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.”

Wanted Adventurers – The First of Many Side-Quests

Grimsby sat alone at a table that partially blocked the stairs. This alone wasn’t of particular interest, but the tables nearest to Grimsby’s table were also empty. Spotless, as if they had not been used in some time.

Aranza, Temperance, and Monty had gone best out of five on several games of chance to see who would be the one who had to approach Grimsby to inquire about a room. During that time, a handful of the tavern’s other patrons had shot confused and somewhat judgemental looks their way. A few realized what they were doing, and one or two gave a murmured acknowledgement of the task ahead.

One quietly commented on having affairs in order before approaching Grimsby.

Grimsby sat on his barstool, a gnome of sub-average height, his gaze fixed on something not quite in the physical space of the tavern. When he blinked, it was one eye at a time.

“That’s a gnome that’s been through some dark shit,” Aranza said as she tried to avoid eye-contact.

“We need a room,” Temperance said. “This is hardly the time for such childish foolishness.”

Monty held up a finger, eyes narrowed. “I certainly don’t see you, oh brave Paladin, tripping over your overly shiny armor to address the gnome.”

Temperance recoiled. “I, well…” she replied. “I was just about to do exactly that.” She turned, but hesitated.

Aranza sighed as she walked around Temperance. Grimsby’s focus remained on whatever he’d been staring at since they’d arrived, and did not shift until Aranza cleared her throat.

Grimsby let out a piercing, horrible shriek, eyes wide.

Aranza leaped back, daggers ready to be thrown at a second’s notice.

Grimsby blinked–actually blinked–and then his gaze shifted upwards to Aranza. A lazy, slow smiled crept across his face.

“Greetings, weary traveler,” Grimsby rumbled in a deep baritone. “The red crow caws at midnight, and the mist covers only that which we desire to not see.”

Aranza took a step back. “Sure, they do those things,” she replied. “Sorry to bother you there, you were obviously doing something important.”

Grimsby cocked his head, the tavern’s torchlight reflecting brightly off of his bald head.

“If it’s not too much trouble, the two idiots I’m traveling with and I need a room,” Aranza blurted out. “Gryphonshit, did I say that out loud?”

“And what perils paved your path to this fine purveyor of ales and place of rest?” Grimsby asked.

“Guild business,” Aranza answered automatically. “Not wanting to die. The two are related.”

“Friends of the Guild?”

Aranza shook her head. “We tried to rob them and we made a deal so we didn’t dance at the gallows,” she replied. “Not the Paladin. She’s stuck being our holy nanny. Damn you.”

Grimsby nodded. “Room’s on me tonight, but your drinks are up to Aloysius.”

“Stop giving out my name like it’s your business to share!” the bartender, Aloysius, shouted across the tavern. “Give them a room, but only one room. Giving away business like you own the damn place.” Aloysius continued the conversation at a low grumble under his breath, his attention returned to the other patrons.

Grimsby winked. “I do own the place.” He reached into his vest pockets, rifling around for an improbably long time. He produced a small leather pouch, which he replaced into the pocket, a sliver of metal that transformed into a startlingly sharp dagger before, and then finally a plain brass key.

“Up the stairs, second door on the left,” Grimsby said. “You do good things, you get to stay. You cause trouble, I charge you double. No need to relay your tales. The tide of your worth shall be determined by the cosmic push and pull of good and evil that you release into the world.”

“Sure thing,” Aranza said, taking the key. She walked back to Monty and Temperance, who had turned away.

“You deserve a drink,” Monty said. “You’ve been through a lot.”

Temperance shook her head. “I prefer to not indulge in such things,” she replied. “I need my wits about me so as to ensure neither of you fall into your wicked old ways.”

Aranza laughed, clapping a hand on Temperance’s shoulder. “Sounds like she’s afraid of a challenge,” she said. “Hey, Al. Three of your strongest ales and three shots of Dragonfyre, if you’d be so kind.”

Aloysius clenched his jaw, but went about retrieving the requested drinks. He placed them on the bar, then held a hand out for payment.

“I’ll cover first round,” Monty said.

Aloysius raised a hand in protest. “The half-orc with a whole lot of humor can pay,” he said. “Not even my friends call me Al.”

Aranza shrugged, producing six gold. “Struck a nerve?” she asked, plunking the gold down in Aloysius’ hand. He eyed it suspiciously for a moment before he dropped it somewhere beneath the bar and out of sight.

“Breakfast is between when I get up and when I don’t feel like cooking for you ungrateful heathens anymore,” Aloysius shouted over the crowd. “I’m closing up. If you’re staying, don’t wreck the joint. If you’re not? You don’t gotta go home, but get the hell out.” He grabbed a bottle of translucent green liquid as he walked toward the door at the end of the bar, popped the cork and took a swig, then shut the door behind him.

A number of the patrons shuffled out with only a handful moving cautiously past and up the stairs.

“All right, the rules are simple,” Aranza said.

“I’m familiar with the rules,” Temperance interrupted.

Monty raised his eyebrows.

“Go!” Aranza shouted. She threw the Dragonfyre back, then started to drink the ale. it was a dense, dark beer, and she couldn’t quite place it. It was probably one of those small batch ones, she figured, with a name that included Bogwater. She chanced a sideward glance and raised her eyebrows.

Monty was taking his time, as he did. His fair cheeks were already several shades redder than usual, and his eyes glassy.

