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Saturday, January 31

Prince: Part 3 – Silent Force

A camera flashed in the room off to their right. Two crime scene photographers snapped pictures of a nude woman hanging from the ceiling.

“What’s she hanging from?” asked Caprice.

“Nothing,” said Gaston. “She’s not hanging by anything like chains, rope, or wire.”

The woman’s left hand was seamlessly fused into the plaster of the ceiling. Her arm was twisted and broken, obviously wrenched out of its socket but still attached to her body by muscle and skin. The floor of the room was filled with furniture fragments, but none of the furniture in the room was obviously damaged.

Jim-Bean wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”

“Vomit,” said Gaston. “The officer who initially responded puked when he saw what was in the party room.”

They made their way to see what made the cop throw up. [MORE]

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Unpaid Debts: Prologue

Johan Bauer was a simple Moratavian farmer. His old well had dried up after an earthquake, so he took to digging a new one. He dug a hole deeper and deeper, and as he dug the morning became afternoon, shining overhead. Eventually, the sun moved past its zenith, leaving him with little light to continue.

Exhausted and covered in dirt, Johan leaned against the wall. He was a good ten feet below the surface. It would take awhile to reach the water table, but he knew it would happen eventually.

A small trail of pebbles skittered down one side of the well. Johan looked up. He had a terrible thought: if another earthquake hit, he would be buried alive.

Johan started to climb his way up the side of the well when he slipped. One hand clawed desperately for purchase at the top of the half-dug well when he lost his grip.

The farmer flailed helplessly as he fell, certain the well would be his tomb. The soft earth hesitated for only a moment after his impact before it gave way completely. He plunged into darkness and landed somewhere hard.

Johan dusted himself off. He was still alive, if badly bruised. He waited for his eyes to adjust to what little light shone from above. Something was sitting, watching him from the darkness.

“Hello?” [MORE]

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Friday, January 30

Prince: Part 2 – The Briefing

Gaston shook his head and handed another file. “Here’s Daniels’ file. Daniels had an exemplary career as a USAF administrator. He graduated from the Air Force Academy, but bad eyesight kept him from becoming a pilot. Worked in administration and procurement at the Pentagon, sometimes for us.” Us, of course, meant Majestic. “He was expected to rise even higher than the rank of colonel, but at the close of his twenty-year hitch, he took a high-paying job with McConnell-Bayless.”

“Did he share any of his experience with McConnell-Bayless?” asked Hammer.

“Daniels might have been responsible for brokering arms deals during the Iran-Contra affair, but there was so little evidence that the Justice Department never pursued it.”

Gaston leaned forward. “We’re considering this a terrorist bombing. The problem is that the forensics people have found nothing to suggest there was any explosive used. No residue of nitrates or other explosive has been discovered, and no fragments from anything resembling a bomb, timer, or detonating device can be found. Even weirder, the structural damage to Daniels’ mansion does not match any known combustion or blast pattern.”

“I don’t understand why we’re involved,” said Caprice, shrugging his shoulders. “I mean, this is standard terrorist stuff. Even if it’s some kind of weird explosion, there’s plenty of other teams that could handle this.”

Gaston smiled. “You don’t get it, mon ami. But you will when you see the site. It’s easier to show you than to explain.” [MORE]

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Chapter 45: Unpaid Debts - Introduction

This is a Year Two Living Arcanis adventure, “Unpaid Debts” by Eric Wiener, set in the Arcanis setting. You can read more about Arcanis at http://www.onaraonline.org. Please note: This adventure contains spoilers!

Our cast of characters includes:

This adventure is very important in the big scheme of things, as it details the pursuit of a sword that could ignite a civil war. Unfortunately, the adventure is a bit haphazard; I’m leery of “dream sequence” battles (which seem to be a staple of Arcanis for some reason). Fortunately, we’ve already established some strange dream sequence combat before so it wasn’t too hard to introduce it again.

The identity of the bad guys and the force behind them are not revealed in this adventure at all, even to the Game Master, so I changed it around. This is the beginning of an invasion, the invasion that “stirred up the goblins” in the last adventure, and it harkens back to one of the first adventures. Unfortunately, the adventure involved Vlad, Quintus, and Ilmarė, so no one was around to really be horrified by the revelation.

Finally, this adventure features the return of a certain pivotal character. It was anticlimactic because the PCs weren’t all that interested in talking and mostly focused on the goal: getting the sword to its destination. This adds up to two battles, one of which is brutal and over quickly, the other which is a non-event.


Still, Beldin got a kick-ass axe, and that counts for something!

P.S. Sebastian got a new spell. Guess which one it is! [MORE]

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Thursday, January 29

Letter to Ad Age: Verizon Wireless Proves Bigotry Is Alive and Well

Just last week, a few of us at Ad Age headquarters were discussing the blatant stereotype parade on display in the Verizon Wireless spot below. Anyone who reads even a tenth of what I write on Ad Age and elsewhere knows I'm not overly sensitive or particularly politically correct. But even I thought the spot might as well have been called "Johnny Goomba, Can You Hear Me Now?" Then, last night, Ad Age received the following letter from Peter Fosco in Pennsylvania wondering just what the heck Verizon was thinking. [MORE]

Yes, this is offensive. It implies, at base, that Italian-Americans are all criminals, or related to criminals. However, when the media's love affair with the Mafia has been escalated to new heights (the Sopranos being the latest example), and Brooklyn-Italians seem to exemplify everyone with any Italian-American, anyone who finds it offensive is a humorous boob.

I also didn't find it funny when Bloomberg wanted two Sopranos actors to march in the Columbus Day parade.

Speaking as someone who has relatives (Carlo Tresca) murdered by the Mob, I don't find it funny.

I'm proud of my heritage. And I vote with my wallet. Duly noted, Verizon.

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Prince: Part 1 – Training

The week after that, Knightsbridge asked, "Do birds fly?" and "Do fish swim?" Jim-Bean didn’t answer. He then repeated the question using the phrase: "I will repeat the auditing question." He continued like that until Knightsbridge answered his questions.

“Why are we doing this, exactly?” asked Jim-Bean.

“One day you’re going to be a coach,” said Knightsbridge with a twinkle in his eye. “And you’ll need to keep a person in his chair through the power of persuasion.”

Jim-Bean’s brow furrowed. “Physically, you mean.”

“Absolutely,” Knightsbridge responded without hesitation. “In fact, you must be ready to restrain the person if he chooses to leave.”

“And if I wanted to leave right now?” asked Jim-Bean.

Knightsbridge smiled. “I would restrain you.”

Jim-Bean focused intently on him. “How about now?” [MORE]

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Songs: Conclusion

Vlad returned soon after from the field, completing his original mission of helping thwart the goblin attacks. Huddled at The Splintered Oak, they all partook of a sorely needed drink.

“So that’s what happened to my father…” Vlad shook his head in disbelief. “I had heard he’d been killed, but I thought it happened in the line of duty.”

“My father left us when I was very young.” Sebastian drained his mug and ordered a refill. “I never knew what happened to him. I didn’t even know I had an uncle.”

“Venzon Zasfar named Kuros as the immediate controller of all the wealth and holdings of his family,” said Beldin.

“What a shock,” added Kham.

“And what of Anulee?” asked Vlad.

“The entire ordeal has been incredibly trying for Anulee,” said Sebastian sardonically. “She has decided to leave town, not mentioning when or if she will return.”

“That’s probably for the best,” said Vlad. “What are we going to tell Ilmarė?”

