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Paladin

“Perhaps the young ladies should leave,” Ernst suggested. His own voice sounded too loud for this relatively quiet corner of the room.

“The ladies stay,” the pale man said, his eyes flicking briefly to Ernst. The acolyte felt a chill brush through his bones. The man’s pupils were gray and milky.

Marike relaxed slightly, cocking her head. “What is your name?” she asked.

“I am Lucian! Please, sit.” He held up the bottle of wine, but received no acknowledgement from the serving maids.

To Ernst’s astonishment, Marike shifted a chair away from the table slightly with her foot and sat, placing her sword on the table. The women watched the sword while Lucian kept his gaze on the Marike’s face.

“My friend is correct,” Marike said. “The ladies really should leave.”

“But they’re having a very good time,” Lucian said with a pout.

Ernst crossed his arms. Marike’s fingers danced along her sword’s hilt.

“Lucian,” she said. “We both know my sword, a simple weapon of steel, won’t hurt you. However, it will prove quite uncomfortable for these ladies.” Ernst resisted a smile—even a devout of the goddess of truth could lie.

Lucien’s face grew cold. “That would be a most unfortunate waste of good flesh.”

Ernst watched the women, but they continued to cuddle and coo over their would-be killer, only occasionally sparing a glance toward the sword or Marike. By the truth, this fiend had them under a potent thrall!

Marike’s eyes roamed over the women. “I agree. Surely you can give them a break. Let them refresh themselves.”

Lucien draped his arms over his companions’ slim shoulders and let his grin break out anew. “I think they’re quite…feisty and well rested as they are, Lady Marike of Mojca. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’ll be testing the limits of their enthusiasm later. For now, however, perhaps we can see just how committed your young friend is to the cause.”

Lucien’s eyes drifted to meet Ernst’s, and he froze. Ernst couldn’t tear his gaze free, but found himself lost in those pale depths. In a flash, a veil was lifted and Ernst saw the brutality of the past few weeks. He saw women with Lucien, heard them crying out in ecstasy and then agony. He saw blood and torn skin. He saw Lucien, standing triumphant and naked over pale corpses. By what right did Marike interrupt the natural order of things? What injustice had they brought to this town in their quest to deprive it of this glorious being? Anger bubbled up from deep within, his vision blurred and shook.

He looked to Marike, his face twisting with rage. He’d spent so many years of his life on a quest for the truth of things and it had all been a lie. Marike looked up at him, her mouth pressed into a firm line. His hand found the grip of the hammer over his shoulder.

She was faster than him, though. She scooped up her sword, sliding it from its sheath and sweeping it in an arc around the table in a single fluid movement. Ernst grimaced as it passed through his heart without slowing. The woman to Lucien’s right cried out and cringed as the blade went through one shoulder and out the other on its path. Lucien’s eyes went wide with shock as the sword sliced through his neck, and the woman to his left ducked as the blade clipped harmlessly through her skull.

Lucien’s head toppled forward to roll across the table. Marike caught it with her free hand.

Ernst’s world snapped back into focus. The anger – the righteous fury! – in which he’d felt so confident just a moment before drained away, leaving him exhausted. On the table, Lucien’s mouth gaped and worked soundlessly. His eyes jerked to look at his own body as it crumbled into ashes. The two young women screamed.

All activity in the bar ceased as the two women pitched themselves from their chairs, shaking off the remnants of the late Lucien and fleeing as fast as they could for the door. For a few silent seconds, all eyes in the tavern were on Marike and Ernst and the disembodied head on the table. Then the barkeep yelled for last call, and everyone turned back to their carousing.

Ernst eased himself, shaking, into one of the vacant chairs. “Blessed Mojca!” he swore. “So sorry about that, Lady. Don’t know what came over me.”