Temperance was well over halfway into her ale with no sign of slowing. Aranza doubled down on her efforts.

The two slammed their mugs down at the same time.

“By the Heavens, it looks like you have some competition, ‘Ranz,” Monty slurred, dribbling ale down his chin. “Whoops.”

An older woman stepped forward, clearly unaware of the half-dwarf and half-orc sizing each other up, and slapped a rolled scroll down onto the bar. She shuffled out of the tavern without saying anything.

Temperance broke the scowl-off first.

“Damnation,” she muttered, grabbing up the scroll.

“What’s the problem?” Aranza said, her words and the sudden impact of the Dragonfyre enough to make her sway gently as she spoke. “Feeling a little wooo?” She waved her hands by her head for effect.

Temperance raised an eyebrow. “What? No, I wish,” she replied. “We’ve just been served.”

Monty leaned forward, his eyes level with Temperance’s forehead. “We what now?”

Temperance held out the scroll, pointing at the wax seal holding it shut. It was the Guild’s emblem. Beneath it, through the rolled parchment, the words “Wanted: Alive or Dead” were visible.

Aranza exhaled deeply, frowning. “The joy’s left me like the wind gone from a lost ship’s sails,” she said. “Let’s get some sleep. Looks like we’ve got our first side-quest to complete. Already.”

Follow the Ashes – The Price of Success

It was a celebration that put all other celebrations to shame. Cas arrived early and still felt as if she had gotten there late, shocked by how many people were already milling about the dimly-lit room. Brilliantly colored lights played around the ceiling and glimmered up from within the floor. Simulated shooting stars passed through the air without bothering the partygoers.

Cas inhaled deeply, braced herself, and entered the chaos. She couldn’t shake the feeling something was off, but whatever that something was eluded her. Her silver dress shined brilliantly, her matching gloves held in place with micro-gravs – just enough give to look like they were slipping off without the hassle of having to adjust them.

It was not a look Cas enjoyed, but the communication was clear. Everyone was to look exceptional. There were stakeholders to please, to wine and dine, and to fleece for every penny they were worth. The Rings depended on it.

“The Rings,” Cas muttered to herself.

Someone tapped on her shoulder, and Cas spun around. Raph, Ismeria, and Gavin stood together, smiling.

“Great to see you Commander,” Raph said, smiling especially broadly.

“Color me surprised,” Gavin added. “I distinctly recall you having indicated you were busy and would not be able to put in an appearance.”

Ismeria chuckled. “You’re just pissed because we owe Raph money,” she said. “My apologies, Commander, but I figured you would prefer paperwork over partying.”

Cas shook her head. She couldn’t help but smile back. “Hardly appropriate, but you can square away paying Raph later. Of course I’m here. Speaking of being here, where’s…” She trailed off. A blank space where a name should be in her memory. Odd, Cas thought.

“Maeve is on security duty, per your command,” Gavin replied. “Or are you having a brain lapse? No need to pretend you forget her name when she’s not around.”

“Right. Of course,” Cas replied. “Excuse me, I believe we were instructed to mingle.” She excused herself, and disappeared into the crowd. Screens moved along the edge of the room. They showcased beautiful forests with opulent tree houses, Medieval castle-towns with modern amenities, and collisions of past and future.

“What amazing habitat offerings,” one guest said to another. “I can’t choose which I’d prefer.”

“Any of them are an improvement over old, sad Terra,” replied the guest’s companion.

“Terra,” Cas muttered to herself. She noticed she was being watched, so she turned around to move among the crowd and bumped into someone. He was tall and portly, dressed in a forest green suit with a soft blue vest visible.

“Oh ho, if it isn’t the favorite Commander. Good evening,” the man said.

Cas smiled. “Bertie. A sight for sore eyes. Join me for a drink and conversation, would you?”

Bertie nodded. “Of course, of course, but I’ll have to make myself scarce before long,” he replied. “I do believe your bosses hate the idea of investors being treated as friends.”

Cas intercepted one of the hospitality droids drifting among the crowd just long enough to take two glasses of champagne. She handed one to Bertie, who raised it in a toast.

“To your extraordinary success,” Bertie said. “You solved the riddle no one else could unpuzzle. An awesome feat.”

Cas hesitated. What, she wondered, had she solved that was so important. “Thank you,” Cas replied, raising her glass to meet Bertie’s.

There was a murmuring among the crowd, attention shifting to the entrance. Bertie shook his head, downed his drink, and offered a lazy salute.

“We’ll talk again soon, I’m sure,” Bertie said. “You’ve got a very important guest to speak with, I believe.” He walked away before Cas could reply. The crowd seemed to be moving away from Cas, she noticed.

“The Commander of the hour.” The speaker’s voice deep, its intent carried on murky undertones like a wave rolling off of a storm.

Cas turned around, and looked up. There was no mistaking Vittorio Prosseur. His head floated suspended in a Vitalis Solution in a globe, separate from his custom built body but quite alive. An enormous, cybernetic heart pumped visibly within a similar, translucent dome in the body’s chest.

“Doctor Prosseur, it is always an honor,” Cas replied. The words were foreign, but fell effortlessly from her mouth. “I assure you, of course, it has been a team effort.”

