Wanted Adventurers – A Tale of Two Towns

“Murkmuck Heights was beautiful, it was,” Brutus explained. “Bogwater to the edge of each yard gave us all ample fishing spaces, and the crops we grew…” The Bridge Troll’s eyes focused on a distant place not of the world but instead in a place of memory.

“I was but a young lad when Murkmuck was that way, before these thieving, thoughtless fools showed up,” Brutus continued, his gaze now fixed on the people of Ankheim who cowered just within the city’s gates, visible but clearly ready to flee to safety.

The old man stepped forward and straightened up, his expression sour. “That’s not how I recall it, and I was nearly an old man when you were the young troll you say you were back then,” he snapped.

Aranza produced a throwing knife in each hand, prepared to strike. “Give me a reason,” she hissed. “Just one.”

Monty raised a hand. “What’s your name, elder?” he added. “Let’s start with that, and be cautious to not provoke my travel companion as she has something of a temper. Her aim’s truer than any you’ve ever met.”

The old man hesitated, his eyes flicking between Aranza and Monty. “Graham Lockhaven. The current mayor. The last one fled, screaming, across the bridge into the night and was never seen again. Likely eaten by that foul creature!”

Aranza sighed. “You were doing so well.” She raised a dagger, but stopped short of throwing it.

“Thank you,” Monty said.

“Yes, I would prefer to not have to detain you,” Temperance added.

Aranza glared at her travel companions. “I didn’t do it for either of you,” she snapped. “Those aren’t the eyes of a murderer or a thief. A sad old man, maybe. I see a lot of regret in those eyes.”

Graham winced, looking away. “We didn’t come by this land the most honest way, but the damn trolls certainly didn’t make us feel welcome.”

Aranza returned the blades to their sheaths with a sigh. “Fine. What did the Trolls do? And why is there only one?”

“My family’s legacy was here! We were all driven away, and I vowed to reclaim what was ours!” Brutus sneered.

Graham shook his head. “We came here after we were chased from our homes in Northern Verdanthia, back when the drakes still roamed freely,” he said. “Back before the Guild helped bring peace. We begged and gave everything, and the trolls agreed to give us space…So we built together. Only when the Trolls demanded we offer up more…”

“Your ilk drained the bogs! Our precious fishing grounds, all but gone and replaced with this!” Brutus snarled in response.

Aranza looked around as she listened. Monty kept a watchful eye on her, and when he saw a familiar expression cross her face he stepped aside as she walked back across the bridge. Temperance began to step into her path, but was stopped.

“Best leave her to whatever she’s up to,” Monty said as Temperanced walked to the opposite shore, then along the cliffs and out of sight.

“Oy! I didn’t say you could go!” Brutus shouted. “Definitely a Guild type, that one. No manners to speak of! Where was I, now?”

Temperance shook her head. “You were bickering back and forth regarding who was more at fault, I believe,” she replied. “I lost it somewhere along the way when my head began to hurt.”

Monty chuckled. “You’ve got some jokes, I see,” he replied.

Temperance raised an eyebrow, shifting. “I…I suppose I do,” she replied.

A bright flash of light illuminated Ankheim, its rays rushing along the valley and giving the river far below an ethereal glow. The deafening explosion followed immediately behind, the sound and shockwave enough to knock trees over. Brutus braced against it with ease, while Monty and Temperance struggled and Graham was knocked to his side.

Graham struggled to stand back up. A hand was held out, and he gasped as he saw Brutus towering over him.

“Steady does it, old man,” Brutus said. “No toll for this one. What do you reckon caused that noise?”

Graham’s eyes grew wide. “Oh Gods no,” he muttered. “Everyone inside! The damn dam’s been downed!”

Temperance and Monty followed Graham’s gaze with their own, and saw something unsettling in the distance. A towering wall of water capped by roiling foam roared onward along the valley, its height great enough to threaten the bridge.

“Lovely time to visit Ankheim, don’t you think?” Monty said, grabbing Temperance’s hand. He broke into a sprint, Temperance easily outpacing and then dragging him along. She scooped up Graham with her free arm and made it past the gathering of people.

Brutus ran after, but the gate began to shut.

“No, damn it, let him in!” Graham shouted.

The doors shut just as the tempestuous wall of water crashed down.