“That justice was served.” Sebastian turned the pin Anulee had handed to him over in his hands. It had a motif of a gliding bird on it.

“Has it?” asked Beldin. [MORE]

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Wednesday, January 28

Prince: Prologue

“Hello,” he said, shaking Jim-Bean’s hand. “I’m Dr. Knightsbridge.” He sat down behind the desk to face Jim-Bean. “What brings you here today?”

“You have classes on focusing your psychic potential,” began Jim-Bean.

“Ah yes. Certainly, we can test your thetans and see how you do.”

“Test my what?”

Knightsbridge smiled patiently. “I’ll explain it. But let me give you a tour of the facilities first and then we can get started.” He rose and led Jim-Bean out of the room. [MORE]

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Songs: Part 8c – Dark Vengeance

As they entered the town, a host of guardsmen escorted Anulee to the local prison. Inside, Kuros was standing next to Lady Sounshay. A guard stood behind them, holding a squirming and angry Venton in his grasp. As Anulee entered, Kuros’ eyes flashed with fury.

”Please take Anulee to the first holding room,” said Lady Sounshay. “Have Venton put in the second. When I call for each one, bring them to me.” With that, the guards took them both away.

Sounshay addressed Sebastian. “Kuros and I have discussed what to do with both Anulee and Venton. The laws of Milandir are not toys to manipulate for their convenience. However, we felt that because you are Landross’ son, you should have a say. What form of punishment do you think they deserve?”

Sebastian took a deep breath. “Banishment for Anulee. Since she loves this place dearly, so banishment should be a fitting punishment. As for Venton…he should be executed.”

Lady Sounshay called for the guards to bring in Anulee.

“We have discussed your part in this matter and come to a decision. Perjury is a serious offense, especially when it leads to the unjust execution of an innocent man. He may have been dark-kin,” Sounshay looked at Sebastian, “but in Postrava at least, we judge the soul of a man by his actions, not his blood.” [MORE]

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Monday, January 26

Confounding Comic Covers

This has to be seen to be believed. [MORE]

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The Prince is Dead: Introduction

This scenario, “The Prince is Dead,” by Adam Scott Glancy and John Tynes, is from the d20 Delta Green rulebook. You can read more about Delta Green at http://www.delta-green.com. Please note: This story hour contains spoilers!

Our cast of characters includes:

  • Game Master: Michael Tresca (http://michael.tresca.net)
  • Jim “Jim-Bean” Baxter (Charismatic Hero) played by Jeremy Ortiz (http://www.ninjarobotstudios.com)
  • Kurtis “Hammer” Grange (Fast/Dedicated Hero/Gunslinger) played by George Webster
  • Sebastian “Caprice” Creed (Fast/Smart Hero/Techie) played by Bill Countiss

This is one of the rare scenarios I played straight. I didn’t tweak the plot; I just let the players have at it. One thing I did do is carefully plot out how Valiant’s powers work using D20 Modern/D&D psionics, which was helpful, because the ending got very hairy very quickly. In fact, if the scenario has a weak point, it’s that Valiant’s powers seem to be very much a plot device rather than an actual game effect. But that tweaking aside, the plot played out as explained in the scenario.

Jim-Bean’s psychic powers mess things up a wee bit, of course, but since I had done some extra work in introducing Jim-Bean to Enolsis early and fleshed out Enolsis with the information for the Neo-Scientologists from Critical Locations, I was able to provide a much better perspective on what was going on than I would if I just suddenly introduced Enolsis and Valiant in the scenario.

The ending fight, often criticized as a superhero battle, complete with flying bad guys and telekinetic bolts of force, pretty much played out as a Michael Bay film. It was a very different scenario, a bit of a refreshing change from the usual creeping horror style of play. As one player muttered, “did they catch all that on tape?” [MORE]

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Songs: Part 8b – Dark Vengeance

Sebastian raised his hands, palms open, towards Aglamar.

The shaman lifted a finger. “You may not want to do that. You might hurt your precious elf.” He pointed at Anulee. The tree she hung from took a shuddering step forward, its roots ripped from its moorings.

Kham’s pistols were out. “I don’t care if he’s your uncle, I’m going to just shoot him in the head.”

They dove in different directions as a huge tree limb swatted at them.

“I can’t stop this tree without hitting the girl!” shouted Sebastian.

Kham jumped backwards as the tree took another clumsy swipe at him. “I think I can fix that.” He holstered his pistols. “When I give you the signal, you do what you do best.” [MORE]

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Sunday, January 25

Songs: Part 8a – Dark Vengeance

Beldin’s axe and shield were out. “I cannot allow you to harm her. She must face justice; even human justice, as flawed as it might be, is better than petty vengeance.”

“So be it.” Aglamar stepped away from Anulee. “I should warn you I am a shaman of the wolf. The powers at my disposal are more formidable than you can imagine.”

“I was a titan once,” snarled Beldin. “Your magic holds no secrets.” And with that he charged forward.

A huge black hound the size of a man slammed into Beldin as he passed the tree where Anulee was held captive. He rolled to his feet to face it.

“Meet Raze, my pet,” said Aglamar. [MORE]

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Knight Terrors: The (Mis)adventures of Smoke the Dragon.

The stories of Smoke the Dragon, which Nick Ozment has been working on (off and on) for the past nine years, have found a publisher and a home! This summer the collected stories will be published by Cyberwizard Productions in book form, under the title Knight Terrors: The (Mis)adventures of Smoke the Dragon. [MORE]

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Saturday, January 24

Songs: Part 7 – Dead Man Talking

They raced to the Splintered Oak. It was empty except for the bartender who was doing inventory of his supplies.

“Great Saluwe’!” said the bartender as they entered. “Is everybody in such a hurry tonight?”

“What do you mean?” asked Sebastian.

“Well, I saw one of those Marokene bodyguards come in here after his walk and go up the stairs same as he did every other time. A few minutes later, I saw Anulee racing down the stairs, practically stumbling over her feet and out the door faster than I could blink. Then, the same Marokene bodyguard came back down the stairs just as quickly and went out the door. Then I heard the horses get restless and the sound of the carriage taking off.”

Kham drew his pistols. “Not good.” [MORE]

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Friday, January 23

The Birdcage: Conclusion

Hammer struggled to get up, sputtering in the muck. The explosion had thrown him off the side of the slope, down into the welcoming arms of the cold mud. The soft landing had saved his life.

The others were not so lucky. All of the terrorists and some of the prisoners who had been near the van were blown apart from the explosion. The terrorist leader was dead in the muck, his skull crushed in by some incredible force. For some reason his hand was missing. Bishop's corpse lay next to him. Who had killed whom was unclear.

A pair of guard's boots appeared in his field of vision. Hammer looked up.

It was Crazy Freddy. "Well if it ain't our national hero!"

Jones, Morowitz, and Bean were all standing around him, armed with shotguns and pistols. They wore ill-fitting guard uniforms. Blood was spattered on Morowitz and Bean’s clothes.

Hammer started to reach for his pistols, but then realized that one of them was dangling from Freddy’s hand.

"Don't bother," said Freddy. "I think you've had enough heroics for one day, huh?" He leaned down on his knees to put his face in Hammer's field of vision. "Tell you what: whaddaya say we let bygones be bygones? You're one of them CIFA boys, right? We ain't terrorists. Hell, I'm a Goddamn red-blooded American patriot! We all are!" Freddy looked up at his companions. "Ain't we boys?"

"Damn right," said Morowitz, the first thing he said the entire trip.

