Monday, December 27, 2010

Group - Fiction

Well, kids, it looks like we made it through another Christmas. Now we just have to contend with the end of 2010 and the start of 2011. Things don't look too good for me going into the new year, so I hope they're looking better and rosier on your end of the screen.

Keep watching right here for more info on my novel releases, Area 187; Almost Hell and Area 187; Almost Home from The Library of the Living Dead Press and a few upcoming audio fiction projects. Things have finally started to inch forward again on my novels after situational and unavoidable delays with the publisher, and if you keep watching here you'll be the first to know. Also, I've recently been added to the staff of the Witch's Hat blog and podcast, so be sure to check out my movie reviews both on the blog and in live, vibrant audio over at The Hat. Until then, here's a little diddy to keep things rolling. I hope you had a Merry Christmas and hope you have a most excellent New Year. - Author

“Where’s Dr. Harvey?” Luna asked as the short, balding man in a sport coat and tie walked into the room then closed and locked the door behind him.

“I’m Dr. Reynolds.” the little man said. The rest of the therapy group looked at one another in concern as the intruder simply walked through their circled chairs to take up what had been Dr. Robert Harvey’s customary seat among his patients.

“Where’s Dr. Harvey?” Luna repeated. This time her voice came out in a panicked rush, causing her ample bosom to rise and fall in rapid bursts and her bright green eyes to flare Manga-like. “I need to see Dr. Harvey!”

“Is Dr. Harvey sick?” Aaron asked while concern etched itself across his smooth, handsome, pale face.

“This isn’t a gym class, you idiot.” Gary growled at Aaron. “If your therapist is sick they don’t bring in a substitute.”

“Gghhnnr…” Timmy interjected as he tried to focus on the new man in the room.

“Let’s have some calm here, shall we?” Dr. Reynolds said without looking up from the yellow legal pad in his hands.

“Idiot?” Aaron shot back at Gary. “That’s big talk coming from a son of a bitch.” Gary let loose with a string of expletives and roared out of his chair in Aaron’s direction. Aaron started to get up to receive Gary’s charge but stopped short when Dr. Reynolds’s foot suddenly shot out, tripping the much larger and meaner Gary onto the thick carpet. Gary slid a foot or so before rolling over and practically leaping to his feet.

“I’m gonna kill you first!” Gary said to Reynolds. The doctor pulled his foot back beneath his chair and flipped over a page on his notepad.

“Sit down, Gary.” Reynolds said. The simple command seemed to take Gary aback for a moment before he stalked slowly to the doctor’s chair to lean menacingly over him.

“I barely tolerated Dr. Harvey. I don’t even know why the fuck you’re here. What’s to stop me from just tearing your fucking head off?” Gary said. This time Reynolds did look up from his notepad. The doctor sighed heavily then pulled a small, thin silver cylinder from his breast pocket and held it where Gary could see it. Gary took a step back and emitted a low, almost growling noise from deep within his throat.

“I said sit down, Gary.” Reynolds repeated. Gary shared his look of scorn with both Aaron and Reynolds before he stomped back to his seat and fell into it.

“That’s a good boy.” Aaron said. Before Gary could react to Aaron’s smugness, Reynolds reached inside his shirt and let the crucifix he wore around his neck ride atop his tie instead of beneath his shirt.

No! No religious symbols of any kind are supposed to be displayed in group!” Luna said before Aaron could react. “This is supposed to be a nurturing, safe environment, free of religious symbols and judgments!”

“Uggrhmph kclrrg…” Timmy added. Dr. Reynolds slid the legal pad between his thigh and the chair arm then put away his jewelry before leaning back into his chair to regard the room.

“Dr. Harvey has taken a sabbatical… a sabbatical that this very group has made necessary.” Reynolds said. The members of the therapy group looked around at each other while Reynolds did the same to each of them. “He has explained to me in great detail the various conditions and issues that brought each of you to him and has asked me to take over your sessions.” The room was quiet for several moments before Aaron finally spoke up.

“Dr. Reynolds, we appreciate you stepping in for Dr. Harvey. But you have to see that we’re simply not… comfortable… sharing with a new therapist.” Aaron said.

“I was on the verge of a breakthrough!” Luna interrupted Aaron. “Where’s Dr. Harvey? I need to see Dr. Harvey!”

“Grsgrscaaak.” Timmy said. For reasons unknown, Timmy’s outburst was the catalyst for each member of the group to start talking at once. Reynolds let them go on for a few moments before loudly clearing his throat. The gentle signal for quiet went unheeded though and the group continued talking and arguing among themselves while they threw half-questions at Reynolds.

“If we could all calm ourselves and behave like rational adults…” Reynolds said. This had the opposite effect and even seemed to spurn the group on to new heights when Aaron and Gary got up from their chairs and once again started for each other. They stopped short just a few feet from each other though, and instead of coming to blows started hurling insults at each other like two playground bullies trying to see who would win the monkey bars as their territory.
“People… we all need to remember why we’re here, and that these outbursts aren’t helping…” Reynolds said.

“I must have Dr. Harvey!” Luna screeched as she too came up out of her seat and flew towards Dr. Reynolds. Her hands were stretched out before her, her lacquered nails like tiny poisoned spears as they shot towards the psychiatrist. Reynolds ducked low into his chair and Luna sailed over him, the look of rage and hate turning suddenly to cartoonish confusion as she slammed against the bookshelf behind Reynolds. Volumes and tomes were still raining down on her as Reynolds stood and spun on the room.

Listen up you bloated sacks of testicular puss!” Reynolds said. His voice boomed through the room, reverberating off the walls, the floor and even the group members. Gary winced and cupped the ear pointing towards the doctor as Luna separated herself from the books that had piled atop her and got to her feet. Her chest heaved and her eyes turned red as she took a step towards Reynolds and let out a shriek of rage. Reynolds pulled a small bottle from his jacket pocket and flicked his wrist towards the woman before she could take another step then turned his back on her as her fit of seething anger turned into moans of pain.

“No holy relics! We all agreed!” Luna said from behind the doctor as the holy water burned tiny blisters into her skin where they’d landed.

“Dr. Harvey agreed to that.” Reynolds said. His voice had taken on a hard, cold edge and eyes that had at first appeared soft and haggard to the group now narrowed to decidedly angry slits.

“You…” Luna started again. Reynolds flicked the bottle again, this time removing his thumb completely from the opening to give her a good dose of the blessed water. Luna slammed her back against the bookcase to avoid the stuff, smashing her head against the heavy wood but at least avoiding the worst of the spray.

“The power of Christ compels you, you Satan-loving excuse for a cock-hungry whore.” Reynolds said.

“You can’t…” Aaron said as he advanced on the doctor.

“Oh! You want some of this too, do ya?” Reynolds said as he spun and held the bottle out towards Aaron. The man actually hissed before backing off a step, revealing the points of his small yet obvious fangs. “Now, you are all going to sit the fuck down so we can get your shit together!”

“That water don’t mean shit to me!” Gary said. Without a word, Reynolds pulled a Colt automatic from beneath his jacket and fired. Gary’s foot didn’t even slow the bullet as it burned through to bury itself in the wooden floor. Gary howled… literally howled… before stumbling backwards into his chair. He drew his foot up into his lap and started pulling off his boot as Reynolds swept the room with his weapons.

“Now, you miserable sacks of human excrement, I said sit the fuck down!” Reynolds said. Timmy simply sat in his chair, taking in the scene as the rest of the group regained their seats and stared at their new doctor with wounded expressions.

“You didn’t have to shoot me, asshole!” Gary growled.

“Yes, Gary. Yes I did have to shoot you. Do you know why, Gary? Do you know why I had to shoot you?” Reynolds asked. Gary opened his mouth but Reynolds kept going. “There’s a couple a reasons why I had to shoot you. First you need to blame your mama cause she didn’t teach you any better manners. That’s all right though, Gary, cause if you try that again I’m gonna go fuck your mama and your sister’s gonna lick my asshole while I do it. You got me, fleabag? One more outburst from you and that’s just how it’s gonna happen. Do I make myself clear to you? Are you God-damn hearing me you God-damn mongrel?” Gary’s face contorted with rage, but when his mouth opened Reynolds covered the distance between them with surprising speed and rammed the barrel between Gary’s rapidly-expanding jaws. “You better belay that shit! You better just calm yourself right the fuck down before I make like Old Yeller and blow out the back of your fucking skull! Do you read me, furball? Huh? Am I getting through that mange-spotted hide of yours?”

“Dr. Reynolds, please…” Aaron said.

“And you, you poor misunderstood God-damn crybaby…” Reynolds stopped talking suddenly and just shook his head. He pulled the gun from Gary’s mouth and walked to the center of the group’s circle. “You people like Dr. Harvey so much, huh? You think he’s just the savior of your fucked-up existences, don’t you? Well let me tell you a little something; Dr. Harvey is spending some time up-state, in a nice, quiet place where he can try to screw his head back on tight again after dealing with you miserable pukes!”

“But… but Dr. Harvey is the only one that’s ever been able to help me. I’m going to lose Chad if Dr. Harvey doesn’t finish my therapy. I don’t have the time to start over with a new therapist. It happened again! I have to stop doing this before I lose Chad, and I can’t lose Chad! I just can’t!” Luna said.

“Me me me…” Reynolds said to Luna while he shook his head in disgust. “That’s all it comes down to, and that’s why Doc Harvey’s under heavy sedation and drooling all over the orderlies. You people dumped all your bullshit problems on the man so much and so long that he just couldn’t handle it anymore.”

“He’s our therapist. That’s his job.” Aaron said.

“He’s a human therapist.” Reynolds said. “He wasn’t prepared to deal with the heads you people brought to the table. But did any of you have the basic human compassion to realize the day and night calls, the forced sessions, the constant need for validation… you just didn’t care what it did to the man. As long as you pieces of shit were getting what you needed from him it didn’t matter to you, now did it?”

“Where’s Colonel Parks?” Aaron said. “I want to see Parks. This wasn’t part of the deal…”

“Colonel Parks has been reassigned.” Reynolds said.

“We all volunteered to be studied. Counseling was part of the deal. We don’t have to be here.” Luna said.

“Didn’t I tell you to sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up?” Reynolds said to Luna.

“I refuse to be treated like this! I am…” Luna started.

“You are nothing!” Reynolds said as he grabbed the seat he’d been using and threw it across the floor before advancing on her. “You are a disease! You are a cancer on the body of Man! You are a worthless piece of maggot-ridden garbage! You are the only piece of rotting pussy I have ever met that could even fuck up a wet dream!” Less than a foot of empty space stood between Reynolds and Luna now. Luna’s lips screwed into a snarl as she raised her hand towards Reynold’s chest. Reynolds didn’t wait for her to make contact and instead grabbed her wrist and twisted it counter clockwise. The suddenness and force of the movement spun Luna in a half-circle until Reynolds had her arm jammed into the small of her back. A violent shove then sent her lithe form hurtling across the room until she crashed into her own chair.

“I’m going to eat your soul…” Luna said as she spun around to face him.

“And if you try that shit again I’m gonna dip my wick in holy water and skull-fuck you until your tits melt off.” Reynolds said. “I’ve got Christ in my heart and a stripper in my bed, you netherworld slut. You’ve got nothing to work with here.” Luna didn’t charge the doctor again, just simply slumped down into her chair and rubbed at a few of the angry spots that hadn’t yet healed from Reynold’s first use of the holy water.

“This is supposed to help us?” Gary said. “You attacking us, violating every rule of our group and going back on the deal we made with the military… this is supposed to help us?”

“Yes it is, you little fucking leech.” Reynolds said.

“Hrrnghaaa.” Timmy said from his chair.

“That’s probably the most intelligent thing that any of you have had to say so far.” Reynolds said.

“Dr. Reynolds… what exactly are your qualifications? What medical schools did you attend? How long have you been a psychiatrist?” Aaron asked. His eyes were glinting now. Not the hellish red glow that Luna had displayed, but just enough to cast the rest of his face in an eerie yet somehow flattering glow.

“Turn off the headlights. I’m not some teenage necrophiliac. As for my qualifications, I’m a highly regarded expert in the field of straightening up little pukes that think they’re the center of the God-damn universe.” Reynolds said.

“That’s it, the deal’s off!” Gary said. “You get Parks’s replacement in here right now or so help me I’ll slaughter you then blow the lid off this whole fucking program!”

“That sounds like something a man that wants to get shot in the other foot would say.” Reynolds said.

“You do know what we could do to you, don’t you?” Aaron asked. Timmy grumbled as the rest nodded towards Reynolds.

“Oh, I know all about you people. And that’s exactly why I’m here. This is the last group session, cause I’m gonna solve all your piddly little fucking defects right here and now.” Reynolds said.

“And what makes you think you can do that?” Luna asked.

“Because none of you actually have any problems, you fucking morons!” Reynolds said. “Now, let’s look at you, Luna. Pretty little Luna… got a little problem with sex, don’t ya? A little nymphomania that keeps you from…” Reynolds snatched up his legal pad and flipped through a few pages. “…progressing in a monogamous relationship.” The last few words he said in a cold, robotic manner.

“If I don’t talk to Dr. Harvey I’m going to lose Chad…” Luna screeched again.

“There is no Chad you idiot!” Reynolds barked back. “If you were some bar whore somewhere I’d tell ya to close your legs and buy a vibrator, but you’re not, are ya? You’re a God damned succubus! Fucking men is what you do! It’s the only thing you do!”

“It’s not the only thing…” Luna said softly in her defense.

“Yes it is!” Reynolds said. “You don’t have nymphomania, you’re just hungry you stupid slut! And you know how I know that Chad isn’t real? It’s cause you live right here with all these other pukes! You’re here… you’re all here… cause you got caught and agreed to be studied instead of getting exorcised or staked or whatever the hell else it is we humans normally do to you beasties.”

“But I want to change!” Luna said.

“You can’t change! None of ya can! You are what you are. Luna, you’re a netherworld whore that fucks men’s souls out of them. You’re here because you prove that God and the devil and Baby Jeebus are real things. And you, Gary, you’re here because you prove that some superstitions are real things. Now I hate werewolves, but I hate cats more so I’ll give you a pass here. You don’t have anger management issues… you’re a god-damn wolf, boy. Pretty simple, huh? Problem solved.” Reynolds said.

“I didn’t want to be part of this pansy group anyway…” Gary growled as he massaged his wounded foot.

“And you, Mr. Oh-poor-pity-me-I’m-a-vampire-but-let’s-fuck-anyway…” Reynolds said to Aaron. The vampire looked up at him with a wounded expression. “Jesus H. Christ boy but you make me sick! Eternal life, fucking all the barely-legal pussy you want and you’re sittin’ in here lamenting and bitchin about being a vampire. And don’t you start all that sparkly bullshit in here. There’s other vampires, you know? The project could get another one in here real easy.”

“I don’t want to harm anyone…” Aaron said.

“Yeah you do, cause like Satan’s whore over there it’s what you do! Don’t you people get it? You don’t have mental conditions or anger management issues. You just can’t accept what you are and get the fuck on with it. Well I’m here to tell you this bullshit stops here. Attack a guard once in awhile, seduce a janitor just coming through and mopping up the cell block at night. Turn into a bat sometime.”

“Vampires can’t turn into bats. It’s a common misconcep…” Aaron started.