Piece 19 – A Puzzling, Warpt World

Izzy paused at the entrance to the hall. Everything about the atmosphere the place exuded just screamed haunted house–the abundance of cobwebs on toppled chairs and dust-caked tables, the rusted chandeliers that dangled perilously from chains that could give way any second, and the mysterious specter that loomed at the head of the hall where the seat of honor remained whole though empty.

The dark form twisted and folded into itself in the air above the table at the end of the hall.

“Curious,” Sophia thought aloud. “In a village like this, that’s where the Elders would sit when gathered to discuss important matters…”

Izzy snapped back to the moment after having been laser-focused on recalling the voice. “Curious because there’s no Elders or curious because there’s a spooky monster above the table like the world’s ugliest chandelier?”

Sophia smiled. “Forgive me, I know that’s something you may not know,” she replied. “The Elders of a village like this were considered a step beneath the Gods. When they met it was to decide important matters that often dictated the fate of their village. That space is covered in protective runes and wards.” She pointed, and Izzy squinted to see.

The etchings were faint in some places, but still there. Clear, precise lines carved into the stone floor. Carvings, ornate and in concert with the decorative markings, were visible on the table and each of the chairs. Perhaps it was a trick of the curious lighting, but as Izzy looked at the markings they seemed to give off a dull glow as if to challenge any with ill intent to step back. Little lights in the darkness.

***

Little lights in the darkness, the candles the lizardfolk that Curian identified as Kobolds–or, as she’d put it more bluntly, gecko bastards–were all that helped lead the way along the dark corridor. The goblins marched along the walls in lockstep, and each had a dagger readied as if they were out for blood at the first sign of disobedience.

“Quite the predicament you’ve gotten us in,” Fontaine muttered. “All because you two insisted we take this blasted leisure time!”

Professor Everest stepped ahead a little too far, and the toe of his boot caught the heel of Fontaine’s in a way that caused him to stumble ever so slightly. The goblins were fast, but none struck. Instead, as they processed what had happened, they laughed to themselves.

“Dumb lot, this group,” one goblin said.

“Nothing but bickering,” another goblin added.

“They’ll make a handsome sacrifice, though,” a third goblin said. “Master’s hungry.”

Curian’s ears perked up at this. “Master’s hungry? What manner of master is it that goblins serve these days? Thought you served yourselves and only yourselves.”

The goblin nearest to Curian let out a hiss of hot, foul breath, but Curian did not flinch away.

“We goblins are smart,” the goblin sneered. “Times change and reality is what powerful people say it is. You get a chance to change reality by helping one such powerful person? Well, you don’t need to worry about that seein’ as we’re about to feed you to them.”

“Ah, shit,” Curian said. She turned to CMO Carter, glanced at the others, then returned her attention to Carter. “They’re definitely in a cult. No idea what their master might be, though, so…Keep your wits about you. The big guy any good in a fight?”

CMO Carter shrugged. “I’d be lying if I said I knew,” she said. “We’d only just met not that long ago, and their…Well, my Captain now, I suppose…Captain Warpt sorted things out nonviolently by threatening to blow up the planet.”

Curian stopped abruptly enough that Fontaine walked into her and fell backwards. “Threatened to blow up a planet?” She chuckled. “I hope I get to meet this Captain. I bet she’s got some fun stories to tell.”

***

“I don’t know you,” Izzy said. “You’re not a real person to me, just some spooky children’s show bad guy who killed people to try to scare me. I couldn’t even escape you on a vacation that was inflicted on me! Good grief.”

The shadowy form seemed to consider this as it shifted and reshaped into different faces. “You have few enemies and your memories are…baffling.”

“They’re organized, thank you very much,” Izzy replied proudly. “I’ve got all my thoughts in the right order. Ducks in a neat little row. You just see ’em as squirrels darting around the forest because you don’t know me.”

Sophia raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite the way of putting it,” she said.

“Something something codifying memories and thoughts,” Izzy muttered. “I got bored one summer, happened upon a video, and anyway that’s how I spent the next four sleepless days. I think? I can’t always remember.”

Behind the shadow, the wall began to shift and churn. The shadowy form shuddered, and there was an unmistakable muttering to the effect of concern. Protrusions from its top portion morphed into long, many-jointed stalks that ended in bloodshot eyes. Its central form collapsed to a bulbous shape, and at its center was a single, angry, bloodshot eye. The being turned to the shifting wall, its attention temporarily not fixed on Sophia and Izzy.