“Please, call me Vittorio,” Vittorio said. He placed a cybernetic hand on Cas’s shoulder, its palm larger than her head. “You and I are of a higher calling than most here. We operate on a level of skill and wisdom that’s…not always appreciated. Walk with me.”

The room was empty, save for Vittorio. The party seemed to have ended. The screens had turned off.

“I’ll admit, I would have never thought to reverse the Simulation Engines like that,” Vittorio said, standing at the largest screen in the room. “It was a very calculated move on your part. The losses great, but the gains? Let’s just say our profits have never been greater.”

Cas approached slowly, cautiously. This screen displayed a far more dreary place. Fires raged across a planet’s surface, seas boiling. Parts of the land were visible only as blackened ruin, storms of ashes swirling across them from time to time.

“You solved the problem of providing power to the Rings, Commander,” Vittorio said. “And all you had to do was burn up Terra like charcoal in an old fireplace.”

Cas felt her stomach drop as she realized the scene unfolding in front of her was no display.

“What have I done…”

Piece 15 – The Perilous Road to the Rhimeghast Mountains

The sun was still low in the sky, the early morning frost only just having burned away, when Curian and Sophia prepared to leave the forest. The Orcs and Treants wished them a kind, long goodbye, repeatedly insisting they visit again, and so the duo departed with their next destination in mind. The Rhimeghast Mountains were still a long walk away, but they already dominated much of the horizon. Grasping vines covered in dagger-sized thorns flanked the dirt road, reaching deeper in some spots.

“The Rhimeghast Mountains used to be home to a bustling castle-town,” Sophia explained as they walked along. “That was ages ago, however. Long before the Liches claimed the mountains for themselves.”

Curian stopped without warning. Sophia bumped into her and stumbled back.

“Liches?” Curian replied. “Murderous mages who should be long-dead, but aren’t thanks to incredibly sinister magics?”

Sophia blinked. “Yes, I suppose that is one way of putting it.”

Curian held up a hand. “And we’re going to their domain, right? Where they’ll undoubtedly want to kill us.”

“If a Piece is there, what choice do we have?” Sophia asked.

Even at a distance, the jagged heights of the Rhimehast Mountains looked threatening–snow-capped claws tearing into the sky above.

“What else do you know about our destination?” Curian asked. “Shed some light on where we’re going.” She started walking along the road again.

Sophia walked a little faster to stay next to Curian, hoping to avoid any sudden stops. “Rhimeghast Castle-Town was a trade hub, and a favored place for weary travelers to rest,” Sophia explained. “It also happened to have a reputation as a place where criminals could bide their time while knights opted to look elsewhere.”

Curian nodded. “So it was interesting before Liches took over,” she said.

“Quite right,” Sophia said. “There are a number of accounts on when the Liches and their Undead troops arrived, but all agree on one point.”

“Oh? And what’s that?” Curian asked, glancing over at Sophia as they walked.

Sophia frowned. “Ah, well…The Liches aren’t particularly keen on visits from the living.”

Curian shook her head. “Of course they aren’t.”

The slopes began gradually, the last of the dense woods along the road thinning out before they gave way to boulder-strewn, unforgiving hills. The road wound along the steep incline of the hills, tracing what may have once been the safest path. Impossibly dark, gaping cave-maws were visible in the upper reaches of the hills.

“Makes me miss the cursed forest already,” Curian muttered as she braced against a bitter, frigid wind.

There was a sound like thunder, audible over the now-relentless winds. It was distant at first, growing louder with every passing second.

Curian turned around slowly, cursing under her breath. Countless birds shifted their flight path. The Crow did not care, knocking aside of the hapless avian creatures that failed to move from her path.

“Gods damn our luck,” Curian muttered. She grabbed Sophia by the hand and pulled her along. The sound of wings pounding against the air grew louder.

“We need to make it to one of the caves,” Sophia shouted. “But we have to be careful. I recall hearing tales of caves warded with protective spells. Surely some of those will have lingered.”

“And if we pick the wrong cave?” Curian replied, not breaking her stride as she continued to sprint along the winding path, cursing the inconvenient rocks her toes became acquainted with along the way.

Sophia shrugged. “We die, perhaps?”

“Delightful,” Curian replied. They reached a fork in the path, a cavemouth to their right. The trail continued to the left.

“No, keep going,” Curian shouted. “I don’t like the looks of that one.”

“Why?” Sophia asked, though she followed.

“The glowing, red eyes didn’t exactly give me big ‘come on in, we love visitors’ vibes,” Curian replied. They charged ahead, rounding the bend as the soil gave way beneath where they had just been.

The Crow flew closer, its pace measured and deliberate. Its caws sounded more like laughter as its wingbeats buffeted the hills with harsh gales.

“Not much of a choice left,” Curian said. She leaped into the nearest cave, Sophia following after. The darkness inside was oppressive, but something dull and silver was visible along the cave’s floor.

“Runes! Get behind them!” Sophia blurted out.

The wingbeats stopped, and a thunderous caw sent a blast of hot air into the cave.

“Come out, little insects,” the Crow taunted. “I won’t eat both of you. Yet.”

“Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” Curian replied. “We bested your sister, Badb. What makes you think we can’t get past you? Maybe you should be more afraid.”

Badb, the Crow, cackled raucously. “Your only path to the Piece you seek is through me, fools. You sacrifice but a moment of your time to me and I will allow you to continue on your pointless endeavor. Easily the most reasonable deal you’ll get.”