Shut the fuck up!” Reynolds said, annunciating each word clearly, precisely and loudly enough to be felt by all in the room. “I’m trying to make a point here!” Timmy growled and sighed from his chair at that and seemed to nod sagely at Reynolds’s words. “Now, you people are gonna march back to your wing, and you’re all gonna be good little boys and girls while you do it. Tests will commence at 0500 hours tomorrow morning, so I suggest you all get some beauty sleep.”

“I don’t sleep at night…” Aaron started.

“Boy, one more word outta you and I’m gonna ram a wooden stake up your ass and then plant one in your chest. You read me, son? Are my words getting through to you?” Reynolds said. Aaron swallowed hard more from reflex than from need and nodded. “Good. Now all of you get up out of here and get outta my sight.”

“What about Timmy? Doesn’t he get slammed, too?” Luna asked. Reynolds turned to regard the grey-mottled, rotting corpse in the chair. Timmy locked eyes with him and moaned softly. Reynolds leveled the pistol and fired, sending one of the silver bullets it contained through the zombie’s forehead. The dim light in Timmy’s eyes died out as the back of his skull exploded.
“We got more zombies in the basement. Besides, it was the least I could do for the poor bastard after all this time forced to sit in a room and listen to all you pussies whine and bitch.” Reynolds said as he waved the gun towards the door. “There’s a contingent of guards waiting for you. Sleep tight, you fucking pansies. I’ll be seeing you in the morning.”

“You? You’re Col. Parks’s replacement?” Aaron asked.

“Yeah…” Reynolds said with a smile, “…ain’t life a bitch?”


“Do you think this was the right approach?” Col. Cheavers asked as he and Capt. Warner watched the various supernatural creatures file out of the room on the CCTV screen.

“Sir, we’ve been through four therapists now. It's clear that approach isn't working.” Warner said.

“Yes, but they wanted this therapy. It was a bargaining chip for their cooperation so we could study them. I think Luna was making some real progress under Dr. Harvey.” Cheavers said. Warner rolled his eyes while the Colonel was occupied with the monitor.

“Gunny Reynolds is the best of the best, sir. He’ll make sure they stay in line.” Warner said. Cheavers tapped a pen against his small notepad for a moment before he jotted down a few notes then slipped it into the inside pocket of his dress green uniform.

“A bit heavy-handed, isn’t he?” the Army officer said as he picked up a manila folder and flipped through it. “Reynolds isn’t a psychiatrist. He’s not even a therapist.”

“No sir, he is not.” Warner said as Cheavers continued flipping through the dossier.

“He’s… this man isn’t even an officer!” Cheavers said.

“No sir, he isn’t.” Warner agreed.

“Then just what the hell makes you jarheads think he’s the man for this?” Cheavers asked.

“Sir, Gunnery Sergeant Reynolds did two tours of Force Recon and has since turned thousands of miserable excuses for men into Marines for more than twenty years. I think he’ll be more than capable of keeping this lot in line.”

...just write, damn it. - Author

Sunday, December 19, 2010

We Three Kings - Fiction

This tale originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly, of which constant reader has heard me refer to on more than one occasion as a small-press fiction publication worthy of your time. We Three Kings is not only a favorite of mine, it's also the only piece of my anthology short fiction to garner cover art for the issue in which it appears. It is another of my "alternate history" stories featuring characters of legend and lore in a bit of a different light, which seems to carry some bit of popularity with those familiar with my fiction. I hope you enjoy it. - Author

“That was not a good idea,” Caspar said.

“The king invited us back, never a bad thing,” Balthazar said as he shifted his muscled bulk on one of the stone benches ringing the town fountain. “Stop complaining. If you want the highest help, go to the highest source. Not only will we be well–paid, we have the king’s seal of approval.”

“There are higher sources,” Menchoir said as he watched a green flame dance across his palm. “And I must agree with Caspar. The king has other ideas concerning our task; ones I fear will not be in line with our own.”

“Put that away!” Balthazar swung at the mage’s hand. “Your slant little eyes already draw attention! Do you want us locked away as warlocks? Besides, we do not even know why this babe is so important or even what we may be facing in finding it. Do not forget it was your idea that put us in the king’s court! We would have found a babe far easier by questioning the midwifery than by seeking out a mother with child. Now all of them are suspect, not only ones that have just given birth! We shall need the help of an army if we are to find this needle in straw. Place the blame at your own door and no one else’s.”

“I only mentioned we could better guarantee the safety of the child if we found the mother before she would give birth,” Menchoir said as the flames died.

“Why was I saddled with the two of you? I could have done this with my eyes closed.” Balthazar said.

“As I assume you do all else in your world,” Menchoir said.

Balthazar shot him a warning look and wagged a scarred finger. “I have killed over less insult, magi…”

“Of course, you will not. First, you seek your precious gold. And second, you would die before your steel could clear your sash. You would not accomplish the first and would find the second in the merest wave of my hand.”

“Gentlemen!” Caspar hissed then went into a sneezing fit. Warrior and mage chuckled at him softly as he regained his composure. “This is no help!”

Balthazar cleared his nose into the well, enjoying the grimace of distaste from the mage. He was known far and wide, the survivor of countless wars and as hard a man as had ever been. Men of his caliber did not come cheaply. He’d been hired to protect them and use his sword as he saw fit to accomplish the task. It mattered little to him that their task had yet to be as defined as he would have liked, but mercenaries were well-used to the shifting goals of their masters. Those that couldn’t adapt ended the day with rust on their swords.

Caspar was a man of science and reason, an ink-stained scholar that left no subject from his purview. Architecture, mathematics, the arts; no pursuit daunted the small, constantly sneezing man. Chief among them was cartography and astronomy, though the latter had a penchant for buying him more trouble than worth when his predictions came to disastrous truth. He had been hired to watch for, of all things, a new star and to guide the rest in its path to some unknown destination. Truth be known, Caspar was little interested in gold and silver, save to sustain him to the next idea. The task had come with the promise of seeing what no other had seen, and it was this more than coin that signed him on with this lot.

Of the three, Menchoir was the most mysterious. His manner of dress, slight yellowish complexion and the glaring absence of a facial hair in these lands certainly marked him as a man of the East. The fact he was true Magi made certain those less-enlightened in these desert lands gave him little issue. His full purpose among them hadn’t been divulged by their employer, much as most anything else about their mission, though both Balthazar and Caspar knew with certainty the mage was well aware of his place. Their promised payments more than made up for their annoyed curiosities, though it didn’t mean Menchoir’s smug looks and slight smiles gave them any less grief.

“We need return to the inn,” Caspar said. The others grimaced. The only thing that seemed to calm his nose was his incense. The scholar had developed its burning into a medicinal treatment, breathing the frankincense fumes the others found noxious in the close confines of their tiny rented room.

“Let us stop for a bit of tea to fortify ourselves against your vapors,” Balthazar said. He held his head to the side for a moment then turned towards the path they’d just used.

“What is it?” Caspar asked, his finger under his nose to ward off another attack.

“Sandals and swords…” The grizzled mercenary’s hand fell to the huge scimitar at his side.
“Well, they should not be coming for us, we have the approval of the king,” Caspar said.

“Precaution is the better of bravery,” Menchoir said as he slid around the side of the well. “I would suggest you invest in it.” Caspar struggled off the bench, scurrying behind the mage. Balthazar took turns looking at them and the path. The sound of marching feet was easy to hear now over the low din of the market. Balthazar cursed to himself, his mind whispering that perhaps the magi had a point and came around the well to join them. Moments later, the head of a column five–deep entered the marketplace.

“By order of King Herod, all women with sons born since three days past will come forward!” the officer announced, his eyes scanning the crowd as he spoke. A moment later the crowd parted as rough hands expelled a young couple forward.

“What is it you seek?” the young husband asked, pulling his wife close. The infant in her arms squealed as his mother held him tighter to her breast.

“By order of King Herod, answer my questions,” the commander ordered tersely. “Good wife, did you bear a son these past three days?”

“I… yes…” she answered hesitantly.

“Is this that child?” the commander asked. She nodded mutely, turning her torso so the babe was between her and her husband. “Turn the infant over to me; now.”

“I do not understand!” the young man stammered, squeezing the infant more fully between them.

“God has spoken to our king. He has decreed that evil has been born in the form of a son. You will turn your son over to me.” Three soldiers advanced on the young couple. The father took a step forward, placing himself between his wife and the soldiers. But his youthful bravery was no match for a spear. His last breath brought Balthazar’s sword half out of his sash.

“No…” Menchoir said softly, his hand like iron on the pommel. Balthazar struggled a moment against the unnatural weight.

“Stop your tricks! They are going to…” Balthazar started.

“We cannot help them. To do so will only have us killed, and then we are of use to none.” The three slipped off silently around the well and down a side street. But even the distance couldn’t mask the screams of the boy child, or the horrendous, sudden silence after.


Back in their tiny room, Caspar slumped to the floor, his charts scattered about him. “They… they killed that child…” he whispered, his bottom lip quivering. “Because of us…”

Menchoir sat at a small table, a cup of hot tea before him that had not been there a moment before. He sipped then handed it to Caspar. “Drink, it will help.”

Nothing is going to help!” Caspar barked on the brink of another fit. “They killed the child because of us! We killed it… his parents…”

“Soldiers killed them,” Balthazar said, his hand on his sword, “the act of cowards, using cowards’ weapons.”

“It seems this Herod does not like challenges to his divine rule,” Menchoir said.

“I cannot do this… I do not care what the pay…” Caspar breathed.

The three fell silent for a few moments, listening to Caspar’s labored breathing. Menchoir rose and fished about in Caspar’s bag, finally coming out with a bit of his incense. He lit the brazier and watched as the thin smoke lifted into the air.

“Caspar…” Menchoir began, “…that is the precise reason why we must continue. Our task is obviously far greater. That a king would set about killing infants in the street says as much.”

“But more will die...” Caspar said.

“More will die, if we continue or not,” Balthazar said. “That father stood before soldiers with nothing more than his courage and was slain like a dog. If we do nothing, that man, his wife and their son will have died in vain. Every father, mother and child that dies this day in this city will die in vain.” He turned suddenly from the window, his eyes glassy and dangerous. “I will continue, with or without you. There is honor and there is gold. I will not deny the first nor give away the last.”

“As much as it pains me, you are correct,” Menchoir said. “I will continue as well. I feel something in the air… power… change… there is much more than meets the eye this day.” He looked down at Caspar. “We need you, Caspar. Somewhere there is another mother, another father, another child that may yet be born that needs you…” Menchoir’s eyes suddenly rolled back in his head. He stumbled then fell as a long moan slid from his throat, just missing Caspar as he crumpled to the floor.


Menchoir’s knew this room, every corner and crevice, every inch of the thick padding that covered the floor. A smile crossed his lips as he turned and looked to the back of the room. The old man was there, a long scroll laid out on the floor before his cushion.

“Master,” Menchoir said then dropped to the floor in supplication.

“Rise, my student,” the old man said warmly. The voice that had once been so strong had become weaker, softer. Menchoir rose slowly and approached, seating himself on the floor.
“It is good to see you again,” the old man said. Menchoir’s smile faded. The old man’s eyes had taken on the milky pallor of blindness. It had been ten years since Menchoir last saw his master. He’d grown much in those years, but it seemed as much as he’d grown his master had faltered.

“As it is to see you…” Menchoir returned.

“Ah…” the old one said. “You seem troubled.”

“No, master. It is only…” Menchoir said.

“It is only your master’s appearance? All age, Menchoir. All die. Everything that lives, dies.”

“Are you sick?” Menchoir asked.

“Your master is only what you see. Nothing more or less. Nothing is as it was, or again.” the master said.

Menchoir cocked his head at the cryptic statement. “I do not understand.”

“There is little to understand and much needs learned. You embark on a new quest, while your master finishes his.”

“You speak in riddles.” Menchoir said.

“Is that not what life is? What magic is; the greatest riddle, the most intriguing of enigmas? Knowledge gained leads only to more questions, with each answer leading to still more questions. Is that not so?” the master asked.

“You taught that long ago. You also taught life was never-ending, that death was only another step towards knowledge, the same path in a different land.” Menchoir said.

“In that, there is truth. Life is never–ending. The vessel that carries us may change, but we all go on. Have you followed a path, my student? Have you sought the magic… the knowledge?” the master asked.

“I have.” Menchoir said.

“There is a force at work,” the old man said softly. “The magic your master has lived is dying.”

“That cannot be!” Menchoir stammered. “Magic holds this world together! It binds everything…”

“In that you are correct. It holds all worlds together,” the master said, holding up a spindly hand to interrupt Menchoir. The sight of his palsied hand struck Menchoir like a stone. “Magic does those things, more. But man has been going about it the wrong way. Magic does not come from the land, from the animals, from the people. It was given to all, to everything. There is a benevolent force that controls this power. That force has decided to change all that we know.”

“Is it... a god?” Menchoir asked.

A god?” the master asked whimsically. “For thousands of years men have made them, broken them. Those that chose to study the true power, the true knowledge of our existence though, those who call themselves magi… always knew, yes? Ever knowing truth the idol–worshipping masses could simply not fathom, eh? That there were no gods, only magic that thrived on the power in both the living and dying of all things. Truly enlightened and learned magi knew this.”

“Of course we did!” Menchoir said.

“The magi knew nothing!” the old man roared. “Denying the simplest of explanations for power they believed the magic ethereal, unconnected from most yet prevalent in all. The most simple and basic answer was ignored, played away as the ramblings of an ignorant world, and in so doing the greater question was ignored. There is only one God, Menchoir. It is He you have to thank for the magic.”

The master’s words slammed through Menchoir’s mind, his way of speaking grating against his senses, all Menchoir had ever known challenged by the only man he’d ever truly believed his superior. “Magic has died?” Menchoir asked.

“As you have known it, it dies by the moment. It trickles away and back to Him. Your magi have always known the power. But it was guarded secretly, jealously, even among your own. You believe in it because you can see it, manipulate it. The rest, the brotherhood of man, is not so lucky.” the master said.

“You no longer count yourself among us?” Menchoir asked.

“Your master has joined with the true magic, Menchoir. He has found that which he has sought.”

“If you have become one with the magic, how is it that it dies? You speak to confuse me.”

“You have answered your own question.” the master said. His face seemed to grow even more haggard, tired. “God never intended for the knowledge, for magic, to be so elusive to His children. But we are far more frail and fragile than all that. When the magi made the study of magic so elusive and elite to the masses, man became more interested in science and their own selfish natures than in His gifts. And in so doing, they made the study of magic a game at best and an affront to humanity at worst. How many times have mothers hid their children from you as you made your way, eh? They whisper about you, worried you will turn their camels to straw. He never intended magic to be so. He intended it for all. Perhaps the magi have their own natures to blame. Perhaps if they would have freely shared the knowledge.” the master said.

“I do not see how we can be held to fault,” Menchoir said. “Men are ignorant, savage. They choose not to believe. They are incapable of understanding true power.”

“You are different?” the master asked. “You are a man just as the shepherd or king. Magic is changing, growing in use but diminishing in selfish desire.” He stopped speaking and slowly closed his eyes.

“What is it?” Menchoir asked.

“You have important work. You are young and strong, a man of good heart. You can learn the new ways. Your master’s life is too closely wrapped to the old. This task you have undertaken, it is far greater than the coin the brute seeks, the curiosity your scholar looks to slake or your own desire to understand. Your task will change the world. It will change all knowledge. And, it will change magic at its very core.” the master said.

Menchoir had forgotten his quest, his party. Even now he could hear the ghosts of their voices calling to him. “Then… please… thank this God for this moment He allowed us.”