“Dang, that’s ugly!” Izzy said, clearly not concerned if the creature heard her.

“I’m not sure what it is, to be honest,” Sophia said. “I’ve never encountered anything like it in my years of studies.”

The wall gave way to a long, dim corridor lit by curious candles alight with black flames. Something moved within the corridor, and Sophia and Izzy crept closer as their curiosity got the better of them.

“Looks like they’ve got back-up,” Sophia muttered.

Izzy jumped up and down. “My crew!” she shouted. “And some little Godzillas!”

“Kobolds,” one of the creatures hissed from within the corridor.

Curian looked around the shadowy creature, an eyebrow raised. She spotted Sophia and smiled. “Looks like you’ve made a friend!” she called out.

CMO Carter, Professor Everest, and Fontaine peered around the shadowy creature.

“Captain Warpt! Thank the stars, you’re all right!” Fontaine exclaimed.

CMO Carter and Professor Everest exchanged smirks.

“Be careful! That creature looks similar to a Witness from an old fantasy game,” Fontaine added. He winced. “Not that I would know from personal experience. Purely research.”

Curian patted Fontaine on the back. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, Wizard of plus ten wishful thinking,” she chided. “Bug-boy’s right, though. You know what to do, Soph?”

Sophia tapped her chin. “It seemed to take issue with you, Captain Warpt, Sorry. Izzy.”

Izzy nodded. “It’s cool, no worries,” she said. “Hey, big ugly!”

The goblins and kobolds surrounding the group in the corridor seemed to take issue with this comment, and yet none of them appeared to know how to handle their deity being called such a name. They remained still, their attention fixed on the Witness.

“Hey there ug-uh-leeeee!” Izzy shouted. “Look at me!”

The Witness turned and shifted, its form nebulous and murky again.

“Oy! They’re not what they said they are!” shouted one of the goblins. The shadows shuddered, a faint light briefly emanated from deep within its form, and the offending goblin crumbled to dust.

The Witness settled on a vague shape somewhere between Spiral Reach’s Chancellors and Izzy’s parents. “You are so very disappointing,” they hissed. “So. Very. Disappointing!”

Izzy shrugged. “I might have annoyed my instructors, but I’ve never bugged anyone enough for them to say I’m a disappointment. Heard I’m eccentric a lot.”

The Witness’s form began to glow with a faint, sickening light

Sophia gestured to Curian, who ran to the Witness’s side and waved her arms. “Yeah, ugly! Over here! I want my turn at your cheap mind-reading tricks.”

The Witness turned its attention to Curian, and its form changed to that of Dullahan. “Your world and the others will fall before my might,” it hissed. “Not bad. I like this form. Its mission suits me. You, however…” The Witness began to glow again.

“Hideous abomination!” Fontaine shouted. “Turn your gaze upon me and know your demise!” Professor Everest coughed to mask the brief bout of laughter that escaped.

“Enough!” The Witness roared. It glowed a vile green, and the glow quickly spread to everyone but Curian and Izzy.

“You chose to play games, and so a game we shall play,” the Witness sneered. “Select which of your worlds–your reality–will become my next meal. Failing to choose will only end with my devouring both of them!” It cackled wildly. The others were clearly in pain, their features frozen in contorted pictures of agony.

Izzy reached slowly for her sidearm. It felt heavier, and the metal seemed to call to her.

Yet she still didn’t want to take another creature’s life.

“Choose, or I will choose for you!” The Witness roared.

It turned to face Izzy, a toothy grin bisecting its face. “Perhaps I will take both worlds just to savor the sweet notes of suffering I feel radiating from you.” It opened its mouth and began to laugh again, but the sound that followed was far less jubilant as it gasped and sputtered.

“What is this treachery?” the Witness howled as its form convulsed between states it began to slowly rotate, which afforded Izzy a clear view of the strange weapon jutting from the Witness. It looked like a dagger wedged in a long stick at a glance.

“Had a wild, improbable idea and I figured what the Hells have I got to lose?” Curian replied.

“Something from each world as a weapon?” Izzy commented. “Super cool if true.”

Curian smiled “Super cool it is, and it looks like I was onto something.”

The Witness screamed and howled, smoke curling from its form as it spun faster and faster. It came undone slowly at first, dark smoke flinging from it until there was nothing left.

The air shimmered with a warm light and the magic that held the others in place faded. The goblins and kobolds fled without another word, and were not pursued.

