Category Archives: Everything Else

Into The Dark

“No, mom. That’s not how it works,” I shake my head and wave to the crowd standing dockside. The smile on my lips is only there because everyone else is doing the same. It’s an infectious thing, that sort of joy. Something I’m hoping doesn’t go away as the ship gets out to sea.

“I know dear, I’m having trouble with it. It’s not something we talked about when I was younger. Women liked men and vice-versa. I just want you to know we don’t think it excuses Bill.”

I nod, even if my mother isn’t able to see it.

“I’m glad you understand that.”

“I do. We both do. A betrayal in marriage is just that. It doesn’t matter what he was thinking. Trying to introduce another woman to your bedroom!”

I sigh. The divorce was bad enough, but having to come out to my parents as a bisexual made it more complicated. Stupid, stupid Bill. Always thinking with his dick first. I almost wish we’d never met.

“Okay, mom, the ship is leaving the dock. I’ve got to let you go. I’ll try to email but I can’t promise anything.”

“Right. We love you, Kelly and I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.”

“Love you too. Bye, mom.”

The crowd continues to wave and cheer for several more minutes as the tugs guide the ship away from the pier. I watch as we slip through the churning ugly dark water of the bay. It takes me away from the stress of the past several months, the frightening amount of uncertainty Bill pushed me into, and the unhealthy amount of resentment my therapist says I have. Absorbed in thought, the world drifts away. Which is why I nearly leap out of my skin when I glance up and notice I’m not as alone as I thought I was.

She smiles, her green eyes shining with suppressed laughter as I stammer an awkward apology.

“Sorry, I thought I was alone.”

Her hand reaches out and touches my arm, as she tucks a few loose strands of hair behind a freckled ear. Any words I might try to say get caught in my throat as she turns around and walks down the deck.

I bend over and put my burning forehead against the cool railing.

“And with that, ladies and gentlemen, my first singles cruise is off to an awesome start.”

#####

Seattle to San Diego, across the pacific to Hawaii, then  onto Sydney. A month and a half onboard to get to know people, to have fun, sun, and whatever else consenting adults want to get up to.

My friend and longtime confidant Monica told me about it a month after I filed for divorce.

“It’ll do you good. Help prime the pump, as it were,” she said.

“I don’t know. The divorce isn’t final yet. And who knows how I’ll be feeling after the papers are signed. Maybe I’ll want to throw myself off a bridge before I’ll feel like dating. Again.”

She shook her head at me.

“Listen to yourself. The divorce is already final in your head. You never did anything that your brain didn’t already analyze a thousand different ways. You’re ready.

“Besides, no one said you had to fall in love right away. Go and have fun. Meet all sorts of new people. Socially and biblically.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Because of what Bill did. Do I have to spell it out for you?”

The shocked look on my face must have done all the talking. Monica’s face turned red and she left the office we shared, not returning for an hour. By the time she got back, I’d booked the trip.

Then I was on the phone to my lawyer. If this was going to be a mistake, it was going to be on Bill’s dime, not mine.

#####

“Divorce or spinster? Take a guess.”

She’s not unattractive. The way she’s holding the wine glass at a jaunty angle and tilts her head is alluring, but the half-drunk smile is not. Her bleached hair with blue streaks is rebellious but conforming. Reminds me of half my students right after they have a bad breakup.

“Divorce,” I say.

“Damn. What gave it away?”

“The hair,” I say pointing to her head. Taking a sip of my whiskey, I shuffle the cards. The three others all nod in agreement. Before I can stop myself, my mouth opens again.

“And you’ve got a kid that’s just entering their teens.”

Her brown eyes narrow to points and a snarl briefly appears at the corners of her mouth. It would appear that I’ve touched a nerve.

“Good guess,” she says before the rest of the wine goes down her throat. The second half of the bottle tips into the glass and is swirled around for a second before joining the first.

The others at our little table smile, choking back the laughter as the cards are dealt.

“Twos and Tens are wild this time. Find the joker, double your entry in the pot. Ante up people, we’re playing until someone is naked.”

A pair of socks join my shirt sitting in the middle of the table. A slip suddenly appears from Blue Streak’s side, followed by pair of jeans from right across from me.

“Okay, who hasn’t joined in yet?” I ask.

There’s a sigh followed by a bra.

If I only knew their names. But no, this is one of those activities the ship organizes. Throwing random people together in someone’s cabin with cards, chips, and enough booze to grease the social wheels to China and back. However, we put our own spin on poker night. A little regression to more innocent times.

I pick up my hand and stare at a pair of aces and a pair of tens. Nice.

“What about you, dealer? Spinster or divorce?” asks the blue-eyed twenty-something that ponied up the jeans.

She also falls into that average category, not a great beauty but also not unattractive. Younger than me by a decade. Might have felt something back in college, but that barrier I’ve erected to keep students and myself separate also holds me back.

“I’ll give you a hint,” I say with a smile. “I didn’t pay for this trip.”

We laugh for several minutes before getting back to the game. I slide out one card and wait for them to do the same before picking up the deck again.

“I wish I had thought of that,” socks says.

Another pair of brown eyes, she lost her shirt and bra a while ago. Early forties but has taken care of herself nicely. Her curves only hint at the three kids she keeps talking about. Kids nearly as old as blue-eyes with whom she keeps flirting. Kinda creepy.

Although it’s not nearly as creepy when blue-eyes flirts back. Or when she switched chairs with the ever silent Raven-haired woman so they’re sitting next to one another. At some recent point I made the decision to not look under the table. Just in case.

I circle the deck around the table exchanging cards and end up staring at the Raven for a few extra seconds as she’s distracted. She smiles sweetly when she does finally look up.

“Not to change the subject too drastically, but what did y’all think of that stop we made yesterday?” she asks with a half-southern, half-Texan drawl.

“Pretty weird, if you ask me,” Blue-streaks says, frowning at her cards.

“I don’t know if I buy whales sneaking up on us. Seems to me that they have Sonar to prevent that,” Blue-eyes says.

The others nod in agreement as two of them fold, leaving myself facing Raven and the older Creepy. Raven has been doing most of the winning. That bra she tossed in for ante was Creepy’s. It smacked of being a taunt.

“Okay, last round,” I announce and toss my socks on to the pile. Creepy stands up and unzips her pants with a smile that’d send me running if it was just the two of us. Turns out she was going commando and is literally down to nothing. Raven tosses a shirt from her pile.

“I call,” says Creepy, showing a triplet of kings.

“Not bad,” I say, revealing my full house.

Everyone turns to Raven.

“What? I got nothing. Total bluff this time,” she says, turning over a hand of trash.

Creepy groans and slips down in her chair. The others cheer a little bit as I take my winnings, pulling my shirt back on.

“We said until someone’s naked. And that would appear to be the case,” Raven says, nodding at the pouting Creepy.

“Yup, so do want another round or what?” I ask.

Blue eyes leans over and proceeds to give Creepy a full mouth on mouth kiss. As we watch, tongues come out and fingers start playing with more than hair. Without another word, the rest of up get up and starts going through the pile of clothes as quickly as we can.

Raven stands by the door looking uncomfortable as we struggle to get our clothes back on. Our last look at the pair was one of bodies starting to intertwine. I shake my head as Raven and Blue-streaks start breaking into laughter as we walk down the hallway.

“I totally did not see that coming,” Blue-streaks says.

“Who knows, maybe she has a thing for women twice her age. I’m not judging,” Raven says.

We nod in agreement as we come upon one of the many corridor junctions.

“I think is my stop,” Blue-streak says. “The night is still early and I’d like to see what else might happen.”

“Well, good luck,” I say, waving as she shimmies toward another party.
I turn back to Raven, shrugging my shoulders and sighing.

“You want to walk the deck for a while?” she asks.

“Sure. Oh, and since we didn’t get introduced earlier…I’m Kelly,” I say holding out my hand.

Raven smiles and does a half curtsey before taking my hand and giving it a quick shake.

“Pleasure. You may know me as…Tim?”

“Ah. The old man from scene 24. I wondered why you looked so familiar.”

We laugh. The trip up to the deck is filled with us quoting our favorite movies and shows back and forth. We hit the more obscure ones trying to stump the other.

As we start a second lap I ask Raven what her name really is.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Can’t be any worse than the one I’ve been calling you in my head.”

“And what’s that?”

“Raven. Because of your hair.”

Her cheeks flush red, the blush going down into her shirt. I cock my head to the side as she puts her hands over her mouth and then runs away. It takes a second before I start running after her.

“Wait! What did I say?”