“The key to unlocking the magic requires you to tell Him that yourself. If you seek the knowledge, if you seek the power, you must now ask it of Him. Follow His words and ways. Sometimes, the magic will work. Sometimes, it will not. You will not always see it, feel it. But, you must always have faith in it. If you have such faith, you and all others that follow will be rewarded.” The master rolled the scroll before him tightly and regarded it as if he held a child. “To spread the word of the new magic, God has sent His only Son, to be a beacon to those without faith or cause, for all to use their faith to unlock His magic.”

“The mother we seek…” Menchoir started.

“God has deemed His Son be born and grow as all men, so He may know their pains and trials. The woman you seek carries the child of God. You must protect and keep them from harm until the babe is born. Tell your scholar to cast his eyes eastward this night. Now go, and be wary. Just as there are forces for good there are forces that keep the birth of the Son as ill omen for their cause.” The master handed Menchoir the scroll. “Your master’s last spell; it will require more than your voice to release it.”

“I shall never forget you,” Menchoir whispered.

“Do not mourn your master, Menchoir. Have faith in the one God, and know that He watches over you on your quest.”


“Menchoir! Menchoir!” The mage’s eyelids fluttered open to see the large glob of water fall from the pitcher held over his head. He sputtered, gasping at the sudden cold. Balthazar smiled like a child caught in a prank.

“I am awake, brute!” Menchoir gasped, shaking his head to clear away the last of the cobwebs. Caspar helped him to unsteady legs. “How long…” he started to ask, the taste of sake still strong on his lips.

“A few moments, Menchoir.” Caspar said. The scholar started fussing with his eyelids, lifting them and looking deep into his pupils. “Are you well?”

“I believe so."

“Menchoir…” Balthazar said. The mage looked at him then back to the scroll in his fist. “…you were not holding that before you fell.”

“You are as observant as you are oafish, Balthazar.” Menchoir said as he slid the scroll inside his robes.

“What happened?” Balthazar asked.

“My master called for our spirits to meet,” Menchoir turned to Caspar. “We are to look east this night.”

“And what are we looking for?” Balthazar asked, annoyed. “We should be seeking the mother. Herod’s proclamation will have spread, and any with a male child will try to leave the city.”

“I fail to see the worth in going out to traipse across the desert with no real direction, either. We could easily go one way while the woman goes another. But I have been told east, and east is where I shall go.” Menchoir said.

“That would be better than standing in this room doing nothing at all!” Balthazar added angrily.

“A thousand pardons…” Caspar said, “…but we should be on our way; east. If that is the direction we are to look, logically that is the direction they will go.” The mage and warrior turned and regarded the scholar. Caspar shrugged his shoulders. “Sometimes, the simplest answer is the correct answer.” he said.

“And sometimes, the correct answer is not so simple a thing.” Menchoir said, his traveling satchel full of the bits of flora and fauna for his more powerful spells suddenly at hand.


It had taken more than two hours for them to leave the city, Herod’s proclamation having clogged the various egresses as soldiers inspected every bundle and cart. During their waiting Menchoir explained his meeting with is master. Caspar hadn’t placed matters of faith high on his list and continued to question and probe long after Menchoir was forced to repeat himself. For Balthazar, Menchoir’s tale was just that. The warrior held no god and had faith only in his sword and the arm that carried it. It was enough for Balthazar to know in the end he could gain some measure of satisfaction and not a small amount of gold by seeing their quest through. He patted his coin purse each time he spoke, the purse that contained one-half his fee paid to him by their mysterious employer.

They had spoken little of that shadowy figure in their time together. Each had been hired separately and each could vividly recall their meeting. But just as each knew these things, each drew a blank when they tried to picture the man’s face. Caspar attributed it to a life–long inability to remember faces, though he knew it to be more. The loss of the man’s features had actually been one of the reasons Menchoir had stayed with the quest, knowing that such things were rarely the fault of the observer and more likely done by intent. And it was painfully clear that Balthazar could care less on the face of their employer so long as his coin could be seen. Such uncertainty of the mind made for uncomfortable talk, so each decided to avoid it as much as possible. Now in light of Menchoir’s vision, each had come to the conclusion it was perhaps best not to dwell on it further.


The sun had set by the time they found a discernible track in the shifting sands. They continued east, heartened by the tracks; those of a man and a mule walking side by side, the latter leaving deep impressions as if weighted. While Balthazar kept his eyes to the ground and Menchoir kept his to the horizon Caspar cast his gaze where it was most comfortable; to the stars. The pinpoints had finally started to show through night’s curtain. Every few feet the astrologer would hold his lantern to his charts, mumbling or making slight changes in their course. They kept on this way for a time until Menchoir looked behind them to see the scholar had stopped. Caspar stared, mouth agape, into the sky.

“Looks like stars to me.” Balthazar said.

“Caspar…” Menchoir gently shook his shoulder and squinted up, hoping to see what enthralled the scholar.

“There…” Caspar whispered. He dropped his prized chart and pointed to the sky. “Do you see it?”

“I see only stars. I need you to give them meaning.” Menchoir said.

“There is a new star.” Caspar’s arm remained stock–straight, his finger jabbing into the night. The warrior held his hand up as if to shade his eyes and squinted.

“Looks the same to me as it ever has.” Balthazar said.

“The stars have remained unchanged for a thousand years, Balthazar,” Caspar said, “and yet, there it is. A star that was not there just last night…”

As they looked on, thin tracers of light suddenly shot from the star in all directions, their paths bringing them low to the ground. Several of them sped over their heads, illuminating the night. In the sudden light, the warrior’s eye caught movement just ahead. He squinted hard at it and let out a grunt. “There… due east; large enough to be an animal.”

Caspar peeled his eyes away from the sky and pulled a small cylinder from his robe. He pointed it east and peered through it. “Not a camel… a donkey. And it is burdened.” The trio set off over the sands moving towards the shape as the sky dimmed back to night. Without warning, Balthazar stopped.

“What…” Menchoir whispered. Balthazar pointed several yards ahead where a large shape moved just below the surface of the dune.

“Caspar…” Balthazar whispered, pointing at the scholar’s lantern. Caspar moved a plate affixed to its side, forcing the light through a small hole. When the beam of light hit the mound it stilled.

“Whatever it is, we have its attention…” Menchoir said.

“Keep the light on it,” Balthazar said. He slid his scimitar from his sash and crept across the sands, taking a less than direct approach towards the end of the light. The warrior closed to within a few feet of the mound then stopped short, the sound of shifting sand hissing from behind. He strained his ears, his arms spread out in anticipation until suddenly he spun his sword and sank it into the sands.

The world went red and hot in that instant. Balthazar screamed as a geyser of flame shot up around his sword like wine past an ill–fitting cork, the force of the eruption throwing him into the air to land several feet away towards his companions.

The shape of a man covered in flames rose up from the sands. Easily half again larger in all dimensions than Balthazar it towered over them. It was smiling. Caspar took in its massive horns and cloven feet and dropped his lantern from nerveless fingers. Menchoir heard Balthazar groan. He was a short distance away from them, between them and the monster. His hair reduced to a smoldering clump, the warrior slowly rose to his feet. Steam and smoke wisped away from his body as he raised his sword and let out a hoarse cry for battle.

“Balthazar! No!” Menchoir cried, his feet already moving. Balthazar seemed not to hear or care. Menchoir’s lips moved soundlessly, his hands crumbling a bit of dried ginger. He grabbed the warrior about the shoulders, his hands glowing in a soft blue light. Aided by magic, his strength was enough to throw the warrior behind him to land at Caspar’s feet. The creature opened its mouth, sending a stream of flame towards the mage. Menchoir flipped backwards and let his momentum carry him back as the flames blasted the ground he had occupied.

“I should kill you… magi…” Balthazar groaned as he got to his feet.

“It would have melted you as easily as it did that!” Menchoir said, pointing to the warrior’s hand.

“Look at your sword!” Caspar said. The flame had warped and melted the blade, making it little more than a steel club. The demon laughed then looked down at its feet. There in the sand was Balthazar’s coin purse. It plucked the pouch from the sand, sniffed it then leered at the group.

“Gold…” it hissed. “So precious…” The demon made a show of licking the leather pouch with the tip of its forked tongue. It cupped the bag in its taloned hand and laughed as flames consumed both bag and metal, gold dripping through its fingers and hissing into the sands. “…and so fragile. Just like man.” The demon folded its arms across its massive chest and stared down at them. “The Son of the Accursed One is to be born, the hope of all His weak, insignificant children, and this is what they send? Against me? It is good my master did not come. To me, you are nothing. To him, you would have been insult most foul.”

“If we are so small, why send you at all? Why not simply have the desert swallow them?” Menchoir asked. He knew such conversation would do little for them, but the longer they kept the demon occupied the more time they bought the blessed couple to get further away.

“The will of my master is not subject to the question of worms,” the demon said.

Menchoir shot a look behind him. Caspar stood only because his legs were locked by fear, his eyes set open as he watched the demon start slowly towards them. Menchoir said a small, silent word of introduction to this new God.

“Prayer?” the demon growled as it stalked near them, sensing Caspar’s silent plea then turned back to Menchoir. “You are of the East, magi. What would you know of the Accursed One, eh? He will not listen to heathens and fools. You are godless, worth even less than these other maggots.”

Menchoir shoved his hand into his satchel and pulled out a small glass globe, a faint blue mist swirling inside it. He crushed the globe in his hand, wincing as the tiny, razor–like shards sank into his palm while he called out a word in a language long–dead. The swirling vapor mixed with his blood, turning the mist to its color. It hung in the air a moment then expanded, roiling as the demon neared to cloud the party in its haze. The mist colored their vision crimson, making the flames from the now-enraged demon seem all the more hellish. But the sudden respite from the site of the demon was enough to snap Caspar out of his terror–induced coma, bringing him back to the world no less terrified but more or less in control of his senses. Balthazar kept glaring at the hazy shape of the demon through the mists, his near–useless sword clutched at his side.

“I could have…” Balthazar began angrily.

“Got killed?” Menchoir supplied helpfully. “Yes, and us with you.”

The demon roared outside, pounding on their now-solid, misty shell. “What are we to do? Wait until it tires and goes away?” Caspar asked.

“The mist will not last long. At best we have a moment to collect ourselves,” Menchoir said.

“It has already taken my gold! I will be damned if I will allow it to slaughter me without battle!” Balthazar said.

Menchoir kneeled as the demon raged outside. He pulled the scroll from his robe and placed it unopened on his legs. “If you have not noticed, your sword is wasted and the only thing keeping your legs under you is stubborn nature.”

“Then what are we to do?” Caspar asked, flinching with each blow to their shell. “The mists are already starting to fade!”

“I suggest we call upon a new weapon.” Menchoir said.

“Bah! Do something useful with your magic and make my sword whole again! I will make the demon rue this day!” Balthazar said.

“What do you mean?” Caspar interrupted. “The faith you spoke of, to the one God?” Menchoir nodded and folded his hands over the scroll. Caspar traded his glance between the seething warrior and the mage before settling himself beside Menchoir. “I will regard this as an experiment.” he whispered softly to Menchoir.

Several of the demon’s fingers poked through the mists, hissing as they sliced through the ethereal barrier. Balthazar roared and pulled a curved dagger from his sash, bringing it around to slice through the offending digits. But as soon as it hit the demon’s skin it melted in a dull red flash in his hand, bits of melted steel dripping onto him. He screamed and dropped to his knees, cradling his hand.

“Nice of you to join us, Balthazar,” Menchoir said wryly. Balthazar looked up, pain mixed with hate in his eyes.

“May your gods burn as I do!” Balthazar spat into the sand. “If your god is so powerful, why has he not come to our aid? Eh? If he is so great, why does he allow his son to be in peril?”

“Perhaps we have not asked for His help.” Menchoir said.

“Perhaps it is because he does not exist!” Balthazar shot back. He was looking less like a man and more like an over–baked loaf with each passing attack.

The demon’s whole hand breached the barrier above them, clawing and reaching at the air over their heads. Caspar sat transfixed for a moment before he caught Balthazar’s wounded gaze. “Balthazar, is the demon real?”

“Fah!” Balthazar exclaimed and spat, ducking his head. “As real as my sword when I cleave you in two…”

“If the demon is real, logically there is a hell from which it sprung. Yes?” Caspar interrupted. Balthazar kneeled more deeply in the sand to avoid the probing hand and nodded just slightly at the scholar. “It would stand to reason for hell to exist there must also be heaven. And if there is heaven, a God rules that heaven, just as the demon claims a master in hell, yes? The presence of the demon supports the existence of both hell and heaven. I would suggest we seek it… quickly.”

Balthazar grumbled on his weak companions and tried to mimic the posture of the mage as best his singed body could. Each fell silent in counterpoint to the still–shrieking demon outside.
“Show yourself to me! Show me you are worthy of my worship!” Balthazar challenged at the corners of his mind.


Balthazar found himself on a lone dune under high sun. He was shirtless and armed with his scimitar, both of them whole and new, the sting of windborne grit on his heavily scarred and tattooed flesh. A warrior that would’ve made the demon a dwarf stood before him. He was dressed in a robe of white that shimmered so brightly Balthazar couldn’t make out his face. The chest of his robe fluttered open in the desert breezes, revealing the tattoos of a chieftain. Each hand held a scimitar larger and finer than any Balthazar had ever seen.

“It is you that must prove yourself worthy to receive my blessings, warrior. Come…” his opponent said. Balthazar smiled and brought his scimitar to the fore as the two crashed together in glorious battle.


Caspar looked about. The workshop was vast, endless. Tables full of odd contraptions sat everywhere. Massive sculptures and tiny portraits sat haphazardly about the place. There were no windows. In their places stood shelves that ran down the length of the room and out of his sight filled with all manner and sizes of tomes, scrolls and reams. His eyes followed up one of the shelves until it ended in an inky blackness across the ceiling. He gasped and stumbled backwards as he beheld a perfect map of the night sky where the ceiling should be. Many of the stars he recognized, but there were many more he’d never seen. In awe of such perfection, he failed to notice the small, bald and bearded man threading toward him from the depths of the laboratory.
“You like the stars?” the man asked, smiling. The sudden words snapped Caspar’s head back to regard him.

“This is… incredible! How…” Caspar said.

“That is a story for which you have not the time, nor the comprehension.” A stool suddenly appeared and the old man sat.

“Are you… ah…” Caspar started. The man smiled warmly and picked up a small, half–assembled clock from a table.

“I am all and yet nothing, childe,” the man said. “You could consider me a creator, an inventor, an architect like yourself. You could consider me more than that, or less. But in all things, I would at least warrant consideration.”

“What is this place?” Caspar asked.

“What you see here is what man is capable of achieving.” the man said.

Caspar looked around the room, trying to memorize everything he saw. A thought struck as he looked in all directions. “I see no walls here… it seems to just… go on…”

He smiled at Caspar. “There are no walls… man was conceived to be limitless in potential. The ceiling is nothing but the heavens since that is where man can reach. Some projects in this room are of my design. You, for example.” the old man chuckled softly. “Some represent knowledge man has discovered. As he seeks knowledge and truth, more tomes are written, more inventions are born… and the workshop grows. You sprang from my knowledge, crafted in my image so that you too could seek knowledge.”

“Could you not simply give man such knowledge? There would be no war, no kings… if all men would have such knowledge…” Caspar said.