“I’d say this fellow came over you,” Marike said with a smirk. Her voice shook slightly, but firmed up as she spoke. She tapped the top of Lucien’s skull, which now lay still, eyes and mouth agape but mercifully no longer twitching. There was no blood, of course. A dusty grey film appeared at the finely sliced edges of the neck and began to creep upward, giving the appearance that the head was sinking into a pile of dust on the table. Soon there’d be nothing left of the creature but what the barmaid swept up in the dustbin.

Ernst studied Marike’s face. She smiled, but it was a tired, weary smile. There were a few more age lines etched around her mouth and crinkling around her eyes. Though she was only a few years older than Ernst, she looked over a decade his senior. It had been necessary in his case, as he’d been ready to attack her if the spell had not been lifted, but it was a shame the girls had been in the way. No harm to them, of course, but the blade took a toll on Marike whenever it was used on living beings.

He reflexively reached for her hand, which seemed thinner and paler than it had earlier, but she withdrew and stood to sheath her sword.

“We’ll sleep here tonight,” Marike said. “Assuming there are rooms available. Tomorrow we’ll go home.”

Ernst hesitated to stand. “Are you all right, my lady?” he asked, keeping his voice low.  A puff of smoke rose from Lucien’s crumbling eye sockets.

“I’m fine, Ernst,” she assured him, because even a devout of the goddess of truth could lie.

Paladin

Their search, led by Lady Marike’s honed, gods-tuned instincts, brought them at last to the Tender Loin, their third tavern of the evening. It was a rough, rowdy place, a bar largely appropriated by a small mercenary group that operated out of this town. The soldiers and the women who followed them were loud and rude but also generally happy, and mostly ignored the cleric and her acolyte.

Lady Marike had been sober ever since the infamous Kaleedish djinn incident, three years prior, so Ernst handled the drinking for both of them. Her ale, purchased purely for appearances, sat on the table beside her sheathed sword. He nursed his second. He’d had four at the previous taverns and though he was a stout man, or at least stoutly mannish, it took all of his concentration to keep the room from spinning.

Lady Marike’s pale eyes, bright blue points that contrasted startlingly with her nearly black skin, roamed the busy tavern and studied its occupants. She was, as usual, composed and dignified in her hauberk. From under the chain, folded crisply, rose the collar of her station, intricately detailed with the runes of the goddess Mojca, patron of truthsayers and pessimists. The sides of her undercut mohawk had accumulated a bit more dark fuzz than she usually liked on their journey from the capital.

Someone or something was stalking this village, the name of which escaped Ernst at the moment. At least half a dozen young ladies had vanished in the past few months. The local constables, at their wits end since they normally had little to do aside from break up bar fights and chase off bandits, had pleaded for help from the Order. They were no closer to tracking the villain down than when they had first ridden into this town on exhausted, mud-spattered horses under the dawning sun. His armor itched, his beard itched. Ernst was weary, and hot, and at this point didn’t give a shit if they did find the culprit.

The Lady tapped her fingers on the simple wooden crossguard of her sword, gently calling his attention and abruptly ending an hour of silence. “He is here,” she said.

Ernst squinted at the crowd jostling around them. “How can you know?”

“He is stalking this place.” She jerked her chin, and a harried barmaid swept to a stop against their table. Ernst noted how the woman’s eyes flickered over Marike’s fine cheekbones, perhaps trying to ascertain how much flirtation would help her earn a better tip from a customer who wasn’t really even drinking.

Marike leaned forward, holding the barmaid with her eyes. “Is there a man here all in black, with black hair, pale skin. Likely drinking wine, seducing very pale, dark-haired women?”

Ernst grimaced and mumbled, “Offensive stereotype, m’lady.”

The barmaid nodded. “There’s the charmer back in the corner,” she said, pointing a thumb, “Been here every night for a month or so. Takes home a couple ladies a week, seems like. Can’t say I get it. Not my type.”

