You don’t belong here,” they yell, along with some other choice words. People in the crowd throw half-empty Starbucks cups and large sodas and McDonald’s cheeseburgers. Ketchup and mustard splatter across my white sleeve.

No one throws rotten fruit any more. It’s not readily available, and it’s too expensive.

The folks marching in the parade are not happy to see me, either. Rainbow signs with witty slogans are shoved in my face. I don’t know if they’re meant to block my view with their message, or block the view of the other marchers so that no one else has to see another religious jerk condemning everyone in sight.

“What’s another name for the Crucifixion?” one guy asks the girl next to him, loud enough for me to overhear. She shrugs.

“A good start,” he says.

She laughs, and glances my way, her smile turning into a sneer.

I reach out a hand to those marching, and someone spits at it. The next person ignores me, stepping away.

“I am sorry,” I say, and he looks back, brow furrowed. But he’s too far past me now.

Mostly all I get from the faces in the crowd is the strong sense that I am unwelcome–a defensive posture and wounded expression that demands to know, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. This is ours… go away.”

I catch another guy’s hand, someone in a leather jacket, boots, and briefs. He recoils in disgust, but then I say, “I am sorry for how we have hurt you,” and he pauses.

Someone else spits on me. “Go back to the tomb, Jeebus.” His partner winks at me and says, “Hey, baby, I’ll nail ya.” They walk away laughing.

The man in the leather jacket, whose hand I grabbed–he simply nods to me, and I think I see his eyes glisten as he turns and continues in the parade.

A thin guy explodes into a rant with more f-bombs than actual words, arms waving, fists clenched. “What the f’ing f are you f’ing trying to do, f’er? You f’ing f’s think you’re f’ing doing any good with your f’ing ‘God hates fags’ signs and your f’ed up little white dress? Do you really f’ing think I give one good f’ing G-D what the f you f’ing have to say to me? F!!! I f’ing hate you, I f’ing hate your f’ing book that does f-all to teach love and tolerance, and I f’ing hate the f out of the f’ing God you represent! What now?”

He gets in my face.

“I’m sorry,” I say, and a tear runs down my cheek. “I’m sorry for how we have hurt you.”

He opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.

I think of the recent news stories I’ve heard, the angry sermons on the Internet, the callous defenses of indefensible statements.

“I’m sorry for how we’ve let people say we should ‘smack the gay out of children,’ or put them behind electric fences.”

He says nothing now, but he continues staring at me.

“I’m sorry for how we’ve pointed the finger at all of you, instead of preaching against our own arrogance, our own pride, our own prejudice and hatred. I’m sorry for how we act like you are less than human.”

“I came to say I’m sorry for my people and what we have done.”

His friend grabs his arm and pulls him away. “Come on, man.” But he keeps looking back, and I see him mouth the words, “Thank you.”

Another person spits on me, and a big guy just happens to hit me with his elbow. “Bigot,” he mutters.

This pattern repeats itself for an hour and a half, some people accepting my hand in friendship, many slapping it aside at first, some of them turning back to acknowledge the apologies I offer.

One of the people in the crowd behind me tugs at my shoulder. He’s holding a black leather Bible, with the gold edges on the pages and a little fish over a monogram in the corner of the cover. “You’re in the wrong place, brother. We’re all protesting at the other end of this block.” He points to where the angry people are waving their signs and shouting Scripture like a battle cry.

I nod and remain in my spot on the street.

Two women walk by, arm-in-arm. The blonde says, “You want us to confess our sins, pervert? We’ve been verrry naughty.”

They giggle as they approach. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Bible Guy watching.

“I would like to confess my sins to you,” I say.

“Ooooh,” the other coos. “Kinky. Yeah, do it.”

“I am sorry for the double standards we use to judge you,” I begin, and the smiles disappear.

“I am sorry for acting like one sin is worse than any other, for acting like our sins don’t matter to God as much as yours. I’m sorry for behaving like we’re better than you.”

They are quiet, holding hands, waiting as I continue. Bible Guy storms off to rejoin his protest.

“I am sorry for treating you like you don’t deserve our love–like you don’t deserve God’s love.”

The parade marches on behind them. I look at them through tear-clouded vision.

“I love you. We love you. I am sorry for how often we fail to show it. We shouldn’t see you as what you do, but I know we also do that. Please accept my apology on behalf of my people.””

I extend a hand after wiping it off on a clean spot of my robe. They hug me instead, ignoring the chopped onions and ketchup and diet Dr. Pepper.

