Tag Archives: fantasy

Finding Allies

Readers: This is a scene I wrote for a character in a tabletop roleplaying game, someone out to do good even if their powers are misunderstood and condemned by society at large.


Fleuris ducked down the alleyway between wooden shops and hawker’s stands near the Quay, weaving her way between the meandering peasants ogling things they could never afford. She shot a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of sunlight sparkling off two shields emblazoned with the six-point sun of Aulivar.

Soulforged—champions of Justice and unwavering bastions of virtue. They’d chased her across mountains and rivers, over leagues and tendays. She’d tried to ditch them in the dark corners of every town and city in the ‘Marches, but still they maintained their pursuit.

Even among their zealous order, few sins earned such relentless retribution as necromancy.

If only they could let me explain… if only they could understand.

Her friends would be waiting at the docks… Trenton strumming his lute and singing a sailor chanty, Galla sharpening her longswords, Hakri meditating and memorizing a fresh array of war-spells. But the three companions wouldn’t be enough by themselves to take on the pirate crew… so Fleuris intended to bring help.

It shouldn’t be far now, and the ritual wouldn’t take long—provided the Order lost the trail along the way. Her prize lay at the edge of Mirelenai’s sprawl of ramshackle buildings and flimsy shanties. The dread pirate Bloodhook the Brutal, Captain of the mighty Dire Shark, scourge of the Bay of Raentallas, lay wrapped in tight sheets in a shallow grave outside the town. After the mutiny, Bloodhook’s crew buried him on land to prevent his spirit from returning to the seas he loved and lorded over—one last spiteful jab at the savage master who had beaten them into submission.

Now the Dire Shark sailed the bay once more, tormenting seafaring merchants and plundering their ships’ holds. The Seamistress would pour out a chest full of gems and gold coins on anyone who sent the Dire Shark to the ocean’s floor.

“Seize that girl!” a voice shouted from much too close behind her. Another shouted, “The Ghostskin in purple,” and Fleuris gasped. She zipped down a narrow walkway that stank like an open sewer, trying not to consider the filth staining the hem of her burgundy skirt. The deep violet cloak wrapped around her wispy frame obscured her face from view, and her gloves of thick, black lace helped hide the tell-tale alabaster skin the Order sought.

She hustled through the dim-lit walkway, headed for the sunlight at the far end. A few paces from the street, she stumbled over an unseen obstacle like a tree root, and glanced down, squinting in the darkness. A body of some poverty-stricken peasant lay slumped against a wall, not yet dead a full tenday, judging by the rate of decay.

Fleuris probed the supernatural realm with her heightened senses and latched onto a glowing spark of life hanging in limbo. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the soul, then again to the body on the ground. She yanked the life force from the ether and shoved it into the corpse, then watched the fruit of her labor.

The body clambered to its feet, loosing a swarm of flies and dropping chunks of flesh. Dead eyes stared at Fleuris, waiting.

She doffed her cloak, threw it over the corpse’s shoulders, and sent it a forceful command. Then she slipped into the crowds on the street, her step calm and sure despite the racing thrash of emotions and the rapid drumbeat in her chest.

After passing a few merchants, Fleuris paused at a tailor’s stand and reached for her coinpurse. “How much for the forest green cloak there,” she asked, “with the silver trim?”

While they exchanged offers and counter-offers, Fleuris caught the glimpse of her violet cloak near the walkway she’d passed through. The animated corpse shambled into the street and lumbered away from her, toward the busy docks at the heart of the town.

Fleuris threw the new garment over her shoulders and clasped the smooth material with a silver brooch under her chin. Then she froze in fear. Two dozen paces away, she spotted the pair of Soulforged from the Order, stomping their way through the crowd toward her.

“Undead!” Someone shouted in the distance, and another voice chimed in. “A walking corpse near the Ragged Sail! To arms!”

Other cries joined the throng, and the two Soulforged halted their approach. Then they dashed toward the commotion, swallowing whole the hook and bait she’d left them.

Fleuris turned her back to them and strode away with as casual a pace as she could muster. This road would curve toward the fields and foothills outside the town. A short walk by the bay in the afternoon breeze would lead to the grove which held Bloodhook’s remains.

Buried on a slope within earshot of the sea, but laid in a grave that faced away from the water… With cruel care, the Dire Shark’s crew had chosen the site of Bloodhook’s final resting place.

Not final, Fleuris corrected herself. He will rise again… I’ll see to that. Though he did nothing to atone for his crimes in life, he shall do much to repay them in death.

After all, Trenton and Galla had asked for allies on their quest. They didn’t specify living allies.

 


Note: This was written and inspired partly by discussions about whether a necromancer in D&D could possibly be considered “good.” My thoughts on the subject are found here, but I’d love to hear yours.

The Means Condemn the End

A post in which I contemplate something related to tabletop roleplaying games. Roll a Wisdom saving throw with a DC of 16; on a failure, you’re a geek (Level 5).

In my recent return to tabletop RPGs, I’ve joined some Facebook groups, discussed ideas with gamer friends, and watched some Youtube videos–both of live-streamed games and thoughts on how to run the game better.

One topic caught my eye: someone suggested the possibility of a “good” necromancer character, which triggered a lot of discussion. Shortly after reading the back-and-forth, I chatted with a co-worker about an upcoming group. “I’m thinking necromancer,” she said, which led to further discussion of the idea. The next day, I spotted a panel of experienced players covering a variety of topics, including:

Is necromancy inherently evil?

If you’re not familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons, first off, it’s not the gilded double-door into a witches’ coven or a neon-lit path into Satanism. Players take on the role of a hero or heroine in a fantasy setting: perhaps the beefy fighter or barbarian (think Aragorn, Eowyn or Conan), or a bearded wizard (Gandalf or Dumbledore). Maybe they choose a stealthy rogue or burglar (Bilbo Baggins, maybe Arya Stark) or someone with the power to heal (Elrond or Galadriel). One person plays the rest of the fantasy world… everything from the squire polishing armor to the great personalities like Jamie Lannister, Queen Cersei, and King Joffrey… all the bad guys, from the unnamed scrub Bandit #3 to the White Walkers to Ramsay Bolton and even Danaerys’ dragons.

In a game like this, monsters lurk around every corner, many of them with civilized faces to mask their dark hearts. In a game like this (usually), magic is real and so are the gods and goddesses who grant divine power to their faithful.

In a game like this, a wizard or other magic-user might even learn how to raise the dead and command the skeletons or zombies produced to fight for him or her.


It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you know all that already, so I’ll stop explaining the concepts and get back to the question:

Can there be such a thing as a “good” necromancer?

In other words, like the title suggests, in a game like D&D, are there some methods or powers that you cannot possibly justify using for noble purposes?

I flipped on the YouTube video of the discussion panel and skipped to the part about necromancy, hoping for some unique twists to add to my own ideas. To my surprise, all the participants shot the idea down without hesitation.

The best argument pointed out that in all societies, grave-robbing and defiling burial grounds are strongly forbidden and frowned upon. It’s kind of a universal rule. That being the case, one expects some severe consequences for any necromancer–a person who uses magic to animate the dead bodies of ancestors or loved ones. I think that’s a valid point and a consideration for how other characters in-game would interact with such an oddity. Fair point.

But then it devolved to “That’s just boring, lame character building.”  “A necromancer is evil just like paladins are lawful good.”  “It doesn’t make any sense–why in the would she do this?” One guy’s whole argument was “Necromancers are evil, because I ran a game with a guy who played one as the stereotypical ‘muahaha I shall make a city of undead and rule over it.’ And that dude was a jerk–I mean, apart from being a necromancer, he just was a bad person in game.”