“If I did what you suggest, man would never strive, achieve. He would never be forced to a moral choice and he would never develop the curiosity so vital to his existence.” He stood slowly, the stool gone. “A question; what would you do if you knew everything? All the knowledge world and stars have to offer. I know you as I know all my children. You would shrivel away to nothing. With nothing left to learn, no curiosity to slake? I have placed knowledge throughout this world and these stars, in the hopes that man would seek it, better themselves… to learn. Consider it my own great experiment.”

“But that very thing makes proving your existence all the more difficult. Science does not allow for what cannot be proven. If you cannot offer yourself up to study, how do you expect man to follow you, to worship you? You have created paradox.” Caspar said.

“I guess I have, eh?” the man said. “Faith, my child. Science, technology, crafting… I have given these as tools. Valuing them is of no affront to me. But the intricacies and exacting natures of these things must be placed in balance if they are to lead to true enlightenment. That balance is faith. If a man can balance faith and science, there is nothing he cannot achieve. You have been a teacher, Caspar. Why? Why take the time to teach others?”

Caspar was quiet for a moment. “I enjoy it.”

“Why, Caspar?” he asked.

“I take pleasure in seeing others learn.”

“And in the process, do you learn as well?” the old man asked.

“Yes, I suppose I do.” Caspar answered.

“Our philosophies are not so different then. I take pleasure in teaching my children. And, just every so often, even I learn something from them.” He chuckled again, this time turning and moving off between the tables.

“Wait!” Caspar said, suddenly remembering the demon. “I have more questions!”

“Then you should seek their answers.” the man answered over his shoulder.

“What about your Son? What about the demon?” Caspar asked.

The old man stopped. “My Son is also a crafter and scholar, much like me and much like you, much as He will be in the world of men. He will have important knowledge for you all one day.” He started walking again and the room began to swirl around Caspar. “As to the demon, they absolutely despise silver… silver and myrrh.”


Menchoir sat in meditation. He called to this God but nothing would come. He asked over and again; no sign, no vision, no voice from beyond. He had done as his master had told him and still no answer would come, no proof of His presence. Balthazar’s sudden, pained gasp broke his trance just in time to flatten gracefully as the demon’s whole arm broke through the barrier and swept over him. A bright flash of light suddenly flared from the warrior’s body, destroying the tattered remains of their protective shell and hurling Balthazar several feet through the air to land behind Caspar, his useless sword burying its blade in the sand nearby. Menchoir pulled his legs beneath him, rolled in the same direction and spun to face the demon in the same motion, nearly bowling Caspar over in the same instant.

“That was a pointless and deadly waste of time!” Menchoir whispered to Caspar as they both looked up into the grinning face of the demon.

“Was it? I found it enlightening.” Caspar said. Menchoir took a look behind them at the warrior face-down in the sand.

“The demon has claimed Balthazar,” Menchoir reached down and picked his scroll from the sand where it had dropped. “And God has not deemed to aid us. I only hope there is enough magic left to power this.”

“Your prayers have gone unanswered!” the demon hissed. It extended its neck, gnashing its teeth at them. Menchoir opened his master’s gift. The scroll was blank. He flipped it over several times, trying to find the spell captured in the skin. He found no words, no arcane symbols.

“It seems they have,” Menchoir said, still clutching the empty scroll. He stood quickly and raised a hand as thin, spidery words of magic crawled from his mouth. A glowing ball of bright red energy shot like an arrow and slammed into the demon’s chest. It fell back only a few yards, still on its hooves. Caspar stood up beside the magi and calmly slid his traveling pouch to its normal position across his chest. Menchoir’s mouth opened slightly, whispering another string of powerful words.

Caspar leaned over to Menchoir as if they were seat mates at dinner. “Demons hate silver and myrrh.” he said, as if talking about the dry meat at the table without the host overhearing.

What?” Menchoir exclaimed, the banal statement enough to break his concentration from the spell he had been weaving.

“I have it on good authority that demons hate these things. Do you have any?” Caspar’s nonchalance fueled a dark look from the magi as the demon spread its arms wide and roared at them.

“I have no silver!” Menchoir screamed above the demon’s cry. But the seemingly careless manner of the scholar had jolted his mind away from the absolute terror of the moment. He shoved his hand into his satchel of magical components and came up with a fig leaf–wrapped bundle. “I do have myrrh…” He offered it to the scholar along with a look of sheer confusion. They were about to be incinerated in a burst of hell-fire and Caspar was concerned with spices. It seemed a fitting end.

Caspar opened the leaf and palmed the pile of powdered, pungent spice. The demon bent towards them and started to inhale, the breath expanding its chest as the smell of brimstone rushed at them. Tiny flames started to dance from its nostrils as Caspar flicked his wrist, sending the powder into the air. The tiny flecks followed the demon’s inhalation deep into its chest. The demon ceased its breath, its eyes growing wide as it took first one then another step backwards. A taloned hand wrapped itself around its neck as if it were choking. It dropped to its knees, coughing great gouts of flame that turned the sand under it to glass.

“We have learned something this day, eh Menchoir?” Caspar said, completely unaffected by the sickened demon expelling fire and ash just a few yards away. “Though I feel we should do something else… he will be rather displeased with us once his wind returns.”

“How did you know about the myrrh?” Menchoir asked.

“God told me,” the scholar said simply. “Did he not speak to you?”

“No.” Menchoir answered.

“It was you that told us of Him,” Caspar said. “If any of us were to find Him, I would have thought…”

“It was not!” Menchoir said. “My spell was not nearly as powerful as I had designed! As my master said, magic is dying!”

The demon ceased its heaving and rose menacingly to its hooves. “Your deaths shall be slow…” it wheezed, “…you will feel the flames of hell on earth before you are consumed by them in the domain of my master!”

“I must concentrate…” Menchoir said, placing his feet wide apart and lowering his head. “I have no spell that will slay this demon. I only hope we can slow him more from his pursuit.”

Caspar watched the demon for a moment before his ears caught the pained moan. With his lantern half–buried in the sands behind them, the only light in the desert was from the demon’s own flaming skin, enough light to see Balthazar stir behind them. “The warrior lives!” he whispered, more to himself than the chanting mage beside him. Caspar turned back to the demon and watched as it started to close across the sands, though more hesitantly than before. Had the myrrh given it pause? “Menchoir!” Caspar whispered. The mage did not respond, only kept to his chanting. The magi’s body had started to glow softly, though Caspar had the notion that in another time such a fete from the talented mage would have lit up the night sky. Already, even the glow he had achieved was fading from him though his chanting came more feverish with each passing moment.

“It dies, mage,” the demon hissed, “I know it dies. It is fitting that you die with it!” Caspar took the measure of the demon’s stride. He was toying with them, moving with deliberate ease to intensify their fear. For all his new-found confidence Caspar was no fool. Their deaths were imminent. Perhaps God had need of a laboratory assistant? He supposed he would find out soon enough. A sudden notion took hold of him, powerful enough to risk grabbing the mage to shake him from his casting. As he grabbed Menchoir’s shoulders and broke his concentration the magical energy he’d been forming released instantly. With no will to control it the power exploded, the shockwaves throwing the pair apart by more than a dozen yards. The demon was taken by surprise as much as the mortals at the explosion. Powerful, but only enough to give him pause.

“Caspar! Damn you to the abyss!” Menchoir said as he struggled to his feet, hand still clutching the useless scroll. “If you would have let me finish the spell…”

“The demon stands! The magic would have done nothing then as it did now!” Caspar shot back as he half–walked, half–crawled towards the magi. “That power is gone, Menchoir! Even I could see it failing.”

The demon stood laughing at the mortals as they crawled across the sands. “I have had my fill of this, however amusing it may be.” It breathed twin gouts of fire through its nose and started at them, its pace far quicker than before.

“Menchoir!” Caspar yelled. “You didn’t visit your master! That was your vision! Menchoir… God did speak to you! What did he say?”

Menchoir thought back. It had not truly been his master, at least not his mortal master, had it? He cursed himself a fool. There were so many questions he’d have asked. The new magic was faith, faith in the one God; unseen and untouchable. He’d been given the scroll, but his own words alone were not enough. Was the magic he held in his hand the last vestiges of a dying power? Or was it the first spell of this new magic, gifted from the one God?

He held the scroll up before him and turned to face the demon. Closing his eyes, he spoke first to himself then to the one God. His vision explained if to no one other than himself, he found he did have faith in this One God, and that he could believe in His power. He’d sought to fight the demon with what little remained of the old magic when he should’ve had faith enough to embrace the new. He prayed there to the one God, acknowledging Him and the power that faith in Him could unleash. When he opened his eyes the scroll had sprouted a single word in its center.

The demon stopped there in the sand just as Menchoir’s eyes shot open, feeling the power of the magi's prayer. More importantly, it knew there’d been an answer. Its face a mask of hate it turned in mid stride and went straight for him. Caspar cried out and tried to get to the Menchoir before the demon did and knowing he wouldn’t make it. But just as Caspar had been upon awakening from his own prayers there in the desert Menchoir had become now. His face was peaceful, unlined and seemed to glow with an inner light visible in the desert gloom. The magi raised his hand as the demon let out a tortured roar, the horrendous sound drowning out the word he spoke off the scroll from Caspar’s ears.

A beam of intense, white light shot from the magi’s hand, the same light that’d tossed Balthazar away when their magical barrier had been shredded. The light slammed into the demon with the force of a thousand suns, shoving it backwards through the sand and washing out its own hellish light. The glow around the demon slowly faded, leaving a softly–glowing yet solid chunk of ice where it had once stood.

“By God…” Caspar said.

“Yes,” Menchoir said as he walked to where the scholar had stopped. “By God.”

“Are you… well?” Caspar asked, tearing his eyes from the confined demon to examine Menchoir.

“As well as I have ever been friend Caspar, perhaps more. We should go to them now. Mark your map so that we may return for Balthazar’s body…” Menchoir started then stopped. A tiny red glow had started in the center of the ice, a glow that was intensifying by the moment. Great cracks formed and just as quickly as it had been imprisoned the demon was free in a shower of icy slivers. It stood a moment, its chest heaving violently as it shook off small bits of ice and water from its crimson skin as if they were acid.

“So much for that,” Caspar said. “Would you happen to have another scroll?”

“No.” Menchoir answered. He looked down at his empty hand, the scroll no longer there.

“Well, he does not look happy with us...” Caspar said.

“I would think not.” Menchoir watched the demon remove the last bits of steaming ice and start for them. But it didn’t shine with firelight as it had before and with each step it took its flaming skin faded that much more. “He is… weaker.”

“But he is not weak enough for the likes of you two!” a deep, growling voice called from behind them.

“Balthazar!” Caspar exclaimed. The warrior stood over his plunged sword as his savaged skin reformed and his hair grew back to its wild and proper length before their eyes in the dimming light of the demon’s form. He reached down and gripped the now-jeweled pommel of his weapon and yanked it up into the air, catching it as the hilt swung back down to him in a graceful arc. The worthless blade glowed with that same light, restoring it as if fresh from the forge.

“Demon!” Balthazar roared, exulting in his healed body and perfect sword. “God has granted His favor! I am His sword, His enemies mine! Face me and die honorably! Turn from me and die a coward!”

The demon regarded the warrior only a moment before taking a breath and roaring fire at him. But instead of jetting across the sands the flames shot only a few paces away and disappeared. The demon tried again and was rewarded with only a gust of sulfurous air. Balthazar smiled wickedly and charged across the dune, his battle cry ending only when he came within his sword of the beast.

It raged at him, massive claws searching for a chink in the warrior’s spirit. With each attempt Balthazar was able to find the demon’s own weaknesses. With each rage-fueled attack, Balthazar snaked his scimitar past the demon’s fury. Caspar and Menchoir watched their dance of death as the demon’s blood sizzled like fat on the warrior’s blade. When finally the demon managed to land its claws across Balthazar’s chest he paused only for a moment to watch the flaming scars before launching his own attack, his laughter chilling the onlookers almost as much as the demon’s had done.

“He is… not right, is he?” Caspar asked Menchoir quietly, nodding towards the berserker warrior. Menchoir didn’t even look away from the battle and gave only a slight nod in reply. Moments later the beast made its last mistake. With a cry of victory Balthazar ran his scimitar into the demon’s gut and shoved upward, slicing the demon’s heart in two. The demon opened its mouth but was cut short by an explosion that made the desert night as day. Caspar and Menchoir shielded their eyes against the sudden glare, and when they looked again the desert night had returned.

“Balthazar?” Menchoir called out quietly into the suddenly still night.

“Do not fear, mage. I am still with you. Someone needs to protect you weaklings,” Balthazar answered from the gloom. Caspar scanned the dune until he found a pinprick of light winking back at him. He walked to it and plucked his still-burning lantern from the sands. Caspar turned the shutter completely open and held the lamp in the air, revealing nothing more than their tracks. No trace of the demon was left save bits of glass from its myrrh–induced sickness glinting in the lamplight, that and something that glowed metallic on the spot where the demon had met its fate.

“What is that?” Caspar asked, focusing the shutter on the lump in the sand. Balthazar reached down, picked it up and bit at a corner of the roughly–shaped brick.

“Gold!” Balthazar said breathlessly. “Demons turn to gold when they are slain!” He held the bar aloft in one hand, his perfect sword in the other. “You are truly a just and great God!” he exclaimed to the heavens.

“Well, that is one way to ensure Balthazar’s sword in His service.” Menchoir said.

“I would not want to be a demon within a thousand dunes of Balthazar,” Caspar said. He produced one of his maps and after a few moments and several glances to the new star he nodded. “Still East.”

“What lies that way?” Menchoir asked as they started their trek across the dunes once more.

“There is a small town. Bethlehem, I believe they call it and not so far from here. If she is heavy with child we should seek there first. Perhaps they have taken refuge.” Caspar said.


They found the inn almost immediately in their path at the edge of the town. Men both rough and refined, scholars and shepherds and all manner in between and animals by the score littered the ground outside the stables. They picked their way through the crowd and stopped where a young boy sat on the ground, a small drum made of stretched goat skin over an earthen pot on his folded legs.

“Child… what is all this?” the mage asked.

“You were not called here? Did the angels not appear before you? The son of God has been born this night, there in the stables!” the boy said, his face alive with joy.

“It seems we have found the proper place and all is well.” Caspar said.

“We should see for ourselves. We have not come this far to take the word of a child.” Balthazar said.

“Agreed.” Menchoir said. The crowd parted as they continued on, the warning whispers about the approach of the magi and the warrior leaping yards ahead of them. By the time they made their way into the stable most of the people had respectfully thinned, giving them access to the stall where the Son had been born.

“Who are you?” the new mother asked, her eyes narrowing at the sight of the huge sword at Balthazar’s hip.

“We are…” Balthazar started before Caspar stepped up between the warrior and mage.

“We are from the East,” Caspar interrupted, nodding towards Menchoir as a way of explaining his facial features little seen in these lands. “We have heard the call and have come to give our good tidings to the Son of God, King of all men.”

“You are magi?” a tall, bearded man asked from the other side of the cradle.

“Uh, yes. Magi.” Balthazar said, awkwardly sliding his robes to cover the hilt of his sword.

“Gifts we bring to the newborn Son,” Caspar said, trying to cover Balthazar’s weak explanation. “Tokens, really,” he added to the dark looks his companions gave him. He fumbled in his pouch and came up with another, smaller pouch. “This is frankincense. It can aid in clearing congestion and bad humors of the lungs.” He handed the pouch to the mother and stepped back, avoiding the eyes of his companions.