We stand there, hugging, for about a minute before they thank me and move on.

Bible Guy is back with friends, and they’re not happy. “Don’t you know Leviticus says homosexuals are an abomination and the Bible says it’s a sin?”

“I know,” I reply.

“Yeah, well, maybe you need to get your Gospel straight before you come out here supporting all these queers.”

“I know what the Bible says about homosexuality, and so does the rest of the world,” I fire back. “What they don’t know, what they aren’t seeing, is what the Bible says about loving others!”

“Hey Jimmy,” Bible Guy says to one of his friends, “What do you think we should do with false Christs?”

It takes a couple minutes for the police to respond to the situation and break up the fight. I’m the freak in an offensive costume, so I end up in the handcuffs. “For your protection, bud,” one of the cops tells me as he drags me away from the parade.

Sitting in the back of the paddy wagon, I pull off the wig and rub a bloody jaw.

“Not the smartest move ever for the Son of God, eh, bud?”

“Yeah, I guess not.” I answer. I don’t believe that, though. I felt the hugs, I spotted tears, I saw the faces change from rage to respect. “Then again, things didn’t go so well for Him either, so it’s nothing new.”

The cop laughs. “I thought I saw those punks head back over to the protest after we grabbed you. You sure got them riled.”

“They’re mad because I used to be one of the ones holding signs.”

“Oh… yeah, I used to hate dealing with this parade each year, too. And then my son started marching in them.”

He offers me a cup of water. “Take it you get beat up by Christians a lot?”

“You’d be surprised.” I take a drink. “It was the religious leaders that wanted Jesus dead, not the so-called sinners.”

“Feh.” The cop looks back out to the crowd. “I just wish those guys would go back to their caves sometimes.”

“They can’t help it,” I reply. “They kind of belong here. The event is all about celebrating pride. They’re just full of a different kind.”

Jinxie

I had a silly thought today while waiting for our jet to get fixed. I do have the nickname mentioned in this story, and I do love to say the most horrible things about what could go wrong… so I thought of a fun “power” for a fictional character to have, and jotted down a rough idea of his story.

JINXIE

Aircrew are a superstitious lot.

“Don’t eat your lunch during maintenance delays on the ground,” they say, “or else you’re sure to fly your full sortie.”

“Don’t say that equipment, or weather, or the aircraft, or the evaluation, or any blasted thing is ‘good to go,’ because that means it won’t be.”

“If you DO say such a thing, knock on wood, or else you’re jinxing us.”

Well, our Navigator said some things yesterday, and knocked really hard on the plastic top of the mission planning room podium. But here we are, delayed again for… five, six… no, seven different issues with this fifty-year-old plane.

But the pilot says they all check out good now, so we’re ready to press on with our day.

Apparently, plastic lecterns don’t have the same natural anti-Jinx powers of wood. Maybe it’s something like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Did you knock on it, and you were not jinxed? Then SHE’S A WITCH! BURN HER!”

I make it a point to jinx us as often as possible. “Well, we know that the mission software will all be accounted for and ready to go when we get to the jet!”

Or, “You know there will be perfect data-link connections with all the other participants.”

“All the radios will be loud and clear all day… of course they will! Why wouldn’t they be?”

Aircrew usually end up with a nickname of some kind, a handle based more often than not on some profound mistake that serves as the basis for a great story. My friends call me Jinxie now. That’s mine. They want me to watch my mouth, and they glare at me when I make an innocent joke about diverting to a different airfield or cancelling a flight because of some catastrophic emergency.

To be fair, both of those events were pure coincidence.

“Be careful what you wish for,” I suppose. My friends would agree with that ubiquitous logic.

That’s when it hit me. I should be careful. Why not use these powers for good?

“We’ll probably find another tanker for air refueling since we can’t meet up with the first one as planned.”

Nope! No tankers available right now; they’ve all given up their fuel loads to other aircraft.

You’re telling me that in the absolutely largest logistic organization of the most powerful, worldwide-capable Air Force, where we provide millions of pounds of JP-8 jet fuel every day, we cannot possibly find one tanker that has just a bit of gas?

Nope. Jinx.

“That convoy is going through the thickest concentration of insurgent positions with snipers, RPGs, IEDs, and every other God-forsaken acronym, all of them looking to spill American blood. Our boys are in for trouble.”

Morbid, maybe. But go with me on this.

Those guys drive right through the hottest part of eastern Afghanistan, where we’ve been seeing troops in contact with enemy forces every single day for the last two months… and today, not a peep.