I strongly disagree with all of these points, and not just because the idea of the good necromancer inspired a character and some creative writing. (I posted a scene with Fleuris earlier.)

I also think these points are poor arguments. So let me tackle these in order:

Good Necromancer is boring. Lame character building. 

Sure, if you want to create something that follows cookie-cutter norms. I suppose “the generous thief” or “the intelligent barbarian” or “the conflicted paladin” would also be lame.

Playing a character that doesn’t quite fit a stereotype–or rather, outright challenges it–can lead to fantastic role-playing moments.

In my first campaign, I had a player who rolled random dice for every decision about the character he was making. He ended up a Dwarf Paladin of Nature… something that doesn’t really fit the standard fantasy tropes. It made his backstory come alive–an outcast from his clan because of his strange religious views, a perfect ally to the husband and wife pair of elf rangers in the party, a hero with a cause to champion and built-in conflict a DM can exploit–er… use to craft interesting encounters.

Similarly, I had a player running a rogue in one campaign who, on our downtime, would tell me what his character was doing in the city. While his allies were off pursing personal goals and looking for leads on the next big score, the rogue would donate half his earnings to the orphanage that took him in as a child, and volunteer time with the kids. No one knew this was going on “in game” because it happened in messages and emails. His party members even got to the point of joking about how “you know how the rogues are, always sneaking some money and pick pocketing their way through the market.” But he played the most generous and selfless character I’ve seen in a campaign.

Yeah, playing against type is super lame. Don’t do it.

Of course there may be role-playing consequences. Not everyone will welcome a necromancer with open arms. Not everyone will buy the idea that “I’m using these powers for good.” But that’s all part of the fun and the conflict which makes RPGs great.

A necromancer is automatically evil, like paladins are automatically good.

One flaw in that statement: Depending on the edition of the game, paladins aren’t inherently good. If you’re devoted to an evil or chaotic deity, you probably lean toward Chaotic or Evil alignments. If a “good” deity can grant their champions powers and favor, so can a bad one. Paladins are just a mechanic for describing a warrior who is committed to a cause and blessed with divine power to pursue that cause.

Similarly, necromancy is a tool… one traditionally associated with evil, perhaps, but still a tool. But this logic is lost on some. One of the DMs in the YouTube video actually argued as follows:

“It just doesn’t make sense. Here you are, going after the evil necromancer, and the guy walking along next to you is a necromancer?”

The flaw in that logic is revealed when you substitute any class or archetype for “necromancer.” There are evil wizards, but the party doesn’t kill their resident magic-user before fighting an evil wizard. An evil cleric or assassin might be the villain in an encounter, but that doesn’t make the party cleric or rogue a villain.

Magic, like any class power, is a tool. How one uses it communicates more than the nature of the tool. A paladin who curb-stomps defenseless enemies because “they’re bad guys” isn’t what we’d call good. A necromancer that uses her powers to protect others and serve a noble cause shouldn’t be what we call bad.

It doesn’t make any sense.

For one, you’re in a fantasy setting. Nothing makes sense. Someone is channeling power into their weapon to deliver a blast of radiant power that damages the enemy. Someone else is waving their hands and becoming a human flame-thrower. Another person communes with supernatural entities that grant her otherworldly powers. But the necromancer trying to do something heroic? That, sir, is where I draw the line!

Necromancy used for “good” absolutely makes sense… if we try to consider how that can work. Imagine the noble who tells his subjects, “Our ancestors fought to establish this kingdom against all odds, spilling their very blood on the rocks where our city’s walls now stand. And now they return, ready to stand beside us, once again willing to take up arms against those who threaten all they worked to build!”

Imagine the party member whose personal quest, like Fleuris, is to find and raise the bodies of infamous villains or evildoers as part of their penance for their sins. Is it twisted, misguided, a little off? Yeah–and that’s what makes it great!

Guns don’t kill people, my horde of skeletal minions kill people.

Needless to say, I fall right into the camp that deems necromancy an amoral (okay maybe highly questionable) practice where what matters most is the end result. Use it to establish your undead army and create a necropolis to rule over? Evil. Use it to cleanse the necropolis and eliminate a growing threat to the nearby kingdom of goodly peoples? Good.

As in all things D&D, creativity and fun are what matter most. I’m having fun imagining Fleuris and the sorts of situations she might find herself in. I hope others are inspired to take a trope and turn it on its head… then run with it and see where the story leads.

What do you think?

Am I off course? Am I missing some key point? Let me know in a comment; I’d love to hear your point of view.

The Kinder Choice

Here’s a short story for Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle this week, where the word is restraint and the suggested genre is Historical Fiction, specifically Western. 

This is one of my current favorite characters, the gambler prophet whose dice give him insight into what’s to come. But this is a generation later, when the Gift has moved on to a new face – Annabelle Boudreaux, a troubled woman with a deck of cards that calls her to action. 

I really want to turn one of these into a NaNoWriMo book or similar project, but for now, they’ll pop up in short stories.

—-

The moon casts a bright silver light across the plains, and stars twinkle over the Falstaff Saloon. The street smells like manure and tabacca-spit despite the soft pitter-pat of rain, and cigar smoke rolls out the door like a fog. The music inside fills the breeze with a dancin’ tune, the fiddler better than this corrupt town deserves.

Mercado’s whole gang is inside. The man himself is upstairs—chasin’ sporting girls, countin’ blood money, maybe both.  The century may have turned, but men are pretty much the same as ever.

I feel the ache in my bones—joints that have seen a several dozen years complain at the thought of what’s to come. I put this life behind me twenty years ago, and I’m not keen on seeing it claw back out of the plot where I buried it.  

The young brunette next to me slides the last round into the chamber of her revolver. The Devil’s Sharpy, Annabelle Boudreaux has the Gift just like I once did—with a deck of cards instead of my old pair of dice. ‘Course she uses it pretty much the opposite of me.

“This is a mistake, Annabelle.”

“It was a mistake for him to snatch Aideen off the stage—one of many poor choices Mercado’s made over his lifetime.”

Aideen Brannaghan—Annabelle’s half-sister and partner-in-crime, a timid Irish lass who’s decent with a pistol, but deadlier with a pair of knives than anyone I know, once you spark her temper. We could really use her now… but then we wouldn’t need to be here in the first place.

“I meant us, alone, trying to take him down.”

“It’s what the cards said would come to pass.” She laughs, and the whiskey on her breath nearly gets me drunk. I wonder how she sees straight to shoot, but then I remember how the Gift worked in my day. It’d be hard to miss a target all glowed up like an electric lantern.

“Maybe something’s changed,” I venture, knowing how weak and futile the plea must sound.

Annabelle slides out a deck of gleaming cards and fans a dozen in her hand, every card a one-eyed Jack. The hearts catch my eye as important—something she never bothered to explain. I ain’t sussed out all of how she interprets what the Gift shows her.

“You of all people should know better, Mister ‘God’s Shooter’ himself.”

I spit on the ground. “A stupid nickname from a far-fetched story written by a fool.”

“Quite a few stories, or so I hear… the better part of ‘em true.”

“Not a lot of men you can trust. Pretty girl like you has to know that by now.”

“Men lie, but graves don’t. You ready?” She flashes me that smile of hers, then turns away before I can respond.

“You ain’t.” Like most women I’ve cared about, once she gets an idea in her head, there’s no dissuading her. My words are wasted before they’re out my mouth, but I say ‘em anyhow.

“Just try to keep up.”

With that, Annabelle dives through the swinging double doors of the saloon, and thunder booms from the pair of Colts in her slender fingers. The fiddler’s bow screeches to a halt and he dives behind the bar.