"Right," he looked back at Hammer. "You saved my life. You saved all these boys lives. You don’t know me from Adam. But when trouble came, you took care of it." Freddy smiled, almost fatherly. "You’ve been screwed by the system as much as we have. Only we deserve it." He stood up. "So I tell ya what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna let you live. You deserve to. Probably the only decent thing I done in my whole life." He smirked.

Freddy looked up suddenly. Then he left Hammer's view. The boots tramped off.

"Watch your back, soldier boy. We'll look for you on the front page …" [MORE]

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Songs: Part 6c – Dead Man Talking

Lady Sounshay and three town guardsmen attended to Beldin’s wounds.

Kham pulled Sebastian aside. “We need to talk.” He handed Sebastian Augustus’ note.

Lady Sounshay joined them. “What happened here?”

Kham jabbed a thumb in the direction of the warehouse. “I found that note on Augustus’ body, in there.”

Sebastian scanned the letter. “Venton and Anulee were having a secret affair.” His features slowly twisted in rage. ”She used a visiting dark-kin as an excuse to break up with Venton. In retaliation, Venton blackmailed Anulee into blaming the dark-kin for the murder of a town guard.”

“I remember that.” The implications dawned on her. “The dark-kin was executed for that crime!”

“That dark-kin was Lantross.” Sebastian’s face was red. “Lantross Arnyal. My father.” He handed Sounshay the note. “Just before he was executed, he had another visitor. Lantross’ brother…my uncle.” [MORE]

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Thursday, January 22

The Horror! The Rhythm is Gonna Get You

In the latest installment of my column on action horror gaming, The Horror!, I rethink the d20 Challenge Rating system in The Rhythm is Gonna Get You. [MORE]

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DVD Review: 3:10 to Yuma

As a realistic depiction of the Wild West, 3:10 to Yuma falls short. But as a meditation on good and evil that gives its actors an opportunity to showcase their considerable talents, Yuma hits its mark ... right between the eyes. [MORE]

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DVD Review: Pi

Pi isn't a bad film, but it's intellectually challenging. There's precious little science in Pi, or valid mathematics, or even an accurate portrayal of Kabablism. It uses artistic license to make its point -- that the nature of God is beyond human ken - and ultimately beats the viewer over the head with it in the end. Literally. [MORE]

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DVD Review: Zu Warriors

It's telling how many people praise this film without providing any detail as to the plot. That's because this hyperkinetic mess is a tangle of poor special effects, bizarre storyline plotting, and far too many characters to follow. Some of this can be chalked up to differences in culture and translation. But a lot of it can't. It should have been an anime. [MORE]

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DVD Review: Forbidden Warrior

Forbidden Warrior lowers the bar for chop-sockey flicks down to its toenails, then trips over it. On the upside, it will make a hilarious drinking game. [MORE]

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The Birdcage: Part 2 – These Are My Friends Now

As Hammer and Freddy ushered the prisoners onto the shore, a truck pulled to the side of the road. Ten Middle Eastern men got out.

"We need help!" shouted Hammer. "There's men still inside …"

He trailed off as he spotted the sub-machineguns.

"Man I hate being right," whispered Freddy behind him.

The terrorists fired their weapons in the air. “Where is he?” shouted the leader.

Hammer had tucked his pistols in the belt beneath his shirt. Now he was glad he did.

"Get ready to run for it," said Hammer out of the corner of his mouth. But when he looked back, Freddy was gone. [MORE]

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Songs: Part 6b – Dead Man Talking

A bank of fog surrounded Beldin and Sebastian while they waited for Kham to exit the warehouse. The stench of brimstone was so strong that it made their eyes tear.

“Trouble,” said Beldin. “Get behind me.”

A barely humanoid figure lurched out of the fog. Its entire body was bristling with dark gray spikes. Its hellish features framed glowing red eyes. The things body shook feverishly with the anticipation of a fresh kill.

“More to kill, “a sibilant voice giggled in their minds, “more to kill!”

“Gods, that’s a hamatula!” whispered Sebastian. “Kham! Get out here!” [MORE]

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Wednesday, January 21

The Birdcage: Part 1 – Right Said Fred

The plane was a mass of chaos. Prisoners screamed, yanked towards the gaping wound in the plane but safely chained to their seats. They were the lucky ones.

One of the guards, the one who was inspecting the box, disappeared before he could even scream. The other guards, positioned on the far ends of the plane held on for dear life. The two prisoners in the seat that exploded were gone, along with their seats. The warning shrieks from the cockpit were audible throughout the plane.

Outside, Hammer could make out the terrain whistling below them. He got a glimpse of the wing. It was on …

“Fire!” shouted Jones, gesturing excitedly with his manacles towards the hole. [MORE]

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Songs: Part 6a – Dead Man Talking

As they made their way towards the warehouse, the streets were relatively empty.

“It seems the incident in the Splintered Oak has left a lingering fear in the populace,” said Beldin.

Aside from the burning lanterns they passed every so often, there was no other light to guide their way. The unsettling silence only reinforced the desolation.

A tiny bat crawled out of the folds of Sebastian’s robes. He whispered to it and the bat flitted off into the darkness.

A couple of moments later it returned. The bat chattered at him.

“Dracuul says that the two lanterns nearest here have been shattered. Someone wants it dark here.”

“Do you actually understand that thing?” asked Kham.

Sebastian looked offended. “Of course. And he understands me perfectly.”

Skiz popped his head out of the extradimensional satchel where Kham kept most of his pistols. “Talking rodents,” said the talking rat. “Go figure, eh boss?”

“Very funny,” said Kham. [MORE]

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Tuesday, January 20

Stonehenge Beneath the Waters of Lake Michigan

[Image: Standing stones beneath Lake Michigan? View larger].

In a surprisingly under-reported story from 2007, Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan University College, discovered a series of stones – some of them arranged in a circle and one of which seemed to show carvings of a mastodon – 40-feet beneath the surface waters of Lake Michigan. [MORE]

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Birdcage: Prologue

The last man to enter was shuffled in with pantyhose over his head. The guard patted the top of the prisoner’s head.

“This sterling piece of human filth is none other than Billy ‘Taste-Test’ Bean, a bona fide serial killer!” The other guards bound Billy into his seat with a cargo strap before they removed the pantyhose. “Billy’s a spitter,” said Bishop, to explain the pantyhose.

“How many people you eat, Billy?” asked Falzon, another one of the guards.

“Twenty six,” he said, staring with startling blue eyes at the guard.

“Keeps going up,” said Falzon. “It was twenty five.”

Billy stared at Falzon. “I’m planning ahead.” [MORE]

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Songs: Part 5 – Sins of the Father

“Now that’s a manor,” said Kham.

The manor of Venton Zasfar had few equals. A black iron fence surrounded the mansion grounds. At the gate entrance were two ten-foot high marble columns topped by black gargoyle statues. Beldin peered at them curiously.

“Well made,” he said. As an afterthought, he added. “They’re not real gargoyles though.”

They reached the front door. The guard bid them to stop while he let Venton know of their arrival.

Moments later, a raspy voice yelled obscenities at the guard.

The guard returned, pale. “He will see you now. Please know that he is not in the best of moods.”

Kham pushed past him. “Yeah, we got that.” [MORE]

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Saturday, January 17

Chapter 30: The Birdcage - Introduction

This scenario, “The Birdcage,” is from the Spycraft supplement Combat Missions by Yours Truly. You can read more about Delta Green at http://www.delta-green.com. Please note: This story hour contains spoilers!