Maybe the bad guys are busy picking poppies today. Maybe they’re meeting to protest girls attending school in the classrooms the Coalition built. Maybe they’re busy with young Afghan boys. I don’t know or care.

All I know is our guys got through safe, despite me naming every bad situation I could think of.

Or maybe because of it?

Either way, jinx. Insha’Allah.

“You’ve got a gift; use it well.” Of course, my Dad was talking about playing piano, but the meaning still applies. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah, Spider-Man was probably talking about something else too. But you get the point.

We always brief that every crewmember has a voice. if you see something happening that doesn’t look right or safe, speak up about it.

My handle is Jinxie, and I plan to speak up a lot.

Vestigial Souls

(inspired by two “word of the day” exercises, for “vestigial” and “subtilize”)
For the Agworkers of Sector 5, nothing ever changed. Nothing needed to change, because every need had already been taken into account… every need but one.

Cado paused to take a deep breath. His chiseled muscles rippled under his pale skin as he hefted the bag of ferti-seed over his shoulder, and sweat dripping from his brow to the fresh-tilled earth below. Filtered sunlight washed over the domed production field.

This week’s crop would help satisfy the famine, he thought as he knelt and aimed the spout. The moist chemigenetic mixture of seed, fertilizer, and enhanced soil trickled out into the softened furrows Cado made earlier in the day.  There was tell that last week’s harvests met the monthly quota for Ag-Industrial Sector 5, where Cado worked. The next two weeks’ produce was destined for transport.

“From those with plenty, to those who have need,” the Maxim echoed in Cado’s mind. He knew it was his duty; it was everyone’s duty. But more than that, it just made sense. The soil would not support life on its own without scientific enhancements, and the famine’s impact on the food supply meant everyone had to do their part. DoD gathered all “nurtural” produce and allocated all resources for the good of all the varied Sectors in the Union, each with their specialized industries.

The speakers blared the signal for midday rest, and Cado stooped once more to set the seed bag down, avoiding the green shoots already poking through the wet earth. He double-checked the spout to ensure none of the precious material leaked out. Waste not, want not. Ferti-seed cost the Union time and energy to produce; it was everyone’s responsibility to prevent waste.

There was a row of shade-trees at the edge of the tilled fields, and Cado made for his favorite spot. Before he sat down, he plucked one of the dozen ripe red-orange citrus apples that beckoned to him off the lower branches. The pulpy flesh of the fruit was filling as always, a nutritious lunch, acceptable fuel for an afternoon of hard work in the farm complex. The juice rehydrated his body and the gnawing in his belly quieted down somewhat.

Far above, the safety-shield tint of the dome’s hexagonal panels shifted to transparency. The full, dangerous light of the sun burned through the empty sky onto the fields below during the midday break. The ferti-seed was designed to handle what Cado was not. Just before the next bell, the radiation shields would be back in place, protecting the Ag-Ind workers. The Manager thought of everything.

Cado took another bite. The vitamins and electrolytes which enriched the fruit energized his body. The weariness drained out of his muscles. Cado felt ready to jump up and finish the field ahead of schedule. But it was scientifically proven that the seventeen-point-five minute midday rest was essential for maximum production. It was another detail the Manager took into account. Cado closed his eyes and began the proper deep-breathing regimen.

A soft female voice broke the silence.  “It’s perfect, isn’t it?”

Cado’s right eye opened in a narrow slit. “Lilly, this is not social time,” he hissed.

“I know,” she whispered back as she peeked around the tree.

She was three years his junior, according to her Personal Information File. Two years ago, when she first arrived in Ag-Ind Sec 5, he had accessed her file. He was surprised to find above average marks for physics, technological development, comprehensive theoretical application, and a few words he didn’t even know. Cado wondered back then how it was that the Aptitude Testing & Allocation branch of the Department of Distribution had found her suitable for grain production.

Then he remembered he did not work in DoD for a reason. He was a simple Agworker. The Manager’s judgment was infallible, his purpose pure: From those with plenty, to those with need, for the good of the Union.

And as far as Cado could tell, Lilly had been a dependable worker. Ag-Ind workers who did not meet DoD-mandated quotas were reassessed and transferred to a task better suited to their education or medical condition. Everyone had a place in the Union.

Lilly giggled, and Cado was shocked to see her bare feet in the thick grass, verdant blades between her wiggling toes.  “Why have you taken off your workboots?” he barked.

“I don’t need them to sit in the shade, silly,” she countered, and then added with a mischievous whisper, “It’s… pleasant, relaxing. You should try it.”