I catch up to her huddling in a chair far from everyone else.
“Hey,” I say leaning down and trying to brush the wild hair out of her face. “What happened back there?”

It takes a second before she looks up into my eyes. There’s a little bit of fear there. Her weak smile does give a bit of reassurance that it wasn’t me she was running away from.

“Sorry. I panicked a little.”

“A little? You ran halfway down the deck,” I say, taking a seat.

She shrugs and unfolds enough that her knees aren’t jutting up under her chin anymore.

“That was a little crazy, wasn’t it?”

“More than a little. I was just making conversation, not trying to get in your pants.”

“I know,” she pauses and sighs. “I think I might have been trying to get into yours. Do you have any idea how poor the nerd to normal ratio is on this boat?”

“I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.”

That gets her to laugh and unfold more.

“Thanks. I really shouldn’t be taking this so seriously should I?”

I grab a hand and give it a quick squeeze. She doesn’t let go after I relax.

“I don’t know. How seriously were you taking it and what were you taking seriously?”

She blushes again before turning and looking away. For a moment, I let her do that. Then I reach out and bring her head back around so we can look each other face to face.

“Right. So how about this: We hang out together, talk, eat, go on walks, see the sights, whatever. If we don’t murder each other, then we can figure out the next move.”

She nods and squeezes my hand.

“My name is Sindy. Short for Cynthia. I was named after my grandmother. But since the seventh grade, I’ve spelled it with an S mostly to piss her off. She’s been a complete bitch my entire life.”

As we sit there, watching the stars and the ocean slip by the ship shudders. Something makes me see double: Two ships moving through the same space but not quite at the same time. There’s another copy of myself, staring back at me. It’s too much. I can’t make any sense of it, so I close my eyes.

Raven starts screaming.

“What is it, what are you seeing?” I shout.

“I…I don’t know. It hurts.”

“Close your eyes. Don’t look and stay close to me.”

The ship lurches, hard, coming to a sudden halt and we’re thrown onto the deck.

“Are you okay?” I ask, turning to Raven who is curled up in my arms.

She nods and grabs me to bring me closer as the PA buzzes to life. A familiar male voice, the same one which does the daily announcements begins to speak.

“There’s been a minor issue with the engine. It will be restarted and everything will be back running in a few minutes. Doctors and nurses will be available on your home deck to examine you, starting in five minutes.”

After standing up, Raven and I remain on the deck watching the stars and holding one another in the dark. A few minutes later, the engines start up and without much delay, the ship begins moving once more.

#####

That was a day out of San Diego. We stay onboard despite thinking the better of the rest of the trip. I regret this in many ways. Not the least of which are the nightmares which Raven starts having as soon as we leave port.

They started with her talking in her sleep. A week later, halfway to Honolulu, she begins waking up covered in a cold sweat. Despite this, she remains upbeat.

Telling me about them, she describes huge structures. Some buried deep in deserts, some drowned for ages under the ocean. All of them surrounded by darkness. In each place, she’s running to keep from being caught by something chasing her through the dark.

#####

“Com’on! When’s the next time you’ll be in Hawaii? Ever?” she asks.

“I’d rather catch up on my reading, Raven. It’s my first chance in weeks. I’ll be able to go out on deck without being bothered.”

“We have only three days in port. Today and tomorrow come with me and explore the island. And I’ll leave you all alone on that last one to do your reading.”

I stand and nod.

“Okay. You’ve talked me into it.”

“Good,” she says leaning in and throwing her arms around my neck.

Despite the touristy things, I really enjoy it. We stay near the beach that first night, holding hands and watching the night come over the glassy bay.

Lacking the funds for another spontaneous beachfront hotel stay, we reboard the boat after our second day of exploration. Our sun-kissed skin welcomes the temperature controlled room and cool showers.

I see Raven off at the ramp and head back to my cabin. I fall backwards onto the bed, taking a moment to soak up the emptiness of the room and closing my eyes.

After a few minutes, I gather up my bag of deck items, grab the keycard and head out of the cabin and make my way up to the ultra-cushy Platinum deck. A few crew members greet me as I wander around the empty seating area.

I choose something deep in the shade side of the ship, less to fuss with, less to worry about if I fall asleep. Wrapping up in my towels and I practically disappear from view. Gulls cracking their lonely cry above and an occasional swoosh from the wind is more than enough to relax me.

I’m not sure how long passes before a couple of senior officers appear, going straight to the unmanned bar. They don’t seem to notice me sitting as they start discussing something that I catch only snippets of before it becomes heated.

“And what did he think was going to happen when they were called? Just swim alongside the ship until we go there?” the first one asks.

He’s stocky but not short. Maybe an inch or two taller than me with mousy brown hair and eyes. The breeze carries the scent of booze on him. As the other starts shouting, I try shrinking into the chair.

“Alright? I know. He knows now. That’s why we’ll delay calling more until we’re there. I guess. He keeps fiddling with the cursed thing.”

The second one is blonde, tall and appears to be chiseled from granite. Not sure what the uniforms indicate, but if I had to guess this one ranked higher than his drunk companion.

“We should take it away from him,” Boozehound says. “Make him wait until the appointed time. We should have never brought him in the circle. Too much risk!”

Granite shakes his head.

“There wasn’t another choice. He had to know so the course could be plotted to coincide.”

Boozehound nods in agreement and brings out a bottle to take a swig of. Granite snatches it from his hands.

“You’ve drunk too much. You need to dry out and get your head right again.”

“Mind your own damn business. With those things, I need all the peace I can get. You don’t have the nightmares, do you John?”

Boozehound grabs the bottle back and seems to gulp down the rest of it in a single movement. Granite-John just shakes his head.

“I don’t but that’s because I’ve made my peace. I know what’s going to happen and look forward to it,” Granite-John says, turning to Boozehound. “Makes me wonder why you haven’t.”

Boozehound sneers at Granite-John before stalking off. Granite-John follows, shaking his head as if disappointed with outcome. No indication that either one of them noticed me sitting there. I check my watch and see that it’s getting close to dinner now.

I let a few more minutes pass before I get out from under the towels, checking to see if I am alone. No noise, no crew. Raven should be back soon. I get my stuff together and head to the cabin.

It could be paranoia but I don’t feel alone on my way back. Something is watching me, but I can’t say from where. Or why. Am I starting to lose it?

I lay down on the bed, trying not to cry but I can feel the tears dripping from the corners of my eyes. About an hour later, Raven comes in and gets me to put my head in her lap, calming me down enough to tell her what happened.

“I think you just fell asleep on deck. You know you were worn out from the last couple of days,” she says while smoothing my hair.

“It felt so real, though. I mean, I could smell the booze coming off the guy. I could have lit it and watched him burn.”

“Dreams are like that. You know the nightmares I’ve been having? Those seem just as real to me.”

I nod and sit up, facing Raven. She leans in kisses me. She feels safe and warm and everything I want right now. My arms wrap her close to me, but she pushes me back.

“We’ve got one more leg of the trip. It’s the long one. Are you sure you want to go? Once we leave there’s no turning back,” she says.

“As long as we’re together, I’ll be fine. This isn’t the first time I’ve had persistent nightmares. And they’re only dreams. Nothing in dreams can hurt me.”

“On to Oz!”

#####

Out on the seas again, Raven suggests going to a Captain’s dinner to see if I see the two men.

“Just to convince yourself it was nothing but a dream.”

“But what if I do see them? Wouldn’t that mean…”

“It would mean nothing of the sort. Trust me. As freaky as my nightmares have been, I know they’re dreams. Anything I see in real life from them is a coincidence.”

“And have you been seeing things?”

She stands up and comes over to me, taking my hands into hers and giving them a squeeze.

“A few things, but again, trust the nightmare expert over here. They’re no big deal. Just coincidences.”

“If I agree to this, will you tell me everything about your nightmares?”

“Everything. But only after the dinner.”

“Okay. I’ll make a call to the concierge and see what it takes to get arranged.”

What doesn’t surprise me is the list. What does surprise me is how easily you can get to the front of the list with a few smart questions and the purser holding a large sum in your ship account.

We arrive to find the dining room very full, waitstaff hurrying everywhere. Everyone is dressed in their best. Even a few tuxedos and formal dresses which look like they flew in from Paris or New York. And here we are in cheap cocktail dresses.

“Well, I don’t feel outclassed in the least,” Raven says.

“Hush,” I hiss under my breath as the Maitre’d shows us to the Captain’s table.

It is not exactly an intimate affair. Around the huge table there’s places for forty people, maybe more. However, he does get up as the two of us arrive to take us from his Maitre’d. We appear to be the last to show.