Curian sighed. “And the only deal,” she said. “All right, you pestilent parakeet. Talk.”

Lockdown Times, Life, and Raising Kids During COVID-19

Happy…what day is it? Tuesday. Happy Tuesday! For those of you for whom it applies: happy book birthday to The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. I have my copy and I’m eager to devour it.

Tonight’s post is a study in messing around with the WordPress mobile app to post. I apologize for no formatting issues. Not sorry at all.

I’ve been dwelling on a few things that have happened during these strange Quarantimes, and so I decided to share some of them. This is a partially selfish post as it’s to quiet some of the noise in my brain, and partially to share my experiences. Partially to help commiserate, perhaps?

I’m going to focus on positive shit because I started typing about the bad moments from 2020 and it made me tired so I said the Hell with it. There’s enough negative out there.

Distance Learning, The Beginnings, were a real treat. It was a wild learning curve for Kiddo 1, and for Steff and me. Seesaw wasn’t terrifically cooperative, and there were a few nights I was up until after 11 recalling my third grade math skills. It was a bonding experience wrapped in shared frustration, but we survived it without my daughter trying to kill me while I slept. And that’s really the heart and soul of parenting. (It isn’t. I’m just very bad at parenting.)

I accidentally killed the oven. The stove top still works. The silver lining? I’ve gotten really damn good at prepping pork chops and chicken breasts in the skillet. Our go-to Tuesday dinner comfort food is my half-assed take on chicken divan. I enjoy cooking and I’ve had no complaints from my family thus far, so I’ll chalk that up as a win.

We got some projects finished around my house. I didn’t succeed at writing the next best-selling novel. I didn’t read a book a week. I still haven’t fully prepped for NaNoWriMo. There are definitely days I think about those things, but increasingly I focus on the things I have managed to accomplish. I’ve been writing four serial stories consistently. I’ve kept up, mostly, with a personal productivity tracker. I tried a weekly planner and discovered it wasn’t for me.

I’ve consumed a modest amount of whiskey, but stopped drinking soda entirely.

This year has been an adventure so far. It has been far from perfect, but I’m grateful for the good that has come of it. I hope anyone who reads this has had some good in 2020 as well.

I could write more, but my dishes still don’t wash themselves and it’s a work night. I like writing, but I like sleep a little more. Take care, folks.

Warpt Factor – Installment 15

Izzy sat in the captain’s quarters of The Lofty Albatross, and appreciated how it wasn’t over-the-top. It was, in terms of size, perhaps a little larger than a broom closet. A reasonable bed, a small desk equipped with outdated tech, and a miniature nutritional station that fed from the ship’s automated kitchen took up most of the space, with little of the floor unoccupied.

It felt like what life at Spiral Reach should be like, she thought.

“Wonder how Ursula’s doing,” Izzy muttered to herself. “And good, old what’s-his-face.”

The ship’s commlink blinked, indicating an incoming transmission. Izzy sat up in the bed, leaning forward just enough to reach the desk. The alert shifted to the wall behind the desk, and the wall converted to a secondary console. The contact was heavily encrypted, and indicated for Captain’s Viewing Only.

Izzy exhaled slowly. unclenched, and selected to accept the communication. She presented her best diplomatic smile as the communication was patched through, and Izzy found herself smiling reflexively.

High Chancellor Kadimova smiled in return. “How fare your travels thus far, young Captain Warpt?”

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Izzy said. She slumped. “Y’know, I’m not sure. You could’ve warned me the First Officer on this ship is…A challenge.”

“And deprive you of learning experiences? Never a chance of that,” Kadimova said. He wagged a finger. “Don’t sell yourself short, by the way. I’ve heard some very promising things through all of the right channels. Word is already spreading of a Spiral Reach Academy Captain who brought improbable peace to Rigel Six.”

Izzy reflected on the events on Rigel Six, and what she learned about the Rigellian and Ruklan leaders.

“Didn’t feel like much of a win to me,” Izzy replied.

Kadimova waved a hand dismissively. “To be perfectly frank with you, Captain Warpt, you managed what many higher ranking Spiral Reach Academy officials have long avoided. When I’d gotten word of where you were, I might have needed a strong drink or two.”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Thanks…For that vote of confidence, I guess?” she said. “Anyway, their politicians were all working with someone to get weapons or tech to fend off the weapons. So they were all scuzzy scumbags stuffed full of corruption.”

“You did magnificently, and you should be pleased with yourself,” Kadimova said. “You’re already doing splendidly on our mission, and so long as the crew remains unaware we will be able to recall you sooner than later. Make you an official Captain. Godspeed, child, and take care. You’ve got someone debating whether or not they should disturb you outside your room.” Kadimova winked, then ended the communication.

Izzy swung her feet over the edge of her bed, leapt up, and opened the door right as CMO Carter had raised her hand to knock.

“Oh, good. You’re awake,” CMO Carter said, lowering her hand. “Didn’t want to disturb you, but the crew wanted to see if you were hungry.”

Izzy smiled. “I guess I could use a snackaroo or two,” she said. “You draw the short straw on who had to come check on me?”

CMO Carter stifled a laugh. “Perhaps, but I was concerned about you as well,” she said. “That was certainly an unsettling note on which we left Rigel Six. Sounded like they had quite a bit left to sort out.”