“Not worth it,” Curian said as Professor Everest prepared to take chase. She walked across the small span of hall between her and Izzy and offered a mock salute. “Captain Warpt, I presume. Curian. I trust you’ve kept my traveling companion safe?”

Sophia cleared her throat. “I’m right here, you know,” she said.

“It’s almost as if I can hear her voice now, sending messages from some distant place,” Izzy snarked back prompting a hearty chuckle from Curian.

“Not bad,” Curian said. The air grew thicker with the shimmering magic.

“Looks like you best get back to your crew,” Curian said. “They missed you. Said something about time off?”

Izzy nodded. “We’ll see. I think I’ve had enough sitting back and relaxing after…Well, this silliness.” She gestured broadly. “Take care. May your mission be successful, and your course clear. Or something like that.”

Curian offered another, more sincere salute as Izzy backed away towards her crew. “I’m still a far way from home, but if we ever cross paths again we should grab a bite to eat. Swap stories. I’d bet you’ll have plenty to share.” The light in the air grew to an unbearable brightness.

“I’d like that,” Izzy said as the dining hall vanished, replaced entirely by the haunted mansion. A mechanized spider the size of a city bus dipped from the ceiling, and prompted Fontaine to shriek in horror.

Curian sighed, the wall where Izzy and her crew stood now no more than a wall. She turned to Sophia and forced a smile.

“Please tell me you at least sorted out how to get the next Piece.” Curian said.

Wanted Adventurers – This Land Called Betrayal

Temperance narrowed her gaze, her blade still at the ready. The Bridge Troll wielded a club that was twice as wide as Temperance, armor included, and looked like a fast way to answer the unspoken question of what could knock an entire dimension worth of depth out of a knight in plate armor.

“Let’s start with the simple questions and work our way up to more complicated things, please,” Monty said, his hands up to showcase his empty palms.

“I weren’t born yesterday, elfling,” the Bridge Troll said. “I smell the iron of two daggers in each of them sleeves. Best keep those hands up and not make any sudden moves, lest you want your paladin pal here to become a tin of holy shit.”

“That’s a thought that’ll haunt my dreams for a while,” Aranza muttered. “What’s your name, friend?”

The Bridge Troll cocked his head, his eyes now on Aranza. “Brazen of you to call me friend, friend,” he replied. He hesitated. “Suppose no harm in telling. It’s Brutus.”

Temperance smirked. “Let me guess,” she replied. “Your last name is something like ‘Skullcrusher’.”

Aranza knocked the sword from Temperance’s hand. “We’re going to have a long, unpleasant chat about that kind of nonsense later.”

Brutus nodded. “It’s Smith, I’ll have you know, and that was my family’s trade back before the village was stolen from us.”

“The Troll speaks lies! Lies!” shouted a voice from across the bridge. The party and Brutus turned their attention to its source. A number of humanoid faces were visible between the towering doors that closed Ankheim off from the world, the doors having been opened just enough.

“Oh, good, we can have a pleasant little conversation about how you damned humans and elves conned me and me family out of our rightful homestead,” Brutus sneered.

There was a collective muttering from the people just inside the doorway, and one was shoved forward. He was an older man, his eyes sunken in and his beard down to his knees. In another life, his garb may have suggested he was a powerful wizard. His stagger and sway, however, accompanied by the silver flask gripped in his hand suggested that life was not one he remembered well unless it came to needing to not pay a bar tab.

“You rob us at every turn!” the old man shouted.

“Just like you did to me and me family!”

Monty whistled sharply enough that the old man, Brutus, and Temperance had to cover their ears. Aranza shrugged, her hint of a smirk enough to suggest she was used to hearing the noise.

“Let’s get to the bottom of this, shall we?” Monty said. “I hear two tales of taking, and I want to know the truth before we come in and do…What it is that the Guild would deem appropriate.”

The old man perked up.

“No, you shut up,” Aranza said. “I trust Brutus. He seems honest. You smell like you could catch fire if you got too close to a lit match.”

The old man furrowed his brow, though his anger gave way to acceptance. “You raise a fair point, rude Orc.”

Brutus waved a hand at Ankheim. “Several years and generations ago, what before the swamp was drained and diverted, Ankheim wasn’t Ankheim,” he said. “It was Murkmuck Heights.”

The old man made a gagging sound. “Your family had nothing more than huts and ravenous alligators that plagued you!”