“Show some restraint,” I shout over the din, laying down some covering fire at the boys on the second floor. “You can’t just go in guns blazin’ like the Gift is some kind of magic shield.”

Annabelle shoots me a glare. “But that’s what you did for years.”

“An’ I got the scars to prove it.”

She plugs one of Mercado’s goons with a no-look over-the-shoulder shot. Makes me wonder if the Gift works different for her than it did for me. Then she gives me a raised eyebrow. “Pretty sure no one but Lucien ever landed a shot on you, Zack. You can’t lie to a natural born swindler.”

“I’m not talkin’ about my skin, girl. Some hurts, time don’t heal.”

“That much I already know. That’s why I’m here… to give back some of the hurt Mercado done to me and mine.” She fans the hammer and sweeps the room. Three more toughs drop to the hardwood floorboards. Quiet fills the main room downstairs, and there’s a muffled scream from the second floor.

“Aideen,” Annabelle shouts. She dashes up the steps, and I hobble after her quick as my age permits.

Before Annabelle reaches the double-doors of the master suite, gunfire tears through the polished wood. Annabelle shoulders through the doorway, guns at the ready, disappearing from my view.

Unexpected silence hangs over the saloon as I lurch toward the shattered doors. Once I reach the suite, I find Annabelle holding Aideen close, the younger girl half-dressed, her short splash of red hair tucked underneath Annabelle’s chin.

A wisp of smoke curls up from the pistol in Aideen’s shaking hand, and two bodies lay slumped in the corner with large crimson stains in their pretty white waistcoats. “Had to wait until I could get loose,” Aideen whispers. “But I almost—they were going to—“ She trails off, eyes squeezed shut.

Annabelle’s gaze remains fixed. Her hand doesn’t flinch at all, the barrel of her Colt trained on the bead of sweat runnin’ down the furrow between Mercado’s eyebrows. The man sits against the wall clutching the gunshot wound in his leg.

Annabelle’s finger tenses up on the trigger. Then she smirks. “Aideen, go get your knives.”

Aideen starts collecting her things and hands Annabelle one of the long steel blades.

“Let the law clean this up, girl. You done what you set out to do.”

“Oh no,” Annabelle says with a mirthless laugh. “He’s not buying his way off the gallows again. Getting Mercado was just the start. Now we can have some fun.” She turns a hungry grin his way, and he goes whiter than a playing card. “I’ve been waiting years for this, amigo.”

“Annabelle, don’t become the thing you hate. Trust me.”

“This man,” she says, waving the Colt in Mercado’s quivering face, “is a scourge on this whole Territory, a pus-filled boil of infection on the back of humankind.” Her face is red an’ steaming, her eyes like a locomotive furnace at full bore–and Mercado’s tied to the tracks up ahead-a that train. “The things he’s done deserve an eternity of all God’s wrath, and I think it’s fitting we get started in the here and now.”

“Think about what you’re doing, dammit.” I see the pistol flinch in her hand—gotta hope what I’m sayin’ might sink in. “You been given this foresight for a reason, a purpose, something bigger and greater than seekin’ your own self-interest.”

Annabelle swallows hard, and the barrel of the Colt dips toward the floor. “You’re right, Zack,” she says with a long sigh.

Then she blows Mercado’s brains across the wood-paneled wall.

“Christ have mercy, girl, what did I say? Show some restraint!”

Annabelle dumps the empty cartridges on the floor in the spreading pool of blood and hands the knife back to Aideen.

“I did,” she says, colder than a desert night. “You don’t know what all I had planned.”

#BlogBattle entry – A Calculating Man

This week’s Blog Battle entry is for the word “bribe” in whatever genre I choose. This is the second half of last week’s story from the underworld featuring Dom the detective and his dearly loved Innova the spirit of creativity.

I’m a little bit late and a lot bit over the word count but here it is:

Statue of a red oni, from Wikipedia (Public Domain)

I crouch and hustle toward the banks of the River Styx, my drab, lifeless fingers wrapped around Innova’s wrist, almost charcoal against her gleaming skin. The waters ahead churn black and gray underneath a rolling mist. We’re almost to the ferry, hiding behind ramshackle houses, slipping through crowds of bodies wandering aimless near the docks like the wreckage of the afterlife.

Innova digs her heels into the dirt and pulls me back. “Dom, this is insane.” She gestures at the small black box strapped around her radiant ankle. “You should just take me back to the bar before the Oni gets suspicious. Calm, rational responses aren’t his style.”

I ain’t rational either, not when it comes to her. She doesn’t understand the lengths I’ll go to, the madness and hope her presence inspires within me. I’ve been Soulless for years, ever since I pulled the trigger on all my pain and suffering. I’d hoped to end it, and got an eternity’s worth instead. And after years on the outskirts of the underworld, this spirit of creativity clinging to my arm is the only thing that matters to me.

“I still have more time with you,” I protest. “He gave me his word. And if you can’t believe the giant ogre-demon Overlord who runs half of Death’s Landing, then who in Hell can you trust? Other than me, of course,” I add with a laugh.

Innova scoffs, but follows toward the ferry. Fact is, I need her to trust me on this one, maybe more than ever. I’ve been working this plan for a while and can’t have it fall apart at the last step.

 The Ferryman stands at the stern of his vessel, watching each tank of bootleg spirits his dockhands unload to their storage facility. “Move faster,” he growls. “I got another shipment to fetch from the other side.”

I can hear a crowd of voices on the other side of the building, the eager buyers who ditched the Oni and his expensive bar to come get a cheaper fix. The Ferryman is building some powerful demand from his customers, judging by the ruckus on the streets nearby. Makes me wonder what he’s getting out of the bargain. The Oni deals in secrets… what does the Ferryman collect?

Questions for another day. We’re a short dash from the mooring, and the dockhands are hauling off the last of the tanks. The Ferryman is already pushing away from the dock. It’s now or never.

 I feel Innova pulling away, resisting, quivering with fear now that we’re in sight of the ferry. “Trust me, babe,” I whisper. Then I dash for the boat, and thankfully she comes along, her fingers digging into my unfeeling skin.

 The dockhands watch in surprise, and the tanks of spirit they’re carrying fall forgotten in the dirt. The Ferryman’s face twists in confusion at the sight of this blazing bright woman and the bedraggled scrub of a Soulless running toward him.

 We hit the edge of the dock and leap, hanging over the black waters of the Styx for a second before crashing onto the planks of the ferry in a tumble.

 A voice roars loud enough to shake my heart inside chest. “What is the meaning of this?!” I look up at the Ferryman, but he’s glaring at someone on the docks. Behind me, Innova groans.

 At the edge of the dock, surrounded by a team of hovering demon-spawn, the Oni stands armored and armed for battle, his fists on the massive plates of obsidian at his hips. His mask is a glowing crimson like lava. His horns are tipped in blood. The long sword he holds in one hand looks like a massive sheet of razor-sharp metal with a handle tossed onto one end for convenience.

 His mask moves slightly, his gaze taking in the whole scene. When he speaks, the dock rumbles beneath his weight. “A fool hoping to steal one of my precious guests? And perhaps worse—a greater fool cutting into my market with cheap imitations of my product?”

 The Oni points, and four winged demons swoop toward the ferry to pull it back to the dock. The Ferryman whistles and a dozen of his burly assistants pour out of the storage facility in seconds, fists clenched, ready for a scrap.

 “Dom,” Innova breathes, “what have you done?”

