Follow the Ashes – The Road Beyond Ruination

Cas approached the door and opened it. The Simulation Room beyond had not fully reset yet; trees and sky glitched in and out of realization with color schemes that did not suit them. The artificial Raph flickered in and out of existence like a ghost unable to manifest itself.

“Nothing for me out there,” Cas said to herself, uncertain if she was right but determined to press on to someplace new. She had finally gotten answers, but they left her with even more questions. Gavin’s death did nothing to help her.

She reached into her pocket and shivered when her fingers glided over the cold metal of Gavin’s cybernetic eye, still coated in a soft layer of ashes from immediately after his final moments. She withdrew her hand from her pocket and wiped it on her pants. She reached for the panel by the door and tried entering a different combination before opening the door. A small light panel above the door blinked red with each attempted combination, and each time she opened the door the same Simulation Room awaited her on the other side.

Cas noticed a separate panel to the left of the door. It was an older interface that lacked a touchscreen or mechanical keys.

“A key card reader,” Cas said “I suppose I should be surprised.” She ran the card key through the reader and waited with bated breath. The light above the door flashed red briefly. It flashed a second time, and then turned solid green and remained lit.

The door remained shut. The room shuddered suddenly, and Cas felt subtle rumblings of movement beneath her feet. She shut her eyes and focused, but struggled to determine which way the room may started moving. Almost as soon as the room had started moving, it shuddered to a stop.

The doors slide open and revealed hallway. The walls glittered a gold that, even at a glance, was clearly more than paint. The floors were carpeted with vibrant red carpeting. Cas stepped into the hallway. A grid of green light illuminated the ceiling. It moved downwards, scanning the corridor, and passed over Cas before she could step back.

“ID mismatch detected,” a computerized voice said. “Speak your name and business or you will be eliminated for trespassing. Have a nice day!”

Piece 17 – A Simple Mix-Up

Sophia had turned quite red, her fists balled at her sides. “We are most certainly not servants of the Morrigan,” she snapped again as the two skeletons continued to guide her and Izzy along the winding mountain trail.

“Truth!” Izzy said. “I don’t even know what the Morrigan are to be a servant of one. Them? It? Whatever. Did I mention I was at a stop while traveling through space before ending up here?”

The skeletons stopped abruptly, turning to face their captives.

“She said she was in space,” the one skeleton said.

“We’re all in space, idiot,” the other skeleton replied, waving its arms in a sweeping gesture.

Izzy nodded. “That’s not an inaccurate statement, but I meant more along the lines of zipping around the stars and visiting other worlds,” she replied. “But a bit more sciencey and a little less magical.”

The two skeletons exchanged glances.

“Air’s a bit thin this high up,” the one skeleton said.

The other skeleton nodded. “Makes sense. Anyway, off we go. Stop dawdling. Her Majesty will sort you out.” The skeletons began their forward march along the mountain path once again, and powerful magics in their gauntlets tugged at the simple shackles around Izzy and Sophia’s wrists. They followed, the spellwork potent enough to force compliance.

Sophia glanced over at Izzy as they walked. “This must be a little frightening for you, I’m sure,” she said. “Though they may appear a bit unsettling, I assure you the denizens of Rhimeghast are very lawfully aligned. We just have a little confusion to sort out.”

Izzy laughed. “You’re very kind, but I’m not frightened,” she said. “This is like living out a movie! You, uh…Probably don’t have those. Like living out a story!”

Sophia smiled. “I suppose you’re right,” she replied. “Let’s just hope they don’t throw us in the Rhimeghast dungeons,” she added quietly to herself.

The transition was subtle and gradual. Shapes in the snow gradually gave way to sections of hillside with stone doors and barred windows. Izzy looked around, trying to take every detail in and commit them to memory. The path ahead forked around the outside of a vast opening at the height of the mountain.

“Behold,” one skeleton said. “The Heart of Rhimeghast, our grand palace.” They gestured ahead at a vast crater that occupied much of the mountain’s peak.

Izzy leaned as far forward as the spellwork allowed. “Is it invisible?” she asked. “Or can I only see it if I’m dead. Not dead? Unalive? Whatever the word is.”

“Departed is the preferred nomenclature around these parts,” one of the skeletons offered. “And no. Mind your steps or you’ll get to Her Majesty a lot faster than you’d like.”

They approached the edge of the crater and its details came into view.