Izzy nodded. “So what’s our destination,” she asked, stepping out into the corridor.

“Can’t say,” CMO Carter said. “I’m sworn to secrecy. Fontaine wrote up a very formal document and made Professor Everest and me sign it, and then he signed it as well. It’s a secret until we arrive.”

“What a uniquely First Office deCourville thing to do,” Izzy said, shaking her head. “Wish I could say I’m surprised. Even a little surprised. Like, just a smidge. I’m not. Here, watch this.”

They passed the cramped kitchen and dining space, the AI that ran it watching them intently and with an air of wanting no visitors. Izzy opened the door to the bridge of the Albatross. Both Fontaine and Professor Everest turned to look.

“Good to see you, Captain,” First Officer deCourville said, both sets of hands clasped behind his back. “Is there something you need? Are you all right?”

“Don’t you fret about the state of things out here,” Professor Everest said. “We’re on our way.”

“Yes! On our way, and no more need to be said on the subject,” First Officer deCourville.”

Izzy looked from her First Officer to Professor Everest and back. She smiled. “Nah, no needs here. I emerged from my hermitage for just long enough to get a snack and bumped into CMO Carter. Either of you want anything before I stop by the kitchen?”

A sharp buzz resounded throughout the bridge, followed by the cooking AI’s voice. “Please refrain from ‘visiting’ the kitchen, as you are a collection of potential contaminants. Order from your quarters and you will receive your desired sustenance in a timely manner.”

Izzy shrugged. “Moody, isn’t it? Guess I’ll just have to be patient and see what kind of adventures you have in mind for me. You know where to find me if you need me, crew.” She nodded, turned, and began to walk away.

“You’re welcome to join me if you wanted to chat for a bit, Carter,” Izzy said. The two walked back to her room, ordered a number of snacks, and CMO Carter politely listened while Izzy speculated on their secret destination.

***

Weapons Master Roderick Weston hated having to waste perfectly good equipment, but in some cases he knew it couldn’t be avoided. The flunkies he had assigned to Rigel Six, after all, had failed, and so they had to be eliminated.

He sat at his desk, a drink prepared for the transmission he knew was pending.

The screen shifted to a heavily encrypted communication, overriding the numerous firewalls. An individual, cloaked in digital shadow, sat centered in the screen.

“Suspend your current project,” commanded the individual. “You are to shift the entirety of your focus to The Lofty Albatross. Discover what makes its Captain tick. When you do…”

Roderick nodded. “I’ll figure out what makes her Captain tick, and then I’ll take that apart gear by gear until she breaks.”

“Good. Don’t fail me, Roderick.” The communication ended. Roderick switched to the NavCom dashboard and punched in a series of commands. An icon appeared moving along the gulf of open space. Roderick sneered, tapped a series of additional commands, and set a course to pursue The Lofty Albatross.

Wanted Adventurers – Bonding Over Getting Mugged

The Guild flunkies removed the burlap sacks from Aranza and Monty’s heads, hopped on their horses, and left before Temperance could free them.

“Nice of them to provide transport,” Monty muttered. He rubbed at his wrists where the rope had bitten into his skin.

“You’re lucky they brought us this far,” Temperance sneered. “As if you two deserve such kindness.”

Aranza clenched her fist, eyes locked with Temperance’s. “I’m about to stuff your cranky Dwarven ass deep into the next hill I see…”

Monty held up a finger. “You do that and The Guild will have nooses on our necks before we make it to the next Unaligned Zone,” he said. He turned his attention to Temperance, who in turn focused her scowling on him.

“Make no mistake,” Temperance said. “I am doing this as part of my sworn duty to The Guild. One failure to comply. Even a hint of committing a crime? I’ll turn you both in and wash my hands of this.”

“So we have a tentative, tenuous agreement,” Monty replied. “We stay in line and you help us complete this highly unlikely quest, and then we part ways freed from each other’s company forevermore.”

Temperance blinked as she considered what Monty had said. A brief smile flitted across her lips.

“Course, we have to take down an Archlich before we can say our goodbyes,” Aranza said. “Don’t you forget that little detail. Anyway, let’s get a move on. Sun’s gettin’ low and we need a place to rest our heads before we get moving.”

The dirt road wound its way into a small town. Curls of fireplace smoke snaked their way from chimneytops into the crisp, evening air, and leaves crunched underfoot as the trio walked along the dirt road towards the heart of the town. The town square was empty, the numerous stands and shops lining the road closed down and boarded up.

“Awfully quiet,” Aranza muttered.

Monty held a finger up. “No one say it,” he commanded. “Nothing good ever…”

“Too quiet, perhaps,” Temperance replied.

Monty hissed several choice Highborne cursewords as the realization crossed Aranza’s face.

There was a pained groan from small side street that ran alongside the Hidden Treasure Tavern and Inn. Monty and Aranza exchanged glances.

“Yeah, I’ll take the fall for that one,” Aranza said. “I started the cursed call.”

Temperance raised an eyebrow. “You can’t mean to tell me you believe saying a place is quiet caused something to happen…”

Monty wagged a finger. “Not that simple, no,” he said. “It’s a call. One person must comment on it being awfully quiet, and then the response of it being too quiet sets things into motion.”

Another groan, slightly louder, and muttered demands could be heard from the side street now.

Temperance walked past Monty and Aranza, her armor still gleaming despite the low light. Aranza stepped into her path, arms folded across her chest.