Our cast of characters includes:

Because I plan so far in advance, at this point I have five or six scenarios ready to go depending on which players show up. This is a necessity, because sometimes I’m never sure whom I’m going to get. I didn’t realize George was playing until he arrived. Since he showed up first, I decided to go ahead and advance his plotline.

In Hammer’s case, it’s clear he’s being used as bait. I felt like this scenario was successful in emphasizing Hammer’s character development and personal plotline. The original purpose of the combat mission – to capture four of the worst murderers in America – was ignored for the larger terrorist plot. Or to put it another way, when you work for the Counter-Intelligence Field Agency, you worry more about terrorists than you do criminals.

And heck, if they’re patriotic criminals, all the better!

Defining Moment: Even murderous psychopaths love the good ole U.S. of A! [MORE]

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Songs: Part 4 – The Goblinoid Ambush

It was clear that the forces of nature held sway along the sparsely traveled roadway. The verdant landscape of tall brush, towering oak trees and symphony of wildlife were constant reminders that the Vastwood Forest was a far cry from the crowded modern cities of Milandir.

“I don’t like the feel of this place,” said Sebastian.

Kham took in a deep breath of fresh air. “You say that about every place with plants.”

Beldin shoved Kham and Sebastian’s heads down. “Down!”

Crossbow bolts whistled past them. One tore a jagged rent in Sebastian’s robes. Another pinned itself in the folds of Kham’s overcoat.

Beldin reached behind him and unlatched his battleaxe from the strap across his back. With one smooth motion, he brought it up in time to block a hulking hobgoblin’s scimitar.

“Goblins!” snarled Beldin. “Get behind me!”

Kham drew two of his pistols. “There’s not enough room behind you!” [MORE]

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Friday, January 16

Convergence: Conclusion

The small east-central Tennessee community of Groversville, long the butt of local humor as a hotbed of UFO crackpots and Elvis-sighters was no longer a laughing matter. A virulent plague had ravaged the town and many of the farms in the vicinity, leaving a death toll of well over ninety percent among the human population and near-total loss of livestock in its wake.

Acting swiftly under the direction of the Centers for Disease Control, Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist mobilized several units of the Tennessee National Guard, placing the region under strict quarantine.

"We feel it's of vital importance to contain this disease within the Groversville community, not only to prevent the spread of contagion throughout the state, but also to more effectively render assistance to those citizens of Groversville so desperately in need of our help in this time of crisis," Governor Sundquist said in a press release on Saturday.

Dr. Carl Sciebenski, Deputy Director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, lauded the Tennessee governor's efforts.

"Without the cooperation of elected officials, the CDC's hands are tied. Governor Sundquist's prompt response to our recommendation of quarantine may well have safeguarded the lives of thousands," he said in a press conference.

Dr. Sciebenski went on to indicate that, while the provenance of the disease that struck Groversville was unknown, the apparently new strain of viral influenza, while virulent and deadly, appeared to have a very short lifecycle.

"Forty-eight hours after the initial reports, we were no longer detecting cases of new infection," Dr. Sciebenski stated. "While the tragedy of Groversville will never be forgotten, we are confident that there shall be no re-appearances of this disease."

No official spokesperson for the town of Groversville was available for comment. No trace of the town's board of aldermen was found, although the town hall was found to be in a state of total disarray when investigators arrived. Likewise, the entire local sheriff's department appeared to have succumbed to the disease that claimed so many. Funerals for the deceased continued through the week. [MORE]

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Songs: Part 3 – Truth in a Shroud

Sebastian flashed her a sympathetic smile. “I understand. What happened between you and Venton?”

“We had a falling out. He does not have the kindest of souls. His son has apparently inherited his father’s temper.”

“What kind of falling out?” asked Beldin.

“I can say no more.”

“You can’t or you won’t?” asked Sebastian.

She didn’t respond.

“What made you come back from the Vastwood Forest?” asked Beldin.

“I felt renewed vigor to use the gift that Osalian gave me. I believe it’s my duty to bring happiness and hope to those that have little of either.”

Beldin and Sebastian looked at each other.

“And what makes you think Postrava lacks those two attributes?” asked Sebastian.

Anulee flashed a condescending smile. “Wherever there are humans, there will always be suffering.” [MORE]

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Thursday, January 15

Convergence: Part 13b – Showdown


The sounds of destruction faded. Abruptly, the street began caving in. It made a tearing sound, and pieces broke loose along the fracture lines. Slabs tumbled into the emptiness below. Too much emptiness: it sounded as if things were falling into a chasm, not just a drain.

Then the entire hoved-up section pavement erupted with a thunderous roar, and Hammer found himself at the brink. The pit was ten feet across, at least fifty feet long.

He saw Guppy. His legs were pinned under a massive hunk of concrete. Worse than that—he was trapped on a precarious piece of roadbed that thrust over the rim of the hole, with no support beneath it. At any moment, it might crack loose and fall into the pit, taking him with it.

“Guppy!” shouted Hammer. “Hold on!” [MORE]

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Songs: Part 2d – The Questioning

“The relationship between Anulee and Venton was not as simple as you have been led to believe. Venton, in his youth, was very charming and taken with her. He was also married at the time. The two were closer…than just friends.”

Kham smirked. “I’ve seen Anulee. I can see how that would happen.”

“Venton and Anulee committed a most unspeakable act that they hid very well from the general populace.”

“Is an affair between humans and elves that big a deal?”

Augustus nodded. “Except for me, no one else knew about it. Like a fool, I kept the secret because Venton solved my gambling debt and thus saved my life. I sold my sense of decency in exchange for silence.”

“So what is this unspeakable act?”

“I would prefer Venton tell you. I want to offer him one last chance at redemption. He will be at his home tomorrow afternoon. I will tell you where he lives so that you can question him.”

Kham patted his pistols. “I know how to do that.” [MORE]

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Wednesday, January 14

Convergence: Part 13a – Showdown

All three of the agents were armed with dart rifles. They strode into the church.

“What makes you think it will be in here?” asked Guppy.

“Because this is where a god goes to be worshiped.” Hammer pointed at a figure sitting in the pew in the front row.

The agents converged on the figure from three different directions. It was Adams.

He turned and opened his mouth and spoke without moving it. “You killed my disciple. You shouldn’t have done that. As punishment, I will make you serve—“

Hammer drew his Glock and emptied it into Adams’ suit. “I hate monologues.” [MORE]

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Songs: Part 2c – The Questioning

“I’d like to speak to Anulee,” said Sebastian.

“Absolutely. She’s been restricted to the Splintered Oak tavern until we get to the bottom of this, you can speak with her there.”

“What about Ilmarė?” asked Beldin.

“For medical and security reasons, Persuis and Ilmarė, per the wishes of Anulee, have been sent back to the Vastwood Forest to heal their injuries with their people.”

Kham hesitated. “You just sent her back? Did she ever have a say in it?” [MORE]

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Tuesday, January 13

Convergence: Part 12 – A Misunderstanding

They waited.

“Is it a bomb?” asked Jim-Bean.

“Would have gone off by now,” said Hammer.

“Only one way to find out.” Guppy slowly crawled into the lab.

All the ceiling lights winked out. In a second, however, light sprung up once more, although not from the ceiling bulbs; it was an unusual light, a green flash. It was only the three video display terminals, which all came on at once. Then they went off.

And came on. Off, on, off, on, off ... At first they flashed simultaneously, then in sequence, around and around. Finally they all came on and stayed on, filling the otherwise unlighted work area with an eerie glow.