“Oh damn,” Izzy muttered.

A series of long, interwoven paths snaked along the wall of the crater downwards. Iron bridges spanned the void with lanterns that dangled from them to lend light to the furthest depths. Numerous skeletons and zombies milled about. Specters and spirits drifted through the air, focused on the tasks with which they were busy. Torchlight burned brightly along the walls, casting curious and concerning forms along the paths.

“The tomes do not do it justice,” Sophia said, mouth agape. “Oh damn indeed.”

“Down we go, prisoners,” one of the skeletons said without looking back. “Careful steps, please, because we’d like for Her Majesty to be able to question you.”

High above, Badb circled, her shadow massive on the ground. She had followed since the cave, but maintained a significant distance.

“Curious,” Sophia said.

“That bird, you mean? Terrifying,” Izzy replied. “Looks like it could swoop down and eat us.”

“Yet she hasn’t,” Sylvia said. “I wonder why.”

The path down was far more perilous than it looked, littered with loose stones and scattered bones. Both Izzy and Sophia carefully watched each step, their attention focused on their feet and less on the path ahead. The sudden stop proved jarring, but not as jarring as the sight they beheld upon looking up.

At the center of the crater’s void, held aloft by a series of concentric bridges that branched outwards, was a brilliant crystal chamber. Its exterior reflected the world around it. A massive pair of gilded doors towered ahead, and as they approached the doors swung inwards with a deliberate slowness.

“Enter,” boomed a voice from within the chamber.

The skeletons guided Izzy and Sophia into the room, and the doors slammed shut behind them. Glittering crystals lined the walls of the simple room, giving light to the otherwise dark space.

At the center of the chamber stood a colossal throne, and above that throne hovered a frost Lich. Chains of ice circled her skeletal form, a crown of jagged icicles atop her head. Glittering points of blue starlight emanated from within her seemingly bottomless eye sockets.

“Presenting Her Majesty, Lady Valeria Rhimeghast,” the skeletons said together in a way that had clearly been rehearsed and repeated numerous times.

Izzy bowed with a flourish, a gesture made all the more difficult but impressive thanks to the shackles that bound her to the skeletons. Sophia quickly followed suit.

“We found these agents of the Morrigan below, creeping up towards our territory,” one of the skeletons said.

Sophia stood. “Your Majesty, Lady Rhimeghast, I must respectfully disagree,” she said.

“Fools!” Lady Rhimeghast spat.

“Oh, they’re in for it,” the one skeleton said.

“One does love to see it when Her Majesty doles out judgement on those who bow to the Morrigan,” the other skeleton said.

Lady Rhimeghast shook her head. “You two are the fools, you boneheaded buffoons!” she roared. “Have you not seen Badb high above? How she has maintained a cautious distance? Do you think she would have done so if these were her minions?”

Izzy chuckled. “Minions.”

“You have brought me a keeper of knowledge from our world and a traveler unmoored from her reality,” Lady Rhimeghast said. “Her simply being here has thrown things out of alignment, and I intend to find out why she is here. Leave us!” She snapped her fingers, and the shackles fell from Sophia and Izzy’s wrists.

The two skeletons turned and fled without further comment.

“Now, child from another time,” Lady Rhimeghast said. “What do we do about you?”

NaNoWriMo Victory (and returning to serials)

I told myself I wasn’t going to write tonight because, quite frankly, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) kicked my ass. Thoroughly. We’re talking minimal sleep for the sake of hitting or exceeding par each night.

So I clearly lied to myself to write this because I was raised Catholic and wear that guilt like a damn cape. So here we are with me writing a blog post on my phone. Yep.

And I DID IT. I met my goal! I won NaNoWriMo! I concluded this year’s NaNoWriMo at 50,034 words and I feel terrific about such a victory. Here’s the details worth sharing:

  • A Princess, A Lich, and Some Murders (a tentative title) is an idea I’ve been playing around with for a while. Close to a decade at this point.
  • I had written about 100 pages of its true first draft some years ago, then scrapped it.
  • This story kept popping up in the forefront of my thoughts throughout 2020 until I decided it would be what I use for NaNoWriMo.
  • The most hectic night of writing resulted in me going into a workday with around 3 hours of sleep. Would not recommend.
  • The story is only about halfway done. I’ll be easing my way through the rest of this draft.

What next, then? The serials will return, right?