Cado’s face wrinkled at the archaic word. Relaxing? No one talks that way any more. “You should have a care about such non-standard behavior, Lilly. Why are you acting this way?”

She snickered, and he heard her take a bite from a citrus apple. “Mmm… it’s jusht–“  She paused to swallow. “Oh, that’s so tasty after a few hours’ of good hard work.  Look at the sunlight, how the dust dances and sparkles over the field… I don’t know, it just makes me feel…” she stumbled over the words. “Warm… and alive.”

Eyes open wide now, he shot quick glances to the left and right. Unless some Ag-Ind workers had received aural upgrades, no one should have heard her comments. But they will soon, if she doesn’t stop talking like this.

She continued without concern. “A few weeks ago, a small pebble stuck in my boot heel, and I took off my boot to get it out. When my toes touched the grass, it felt…” She sighed as she reached for words. “Soothing… tender… ticklish…”

Cado struggled to understand, but the concepts were so alien, the words unfamiliar and unused.

She turned to face him. He caught his breath at the sight of her auburn eyes; there was more energy in her gaze than a bushel of citrus apples could provide. She smiled, and he felt his cheeks burn, though he could not say why.

“You have some stuck to your face,” she said with a laugh as she plucked her right glove off. He sat frozen as she reached out to brush small bits of orange away from the stubble on his chin. Her hand lingered, stroking the sharp lines of his jaw, fingertips rubbing with a raspy noise across his rough face.

Cado found her touch uncomfortable… no, terrifying.  His cheek tingled at her caress; her hand felt like electricity against his skin.

The bell sounded the end of the midday rest. Lilly smiled and replaced her glove as she turned. Cado watched her jogging–almost dance–back to the field. He took a much-needed breath and returned to his work. But every so often, he caught himself stealing a glance at Lilly. Worse than that, a couple of times he caught her watching him.

It wasn’t even two months later that Lilly was reassigned from Sector 5. Cado thought about her as he ate his midday citrus apple, guessing at what position she might have been given. He did not investigate; it was not within his purview to ask. Whatever it was, he knew it was for the best. No doubt, she was reassessed and positioned where her skills and intelligence could better serve the Union.

Eyes closed and engaged in the deep-breathing regimen, Cado smiled.

Lilly was right. The grass did feel soothing between his toes.

"Enthrall"

McKennon adjusted the straps of his backpack that kept getting caught on his flak vest shoulderguards. Can’t have this bouncing around when I get the signal… need to be able to drop it in a flash, too. Beads of sweat formed around the rim of his dark wool cap. Hopefully the camo on my face is still dark enough.

He waited for the signal with an eyepiece, huddled in an alley behind an old rusted-out car, watching an abandoned building two blocks up the street. “Let Jun make it,” he whispered hopefully, a prayer to no god in particular. It was hard to believe that God cared any more.

I think He’s been out of work for a while now.

The Volani sure hadn’t. McKennon tried not to think about it; they said that’s what drives people mad. Think about how things were and how they are now, you start losing faith that we could make a difference. People would just give up on the Resistance. Not turn themselves in, not turn others in, just turn themselves off. They’d take out their buds and give in to Peace.

The constant hum in his earbuds was usually easy to ignore, but it was in moments like these that the buzzing got to him. Sitting in silence, waiting. That’s when he could hear it, when he couldn’t help but hear it.

He used to go diving as a teenager growing up along the tropical coastline, and his mind often went back to that whenever he heard the buzzing. He imagined trying to go through the rest of his life with an oxygen mask on his face, living underwater. Could it be done? Sure, maybe. But it would be maddening.

High-power speakers on cell towers and subtle adjustments to radio transmitters ensured the Volani signal was always out there, like an ocean waiting to drown your ears. The earbuds were pumping a scrambling frequency of static to keep the Peace out.

The Volani must have started out small, McKennon guessed. Maybe they built an initial cadre of ground personnel and brought key figures into their fold. The strange policy changes here and there, the bumbling way most nations lurched toward a one world parliamentary government practically out of the blue… By then, the leading minds in the Resistance figured the Volani had flipped the switch, brought everyone within earshot of a cell or radio tower under their fold.

He thought of Jun again. She should be flashing the signal in – he checked his watch – two minutes.

Scar it, but I never thought I’d be relying on North Koreans. It was one of the few places in the world where the aliens hadn’t gained any ground. The freemind Koreans developed the scramblers and started the Resistance when radio waves beamed in from China and the ROC were brainwashing Kim Pak Il’s precious people. Only Korean dictators get to do that, you know.