“Thank you Charles. I’ll show them from here.”

He offers one arm to me and his other to Raven, a gesture that seems to surprise her. I nod, readily taking the offer while giving Raven a look to follow my lead. She does, trying to smile and hide a sigh.

The captain takes us to our seats, presenting us to the couples on either side.

“Kelly and Sindy, this is Georgia and Pete,” he says with a smile and wink.

Pete looks like an ordinary guy in his mid-forties. Maybe a little lanky, the sort of look accountants stereotypically have. His dark skin give the purple suit a certain seventies throwback look. Georgia is a handsome woman, playing up the butch with cropped hair, pantsuit, and shoulder pads big enough for a linebacker.

“Georgia, Pete? This is Kelly and Sindy. Kelly is recently divorced, and Sindy? Well, from what she’s told me this is her big chance to get away from it all.”

I smile at the couple giving Pete a firm handshake and do my best to avoid Georgia’s hungry stare. Raven nods to the both of them as we are turned around to introduced to the next couple.

“And over here Kelly and Sindy, we have Gary and Gary. Not joking. Like yourselves they seem to have found one another on board.”

They nod and we return the gesture, the Captain smiles and claps a Gary on the shoulder before returning to his seat. Raven and I sit down; Raven takes the seat next to Gary leaving me with the feeling I’m going to have to be fending Georgia off for most of the meal. She doesn’t look like the sort of woman who takes “no” for a first, second, or third answer.

As we settle in the Captain raises a champagne flute to the table.

“A quick toast. To all of those assembled here tonight. May you find your dreams as we travel through the dark. It may seem deep and it may seem endless, but we are almost at our destination. And so may we all…”

He doesn’t get a chance to finish as the boat shivers violently throwing everyone to the floor. The room goes dark as dishes crash and silverware clatters all around us. A few screams pierce the air. Raven grunts next to me as we fall backwards, hitting the ground. The emergency lights flicker on, giving me enough light to see that Georgia is on top of Pete while the Garys seem to be trying to crawl under one another like a pair of frightened squirrels.

“You all right?” I ask, stretching out an arm to touch Raven.

“I…I can’t see, Kelly. I feel you. At least, I hope that’s you touching my shoulder.”

“It is. What do you mean you can’t see?”

The main lights try to flicker into life, giving me a strobing view of the room. People are frozen in terror as they try to right themselves.

“I can’t see you. I can feel you. You’re right there, but you aren’t. Where are we, Kelly? Where are we?”

“We’re in the dining room. On the floor. The ship just did that lurching thing again.”

A long pause from her and she stands up.

“No. No we’re not. It’s somewhere else.”

I feel another pair of hands on my shoulders, trying to get under my arms. For a second, I fight against them and then I hear a newly familiar voice.

“Kelly. It’s the Captain. Let me help you up.”

I stop struggling and let him help me stand. Looking around, the room has changed. The lights steady, giving me a good view of the room. Only a few people remain standing around. The Captain stands in front of me looking far more tired than he was a few minutes ago. A few other crewmen also stand nearby, or I think they’re crewmen. Their uniforms look close to what they should have been but they’re not quite right.

I turn back to the captain after looking around the room.

“Where’s Raven? She was right here.”

“She’s in the Dark,” the Captain says. He has an unhappy look on his face.

“I do apologize, Kelly. It would appear that some subordinates of mine were not as trusting as they should have been.”

“Can I get her back? Is there any way…?”

“To find her in the Dark?”

He sighs and pulls a chair up for me to sit in.

“What you’re asking isn’t an easy thing. This last surprise took a lot out of me,” he says with a gesture towards the mostly empty room.

“And you can see that I couldn’t bring everyone back.”

I think about it, looking at him and wondering, questioning everything.

“I know that look. Everyone who starts out down my path gets looks like it at one time or another. So let me say one thing before you make up your mind: It’s all about being an explorer. Nothing more. It’s not about power, it’s about knowledge.”

I frown and feel the stress of grinding my teeth together. Anger, fear, and fury have all joined forces in my heart.

“It was someone named John and a friend. The friend was about my height, brown hair, brown eyes. They were on the Platinum deck a week ago. They were talking and never saw me sitting in the shade.”

The Captain turns and nods to two of his crew. They hurry off before anything else can be said. He turns back to me and puts his heavy hand on my shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze.

“I know the two. They will be punished. But back to Sindy or was it Raven?”

“I was the only one who called her that. Because of her hair. And how she played cards. Smart and observant. Like a raven.”

He nods and smiles slightly.

“Good. You need to keep those thoughts with you.”

The smile broadens some before he turns around and nods to the remaining pair of crewmen. They also head out without a word.

“They’re going to be getting my tools. Now, let me explain what’s going to happen next.”

I cut him off before he can start.

“What do you need me to do?”

He sighs and stands up, just as several crewmen drag John and his accomplice in. They look at him, ready to start yelling when he runs a finger across both their cheeks. Flesh crawls up and seals their mouths shut.

“I know what the two of you did. You’ve done more damage than you could ever imagine. The plan wasn’t to let anyone on the cruise to get lost and now I think about half of the passengers are gone. Lost in the Dark. Good work you idiots.”

They both violently shake their heads, vocal cords straining against the fleshy gags. He turns his focus over to the little, dark haired man whose eyes go wide.

“What am I going to do? That’s a bad question. I’m not going to be doing anything.”

The Captain turns and points to me.

“She, on the other hand, is going to find Raven. And you are going to help her get to the other side.”

The other crewmen return with several items and start working. Within a few moments, they’ve used chalk to sketch something with wild shapes and sigils on the carpet. A bag is opened and a square object is placed in the middle of the work. The Captain nods before stepping into the middle of the work.

His hands are too quick to follow, but whatever he did, it caused the object to open up and it now looks like a harness the color of brass. He picks it up with one hand, using the other to motion to the crewmen holding John. They bring him over.

“Just remember, you brought this on yourself,” he says as he places it over the head like a hangman’s hood.

The heavy brass frame rests on his shoulders, and for a minute nothing happens. Then it sinks in. He tries to scream, but can’t. I hear him strain against the closure. The Captain turns and motions for me to come closer.

“In a moment the ship is going to feel like it’s shuttering again. That’s not really happening, just what your mind thinks is. At that exact moment, I need you to think about Raven. Everything you know about her. And be ready to act.”

I nod and look at John. His face is a picture of exacting terror and pain. I don’t really understand what’s going on but given that Raven is missing because of this man, I don’t have a problem with his treatment.

The Captain places a hand on my shoulder and asks, “You ready?”

“Yup.”

He turns back to touch the harness again. There’s a muffled scream as the room shudders around me and I start thinking about how much Raven has meant to me the last few days. About her smile and how it makes me feel to see it. The room fades, replace by something that echoes our world.

From somewhere distant, I can hear the Captain yelling.

“Keep thinking about her. Call out to her and wait. There are things that you don’t want to bring back. Wait until you are certain that it’s her in the Dark.”

I do as told, thinking about her, and waiting. It takes what feels like forever before I hear something come back.

“Kelly? Kelly, are you there?”

“Raven! Over here! Follow my voice!”

My hand reach out into the unknown, into the dark trying to find Raven. Someone or something passes by silent and the air turns greasy and slick, the sensation is electric and numbing at the same time. Doubling over in pain, I can only think about how the Captain warned me. Then I hear Raven again.

“You stopped talking, Kelly. Where are you?”

She’s close. Still reeling, I stand back up and take a deep breath.

“Over here. Here! Over here! Please Raven, I’m sorry I stopped talking. Over here. I’ll keep it up until you’re in my arms again. I’m here, Raven. Right here!”

For a second I think I see her stumbling towards me as a mass of a body slams into me, knocking both of us over. My arms hug whoever it is, trying to find some way of identifying them. Hair is long enough, the waist just the right shape, and her hands feel familiar as they search over my body.

“Kelly!”

“Help me up Raven.”

“The ship? How do we get back to the ship?”

As the last word of the question escapes her lips as the world becomes dawn grey. There is another shudder and the dining room shimmers into existence around us. The Captain is standing there next to a desiccated corpse, the harness embedded deep into the skin. He sighs and smiles as we take a few hesitant steps towards him.

The crew rushes in with blankets and towels. I turn my head to see the medical crew standing by. Looking down I see the dripping blood flowing down my arm. Before anything more happens, blackness pulls me under.