Yes! Of course! Just not this week. My wife’s birthday is Friday, and my focus will be on making her fantastic food and doing what I can so she has a nice, low key day.

The four serials so many of you have shown such love will return next week. Looking forward to resuming those adventures together, folks.

Stay safe out there and take care, folks.

Where have all the serials gone?

“Happy Friday!” is a thing I often shout across the void of the internet. It’s already almost halfway through November! How time certainly flies when the world is on fire and the President is actively casting doubt on the very bedrock of the voting process. Such fun.

By now some of you have noticed an absence of Fantasy Friday and Sci-Fi Saturdays. On the plus side, this reminds me that people are actually reading them – thanks for that! On the downside, it means I should’ve made up my mind sooner. I owe some explanation as to what happened.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It’s that magical time of year during which people try to write 50,000 words – the equivalent to an average length novel. After taking last year off, and with a great deal of encouragement from my wife, I decided to tackle this beast of a challenge. During a Presidential election cycle that has been nothing short of off-the-rails. While also still working my day job.

I am not a clever man.

My original goal was to continue the serials uninterrupted, but it became very clear that was not going to happen within the first week. Writing novels is exhausting. I’ve been staying up past midnight to hit the average word count needed to make it to 50k by the end of November (approximately 1,667 words per day).

So what does this mean for the serials? Glad you asked, hypothetical reader. The serials will resume in November. I’m still working hard on ideas for them as their stories aren’t complete and some of the details are whim decisions.

Sorry to surprise folks with this sudden pause, but I promise I’ll make it worth it when they resume.

Stay safe out there and take care, folks.

Warpt Factor – Installment 17

First Officer deCourville was the first to speak. “I don’t suppose this is part of the ride, is it?” he asked. “Some kind of perception filter or transporter that swaps out people from other groups, perhaps?”

The new arrival leapt out of the card, knives suddenly in her hands. “By the Gods, a giant bug!”

“That’s incredibly rude,” First Officer deCourville sneered back.

CMO Carter stepped out of the cart, hands up. She approached slowly, stopping just outside of arm’s reach. The variety of neon lights highlighting cartoonish spiders and specters cast strange shadows around them.

“I have a hunch you’re onto something, First Officer,” CMO Carter said. “You’re not part of this attraction, are you? I”m Melissa Carter, Chief Medical Officer. What’s your name?”

Professor Everest nodded approvingly. “A very Captain Warpt approach, for sure.”

“Curian,” Curian replied, the daggers still in her hands. “What world is this? What kind of sneaky witchcraft did you use to bring me here, and why?”

Fontaine scoffed. “Witchcraft. What backwards planet did you tumble off of? There’s no such thing.”

Curian glared in response. “I’ve got half a mind to squash you,” she replied.

Professor Everest stepped out of the cart.

“Damn, you’re tall,” Curian said.

Professor Everest nodded. “You’d be shocked how often people mention as much. Professor Brannigan Everest. The First Officer you keep referring to as a bug, which I should point out is more than a touch racist, is Fontaine deCourville.”

“Well, I’m sorry for the bug comments,” Curian said. “And if not witchcraft, why am I here? Last thing I remember, Badb had chased Sophia and me into a cave.”

Professor Everest raised an eyebrow. “Badb, you said? One of the three Morrigan?”

CMO Carter examined her wristcomm. She tapped away at its interface, eyes darting along its small screen as she did.

“Very curious,” CMO Carter said last.

Curian leaned forward, eyebrows arched. She nodded slowly, and when her impatience reached its breaking point she spoke up.

“What’s very curious?” Curian asked.

CMO Carter looked up, her eyes drawn to the daggers. She took a step back. “Apologies. There was a curious ion pulse, but no clear source to be found. It briefly knocked the power out, which left the shields to this park down for just long enough for…” She paused, then gestured to Curian.

“Wonder if our Captain’s where you ought to be,” Professor Everest mused.

“Gods, I hope not,” Curian said. “He’d be in good hands, though. Sophia’s quite clever and would keep him safe.”

“She,” CMO Carter corrected.

Curian’s eyes grew wide, her smile immense. “She? I’m sorry, your Captain is a woman?”

CMO Carter nodded. “Captain Isabelle Warpt, though I suspect she would want you to call her Izzy,” she said.

“Women can be Captains of a vessel in this world? Without, you know, resorting to piracy?”

CMO Carter nodded, unable to not smile in response.