“Yes… hmm…” Menchoir mumbled. He rooted around in his own satchel and came out with another fig–wrapped parcel. “This is myrrh. Among other things, it has the power to… ward off evil spirits.” He handed this to the father and stepped back respectfully from the cradle. The babe slept peacefully, far more peacefully than he would’ve expected one so fresh from the womb.

Balthazar kept looking between the parents, the babe and sidelong at his companions. “I have nothing to give!” he whispered harshly. “I have only my sword! My gift of slaying the demon should be more than enough…”

“You have more than your sword.” Menchoir reminded him. Balthazar’s eyes went wide, his sash suddenly heavy where the glob of gold hung inside it.

“You cannot mean… I will be left with nothing from this!”

Nothing?” Caspar asked. “You saved the life of the Son of God. That would be something I would think.”

Balthazar’s eyes narrowed as he swore ever–so–softly in his native tongue. At that, the child’s eyes flicked open to regard them. If he hadn’t known better, Menchoir would’ve thought the baby was amused by Balthazar’s inner turmoil. The warrior sighed heavily, reached up under his sash and pulled out the fist–size bar of gold. “To help provide for the Son.” he mumbled roughly. The father exchanged looks with his wife as Balthazar set the gold down beside the makeshift cradle.

“Magi… it is too much! We cannot accept such…”

Please!” Balthazar said through clenched teeth, a sidelong glance to his snickering companions. “I insist.”

The parents nodded gratefully. “You have our thanks for your fine gifts. I am sure they will all be put to good use.”

“It is we who should thank you, for bringing the new King among us.” Caspar said earnestly.

“We should go now. I am sure the family would like a chance to rest.” Menchoir said. The three said their goodbyes and left the stable, passing among the growing throng and back into the cool desert night, walking to the tune of Balthazar’s grumbling.

Gifts we bring…” Balthazar whined in imitation of Caspar. “Tokens, really…”


To you and yours, I wish a Merry Christmas and the best of the season. If you're not of a sort to celebrate Christmas per se, then insert your preferred holiday here. And please remember; you don't have to be of a certain religious faith, or have any particular sort of faith at all, to be a decent human being. So live, love and laugh, no matter what you may follow or who you may lead, and enjoy the Yule for what it may mean to you.

Oh, yeah... and just write, damn it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monsters - Fiction

I've been toying with the idea for this story for awhile, and now, Dear Reader, I need your help. Your thoughts would be appreciated and each will be valued just as highly as I value your readership. So what say you? Does the story end here, or does it go forth? - Author

“Daddydaddydaddydaddy a monster!”

Frank pried his eyes open and looked at the clock on the bedside table; two-ten a.m. “She’s calling for you.” Brenda, his wife, groaned from her side.

“I did it last time.” Frank said with a sigh even as he pulled off the blankets and swung his bare feet onto the cold floor. It was a moot point, really. Brenda had tried to soothe little Karen’s irrational monster-fear a few times over the last month, but their little girl had made it perfectly clear that monsters were 100% daddy’s department. “I’m coming, honey.” Frank called out as he stood and headed for the bedroom door.

“Don’t forget the bat.” Brenda said from the lump under the blankets. Anytime Daddy had to come chase the monsters away Karen insisted he come armed, and there was no arguing the point. Frank nodded and grabbed the Louisville Slugger from the corner by the door before going down the hall.

“It’s all right, Karen.” Frank said as he pushed open her door. He stopped just inside and held the bat up in one hand to show he’d come prepared. Karen sat huddled at the head of her small bed with her stuffed lion, Harry, clutched to her chest. Frank took in the real fear in her eyes and the sheen of nightmare sweat on her brow in the dim light of her happy-clown nightlight then came into the room and sat on the edge of her bed. “It was just another nightmare.” Frank said. Karen launched herself at him and curled up in his lap to bury her face in his chest. Her hot tears soaked through his white t-shirt as his free hand alternated between smoothing her disheveled hair and patting her back.

“No it wasn’t! They were real!” Karen said. They? Frank thought to himself. Great. Now there was more than one? The therapist had told them it was good for Karen to talk about her experiences with the “monsters”. The more irrational details they could draw out of her, the more ammunition they would have to show her what she saw couldn’t possibly be real.

“There were two of them this time?” Frank asked. Karen’s breathing was slowing to a more normal rate now and her trembling had almost ceased in her father’s protective arms.

“Uh huh.” Karen said, a tiny hitch in her throat giving the syllables an odd separation. “But I saw them this time! They weren’t just all black and shadows! They were really real!” Frank’s eyes narrowed a bit as he gently pulled her away enough to look at her. This was the first time Karen claimed to have actually seen her monsters in any sort of detail.

“Karen… what did they look like?” Frank asked. Karen swallowed hard and made a visible effort to calm herself.

“The one from under the bed… he’s a… a lizard-man! He was big and all green and scaly with these really big claws and teeth! He was so big I don’t know how he fit under my bed!” Karen said. Frank nodded, but he could already feel his features hardening. “The other one came from the closet.” Karen continued, “He was… he was a man, but his skin was gray and icky and he stunk really bad and his eyes glowed all green and…”

“Ssshh. It’s okay, Karen. It was just a bad dream. Remember what the doctor said?” Frank said. He was trying very hard to control his voice and hoped the dim clown-light would help hide his grim facial expression from his daughter.

No it wasn’t!” Karen screamed as her tears started flowing again. “When they came too close, Harry fought them and chased them away!” She held the stuffed lion out to him as if to demonstrate its fierce power. Frank glanced at the toy then did a double-take. The lion had several small gashes opened on its flanks, allowing tiny bits of fluff to poke through.

“Is everything okay?” Brenda asked from the open door, the sound of Karen’s last exclamation bringing her out of their warm bed. Frank didn’t bother looking up at her and instead tried to peel Harry from her grip.

“No, daddy! I need Harry! He protects me!” Karen said.

“I know honey, but he needs to get all sewn up so he doesn’t lose his stuffing. You don’t want that to happen, do you?” Frank asked. Brenda stiffened noticeably as the last bits of sleep cleared from her eyes and she saw the line of her husband’s jaw and the tense chords that were beginning to form in his muscles.

“What’s going on?” Brenda asked.

“It’s nothing, just another bad dream.” Frank said as he turned to her. The look in his eyes told her a different story.

“You told me this wasn’t going to happen…” Brenda started. Frank silenced her with a look then got up with Karen still in his arms.

“You’re going to sleep in Mommy and Daddy’s room tonight, honey.” Frank said to Karen. “Now, I want you to leave Harry here so I can fix him, okay? The monsters can’t get into Mommy and Daddy’s room.” Karen gave him a dubious look but reluctantly dropped the lion onto the bed. Frank dropped his bat there as well and pushed past Brenda to return to their bedroom.


“What the hell is going on, Frank?” Brenda whispered into her husband’s ear as they stood over their bed and watched Karen sleep. “You told me this wasn’t going to happen! You promised me all of that was over with!” she hissed. Frank moved into their closet but she stayed on his heels and closed the door behind them as Frank pulled the chain dangling from the overhead light. Both blinked against the sudden glare but Frank ignored it as his hands slid along one of the walls.

“Damn it, Frank! This is Karen’s life we’re talking about here! You said all of that was over with, you said there was nothing to worry about, that you were mine for a lifetime!” Frank ignored her as his hand continued to slide along the wall until a small piece of it popped open on hidden springs. Frank pulled the small leather bag from its concealment and examined it while Brenda fumed. “Oh no!” Brenda said when she saw the bag. “I knew it! I just knew this was going to happen! I should’ve known when she started seeing monsters that it wasn’t just a phase. We knew better!”

“No we didn’t, Brenda.” Frank said over his shoulder. “All kids see monsters at some point. She never saw them clearly. I know what to look for, and I never found any evidence that it was more than the usual kid fears.”

“Apparently you don’t know what to look for!” Brenda said more loudly than she’d intended. They both quieted and listened at the closet door to make sure her outburst hadn’t roused Karen before Brenda continued. “How could you not know this was really happening?”

“Has to be rouges.” Frank said absently as he regarded the pouch.

“No, Frank. You are not going back there!” Brenda said.

“I have to, Brenda. It’s the only way to stop this.” Frank said as he tried to push past her. Brenda braced an arm against the walls to either side of her, effectively blocking his path in the small confines of the closet.

“How do you know that? What if you get trapped there and can’t come back? What if you get hurt or killed or… worse? We were supposed to have a lifetime together.” Brenda paused a moment to wipe the tears from her eyes. “We can just move her room… or just have her sleep with us until the whole thing passes! Or just use the dust to protect us! They’ll get bored eventually when they can’t get to her…”

“No, they won’t get bored, and eventually I’d run out of dust. I know them, Bren’. This isn’t about keeping energy flowing into the Realm. It’s personal with these two.” Frank said. Brenda opened her mouth to speak but stopped when she realized Frank was already beginning his transformation. Frank nodded at her and she dropped her arms to her sides and stepped away from the door. She couldn’t have physically stopped her husband if he’d really wanted to push past her before he’d had the tiny bag in his thickening hand. Very soon, she’d be less effective than a gnat at stopping him from doing anything.

“I have to go.” Frank said as he leaned down and kissed her. Brenda’s lips tingled at his touch and her body felt instantly warm. She grabbed him by his suddenly too-tight t-shirt so that his kiss lingered just a moment longer on her lips. When they separated, the anger in her eyes had been replaced with both fear and love.

“I know.” Brenda said, defeated. “Be safe, and come back to us.” Frank nodded at her again then exited the closet. Brenda followed him out then crawled into their bed beside Karen. Frank carefully opened the pouch and dabbed a finger into it. When he pulled it out it was covered with tiny, glowing crystals. He held his hand over his family and snapped his fingers, allowing the dust to drift down onto the bed. The tiny bits continued to glow for a few moments more before finally fading away, leaving the two women in Frank’s life completely protected from anything that may come from the other side.


By the time Frank stepped into his daughter’s room and closed the door his shirt and pajama pants had become rags on his enlarged body. He absently pulled the tattered remnants away as he crossed the room and regarded the stuffed lion on Karen’s bed. “Time to go back to work, Havoc.” Frank said. His voice had become much deeper in tone and darker in spirit. It was his true voice, not the softer, quieter tone his human form had forced him to adopt. He smiled a little at the feeling of power that now coursed through him then sprinkled a bit of the glowing powder onto the toy and watched as the lion’s plush fur and thick mane filled with the stuff. The tears in its flanks slowly knitted themselves back together even as the thing began to grow. Frank watched as the toy’s limbs shifted and moved of their own accord and it’s glossy, plastic eyes turned to real, glistening ones. It opened its mouth, a mouth now filled with sharp fangs, and let out a low, throaty roar as its body continued to grow and change. Gone was the plush, artificial coat. In its place was a new coat, one just as smooth yet attached to a thick, living hide.

“Quiet! And get off the bed before you break it.” Frank said. Havoc stepped away from the bed and shook his great head, allowing his mane to flow free and long for the first time in a human’s decade. The massive lion growled low in its throat as it locked eyes with its master, companion and brother-in-arms. Less than a moment passed, but in that wisp of time Frank saw the events that had occurred in the room less than an hour before through Havoc’s eyes.

The beast growled again and padded to the closet door while Frank withdrew a palm-full of the glittering dust from the bag and tossed it into the air above his head. The sandy bits immediately clung to his form as they fell, and by the time the glow faded away Frank stood in the full and stately armor of his true post, his first calling… the armor of a Dream Lord. He picked up the baseball bat from the bed and touched it to the visor of his great helm in the traditional warrior’s salute. As soon as the wood touched the mithral helm the bat first stretched to half again its length then burst into flames, burning away the wood until, like Havoc and even Frank himself, its true form was regained. Frank slipped the gleaming bastard sword into the sheath on his back and joined Havoc at the closet door. The lion growled again, a sustained rumbling that Frank could feel reverberating across his chest plate.

“Yes, Havoc. I know. But if you ever want to sleep soundly in Karen’s arms again, we need to do this. Gilth and the Dead One have found us. Now that they have, none of us are safe in this world.” Frank said. Havoc’s growl changed ever so slightly in its pitch and tone for a moment. “I do not know how they found us or why the rest of the Dream Lords have not discovered and dealt with them. It seems it is up to us to ensure Karen and Brenda’s safety. You are not bound to this task, old friend. If you choose to remain I shall not hold it against you…” No sooner had the words left Frank’s lips than the lion coiled itself and sprung at the closet door. The wood exploded into shards and splinters under the ferocity of the beast’s charge, the sound of tearing wood and Havoc’s throaty roar echoing beyond the threshold giving Frank his answer.
Frank looked through the opening. In his natural form he saw all as it truly was. Where Brenda would see and a rack of Karen’s coats and dresses and forgotten board games, Frank saw nothing but an inky, swirling darkness on the other side. “You did not have to destroy the door…” Frank said under his breath as he ducked his head low and stepped through the ragged portal.


Once through the void and into the Twilight Realm, the human known as “Frank” sloughed away from him. Just as the veneer had turned to ashes from his beloved blade, Harvenger, just as Havoc had thrown off his mortal guise to reclaim his noble, savage form, this Dream Lord had regained his true identity. “Bastion” the night wind whispered through the lush, dark trees surrounding them. “Lord Bastion returns” the rustling leaves agreed. He walked across the black grasses and up a small hillock. Havoc was already at the top, surveying the land that they had not so long ago both served and lorded over. Havoc threw back his head and let loose with a roar that silenced the leaves and reminded the wind that not only had the Realm’s greatest Dream Lord returned but its greatest predator once again roamed the darkened land.

“If any missed the whispers of the wind they certainly know now that we have returned.” Bastion said. Havoc snorted through his wide nostrils and continued surveying the Realm. Here the magic was dark and the land caught in a perpetual state of twilight; no sun or moon, just that shade of light and night between them. Some of the creatures here could only exist under the moon, while others came to be in the sun’s rays. The constant twilight condition allowed for both to exist together, to share their mutual need for the dark energies from the mortal planes. Fear, anger, hatred, lust… these things fed them. But most were no more evil than they were good. Without the creatures of the Twilight Realm, those dark energies that burned so brightly in the fleeting lifespan of most mortal creatures would build until they were consumed by them. What humans that truly knew of them called them monsters, when in fact without them humanity would have imploded from its own carnal desires and would have ceased to be millennia ago.

“Come; let us find the other Lords. It is for them to deal with Gilth and the Dead One.” Bastion said. Havoc growled again, this time a softer though menacing rumble. “We are but guests here now, Havoc. Our return is not due for another 75 years by human reckoning. Our presence is suffered here now only because of our power and past glories. It is for the others to police the denizens of the Twilight Realm.” Bastion said as he and Havoc started down the other side of the hill towards the wide swath of meadow below. “But that does not mean we will not respond in kind should those two find us before we find my kin.” Bastion added.


The human concepts of measuring time and space held no power in the Realms beyond mortal ken. What was a moment in the Realms could be a week by human standards, and what passed for a mile in the waking world could stretch beyond imagination in the Realms. Bastion and Havoc had crossed either an immeasurable distance in a short amount of time or had made only a few steps in a month. Nothing had stepped forth from the great forest they now trod to accost them, the whispering wind and Havoc’s occasional roars reminding the rest of the beasts he had returned ensuring that any who would have at them knew they would be run through by the bastard sword Harvenger or devoured in Havoc’s toothy maw. There were few here that could stand against the trio and even fewer that would even try.