#####

“I understand, but that doesn’t tell me what happened,” I say as Raven finishes packing clothes into my suitcase. The scar races from elbow to the palm of my hand. A black and red line, parts of it pulse with my heartbeat where my skin is still very thin. The doctor on board has said that with time, it will thicken, but it will be a while.

“Well, that’s all I can tell you. You are incredibly lucky. Lucky that the Captain thought to have the med-team ready, lucky that that cut wasn’t deeper, and lucky that I am the same blood type.”

I put my arm back in the sling. It’s been only a few days since we escaped the darkness. Neither one of us is sure what is going to happen once we dock. There’s a lot of people missing. And we are witnesses.

As these thoughts cross my mind, my eyes drift down to the floor and stay there. Despite everything wonderful about Raven, this is not the cruise I thought I was going to take. She doesn’t speak a word but walks over and embraces me, kissing me on the cheek and pulling my head up.

“Whatever happens next, we’ll be doing it together.”

The Witch, Her Vampire, and the Book

The knock at the door makes me jump. I was lost in thoughts of the past. A short reverie about the moon over  the deep woods, myself and Janice out there in the trees celebrating and performing rituals. It is a good memory. One that I like to keep close when I am between assignments. The knock sounds a second time and I sigh through a grumbled, “I’m coming!”

The stacks of books between my couch and the door rise from floor to ceiling causing more than hazards; they make my small apartment feel claustrophobic. I get up from the pile of overstuffed cushions on my end of the sofa and dodge through the nearby stacks before opening the door to see who my unexpected visitor is.

A woman in a white trench coat stands there, smiling behind sun glasses large enough to obscure most of her face. She is tall, standing in front of me with her hands holding her little red purse by its top in front of her. Her overcoat is cinched tight around her waist and the wide brim of her hat droops around its edges, barely containing the blond curls of hair. She is the very picture of civilized charm and etiquette.

As opposed to me. My cornrowed dreads reach well past my waist, I probably smell like I could have used a shower two weeks ago, the gauge on my ears is more than enough for them flop when I don’t have anything in, and my current wardrobe consists of a t-shirt sans bra (the girls need to be freed every once in a while) and sweatpants sans underwear.

“Oh, it’s you,” I say.

“Indeed, honey child,” she replies with her sweet southern accent. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“Not until you tell me what you want,” I say.

“Ever the lady,” she says, taking off a glove. Her pale skin almost glows in the twilight shadows of the hallway.

“Fine. Ruin the surprise,” her arms flop over one another as a few strands of hair stray over her glasses. She blows them away as she says, “I have a little gift for you.”

Remaining in the doorway, I watch the corners of her mouth. They’re not moving. Neither are the tips of her fingers.

“You found the book?” I ask in a whisper.

Her nod is almost imperceptible. I swallow hard, sucking on my teeth.

“Come in then,” I say, stepping aside.

Once inside she takes off the glasses and looks around. The tiny beads of light, in the place of her pupils causes me pause when she turns around.

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. You’ve seen it all before,” she says.

“Yes, Janice, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy,” I say.

“You should be one to talk, Mary. Awake at all hours, chanting, this place of yours absolutely reeking of charnel. Really now, what do your neighbors think of you?” she asks.

I gesture to the sofa and make for my corner. I don’t sit so much as throw myself into the dent waiting there. If this is the book I think it is, I’m going to need some help getting into the pages. My pipe floats out from the end table drawer as does my lighter. Lighting the bowl and taking a deep draw, I smile and send a cloud towards Janice’s face. She just smiles and sits down at the other end, her bright red lips pulled tight to the point of almost bursting.

“Not a whole lot,” I say with a slight cough. “Considering I keep them under illusions when they’re here. As far as they know, I’m just another poor college student.”

Janice shakes her head and leans forward, her hand waving the smoke away as she does so.

“And your guests, like me?” she asks.

“That’s up to you people,” I say.

I take another deep gulp from the pipe and let it float back to its tray. A few seconds later, I let it go, slowly blowing it in a ring around me. It lights up pink and blue with a few green sparks here and there.

“Looks like I’m ready to go,” I say. “Let’s see it.”

My hand extends toward Janice and waits there. She smiles again and shakes her head.

“Not until we make a deal,” she says, wagging a finger at me.

“But I’ve already lit myself up. I don’t have the money for another batch of Granny’s Goodness,” I say with a whine.

Janice leans back, clucking her tongue at me. Around her springs up the aura she’s had since I’ve known her. Black swirls of reddish light centered around her eyes and teeth and chest. Classic vampire.

“You should have waited. I’m not giving you this without a deal in place.”

“Okay. What do you want?” I ask. My impatience bleeds through the words as the magical world starts to play before my eyes. The walls of my apartment begin to sway, wobbling with wood-sprites and house spirits playing everywhere.

“Two things,” she says, holding up her fingers.

“First, I want a promise that you’re not going to something stupid with this,” she says, peeling back a finger. “The last time, well, let’s not talk about the last time. The thing is, I don’t want it coming back to me.”

I try to keep from watching her words form in the air and bounce around the room but I can’t help it. Easily distracted. But as soon as she’s stopped talking and staring at me for a response, I snap back around.

“It won’t. I promise. All of this, if anything, is going to be totally on me,” I say.

Janice nods and holds the remaining finger right between my eyes, causing me to cross them. She laughs a bit before continuing on.

“Two…I want another night with you.”

I blink and shake my head.

“Wait. You want that now?” I ask.

Janice nods again.

“It’s been so long, Mary honey. Some might say too long,” she says and reaches out to hold my hand. Her room temperature flesh sends goosebumps up my arm, my mind screams how wrong that is, but that memory replays overriding everything else.

I should refuse her. Letting a vamp get a hold of a caster like me is always bad news. But Janice has behaved herself. Never taking and never giving too much, we have been able to remain professional. Even if I didn’t want anyone or anything else for the following six months. It would be nice to know, one of these days, if she felt the same way and if that’s why she brings me these little trinkets from time to time.

Swallowing hard, I say a single word.

“Yes.”

Her face lights up, smile revealing the two sharp points that might be my downfall one of these days.

“But,” I say, holding up a hand. “It can’t be tonight. I have plans.”

She starts pouting and stands, her back to me. I follow and pull her back down to the couch with a kiss on her lips. She sinks back down with me, holding my head between her hands and pressing her lips against mine with just enough force. I have to will myself to stop and push her shoulders back far enough to get a breath. Janice looks like she is about to cry.

“However, I am free tomorrow night. And should be the rest of the week. What do you have to say to that?”

“I say we have a deal,” she says with her pout turning to a smile. She leans in for another kiss.

I can feel the hooks she left in me stir and how tight my very loose sweatpants and t-shirt feel. Pushing her back again, I shake my head at her.

“Tomorrow,” I say. “Tomorrow night. I promise. Now, where is the book?”

She stands and fishes it out of some hidden pocket of the coat. For a second he holds it high above and like teasing a cat, waves it back and forth, waiting for me to reach for it. As I give her an unhappy look, she tosses it to me and with a grin, she zips out the door, slamming it shut as she leaves. I get up from my couch to make sure the hallway is cleared and sigh on my way back.

“My life has too many complications,” I say to the empty room.

One quick invocation later (to keep Janice from coming back too early) I return to the couch and grab the pipe for one more drag, the earlier puffs wearing off quicker than I want. The book sits on a pile next to my cushions and calls for me to open it before I’m ready. There are boundaries to put up, wards to ensure before I start playing.

And with those preparations in place, I open the book just as someone knocks at the door.

“Damn it,” I say, looking up.

They knock again.

“Go away! I’m busy,” I shout at the door.

It is answered with another knock.

“Damn it! Did you not hear me the first time? I’m busy! GO AWAY!”

Despite the wards. Despite the enchanting. Despite everything I am capable of, the door blows in, splintering in the process and sending a thousand pieces at me.

“GAAAA!”

I throw a blanket in front of me to catch the worst of it.

As it falls back down, peppered with a hundred new holes in it, I see the perpetrators. Two people in robes dragging a figure between them and a third robed person following. They step inside without a word and throw Janice to the ground. The third comes up behind them and stands over her unmoving body.

“Who are you?” I shout.

The one standing over Janice takes off the hood and looks around the room before turning back to me. He has large, glassy eyes. Eyes too big for his head and a too wide mouth to go with them. His skin looks like he’s trying to shed it like a lizard, all scaly and dry. There isn’t a stitch of hair to be found on his face, none on his pate nor above his eyes or fish-like lips. His hands look mostly normal, but I can see a hint of webbing between them before they’re hidden in the sleeves.