“Still, she’s not likely safe,” Curian said. “Can any of you tell me what we need to next? I need to get back right away. I was on a very important quest.”

CMO Carter tapped a finger against her chin. “We can’t necessarily create the perfect conditions by which you arrived,” she explained. “But perhaps we can emulate them to an extent. We would need to get to the shield generator and briefly disable it. Then the rest depends on luck.”

First Officer deCourville chittered anxiously. “This is highly unorthodox! And for a complete stranger!”

“Who is only here because something stole me from where I was,” Curian said.

First Officer deCourville turned to Professor Everest. “Surely you cannot be okay with this insane plot? It could very well kill us all, and at the very least we would be banned for life from ever returning here!”

Professor Everest shook his head. “It’s worth a try to get our new friend her back on course,” he replied. “First, though, perhaps you’d best put those away.” He pointed to the blades glimmering in Curian’s hands.

Curian chuckled, offering a sheepish grin. “Suppose you’re right,” she said, sheathing the daggers. “So. Let’s go undo this heinous trickery!”

Wanted Adventurers – Need for Steed

Aranza read the scroll, muttering key points as she did. “To our esteemed assets and their handler. There is a Bridge Troll just south of Ankheim Village who has taken over the only safe passage in and out of their fair town. As a Guild-protected territory, it falls on you to address this concerning issue.”

Temperance raised a finger. “I’m sorry, are we simply going to gloss over how you waxed poetic for a moment there?”

“Yes,” Monty replied. “You’ll get used to it, and eventually those moments will be like background noise. Anyway, what’s this about a Bridge Troll?”

Temperance pursed her lips. “Vile creatures, often acting on behalf of more powerful fiends,” she explained. “They prevent travelers from crossing a bridge they’ve claimed, demanding gold and devouring any who fail to pay.”

Aranza chugged the remainder of her pint before taking the rest of a neighboring stranger’s, and then the entirety of Monty’s. Monty did not protest, and held up a hand when Temperance appeared ready to do so.

“Not worth it,” Monty said.

Aranza stood up abruptly, belched, and shook her head. “I believe it’s time to call it a night,” she said. “Ankheim’s, what, half a day’s ride from here? Get your armor nice and shiny, Paladin. We need to con someone into lending us horses because I’m not breaking the bank to buy ’em.” She offered a lazy salute to Temperance, then offered both middle fingers to Monty who returned the gesture.

“Certainly a curious relationship you two have,” Temperance said.

Monty shrugged, the gesture lazy and half-hearted at best. “Pardon my lack of warmth, but I don’t believe the arrangement we’re currently bound to requires a cheerful sense of camaraderie. Probably best we try to get some rest as well.”

Temperance nodded.

Grimsby sat by the door. He blinked slowly as Monty and Temperance approached, but said nothing as they passed. His eyes remained fixed on a point somewhere between where he sat and the heart of existence, and it seemed unwise to interrupt his concentration.

The trio departed the inn shortly after sunrise. The stables were impossible to miss, settled opposite the town square from the inn.

Temperance approached, head held high. “Good day to you, stablekeeper,” she said to the Goblin tending to the horses.

“Sure thing, yeah, good whatever to you, too, Guild Paladin,” the Goblin replied as he continued to divide hay among the stabled horses.

“Very astute of you. We are on a Guild mission and find ourselves in need of horses,” Temperance replied.

The Goblin turned to her, one especially bushy eyebrow raised. “Yeah? Me, too,” he said. “These horses aren’t mine to offer up. I know you Guild-types. You lot go off on some quest and the horses are the first to bite it.”

Aranza pushed past Temperance and handed the Goblin a leather pouch. The Goblin eyed it suspiciously, turning the pouch over in his hand. It clearly had heft to it.

“Fifty gold,” Aranza said. “That’s for three horses with a reasonable Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut fee included.”

The Goblin smiled, eyes fixed on the content of the pouch. “You speak my language, lady,” he said. “Take Thunder, Typhoon, and Trundles here.” He jerked a thumb to the three stalls behind him to the left.

“Careful with Trundles,” he added. “Meanest bastard of a horse I ever took care of.”

The three glanced past the Goblin toward where Trundles was kept. Trundles, at a glance, was a lot of things. His qualities included a serious intimidation factor, an strong spirit that likely would require a capable rider to tame, and tusks long enough to skewer the densest stone giant.