 The Oni stomps a hoof onto the ferry and for a moment I fear the whole thing will capsize. His entourage of demons engage the dockhands trying to reach their master, and the shoreline turns into a madcap fight scene from some eighties action movie.

 “I’m not trying to escape with Innova,” I say.

 “Of course you are not,” the Oni replies, the empty eyes of his mask fixed on the Ferryman. “You are a thoughtful man, Dominick. A calculating man who knows the cost would be more than he could pay.”

“Just figured you’d be interested in what’s going on here.”

The Oni takes a step toward his rival. His fingers tighten around the haft of his ridiculous sword—a wall of metal bigger than my entire body. “You are correct,” he says, fearless, like a master looming over his cowering dog.

 The Ferryman’s eyes dart along the docks and the shore. His men put up a good fight, but the demons are driving them back, separating the dockhands from their leader. He throws up his hands in desperation before the Oni. “You can’t kill me! I keep the Underworld full of fresh souls, customers you need. If I stop bearing the departed from the world above, the whole circle of death and life breaks down.”

 “You speak truth,” the Oni admits. “I cannot kill you. However…”

 There’s a rush of wind as the Oni unleashes an overhead chop. The Ferryman screams and his left arm hits the deck with a thud.

 “You can still pilot your vessel with one hand.” The Oni leans in close. “I’m quite certain you could do it without legs if need be.” His expressionless mask examines the ship. “The soul-traps on this vessel… you will disassemble them, yes?”

 The Ferryman whimpers and gives a vigorous nod.

 Then the Oni turns to Innova and me, standing at the stern, near the rudder and the wheel. “You had a hand in arranging this meeting, Dominick. Did you seek reward? Are you currying favor, perhaps asking for another day with my lovely spirit by your side?”

 Now we come to it, the moment I’m expecting and dreading and hoping for all at once. I lick my lips, eyeing that insane, bloody thing in the Oni’s massive hand. “How about—how ‘bout you set her free?”

 The Oni stares in silence.

 “Otherwise,” I continue, forcing some resolve into my voice until it booms over the waters, “Otherwise, I flip this on and you all get sucked into the soul traps like a Hoover.” I tip my chin toward my hand, resting on the switch that powers the vessel’s mechanisms.

 I swear, even the dockhands and demons on the shore go silent. Rule number one of the outskirts: you don’t threaten the Oni.

Innova whips her head around at me, her jaw hanging like a fish plucked from the water. Even now she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.

 I take my eyes off her and find the Oni inches from my face, his blood-mask staring down at me, a fire smoldering in the black pits of his eye holes. “You dare not risk your beloved.”

 He’s smart, calling my bluff. I don’t have an answer for that.

 “I’d rather die,” Innova declares, “than be trapped on your shelf, brought out to prance before the refuse that frequents your bar, hoping to someday earn the right of basic freedom.”

 I take her hand and give it a squeeze. I wasn’t sure how to get around the obvious fact that I would never put her into harm’s way.

 The Oni grunts in frustration. His fingers flex and splay around the haft of his wall-sword. “You would be trapped too.”

 “I’m Soulless,” I reply. “I’ve got nothing to trap, nothing to lose.”

 Our standoff lasts several minutes, and then the Oni laughs. “Well played. Bribing me with my own soul. Truly a calculating man.” He turns to Innova and etches two glyphs of flame in the air. “Your contract is revoked. You are free to go.”

 Innova gasps, stumbling like a drunk. Her natural radiance gleams even more, like the sun finally peeking through a cloudy sky. “You—what?”

 “You are freed, spirit. No longer bound.” His voice hardens into a primal growl. “Nor do you belong here any longer.”

 

She flashes me a smile of thanks before he banishes her from the Underworld. There’s a flash of light, then—nothing. An empty spot where she stood, a hole in my heart that only she filled.

I look up at the gloomy skies and the thick stalactites high above, imagining that somewhere, beyond the miles of rock and lava, she’s feeling the sun on her face once again. It’s the only thing keeping me standing under the crushing weight of grief and loss.

“I respect what you have done here, Dominick,” the Oni says. “But you are wrong.”

“About what?” I stand at the stern, staring into the darkness above.

“Having nothing to lose,” the Oni says. He marches off the ferry, each step rocking the shuddering vessel.

My Life’s Work – a #BlogBattle short story

Here’s my Blog Battle entry for this week, in the genre of fantasy, with the theme word of “selfie.”
I especially enjoyed writing something placed in my own fantasy setting from my novel Diffraction. 


Update: My Life’s Work tied for the winning story this week. Thank you for the votes! The other winning story is World Views by Carl Bystrom. Check his piece out, along with all the other BlogBattlers participating each week.

– – – 
I hear their voices long before I see them. Footfalls echo in the halls. Laughter and commentary resounds off the palace’s high ceiling and polished marble floors.

“Look at this piece,” the man says. “Astounding… like what a falcon in flight must see from on high over the City’s towers.” He sounds refined, educated, a man of wealth and relative ease. Probably one of the City’s many so-called Ministers–men and women whose title implies service, something of which they are invariably found only on the receiving end.

“So real,” his companion replies, her soft voice hushed in awe. “I
feel almost faint, as if I might fall through and plummet to my
death.” Too chipper for my taste, too airy. I imagine she’s the upper
class equivalent of dancing girls in the Outskirts–there for show,
not insight. Her voice calls to mind a songbird displayed in a cage,
able to delight for short durations, but insufferable if permitted to
make constant noise.

“Still better to you than the portraits?”

“Much,” she says. “I don’t like the faces. The landscapes at least are
magnificent.”

“Reminiscent of Serathil’s work,” the man says. “I know that’s what
they all say of Marwen’s paintings, but I had no idea the similarities
would be so striking.”

“Perhaps Marwen learned some of the same techniques… or more likely stole them.”

Or perhaps I fought for years to master my craft, you coddled child. What do you have that wasn’t given to you for no other reason than the fortune of your birth or the depth of your bosom?

And then I remember the Visitor years ago–his unhinged personality, inhuman predatory eyes, and alluring offer.

Why did I ever agree?

“Do you believe the stories about Serathil? How she captured such
lifelike scenes on canvas?”

The man shrugs. “The Abbey’s Devoted declare it was a gift of the
Divine, some blessing of Aulis that allowed Light to shine through her brush. But the Arcanists claim she used some form of Refocusing
technique, blending the elements into her portraits and landscapes.”

I’ve heard plenty of similar answers. I wish it were something so
simple, so pure.

This month, the Lord Mayor put my life’s work on display–a welcome opportunity for a better perspective. The Academy and Arcanists’ Hall each presented a few well-known examples, and Lord Peledor graciously brought forth several obscure pieces from his private collection. For the benefit of the commonfolk of Aulivar, they all said. But precious few commoners dare walk these halls. All I’ve seen so far are stiff-necked nobles and haughty elites of the upper class.

All of them say what I already know. Her work is so like Serathil, but not quite. Colorful, but less so. Vivid, almost as if the canvas
moves… but not as much as her masterpieces. Forever a step behind.

They don’t know the decades I spent trying to catch up. Days of
fasting, hours of fervent prayer, begging–pleading with the Divine to
grant me a touch of the same favor. I studied with failed Arcanists
and any Elemental willing to explain the secrets of magic. I spent
vast sums to learn what little they deigned to share–all for naught.

And would they even care? Does anyone recognize the effort that goes into an art form? Do they admire the discipline, the growth, the long transition from unskilled pieces no better than blotches of color to amateurish, misshapen portraits, then finally to lifelike scenery and recognizable faces? Perhaps I never reached Serathil’s perfection, but I’m confident no artist worked harder or did more than me with the raw ability granted her by the Divine.