“Stop talking or I’ll throw you off of the bridge myself,” Aranza replied flatly.

Brutus offered a slight nod to Aranza. “Like I were saying, they came along. It wasn’t always bad, no. They helped us build up the village from the swampland. Make it less miserable living as it was, but as is often the case with humans they inevitably betrayed us and took the results of our hard work for themselves.”

Piece 18 – Uncrossing the Stars

Izzy tapped a finger against the tip of her nose. “You’re asking what to do with me in a helpful way, right?” she asked. “Not some thinly-veiled allegory for murder, right? I’m getting some mixed vibes.”

Lady Rhimeghast chuckled. “That’s a valid question, I suppose,” she said. “You need to be returned to your home world, but there appears to have been more of an exchange than just you and the person who took your place.”

“Would that be the catalyst that caused the shift between worlds? Something or someone else also moved between realities?” Sophia asked.

Lady Rhimeghast nodded. “There has been an interesting uptick in curious magics to the west of the summit. Perhaps if you were to investigate that a little further, you could find answers?”

Sophia opened her mouth to reply, only for Izzy to step forward and speak first.

“Yes! Definitely! We’ll fix that right up and get me home,” Izzy replied. “I’ve got a crew that’s undoubtedly missing me, and I was on a short vacation that was cut even shorter, so…Relaxation to get back to, I hope.”

Lady Rhimeghast smiled. “Hopefully it will be that simple,” she said. “I’ll send you just beyond our borders, to the edge of where we’ve noticed the curiosities. The rest is up to you, however. Do you think you’re up to the task?”

Izzy offered two thumbs up. “I dig the Masters of the Fancy Jewelry vibes this world has, but I’ve got a lot to get back to so I need to accomplish this.”

“I admire your tenacity,” Lady Rhimeghast said. She snapped her fingers, and the world melted around Izzy and Sophia.

A chill wind scattered snow around Sophia and Izzy. A winding mountain path stretched ahead, gently sloping downwards to a small, abandoned village. Remnants of huts barely stood, with rooftops mostly collapsed and windows long-shattered. Curls of smoke snaked their way skywards from a feast hall at the far edge of the village.

“If this were an adventure game, that looks like a quest marker if I’ve ever seen one,” Izzy said.

“You seem to be a natural at this,” Sophia replied.

“Something like that,” Izzy said. “There were, uh…We…Ah! I had simulations of worlds like this, but with less chance of death if you screwed up. Which admittedly is a thought that should have occurred to me sooner.”

Sophia placed a hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “We can do this,” Sophia said. “We’ll get you home.”

The path seemed to stretch away from them as they walked towards the source of the smoke, and the atmosphere grew colder with each step. Thought it was still daytime, the world seemed to grow darker as they approached the hall. The doors were open, one barely held in place by its iron hinges.

Sophia and Izzy entered slowly. A solitary figure stood by the far wall, facing away from them and shrouded in shadow.

“Captain Warpt,” they said, their voice heavily distorted. “How curious, but this is now how we were meant to meet…”

Wanted Adventurers – A Matter of Perspective

The journey to Ankheim took longer than expected, as Trundles was a boar with little attention to her rider’s directions and a powerful appetite. After three stops for snacks, it was decided a solution was needed for the sake of expediency.

Aranza smiled back at Temperance and Monty from a good distance ahead, the apple she’d rigged up to a simple combination of rope and a stick that was held just out of Trundles’ reach a powerful motivator for the boar.

“Don’t look so smug there,” Monty called. “You’ll be the first one to be eaten by the Bridge Troll if this goes sideways!”

“She had a good idea, though,” Temperance said. “Clever of her to use the boar’s endless appetite to her advantage.”

Monty gave Temperance a sideways glance. “Don’t let her hear you say that or she’ll never shut up about this.”

“Too late, I heard all of it!” Aranza shouted back.

“Gods damn it,” Monty said.

The horses clipclopped along the weathered dirt road, the metal of their horseshoes occasionally striking a stone from a time when there may have been some improvements in process before being abandoned.

“Have you ever been to Ankheim?” Monty asked Temperance, his eyes still fixed on the road ahead. They continued along at a pace that would ensure their arrival before sunset, which in turn guaranteed they would encounter the Bridge Troll they were tasked with removing.

“Sorry, did I need to use your title there or something to address you properly?” Monty asked “Guild Paladin Temperance, have you ever been to Ankheim before?”