“My thanks,” Marike said, and she offered a coin, which the barmaid accepted with a smile and a wink. She swayed her hips as she pushed away through the crowd, casting another look over her shoulder at Marike as she went.

“How is it that always happens?” Ernst said with a wave of his hand. “She wouldn’t talk to me with five gold in my fist.”

“To business, Ernst,” Marike said, sliding her sword off the table as she stood. “Try not to grab any ass on the way.”

They pushed their way through the crowd and found themselves in the northwest corner of the common room. The furthest spot from the bar, the crowd was thin and the light dimmer here, the noise subdued. The tables were full of cloaked figures with hidden faces and darkened weapons.

One table stood out, however. A pale young man draped in black sat between a pair of giggling young women, laughing and gesturing wildly, in the midst of some tale. His angular face and narrow eyes swept over Ernst and Marike without losing the stride of his conversation with his guests. A nearly empty bottle of cheap wine sat on the table.

Ernst cleared his throat and said quietly, for his Lady only, “See, hair’s more of a midnight blue, m’lady.”

“Duly noted, Ernst,” she said. Marike rapped the pommel of her sword on the table, startling the women. They cried out and clung to the pale man. Ernst straightened and tried to look imposing, though he felt a bit wobbly on his feet.

The pale man was unmoved by the intrusion. He seemed unconcerned by the visitors, and in fact appeared to appreciate the way the young women pressed against him in fear. “Would you like to join us?” he asked, his voice smoother and deeper than Ernst expected.

“I am Marike, a Lady of Mojca,” Marike said. “I am here as a constable under the authority of the people of this great land to investigate a series of murders plaguing this village.”

The pale man did not wither the way suspects who’d earned Marike’s attention generally did. His smile was fixed as he carefully extracted himself from his companions and leaned forward, placing his hands on the table.

“That’s very dramatic, Marike, Lady of Mojca,” the pale man said. “I imagine if I knew anything about these…murders…I would be quite terrified of you.” Marike held his gaze.

Ernst focused on the man’s words, to let the truth or untruth of them be revealed. He’d been under Marike’s tutelage for almost five years, honing the instincts granted by their patron. He could generally tell, for example, when someone was cheating at cards, or giving a false identity. He sensed nothing out of place here, so either the man was an exceptionally good liar or Marike was wrong – something Ernst had never before witnessed. Ernst also considered the possibility that he was too drunk to properly exercise his training. In any event, he wasn’t too drunk or befuddled to see subtle cues in Marike’s body language, or the tension in her shoulders. She was convinced they’d found their beast.

The Hunt for that Vicious Bastard, Kadiis O’len

My metal companion spoke, breaking hours of silently trudging through this snowy hellscape.

“The birds have gone, Miss,” said Carson-5, its voice box crackling. Icicles shivered with the echo. The machine came to a stop with a hiss of hydraulics. Steam rose from puddles of slush pooled around its oval-shaped feet. Dull and grey, Carson-5 measured ten feet to the top of its cube head, which was little more than a speaker and pair of antennae. Broad shoulders supported long arms that ended in modular stumps equipped via a backpack cargo pod. The torso narrowed sharply before flaring into wide hips and a pair of segmented legs. Carson-5 was a standard scout and exploration unit, built to withstand any environment and keep its human masters alive. It wasn’t one of the kill-and-detain Yeager-7s most bounty hunters pal around with, but I got a great deal during my last trip to Earth—this particular Carson-5 had failed two previous owners.

“What birds?” I asked, looking back at Carson-5 through the fog of my own breath. All I had kept track of for the past five hours was the crunch of my own feet plunging through snow. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. My eyes had been glued to the distant mountain, not growing larger with each stride. Miles ahead, at the base of the mountain, was a ranger’s station. Significantly fewer miles behind, the wreckage of my ship, after an orbital collision with a fugitive’s escape pod. Rock. Hard, burning place.