One woman is born with an effortless gift that leads to inevitable
greatness and recognition. Another comes to the art without noticeable skill, but through constant effort and relentless discipline rises and improves to grasp at the master’s heels. Is that journey worth nothing? Must one surpass all others to be praised, or is it enough to improve beyond one’s present limitations?

I already know the answer to this.

Despite all my effort, my skill proved insufficient to garner public
awareness. But with the Visitor’s gift–the brush, its wood stained
and charred black like a log from the hearth.

For a moment, I feel my fists clench, the old fury building and
burning like bile in my chest. Every so often it strikes me that I can
still feel anything at all.

I try to avoid the eyes of the portraits around the room–the ones
that face me, at least. My best work, indeed, but also my worst. I
dare not dwell on it, but every time I behold one of those faces, the
rush of grief and guilt threatens to consume what’s left of my heart.

“Serathil’s methods are inscrutable,” the Visitor hissed so many years ago, his hand extending his dark gift. “Even to the best of your kind. But there are other ways to capture a… life-like, soul-full
quality.”

In the gallery, I watch the man lead his companion across the hall to
my most famous piece–Dawn Kisses the Snowtips. The ivory walls of Aulivar gleam and the City’s towers cast long shadows that seem to move with the viewer. Sunlight flares off white peaks on the horizon, and clouds shift in hue from crimson to amber to gold based on where one stands.

The woman gives a satisfied sigh. “Marked improvement, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes,” her noble replies. “Consider the light shown here, the way it
sparkles off the windows of the City. Aulivar at the height of the
Alliance, centuries before this land fell from greatness.”

The woman looks around the gallery and shivers. “I like these faces
much less, though.”

“Why is that?”

“The resemblances are far better, yes. But… there’s a sadness when I look at them. They’re all wrong. See that despair in the eyes? Or
perhaps it’s anger. Most unnerving.”

“Not surprising, given the tragic stories behind some of these. That
one,” he says, pointing, “is the youngest daughter of an Aelwyner High Lord, painted when she received the sigil of Strength on Markday. She took ill not long after, and withered away before the year’s end.”

“Poor thing.”

“And this fine elder gentlemen? Grand Sage of the Academy. He
succumbed to dementia in the months that followed. Probably well on his way when this was commissioned.”

He strides toward the one I hate most. “The wedding of House Hallaben and House Veray, nobles who lived in Alathon during the time of the Magistrate. The city fell soon after, and their entire bloodlines spilled on the streets in the overthrow.”

They all stare out from the celebratory scene, not with the joy and
mirth I remember from that day, but eyes full of hatred. Eyes that
look straight at me, knowing, accusing, condemning.

I took pieces of their souls. I dealt them fatal wounds, my
brushstroke more deadly than the rebel swords that eventually finished what my painting began.

The woman shudders and turns my way. “What about this one?”

“Marwen herself,” he says, examining me. “Her final portrait–an
unclaimed commission at that. Typical arrogance, devoting her finest
work to her own image. They found her dead in her studio, with the
paint still wet.”

“Do you think the tears are for what she never achieved, always
sitting in Serathil’s shadow?”

He strokes his chin. “Or perhaps for all she might have done, given
more time to capture the beauty of the subjects who came before her.”

—-

If you didn’t know, I have recently transitioned off my free WordPress site to this one – http://davidmwilliamson.net

If you enjoy the stories and updates I post here, please take the time to subscribe to this new site. Thanks for reading and for your support!

– Dave

The Finest Spirits #BlogBattle entry

Genre: Fantasy

Word prompt: Liquid


Update: The Finest Spirits tied for the win for the week–thanks to those who voted for Dom and Innova.

On the jagged, winding road that slopes down into the Pit of Hell, inside a little dim-lit crevice nestled between the lost souls begging for someone to drag them out and the angelic patrols enforcing the justice of Heaven, there’s this hole-in-the-wall dive that’s worth a pit-stop.

Pit stop, get it? I kill me… which is part of why I’m here. 

Being a shade stuck in Limbo ain’t so bad as it sounds. I got skills from my time in the flesh–after twenty-three years on the beat with a badge, I know how to find what people are looking for, whether it’s a rogue demon giving the angels trouble or a way back for a vengeful victim.

I don’t know the name of the joint. It’s got some kinda Japaneezy scribbles on account of the Oni that runs the place. I try to steer clear of him and his goons. But I keep visiting because they got the best spirits anywhere –above, on the earth, or below, there’s no place like it.

Plus there’s a girl. Of course there is.

The bouncers know me, but I still get a quiver in what used to be my spine when they look at me with those blood red eyes and sharp black horns. They wave me on, but entrance is never free. Just inside the door sits a gangly, rat-faced creature, all done up in a hooded robe and ornate jewelry. He’s the Oni’s info-broker, a dealer in secrets, the only currency that’s any value in this establishment.

I know things, stuff that people would like to think they kept hidden in life. Like I said, decades of detective work. Half my mind is full of tidbits the Oni would accept. The info somehow gives him leverage over people this side of the grave–I don’t know how it works and I don’t need to.

I just need to see her.

The music is thumping inside–sounds like a busy night. After scrawling my offering in the air with flaming glyphs that vanish a second later, Rat-face waves me on and I step through the thick obsidian doors.

The atmosphere is like a swank club back upstairs, with a dance floor and plenty of private seating booths. Some back rooms support larger groups, like the revenants and emo types, the vampires and ghosts that can’t talk about anything other than how much they’re suffering and loathing the crushing burden of their deathless existence. I can’t stand their type. At least when I offed myself, I didn’t make some big, long show of it, and I didn’t spend the rest of eternity talking about it down here.

The real attraction is the bar, of course, and plenty of uglies are clustered around it putting in their orders. The barkeep, Jimmy Two-Claws, spots me beyond the sea of faces and pulls a bright bottle off the shelf. “The usual, Dom?”

“Nothing but.”

They got some kind of tracking system worked out, where Rat-face notifies the bar how much you got on your account based on the value of the secret. Mine should get me twenty minutes.

I find an empty booth and pop the cork. Radiant steam curls out of the bottle, expanding into a humanoid cloud. Then it solidifies in the seat next to me, and Innova appears. Her hair shimmers a rainbow like mother-of-pearl. The embodiment of Inspiration, her skin illuminates the booth with fluorescence like a human lightbulb. She stretches her perfect form and cocks her head like she’s loosening stiff joints in her neck. The sight of her fills me with energy, makes me feel alive again, like I could do anything I want.

That’s how it works. The Oni serves up spirits. You pay a secret, you get to spend some time with whatever you like. Creativity, Adventure, Love, Happiness and the like for the good-hearted. Strife, Jealousy, Avarice, Wrath and such for the rougher crowd. Bottles of every color adorn the shelf behind the bar, every one of them holding spirits trapped by the Oni, earning their freedom night by night depending on how many customers they can bring in.

I wonder how much longer it’ll take my girl to escape this hole.

“You look good, Innova. As always.”

“And what dreams can I inspire within you tonight, Dom?”

“Come on. You know you don’t have to keep up the act with me, babe.”

Innova laughs. “Maybe with you it’s not an act,” she purrs.

“We’ve shared too many last calls for that. I’m here for you, not your spiel.”

She smiles, then slouches in the seat and watches the crowd, the sign that she’s finally being herself instead of what people expect.

One of the staff approaches a couple in a secluded booth with an unopened bottle on the table, the contents a deep crimson, glowing from within. Romance, I’m guessing, or maybe Lust. Probably hoped to rekindle something, but neither one made a move to pop the cork. 