“Listen here, Pally,” Aranza said. “I may not like you, but if we’re stuck with you I can’t let you just blunder your way into that obvious trap.”

“Someone clearly needs aid,” Temperance replied. She stepped around Aranza, and didn’t bother to look back as she continued. “How sad it must be to see the world in such cynical terms.” She disappeared into the shadows of the side street.

“Gods damn it,” Aranza said before she stormed off after Temperance.

“You following her?” Monty called after.

“Have to,” Aranza called back. “We’ve been fitted for nooses too many times for me to test my luck again. You coming along or will I have to save her myself?”

“If you insist,” Monty grumbled as he ran to catch up.

A single, sickly looking Kobold leaned against a toppled trashcan at the end of the street. He opened his eyes as the trio approached, shut them again, and groaned.

“Kindly sir, are you hurt? What happened?” Temperance asked. “Fret not, for I am an envoy of the guild and I will aid you.”

The Kobold groaned louder again. “Closer, please,” he said. “The world grows dark and cold and I fear I have not much time, goodly traveler.”

Aranza threw a dagger into the darkness behind the trash heap. There was a pained screech and a muttering of foul language.

“By the Gods, what is wrong with you?” Temperance demanded. She spun around, hand on the pommel of her zweihander. Behind her, something shifted in the shadows.

Aranza produced two more daggers from her sleeves, having adopted a defensive stance. “You want to dance, Dwarf? I’ll knock some sense into you if these muggers don’t.”

Temperance cocked her head. A rustling behind her caught her attention, and she stepped just as a Goblin leapt forward with a polearm. Her weapon’s blade struck the stone wall of the neighboring shop. Sparks rained down onto the street.

“A false dead-end,” Monty observed as he fired his crossbow into the wavering stone wall. The bolt hit something, which grunted and toppled forward onto the Kobold, which shrieked in pain.

“They had a Bridge Troll,” Monty commented. “Good thing we did assist, I suppose, or we would be cleaning our friendly Paladin off of the walls.”

“And the street. And out of those nice window boxes of flowers over there,” Aranza added.

Temperance huffed. “Perhaps I misjudged the situation, I’ll concede,” she said over metal-against-metal of her sword being unsheathed. A soft, white glow emanated from within the blade. It filled the street and banished the glamoured shadows and false wall. Two more Kobolds ran out, one with a club raised above his head and the other with a frying pan.

“You die now!” shouted the one Kobold.

“We take your gold!” shouted the other.

One of the Kobolds was knocked backwards, the back door to the inn having been thrown open abruptly. A towering Wyvernkin with a slick, black ponytail hunched in the doorway.

“Keep it down out here, wouldya?” roared the Wyvernkin, obsidian flames flickering around his fangs. “I’ve got paying customers trying to get a good night’s rest, and they can’t with you buffoons brawling back here.”

“Forgive us, good Dragonfolk,” Temperance said as she wound up and delivered a gauntlet-bolstered punch to the remaining Kobold’s snout. It crumpled to the dirt, unconscious but still alive.

The Wyvernkin huffed, shook his head, and slammed the door shut.

“Made tidy work of them, I think,” Monty said as he looked around the alley. “Best check their pockets and see if they’ve got anything worth liberating from their ownership, yes?”

“Already on it,” Aranza replied as she rifled through the Troll’s collection of skulls converted into carrying satchels.

Reluctantly, rigidly, Temperance approached one of the Kobolds and retrieved his leather wallet. She felt a thud against her back, and spun to see Aranza.

“You got cozy with that real quick, didn’t you?” Aranza said, unable to suppress a laugh.

The color drained from Temperance’s face. “I…Well, they were criminals, and so this likely belonged to someone else. It’s best we reclaim it and look into finding its rightful owner.”

“Hate to break it to you, Pally, but the rightful owner of that handful of copper and the few shiny bits we get?” Aranza replied. “Probably dead. No need to feel bad for robbing the robbers.”

“This alley could have been our untimely grave,” Monty added. “One does wonder where such a questionable crew came upon such complex glamours, however.”

Aranza clicked her tongue. “Can’t ask ’em right now,” she muttered. “Suspect we’ll find out eventually, but best to leave the trash where it lies for now. Who wants to go grab a pint? Their treat.”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Monty said. They turned to leave the side street. Temperance cleared her throat loud enough that Monty and Aranza turned around.

“I…Well, perhaps…” Temperance said.

“Second round’s on you,” Aranza said. “No one’s checking if you’re using your money or theirs, though. Sound good?”

Temperance nodded, following along.

The front door to The Hidden Treasure was storm-and-sea-weathered wood, larger than a royal galleon. It swung open with a gentle push, the room behind it warm and welcoming and filled to the brim with life. Everyone fell silent as Monty, Aranza, and Temperance entered.

The barkeeper–the Wyvernkin who had knocked one of the Kobolds out earlier–glanced up from cleaning a goblet, sneered, and resumed his task. The trio made their way to the bar.

“What can I get you, uh, group of troublemakers,” the barkeeper grunted.

“Hail and well met,” Temperance said.

The barkeeper looked up, eyes narrowed. “Yeah, yeah, drop the formalities, would ya’?” he snarled. “I’ve paid our Guild dues for this lunar cycle and I don’t much care to have you goons buggin’ my paying customers.”