“This planet is home to over 3,000 species of birds, at least fifteen of which inhabit this area,” the machine explained. “I have observed regular calls from many different birds since we arrived. They have been silent for five minutes.”

I stared at Carson-5. It stared into the foliage. Cold seeped into my thermal underwear.

“This is bullshit,” I said, resuming my hike and half-hoping a frozen branch might fall and put me out of my misery. My ship—home—gone. If Kadiis O’Len’s escape pod went down, too, they might never recover any evidence that could be turned in for a reward. If it didn’t, the trail would be cold long before we got off planet. The whole situation made for a frustrating day. “We need a campsite. The finding of which is your job, by the way. Were you bird-watching when Pete Jansen was swarmed by hyperwasps on Terek Prime?”

“Observance of local wildlife is in direct support of my primary function.”

“So that’s a yes.”

“There was a very colorful specimen of Olisp bat I was trying to show Mr. Jansen.”

We marched for a few more minutes, but the silence started to get to me, too. I heard the wind, the creaking of snow-laden branches, the buzz of Carson-5’s servos, the rustling of the blankets I’d wrapped around myself. I came to a halt and peered about.

“So, what preys on the birds here?” I asked.

“There are no natural predators in this area,” Carson-5 answered. “Not since the extinction of the sabretoothed lynx a century ago. The ranger’s station ahead monitors and controls bird populations without–”

“Fascinating,” I interrupted. I eased a hand beneath my coat to grip the pistol at my belt. “I don’t suppose you’re scanning for any largish heat signatures?”

Carson-5 paused, antennae swiveling. A long whir as the robot leaned close, though its inability to control the volume of its voice made Carson-5’s feigned whisper laughable. “There is a humanoid-sized being at close range.”

“How clo–”

The snow not five feet to my left erupted. My attacker—a six-foot, 200-pound hairball—led with paws and two-inch claws fully extended. I caught a glimpse of the breastplate, emblazoned with the curved daggers of the Silvestris Piracy, over his black-brown fur. Kadiis. Then he was on me, claws sinking into my shoulders.

I collapsed under the big cat, thankful at least that thick layers of coat and blanket mostly protected me from his claws. I sacrificed my left forearm to his canines and struggled to get my pistol free, but it was a useless effort. His teeth pierced my arm, and I grunted to stifle a scream. His back claws scrambled to find purchase on my torso. In moments, my intestines would decorate the snow drifts. Where was that damned robot? Did Kadiis have compatriots keeping it busy?

I gave up on the gun and twisted my arm and hips, kicking out with my knees to hurl the Silvestris free. He twisted in mid-air and landed on all fours, already crouching for another pounce. I didn’t bother trying to get to my feet. I met his golden eyes for an instant, and we both knew one of us wouldn’t be walking away from this. He leapt. I drew and put three shots up the breastplate and into his neck. O’Len fell dead inches from my face.

I lurched to my feet, pistol at the ready for the rest of the cat’s posse. Carson-5 stood where it had, arms just now withdrawing from the cargo pod, equipped with a hammer and three-fingered hand that would have been extraordinarily useful ten seconds ago. Carson-5 raised its shoulders in a simulacrum of a shrug.

“Nice,” I said. “That’s great. Fantastic job, partner!” I pointed to the cat’s corpse with my slightly less bloody arm. “You know who this is? This is Kadiis O’Len!”

“From the most–”

“From the most wanted list,” I parroted its voice, “yes! He almost eviscerated me!”

“I could not decide between hammer and plasma chainsaw.”

I sighed. “There will never be a time when the answer to that question isn’t chainsaw.”

Carson-5’s antennae twitched. “I am detecting the return of local fauna.”

“Maybe you’re not totally useless.” I holstered my weapon. “Pick that up. We’ll need it for the reward.”

Janelle of Titan

It was in her fifteenth year that Janelle slew the great gnasher beasts of Porrow Canyon, but it would be several more years before she learned how to capitalize on her success. In those early days, she did it merely to help people.