“Doesn’t look good for those two,” I say, and Innova nods. 

This is how we pass the time together–watching the desperate slobs that come in, guessing at what drives the choices they make, wondering what choices led them here in the first place.

“Check out these idiots,” Innova says, pointing to the dark room full of emo kids. A waitress brings them another round of black bottles–spirits of despair.

I listen close and hear a woman’s voice, gritty like a smoker, reading over a soft-tapped rhythm. “Shadows swirl and roll, a collision in my glass-imprisoned soul, this vessel can’t hold the full measure of my sorrow, pour it out tonight, tomorrow there’s more there. One day I’ll be free… what place waits for me? Nowhere.

“Oh god. Are they doing beat poetry?”

“I tried to offer Despra some tips once,” Innova says of the other spirit. “But she and I aren’t on speaking terms since that ill-fated Karaoke contest last month.” She shakes her head and mutters, “Despra should not sing Disney songs, like, ever.”

“Bet that was a wreck.”

Innova shifts and glances at the hell spawn near the bar. He’s glaring at me, his yellow eyes watching like a predator in the wild. 

“Time’s almost up, Dom.” She’s nervous, eying her bottle-prison with displeasure.

“I’ll pay for more, no problem.”

The second the words leave my mouth, Rat-face is at my side, a toothy grin splitting his lips, his rotting breath leaking out with a hiss. Between my need to avoid him as long as possible and my desire to give Innova a reason to keep smiling, I dig up a really good secret from the back of my mind. Juicy details on the intimate indiscretions of certain angelic patrols that aren’t coming down this way for duty.

Once Rat-face is gone, Innova relaxes and puts her hand in mine. “You didn’t have to pay that much,” she says.

“Just helping work off your debt to the Oni.”

Innova brushes her hand through her hair. “Do you realize how much you just put on your account? You couldn’t spend it all tonight.”

I shrug. “I’ll be by tomorrow, then.”

“I know you will.” She hesitates, then leans close. “Or… do you see that violet bottle on the top shelf?”

“The dusty one? Looks like it hasn’t been touched in years.”

She nods. “Generosity isn’t a common companion this side of the pearly gates. Would you do me a favor?”

I already know what she’s getting at. “Sure. I’ll by a shot. Hey Jimmy!”

A moment later, Innova and I work together to pop the cork. A wave of giddiness hits me as it launches across the booth, and we collapse in laughter. 

Then I hear myself talking like an idiot. “Jimmy, you know what? Get everyone another round of whatever they’re having–on me!”

The bar erupts with cheers and applause. Even the hardest toughs give me a nod or raised glass in respect. And I’m sitting here wondering what the heck just happened. 

Several bottles get passed throughout the crowd. Spirits appear at the bar, in booths, on the dance floor, at pool tables… all across the place, their grateful, liberated faces flash me and Innova a smile. 

I jam the cork into the bottle of Generosity before I say anything else stupid. Then I shoot Innova a glare. She gives me a sheepish grin. “Think of how many you just released,” she says. “How much closer they are to freedom. Do you feel the positive energy in the room right now?”

“You knew that would happen.”

Innova shrugs, feigning innocence. “What can I say? It’s my job to inspire others.”

When I finally leave, just before what passes for dawn in this hellhole, I pause to consider if I’m coming back tomorrow. Then I realize, who am I kidding?

I walk up the slope, picturing Innova’s smile and running down the list of secrets bouncing around in my head.

Diffraction Free to Read on WattPad

It’s the Winter Solstice, the shortest period of daylight during the year. For various reasons, my mind ties that dichotomy of darkness and light to Lyllithe, the protagonist of my fantasy novel, Diffraction. 


I completed the revisions and final copy on the Solstice last year, then published it on CreateSpace and Kindle Direct. It’s been available for purchase for the last year, and I have deep appreciation for those who bought a paperback or e-book copy. That option is still out there (and the e-book is reduced to the minimum price I can choose based on the royalty plan).

I’ve also made the book free on Kindle from December 22nd through Christmas Day, so if you know someone who might like a free fantasy novel, point them that way.

However, the real point of this post is to call attention to the full book available to read on WattPad. Though I appreciate every purchase, what I need more than a buck from an e-book sale is a body of readers–and maybe some love on social media. Reblogging this post or sharing the WattPad link among your circle of friends might put Diffraction in the hands of interested readers.

Winter isn’t coming… It’s here. What better way to start it than curling up under a warm blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and an invasion of bloodthirsty zealots?

Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season.

Voices in Our Heads

I love being insane–I mean, schizophrenic–I mean, a writer.

I spent some time (9 hours or so) on a jet yesterday, with not a lot to do and a powerful need to correct a bad attitude. So I took out a list of questions I’d stolen from Writer’s Digest or some similar source, opened up a new document, and in between actual work, I conducted interviews.

First up, Zack Jackson, the no-nonsense drifter / prophet in the Old West, whose dice tell him, every morning, a little hint about what his day may hold in store.

He’s fairly polite but not afraid to speak his mind. There are some questions he doesn’t think I have a right or need to know–and certainly not any of the sort of people that would read my writing.

And there’s some stuff that he doesn’t quite know himself–why the dice give him so little to go on, whether what he sees is fate or a possible outcome he can change, and why God allows such bad things to fall upon innocent folk. (He admits the Parson in town would say, “Well, mayhaps that’s why He sent you.”)

I spent a good long time with Zack. Wrote down almost 3,000 words of interview before it was time to move on. Then I changed fantasy worlds, jumped ahead 150 years, and switched to Cass Stone.

Cass is the “hero” of my upcoming NaNoWriMo project, a book I’m planning and plotting out in a partnership with a good friend from the States. In this alternate world, magic is a real thing and has been throughout history. Those with power ruled for millennia, until the Industrial Revolution (an actual, bloody revolution across multiple modern societies). After that, mages became outcasts, beaten down or kept from rights and freedoms enjoyed by “norms.” In America, freedom was protected for everyone on paper, but not so much in reality. 

Then Hitler rose to power with a technologically superior army fueled by energies consumed from mages used and burned out like human batteries.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, America creates a Magic Enforcement Agency, dedicated to ensuring no similar mixture of technology and arcana can ever threaten the world.

Though none of them would admit it, Cass Stone is their best Enforcer–a self-proclaimed cold-hearted bad guy paid to take out even worse people. And he’s on the trail of a game-changing weapon that could spell doom for the free world if it falls into the wrong hands. 

In the last hour of the flight or so, Cass strolled into the interview and took a seat, challenging the interviewer (me) and questioning the whole purpose of the dialogue.

You can’t get this from some other hobby. I just spent four hours talking to non-existent people. I have six pages of Q&A to show for it. And paradoxically, the more I talk to those imaginary friends, the more clear they become in my mind, so that in theory, the more real the become on the page or screen for a future reader.

They say writers are sometimes a anti-social. I beg to differ.

I go out of my way to talk to people no one else possibly could.

One Year Later

Here’s my #BlogBattle entry for this week. I need to tweak some formatting (italics and such) but I wanted to get it posted before the deadline.

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Fearless Hero, Hearty Fighter, and Formidable Foe…

Accompanied as always by his gorgeous assistant, Birgitte Bakkersson, the Stunner of Stockholm.

 “I think I figured it out, Bridge,” Grant said as he walked, hunched down, through the dusty catacomb.

The bright-eyed blonde smiled. “You’ve sorted out the way into the sealed Chamber of the Sun?” The Nordic lilt in her voice and the soft laugh when she asked tickled Grant’s fancy.

“No, not that. Look, we know now that there’s a whole other world,” Grant said. “We’ll call it Pandora.”