“Forgive me, but are you aware Trundles is a feral boar?” Temperance asked.

The Goblin clicked his tongue, shook his head, then turned his attention back to Aranza. “Keen eyes and a wit sharp as a bar of soap,” the Goblin said. “Make sure your Guild pal here doesn’t get my boss’ horses killed or your Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut fee won’t cover my These Jerks Stole Your Horses cost.”

Aranza nodded. “Fair enough,” she said. “Time to hit the road. I call dibs on Trundles!”

Follow The Ashes – The Steep Cost of Failure

Cas stepped back, hand clasped over her mouth as she struggled to swallow the scream that threatened to rip loose at any moment. The world around her wavered and disappeared, the simulated memories no longer there. Replaced by the room with the overly extravagant desk and the window that afforded a perfect view of Terra below.

Earth, or what was left of it.

“I know you’re there, damn it,” Cas said, not bothering to turn around. “Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?”

“It would have killed you, I’m afraid,” Gavin said, walking around the desk and into view. “Frankly, I’m quite surprised it didn’t kill you. I don’t believe you were meant to learn the truth just yet. There are still too many loose ends.”

Cas glared at Gavin, whose expression was unreadable as ever. “Can’t you just speak plainly?”

“If only I had the time,” Gavin replied, shaking his head. “A risk I had taken knowing the potential consequences. You’ll need to find the others. They’ll have been reassigned again now that your actions are coming together.”

“My what?” Cas demanded.

Gavin shook his head. “High Command knows what you knew, and what you did about it,” he replied. He reached into his shirt pocket and handed Cas a card key.

“You’ll need this,” Gavin instructed. “I’ll leave you with an old quote I’ve been fond of ever since we embarked on this journey you don’t yet fully recall. The risk I took was calculated, but man am I bad at math.”

Cas couldn’t help but smiled. “What do you mean, though?”

The sound was soft and faint, and suddenly was quite horrible. It happened slow, then suddenly. The iris of Gavin’s cybernetic eye flashed red, followed by a blinding light. The heap of ashes resting where Gavin had stood seconds before seemed so small compared to how much space he took up–both physically and personality-wise.

His cybernetic eye sat atop the ashes, staring at Cas though there were no longer any signs it was still functional.

“Probably not what I had in mind, but best not risk it,” Cas said to herself. She reached down and plucked the eye from the ashes, wiping it off before placing it in one of her pockets. She shuddered.

Something called out from somewhere partially obscured in memories she couldn’t quite reach. She bowed her head, her eyes shut, and silently offered up a prayer. It felt like a foreign gesture to Cas, but seemed appropriate all the same.

The Earth burned in the corner of her vision.

“I have to make this right,” Cas said. She turned her attention to the door, then glanced at the card key in her hand. “And now I know where I can start.”

Piece 16 – Bird-Words, and Fractured Reality

The air outside of the cavern shimmered. The vast shadow cast by the Crow seemed to disappear. A tall woman robed in a black, feathered cloak walked into the cave. She stopped at the edge of the runic wards, her face a mask of contempt. Long, midnight black feathers stood out on her head where hair should have been. Her smile was abundant in pointed fangs.

“I thought it might perhaps be easier to address me in a more relatable form,” Badb said. “You mortals have such fragile minds and it’s so easy to upset you.”

“Really nice of her,” Curian snarked in response. “Big, mean bird thought about our feelings.”

Badb continued, clearly not bothered. “My sisters and I serve a purpose far beyond your comprehension,” she said. “There are many more worlds than there are stars in the sky, and for every world there are far more people.”

Curian yawned loudly. “Yeah, this is the part where you tell us about how those people need to die for whatever reason, justifying you stuffing your ugly faces with souls,” she said. “I’ve fought monsters like you. I know the kind of twisted reasoning you use to justify your actions. You’re all the same.”

“Oh? Is that so, little world-traveler?” Badb replied, her voice suddenly bitter-cold.

The air in the cave wavered, a strange glamour suddenly present.

“Fiend, what trickery are you trying?” Sophia snapped.

Badb stepped back. “This is no magic of mine. I take my leave, but this is not the last you’ll see of me. Next time I will be far less kind.” She vanished from sight, the last signs of her presence was the sound of monstrous wings as she took flight.

There was a soft pop and faint sparkle to the air.