As a Dream Lord, Bastion had been charged with keeping the creatures of the Twilight Realm in check. It was the duty of he and the other Lords to make sure its denizens kept their forays into the mortal world to a minimum and took only what was needed. It was a constant balancing act to enforce the laws that kept humanity safe from its own baser desires while making sure the individual denizens of this Realm did not gorge themselves and become too powerful to be trusted. If any of the creatures here absorbed too much negative energy or lingered too long among the humans, their power and strength could grow at an alarming rate. This would not only present a danger to the human race but to the other Twilight creatures as well. The Dream Lords had been created for the sole purpose of keeping the peace, maintaining the order and making sure that each and every one of the creatures of the Twilight Realm remained symbiotic and not despotic over the humans in their plane as well as their fellows in the Realm. The only ones that dared challenge the Lords outright were the ones that had crossed the thin line that separated living their lives from hoarding power.

Bastion stopped them in a small clearing and extended his senses. “I cannot feel the other Lords. They should have come to greet me by now.” Bastion said. Havoc suddenly growled low and broke away from his friend and master. His powerful legs pumped once, twice before launching him through the air and into the darkened fringe of undergrowth to their left. A short, keening screech erupted from the tree line, it’s pained wailing cut off just as suddenly as it had began. Moments later, Havoc strolled out of the trees and padded back to Bastion. A small humanoid creature with green, wart-covered skin and bulging eyes dangled from the great lion’s mouth, its neck held tightly between the massive jaws. Bastion’s nose wrinkled at the smell of the thing. By the dark wetness that still dripped from the goblin’s legs he knew the little one had voided its bladder as soon as it knew Havoc was coming for him.

“Please…” the goblin whispered. Havoc responded with a growl that vibrated its tiny bones.
“Release him, Havoc.” Bastion said. Havoc opened his jaws and dumped the hapless thing at Bastion’s feet before turning and going back into the trees. While it was true the goblinoids were the lowest class of creature to roam the Realm, they rarely traveled alone and could be quite formidable when encountered in large groups.

“What say you, Yulgul?” Bastion asked the goblin. It sat up and rubbed at its neck while it regarded the Dream Lord.

“You know Yulgul?” the goblin rasped.

“I know all creatures of this Realm, little one; great and small.”

“You Lion Lord.”, Yulgul said, using the name the goblins most often gave him. The goblin’s voice was still rough from Havoc’s treatment of his throat and his body still trembled gently yet uncontrollably at the feet of the Dream Lord. “You not here.”

“It seems I am.” Bastion said as he scanned the trees again, though he had little need to do so. Bastion could both hear and feel Havoc as the lion moved through the dense brush of the forest floor.

“No, you not to be here.” Yulgul said. The absence of the rest of Yulgul’s tribe, coupled with his odd words, troubled Bastion more than if they would’ve been charging from the trees with their slobbering jowls and rusty, poisoned spears.

“The fact remains. And speaking of here, where is the rest of your party, little Yulgul?” Bastion said. Yulgul did his own scan of the forest and his trembling increased.

“Not here. There. Yulgul only one here and not there.” the goblin said. Bastion’s eyes narrowed slightly and he sent a mental barb out to Havoc to watch where he stepped. They should have encountered any number of creatures on their walk through the forest. That the only one they encountered was a goblin, a lone goblin at that, told him there was more to Gilth and the Dead One’s machinations than a simple oversight by the other Lords in their duties. Even more troubling was that he couldn’t sense anyone, from the lowly Yulgul all the way up to the other Lords. He was supposed to be a master of this Realm, his mind completely in tune with any of its denizens, but if not for Havoc’s sharp eyes Bastion wouldn’t have even known Yulgul was there. Bastion thought about asking Yulgul where there was, but goblins only seemed stupid. If Bastion admitted he didn’t know where the rest of the goblins had gone, he would be admitting he’d somehow been cut off from some segment of his power. The last thing you did in the Realm was admit to weakness; any weakness.

“And why are they there?” Bastion asked. A sudden roar from Havoc split the night, shocking flocks of bats and owls from the trees en masse as the echo of his savage cry was joined by thin, reedy screams of battle and terror. Harvenger was in his hand in the same instant that Havoc burst from the forest. Half of a goblin was in his jaws and another, whole one clung for dear life to the shaft of the short spear that stuck out from the lion’s left front shoulder.

Havoc tossed the goblin torso away then whipped his head around, his thick mane swatting against the hapless goblin rider like hundreds of tiny whips before his teeth sank into his rider’s thigh and ripped it from his back. Bastion arrived at his friend’s side just as Havoc put one of his paws on the prone goblin’s chest. The lion’s blood-soaked grin was the last thing the goblin would ever see as Havoc extended his claws to pierce shoulder, neck and heart at once. Scores of goblins suddenly broke from the tree line. Most only stood as tall as Bastion’s belt, but their numbers and ferocity, not to mention their gall in overtly attacking a Dream Lord meant the time for talk was over.

Havoc coiled and sprang at the head of the flank to their right as Bastion brought Harvenger back in both hands, dropped his stance and swung in a low, scything arc. Seeing the huge lion, airborne and coming right for them, broke the first few ranks. But instead of escaping those huge fangs already stained red-brown with goblin blood, their retreat caused those behind to crash into them in a screaming, boiling heap. Havoc landed atop the struggling goblins and set to work with fangs and claws, burrowing down through the mound of stinking flesh and bone like a dog digging a hole to hide its bone. Ichor and gore flew around the clearing in great wet chunks, coating the rest of the goblins as well as Bastion and Havoc with the stuff as Harvenger whipped back and forth among the rest of the tribe. Green-skinned heads and arms rained to the ground with each pass and adding to the mess and stink Havoc made. Those at the rear of the phalanx had finally seen enough of the carnage and threw their spears into the fray before running, screaming from the battle into the comparative safety of the trees.

“Havoc!” Bastion barked as the lion finished off the last of the goblins in his path. The lion looked up, its fur and mane caked with all manner of thick, congealing gore and trumpeted a roar. “Follow them, at a distance. You will move faster without me. Find where they have gathered and I will find you.” Havoc bobbed his thick head once then crept off into the woods. Bastion watched his comrade move off into the woods then grabbed up half of a goblin and wiped the remnants of the battle from his blade on its already-filthy tunic, adding a mental nod to the weapon that he would give it a proper cleaning when time allowed. The sentient blade hummed in his hand, its joy at once again seeing battle dimming its narcissistic tendencies. That’s when he noticed Yulgul still sitting where Havoc had dropped him a few dozen yards away from where the battle had been fought. Bastion strode back to Yulgul and looked down at the now cowering goblin, aware that his blood-soaked image did little to allay the small creature’s fears.
“Why did they attack us?” Bastion asked.

“Had to.” Yulgul replied.

“As a Lord of the Realm, I order you to speak true.” Bastion said. As a lesser creature of the Realm, Bastion’s invocation of authority virtually guaranteed Yulgul wouldn’t lie in his answer.
“Not say. Cannot say.” Yulgul said. It had moved from trembling to complete, utter, violent shaking now and its crying eyes were locked on Harvenger. The blade was still sticky with the leavings of his tribe and even Yulgul could feel the malevolence with which it regarded him. The sword wanted to slice Yulgul down the center and only Bastion’s staying hand kept it from doing so.

“You mean you will not say?” Bastion said as he dropped to one knee and stared into the goblin’s large eyes. “You will answer my question!”

“Yulgul cannot say!” the goblin cried. He curled himself into the smallest ball possible and lay quivering in the grass at Bastion’s feet, his thin, wiry arms thrown up over his head. “Yulgul cannot say! Please do not hurt Yulgul!” the goblin said. Bastion stood and considered kicking the truth from Yulgul, but he doubted even that method would yield results. If the goblin had been bound to deny Bastion information, it meant at least one of the other Lords was working against him. He knew of no other being in the Realm that could inspire such fear.

“Go and hide, little one. Stay to the fringes of the Realm.” Bastion said as the goblin gore bubbled and boiled away from his armor and stark white tabard and cloak, leaving both pristine and almost glowing in the continual gloom of the Twilight. “You do not want to be anywhere near, of that I can assure you.” With that, Lord Bastion turned on his heel then stormed across the clearing and into the woods beyond.


Since the first day the mortal world had winked into being, Bastion and the other four Lords had kept the Realm in check, their time forever spent patrolling and monitoring its residents. But not all of their work could be done in the Twilight or other fey Realms. Occasionally, a Lord would be called upon to enter the mortal realm to retrieve a wandering beast or make sure the creatures from the Twilight Realm behaved themselves when doing their work. In the beginning days of humanity, those jaunts had been easy enough. But the difference in the passage of time between the Realm and the Plane soon created problems for the Lords. On one visit, Lord Bastion found one of their vampires terrorizing men that lived in caves. His next visit was barely a week later in Realm reckoning, yet the humans had not only discovered how to create fire but also bronze as well.

After that, the Lords realized the world of Men moved in leaps and bounds, their miniscule lifespans fueling innovation, science and technology at an alarming rate. The side effect of all this mortal thinking was, of course, more numerous and powerful fears. Each advance in weapons brought new fears of violence. Each time one color of human discovered another of a different color, fears and wars grew. Every new science they endeavored brought equal amounts of wonder and terror into their lives. The creatures of the night were attracted to the mortal world by the abundant and growing fears like moths to the flame, the sheer abundance of the stuff creating for them an almost irresistible urge to gorge upon and revel in the power it gave them.
No matter how powerful the Dream Lords were, either here or on the mortal plane, they knew that time itself was far more powerful. They had to be able to monitor the progress of the world of men or risk more surprises. What frightened Men today would not necessarily frighten them tomorrow. If the Lords were to keep their charges in check they needed to understand at all times the fears of the mortal world. Their technology, science, theology and history needed to be understood in order to know the current sources of their fears.It was decided that each Lord would take a “Sabbatical” of 85 years by human reckoning. They would spend this time living among the humans as they lived, experiencing their lives and monitoring their fears. The Dream Lords were all linked, and the ones in the Twilight Realm could tap into the mind of the one on Sabbatical whenever they wished as a way of keeping up with the mortal world.

Unfortunately, this communication worked in only one direction. While on Sabbatical, the earthbound Lord was completely cut off from the Twilight Realm so that he could more fully experience the mortal plane. The only way to return was at the end of the Sabbatical or by using the fey dust as Bastion had done. Such a return was only sanctioned under dire emergency or the need of the Realm. It was obvious the other Lords were unable, or perhaps now unwilling, to stop Gilth and the Dead One from attempting to carry out their plans of revenge against Bastion. If the failure of his fellows to contain just two, albeit powerful, denizens of the Twilight Realm wasn’t enough justification to interrupt his Sabbatical then nothing was.

Lord Bastion continued mulling these thoughts as his feet followed the path of crushed vegetation and broken brambles that marked the passage of the fleeing goblins through the forest. The fact he couldn’t sense any other creature save for Havoc weighed heavily upon him. He had returned early from Sabbatical, meaning the other Lords would have to allow him to regain his full measure of power in the Realm. The others had to know he’d returned, and he could see no logical reason why they would not have simply returned his power as soon as he stepped foot in the Realm. What had been designed as a safety against a Dream Lord breaking the Sabbatical was now crippling Bastion, the only Lord that may still be in defense of the Realm.
Bastion stopped in the same spot where the goblin-sign did; a thick mass of multiflora rose shot through with tangles of wild, light grey roses accompanied by thick, black thorns. The dull petals were flecked with bright red that oozed and dripped from them to the ground below, continually painting and repainting the forest floor that ran up against the natural wall. Many an unwary rodent, and in some cases foolish, living and sentient creatures, had attempted to pass without invitation. Those many had been allowed to enter, but none had ever been seen again.

The Dream Lords knew the origin, life and purpose of the natural wall. They should; they had been the ones to plant it when the Realm was young. The oval-shaped wall carved out a huge swath of territory in the center of the Realm, the Dark Place, keeping the worst of the Realm’s denizens separated from the rest. Inside the confines of the wall dwelt all manner of beasts, but all had one thing in common; they were judged too dangerous to be allowed to enter the mortal world to feed. Most had been exiled there due to their own faults and failures. A precious few were enslaved by their very natures and were banished to the Dark Place by simple necessity. Aside from the goblins and on any normal day, if there was such a thing in the Realm, he and Havoc would’ve encountered scores of creatures in their trek to reach the Dark Place. It didn’t take his absent omniscience to know there was only one place they could be.

Since their powers of perception and near-omnipotence couldn’t get through the wall any easier than a physical thing could, the Dream Lords were forced to physically patrol it. Unlike the prisons of the mortal world, these inmates couldn’t be stripped of their weapons and easily confined to cells. It was the only place in this Realm, or in most any other, where a Dream Lord could have a reasonable expectation of being truly harmed. Bastion put a hand to the uneven surface of the wall and concentrated, willing the vines and thick flora to part and allow him passage. Havoc growled impatiently at his side, the taste of the goblin blood still thick on his tongue keeping his lust for battle boiling. Three rose vines suddenly looped away from the wall and wrapped themselves around Bastion’s searching hand and forearm, their thick, serrated thorns slipping under his grieves to pierce the flesh beneath. Bastion stepped back and grit his teeth against the pain, pulling the vines taut while his free hand drew Harvenger. The wall seemed to shudder as the enchanted blade sliced through the vines, their dark, thick blood falling to the ground in fat globules.

“It appears we are not to be admitted.” Bastion said as he stuck Harvenger into the ground by its point and worked at his armor. He removed the grieve from his forearm, steeled himself then grabbed the vines that still clung to him and ripped them from his flesh. Pain shot up his arm as the barbed, serrated thorns protested their removal to finally come free in a small spray of Bastion’s blood. Havoc growled low and turned his great head to face Bastion. The Dream Lord held out his arm and allowed the noble beast’s rough, thick tongue to lap at his wounds. Within moments Bastion’s arm was healed. He strapped his armor back into place then pulled Harvenger from the ground and regarded the wall. He could have healed himself, of course. But that required power. Havoc’s healing ability was a natural consequence of his nature and cost him nothing more than saliva. But Bastion was beginning to understand which powers he’d kept and which he’d lost. He still maintained the abilities and power within himself but was cut off from anything allowing him control over the realm and its peoples. What remained to him would have to be enough.

Havoc tossed his head toward the wall and issued an impatient growl. Bastion pulled the pouch of dust from his belt, weighed it for a moment in his gauntleted hand then opened it. “Are you certain you wish to do this? I cannot say how long it will affect you, or for that matter if this will even work.” Havoc bobbed his head once. “Very well.” Bastion said. He tossed the sack of fey dust into the air above the lion then pulled up Harvenger and spun the blade. The sword found the pouch in the air and sliced it open, allowing the dust inside to rain down in a sparkling cloud.
A pinch of fey dust had a great deal of power. Just a pinch had healed Havoc’s wounds and allowed him to transform into his proper form, and just a pinch had made certain that Brenda and Karen would be safe through the night, and just a pinch had allowed Bastion himself to return to his true state. What was now falling upon Havoc was an ogre’s handful of the stuff. Bastion had never used so much at once before, but they had few options left to enter the Dark Place. Havoc was a powerful force to be reckoned with in any Realm. He only hoped the beast’s noble bearing and good heart would be able to channel the massive power that much dust bestowed without losing sight of their objectives.