“Oh,” Birgitte said. “This again.”

“And it bears the mark of at least four ancient Earth cultures—”

“We are in the middle of a job,” Birgitte said, and the dim tunnel seemed to grow chilly and dark with her mood. “Lost in a grimy maze of bones, hoping we can even get inside the sanctum—once we find it. If we find it. Yet you’re still caught up with this mystery of yours. Perhaps you’re not best equipped to make sense of all these details, Mister McSwain.”

“I’m not,” Grant said with a sigh. “She was always better at this stuff.”

“You cannot prove your tale,” Birgitte continued, “and no one would believe it.”

“She believed it.”

“I hate to be cold, Mister McSwain, but our livelihood and our very lives depend on your expertise. Teagan O’Daire is dead and buried. You helped lower the casket—do you not remember?”

Grant paused as memories flooded his mind, forcing in against his will. The devastation in the Repository of Castellano after he set off a dynamite charge… the long, silent flight to Ireland… a blurry ceremony seen through tears in a cemetery in Galway under a sky that had no right to be so blue…

It feels like forever ago, yet sometimes it feels like just yesterday.

He noted Birgitte’s expression and took a deep breath. She needed him at his best, here in the moment, not caught up in a different life however long ago.

“I’m not reliving the past,” Grant said, taking Birgitte’s cool hand. “I’ve moved on from all of that. I’m just saying, these artifacts and sources of mythical power have a common root. And Roquefort would bury us in pound notes if we brought that back to London.”

Birgitte furrowed her pretty brow. Covered in webs and grime, gleaming skin hidden under a layer of dust, she still looked more ravishing than any woman Grant’s eyes ever beheld. Even her? Yes, more than her.

“Master Roquefort isn’t financing this expedition,” Birgitte said. “Are you ill, Mister McSwain? Do you not remember your meeting with the Viscount?”

“Right. What was I thinking?” Grant shook his head and pushed aside all thoughts of Pandora’s magenta skies and double moons. An image of a handsome man’s thin, pale face formed in Grant’s mind.

Anatoly Tarvinthian, the Viscount of Belarus, held to traditions of nobility while amassing a fortune in modern business. The vast wealth of his estate dwarfed his personal holdings in arms manufacturing, which was still sufficient to fund significant investments in America. Railroad barons gave way to natural resources and automotive industry over decades, but Tarvinthian’s money flowed freely into all of these.

Even more so, Tarvinthian showed talent in the world of fine arts trading, giving him ties to prominent museums and access to historic sites around the world. His private collection in his secluded castle summer home was rumored to fill several stories, with more floor space and estimated value than the Smithsonian and the Louvre combined.

That’s only what he dares reveal to his privileged few guests. He’s got secrets buried beneath secrets, and a treasure hoard that spans millennia of human history. What could he possibly need from a hired hand like me?

“Look at this marking,” Birgitte said, brushing a long, gloved finger in a strangely sensual way across a rune carved into the catacomb wall. “It’s part of the crest of Vlad Tepes. We’re on the right path.”

Then the shadows shifted up ahead, and a touch of natural light brightened the stone. Birgitte stepped back in surprise, and Grant cocked his head. “Do you think ‘the Chamber of the Sun’ could somehow be a literal meaning? Not just some honorific for a local lord?”

“I’d very much like to find out,” Birgitte cooed, and suddenly Grant very much wanted to find out as well.

Hunkered down, he shuffled toward the bend. The light grew intense, and Grant’s eyes narrowed and watered in protest. But he spotted a cracked stone wall, with a hole in the center where a pickaxe had broken through. The tool itself lay among ashes and dust piled on the floor. Grant grabbed the pickaxe and swung, doubling the size of the hole. Getting in would be easy enough. But where is sunlight coming from this far below ground?

Birgitte watched with wonder from the bend. “You’ve done it, Mister McSwain. The Chamber of the Sun and all its secrets will be laid bare. The heir of Vlad Tepes will be made known to the world, and your name will be on the lips of multitudes.”

Grant swung again and again, swelling with pride—partly at the thought of renown, but mostly due to the breathy tone in Birgitte’s voice. If it made her happy, that mattered more than any other reward.

With a great lunge, he burst through the crumbling stone and stumbled into the sunlit chamber, then gasped.

Four Ixthacan sun-plates sat in fixtures at head level, and above each, an Eye of Ra had been chiseled into the stone. Hieroglyphs and characters glimmered around the room, some form of gold that seemed illuminated from within.

But Grant ignored all that at the sight of the portals. Suspended in the air a hand-length from each sun-plate, a shimmering circle of light offered a view to other places. Stars glimmered in one like a patch of night sky, and fading amber clouds shone through two opposing portals. In the portal opposite the night, pure sunlight shown through, filling the chamber while focusing its warm beam on the sarcophagus at the center of the room.

Grant ambled about, dumbfounded at yet another conflux of cultures and inexplicable technology. “Birgitte, come in here,” he called. “This is what I’ve been talking about.”

“Not yet,” she said from the gloom in the tunnel. “Not for another minute or two, I believe.”

Her words fell on deaf ears as Grant examined the room. Old forms of Chinese characters mixed with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, all of them etched in that glowing gilt. His bare skin tingled when he touched one.

The sunlight shifted, diminishing slightly, and Grant eyed the brightest portal. Through squinting eyes, he saw the burning orb slip behind the dark sphere of the moon. “That’s right… there’s a solar eclipse today.”

Within moments, only the glimmering corona shone through the once-bright portal. Dim light came through the other two portals, their openings revealing dawn or dusk, though Grant couldn’t say which. “On most days,” Grant realized, “full sunlight always shines on the center.”

Birgitte sauntered in, her smile wide and hungry. “But not today. Well done, Mister McSwain. Now quickly, remove the Ixthacan relics to close the portals so we can see what lies within the sarcophagus.” She pointed toward the plate behind the eclipse. “Start with this one.”

It made sense—the gold alone was worth a fortune. Grant stepped forward to obey.

Then Birgitte spun and hissed, her fingers curled like claws. A cloaked woman burst into the room. A silver crucifix jangled around her neck and glinted in the light of the eclipse, and Grant caught the pungent odor of fresh garlic cloves.

She doffed her hood to reveal a wild mop of red hair, and lunged at Birgitte with a thick wooden stake raised in her right hand.

“Teagan?!”

Birgitte twisted, but the stake found its mark, plunging into her chest. She threw Teagan across the room, but the woman landed in a crouch with feline grace.

Birgitte cackled and examined the thick stake in her bosom. “Fool girl, you deem this little sliver of wood sufficient to kill a Brood Queen?”

“No,” Teagan said, drawing a revolver. “I think it makes a good target.” She leveled the gun and fired as Birgitte’s eyes settled on the red-paper wrapped cylinder shoved into the hollowed-out stake.

The dynamite erupted and Birgitte vanished in a cloud of fire and a spray of undead chunks.

Grant stood gaping at the scene. “You—you’re dead. How did you–”

“She lied, Grant,” Teagan said, placing a careful hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been chasing you for almost a year trying to free you from her grasp. Come on, you lumbering ox. Tarvinthian and the rest of the brood are coming, and Dad here is about to wake up. And none of them will be happy to find Mom in pieces.”

One Year Later

Here’s my #BlogBattle entry for this week. I need to tweak some formatting (italics and such) but I wanted to get it posted before the deadline.

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Fearless Hero, Hearty Fighter, and Formidable Foe…

Accompanied as always by his gorgeous assistant, Birgitte Bakkersson, the Stunner of Stockholm.