The figure she cut now, at 23, would scarcely be recognized by the younger version of herself. Taller, leaner, a slab of muscle, her head shaved and painted after the fashion of Titan natives, she carried her head high and her blast pistol low. The curved sword on her back was mostly for show, as there were few threats she couldn’t handle with either the blaster or her cyber-enhanced muscles, but there was little its blade couldn’t cut at a molecular level.

The goggles were newer and more advanced than any the teenage Janelle could have possessed. Rustic in appearance, the lenses featured an elaborate heads-up display that kept her informed of local atmospheric conditions, zoom and enhance functions, a variety of light-spectrum options, and a recorder that kept careful track of her adventures, which the transmitter behind her ear beamed to her support team. Terraforming the moon had thinned but not eliminated the dense fog that shrouded the lower atmosphere, so a good set of goggles could be life or death on Titan.

A young Janelle would have most envied the outfit. A deceptively thin but dense layer of white wrapped tightly around her body, while a hood snaked up her neck and around the back of her head. The soft, black-webbed lining of the wrap kept her toasty in Titan’s extreme cold, but didn’t restrict her movement like typical environmental gear would. Methane rain rolled off the jacket without soaking it through, and her boots formed a gentle shell around her feet that could stomp through puddles and climb rocky outcroppings with equal ease.

Janelle crouched at the base of a jagged hill, passing a hand through a loose scattering of pebbles and rocks on the ground. The sky was mercifully quiet at the moment, so there was no rain to screw with the tracks.

“They passed through here,” she spoke into the mic sewn into the hood of her jacket. “Half an hour, maybe, based on the heat residue.”

Her producer, Wendy, spoke back, her distant voice cracking on the channel. “Looks about right, J,” she said. “Orbital still has nothing.”

Janelle stood, her gaze sweeping over the hill. “That just means they’re underground,” she said. “Unlucky for them I know these hills better than they do.”

Skull

They descended the stairs and found themselves in the fifth underdungeon of the labyrinth. Argo stopped at the bottom step, kneeling to peer into the vast, dark room beyond. His sword gleamed blue in the light from the mage’s staff.

“What see you, Argo?” whispered Bolivar. The cleric, next in line behind the warrior, gripped his staff in one hand and the faintly glowing scepter of Kolineer, his holy relic, in the other. The rest of the party, the mage and the other warrior bringing up the rear, huddled close behind them.

“Nothing,” Argo answered. “All is dark. Send in…Arik.”

The cleric nodded, his face grim. Arik had died during their trip through the fourth underdungeon. Bolivar had done what he could, but the results were less than satisfactory. Arik now existed primarily as a skull, floating in a hazy cloud of dust formed by his own skeleton.

Bolivar directed the scepter of Kolineer, and the remains of Arik drifted forward through the party and into the room. The skull rotated left and right, searching out the darkness.

“It feels unseemly to keep him like this,” Argo muttered.

“Worry not,” Bolivar said. “His nobility of spirit remains. He is happy to help. And as a bonus, he is virtually indestructible now, as long as his skull remains intact.”

“Maybe we should get him a helmet,” said Argo.

“I liked him better with a body,” spoke the mage. “He was beautiful.”

The cries of stone goblins split the air, and crudely fashioned arrows began whistling through the air, and through Arik’s useless powdered-marrow body. Argo raised his shield, grunting as the arrows clattered against it.

“I, too, miss his body,” Argo growled.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Aidan thought it was a bad idea to even keep a black lagoon on the property. It could have been drained, or just opened up to the ocean and turned into a nice beach and tourist trap years ago. As is, it was useless. But tradition was tradition. What would the Black Lagoon Winery be without a black lagoon? Just an empty logo, that’s what. Was there anything more tragic than a brand with no identity?