North Korea… those crazies were alien enough before the Volani dreadnoughts showed up; the two groups had a lot in common.

Well… had, until the Volani bombarded the Peninsula into the ocean.

McKennon did one last function check on his gear. All the circuits flashed active. One minute. He looked over the device, impressed. The freemind Afghans knew their business. Then again, this was nothing new to them.

The aliens were using human infrastructure already in place to run their signals, including vulnerable computer networks. Jun was trained by Chinese hackers; she would have no trouble tapping into their servers. The trouble was that it would trigger an alarm. And that was why McKennon was there.

He took a few deep breaths, desperate to slow the racehorse pounding in his chest. This was it. His hand gripped the stock of his AK, and he crouched like a runner ready for a sprint. He pictured his daughter and son as they had been the last time he’d seen them, mindlessly carrying out their duties in the work camps. This was for them. He was ready.

The IR strobe flashed twice, invisible to all eyes but his eyepiece. She was in. He bolted out of the alley, turned up the road, and charged toward the hardened facility. One alarm went off, a clanging bell, and then a siren. They knew she was in the network.

He kept his swift stride as he raised the AK. The security guards were watching their monitors, discussing the situation. He triggered two short bursts, and the guards’ legs no longer supported their weight. They should live, McKennon thought with a grim smile. At least someone will.

The front door of the building was sealed as soon as the alarm went off. McKennon smashed the plastique charge in his pocket against the locking mechanism, and turned away as it blew.

He put the muzzle of the AK into the newly-made hole and let loose, keeping the security personnel in cover. Then he ripped open the door and burst in, laying down more fire, moving for the nearest support pillar. Plaster sprayed as the guards shot back, and McKennon slapped a new banana clip in.

Running and gunning, he made it to the stairwell unscathed. Jun should be accessing tech data by now. The real goal of the mission was to gather information on the signals so the Resistance could one day shut them down on a large scale. McKennon was the distraction and the cover for Jun’s operation. The Volani can’t find out that their network was compromised.

He made it to the second floor, taking out a guard in the stairwell. He dropped a flash-bang down the stairs to delay the guards, and ran on.

Buy her time.

That thought, and all others, left his mind as he took a punch across the face that stopped him cold. Another in the ribs – he coughed on blood—and something wrapped up his arms and legs. His AK clattered on the floor.

A Volani! The jet-black humanoid held him suspended in the air. Fool, he heard in his mind. What did you hope to accomplish here?

Its hand reached up to yank the earbuds away from his head, and he heard laughing as everything faded.

Jun slammed the laptop shut; the download was complete. As she turned to leave, there was a blue flash, and then orange flames burst from the windows of the second floor. Did he set it off? Or was it the fail-safe? There was no way to be sure.

Either way, McKennon was gone. His last comm, before her signal, was “When this is all over, Jun, find my kids. Make sure they know this was for them.”

She smiled despite the glistening moisture that clouded her vision, and she scampered down the stairs to the unguarded exit. The bomb had a trigger circuit connected between the two earbuds so that if McKennon was compromised, the mission would still succeed. The EMP wiped the network of any trace of her presence before the bomb blew, just as planned.

Those Afghans sure knew their business.

"Cakewalk"

A steady breeze fought against the summer noonday blaze and swept across the gentle slope at the feet of the Chornauren Mountains. Unfazed by the heat, a small form in tattered clothes struggled on its way, one foot dragging behind, twisted, making a rasping noise as it slid upon the rocky ground.

Must… reach… Khordûn…

There were a few leagues to go yet. This was the difficult part, the part where Neldon had failed so many times before. The northern end of the Chornaurens was dotted with mines, property of the dwarvish kingdom he wanted to reach. He had to avoid them as long as possible, to delay contact until he could reach the city gates.

But many other creatures made their homes in mountain caves, creatures much less reasonable, far less diplomatic.

Less reasonable than dwarves… Neldon thought with a chuckle.

Save energy. Don’t think. He gave himself one more thought, goal in mind once again. Khordûn.

The twisted foot scratched through dirt and gravel as Neldon struggled on.

The ‘Marches were mostly wide open spaces, untamed, difficult to traverse safely by day, perilous by dark. He had been lucky last night; the moon was waning, but it was still near full. Even that limited light kept many of the mountain’s denizens in their caverns, and so he had shambled along all through the night.

There was no pain, no sense of the withering heat, no thirst or hunger. There was only the next step forward… never turning, always pointed for the gates of Khordûn.