Then the stench hits me. I don’t know how, given how clean I keep my place, but their odor overpowers it and makes my stomach twist.

“We are the previous owners of that tome,” he croaks, pointing at the book that I’m holding against my chest.

“What of it?”

The confidence of my words sends a shiver down my spine. I am not this aggressive most days. The words seems to have put the two followers off as they appear to be surprised by the challenge. Although the leader is less impressed. He steps forward and sticks out a hand.

“I believe that we would like it back. And don’t think of that as a request or question. Your friend here was mistaken in thinking she could get away with her little theft.”

I look at the other two who’ve laid Janice out on the floor in front of my door and have rejoined the talker behind his elbows. A smile comes to my lips.

“You know, the three of you must be grunts,” I say.

The lead raises a fleshy eyebrow just before the ward hits them.

“Because real magic users know to ask for permission before entering a home. They tend to have nasty traps like that waiting for idiots.”

They fly up to the ceiling and smack it going something like seventy or eighty miles an hour. Their spines snap, the echo of the event sounding sweet to my ears. They fall back to the ground, feather like and are bundled by my spell into the broom closet to start rotting.

I get up from my sofa and take a quick peak out the shattered remains of my door. No one else seems to be waiting for the three idiots, so I dig an extra rug from behind my sofa and hang it across the empty space. Casting a quick illusion to make it look like a door, it should keep the curious out for the next couple of days.

“And now for you, Janice,” I say.

I jump over her unmoving body and into the kitchen, where my ceremonial knife is tucked away in the silverware drawer. Seems like the best place for it. Grabbing it and a few other necessities, I walk back to the entrance and kneel over Janice and bring her head up to lay against my knees. Using the knife to make a small cut on the side of my finger, I wait for a small drop of blood well up. Just enough to give her a taste and hopefully wake her back up.

I smear the drop across her lips and wait a minute. At first, I don’t think anything is happening but then her tongue flits out snake like, tasting the air and the fresh blood. I lean back and smile a little.

“So you’re not completely gone, are you?” I ask.

She smiles, “Sometimes you have to know when to play ‘possum.”

Taking my wrist she looks at me with pleading eyes. I nod, and bring it closer to her mouth. She doesn’t bite very hard, just enough to break my skin and then her tongue does the rest. Closing my eyes in the pleasure of the moment, I stifle the moans trying to escape my throat.

Damn you Janice. Why does this have to feel so good?

I let her continue for a few minutes before I start pulling my wrist away. She doesn’t resist my movements, just clings and then relents, releasing my wrist back to me. The bites have already started healing, only small nicks that have the crusts of scabs growing.

“Couldn’t stay out of trouble for five minutes could you?” I ask.

“What are you talking about? It’s been a day since I left here,” Janice says.

I frown at her.

“No, I just got back to the sofa when those guys came crashing in.”

Janice sits up and takes a long look into my eyes.

“Mary, I don’t know what happened to you, but I left here, had a night on the town before going home for some rest in the morning,” she says. “That’s how those idiots got me. Waiting until I was asleep before barging into my home and assaulting me.”

I get up and help her do the same. I open the broom closet to look at the still twitching bodies.

“If you want a quick snack, you could have those,” I say.

She recoils and sneers, her face growing ugly at the suggestion.

“I’d rather drain an actual fish,” Janice says.

“Fair enough,” I say and close the closet door with a shrug.

I walk over to the sofa and pick the book up from where it landed. Turning it over in my hands, I finally get a chance to look it over. There’s a dustcover I hadn’t noticed before, which belongs to the book I mentioned to Janice, but after peeling it off, I can now see that it doesn’t match what’s underneath. I feel the blood drain from my face as I read its cover.

“What is it?” Janice asks.

I shake my head at her.

“Then what is it? Why did you go pale?” she asks.

I show her the actual cover of the book, the one that was hidden by the dust cover.

The Abridged Necronomicon

“I don’t get it,” Janice says. “What’s this book?”

I sigh and sit down on the sofa.

“I thought it was only a rumor, something people writing fiction made up. Seeing this, having felt this,” I pause and shake my head again. Janice sits down and puts her arms around me, nuzzling my neck with her face without making any attempt to bite me. I lean into her and give her forehead a quick kiss.

“It’s a translation of a very old book. A very powerful book. Something I never thought I’d have a copy of it in my hands,” I say.

I turn to Janice, a frown on my face and take her hands in mine.

“How did you get this? I mean, I know it had the dustcover on it, but still. Why this book?” I ask.

She shrugs at me, and looks down to our joined hands.

“I don’t know. The book, it just was there in their room. One minute I was scanning the shelves and the next I had it in my hand,” she said.

I nod, picturing her actions. She’s fast, she’s also very accurate. Usually. The book did something. It did something to get into her hands and then it did something to me last night.

“So what are you going to do?” she asks.

“The only thing we can do. Run,” I say.

She pulls back and turns my face to hers. She smiles at me and pulls us together until we’re touching by the forehead.

“You never run. That’s not who you are,” she says.

I smile back at her.

“You’re right,” I say.

“Good. We need to find out exactly what happened to you,” Janice says.

I nod, thinking. This is where I lost a day. If it was the book’s doing, then it knows my home. It knows how my home is set up and operates. Not that I want to give it up and all of the power here, but I think I have to get away. I need somewhere which will give me the space to really examine the book.

“What are you thinking, hon?” Janice asks.

“I’m thinking we may need to go to the lake.”

The cabin is cold, the lights are not working thanks to no gas in the generator’s tank, and it smells like something died here.

In other words, it’s perfect.

Janice has found a place up in the rafters to wait out the day and I’ve been buzzing since those five coffees I got from the coffee house down the block.

The drive here wasn’t all that bad once we got off the interstate. The single lanes and back roads make me happy. Their curves and blind corners are far more interesting than miles of plain blacktop. Much easier to make myself to pay attention. Mom was the same way back when this was her place. I took it over when she decided it was time to move on, cosmically speaking. She always wanted me to have a safe place to disappear to, if needed.

And I think this counts.

I grab some candles from the small kitchen and roll back the rug on the floor. Mom’s old circles are still there, cut into the stone under the cabin. I take a few minutes to arrange things, grabbing a few more trinkets from the cabinets before settling myself in the center with the book.

Closing my eyes, I find that place inside where my power comes from and open it to the book sitting in my hands. The world swims away and I find myself sitting in the pages of the book. From this perspective, the words are buildings, tall skyscrapers filled with the meanings and powers of the book’s words.

Somewhere in between the word towers I see it. A figure walking through the words, stopping every once in a while and doing something to them. It takes me a few times watching it happen to realize this is the shadow. The thing behind the words, the thing that gives them power.

There’s no physical form, this is just an echo, the shadow of the real beast that’s made up of a thousand impressions. I feel it reaching out through the pages, the countless tentacles miles in length, the hands flabby with cosmic age, the acre great wings that blot out skies, and a mouth large enough to consume the greatest whales of the sea.

And as that thought crosses my mind, it turns and sees me. There’s no escaping, no running away. I’m in it’s world and it is on top of me.

It doesn’t stand over me, it overwhelms, or it tries. Mom’s circles do their job and keep it from consuming me soul first. After a few moments of trying, it backs off and tries a different approach.

For a change, I meet someone who seems to know how to handle themselves. It is good to see you once again.

“I know enough to keep myself safe, and what do you mean once again?” I ask.

If a book or word could smile, this would be it. A tentacled word reaches up like an dismissive hand and it proceeds to walk and lead away. No matter what my guts are telling me, I choose to follow.

So to what do I owe this rare pleasure?

“Your friends are after this book. I was hoping to find some way to get them to back off. I happen to like living.”

Ah. Many have the same wish and the same problem. Interesting that you have brought it to me, its source.

“So you can do something about it?”

I might. But it depends on what you have to offer in return. I have not been running a charity all these millennium.

If there was some way to pause and think about what was going on, I would. But this isn’t something I have much control over. Yeah, I can leave any time but it doesn’t mean I can return and pick back up where we left off. There’s no guarantee that the shadow will have me or respect the circles or even be here.

“What did you have in mind?” I ask.

These followers of mine. They need some…correction. One might even suggest that they require a redirection in their worship.

There’s a moment, a pause in the book’s thoughts. It’s enough for me to think about something that’s been bothering me the entire time.

“So they’re not doing it right?”

Do you really think they kept it right through all of these years? These beings of flesh? It is hard enough to contact them in dreams. And few of them have your abilities to get closer to the source material, as it were, who are not blinded by the desire for power. It is all very frustrating for me.