Lit by the green radiance was a large, cylinder of greenish alien metal, featureless except for three network ports conforming to no human standard. The ports were connected to the computer terminals.

Six words were burned in pale green letters across a dark green background: WHERE AM I? [MORE]

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Songs: Part 2b – The Questioning

When they got to Kuros’ cell, he was still going off in a raging tantrum, pounding his fists against the bars until his knuckles bled.

“Calm down,” said Sebastian in a quiet voice. “We’re here to help you.”

“I’m innocent! This is ridiculous!”

“I’m sure it is, but we’re just trying to sort out what happened and everyone’s a little tense right now. Do you mind if I come in and sit down?”

Kuros was taken aback by the request, as if they were guests in his humble home. He nodded.

The guard unlocked the cell and let Sebastian in. [MORE]

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The Commonplace Book Competition

The theme of this competition was H.P. Lovecraft's Commonplace Book, a notebook in which Lovecraft jotted down his various ideas, many of them disjointed and cryptic. There were 35 entries this time around! [MORE]

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Monday, January 12

DVD Review: 10,000 B.C.

Ten things I learned from 10,000 B.C. (spoilers beware!):

1) Nobody speaks in contractions.
2) Everybody is dirty.
3) Nobody speaks the same language except for one guy in Africa, and yet the translation of "Mammoths" is "Mannak."
4) The way to get a bull mammoth to stampede is to stand up in the middle of the herd and scream your head off.
5) Even isolated arctic tribes have tremendous racial diversity.
6) The pyramids were built either by space aliens or Atlanteans.
7) Egyptian pharaohs were white guys who spit a lot.
8) 10,000 B.C. had its own versions of velociraptors: giant angry chickens.
9) For some reason only white men can lead the more powerful and numerous African tribes.
10) Blue-eyed girls are hot. [MORE]

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Book Review: My Tank is Fight!

Ultimately, My Tank is Fight is a breezy, entertaining read. I kept thinking, "this would be fantastic for a game!" - be it a role-playing game or a first-person shooter set in World War II, wherein the boss battles feature these preposterous super weapons. If you have an interest in alternate history World War II history but are too lazy to do any actual research, this is the book for you. [MORE]

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Convergence: Part 11b – The Flaming Cross Church

“You killed him?!” shouted Guppy. “You shot Adams in cold blood!” His pistol was out, pointed at Hammer.

Hammer had both Glocks out. “You heard him. This protomatter spawn wants him to spread the word. We can’t let—“

“Agents have been compromised!” shouted Wong. “Repeat, agents have been compromised! Requesting backup at the Flaming Cross Church.”

Dunbar opened fire, raking the pews with hot lead.

Hammer ducked down behind the pews. “I don’t want to fight you!”

Jim-Bean jumped out in front of Hammer. “Stop! This is a misunderstanding!”

In perfect synchronization, Wong and Dunbar drew grenades from their belts, activated them, and tossed them towards Hammer.

Jim-Bean held one hand up and one of the grenades abruptly changed its directory, sailing back towards Wong and Dunbar. [MORE]

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Songs: Part 2a – The Questioning

Lady Sounshay met them at a private room in the local prison. When they arrived, Kuros’ screaming was still audible.

“I know that I originally asked your friends to help us with the goblin problem, but I fear this is a scandalous situation waiting to explode. Persius, in addition to being Anulee’s lover, is also an ambassador from the elorii of the Vastwood Forest nearby. I cannot afford armed conflict against the elves, especially since many still have the bitterness of their dead gods burning in their souls.”

“Tell me about it,” muttered Kham.

“Add to that the spike in the goblin threat and our resources are taxed beyond our means. Your reputations leave me confident that you will assist me. Kuros proclaims his innocence, but I have my doubts. Then again, anything is possible.”

“We will be glad to assist,” said Vlad.

Sounshay shook her had. “Not you. I need your help against the goblins. I meant your friends.”

“Oh,” Vlad looked startled. [MORE]

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Sunday, January 11

Convergence: Part 11a – The Flaming Cross Church

In the Flaming Cross Baptist Church, sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows, which were composed predominantly of blues and greens. Hundreds of irregularly shaped patches of royal blue, sky blue, turquoise, aquamarine, emerald green, and many other shades dripped across the polished wooden pews, puddled in the aisles, and shimmered on the walls.

Just beyond the narthex, a stream of crimson light splashed across the white marble font that contained the holy water. It was the crimson of Christ's blood. The sun pierced a stained glass image of Christ's bleeding heart and sprayed sanguine rays upon the water that glistened in the pale marble bowl.

The church was solemn, silent, still. The air was softened by a pleasant trace of incense. In the pews, there were no worshipers. At first it appeared as if the church was deserted.

Then Hammer saw it. “Oh man.” [MORE]

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Songs: Part 1b – The Splintered Oak

“Clear a table!”

Anulee let out a piercing scream. “Persius, my love, what have they done to you?”

Anulee rushed to her lover’s side with her two powerfully built Marokene bodyguards behind her. She grasped Persius’ hand as he was laid on the table.

“His wounds are bad,” said Sebastian. There was a deep gouge in Persius’ chest, severe swelling in his face, and his breathing grew slower and weaker. “Unless something is done quickly, he will not survive.”

Beldin popped a potion vial open and put it the elorii’s lips. “This should do it.”

Vlad burst the door open, carrying an unconscious Ilmarė. He laid her on the table next to Persius.

“We saved her just in time,” said Kham. “She’s hurt bad.”

As the curative effect took over, Persius turned his head weakly to look at Anulee. His left eye was swollen shut from the severe beating.

The man who brought him in began shouting for everyone to give the elves some room.

Persius turned his attention to Kuros, who was standing next to Anulee. He raised an enfeebled arm and pointed directly at Kuros. “Murderer!” He grit his teeth in rage and agony. “You tried to kill my friend, and you tried to do the same to me in order to take her from my heart!”

The strain proved too much for him. He passed out, his arm falling limply at his side. [MORE]

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Saturday, January 10

Convergence: Part 10 – Jesus Loves Me

When the agents got to the house, they found the three men assigned to it—Brogan, Wong, and Dunbar—with their machineguns out, but unsure what to aim at. They glanced up as the agents entered, looking disconcerted and baffled.

"Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush." The air was filled with a child's singing. A little boy. His voice was clear and fragile and sweet. "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, so early in the moooorrrninnnggg!"

The song changed. The voice was the same: "This old man, he plays one; he plays knickknack on my drum. With a knickknack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone—"

Adams leaned forward. “Is that…is that coming from the sink?”

The child's voice sounded like it was coming out of the drain, as if he were trapped far down in the pipes.

"—this old man goes rolling home."

"It just started all of a sudden," said Wong, raising his voice above the singing.

"It started a couple of minutes ago," said Brogan.

"I was standing at the sink," said Dunbar. He was a burly, hairy, rough-looking man with warm, shy brown eyes. "When the singing started up ... Jesus, I must've jumped two feet!"

The song changed again. The sweetness was replaced by a cloying, almost mocking piety: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him are drawn. They are weak, but He is strong.”

Nothing about the singing was overtly threatening. The agents listened, mystified as to what to do next.

“Is there a basement?” asked Hammer.

“No, sir,” said Wong. “We’ve been getting ready to dig into the foundation, but there’s no way there’s a kid down those pipes.”

"Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus—"

The singing abruptly ceased.