“That was unusual,” Sophia muttered. “Something must have set off the magic of the wards, perhaps.” She waited for a smart remark from Curian, which had become her default expectation.

“The realism of this haunted house is wild,” muttered an unexpected voice. “These spiders seem real. Really real. Too real, maybe. Oh, damn. They’re actual spiders.” Sophia glanced over slowly as whoever was next to her shook several large, confused spiders from her sleeve.

Sophia reached for the dagger at her belt, taking a step back.

Not-Curian looked around. She was shorter than Sophia, although only a little, with a shock of pink hair that practically glowed in the cave’s low light. Her armor did not look terrifically sturdy, Sophia noted.

“Witch! What have you done with my friend?” Sophia said, immediately cursing herself. Curian would have had some remark about the generous use of the word friend. “Traveling companion. What have you done with my traveling companion?”

“Uh, what did you do with me? And did you call me a witch? A real witch or just like an insult, because neither option is terrifically nice,” Not-Curian said.

“Just who are you, exactly?” Sophia demanded.

“Captain Isabelle Warpt of Spiral Reach Academy. Izzy to my friends. Jury’s out on you, person who calls people witch right when you meet them.”

Sophia blinked. “You didn’t use dark magics to imprison Curian and take her place?”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Is Curian your friend? Traveling companion? Either way, that’s a definite no. I wish I could do magic, but that’s some serious fairy tale stuff. Don’t suppose you have a name, huh?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I…It’s been a very trying day,” Sophia said. “Sophia. No nickname. May I call you Izzy or should I call you Captain Warpt?”

Izzy scratched her head. “You going to call me a witch again?”

“I suppose not, no, since it seems that was an error. My apologies,” Sophia replied.

“Izzy works, then,” Izzy said. “So where am I, exactly? Looks like I’m not in Kansas. Not that I was in Kansas.”

There was a sound from near the mouth of the cave. Izzy produced a shining, object and held it out in front of herself.

“What a curious crossbow,” Sophia commented, her eyes fixed on the mouth of the cave.

“Thanks,” Izzy replied. “It’s definitely not a crossbow. A crossbow would be more helpful about now, really. It’s a training plasma pistol. A broken one. I’ve never been too keen on hurting people.”

Steps outside of the cave grew closer.

“Me, neither,” Sophia said. She grabbed Izzy’s hand and pulled her behind a large, fallen portion of cave wall further behind the runic wards.

“Swear on me heart the runes spoke to me,” rasped a dry, hollow voice.

“That really the way you want to say that? That’s what you’re going with?” asked a second speaker. Shadows, despite the low light, crossed the cave’s threshold.

Izzy hazarded a glance around their cover and immediately fell backwards. “Oh crap, they’re skeletons,” she whispered. “Walking, talking skeletons. What the hell kind of Weirdsville is this?”

Sophia shrugged. “Evidently it’s not a Kansas,” she replied. “We’re currently traveling near the Rhimeghast Mountains, one of the major trading outposts for the Undead.”

Izzy held up a finger, her expression suddenly quite serious. “They’re real, live skeletons. Like, walking around with their skin missing. No insides or anything. Wait. How are they talking?”

“Same way we can hear you, I reckon,” replied one of the skeletons. “Clear as a bell.”

“Do come out and show yourselves, please,” said the other skeleton. “So as to not have to belabor the point, we can also see you despite not having physical eyes. Glad we could get that out of the way.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the heart comment from earlier, by the way,” the first skeleton said as Sophia and Izzy emerged. “We’ll be revisiting that when we’ve got a moment.”

Izzy raised a hand, smiling. “Now’s a moment. Why not discuss now?”

The skeletons hesitated as if considering Izzy’s suggestion.

“No, that can wait,” said the first skeleton. “First, though, we’ll need to take you to the Lady of Rhimeghast Castle. She’ll know what to do with you, you servants of the Morrigan.”

Dunkin’s Spooky Ghost Pepper Donuts – Great marketing, good treat

It’s no secret I’m something of a spicy food addict. I have a shelf in my fridge dedicated to hot sauce, which has overflowed onto other shelves. I try the hottest wings available at restaurants for kicks and giggles. You get the idea.

However! There has to be taste and not just heat. I hate spicy things that just taste like pain (looking at you, Triple Atomic Wings at Quaker Steak & Lube).