I gave them their instructions millions of your years ago. Even with the longest of lives, memories fade, words and meanings change, drifting away from their original forms.

But here you are and here I am, both with problems that could be resolved with a little cooperation.

Again it pauses, allowing me a thought for myself. There’s a lot going on here, a lot more than it’s letting on but I feel like it’s telling the truth. I can’t see a reason for it to lie. It comes down to one thing.

“How do you know that I can trust you? Trust you to not do with me as you will after I’ve passed your message on?”

The way I see it, we both stand to lose if there isn’t any trust between us.

I nod as I would if I were sitting across a real table from someone. It has a point. There’s not much else between us besides trust.

“Fine. How is this going to go down?” I ask.

First, you’re going to open your eyes and see that they’ve already found you in the cabin. You might break a few of their spines while you’re at it, since you’ll see that they’ve…well…I will let you have a small surprise there. But you will have to surrender, let them capture you. They aren’t going to be nice about it.

Then again, you won’t be either.

And with that the shadow lets me go.

True to its word, there are another half dozen of them in my cabin, just as stupid as they were before. Two are holding a smoldering skeleton and the third in their group has a oak stake in hand.

“Janice!”

Their heads whip around as I shout her name. The three of them standing over her body lose theirs as a ward sends loose beams jumping into their faces. The other three rush me from behind, grabbing and hitting me with something on the back of my head.

And into darkness I fall.

When I wake up, I’m in the lake, about ten meters from the shore and tied to a post. My arms are stretched out and my legs spread eagle. The pole feels solid, like it’s anchored deep in the mud somewhere below me. There’s a group of what looks like fifty or so fish-headed people on the shore watching. One of them, with some sort of weird crown steps forward and starts chanting. Around me the water churns and writhes.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I say.

A door opens inside my mind and I can feel the words and what they mean go spilling out. My tongue aches to try a few of them out. So I do.

Tentacles burst through the surface the water.

The fish-headed folks on the shore give a shout and immediately fall to their knees. I think they’re praying in a language that not even the stars remember properly. But I do. I know what they’re supposed to be saying.

“You’re doing it wrong. And have been for a while,” I shout to the shore. “Just so you know, you’ve gone and pissed it off once too many times.”

Their priest in the weird headdress stops and looks up. I smile at him, close my eyes and start intoning.

Below, the tentacles stop moving. With a very sudden shift they’re circling around me and reaching up out of the water. Several of them caress my body slowly, healing my wounds. One even snakes it way between my legs, the tip of it glowing. Other ones reach up and untie the ropes holding me up against the wood. I reach down and drag the one between my legs up, holding it between my thighs making it look like something I wasn’t born with. It stiffens and the glow pulses with my heartbeat.

For a second its very much like how Janice made me feel and I smile, remembering that these idiots are going to pay for killing her. I take a step forward and the other tentacles lay themselves out providing a path for me to walk back to shore.

I look up at the fish-headed idiots standing at the edge of the water, their mouths hanging open in shock.

“Today…today I think you’re the sacrifice.”

They scream as the water explodes with a thousand more tentacles reaching out for them. I don’t know what is happening to the others, but the priest is held in place for me. As I approach and he is stripped of his robes and made prostrate on the ground.

“I have some knowledge a mutual friend would like for me to impart,” I say and reach between my legs to the new appendage. It thrums as I stroke it, growing and stiffening even more. I like the sensation it sends down my spine.

“How do you wish for me to continue?” I ask.

It struggles against the tentacles, screaming obscenities at me. They stretch him against the ground and with a snap, immobilize him.

I shrug and get on with my half of the deal.

—-

I don’t remember much of the next couple of days. Sometimes when I dream, I catch a few fragments. They’re not very pleasant and some of what I did twists my stomach. But when I wake up, I remind myself of two things. First, that they were prepared to do worse to me and second, they murdered a sleeping Janice.

It’s not much, but it does slow my heart down and lets me feel some measure of justice.

I kept the book and every once in a while I go for a walk between the words, but the shadow is gone. It’s just a silly thing now, a storybook for those in the know. I’m not sure why I keep it, maybe it’s a reminder or maybe I hope to see the shadow again.

Investing and RPGs — A philosophic journey

Something occurred to me after listening to my employer’s quarterly meeting. What triggered this thought was the way the CEO went on about the investors and what he believes they’re looking to get from companies.

The thought was this: The RPG market has two separate sets of investors. The first group are those who spend money to get get games printed. Let’s call this group the Publishers. In most cases, this group does the work of publishing in the hopes of getting some return for their money. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot, and smartly, this group will see potential in lots of games and will spread the risk of their investment throughout all of them and hope that a good return on any one of them will cover the losses on all the others.

The second group invest their time to take the RPG and make it fun for others. Let’s call them the Makers. We can’t use the common economic framework of risk and reward to understand this group. Their investment is to create adventures, to host events, and to promote it among their friends and family. This makes many of the Makers fickle and loyal. They can see any one aspect of an RPG as the thing which draws them to it. Remove this one thing and you will risk losing their investment in your system.

Without the Makers’ investment, your system sits on store shelves, languishing.

Without the Publishers’ investment, your system may never see print.

What are these investors goals?

Obviously, Publishers want to have a monetary return. Although they may have secondary goals that led them into that business, their primary is to make money. To do this, your RPG has to sell.

Which leads us to the Maker’s goals. To have fun. To make something interesting to play. To tell stories. To entertain and engage with friends or strangers through drama and dice. To do this, your RPG must have a certain level of accessibility.

Boiling it down we end up in a situation where access has to be balanced against profit. Is there a good way to maintain this in the digital landscape? Does one trump the other?

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A short reflection on inspiration

Inspiration for writing mods and stories can come from any experience in life. The most profound ones sometimes dive deep into your psyche that make it hard to later identify as they have become so ingrained into your personality and waking thought that you no longer notice. This is a short musing on one such series of events which still impact the way I think about myself, the world, and my place therein.

Desolation is the only way I ever got a sense of a scale of the world. Specifically, the desolation of the Kansas Flint Hills.

For those too lazy to hit Wikipedia, the Flint Hills is a stretch of prairie in eastern Kansas, about two hours west of Kansas City. Known for a bit of oil and cattle ranching, it is about as untouched as you can get. It is also empty. There have been a few attempts at settling it, but those were abandoned when it become unfeasible to keep trucking in the food needed to sustain living. The culprit here is the rocky soil. Ideal for the scrub and grasses native to the region but unworkable in any real sense for food crops.

My old scout troop would go camping out there once every couple of years. It was my first camp-out with the troop, actually. And it was hard, very hard, to not fall in love with the place. That emptiness, that Desolation (capital “D” well deserved here) gnaws at your mind until you finally comprehend your size compared with everything else. Out there you have the scale of the world pressed upon your mind. You see that you are as a flea to the grandness of the Earth. Your import, your ability to affect and shape is only in proportion to your size. And is just during the day. At night you are exposed to the cosmic scale. There are no lights save for those you bring. You see stars that you never otherwise see. You can watch satellites pass with without any telescope or binoculars. The galactic disk is obvious and bright. You see that we are nothing but a mote of dust, clinging to a mote of dust, swirling across the infinite void.

That is how empty it is. And that emptiness weighs on you. The nothingness is heavy enough to crush and sets in immediately as we turned off the highway, starting down those chert crusted roads and into the rolling brown expanses.

We went late in the year, late enough to not bother any cattle or to cause problems with the small derricks dotting the surface. Not that some of us didn’t try to cause a little trouble. People who shall continue to be unnamed decided that the best way to clear some of the debris from around their tent was with fire. In the constant 15-MPH wind, the dry November grass did more than clear out from the camping area. It cleared out several acres, leaving a straight black line across the otherwise dun hills.

But that momentary scratch on the surface of the hills was impermanent. As is all technology in that place. It endures in a way which belittles humankind’s efforts to tame it and to bring it under our control.  It is a hard place, it can be an unforgiving place, but those things give it part of its beauty.

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The angel on the stairs

A short story for the Reverse Big Bang on Livejournal

We move in with Grandfather during the first gray days of winter, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I am distracted by the new school and new friends at first, but quickly fall into my old boring school routines. I want something exciting to do but my parents don’t let me explore the new neighborhood, leaving me to explore Grandfather’s house.

I start poking into every nook, every corner of my new home looking for something, anything to relieve my boredom. A week passes before discovering a door, hidden behind some moving boxes in the kitchen. It doesn’t feel like an accident that the boxes are there. Mom and Dad seem to ignore the door, not looking when they pass by; Grandfather merely glances at it once each day. What is behind this door?

