Follow the Ashes – His Name Was Gavin

It was a dreary day, like many had been for the better part of a year. The rain drew trails along the outer panes of glass, any debris that had settled on their surface the night before burned away by the acidity of the rainwater. Bright, phosphorescent lightning bolts split the otherwise night-dark sky though it was only just past noon local time.

“Commander Cassiopeia.”

Cas snapped back to attention. She blinked, looking around to take in her surroundings. She was in an office, pristine and meticulously organized. She turned around. The desk behind her–her desk, she surmised thanks to a simple, black and white name tag–had a computer that looked in need of replacing, and an empty picture frame with a metal dog tag draped over it.

The officer who had entered wasn’t one with whom Cas was familiar. He stood at attention, and saluted when Cas acknowledged him.

“At ease, Captain Wilkins,” Cas said after returning the salute. “What can I do for you?”

Some of the tension left Captain Wilkins. “You’ve been assigned a new lieutenant, ma’am.”

Cas sighed. “I’d told them I don’t need a glorified assistant,” she replied abruptly. She paused, and considered her next words with care. “Forgive me. It’s been a taxing day.”

Captain Wilkins waved off the concern. “No apologies needed, Commander,” he said. “Keeping up with the protective coatings on the base to keep the constant weather anomalies has many of us a bit…Well, unfiltered I suppose. Your secret’s safe with me.”

“Appreciated,” Cas said. “And is this new lieutenant here?”

Captain Wilkins nodded. “Just outside,” he replied. “Shall I bring him in?”

Cas acted as if she was weighing her options in her hands, prompting a chuckle from the Captain.

“I suppose so,” Cas replied finally.

Captain Wilkins turned and motioned to the new lieutenant. He offered a salute and left as the Cas’s newest cohort stepped into the room. When he entered, Cas blinked a few times.

He was slightly shorter than Cas. His hair, a raven shade of black, was swept neatly back and held with product. He was thin–a sign he did not come from money, and therefore had limited access to food. A bandage covered one of his eyes, and the other one probed at Cas.

“Commander Cassiopeia. Let me just start by saying what an honor it is to be assigned to you, and to such an important project,” the lieutenant said.

Cas nodded. “The Ellipse is proving to be quite an undertaking. I hope you’re not easily frightened by long hours, difficult problems, and insurmountable odds…Sorry, what was it again?”

“Apologies, Commander. Lieutenant Gavin Redford, reporting for duty,” the lieutenant, Gavin, replied.

Cas studied Gavin. “Do you have a brother, perhaps?” she asked. “Another relative I may have crossed paths with, perhaps?”

Gavin shook his head. He frowned. “I can’t say I do,” he replied, adding, “My condolences for your loss. I’d heard about your husband’s passing in the line of duty.” He nodded to the frame and the dog tag that rested atop it.

Cas shook her head. “He died in a skirmish over water reserves,” she replied. “Killed by some of his own men, no less.”

“Pardon my asking, but I had heard you chose to not seek the death penalty as is customary in such…events,” Gavin said. “Why is that?”

“A bit of a bold question on a rather heavy subject,” Cas said, a finger raised. “Perhaps we can talk about this once I’ve learned if you’re up to snuff for this project. What happened to your eye?”

Gavin smiled. “Cybernetic eye,” he said. “Still healing, freshly installed and everything. I had a suspicion it could come in handy. Time will tell, though, won’t it?”

Cas snapped sharply back to the present upon feeling the cold metal of Gavin’s cybernetic eye in her pocket. As her vision returned to focus, she realized she wasn’t alone.

“Raph,” Cas said. “It’s so good to see you. We’ve got a lot to discuss, and not much time to do so I fear.”

Raph saluted in response. Maeve and Bertie stepped into view.

“My dear friend,” Bertie said. “We’ve got far more to discuss than you could possibly imagine.”

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.

Warpt Factor – Installment 19

CMO Carter lead the way, the flashlight function on her communicator the only reliable source of light the group had as they continued up the stairs and through the haunted house. Creatures skittered by in the shadows, just outside of view, and Fontaine flinched each time.

“The blasters in the cart would activate about now,” CMO Carter explained. “There are ghosts and goblins that would jump out along the corridor ahead.” She paused and signaled for the group to do the same.

Curian was the first to respond. “Are…Ah, damn. You think there are monsters waiting for us, don’t you?”

CMO Carter offered a half-hearted smile. Her eyes darted to First Officer deCourville and back to Curian. “I would suggest it isn’t out of the realm of possibility,” she replied. “I’m just wondering how the blasters would have worked out given…Well, that we left the cart behind. We could use regular blasters, but Spiral Reach does generally frown upon murder.”