Temperance blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“if that’s what you’re into, good for you,” the barkeeper said. “Just be into it elsewhere, yeah? I got customers behind you waiting to spend real coppers here.”

Monty gently maneuvered between Temperance and the bar and offered a gleaming smile. “Our friend means no ill will,” he said.

The barkeeper looked Monty up and down, frowning. “Don’t think I care much for you neither,” he said. “You, the Orc. The one good with throwing knives. You here to cause trouble?”

Aranza shrugged. “Depends on if trouble’s here to be had,” she shot back.

The barkeeper sighed. “Tell ya’ what,” he said. “These two prim-and-proper types with you?”

Aranza offered a curt nod.

“You keep them outta other customers’ business,” the barkeeper said. “You took care of Fangra’s goons, so you’re good in my book…There are others here who might not see you the same way, you hear me?”

“Clear as a bell, and twice as well,” Temperance replied, and immediately received an icy look from the barkeeper as a result.

“You must be a real treat at parties,” the barkeeper said. “Go tell Grimsby over there what you want. Food. Drink. Whatever. I’ll give you an okay discount, ’cause you’re just okay. You planning to spend the night?”

“There a room to be had?” Aranza asked.

“Only if you promise you won’t be around long,” the barkeeper said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bunch of half-dead crooks I need to clean up.”

Follow The Ashes – Fragments of Memory

Cas was aware something was different the moment she stepped into the control room. Fresh, modern, functional displays dominated an entire wall, lines of fiber optic cables tethering them to consoles below. The wall opposite from the door, however, is what captured Cas’s attention.

There was a desk that radiated luxury. It was the most low-tech piece of the room. The woodworking was impeccable, and it looked to be antique but well cared for despite no one being around.

Two trails of ashes ran parallel to each other as if to create a walkway to the desk, but instead went around it. Cas followed them, wary she was likely being watched. The path created by the ashes didn’t stop at the desk, but went around it and met their endpoint at the wall.

The display fitted into the wall was different, however. It didn’t display data streams or schematics for other rooms like the ones she’d previously encountered. This screen displayed a series of interwoven, concentric metal rings. Points of light were visible with windows showing hints of what was within the rooms beyond.

At the heart of it all was a planet, its surface visibly scarred to the point of not being habitable. Some points on the planets surface were still ablaze, the fires so large they were visible from this distance.

“This is a window…” Cas gasped, the realization settling in. She felt her stomach as it bottomed out. Dread mingled with familiarity, and Cas felt as if she had found herself standing at a precipice. Ahead was a point of no return–a sharp drop and a guaranteed sudden, final stop.

The desk featured one notebook, plain in its appearance but without even a hint of dust unlike the desktop which was covered in a fine layer. Someone had put it there recently, and deliberately.

Cas opened the notebook, her eyes drawn to the writing immediately. She snapped it shut and set it back down on the desk again, looking away.

“This is another trick, isn’t it?” Cas said to the room. “I know you’re watching me, Gavin. Just show yourself and explain this.” She gestured to the notebook and waited patiently.

No response came.

Her patience failing, Cas reopened the notebook and confronted her own handwriting. It was unmistakably hers, but she had no recollection of the thoughts on the pages in front of her.

Progress is slow and time is limited. We work endlessly, foregoing meals and sleep in favor of solving the final hurdle – how do we make the environments on the Rings permanently habitable? I cannot seem to solve one problem without creating another. Too many factors to consider.

Cas turned the page and continued reading.

We have received orders on a means to meet the power needs of the Rings, but few details have been relayed. Gavin remains optimistic, always pointing to that unsettling eye of his and saying how he’s got an eye for spotting wins. I suspect he means to be charming and conversational. I have little time for such pleasantries. There is something deeply concerning about the solutions – they present more questions than answers. Meanwhile, the various themed living quarters seem to be failing one by one. Their inhabitants are unaware they live in simulated realities, and so they scramble to survive. I cannot intervene or the integrity of all we have worked for will evaporate, and the entire project will inevitably be terminated.

Cas paused, her eyes shut tightly for a moment. A dull pain rolled from the base of her neck along the top of her head. She breathed through it, opened her eyes, and continued reading.

I’ve been running equations with Raph’s help. Maeve continues to complain that she is being under-utilized. Word, however, is that we are expecting a visit from much higher up. The name Vittorio has been mentioned, and if that rumor is even remotely true then we must work with haste and care.

“Vittorio,” Cas repeated aloud. “Why do I know that name…”

Vittorio’s visit went as expected. He focused largely on profitability and problem-solving, and only provided half-answers and misdirecting questions when asked how we would be improving upon meeting the power needs of the Rings. He left without joining the staff for dinner, his personal spaceship destined for a private planetoid somewhere far from here. Gavin continues to speak highly of the progress, but I cannot shake the feeling things are not as they appear. I need to have a contingency plan in place should there be difficulties ahead.

Cas turned the page. The very edge of the next five pages was all that remained, and the ones beyond that were blank.

“Rings…” Cas muttered to herself. Her eyes shot open wide as a rush of memories hit her. Maeve. Lieutenant Ismeria. Raph.

Gavin.

Blinding pain erupted behind her eyes, the world spinning around as she fought off a wave of nausea. She fell to her knees, her fists clenched so tightly that her nails drew blood from her palms.