Enter Dunkin’ with their Spooky Ghost Pepper Donut. A friend of mine brought it to my attention, and I am a shameless buffoon when it comes to gimmicks. I knew I had to try this damn thing. For science, obviously. Before proceeding, some details worth noting:

  • The Ghost Pepper clocks in around 1 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU) (the scale by which spicy foods are measured).
  • For comparison, the Carolina Reaper is around 1.5 SHU.
  • Both the Dragon’s Breath and Pepper X peppers are hotter still.
  • That said, 1.5 million is nothing to sneeze at.
  • The Spooky Ghost Pepper Donut is a standard Dunkin strawberry iced donut with the addition of both cayenne and ghost pepper powders.
  • There obviously aren’t just straight-up peppers on the donuts – they’re present in powdered form. Eating a whole ghost pepper is absolutely a different experience from having something seasoned with it.
  • I would not recommend eating a straight-up ghost pepper.
Proof of acquiring the donuts, I guess.

The local Dunkin had plenty of Spooky Ghost Pepper Donuts this morning, which honestly surprised me because I have trash luck with this kind of thing. I went in with mixed expectations, and honestly was pleased with the end product. These balance sweet and heat nicely. The spiciness hits right after the first bite, creeping up the throat and spreading around the mouth. It lingers. It’ll leave your face feeling a bit warm. It’s nothing crazy, but it’s definitely a treat I can see being too much for some.

Omnomnom. Spooky, spicy treat.

Dunkin’ did these perfectly, I think, in terms of heat. People who went into eating these expecting something that will melt their faces off were clearly disappointed, and I’m admittedly a little baffled by that response. Dunkin’ had to pull off a careful balancing act with this release. No real heat, and this would be just another strawberry donut. Too much heat? For starters, that would likely impact sales. People are intrigued by the prospect of trying something that could be a bit spicy, and word of mouth will help sell it. If it’s agony to eat one of these? Not as likely to make sales.

Also, with Dunkin’ encouraging people to use these to put a little mischief in their Halloween spirit by prankong friends with them? I see lawsuit potential galore if they packed these with enough heat to make it feel like you’re passing lava the next day.

The strawberry is a bit too cloyingly sweet, but otherwise the balance of cayenne and ghost pepper make this a fun novelty treat worth checking out. Just don’t be that person and surprise a friend with it, or you deserve suitably terrible pranks in response.

Overall, this is a solid offering and I hope it returns to haunt Dunkin’ stores each year around spooky season.

Warpt Factor – Installment 16

Izzy had tried, unsuccessfully, to return to the bridge at least three times only to be thwarted by her crew.

“Mustn’t spoil the surprise,” First Office deCourville insisted.

“Back to your room now, little missy,” Professor Everest said, quickly correcting himself by adding, “Begging your pardon, Captain. No offense meant.”

That was when Izzy learned she reminded Professor Everest of his daughter, a fact that made her warm and fuzzy and full of rainbows and joy inside.

CMO Carter took a more direct approach. “I brought a deck of Adventures in Speculation cards and two mugs of hot chocolate with little marshmallows shaped like asteroids.”

Izzy wrinkled her nose. “Damn you, Carter,” she said. “Well-played. Come in, but know that I am a champion without rival at Speculation. You doomed yourself before you even knew what you were doing.”

CMO Carter entered the room, placed the hot chocolate down on the anti-grav table, swiveled the desk chair around to face Izzy’s bed, and cracked her knuckles.

“I’ll certainly test your skills, then,” CMO Carter replied.

The hours rolled by in an instant, several rounds having played out with no victor able to be chosen. Numerous mugs of cocoa were enjoyed.

“Clearly, I underestimated you,” Izzy said. “A mistake I won’t make again!”

There was a soft knock on the door. Izzy frowned, “Perhaps another time,” she said. “Who goes there? State your business!”

A grumbled response, followed by a clearer one. “First Officer deCourville. I thought you may like to know we’ve arrived at our destination. I had tried to contact you on your Commlink, but it seems you’ve shut it off.”

Izzy responded with a sheepish grin, and CMO Carter stifled a laugh.

“Be right out, First Officer,” Izzy replied. “Sir. Thank you, sir.”

The hatch was open, waiting, and the lights dimmed on the bridge. CMO Carter followed Izzy. She kept smiling, but wouldn’t admit to why.

Izzy stepped out onto the docks. The lights and sounds were all-encompassing. She blinked and tried to adjust, and as she processed her surroundings she couldn’t help but smile as well. She danced in place a moment, before turning to CMO Carter.