 “I think I figured it out, Bridge,” Grant said as he walked, hunched down, through the dusty catacomb.

The bright-eyed blonde smiled. “You’ve sorted out the way into the sealed Chamber of the Sun?” The Nordic lilt in her voice and the soft laugh when she asked tickled Grant’s fancy.

“No, not that. Look, we know now that there’s a whole other world,” Grant said. “We’ll call it Pandora.”

“Oh,” Birgitte said. “This again.”

“And it bears the mark of at least four ancient Earth cultures—”

“We are in the middle of a job,” Birgitte said, and the dim tunnel seemed to grow chilly and dark with her mood. “Lost in a grimy maze of bones, hoping we can even get inside the sanctum—once we find it. If we find it. Yet you’re still caught up with this mystery of yours. Perhaps you’re not best equipped to make sense of all these details, Mister McSwain.”

“I’m not,” Grant said with a sigh. “She was always better at this stuff.”

“You cannot prove your tale,” Birgitte continued, “and no one would believe it.”

“She believed it.”

“I hate to be cold, Mister McSwain, but our livelihood and our very lives depend on your expertise. Teagan O’Daire is dead and buried. You helped lower the casket—do you not remember?”

Grant paused as memories flooded his mind, forcing in against his will. The devastation in the Repository of Castellano after he set off a dynamite charge… the long, silent flight to Ireland… a blurry ceremony seen through tears in a cemetery in Galway under a sky that had no right to be so blue…

It feels like forever ago, yet sometimes it feels like just yesterday.

He noted Birgitte’s expression and took a deep breath. She needed him at his best, here in the moment, not caught up in a different life however long ago.

“I’m not reliving the past,” Grant said, taking Birgitte’s cool hand. “I’ve moved on from all of that. I’m just saying, these artifacts and sources of mythical power have a common root. And Roquefort would bury us in pound notes if we brought that back to London.”

Birgitte furrowed her pretty brow. Covered in webs and grime, gleaming skin hidden under a layer of dust, she still looked more ravishing than any woman Grant’s eyes ever beheld. Even her? Yes, more than her.

“Master Roquefort isn’t financing this expedition,” Birgitte said. “Are you ill, Mister McSwain? Do you not remember your meeting with the Viscount?”

“Right. What was I thinking?” Grant shook his head and pushed aside all thoughts of Pandora’s magenta skies and double moons. An image of a handsome man’s thin, pale face formed in Grant’s mind.

Anatoly Tarvinthian, the Viscount of Belarus, held to traditions of nobility while amassing a fortune in modern business. The vast wealth of his estate dwarfed his personal holdings in arms manufacturing, which was still sufficient to fund significant investments in America. Railroad barons gave way to natural resources and automotive industry over decades, but Tarvinthian’s money flowed freely into all of these.

Even more so, Tarvinthian showed talent in the world of fine arts trading, giving him ties to prominent museums and access to historic sites around the world. His private collection in his secluded castle summer home was rumored to fill several stories, with more floor space and estimated value than the Smithsonian and the Louvre combined.

That’s only what he dares reveal to his privileged few guests. He’s got secrets buried beneath secrets, and a treasure hoard that spans millennia of human history. What could he possibly need from a hired hand like me?

“Look at this marking,” Birgitte said, brushing a long, gloved finger in a strangely sensual way across a rune carved into the catacomb wall. “It’s part of the crest of Vlad Tepes. We’re on the right path.”

Then the shadows shifted up ahead, and a touch of natural light brightened the stone. Birgitte stepped back in surprise, and Grant cocked his head. “Do you think ‘the Chamber of the Sun’ could somehow be a literal meaning? Not just some honorific for a local lord?”

“I’d very much like to find out,” Birgitte cooed, and suddenly Grant very much wanted to find out as well.

Hunkered down, he shuffled toward the bend. The light grew intense, and Grant’s eyes narrowed and watered in protest. But he spotted a cracked stone wall, with a hole in the center where a pickaxe had broken through. The tool itself lay among ashes and dust piled on the floor. Grant grabbed the pickaxe and swung, doubling the size of the hole. Getting in would be easy enough. But where is sunlight coming from this far below ground?

Birgitte watched with wonder from the bend. “You’ve done it, Mister McSwain. The Chamber of the Sun and all its secrets will be laid bare. The heir of Vlad Tepes will be made known to the world, and your name will be on the lips of multitudes.”

Grant swung again and again, swelling with pride—partly at the thought of renown, but mostly due to the breathy tone in Birgitte’s voice. If it made her happy, that mattered more than any other reward.

With a great lunge, he burst through the crumbling stone and stumbled into the sunlit chamber, then gasped.

Four Ixthacan sun-plates sat in fixtures at head level, and above each, an Eye of Ra had been chiseled into the stone. Hieroglyphs and characters glimmered around the room, some form of gold that seemed illuminated from within.

But Grant ignored all that at the sight of the portals. Suspended in the air a hand-length from each sun-plate, a shimmering circle of light offered a view to other places. Stars glimmered in one like a patch of night sky, and fading amber clouds shone through two opposing portals. In the portal opposite the night, pure sunlight shown through, filling the chamber while focusing its warm beam on the sarcophagus at the center of the room.

Grant ambled about, dumbfounded at yet another conflux of cultures and inexplicable technology. “Birgitte, come in here,” he called. “This is what I’ve been talking about.”

“Not yet,” she said from the gloom in the tunnel. “Not for another minute or two, I believe.”

Her words fell on deaf ears as Grant examined the room. Old forms of Chinese characters mixed with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, all of them etched in that glowing gilt. His bare skin tingled when he touched one.

The sunlight shifted, diminishing slightly, and Grant eyed the brightest portal. Through squinting eyes, he saw the burning orb slip behind the dark sphere of the moon. “That’s right… there’s a solar eclipse today.”

Within moments, only the glimmering corona shone through the once-bright portal. Dim light came through the other two portals, their openings revealing dawn or dusk, though Grant couldn’t say which. “On most days,” Grant realized, “full sunlight always shines on the center.”

Birgitte sauntered in, her smile wide and hungry. “But not today. Well done, Mister McSwain. Now quickly, remove the Ixthacan relics to close the portals so we can see what lies within the sarcophagus.” She pointed toward the plate behind the eclipse. “Start with this one.”

It made sense—the gold alone was worth a fortune. Grant stepped forward to obey.

Then Birgitte spun and hissed, her fingers curled like claws. A cloaked woman burst into the room. A silver crucifix jangled around her neck and glinted in the light of the eclipse, and Grant caught the pungent odor of fresh garlic cloves.

She doffed her hood to reveal a wild mop of red hair, and lunged at Birgitte with a thick wooden stake raised in her right hand.

“Teagan?!”

Birgitte twisted, but the stake found its mark, plunging into her chest. She threw Teagan across the room, but the woman landed in a crouch with feline grace.

Birgitte cackled and examined the thick stake in her bosom. “Fool girl, you deem this little sliver of wood sufficient to kill a Brood Queen?”

“No,” Teagan said, drawing a revolver. “I think it makes a good target.” She leveled the gun and fired as Birgitte’s eyes settled on the red-paper wrapped cylinder shoved into the hollowed-out stake.

The dynamite erupted and Birgitte vanished in a cloud of fire and a spray of undead chunks.

Grant stood gaping at the scene. “You—you’re dead. How did you–”

“She lied, Grant,” Teagan said, placing a careful hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been chasing you for almost a year trying to free you from her grasp. Come on, you lumbering ox. Tarvinthian and the rest of brood are coming, and Dad here is about to wake up. And none of them will be happy to find Mom in pieces.”