Jim-Bean peered into the sink drain. [MORE]

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Songs: Part 1a – The Splintered Oak

For a brief moment, all of the patrons saw nothing before them. Then, from the center of the stage, sparkles of multicolored lights began to light the room with a soft glow. On stage stood perhaps the most beautiful woman any of them had ever seen. With ice-blue eyes and azure hair with streaks of white, she bore an almost angelic appearance. As she glided towards the front of the stage, her movements were both graceful and effortless, as if she were walking on clouds.

She smiled. “Hello my friends. I am Anulee Galen and here is my gift to all of you. I hope you enjoy it.”

With that, she turned and, with a wave of her hand, the lights in the room began to swirl slowly, changing colors periodically. She began her song, a crescendo of glory. Form that point on, the audience could only stare in awe.

“That’s not your mom, is it?” asked Kham.

Ilmarė practically snarled at him. “No.”

“So that’s got to be your sister. Older or younger?”

“Older.”

Kham whistled softly. “No wonder why you’re so bitter.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” [MORE]

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Friday, January 9

Convergence: Part 9 – The Installation

Hammer, Jim-Bean, Guppy, and Adams entered. It was clear that Underhill had orders to let the agents go first.

All walls on the ground level have been reinforced with a sort of spray epoxy. The interior walls on the ground floor were removed, leaving a large, open area about sixty feet long by thirty feet wide. Within, a large number of strange instruments were spread about in disarray. The majority of the devices was too alien to be understood; lights, glows, pulsing bellows, and all sorts of bizarre apparatuses that had a weirdly fungal, biological look to them.

There was a large, enclosed vat with a hole on rent in its side, as if it were struck by a powerful force. Also scattered about the vat were …

Guppy backed away, hyperventilating.

“They’re dead, Guppy,” said Hammer. “Relax.”

The limbs of Grey bodies were twisted in odd ways.

“The one at GNN was supposed to be dead too,” said Jim-Bean.

Hammer shushed him. He wasn’t helping. [MORE]

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Songs: Prologue

“I don’t understand,” asked Kham again. “Why are we in Postrava?”

Vlad shrugged. “Duke Adolphos feels that the recent raids in Milandir are a potential problem for Moratavia as well. He wants me to deal with it.”

“That doesn’t explain why I’m here. Or the elf.”

“Ilmarė wanted to go,” said Vlad with a shrug. “She went on ahead of us. I also sent word for Sebastian and Beldin to meet us there. As for you,” he flashed Kham a smile, “you’re here because you’re my friend.”

Kham rolled his eyes.

They stopped talking as they approached the periphery of the town. Two guardsmen in leather armor, carrying longswords and short bows, met them.

“Welcome to Postrava. May I ask your business in our fair city?”

Vlad leaned forward. “Business and pleasure my friend. I’m Vlad Martell, Bailiff for Duke Adolphos val’Tensen. Kham is a friend of mine. I’m here to see the Lady Sounshay val’Dellenov regarding a matter of great urgency.”

With this, he handed the guard a writ with Lady Sounshay’s personal seal. The guard reviewed it carefully.

“Praised be the will of Saluwe’. We could certainly use your help against those blasted goblins.” With that, he let them pass.

After about five minutes of travel within the town limits, they came to a stop. Ahead was a curious sign that read, “Splintered Oak Tavern and Inn.” It was carved out of a dead tree trunk about six feet high and three feet in diameter.

“Not a fancy town, is it?” observed Kham.

The buildings and structures of Postrava were not as elegant as those in Tralia. The people dressed more casual, and the clothing they wore was not as expensive or luxurious. It was a rustic community with a humble atmosphere about it.

A woman in green robes with autumn-colored symbols of Saluwe’ waited for them at the door. Her robes had a mistletoe and nightshade design on it. She was quite slender and tall at nearly six feet, with hair as dark as night.

She saw Vlad and smiled. “Greetings again, old friend. I almost thought you would miss the show, but thankfully you made it just in time.”

Kham arched an eyebrow as he looked back and forth between the two of them. For once he kept his mouth shut. [MORE]

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Thursday, January 8

Convergence: Part 8 – Adams' Theory

The agents were dressed in their old clothes.

"I don't know why we can't have containment suits," said Guppy. "They should let us put on suits."

"They're not giving us suits," said Hammer, "because we're contaminated."

"Not just contaminated," said Jim-Bean morosely. "Infected. We're screwed. That's why he still wants us to investigate everything. Let the walking dead go first."

"Stop talking like that," snapped Hammer. "Guppy's having a tough enough time as it is."

One of the men in NBC suits cleared his throat.

Hammer brightened. Anything to get his mind off of their plight. "Adams? Scott Adams?"

"In the flesh, so to speak," said Adams with a chuckle. "I'm afraid I'm not the author of the Dilbert comics, however." [MORE]

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Chapter 44: Songs That Stir the Darkest Heart - Introduction

This is a Year One Living Arcanis adventure, “Songs That Stir the Darkest Heart” by Rene’ Alfonso, set in the Arcanis setting. You can read more about Arcanis at http://www.onaraonline.org. Please note: This adventure contains spoilers!

Our cast of characters includes:

This adventure is filled with drama and dark secrets, so as usual I tied them all together, conveniently providing plenty of angst for Sebastian, Vlad, and Ilmarė, respectively. Of course, I had expected Vlad and Ilmarė to be playing this session, a marathon session that included four adventures. But alas, things didn’t work out that way, so I adjusted the plot.

I’m actually happy with how things worked out, including why both major characters weren’t present. Kham’s powers come in handy, Beldin’s new role as a Dwarven Defender saves peoples lives, and Sebastian blows stuff up real good…when he’s not jogging to a location because no horse will carry him.

At least now, Kham’s background isn’t the only messed up family we get to hear about. [MORE]

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Wednesday, January 7

Libraries offer more than books

Jim Rettig, president, American Library Association - Richmond, Va., offered a balanced response to the senator's criticism in the defense of gaming:

The American Psychological Association has done studies showing how video games can be powerful learning tools, specifically for problem-solving skills. This finding was echoed by a recent Sony Online Entertainment LLC study, which found that 70% of parents say their children's problem-solving skills have been improved by playing video games.

Also, a study of people ages 60 to 70 and highlighted in the December issue of Psychology and Aging showed that playing video games can be especially beneficial to people for strengthening memory and reasoning.

I applaud the Westfield Public Library for providing this innovative technology to its community. [MORE]

Bravo!

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Senator flags $1.3 billion as gov't waste

WASHINGTON — As the budget deficit soared, infrastructure crumbled and the economy tanked, the federal government this year spent $300,000 for a California skateboarding park, $188,000 to research Maine lobsters and $3.2 million on a spy blimp the military doesn't want, according to a new report by the Senate's self-styled spending scourge.

Other items in the report:

• The federal Institute of Museums and Library Sciences awarded a $3,905 grant to the public library in Westfield, Ind., for the purchase of a Nintendo Wii console, a television, a camcorder and games. [MORE]

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Convergence: Part 7 – Copperfield Arrives

The agents had boarded up every opening and slept in shifts. But Groversville's horrors had not coming calling since Oakley's death. Morning finally broke.

Guppy perked up. "I think I hear vehicles!"

They moved one of the desks out of the way of the office window. Sunlight streamed through.

At the bottom of Skyline Road, a large vehicle drove into view, and the sound of its laboring engine grew louder.

There were three large vehicles. They crawl slowly up the long, sloped street towards Merle's Shut Eye Motel.

Leading the procession was a gleaming, white motor home, a lumbering thirty-six foot behemoth that was somewhat modified. It had no doors or windows along its flank. The only entrance was at the back. The curved, wraparound windshield of the cab was tinted very dark and was made of much thicker glass than that used in ordinary motor homes. There was no identification on the vehicle, no project name, no indication that it Majestic property.