“Generally frown upon it?” Fontaine sputtered. “It’s part of the primary directive given to all who fly the Spiral Reach flag on their vessels!”

Curian sighed. “I’ve got no serious qualms with putting the business end of a knife in someone if it means they don’t get to do the same to me.” She withdrew two daggers from their hilts in her boots and twirled them in her hands as she walked ahead of the group into the dark corridor. A sudden flurry of movement and a rush of air were followed by a sudden shriek. Something popped out of a small alcove to the left

It was fast, but Curian proved faster. She leapt back and brought the daggers downwards in a sweeping arch that cleaved through her attacker with nearly no effort. Its remains landed with a dull thud against the stone floor. Fontaine stifled a shriek, and Professor Everest attempted to conceal a chuckle at his cohort’s expense.

“Odd,” Curian said as she knelt down to inspect the unseen enemy. She retrieved some of its remains. She cursed as she picked part of it up, letting it clatter to the floor.

CMO Carter was the first to reach her. “What happened? Are you all right?”

Curian picked at her finger, then discarded something unseen before she picked her daggers back up. “Sorry, Cleric, it was just a splinter,” she replied. “These dummies are just that. Wooden cutouts. The goblins back home would take issue, though. These are as stereotyped as they get.”

CMO Carter nodded. “Let’s just hope that they’re all as false as that one,” she replied.

The corridor had a gradual slope to it. It followed a slow, meandering turn that wound higher and higher into the haunted mansion. Occasionally the group stopped to address a wooden goblin or sprite, but nothing living appeared before them.

“I shall dispatch the next one, then!” Fontaine said, his sidearm at the ready.

A goblin appeared, short sword in hand.

“Your money or your life!” the goblin shouted.

Fontaine laughed. “This one’s very believable,” he said. “It even talks as it were a living, breathing being.”

The goblin scoffed. “Says the big, boujee bug.”

Curian’s eyes went wide as additional goblins began to appear around them. It was an ambush, clearly.

“Don’t mean to upset a chamber pot on our little party here,” Curian muttered, “but I think I should point out these ones might be the real deal…”

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…”

Warpt Factor – Installment 18

The air in the haunted house was overbearing, stale, and stunk like a crypt. This sudden shift from the fully climate-controlled amusement park attraction did not go unnoticed.

“Stinks something awful in here,” Professor Everest said.

“Makes me grateful I have reduced olfactory senses,” Fontaine chirped.

Curian shook her head. “You must be a godsdamned delight at parties,” she said. “That’s assuming you get invited, anyway. This stinks like something familiar, though. I don’t think we’re…Wherever we were anymore.”

The track was missing, but the trappings of the haunted mansion remained. The cobwebs that pervaded every surface and the skittering of hidden spiders, however, seemed substantially more real.

“What do you mean?” CMO Carter asked.

“Better press on, my newly acquired friends,” Curian replied. “And let’s hope that whatever fel magics caused this didn’t have a sinister intent in mind. I’m good in a pinch if someone needs stabbed, but quietly procuring items and leaving unnoticed is more my speed.”

Fontaine gasped. “What you’re saying, then, is that you’re a thief?”

Curian sighed. “Nothing gets past the one-man plague here. How’s this place supposed to play out, anyway? Maybe we’ll get answers that way.”

CMO Carter nodded. “Not a bad idea,” she replied. She pointed towards a staircase that followed the wall ahead. It branched off a number of directions, the stairs a multitude of bridges overhead in ways that routed to multiple rooms.

“We’re in a sort of central hub, so the ride comes back here after each room would be completed,” CMO Carter explained. “Maybe if we play this out like it’s the ride, we’ll be able to set things right.”

“Loathe as I am to say this, perhaps that will get our Captain back and rid us of this delightful gargoyle,” Fontaine said.

Curian snapped her fingers. “That wasn’t a terrible insult, Chadley Cricket,” she shot back. “CMO Carter, was it? Can you lead the way?”

“I certainly can,” CMO Carter replied. “This is my favorite attraction here, after all.”

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.”

Follow the Ashes – The Road Beyond Ruination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece 17 – A Simple Mix-Up

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

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

The skeletons stopped abruptly, turning to face their captives.

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

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

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

The two skeletons exchanged glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh damn,” Izzy muttered.

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

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

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

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

“Curious,” Sophia said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fools!” Lady Rhimeghast spat.

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

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

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

Izzy chuckled. “Minions.”

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

The two skeletons turned and fled without further comment.

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

NaNoWriMo Victory (and returning to serials)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe out there and take care, folks.