Temperance blinked. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t…” she hesitated. “I didn’t think you were talking to me, to be honest. No, I haven’t. I have heard quite a bit about it, as they pay handsomely for special Guild protections.”

Monty chuckled. “Tell me something I don’t know,” he replied. “You’re in for a treat. Assuming we can deal with this Troll, that is. Better than going straight after a Lich, I suppose.”

Temperance smiled. “Suppose you’re right.”

A walled town appeared on the horizon. The heights of its walls glittered gold in the fading sunlight of the day. Two massive, iron doors blocked the only point of entry to the town and were the only thing separating the town from the bridge that spanned a steep valley and kept travelers from plunging into the Ankheim River. Few would suggest the Ankheim River is anything shy of a pleasant and slow-moving, but to follow it for too long beyond Ankheim would lead one to the Serpentus Falls. These were noteworthy for being a very sharp drop that was followed by an abrupt, often deadly stop.

The bridge that spanned the gap was stone, and fairly standard in appearance. Any bridgebuilder would be proud to call it their work, and rightfully so as it had occupied that span for greater than one hundred years without incident.

Aranza brought Trundles to a stop the easiest way she could manage, by dropping the apple. She dismounted, hammered a tent post into the ground, and tied Trundles’ harness to the post.

“By the Gods, you two certainly took your time,” Aranza taunted. “Busy having a buddy adventure back there while I scouted ahead?”

“You know my only friendly travel companion is you, Aranza,” Monty snarked back. “Any word on the Troll with whom we are to contend?”

They stood just beyond the edge of the bridge and considered their options. Bridge Trolls were at home in the underside of bridge, and often laid traps for careless travelers. Some, however, favored brute force over brainy approaches. The one universal truth to Bridge Trolls, however, was a simple one: pay the toll or be devoured by the troll.

Temperance unsheathed her sword and stepped forward. A sudden flurry of movement was barely visible beneath the bridge–little more than a large, dark shape that moved in the shadows.

Aranza elbowed Monty. “Don’t think we get off the hook if let her die, Monty,” she pointed out. “Flip a copper to see who goes to save her?”

Monty sighed. “You’re not wrong, but we don’t have time,” he replied. He palmed a dagger, the flash of silver gone as quickly as it appeared, and walked with purposes to meet Temperance before the Bridge Troll did.

“Let’s be reasonable here, my goodly Guild…handler? No, that’s not the word I’m looking for, is it,” Monty said as he stepped between Temperance and the last step onto the bridge. “You are clearly a Paladin of action, and that’s admirable.”

“We cannot let a monster dictate the terms by which our people live,” Temperance replied. She opened her mouth to speak again, only to shut it abruptly. Her eyes grew wide.

The rumbling grew from a subtle accompaniment to the river’s babbling below to a cacophony on par with an avalanche roaring down a mountainside.

“Monty, you were supposed to stop her,” Aranza called out as she ran over to join her traveling companions. “Not step onto the bridge, you gnollwit!” She smiled sheepishly up at the Bridge Troll.

The troll towered over the trio, at least twice Monty’s height. Muscles, built for scaling cliffs and clinging to the undersides of bridges (that also served their owner well in ventures such as smashing careless adventurers’ skulls), bulged within the troll’s stone-like slate gray skin. Long, curved fangs jutted out of the troll’s gaping maw at wild angles as it returned the smile.

“Goodness me, what a curious predicament we’ve got ourselves here,” the Bridge Troll said.

Temperance assumed a defensive pose while Monty moved out from between her and the troll while he muttered a series of apologies.

“You’re right,” Temperance said. “You’ve extorted your last gold piece from Ankheim and its good people!”

The Bridge Troll cocked his head, his large red eyes squinted in visible confusion. “The good people of Ankheim?” he roared with laughter. “You Guild types are all the same. Proper jesters and fools, really.”

Aranza stifled a chuckle. “I feel obligated to disagree presently, but say for the sake of curiosity I’d like to know what makes this particular Guild fool a fool in this case?”

Temperance shot a quick, dagger-filled glance over her shoulder at Aranza, who simply shrugged in reply.

“Ankheim weren’t Ankheim forever, you misinformed miscreants,” the Bridge Troll sneered. “That’s enough talk, methinks. Either pay the toll, or…Well, surely you lot know the rest.”

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.

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!”

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.”