Behind the first motor home came a second. Bringing up the rear was an unmarked truck pulling a thirty-foot, plain gray trailer. Even the truck's windows were tinted, armor-thick glass.

The payload in the motor homes and in the truck was obviously quite heavy. Their engines strained hard, and they ground their way up the street, moving slower than ten miles an hour, then slower than five, inching, groaning, grinding.

When at last they reach Merle’s, they kept on going, made a right-hand turn at the corner, and swung into the cross street that flanked the motel.

The agents ran out to greet them. [MORE]

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Hidden Greed: Conclusion

With the eggs found and recovered, the threat to Saeber was over. The ss’resen escort waited in the hills; they were incredibly overjoyed to have the eggs returned to them.

“We are greatly indebted to you for preventing a war,” said Lonnek to Vlad. “You saved our village. It may not mean a lot in the big scheme of things, but it’s our entire world.”

Vlad accepted the thanks graciously.

“I apologize, I must leave now to speak with the ss’ressen. I’ve just received word that four of them are at the gates, waving a flag of peace.”

“Of course,” Vlad said with a slight smile. “Tell Shatterscale I said hello.”

He walked back over to Kham, who stood alone by himself. “You all right?”

“For a guy who just walked through Carcosa, I’m great,” Kham said sourly. “I didn’t really understand what was going to happen there. Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay,” Vlad said with a shy smile. “Although I’d appreciate some warning next time.” [MORE]

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Tuesday, January 6

Convergence: Part 6 – Calling for Backup

In the sheriff's station, Okaley tried the phone. He slammed the receiver back down. "Damn!"

"They have control of everything," said Guppy. "It won't work."

"You boys got them satellite phones, right?" asked Oakley. "Can't you call for the National Guard or something?"

Jim-Bean tested his cistron. There was some interference, but he could hear a faint dial tone.

He punched in Sprague's number. The reception was bad enough that his features did not flicker on screen, but he could hear him.

"Yes?"

"Sprague?" said Jim-Bean. "We're in Groversville. There's some kind of plague, everyone's dead. We're requesting a quarantine."

"Quarantine?" More static. "Are you asking for a full quarantine—TSSSZZZHHHK—Copperfield?"

"Yes sir, we think that—"

A high pitched squeal cut him off. The other agents checked their cistrons. Nothing.

"Well that's that," said Jim-Bean.

"Now what?" asked Guppy.

"Now we wait," said Hammer. "We stay here until we can be sure that—"

The phone started ringing again.

This time the speakerphone went on by itself. All they could hear was buzzing.

"Ahhh, $#!+," said Oakley.

The lights went out. [MORE]

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Hidden Greed: Part 5c – Face Off

The world went white. Kham saw Vlad through the walls of Pallas’ home. He was standing outside, waiting for the signal. They all knew the signal was the sound of gunfire. But by then it would be too late.

Vlad was better armed and armored than Kham. Besides, there was no time. He had only seconds to react…

And yet time didn’t move at all in the space between spaces. He looked up at the sky. It was filled with a terrible whiteness; only the stars twinkled blackly above him.

Kham stepped into Vlad’s place. The two were instantly shunted through Carcosa. [MORE]

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Monday, January 5

Convergence: Part 5 – Merle's Shut-Eye Motel

Unlike the other rooms, the door was open.

"Was that door open before?" asked Oakley, trailing behind them. Guppy and Stu brought up the rear.

Hammer and Jim-Bean covered the entryway with their pistols. Jim-Bean peeked in.

A pile of objects was stacked on the bed in the center of the room.

"Looks like somebody's stolen loot," said Jim-Bean.

Hammer moved closer to inspect them. He could make out a gold tooth and buttons.

"This is very interesting," said Hammer. He eyed the two civilians. "Does any of this look like it belongs to people in town?"

Oakley pawed through the pile. "Yep." He held up a wedding ring. "This is Barry's," he said sadly. "It's got his wife's name on it, Laura."

"What the hell is a pacemaker doing in this stuff?" asked Guppy. "That should be inside somebody, right?" [MORE]

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Hidden Greed: Part 5b – Face Off

Kham sat down once again in Pallas’ abode. Once again, he was served tea in a mismatched cup.

“So, you saw it for your own eyes then?” Pallas asked eagerly. “What those damn lizards are capable of?”

“Yes,” Kham said slowly. He hadn’t touched his tea. “I saw them. I spoke with them. Pallas, if there’s something you’re not telling me, it’s not too late for me to help you.”

Pallas paused. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that the ss’ressen are saying you were leading negotiations for Saeber. They kept asking for peace and you kept rebuffing them.”

“That’s preposterous!” Pallas put down his tea. “I expected better of you, Kham. The lizards are lying through their forked tongues and you, of all people, are buying into their deception?”

Kham shook his head. “I didn’t say I was. But you don’t seem too concerned about keeping the peace here. Milandir can’t afford another war, not after the Nierite invasion from Canceri.”

“You don’t afford wars, Kham. They happen because you run out of choices. And I’m telling you right now, this whole idea that ss’ressen should be able to resettle in human lands was a mistake from the beginning. The Duke’s a fool if he thought the Black Talon tribe would be peaceful.”

Pallas stood up and began pacing. “You don’t know what I’ve seen, Kham. They’re murdering cannibals. I’ve watched lizards rip babies from wombs and eat them. There’s no decency in those things…no shred of compassion. I’m doing Milandir a favor by calling them on their lies now, rather than later when Ssethregore strikes and Altheria ends up flanked by lizards on both sides!”

Kham looked sadly at his cousin. “Look, I don’t trust the lizards either. But I know one of them, and he tried to save a little boy…a HUMAN child. That’s not the same monsters you’re talking about. The ss’ressen aren’t all like that.”

“Aren’t they?” Pallas’ features twisted with indignation. “I didn’t figure you for a lizard-lover.” [MORE]

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Sunday, January 4

Convergence: Part 4 – Ameley Goods

They entered a huge kitchen, which smelled pleasantly of cinnamon, flour, black walnuts, and orange extract. The bakery was well equipped with double sinks, a walk-in refrigerator, several ovens, several immense white enamel storage cabinets, a dough-kneading machine, and a large array of other appliances. The middle of the room was occupied by a long, wide counter, the primary work area; one end of it had a shiny stainless-steel top, and the other end had a butcher's block surface. The stainless-steel portion was stacked high with pots, cupcake and cookie trays, baking racks, Bundt pans, regular cake pans, and pie tins, all clean and bright. The entire kitchen gleamed.

On the other side of the piled cookware, in the middle of the butcher's-block counter, lay a large disk of pie dough. A wooden rolling pin rested on the dough.

"AAH!" shouted Guppy, pointing.

Two hands gripped the ends of the rolling pin. Two severed, human hands.

Jim-Bean sighed. "Anyone want to bet what's in the ovens?" [MORE]

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Hidden Greed: Part 5a – Face Off

When they returned to the village of Saeber, it was clear the atmosphere had changed dramatically. The holes in the walls were patched and the smell of burning oil filled the air. Loud clangs of hammers on anvils drowned the sounds of the night. People flocked to and fro, carrying bundles of arrows, wood and rocks. They pulled wagons filled with hay and water skins. Saeber was preparing for war.

Vlad looked around. "Farmers, farriers, stable boys. These are no soldiers."