He hauled two buckets of fish out to the lagoon every morning. Today, young Leon would be helping him, as it would eventually be up to him to keep the thing in the lagoon sated. He’d slept in once in 1987, and, well, after their daughter came home in utter shock from a brush-in with what she described as a gilled man, the neighbor family had moved out and nobody had ever moved in. Eventually, Aidan had just bought that land cheap as dirt. In the long run he was able to work that land and turn a tidy profit, but still. It was a damned shame how neighborhoods can go into decline sometimes. Continue reading Creature from the Black Lagoon

Amulet

The boy found it, pulling the ancient, rusted chain free of the muck and grim in which it had been entombed for centuries. As he started tugging on the amulet itself, still embedded in the soil, I swatted him away and took the chain from him before he had a chance to foolishly damage the thing.

It was magnificent. Once pried from its resting place and gently washed, it gleamed as though it had just been pulled from the fires of its forge. Made of solid gold, it was diamond in shape, encrusted with rubies and emeralds around the edges. Intricate rune patterns adorned both sides. I muttered a few words of old Altartongue and the runes began to glow. I patted the boy on the shoulder and we began making our way out of the catacombs, back toward the bright streets of Paris.

I picked at the gems. They were a little loose after all this time. “Once we pry this shit out it’ll be useful,” I said.

“Is that the magic that will bring mommy back?” the boy asked.

“Perhaps,” I said. “Or perhaps the magic is inside you already.”

He stopped and stared with wide eyes. “Really?”

“No,” I snapped. “Don’t be an idiot. It’s the amulet.”

Frankenstein

Frank, awoke, groggy and aching in every part of his body. A stink sizzled in the air, like someone had burned a steak but then quickly tossed it outside. Behind that, a coppery smell that quickly overcame his senses, and he nearly gagged. He heard whispers and angry mutters nearby, but couldn’t make out the words. He struggled to remember when he’d gone to sleep last, but his memories were clouded. Had he gotten drunk? This felt like a massive hangover.

He moaned and tried to move, but it seemed he was restrained. With considerable effort, Frank lifted heavy eyelids and blinked against the bright lights that greeted him.

Beyond a skylight, far above him, a storm raged, pelting the windows with rain. Around him sprawled a laboratory, a cacophony of beakers and tubes and flashing lights and weird electrical coils that didn’t seem to be connected to anything. His old friend Victor stood nearby at one of the consoles, muttering to himself. Continue reading Frankenstein

Moon

The cauldron’s contents bubbled and boiled, as they do. Sister Crane double-checked her stone circle, then dropped a couple of cockle shells into the mix to turn the stew clear. The reflected image of the full moon snapped into focus.

“This idea is ridiculous,” Sister Sharpe said. Sharpe lounged on a hammock on the porch, and had contributed nothing to the spell. It was a cool night, and Crane pulled the sleeves of her knitted pullover down. Nearly all the ingredients were in place.

“Just tell me what the app says,” Crane snapped.

Sharpe rolled her eyes and consulted her phone. “You’ve got about a minute before perigee.”

Crane sat, crossing her legs and watching the sky. “This is definitely going to work,” she said. “I can feel it.” She lit the last of her candles and cupped it in the palms of her hands.

“It’s not even going to fit in there.”

“There’s a shrinking element in the mix. Now please be quiet.”

“I’m just saying,” Sharpe sighed. “The last time someone tried to summon the moon it didn’t work out so well for Atlantis. Do you even have a binding token?”

Crane nodded, and reached into the pocket of her sweater to show Sharpe the stone, obtained from a NASA gift shop. Sharpe scoffed and leaned back in her . “That’s probably just an aquarium stone,” she muttered.

“The potluck is in an hour, Sister. If you can think of a better way to make this much queso on short notice you’re welcome to try.”

“We could just go get some Velvee-”

“You shall not utter that name in my presense!” Crane shouted. The rock circle shivered. Crane took a deep breath to center herself and began the incantations. “Now please go chop the tomatoes.”