Havoc’s large eyes narrowed as the particles infused his fur, making it glow with a soft white light for a few moments. Bastion watched with some trepidation as Havoc approached the wall, stopped just a few feet from it and let out a roar that rattled around inside Bastion’s helm and made the living wall visibly shudder. That was it. Havoc had issued both warning and challenge. The wall, the creatures behind it and even the Realm itself had been put on notice. Before the roar’s echoes had died away, Havoc launched himself into the roses, vines and twisted vegetation.

Bastion had thought to use the dust himself to see if it would allow him enough power to hack his way through. But where he had but one blade, Havoc had four sets of thick claws capable of rending a troll into seventeen distinct pieces before the first part could hit the ground. To Bastion’s relief, those claws now ripped and tore through the wall with abandon. The wall could heal, growing new vines almost instantly to replace those that had been lost. But the speed and ferocity of Havoc’s attacks combined with Bastion’s own surgical strikes as he followed Havoc into the brush allowed them to continue their push forward. Red-black blood hug in a thick cloud around them as the destroyed vines tried to heal and wrap themselves back into their defensive postures, but the onslaught was just too fast and vicious for the vines to do more than close again a safe distance behind the pair.

In an hour or a minute, Havoc finally burst through the other side of the wall and into the cool air of the Dark Place. Bastion had only been two steps behind Havoc, but that lag had allowed enough time for the wall to catch up. Havoc turned back to see his friend and master slowly disappearing behind the rapidly-healing vines. Havoc issued a low, warning rumble and the wall stopped its knitting. It moved and rustled for a moment, the rattling of its leaves sounding like a large group in hushed, murmured conversation before a hole finally opened and Bastion was unceremoniously ejected into the Dark Place. Havoc nodded regally then turned away from Bastion, allowing the Dream Lord the dignity of picking himself up without witnesses. Bastion imagined the low, short sounds from Havoc’s throat as growling, which was better than acknowledging the lion was chuckling at his expense.


True night ruled the Dark Place. Unlike the Twilight Realm proper, the conditions here were forever night. The bulk of the inhabitants of this Realm within a Realm were creatures of darkness, and not just in their preference for ambiance. It hadn’t started out that way, but the malevolence and evil inherent in so many of the Dark Place’s residents had acted over time to change the very landscape, plunging it into the true, pitch blackness of a moonless night. Fortunately, both Lord and lion had retained their excellent night vision. While they couldn’t see as if in the bright summer sun they could make out enough to search and, if need be, to battle. Much effort had gone into concealing the goings-on from him in the Dark Place, a place he should not have been able to enter without his full powers as a Dream Lord. Evil made strong plans and careful calculations, but it so often left room for the unexpected. Obviously they had expected Bastion to return and had retired to the Dark Place, thinking to hide from him. What they’d not counted on was Bastion’s determination and more than a ton of enraged, power-drunk lion.


Bastion and Havoc had spent the better part of a day or a moment searching through the stunted forests and blackened plains, but the lion’s fey-infused power had yet to wane. And while that was a comfort, so much power had set the beast on-edge and ready to pounce at the slightest hint of motion regardless of how many times Bastion cautioned him against such things. Whoever was behind this knew they’d entered the Dark Place now, and it was virtually guaranteed they would be led into a trap. And though they were two of the most powerful forces the Twilight Realm had ever known, even they could fall to a concerted and massive attack by the creatures here. All they could do now was search the places Bastion thought relevant and wait for their enemy to show themselves. A month or a moment later, they did just that.

Hissing and growling suddenly sprang up from all around them; guttural, hateful noises that when combined in their cacophony sent chills down Bastion’s spine and made Havoc’s long whiskers vibrate against his muzzle. “Ferals!” Bastion whispered as he readied Harvenger and put his back to the lion’s tail. The sudden, blood-thirsty shrieks and pounding of feet around them cut him off, and he only hoped Havoc could contain his bloodlust and stay with him as a large group of humanoid forms materialized on the fringes of their compromised vision.

“You are all my wards.” Bastion said into the darkness. “I am not only your keeper, but your defender from those what do not understand your important place in the weave of worlds. I give you one chance to stay within the auspices of my care and protection. To attack me now is to forfeit my grace and make you my enemy.” In better times, the feral vampires surrounding them still would not have understood his words, but the powers of his office would have at least given them a base understanding of their meaning. Their roaring, slavering charge told him this power, too, was one that had been denied him.

The ferals were one of the saddest things in the Realm. Many of them had started their mortal lives as denizens of another realm and were the product of a vampire that had escaped into their reality. Contrary to popular myths, most vampires had no desire to fully turn another into their ilk. More vampires mean more competition. But what many were quite fond of doing was only partially turning a mortal. Their humanity would be lost, replaced by the basest of vampire needs and desires. Strong, fast and suffering only from the weaknesses of the vampire race, ferals were the perfect soldier for a vampire looking to amass power without worrying over one of them becoming too powerful and turning on them. Their loyalty was supernatural, and their bond with their masters made his will and his will alone their own. A vampire making an unauthorized stay in a mortal realm almost guaranteed that ferals would be created, and part of any mission to retrieve or destroy a vampire was to gather the wretched ferals and bring them back to the Twilight Realm for safe keeping. Bastion forced his pity for the miserable creatures aside and set his stance to receive them as Havoc moved a respectable distance away. The beast would need room to face their attackers, and even Bastion could fall and be overwhelmed by an errant swipe of the lion’s dinner-platter-sized paws.

The sword began to glow with a soft, red light as the half-dead neared. Of all its enemies, Harvenger harbored a near-fanatical grudge against those not living yet not dead. They were an abomination to the sentient weapon, one that needed scoured from the Realms, so much so that Bastion was often forced to leave it sheathed when he entered the Dark Place. It was time to let loose the reigns that confined the sword’s true power. Bastion let Harvenger take over his sword arm and filled his empty hand with a long dagger from his belt. The enchanted blade didn’t need its master’s eye to deal its death, only his hand from which to roll and slip. In battles like these, it was as if Bastion became two warriors at once with Harvenger guiding his sword arm to thrust, slice and parry of its own accord while Bastion controlled his other arm. Both were finely-honed warriors, and both could deal death in less than a heartbeat to those foolish enough to have at them.

Harvenger hummed with power as it punctured chests and lopped heads from necks, its magical nature enough the equivalent of holy relic and ash-wood stake enough to drop the vampiric animals in pieces at the Dream Lord’s feet. Bastion did not rest on his laurels, though. The hand in his own control had bested nearly as many of the undead as Harvenger had claimed, though he didn’t have the benefit of being made entirely of enchanted steel and mithral and as such looked a bit worse for wear. Long scratches and deep gouges from claws and fangs marked places on his cheeks, chin and thighs left exposed by the places his helm and armor didn’t quite cover and blood trickled freely from them. Havoc was fairing just as well or just as poorly as his master, but the benefits of the dust were more than just strength, speed and ferocity. Neither of them had any real worry of becoming sick or even infected by the tainted blood and saliva of the ferals, but that didn’t make the injuries burn any less. Where Bastion’s wounds would heal fairly quickly, Havoc’s would do so almost instantly, allowing him to shrug off virtually any claw or tooth that managed to slip past his furious attacks and reach his flesh. The lion had taken almost as many vampires as the combined might of Bastion and Harvenger, but where the remains left by Lord and blade were practically bloodless thanks to their natures, Havoc’s fur, fangs and claws were simply caked with steaming gore and blackened blood.

When there were but a half-dozen left standing, the ferals pulled back from the assault and regrouped out of harm’s reach. The half-dead spread themselves in a rough semi-circle around their quarry, their lungs still remembering life and making them pant and salivate as they growled and hissed. The battle had not gone well for them, but Bastion had never known enraged ferals, especially when they had supposedly superior numbers, to back down from a fight. “Be watchful…” Bastion said to Havoc’s wide back. The lion only growled a reply and put his body low to the ground, his powerful rear legs tensed and ready to launch him back into the fray. Havoc wanted nothing more than to charge into the line of ferals and rend them into large, ghastly chunks, but even through his haze of power and battle-lust he knew to trust Bastion’s instincts.

“Show yourselves! I make the same pledge I made to your beasts, those that you threw against me knowing you would only accomplish their deaths.” Bastion called out into the darkness beyond sight. Only the command of their masters would’ve caused the ferals to break off the attack, and that could only mean those masters were near. Bastion only hoped the concealed vampires couldn’t sense that the onslaught of ferals had accomplished at least in part what was sure to have been their mission. Harvenger was a master at combat, as was his master, but the sword cared little for its master’s physical state. Both of Bastion’s arms were sore and strained, and even Havoc as coiled and ready for battle as ever was breathing hard as he regained his wind. Bastion’s strength would be slow to replenish without the full extent of his power, and if the whelps’ vampire masters decided to join the fray in the next sortie the battle could turn in their favor.

“You offer us your protection?” a voice called out. Few creatures dared speak to a Dream Lord in such a manner. “You are hardly in a position to offer anything but blood and sport.”

“I wonder how the blood of a Dream Lord would taste.” another voice, this time feminine, came at them from the dark.

“I will have the lion’s blood. I have heard it is both sweet and tart, with an underlying tone of primal warmth.” came another, male voice. Bastion’s eyes narrowed. There were at least three, though he was fairly certain that was the extent of their numbers. Even numbers represented harmony and were an ill omen to dark creatures. Vampires were also not known for working together, with such groupings when they did occur being short-lived. To have three banded together against Bastion proved a far greater power worked against him.

A trio of forms stepped into their sight to stand among the ferals. Three of the beastly vampires crowded around one while a pair dropped to their haunches like obedient dogs at the feet of another. The last scuttled to the ivory-skinned female vampire and crouched down behind her legs like a beaten dog. “You are not of my Realm.” Bastion said. At his last count there were only a handful of truly powerful vampires in the Twilight Realm. Lordly vampires were rare in any Realm, and unless they made a nuisance of themselves in their home plane weren’t necessarily hunted down and brought here just for being a vampire.

“And they said you were the dullard of the Lords.” the one in the middle said. The others laughed at the joke, their sycophants chortling along though they couldn’t possibly understand the slight. “I am Robért, the exceedingly gracious gentleman to my right is Boris, and the beautiful and delicate belladonna to my left is Val. Now that we know each other, you can die with our names on your lips.”

“I am Bastion, Lord and Protector of the Twilight Realm and its peoples, bearer of the blessed sword Harvenger and master of all I survey. Remember my name, for you will be screaming it in hell.” Bastion said. This brought a huge bout of laughter from the undead, with Val’s high, tinkling laugh riding over the deeper chuckling of her fellows and the incomprehensible shrieking of their slaves. Havoc gave Bastion a glance that told the Dream Lord he was more than willing to fall upon them at any moment if he would but give the word. Bastion stayed the beast with a thought.

“You are less than nothing, a Lord without a manor as it were.” Boris said.

“You have gone to great lengths to hide from me and keep me from your plans. You fear me it seems, and for good reason.” Bastion said.

Fear you, dear, sweet, silly Lord Bastion? We fear nothing, least of which you. Like the Realms at large, our plans do not revolve around you. We hadn’t planned on you even being here, and your presence will do little to impact our designs. Your involvement only comes from a debt we owed in laying the foundation for our new empire. Despite being a handsome and tasty morsel, we are not the ones that care about you.” Val said.

“We three were quite happy in our respective mortal realms, until we learned of your little oasis. Each of us was on the verge of greatness, ready to spread our power and influence beyond the ruling councils and vampiric laws you and your cohorts made sure were instituted.” Robért said.

“To truly grow our power, your puppet dictators and the weak codes and rules they enforced had to be removed. If not for the ones you call Gilth and Dead One, we wouldn’t have learned of this Realm, nor would we have discovered that you, the Dream Lords, controlled the vampire hierarchy from your otherworldly perch. It’s obvious from how easily Dead One was able to get us into your Realm and the laughable defense your Lords offered that you are far better suited to politics than war.” Boris said.

“I see.” The pieces were falling into place now for Bastion. “So, all of this is because of Gilth’s oath of revenge upon me. He and Dead One knew they could not come for me on Sabbatical while the other Lords ruled.”

“Perhaps you’re not as dim as you seem, Bastion.” Val said as she absently stroked the matted hair of her remaining feral and shrugged. “No matter, we’ve upheld our end of the bargain.” Two more forms came out of the darkness, this time to Bastion’s rear. Havoc spun round to face the new threat to find a huge, humanoid lizard and a shorter man-shaped creature covered in tattered robes. Its hands were glowing with a dim, green and sickly light and its reek of rotting flesh carried across the air to them both. Bastion dared not turn away from the vampires, though he could tell by the Dead One’s corpse smell exactly who had joined the fray.

“And finally the cowards reveal themselves.” Bastion said.

“Cowards or no, it’s for them to finish you. We’ve other matters to attend.” Val said. With that, the three vampires turned their backs and slipped away into the darkness. The ferals remained a few moments longer, their desire to join the coming fight vying against their commands before they, too, slinked off after their masters.

Bastion turned to face Gilth and the liche. Harvenger had thrummed silently yet painfully in his hand the entire time the trio of vampires had been in sight. Now that the Dead One was in sight the sword’s vibration increased five-fold to create a low, tremulous and eerie growl. Harvenger and Dead One were old enemies and had faced each other throughout history, their hatred transcending the half-dozen different names by which the liche had been known and the many hands that had wielded Harvenger.

“What have you wrought here?” Bastion said.

“I am fulfilling my oath of revenge upon you for the death of my mate and her clutch.” Gilth said. His voice was cold, soft and pitched in such a way as to make the hairs on Bastion’s arm stand on end.

“And any enemy of Harvenger and its wielder is an enemy of mine.” Dead One added. His voice was wispy and paper-thin and carried with it a natural echo that was disturbing to the ear. The undead thing pulled back his hood to reveal a face that was more skeletal than cadaverous, its remaining skin pulled taut as a drumhead over the skull to give him a death’s-head smile even when there was no humor to be had.

“You were the cause of Shik’vah’s death, Gilth. Had the two of you not conspired to infuse her eggs with pure dark energy, and had you surrendered them, she would yet live. What you did was unconscionable and against the laws of the Realm…” Bastion said. Gilth charged forward a few steps and raised his long, curved, serrated blade like an accusatory finger at the Dream Lord.

“You would have me kill my children! We had no choice but to fight!” Gilth hissed.

“Your parental concern is less than touching when you add that you fed the clutch so much negative energy the result would have been nothing more than born-evil. Do not try to hide behind moral outrage when you had none at the start. You sacrificed your offspring to create would be no more alive than a feral vampire.” Bastion said to the seething lizard. Gilth was a slave to his emotions where Dead One was nothing but cold, calculated evil. Together they were more than formidable, especially for a battle-sore Dream Lord cut off from much of his power. But if he could push Gilth to act on nothing but hatred, the lizard-man would make a mistake.

You killed Shik’ Vah and destroyed my children!” Gilth cried out again, his poisonous slobber sliding down his scaly neck in huge gobs with each word.

“She attacked me, Gilth. I had no choice but to defend both myself and the Realm.” Bastion said evenly.

“The Realm! The Realm! At least the rest of us make no bones about wanting power. You Lords are no better than we… worse even! You revel in the power you have, and in the power you lord over us! You love nothing more than to torture us for being only what we are. You are the evil here, not us!” Gilth said.