Walking through the streets confirmed the hopelessness of the situation. Even the women and children were helping, barricading doors and windows, collecting water and so on.

“Most have seen too many winters!" said Kham.

"Or too few,” added Ilmarė.

At the square, those in Saeber who had formal martial training gathered, while the leaders divided them into various groups. Lonnek stood somewhat to the side, speaking to a young boy.

“Look at them,” Kham shook his head. “They're frightened. I can see it in their eyes."

“As well they should be,” said Ilmarė. “They’re not match for a ss’ressen force.” [MORE]

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Saturday, January 3

Convergence: Part 3 – The Sheriff's Office

Hammer opened the door and stepped inside the sheriff’s office. Locating a wall switch, he snapped on the overhead lights, only to see a corpse on the floor.

Hammer read his badge. "Paul Henderson." Henderon's corpse had dark, bruised flesh. Swollen. Dead.

Guppy ran his name through the Blacknet database. "He was a Majestic-12 undercover agent."

"He's in the same condition as Hilda Beck." Every visible inch of the deputy's flesh was bruised. The body was swollen: a puffy, distorted face; the neck almost as large as the head; fingers that resemble knotted links of sausage; a distended abdomen. Yet Hammer couldn't detect even the vaguest odor of decomposition.

Guppy looked away. "I can't stare at his face." [MORE]

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Hidden Greed: Part 4 – The Other Side

They were led to the back end of the building. Shatterscale pointed to a table with a large map of the surrounding area spread upon it. Dozens of small markers were scattered over it in various formations. He lifted his head from contemplating the map to address Vlad.

“Yig tellsss usss that Her might will fuel the heart of the righteousss and prove the truth in all disputesss,” said Shatterscale. “Yig demandsss a Trial by Combat to prove your wordsss.”

Ilmarė planted her fists on her hips. “This is ridiculous.” She turned to address the shaman. “Tell them that we saved your disgusting mud hole last time.”

The shaman watched her coolly. “There wasss a time when I would have gladly defended you, even a ssslave. But timesss have changed.”

“It’s fine, Ilmarė.” Vlad unsheathed Grungronazharr.

“Prepare.” Krisharr drew a circle around Vlad and Shatterscale. “Truth will ssstrengthen your weaponsss, not magic. Conviction will be your ally, not thossse around you or the deviousss enchantmentsss that may be cassst. The flat of the sssword shall sssmite liesss, not pierce them with callousss edge. Mercy will be the sssign of the victor, not bloody murder.”

Ilmarė translated: “So no spells, no stabbing, and no help.”

Vlad buckled on his shield. “Fine, I’ll use the flat of the blade.” He made a few test swings with his sword. “Let’s do this.”

Shatterscale pulled two L-shaped sticks from his belt. He spun them in his hands.

“Begin!” shouted Krisharr. [MORE]

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Friday, January 2

Convergence: Part 2 – The Flashback

Jim-Bean was driving through wooded country in Tennessee. While trying to get his bearings, he saw a pulsing white light level with the horizon visible through a tightly packed copse of trees. He cautiously approached.

Suddenly, Jim-Bean felt cold. He abruptly realized that he was standing naked in a dimly-lit domed room, his SIG and equipment gone.

On the floor of the room were multiple human objects: a rusty jack-in-the-box, a broken 1950s wristwatch, a tattered and rotted knapsack. On the walls, which seemed to be made of a clay-like material, were tiny purple sigils.

Jim-Bean examined the sigils and touched one. A blue light flared for a moment and he jumped away from the wall. The metallic floor had changed—it was clear like glass, and through it dozens of Grey bodies could be seen lying prone, seemingly entombed.

“YES,” a mechanical voice said from behind him.

Jim-Bean whirled to see three Greys standing in the chamber—which apparently had no entrances.

The three spoke in unison, walking at exactly the same pace towards him.

“THIS IS GOOD. WE HAVE NEEDS OF THIS THING. YOU MUST FUNCTION AS YOU HAVE BEEN LATER.” [MORE]

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Hidden Greed: Part 3 – Into the Hills

The moonless night made shadows seem larger than life along the hilltops. The flickering torchlight of Saeber in the distance provided the only illumination visible for leagues. North of the hills, the muggy scent of the Sulfurmarsh carried on the breeze. The chirping of frogs and insects buzzed around them.

After trudging through unending wetland and pools of mire that threatened to swallow whole their every step, the dense mangrove forest began to slightly thin out. In the far distance, floating, flickering lights were visible.

“That must be Calactyte’s tribe,” said Vlad.

In between the gnarled mangrove branches, the lights revealed themselves to be torches set at regular intervals, marking the edge of a settlement of sorts. Various pairs of ss’ressen guards stood roughly twenty feet from each other. Behind, the obscure shapes of structures showed the camp to in fact be a village of some kind.

Ilmarė sighed. “Yep. It’s a trap.”

“How do you know that?” asked Vlad.

“Because we’re surrounded.” [MORE]

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Thursday, January 1

Convergence: Part 1 – Santini Residence

"I can't believe something just ripped out the engine without us hearing anything," said Hammer in exasperation.

Guppy looked around, eyes wide. "Do you hear that?"

"Hear what?" asked Jim-Bean.

"Music. Classical music."

Across the street, music swelled, faded, and swelled. It was Beethoven. The front door to the house, identified as SANTINI, was ajar.

The agents made their way over to the Santini house.

Inside, a light was on in the study, to the left of the foyer. Milky luminescence spilled out of the open study doors, across the oak-floored foyer, to the brink of the dark living room.

"I think that's…Beethoven," said Guppy. "The Third Symphony, Eroica."

The symphony reached its stirring conclusion, and when the last note faded, no new music began.

"Guess the stereo shut itself off," said Hammer.

There was light in the study, but the other windows were flat, black, and shiny. Someone could be standing just beyond any of those panes of glass, cloaked in shadow, seeing but unseen.

Hammer made his way into the foyer. The other agents followed.

The room through the open door on the left was deserted. Two lamps cast warm golden light into every corner of the study.

To the right, the living room was draped with shadows as thick as densely woven black hunting. At the far end, a few splinters of light gleamed at the edges and at the bottom of a set of doors that closed off the dining room, but that meager glow did nothing to dispel the gloom on this side.

Hammer found a wall switch that turned on a lamp, revealing the unoccupied living room.

He crossed to the living room, which was furnished with comfortable beige sofas and elegant, emerald-green Queen Anne wing chairs. The stereo and CD player were nestled inconspicuously in a corner wall unit. That's where the music was coming from.

"Guess the Santinis went out and left it playing," said Guppy.

"Sure," said Jim-Bean. [MORE]

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Hidden Greed: Part 2 – Night Attack

They were stationed at the North Wall, along with six other militia soldiers. It was a dark night, without moonlight. Torches were the only means of illumination beyond the walls.

Ilmarė scanned the horizon. “They’re coming.”

The ss’ressen blended in so well with the darkened vegetation that it looked as if the forest had come to life. Something whistled in the night air.

“Javelins!” shouted Vlad. “Down!”

They ducked as javelins flashed overhead.

The impromptu barricade shuddered from the force of ss’ressen tail and claw.

“They’re breaking through!” Vlad slid down off the ladder. “Get ready!”

Kham stood at the hole with two pistols out. “So am I allowed to shoot lizards or are you going to throw a hissy fit about that too?”

Vlad didn’t have time to respond. Eight ss’ressen burst through the hole and immediately scattered to the left and right.

“What the…” Vlad watched them go. “They’re not attacking?” [MORE]

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