“You knew?” Izzy demanded.

CMO Carter nodded. “We considered your personnel file while you were dealing with the diplomatic parts during the tail end of our visit to Rigel Six,” she admitted. “It’s very clear you like thrill rides, and I happened to have an uncle who holds season passes.”

“Halcyonland,” Izzy said, a hint of tears welling up in her eyes. Antique roller coaster cars soared along modernized versions of their tracks overhead, no longer bound by the limits of old construction nor the dangers of naturally occurring gravity. Rides like centrifuges spun riders wildly while simultaneously rotating on multiple axes.

“You three thought of this for me?”

Fontaine, Professor Everest, and CMO Carter nodded.

“What you did back there was something amazing,” Professor Everest said. “Hurt like hell to see you so sad with what came of it, so we put our heads together…”

“Did a little research,” Fontaine said.

“The rest is, well, history,” CMO Carter said. “We’ve got the entire day off without issue. High Chancellor Kadimova approved it himself, actually. It was meant to be.”

Izzy looked around, soaking the entire place in. It was a one-of-a-kind attraction, its artificial atmosphere a thin, translucent fog barely visible at the edge of the park. In addition to the rides, there were so many food stalls and restaurants drifting about the sphere the park occupied in space.

Izzy’s eyes lit up as a thought occurred to her. “We have just enough that we can all be ride buddies!” she declared. “No one gets left behind this way. Oh wow. Wowwie wow wow, this is amazing!”

Fontaine began to raise a hand in protest. Professor Everest shook his head, and Fontaine lowered the hand.

“Yes, I suppose that will be quite nice,” Fontaine said, barely concealing his fear as his eyes followed a train as it ran through a series of loop de loops while also completing a barrel roll.

“Not as bad as it looks, or so I’ve heard,” Professor Everest assured him quietly.

Three rides later, however, had left Professor Everest asking if a break was in the future.

“Goodness me, a break?” Fontaine chittered excitedly. “We haven’t the time! We must maximize our ride-to-line-time ratio so as to enjoy as much of our time here as possible! Did you see the shooting star ride? Perhaps we could do that one next?”

Izzy laughed. “Didn’t think you’d be having so much fun, First Officer,” she said. “This is a little less formal than you seem to prefer and all. Not as stick-in-the-mud as you normally do?”

“I don’t know what’s come over me, to be honest,” Fontaine replied. “I feel light as a feather, filled with glee. I should do this more often, I think.”

“Adrenaline rush,” CMO Carter whispered. “Probably the most excitement he’s ever had in his life.”

Professor Everest winced as Fontaine continued to suggest rides. “Perhaps we could go on something a little slower to switch things up a little,” he suggested. “The Phantom Zone, perhaps?”

The Phantom Zone was modeled after the haunted houses of old. The facade of a derelict house floated in the air, its enormous doors opening to a wormhole. Carts of four riders disappeared into it, reappearing seconds later.

“Fair. Very diplomatic indeed,” Izzy said. “As Captain of this adventure, I’ll allow it.”

Fontaine frowned, but quickly recovered. “Very well. If it’s the Captain’s will, I’ll indulge. Only if I may ask for some more of the loop-and-twist rides afterwards.”

“Suppose so,” Izzy said.

They moved to the front of the line quickly, thanks to the nature of The Phantom Zone’s quantum ride duration. They boarded the ride’s vehicle, fashioned after an old mine cart. The restraint bar that lowered was more for show than function, an authentic throwback to amusement parks of yesteryear.

The doors opened like a gaping maw, the space beyond them a swirling opalescence that stuck out against the surrounding facade. A quiet countdown whispered from ten to one, and the cart lurched forward.

“Woah,” Izzy blurted out. “Ears popped just there.”

The space within the ride was made to look like an old mansion. Its physical details were in constant flux, however, shimmering gently in the low-light as simulated spiders the size of freighter ships moved around the ceiling. The cart followed its pre-set path, climbing a tall set of stairs.

Suddenly, the lights flickered. The cart stopped.

“Uh…Is that supposed to happen?” Izzy asked.

Fontaine and Professor Everest shrugged.

“New feature since the last time I visited, perhaps?” CMO Carter offered in response.

The lights flickered again, and Izzy was gone, replaced suddenly by a young woman in curious, Medieval garb.