“You came to me and tried to murder my childe. That is evil, Gilth. She has nothing to do with this.” Bastion said, his own ire rising a bit at the charge that he and the other Lords were nothing more than power-drunk despots.

“Because you murdered my children! An eye for an eye, Dream Lord! An eye for an eye.” Gilth said.

“And what of you, liche? Why do you throw your lot in with Gilth?” Bastion asked.

“Seeing as your soul will soon part ways with your body, I see no harm in the telling.” Dead One said. The smugness in his reed-thin rasp of a voice was enough to set Bastion’s back teeth to grinding. “Robért, Boris and Val are indeed very powerful, but they are naïve in the ways of the Realms. I will allow them to assume control and destroy the rest of you Lords. Once they have their house in order, it will be a simple matter to control them. After all, I am death incarnate, Bastion.”

“Lord Death will enjoy making you eat your hubris, Dead One.” Bastion said. “You are still of the Realms, and we all know that Lord Death does so hate competition for his mantle.”

“That is a matter for another time.” Dead One said through his grin. “Another fact that we all know is that here in the Realm no undead creature can escape my control for long, and it matters not from where they hail. The bonds you and the rest placed upon me when you imprisoned me here will soon be gone, and when those three dolts finish their work I will no longer be under your geise. I will rule this Realm, and I will see that accursed hunk of metal you carry melted down into a chamber pot for the trolls to piss in.”

It was all quite clear now. The off-Realm vampires weren’t the true enemy, and the Dead One was right; without the powerful bonds placed upon him by the Realm and the Lords it wouldn’t matter how powerful the vampires were, together or individually. The reality of the Realm would find them slaves to the Dead One just as their ferals were to them. It also told Bastion that though the other Lords may be in dire straits of their own they at least still lived. Otherwise, Dead One would already be free of his restraints. That meant there was still hope in saving them. Havoc opened his mind to Bastion. The Dead One would not enter melee combat. He would stay out of reach and use his dark magics against them while Gilth harried them. That meant the battle would have to be brought to the liche, and Bastion was now quite certain there was no avoiding tooth-and-steel combat, not when Gilth had the object of his single-minded revenge before him and the Dead One had so much to gain from the deaths of the Lords.

In the space of a thought and with a deafening roar, Havoc sprung. Bastion grabbed up a handful of the lion’s mane as he shot forward, allowing himself to be carried through the air until he was within reach of Gilth. He let go of Havoc, allowing the beast to fly at the liche unfettered while his thick, armored body collided with the surprised lizard man. Both recovered quickly, even though greenish-black blood flowed freely down Gilth’s face and neck from his wounded nostrils. Bastion knew he had to be careful. Not only was Gilth a more than worthy opponent, his bodily fluids were either acidic or poisonous and Bastion wasn’t about to believe that even his armor would hold up to much of any of it without the true power of the Realm to sustain him.

“You die this day, Dream Lord!” Gilth cried as he came at Bastion, his wicked sword held in both hands over his head. Had the blow connected it would’ve been enough to at least cleave his helm in two if not continue on to the ground to bisect Bastion in its wake. Bastion stepped to the side and brought Harvenger up to meet the attack. Steel clanged against steel in a shower of sparks again and again as the two traded blows, each measuring the other’s mettle. Bastion would’ve much preferred going at the Dead One first, but that would’ve left the unarmored Havoc to face this fountain of acid and poison. Besides, the liche depended upon time and distance to properly work his most wicked magic, and Havoc’s ferocity would keep him from the concentration he so desperately needed.

Havoc had at first been faring well against the undead mage. The Dead One had gotten off several bursts of pure necromantic energy, but only a few had connected. The bulk of his fight was spent trying to avoid the lion’s charges and in putting distance between them. The liche was indeed powerful, but the sacrifice of his soul and living body for his power made it almost impossible to move fast enough to put just a few seconds between him and the beast. But Dead One had not lived so long by rushing into the fray or panicking in the face of physically superior opponents. The liche continued dodging and lashing out when he could until Havoc leaped at him again. Dead One dropped to the ground and placed both hands upon it, letting the beast pass harmlessly overhead while he channeled his dark incantations directly into the Dark Place.


The moment the Dead One’s lips stopped their dark invocations, dozens of rotting hands burst forth from the ground all around the combatants. Bastion cursed as he avoided one pair of them only to have another grip his ankle and throw him off balance while three of Havoc’s four paws were set upon by more. The graveyard! How could Bastion have been so stupid? Even without his full power he should have known where in the Dark Place he was. The Dead One stood and flashed his permanent grin around the field of battle as scores of dead bodies made up of races from around the Realms clawed their way from their shallow graves to do his bidding.

Havoc’s roars had no effect on the dead, their souls so long removed from fear as to make them immune to his rage. The effects of the dust were waning now it seemed, and it was all the lion could do to keep from being brought to ground by those still under the surface while those above ground tore at his mane and tail and tried to bite through his thick fur and hide. A dead troll, its thick hands and rotting arms still holding the power they’d once had in life, had heeded the Dead One’s call. It shambled the few steps to Havoc and fell upon him, pinning the lion to the ground while a cadavered elf tried to bite through one of his ears and three dead goblins worried at his thick hide.

“Your comrade is down, Dream Lord. He only lives because I allow it. With but a word the troll will snap his spine. Surrender now, Bastion, and I will make both your deaths quick and painless. Your unlife, however, will not be so. I have so wanted a death knight of my very own, and your beast’s pelt will make quite a lordly robe of office.” Dead One said.

“Bastion’s death will be nothing but suffering!” Gilth roared as he advanced on Bastion. The Dream Lord had managed to free himself from the grasping hands but was now being set upon by two mindless ogres while Gilth protested the Dead One’s change of their plans.

“I need him in one piece, Gilth. This is for the greater good, you understand. There will not be enough of the other Lords left once the vampires are done with them. I need Bastion more or less intact. Kill him, but do it quickly and with a minimum of bodily harm.” Dead One said.

“I will tear him apart and eat his heart!” Gilth said as he shoved through a lumbering mob of elves and satyrs to get to Bastion. Those that wouldn’t move fast enough lost heads or arms and a few were even sliced in two as the lizard man stalked across the field of battle towards Bastion. Bastion allowed Harvenger his head once again and the bastard sword literally sang as it sliced through rotting flesh and bones. It was all he could do to bring the blade back to his defense to meet Gilth’s steel once again.

“Quickly and cleanly, Gilth…” the Dead One cautioned again, though this time his voice carried a very clear authority.

“Yes… you heard your master, Gilth. Do as you are commanded like the slave you are!” Bastion said as he dodged another pair of dead hands and brought his blade across the lizard man’s chest. Harvenger didn’t sink deep, but the long gash he opened across the scaly green chest was enough to make more sizzling blood flow down his legs and to the ground.

“I bow to no master!” Gilth screamed as he stumbled back and put a hand to his fresh injury. The sight of his blood on his taloned fingers and Dead One’s new attitude towards him combined. Seething red hatred of everyone and everything slid over the lizard-man’s eyes and he came at the Dream Lord with wild, vicious attacks. Bastion had originally hoped for such a tactic, but the battles of the day had taken their toll on his body. Now, it was all he could do to keep the wildly-flashing blade from slicing him to ribbons while still keeping the rest of the dead from piling upon him and bringing him to ground.

“Havoc!” Bastion called out. The lion was still struggling furiously on the spot where the undead troll held him though he’d at least been able to shake off many of the smaller dead things from his eyes and flanks. Havoc let out a quick, almost impotent growl to announce his own straits, the pressure from the massive troll’s weight making it hard to even draw the breath to growl much less fight. Bastion risked a look to confirm his fears on Havoc’s condition and found Dead One surveying the struggles a safe distance away. Another undead troll towered over the liche, a most formidable guard for any occasion. Bastion knew this fight was going to end quickly, regardless of its outcome.

“Just kill him and get it over with.” Dead One said to the lizard-man. Gilth’s only response was an enraged scream as he lunged again at the tired, scarred Dream Lord.

“Stop giving me orders! You are not my master!” Gilth finally managed to hiss back at the liche as he recovered from a wide, missed arc of an attack.

“It sounds to me as if he is, Gilth.” Bastion said between breaths. Bastion received the enraged roar and clumsy charge he’d expected from the lizard man. Using the last of his strength, Bastion leaped into the air before the pit that was the roughly-excavated grave of one of the risen trolls. Gilth’s roar turned to a whimper of confusion as his charge sent him crashing into the deep, rough hole. His speed, power and weight worked against him now as he plummeted to the bottom, leaving him in a crumpled heap on the floor of the grave. Bastion, still in the air, heard the snapping of bones below him as he turned at the waist and threw his long dagger at the troll keeping Havoc out of the fight. The blade spun end-over-end and sank deep into the troll’s neck. Bastion knew attacking anything but the skull wouldn’t stop the dead troll, but it was the softest part he could attack from a distance. The force the heavy dagger delivered was enough to put it off balance, though, and Havoc made full use of the distraction. Bastion had just enough time to tuck his body into a ball and use the rest of his momentum to carry him over the troll’s abandoned grave to keep from landing on top of Gilth where he lay below.

“Bravo, Dream Lord.” Dead One said as Bastion rolled to a stop and rose slowly, painfully to his feet. Havoc was already out from under the troll’s hands and was going at the dead thing for all he was worth while simultaneously tossing the forms of the lesser dead away from him with wide swipes of his paws when they got too close.

“Your admiration of my skills is humbling.” Bastion returned as he wiped a bit of blood away from his chin. Three more undead came shambling at him and he dropped his stance and swung Harvenger wide. The enchanted blade turned the three bodies into headless, unmoving corpses in its single pass. “You cannot win this, liche. I give you one last chance to comply with the laws of the Realm and stand down.” Bastion said. He thought he saw the liche smirk, though it may just have been a trick of the nearly non-existent light.

“For one such as I, there is always another chance. I am eternal. I am Death…” Dead One said. He raised a hand towards the Dream Lord and started mumbling spidery, slippery words in a tongue dead long before the first human ever drew breath. His corpse-troll took one wide step and then another toward Bastion as the glow around the liche’s outstretched hand became a ball of green, roaring fire. Bastion had seen this power before, a flame that burned not the body but the soul within it. It would leave nothing more than a shell behind, a shell that the Dead One could use to his own ends.

“And I am the law of this Realm, liche. But to show I am merciful, I will allow you audience with Lord Death himself so that the two of you may work out who controls his noble office once and for all.” Bastion said. Harvenger had started vibrating and whining in his grip the moment the green flames had crackled to life in the liche’s withered hand, and Bastion could see no reason why their eternal struggle should not finally end. With a massive heave, Bastion let loose his sword.

Harvenger issued a roar as deafening and powerful as any Havoc had ever voiced as it flew threw the air. The last word of the incantation died off Dead One’s mummified lips and the flame snuffed itself as the blade hit home. It tore through paper-thin flesh and shattered brittle ribs to pierce the dark creature’s desiccated heart. “Lord Death is always looking for souls that have escaped his grasp, and you have been avoiding your final rewards for far too long already.” Bastion said.

The liche looked down at the shimmering hilt and found the two diamonds set into the cross-guard staring back at him like shimmering, laughing eyes. No gasp or final epitaph escaped the Dead One’s lips, and no final bravado or whispered oath of vengeance was issued. The thing simply crumpled to the ground, an impotent sack of dust, skin and bones. As the Dead One crumbled so did his undead horde, but not before Havoc could have his final say in the matter of the troll. He trotted back across the litter of bones and skin to his master with the troll’s huge, chap-less skull clutched in his maw. The lion spit the thing to the ground at Bastion’s feet just as Gilth managed to crawl up from the grave.

The lizard man reached the surface then simply collapsed, careful not to lay on the piece of jagged bone that jutted up through his thigh. Bastion had hoped Gilth’s drop into the ground would be enough to take him out of the fight at least long enough to deal with Dead One, but the sight of the lizard-man’s own sword jutting from his guts proved that fate had other plans. Falling upon one’s own sword by chance was no way for a warrior to die, but after the events of the day Bastion was more than willing to take what victories he could from whatever quarter they came. Bastion and Havoc went to the graveside to join the shattered Gilth.

“Look what your need for misguided vengeance has wrought, Gilth. You are responsible for all of this, and you may well yet be responsible for the destruction of the Realm itself.” Bastion said.

“Then let it die!” Gilth said. He coughed, producing a large glob of bloody spittle that sizzled on the ground. “It is nothing more than a prison, tended by obscene guards!” Bastion kneeled down beside Gilth’s shattered body.

“Without this Realm and its protections, you and your ilk would have been hunted to extinction eons ago and across every Realm. Here, you had the chance to live as free as your own natures would allow. You may have doomed every denizen of this Realm to extinction by your selfish desires. I offer you the chance to redeem yourself… tell me what you know of the vampires’ plans. Where are they keeping the other Dream Lords? What has become of the rest of my charges?” Bastion asked. Gilth looked up at him with nothing but blind hatred.

“I will tell you nothing, Dream Lord… you, I… your precious Realm… will all go to our deaths…” Another fit of bloody coughing racked the lizard-man, and only now could Bastion see that several of his ribs had been broken in the fall as well, their points sticking up at different angles through his chest. Like as not there were other jagged bits that even now cut into his lungs and organs with every labored word and breath. “For what time remains you… you will know that the beginning of the end came from your murder of my beloved and my children.” Gilth said. His breath came in short death rattles now and the blood simply rolled out of his mouth and nose, his lungs lacking the air to even expel the stuff with any real force. “My vengeance is upon you, Dream Lord… you and you all…” Gilth took one last, shuddering breath and then went still as death exhaled his soul onto the path of his next Realm.


Havoc trotted away while Bastion collected his thoughts. When the lion returned, the Dream Lord’s long dagger was in his mouth. The noble beast was moving much more slowly now and was definitely showing his war wounds. The dust had given him great power, but it exacted its toll upon being spent. Bastion wasn’t fairing much better, but he instructed Havoc to take a moment and nurse his own wounds. Bastion wouldn’t be much better or worse off at this point, but if they were going to carry the day he needed Havoc to be as healed and strong as he could be.

While Havoc dabbed at his wounds with his tongue, Bastion walked to the sight of the liche’s demise, careful not to disturb the bones of the huge troll as he went. Harvenger was there, but its steel was now dull and lifeless, its diamonds chipped and cracked in their settings and deep pits and rust scars marred the length of the once-keen blade. Now that it had slain its lifelong enemy, had slain the reason for its very creation, the true age of its mundane parts was visited upon it. What had once been a powerful blade, full of its own life and energy would now fall to slivers if brought sharply against a tailor’s scissors.

Bastion came back to the grave and regarded Gilth’s corpse for a moment before grabbing the hilt of the lizard-man’s sword. The Dream Lord put his foot upon the corpse and pushed, freeing the sword to his hand and the body to the bottom of the deep grave. If all ended well, the graveyard would need attention and the corpses would all need returned to their proper plots. What was superstition in other Realms was simply real here, and Bastion wasn’t about to risk everything to save his Realm just to have it haunted by the souls whose rest the Dead One had chosen to disturb.

Bastion closely inspected Gilth’s blade. It was no Harvenger, but it would have to do. Havoc looked up at him. The great beast’s body still showed the ravages of their long day at war, but at least his eyes still sparkled with their same inner light. The lion got to his feet, shook out its shaggy mane then threw back his head. The roar that followed told Bastion all he needed to know about his comrade’s readiness to fight.

“Come, Havoc. We have a Realm to save.”