One afternoon, when everyone else is napping, I get my opportunity. It takes a few minutes, but I move enough of the boxes to get close to the door. Running my hand across its surface, the flaking paint bites into my palm. There are dents and gouges marring its surface, speaking to past abuse. It also has an odd odor, like a public bathroom after someone has cleaned up week old vomit, and it looks like it should weigh tons.

The cold brass knob turns easily but the door remains shut. I shake the handle, in case it’s stuck, but it remains closed. I start moving the boxes further back thinking that is blocking my progress, but am wrong. I start looking at the door itself and finally notice the massive deadbolt several inches above the handle.

Dad comes in to the kitchen and ushers me off to less noisome play. That night, I wake to strange sounds coming from the vent next to my bed. I can’t tell if they’re voices singing or an unknown language.

The next morning, I ask Grandfather where the door goes.

“Down,” he replies.

“What’s down there?”

“Never you mind. Now finish eating and get ready for school,” he says. His thick accent changes the cadence of the words, making them into a chant.

My curiosity overflows at the rebuff and I wait for an opportunity to corner my parents and then surprise them with a direct question: “What’s downstairs?”

“Don’t go down there,” mom tells me.

“No. You can’t go in the basement. It’s too dangerous,” my father responds.

“Never-never go down. Verboten,” pronounced my grandfather. His hand landed on the table with a heavy bang, a signal that this is the last time it was to be brought up. I start to protest, but my parents remove me from the kitchen.

My mom looks me in the eye, “That’s enough of the foolish questions. You shouldn’t be bothering him about it. Now, I understand you’re curious, but you’re going to have to be happy with the mystery.”

“But I heard something from my vent last night. It sounded like someone talking,” I explain.

My parents look at each other for a fleeting moment, before turning back to me. My mother runs her hands through my hair while dad grabs our jackets.

“We are going to a movie tonight. A treat since your Mother has a new part-time job,” he says over his shoulder.

I wait by the door as they finish getting ready and Grandfather wanders over to me.

“I heard what you told your parents. This old house has many strange noises, you should not worry. You had a dream. Nothing more. You were dreaming noises.”

After that, the subject is dropped despite not being sure I believe their answers. The basement can’t be all that dangerous. I watched the moving guys taking our stuff in there. And the noises aren’t something I dreamt.

I think it over for a few days and decide on a different approach. If I can’t ask about the house as it is now, I should be able to ask about it in the past. So I go to my Dad and ask him about growing up here. I ask my Mom if Dad ever told her any stories about growing up. And every time I do this, Grandfather comes into the room. Both of my parents immediately go quiet and ask me to go do my homework.

I stew for days without any other ideas until one lands on me from school. It’s time for the annual Science Fair and I have one put away from last year. Down in the basement. I just need to time it so I catch Mom or Dad alone to ambush them with my request. It happens to be Mom in the living room a day later.

“I want my toys,” I tell her.

“Which ones,” she asks.

“The rockets. They’re in my moving box,” I say.

She looks at me skeptically. Luckily, I have a good reason.

“I need them for the Science Fair,” the smile on face broadens as I say the words. I should feel bad at the lie but I don’t.

“It’ll have to wait until your father gets home. He knows where all that stuff is.”

“But I should start on it now. I want to make sure nothing got broken,” I say.

“And you’ll have plenty of time when your father gets home, it won’t be long. Now sit down and be patient,” she says.

Mom goes back to reading her book. I hadn’t counted on her immunity to my whines, something I make sure to note. I sit down and pull open a magazine, slowly turning the unread pages waiting for Dad.

When he does get home, Mom tells him of my request and then the two of them go find Grandfather. I watch from top of the stairs. There’s some discussion, but I can’t hear what they say to one another. About ten minutes later, Dad and Grandfather go out the front door. When they come back after a few moments, Dad has my box of toys.

“I brought the whole box so you don’t have to worry about getting anything else out of the basement,” dad says.

“Thanks dad,” I smile and take the box up to my room. So much for that plan.

I think about it for a while and can’t come up with another excuse. Nothing of mine is left down there and I don’t want anything of my parents’. I stay up to listen to the vent but don’t hear anything. I think about going outside to see if there is another way, but finding an excuse is hard with the snow piled up. My quest is forgotten in the hubbub of the holidays and family visiting.

Spring comes with sun and warm temperatures and Mom takes the opportunity to get some planting done. I get dragged along for the usual reasons. She directs me to a spot near the back yard, along the side of the house. As I start digging, something glints at me. It takes me a second to realize it is a basement window.

A basement window!

I don’t immediately run up to it, despite every desire screaming at me to do so. Mom isn’t that far away and is half watching me.

I spot a window looking into the basement and remember. It is painted white from the inside, obscuring any view. I don’t immediately run up to it, despite wanting to. Mom is nearby and half watching me to make sure I don’t kill the new plants.

We go around the outside of the house planting, me noting each and every window I see. Each one had been painted from the inside, and none of them have bars. I might be able to get inside from the outside. The question becomes one of timing. When will I get the chance to test the windows or to look through the paint?

I don’t have to wait long.

Another week passes and it school releases for Spring Break. Mom found a temp position and dad has the same job he always did. This leaves Grandfather watching me before and after school. We have an established a routine. He’s up with my parents to help them and then gets me breakfast. Normally, it’d then be time to go to school, but with break, I’m getting kicked outside until lunch.

No one is thinking about the basement since I stopped asking questions. No one thinks I’m curious about it anymore.

I shake with fright and excitement. I try opening the first window I noticed. Locked or stuck. It doesn’t matter which, I can’t get inside. And I can’t see through it, despite the scratches and uneven paint. The next two windows are the same. Lunchtime looms and I know Grandfather is awake again.

I meet him on the back porch, pretending to have been playing with my rockets. As he stands with the door open, my guts are churning. We eat lunch together and Grandfather takes us to the library for the afternoon. There were two other windows to check out but it isn’t going to happen today. As I lay in bed, the noises come from the vent once more. I listen very closely. Is it heavy breathing? Were those words?

The next day, as soon as I am sure Grandfather is sleeping I run to the remaining windows. The first one is as stuck as the others. But It is not as well painted. I can see shapes through it, something moves away as I watch. The last window is different from the others. It has its hinge on the outside and something is lying on the ground next to it.

A key lays on the grass next to the window, where the ground has been churned up. My head goes light. I know it belongs to the basement door. I simply know it.

It goes straight into my pocket and I run to the back yard, where my toys are. I want to look like I was playing if Grandfather finds me. Once there, I stand staring at the back door. Grandfather is still sleeping. I could sneak in and unlock the basement door. My heart races and my palms are slick with sweat. I rub them on my jeans and try the door very, very carefully. It opens soundlessly and I step into the kitchen.

Tip-toeing through the kitchen, I spot Grandfather sleeping on the couch. Soft sounds coming every few seconds. Silently, I go back through the kitchen, and stopping in front of the door I reach up, slipping the key in the lock. I turn it, and feeling its release. With a twist of the knob, the door open slides open revealing a world of chipped concrete, rotting floorboards, and an angel sitting on the stony stairs.

The angel stares back up at me. Its beautiful, argent wings open and I feel their breeze. I step inside and close the door behind me.

A bit of game commentary

For valentine’s day, I was gifted with Dead Space 2. It has been a fun trip so far, but I find myself getting tired of the story already. This is something which happens to me when playing video games a lot in the last few years. It’s not because the stories aren’t decently crafted or that the world created for the game doesn’t have depth or history. It’s because I can’t change it. I have no control over it. And given that these sorts of games are of the interactive sort, there is an expectation to have control over it.

That is a large part of why I continue to play traditional games, especially role playing games, in addition to video games. There is a level of input I can’t anywhere else. I may not have complete control over it, there are the GM and my fellow players, but together we are crafting it. Together. There isn’t any of that in video games these days despite the technological horsepower to do so.

Dead Space 2 has a wonderful atmosphere, a huge environment to explore and plenty to make you jump and shiver. Set in a orbiting space station cum megalopolis the designers went out of their way to make sure many details of humanity’s occupation are present in the game. The detritus and triumphs of life are everywhere. This was a vital place, something that was alive at one point. And that’s half of the horror. That world is now dying. The dead are littered everywhere and what is alive is attempting to kill you.