The word had come to mean “hope” to Neldon, and so much more than that. If he was to survive, if he was to escape his daily torment, Khordûn would be the answer. The elves of Lanaloth were too far away to the south, and the human settlements across the plains were too small to help– what few survived the Bloodsworn invasion during the winter. Aelwyn might hold an answer, but that was a day’s travel past Khordûn at a healthy pace.

In the distance, Neldon thought he heard the sounding of a horn, and he scanned the sparse growth for cover. A few paces to his left, the stony ground rose sharply about half his height, and the tangle of bramble there would help. He turned hastily, lurching forward.

His injured foot caught on the sharp rocks, taking him off balance. Unable to fully catch himself, he slammed into the ground and thought he heard another bone break, this one in his arm.

A second horn sounded, and he heard shouting, too distant to make out. He had no time to worry about the injury, let alone get back on his feet. Crawling forward, pushing even with his misshapen foot, he half-lurched, half-skittered into his chosen hiding place.

Panic set in as he listened for approaching voices. He hadn’t expected to be spotted this far out. Had he attracted too much attention on his last few attempts?

The deep voices drew nearer, and he would have sighed in relief if he could. At least they were dwarves, and not goblins or worse. Dwarves of Khordûn. My only hope.

If they would listen this time.

“…saw it over there, I think!” one voice called.

“Sure moved quick if it were one o’ them again,” said another, a female with a tone of authority. “Spread out, lads. Be lookin’ out for others. They raid in packs.”

They raid at night, fool. I come each time alone in the light of day.

Stop thinking so much! Above all else, Neldon knew he must not be detected. A few stray thoughts here and there would not arouse Palla-Nel’s suspicion… or so Neldon hoped.

“Ya see anything?” the leader called out.

“Just rock and thistle down here,” a voice replied from nearby. “Strange, don’tcha think it, Ma’am?”

“What’s that, Torhalin?”

“Well, as ya said, there oughtta be a pack of ‘em about these slopes if there’s a one. But there ain’t. An’ you heard Hammerhelm’s patrol talk how they saw just one the other day too.”

“A scout, then,” she replied tersely.

Neldon peered through the bramble looking for the source of the nearby voice. The dwarf stood four paces from Neldon’s little refuge.

“I just–“ the dwarf continued. “It ain’t good sense, to come scout in the daylight across open ground.”

She ignored him and stamped further up the incline. The dwarf shook his head.

My chance… Neldon thought. Khordûn…

“…help… …me…”

The raspy whisper was just enough to get Torhalin’s attention, and the dwarf looked about as Neldon whispered again. “Help… me… …please…”

“…quietly…” Neldon whispered, but it was too late.

“It’s over here!” the dwarf yelled, and the others came lumbering down the hill, chainmail clinking, axes and hammers drawn.

Neldon knew this attempt had also failed, but he clung to a small hope. He rose from hiding, and spoke as clearly as he could muster.

“My name is Neldon Darowdin, from the town Delfindor. Our town was destroyed by a lich, who is now attacking you by night. He has–“

“Shut up, ya bag o’ filth!”

The squad leader roared as she sprang through the air, hammer swinging down toward the decayed form. Neldon tried to dodge, but the stroke connected with his right arm, tearing the skeletal limb from his ravaged body, scattering pieces of rotted flesh down the hill.

“The lich, Palla, is–“ he continued, salvaging what remained in this opportunity. But her next stroke tore through his jaw, shearing skull from spine. As his head fell away, she spun back around to plant the spiked end of her hammer deep in the undead creature’s ribcage.

By luck, the skull landed upright, and as the sickly green glow of undeath faded from its eye sockets, Neldon watched the other dwarf closely. Torhalin stared back, lips parted as with something to say, brow furrowed considering this strange event. Perhaps the message would get through this time. Someone would recognize the name from decades earlier.

Neldon returned to the black, the empty void. There was an advantage, however small, to the psychic bond formed when Palla consumed Neldon’s body and became Palla-Nel.

Neldon reached out tentatively, listening for any reaction from the lich at the loss of one of its slaves. Palla-Nel’s focus remained fixed on digging deeper under the mountain, seeking… always seeking. Seeking what, Neldon did not know, but while Palla-Nel’s attention was diverted elsewhere, Neldon could take another husk and send it on his fool’s errand.

This was the easy part. Just one simple, overriding thought filling the new husk’s head as it lumbered off. Khordûn. Must… reach… Khordûn.