The footsteps were soft, deliberately so, and measured.

“This has finally accelerated,” Gavin–his voice now unmistakable–said. “And yet you are nowhere near ready.”

“Go to hell,” Cas spat. The world rocked and lurched one final time, and Cas’s vision went black.

Piece 14 – The Long Sunset

The Wolf was one and also many. It fractured into several wolves to launch complicated attacks on the Orcs, then gathered into one Wolf again when it struck at the Treants.

“How far do we have to go?” Curian asked Gnarlroot. The Treant raised a mighty branch and pointed. In the distance. A tree stump taller than a noble’s estate stood in the distance. A dull glow emanated from it, and Curian realized it looked like embers still burning.

“Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot! Now’s the time!” Curian shouted.

A din of laughter arose from the Wolf. “It hardly matters.”

Gnarlroot and Kil’Gronn reached the remains, and a bright light erupted forth. In the distance, birds began chirping as a light breeze danced through the upper reaches of the trees.

“Thank the Gods,” Curian blurted out.

The chase continued, the charred remains of Elderbark just a few lumbering Treant steps ahead.

“Something’s not right,” Curian muttered.

A chorus of laughter rose up from the wolves that made up the Wolf. “You’re catching on, but will you figure it out before I claim your soul?”

Sophia looked around frantically as one of the wolves leapt from branch to branch. It swiped at her with its claws, only having narrowly missed as the Burlknot slammed it back to the ground.

“Hope your little, mountain-mud brain comes up with something,” Burlknot shouted with an offer of an unexpected smile. Curian chuckled; she took note of the insult and told herself she’d have to return the favor later.

If there was a later, of course.

The last several times they’d reached the remains played back in Curian’s mind.

“Kil’Gronn, do you trust me?” Curian shouted over the madness.

Kil’Gronn shrugged. “As much as I’d like to, which is only about half as far as I could throw you.”

Curian nodded. “Good enough,” she said. “Bet you could throw me pretty damn far. What about you, Gnarlroot?”

“Your heart beats like one who is not trying to deceive, and so I will afford you my trust,” Gnarlroot replied.

Sophia furrowed her brow. “I already know that look,” she shouted. “You’ve got something mad and foolish planned, haven’t you?”

“Hey, Gnarlroot! Throw me to the ashes!” Curian shouted.

The colossal leader of the Treants stopped suddenly. Curian held on with all of her strength, the rush of wind from the abrupt stop nearly throwing her from where she stood.

“Just do it, damn you!”

Gnarlroot plucked Curian from his upper branches as gently as they could, swung back the mighty branch that held her, and then released with as much calculated care a sentient tree of some thousand years in age could muster.

Curian soared through the air that spanned the distance between the chaos of the Wolf, the Treants, and the Orcs, her face pinned back by the wind. Her eyes watered and she tried to keep focused. The ashes arrived far quicker than expected, and Curian had only enough time to land with an awkward forward roll that narrowly avoided hitting the far edge of the depression in the mighty stump.

She fumbled with various concealed pockets without looking, her eyes fixed on the wolves as they coalesced into one massive form. Behind it, everything else had frozen in place.

“Here goes nothing,” Curian said as she retrieved a small tool she’d stolen from an Artificier at The Hobbled Drake Tavern after he had shared a few too many opinions with her about he she could be more appealing to the eyes. It was a simple box with a curious wheel at its top next to a small opening that occasionally stunk like bogwater.

Curian flicked the wheel. A small spark issued, but nothing followed. She repeated, watching as the Wolf reared back and leapt at her.

“Shit!” Curian shouted as she repeated the action one last time. The spark ignited, and she dropped the device into the heart of the Heart of the forest. The ashes erupted in brilliant green flames around Curian, though they did not touch her.

“Elderbark,” Curian said as she grasped for the right words. “I, uh…I release you to the next life. Your watch of this forest has ended, and a new one has begun. Rest!” She had little time to be proud of her eulogizing as the Wolf growled, prowling on the outer edge of the flames.

“I will tear the flesh from your bones first,” the Wolf snarled. “Then rend your pitiful soul from your body. I will savor it as your eternal screams roll down my throat.”

The flames burned brighter and brighter. There was an explosion of light outwards, rolling over every inch of the forest. Curian shut her eyes against its radiance, and when she opened them the Wolf was gone. She found herself standing at the foot of the tree stump, her hands shut tightly around something.

“One of the Pieces,” she gasped as she opened her fingers.

“Guess there’s more than dirt between those ears,” Burlknot said, roaring with laughter. The Orcs, slowly, joined in the merriment.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Sophia said as she was set down. “How did you know that would work?”

Curian scratched at the back of her head. “Call it a hunch, I guess?”

Sophia massaged her temples.

“That was very brave of you, little one,” Gnarlroot harrumphed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward, bowing to Curian. Curian returned the gesture.

“Very brave indeed,” Kil’Gronn said. “You are welcome to visit my…” She hesitated, her attention briefly turned to the Treants.

“Our” Kil’Gronn corrected herself, “forest whenever you like.”

Curian smiled. “Only so long as you’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.

Kil’Gronn and Gnarlroot exchanged sheepish glances.

“I believe there is much mending of old wounds to be done,” Gnarlroot said. “As for you two, where will you go next?”

Curian looked toward the sunset, its last rays of light pooling high in the distance on snow-capped mountains.