Which brings up my frustration with the game. Despite this expansive environment to explore, there is only one path through it. The avatar you’re given on this journey is wearing a space suit. It has rockets located in the legs. He is supposed to be an engineer. Yet your options for travel are severely constrained. See those boxes in your path? Forget about climbing over them! Go through this apartment that you can’t see anything in. Oh, your target is at the top floor of this open space? Forget about scaling the walls or using those rockets to get you up there. Follow this convoluted maze of elevators, rooms, and crawlspaces through the walls instead. Think there might be some way in from the outside? Think again! Blasting out the windows and letting the decompression take you away just ends the game.

Don’t think is argued from ignorance. I know that some of those elevators are stand-ins for load screens. That there is only so much RAM for textures and whatnot to be stuffed in. I know these things. This does not forgive the designers for having planned so singular a story experience that giving the player the ability to find their own way to the objective didn’t seem to have been considered. Part of the exploration of the game must also be the exploration of the possibilities of the game. Having only one path means you have only one possibility. And that is boring.

Speaking of which, I ended playing last night not because I was satisfied with my progress but because I got bored with it. Having traversed my way from a hospital to space-train to hypermall and finally into the belly of a corrupt church I found myself forced into set piece after set piece — achieving nothing and progressing neither the story nor the path. My avatar finally killed by yet another new monstrosity I had no taste to continue. I didn’t care to because there was nothing left to care for and no other path to explore.

I think video game designers need to go back and get some remedial GM training or pick up some of Robin Laws‘ work. If pick-a-path books can give me different ways of reaching the ending, why can’t video games?

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Thoughts on symbolism and the novel Dune

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God off and on for the better part of four months now. And I’m only 70 pages or so into it. It’s a dense work. I find myself stopping every few pages, caught in thought of what was said. I started this book with the idea of seeing what ideas I could harvest from it and apply towards the design of RPGs. The reason being is that I saw many parallels between the sort of cultural anthropology Campbell does and the sorts of cultural exploration that RPGs promote.

In the first twenty pages it became abundantly clear that I was right. Despite the fact that Campbell couldn’t had said anything about RPGs (particularly since this work was first published in 1959, a good fifteen years before Dungeons and Dragons was published) the track he takes with his subject headed straight into the reasons why myths persist, what makes good myths, and why we keep using them to tell new stories. With all of that presented to me, it became impossibly easy to see that RPGs are the modern equivalent to sitting around campfires and telling stories to one another.

RPGs are to myth making as Digital Cameras are to the work of Mattew Brady. Both are fundamentally the same but are at opposite ends of their respective history and produces such different results that can only be derived from the advancement of knowledge and technology.

That should have been that. My thesis was given good backing. I could move on and do other research. But I kept reading. Slowly, as I explained before.

This book is like some sort of thought battery. Every time I’m feeling like I can’t get myself to move mentally, all I have to do is read a page or two and the world opens up in new ways.

Today’s reading left me thinking about the novel, Dune. I have always known that it is heavily steeped in the symbolism of religion. It is a practical how-to guide to manipulating your way to power using such symbolism. At least, that’s the thing I thought the reader was supposed to walk away with. But I think that was only a mid-level sort of reading and not the full depth insight I thought it might have been.

There are things about water and mother and the unapproachability of the all-maker-mother that I think I need to consider more. In particular, how Paul (a male) is able to usurp that position with his ascension and acceptance of the god-head and messiah of the Fremen people. Who are, unsurprisingly, caught up in an entire myth-cycle of mother/water symbols. This can be contrasted with the non-ascension of his sister and her possession and eventual destruction in the later books. Indeed, it almost seems to scream now that I think of it, that there is a parallel compare/contrast going on between how the two characters seem to handle the power of the mother myth.

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The Experience of PAX

Went to PAX with the wife last week. There’s more to talk about than when I first started writing this.

I spent most of the first day walking the show floor. As cool as some of the games presented were I am not of the mind to stand in line for hours on end to get a hands on experience. Demos will be soon available for a less guided and more intimate examination of how things work. This is not to suggest that I didn’t find the opportunity to check out a few choice games. The highlight of which was Civ V. 2k made it easy, allowing one to sign up for a slot at some point in the day and show up at that time. Overall I found myself very happy at the prospect of this new game. I also caught a few minutes with Torchlight 2. More of the same game, but better. There’s not much more to ask for from that series. The story stays out of my way, the graphics are good without being too real or too cartoony. It has a very satisfactory way of playing for me. I am glad to see it continue to be a going concern.

Late in the afternoon I met back up with my wife and her friends to have dinner and retire for the day. My legs and back ached with the amount of walking done. I need to get in better shape.

The next day I went to a couple of panels at the urging of my wife. The first was writing for the videogame industry. It was entertaining and interesting. The five people doing the talking seemed to be as frustrated as I am with the way story is handled in games, and for much the same reason, but stemming from a different source. This is one of their creations. Of course they want to see it better handled. They would rather see players reactions be more natural thanks to the story rather than limit them to whatever text gets stuffed into a menu choice. They’ve put out a great effort to get that story written and then cut down enough to fit on the game disk(s) with everything else that must go on. I, on the other hand, simply want to play. I could care less about the story because I’ve become used to the fact that the story will simply be whatever the producer and director has willed it to be and not what the player crafts with their effort.

It is an interesting conundrum that that gaming industry currently finds itself in because of these forces. I will be watching to see how events turn out. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll have the chance to experience both sorts of frustration at the same time.

The second panel was supposed to be about the cross-pollination of ideas between MMOs and Pen and Paper RPGs. It tried to go in that direction but it quickly turned into a session on bashing MMOs. Which, as it turns out, is not a very deep discussion. Pen and Paper quickly won out as the preferred sort for many reasons with MMOs being given some props for their “always on” nature. There was some noise around the idea of the simplification MMOs give players by hiding away much of their mechanics but the crowd, and I must include myself in this group, did not seem to blink at the complexity that traditional RPGs offer their players.

Before and after I wandered around the halls again. I’m guessing that it is purely the nature of PAX but the lack of organization of events started to bother me at this point. There is very little planning one can do for getting into the panels or concerts save for showing up hours early and hoping that you got in the right line. I endeavored to drop by the open play areas but found my efforts to get involved stymied by the lack of structure. Showing up and playing can be fun when all by ones self, but you don’t go to a convention like PAX to play with yourself. There wasn’t a whiteboard or poster to organize games in either the videogame or boardgame areas. I assume, however wrongly or right, that one is supposed to arrive with a group of friends or somehow rely on the better nature[1] of their fellow gamer to include them. There were several Twitter feeds set up to facilitate forbearance of the lines but the chaotic nature of that beast strikes me as ill-suited to keeping abreast of the local patterns of play.

The same can be said when it comes to the concerts. Just having a line is not my idea of making sure that those who want to attend a given event are able to do so. Even with them giving out guaranteed spots to the first thousand or two in line, the lines remain as long and as stagnant and as unfair as ever. I never thought I’d long for a ticketing system as GenCon has, but here I am, wishing that there was something, anything better than standing in line for hours to get into events.

Despite this, I had a good time. Seattle is a beautiful place to visit and I would be happy to go again next year just for that. But I would be going to give PAX a second chance. I know that it can take some effort to understand how a convention works. After attending GenCon for the first time in 2007, I felt much the same frustration. Going again in 2009 helped me to work out exactly how to do it as well as shaping my expectations to better fit the actual happenings. And this year’s GenCon was the best ever. It may very well take me a second or third time going to PAX to get it figured out in the same way.

[1] I did not have a single rude experience the entire time I was at PAX. In fact, most of the time, I found myself easily conversing with fellow gamers. I had the same general feeling of people as I get when at GenCon. Easy going, friendly, happy to have so many others of the same hobby surrounding them. So it may very well be that it is as simple as walking up and asking to join and being able to do so. I did not stick around to find out.

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Priorities, priorities

The list of things I need to get done before GenCon

  • Finish BigBang original fiction. I’m about half way done with the first draft. Due before GenCon.
  • Have 8 pregenerated characters for WFRP v2.
    • Actually, I may make 10 and give people a variety to pick through.
    • Make copies in case people want to take their new characters with them.
  • Have all three mods printed and ready to go.
    • Get some folders to hold them separated in.
  • Need to play the revised version of “A House in the Woods” once.
    • That’s going to be fun to manage at this point. I’ve got two of the five weekends coming up already spoken for.
  • And at some point try to find some time to get the next mod written.
    • Outline is done and I’ve roughed some of it in, but there’s a long way to go, still.
  • Then it’d be time to go to PAX.

So yeah, July through early September is going to be booked solid. Lots of things left to do and that’s hoping that work doesn’t go crazy on me.

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